Happy Holidays, everyone!
Santa Claus is the result of cultural crossover and exchange. Historical and folkloric figures like St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Father Christmas combined in various ways over several generations to create the English-speaking world’s most popular personification of Christmas. It was a long, messy journey that involved sailors venerating Saint Nicholas, the Netherlands getting more into the Saint than anyone else in Europe did, New Amsterdam, New York, Washington Irving, and more than a little anonymous poetry.
Saint Nicholas is not Santa Claus, but he’s now inescapably bound up with Santa’s story and identity. Nicholas was the bishop of Myra, a town in what we no call Turkey, and we don’t have any surviving sources about him from his lifetime. The first major biography we have of Nicholas dates from 800s, centuries after his death, and stories about him are likely fictional or exaggerated. Those stories tell of a man who expelled demons, stayed executions, slapped the Christian heretic Arius (pictured below) and showed great generosity to his fellow citizens of Myra.
World monuments get replicated all the time. There are no shortage of Statues of Liberty or Eiffel Towers, for instance. However, the world monument that’s probably replicated more than any other is Stonehenge. Copies and parodies of the stone circle are everywhere, and in this episode we talk about Stonehenge replicas in general, and the Maryhill Stonehenge in particular. That Stonehenge comes to us via Sam Hill, an eccentric industrialist and pacifist who built his monument as a memorial for soldiers who died in World War One.
In 1959 a Pepsi executive successfully showcased his product at the American National Exhibition in Moscow, an event created to foster cultural exchange during the Cold War. Nikita Khrushchev himself tasted the beverage, and years later Pepsi became one of the few American products widely available in the USSR. Pepsi’s deal with the Soviet Union was essentially a gigantic barter deal: They’d ship Pepsi syrup to the USSR, and in return they’d get Stolychanaya vodka. This worked well until 1989, when a vodka boycott forced Pepsi to ask for other compensation. Instead of vodka, the USSR paid them in decommissioned naval vessels: 17 submarines, a cruiser, a frigate, and a destroyer. Because of that deal, Pepsi was briefly the sixth largest navy on Earth.
Alvin Schwartz is best known for traumatizing children with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. However, one of Schwartz’s most terrifying tales for kids is from a different book, In a Dark, Dark Room and other Scary Stories. The story The Green Ribbon frightened an entire generation of schoolchildren with a narrative about a woman who wore a green ribbon around her neck every single day of her life… because it was keeping her head on.
Schwartz was a folklorist, and his stories all had antecedents in other works or in oral tradition. The Green Ribbon dates back to at least 1824, with Washington Irving’s short story The Adventure of the German Student. Several other versions of the story exist, all of which feature a ribbon-wearing woman whose head only stays on because of a thin layer of fabric.
Today Dracula is one of the most ubiquitous public domain characters in popular media. However, in the 1920s German filmmakers had to get permission from Bram Stoker’s estate in order to make a film based on the 1897 novel. Prana Films, however, was not able to secure permission from Stoker’s widow for an official adaptation. Instead, producer Albin Grau and director F.W. Murnau made Nosferatu, a Dracula film in all but name.
Franz Joseph Hayden was a brilliant composer and one of the most important figures in European classical music. He inspired luminaries such as Mozart and Beethoven, and even today his music is beloved the world over.
However, shortly after he died in 1809 his head was stolen.
Why? Because phrenology!
Roy Lichtenstein was one of the most successful American artists of the 20th century, and the figure most associated with pop art after Andy Warhol. Lichtenstein is known for his comics images like “WHAAM!,” pictured below, and his techniques brought be nday dots and comic-book colors into the gallery. However, Lichtenstein’s works were not his own invention: They were based on existing panels in war, romance, and daily comics. While Lichtenstein made millions of art sales, the artists he copied got nothing, not even recognition for the images they created.
This was a live talk at Rose City Comic Con with an accompanying presentation deck. Visual aides for this episode are here.
In the first decade of the 1700s a visitor to London claimed to be from a far-off land: Formosa. He described it as being an idyllic paradise, albeit one filled with cannibalism. The supposed Formosan, who called himself George Psalmanazar, was in fact a blonde-haired, blue-eyed continental European who had never been to Taiwan in his life.
The Iran-Contra affair was a failure. It didn’t topple the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, nor did it improve U.S. relations with Iran. And yet, the subsequent cover-up and damage-control by the Reagan administration was a success. Almost no one talks about the scandal now. Despite damning evidence against the administration being out in the open, the scandal did not impact Reagan’s legacy in the way Watergate did Nixon’s, or Clinton’s scandals did his. It was also, oddly enough, probably the best thing to ever happen to Oliver North’s career.
Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Most people remember Neal Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, but fewer remember Michael Collins, the member of the mission who did not set foot on the moon. However, even though Collins didn’t set foot on the lunar surface, he did achieve something almost just as momentous: By orbiting around the moon in 1969 he became the single most isolated human being in all of history.
Duncan Ryuken Williams’s new book, American Sutra, explores Japanese Internment with a focus on Buddhism. Most Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans were Buddhists, and before and during internment these members of the Japanese-American community were treated very differently than those who’d converted to Christianity. Buddhists in internment camps found ways to practice their faith, despite it being discouraged, and Buddhist soldiers were crucial to the American war effort, both in Europe and the Pacific.
We’ve hit two hundred episodes! To celebrate we’re taking your questions. Designer, photographer, and all-around superhero Sarah Giffrow joined Joe to answer talk about how to think about history, the state of podcasting, and dinosaurs.
Humans are the only animals to wear clothing, and much of that clothing is made out of other animals. In Putting on the Dog: The Animal Origins of What We Wear author Melissa Kwasny explores the worlds of leather, wool, silk, feathers, pearls, and fur. Her research into the animal origins of clothing prompted an exploration of both the history of clothing as well as the ethical and environmental issues surrounding wearable animal products.
Congress had made its view clear with the Boland amendments: The United States government would not support the Contras in Nicaragua. However, the Reagan administration was determined to support the anti-Sandinista fighters. To get funds where they needed to be the administration concocted a complicated scheme involving missiles, Iran, hostages, and Hezbollah. It worked at first, with secret American arms sales leading to the release of an American hostage. However, complications at the Lisbon airport, more hostage taking in Lebanon, and the need for constant secrecy ensured that the scheme wouldn’t last forever.
Beef occupies a unique place in American culture. In his new book Red Meat Republic Joshua Specht examines the history of the American beef industry. He examines how ranching and range land was seized from Native Americans, how beef shaped industrial and labor history, and the role beef still plays in American ideas of class, gender, and identity.
In the early 1980s the Reagan administration changed how the U.S. engaged with Communism abroad. Instead of following a policy of containment, the U.S. would actively support anti-Communist insurgents around the world. This policy, which later became known as the Reagan administration, positioned the US as the supporter and benefactor of fighters like the Afghan Mujahideen and the Nicaraguan Contras.
However, Reagan’s policy of intervention didn’t garner universal support, especially in light of atrocities committed by the Contras. News of American intervention in Nicaragua angered many in the U.S. In 1982 and 1984 Congress attached amendments to routine appropriations bills that prevented the CIA and State Department from providing funds to the Contras. These amendments, known as the Boland Amendments, prevented the executive branch from taking further action in Nicaragua.
If the administration wished to support the Contras further, they would have to break the law.
The Cold War defined geopolitics for much of the 20th century, often turning local conflicts and regional politics into large, proxy battles between the United States and Soviet Union. In 1979 the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) successfully ousted Nicaragua’s Somoza regime, ending four decades of dictatorship. Almost immediately after the revolution, though, the remnants of the old regime began fighting back. These new rebel fighters, the Contras, received support from the American CIA as early as 1981.
The revolution set the stage for one of the strangest episodes of the Cold War, the Iran-Contra affair, in which US officials, in the name of supporting rebel fighters in Central America, would turn to cloak-and-dagger deals with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Since the late 1800s numerous figures such as Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, and Malcolm X have expressed doubt about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. These deniers, variously known as anti-Stratfordians, have put forward a variety of other candidates as the possible author of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, including Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, and Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. However, all of the evidence suggests that there is no mystery about who wrote the plays. All available evidence for authorship points to Shakespeare being exactly who we thought he was: The son of a glover from Stratford-Upon-Avon.
Notre Dame Cathedral, the world’s best-known example of Gothic architecture, was partially destroyed in a fire. The church requires extensive restoration, but this is not the first time that Notre Dame has fallen into ruin. When Victor Hugo wrote his 1831 novel Notre Dame de Paris (known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame in English) the church was in disrepair. Hugo’s novel inspired a restoration starting in 1844, and architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc created much of what we, until last Monday, associated with Notre Dame. The picture below is from 1847, during Viollet-le-Duc’s restoration. Note the lack of spire, which had yet to be built.
Change, even tragic change, is a fact of life for monuments, and in this episode we also look at how other famous sites have been transformed throughout their history.
In 1983 a Soviet satellite system erroneously detected five incoming American nuclear missiles. Stanislav Petrov, the man tasked with reporting the alert to the USSR’s leadership, suddenly had a dire choice: He could do his duty and start a nuclear war, or ignore the report in hopes that it was a false alarm. He chose the latter, and in doing so saved the world.
Francisco Goya is one of the first modern artist, and toward the end of his life he painted his most well-known works, the Black Paintings, into the walls of his home outside Madrid. The most famous of the Black Paintings is Saturn Devouring His Son (pictured below), but it’s only one of fifteen disturbing, dark images in the series.
The show is going in a new direction. Listen to find out why.
The image of cowboys playing poker has shown up again and again in Westerns. However, if you walked into a saloon in the late 1800s, you likely wouldn’t find poker, blackjack, or other contemporary casino games. Instead, you’d probably find a game of faro. The French card game (also known as “bucking the tiger” or “riding the tiger”) was popular throughout Europe and North America up until WWII. Faro was all but synonymous with gambling, and prominent figures like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were fans of the game. However, it is essentially extinct now.
Thom Wall is a professional juggler and who’s known both for his feats of dexterity and his enthusiasm for old-style vaudeville performance. His new book Juggling From Antiquity to the Middle Ages traces the history of the art across time and place. Juggling has been invented independently several times over in Ancient Egypt, Mesoamerica, and Polynesia. Wall traces its myriad histories into, eventually, the art of throwing and catching we know today.
Find out what a badly-sourced article in the Toronto Sun, a fake list of grunge slang in the New York Times, and an oft-repeated anecdote about a floating bordello can tell us about better evaluating sources and looking at how we know what we know.
This week we look at the animal companions of America’s chief executives, including opossums, eagles, and very good dogs.
Crystal King is the author of two novels about Italian food history. Her first book Feast of Sorrow delved into the world of food in ancient Rome, and her follow up moves forward over a thousand year to explore food in Renaissance Italy.
Crystal’s expertise extends beyond the page. Her Parthian chicken recipe has become a favorite of mine, and a go-to recipe when I’m cooking for company.
In 1980 a mysterious benefactor who only identified himself as “R.C. Christian” commissioned a granite monument in rural Georgia bearing advice on how to reconstruct civilization after the apocalypse. Unfortunately, it’s not very good advice.
Taiwan’s status is a matter of debate. In this episode we get into its history and try to suss out whether it’s part of China or an independent country.
I’m doing a big thing in 2019, and I need to tell you about it.
Over the past decade or so the Krampus, a demonic figure from German folklore, has become something of a Christmas staple in the United States. However, the Krampus is by no means the only German Christmas monster. Frau Berchta, Knecht Ruprecht, Belsnickel, and Pere Fouettard have also struck fear into the hearts of children around the holidays.
In the 1920s German architect Herman Sorgel had a plan: Solve nearly all of Europe’s social, economic, and environmental problems by partially draining the Mediterranean. He called the project “Atlantropa,” and it would have been a massive environmental disaster.
View a 1951 clip outlining the plan (in German) here. Below is an image of Sorgel’s plan for a mssive dam across the strait of Gibraltar, which would have dwarfed even the Three Gorges Dam.
Thanksgiving, at least in New York City at the end of the 1800s and early 1900s, used to look a lot like Halloween. Traditional trappings like turkey and family gatherings were certainly present, but it was also a day for children (and adults) to dress in costumes, make noise, and go from house to house demanding treats and pennies.
Lucy Bellwood is a cartoonist and author in Portland, Oregon. Last year her illustration of sailor tattoos went viral. We talked about nautical tattoos, their meanings, and what it means to get well-known on the Internet very quickly. We also touched on how one researches and studies history, especially in the context of tattoo myths about James Cook and a book Bellwood recommends, The Discovery of Jeanne Baret.
Being buried alive was one of the most common phobias of the Victorian era. Fear of premature interment in a coffin inspired the creation of the London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial, an Edgar Allan Poe short story about fear of being buried alive, and safety coffins designed to let in air and light and, in the event of early burial, allow the still-living person contact with the outside world.
Cannibalism is one of the the most prevalent taboos across human societies, and people who practice cannibalism have frequently been demonized throughout history. The Wendigo, a creature from Algonquin folklore, is one of the most vivid examples of how cannibalism is demonized. The story goes that if someone consumes human flesh, they will become a flesh-eating monster that never truly satiates its desire for human flesh.
The image below is from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, illustrated by Stephen Gammell.
Some reflections on giving tours, ghost tours, and how the Philip experiment is kind of like Dungeons and Dragons.
In 897 Pope Stephen VI put the corpse of one of his predecessors, Formosus, on trial. The current pope ordered that the former pope’s dead body be dressed in papal finery and put on a throne to stand trial. Stephen VI acted as prosecutor, accusing his predecessor of attempting to have two bishoprics at once and coveting the papacy. The current pope then ordered the Formosus’ body stripped of its finery, the fingers on his right hand be cut off, and his body thrown into the Tiber.
The painting below, Pope Formosus and Stephen VII, is the work of French artist Jean-Paul Laurens and painted in 1870.
From 1954 until 2011 the Comics Code Authority exercised control over what could and couldn’t be in comic books. The first version of the code was one of the most restrictive content regimes U.S. media has ever known, banning subject matter such as sex, drugs, and supernatural elements such as werewolves and vampires. The Code was revised in 1971 and 1989, before slowly fading away after 2001 and then being wholly abandoned by 2011. The Comics Code Authority seal is now, ironically, owned by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.
From 1964 until 2011 comic books were nominally approved by a content regime called the Comics Code Authority. The Authority grew out of anti-comic book sentiment in the early part of the twentieth century. Anti-comics advocates like Fredric Wertham portrayed comic books as filled with crime, sex, and corrupting ideas. In 1954 a senate subcommittee headed by Tennessee senator Estes Kefauver all but put comic books on trial, with Kefauver grilling EC Comics publisher Bill Gaines about the content of then-popular horror comics. The exchange would change comic book publishing forever.
The disappearance of the Roanoke colony is one of America’s oldest mysteries. However, the story of the Roanoke colony was only a major pillar of American historiography after the 1830s, and later on in the 1800s Virginia Dare, the granddaughter of colonial governor and artist John White, became a symbol of the American South and white supremacy.
For more on the Roanoke colony check out Andrew Lawler’s excellent new book The Secret Token, which I heartily endorse.
Shakespeare’s Tempest is a fantasy, but it’s backgrounded by European encounters with the New World. When the play was written in 1610 or 1611 European sailors had already been exploring the Americas for over a century. References to the New World show up in both the play’s text and themes, and scholars have often viewed the tempest through a colonial or postcolonial lens, though it still escapes easy allegory.
This episode was recorded live at The Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven, a Portland art space.
The Pacific Northwest was one of the last areas to be accurately mapped by European and American cartographers. At various times mapmakers thought that it was near a Asian region called Ania, that California was an Island, or that a great inland sea took up much of the American west. When Lewis and Clark ventured westward, they had a clearer idea of the coastline, yet they were still taken by surprise when they encountered the Rocky anc Cascade mountain ranges.
Visuals to accompany this live event are here.
Hacking predated personal computers. From the 1960s until the 1990s early hackers known as “phreaks” learned how to hack into phone lines, make long-distance calls for free, set up secret conference calls, and explore the global telephone network.
In the first decade of the 20th century you could pick up a phone in New York City and listen to the world’s first ever electronic synthesizer. The Telharmonium was the invention of Thaddeus Cahill, and the 200 ton musical instrument used rotating cogs to produce electronic sounds, accessible to anyone who subscribed to what’s arguably the progenitor of all musical streaming services.
In the early 1980s the US Navy was determined to uncover a secret gay subculture at the Great Lakes Naval Base just outside of Chicago. All of the men they were looking for seemed to be friends of Dorothy. If the NIS could find, Dorothy, they thought, they could blow this whole thing wide open.
We’ve talked about The Wizard of Oz and monetary policy before. This is different.
This week we close out our look at North Korea with three different scenarios for the future: War, reform, and reunification. None of the these futures are good. A war would kill millions. Reform could entrench a brutal dictatorship. Reunification could create an impoverished underclass in a new Korea for a generation.
Escaping North Korea is difficult, but it can be done. Notable escapees include Choi Eun-Hee and Shin Sang-Ok, a South Korean actress and director who Kim Jong Il captured and forced to make movies, like the Godzilla knockoff Pulgasari, pictured below. Kenji Fujimoto is the pseudonym for Kim’s personal chef who escaped to Japan in 2001. But, the vast majority of North Koreans escape the country because of famine and desperation, and the trip is a long and arduous one through China and Southeast Asia.
Happy Defenestration Day! On May 23rd, 1618 a bunch of angry Bohemian nobles shoved some government officials out of a window. The Second Defenestration of Prague kicked off the Thirty Years’ War, but today we mark it as a sesquipedalian occasion to celebrate very large words.
Even as its citizens starved, Kim Jong Il was able to assure that North Korea was able to obtain nuclear weapons. He did this by raising revenue with criminal activity, prioritizing the military above all else, bribing a Pakistani nuclear scientist, and reverse-engineering Scud missiles.
The transition of power from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il was a gradual one. From 1980 until 1994, it’s probably that the younger Kim did most of the day-to-day ruling of North Korea, with Kim Il Sung acting in a more removed capacity. When Kim Il Sung did die, it was at an opportune time. His son assumed power in 1994, just in time to preside over a famine that would kill over two million North Korean citizens.
Michael P. Daley is the author of Bobby Bluejacket, a book about a man who, in 1948, was the subject of one of the most covered trials in Tulsa history. We talked about Bluejacket’s life in the Tulsa underground, his time in prison, and why figures like him are worth studying.
The 1980s and early 1990s were a bad time for North Korea. The DPRK had to endure South Korea hosting the 1988 Olympics, the country sunk billions of dollars into wasteful infrastructure projects, and the Cold War ended, depriving them of Soviet aid. After that, North Korea suffered a symbolic blow in 1994 when Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader, died at the age of eighty two.
For years South Korea was a dysfunctional military dictatorship under leaders like Rhee Syngman and Park Chun Hee. Assassination, martial law, and political repression were the order of the day. North Korean propaganda was able to exploit the militarism, chaos, and violence in their neighbor in propaganda, but after democratic reforms in the 1980s, the relative stability of the Korean peninsula is very different. For the most part. South Korea still does have the occasional presidential scandal.
On April 1st, 1957 a BBC One news program ran a straight-faced and ostensibly real report on Switerzerland’s spring spaghetti crop, and convinced some of their viewers that spaghetti grew on trees.
During the Cold War, North Korea primarily interacted with South Korea and the United States via building the DMZ, several assassination attempts on South Korean presidents, and the taking of the USS Pueblo, the crew of which are pictured below. Note how they held their fingers when being photographed by their North Korean captors.
Juche is the animating principal of North Korea. It’s usually translated as “self-reliance,” but in fact it means whatever is good for the regime. Juche is the ideology that North Korea uses to convince it’s people, the outside world, and itself that its system of totalitarianism and authoritarianism has a coherent ideological basis. It’s distinct from communism, often incoherent, and is what keeps North Korea from integrating itself into the larger world.
The Cold War was a good time for North Korea. For much of the mid 20th century it was relatively better off than South Korea, and North Korean citizens recognized that the new regime was worlds better than what they had under Japanese occupation. In this time period of prosperity, the North Korean leadership played China and the Soviet Union off each other, instituted a caste system, and cultivated a policy of isolationism.
The Korean War was supposed to be over quickly. However, due to intervention from the United Nations, China, and the Soviet Union, what would have been a quick regional conflict turned into a years-long war that involved over twenty countries and left millions dead. At the end of it, the borders between the two Koreas looked much like they had before the war, and it gradually became apparent that the division would not go away anytime soon.
Prior to the Korean War, both North and South saw themselves as the legitimate government for the entire peninsula. At the time, the North was considered the more advanced, industrialized part of the peninsula, and Kim Il Sung believed that he could win a war with the more rural South. Stalin gave Kim permission for an invasion, and the Soviet premier believed that the war would be small, regional, and over quickly. However, the United States was able to mobilize the United Nations for what was termed a “police action” to intervene on the peninsula. The was would be regional, but it would drag on for years and involve several major world powers.
After WWII, the Korean peninsula was briefly united again as The People’s Republic of Korea. However, the unification wouldn’t last. American and Soviet forces divided the peninsula along the 38th parallel, and in the north the Soviet Union set about creating a puppet state. However, the leader they chose, Kim Il Sung, and the founding ideology of their new state would not play out entirely as they had planned.
Japanese occupation changed North Korea, with various citizens either collaborating with or actively resisting it. One of those resistors was a guerrilla fighter named Kim Song Ju, who would later be known as Kim Il Sung. If you believe North Korean propaganda (which you shouldn’t) Kim Il Sung was born of humble farmers and formed a secret Korean resistance during the occupation. In fact, his grandfather was a Protestant minister, he spent most of his youth in China, and the units he fought with were organized either by the Chinese or Russians.
Japan’s occupation of Korea was a gradual process. As far back as 1876 Japan approached Korea with unequal treaties that attempted to economically exploit the peninsula. In 1895 Japanese officials assassinated Korea’s Queen Min, who opposed foreign occupation and influence, and Korea subsequently declared itself an empire. However, Japan returned in 1905 with yet another treaty that stripped Korea of its sovereignty, and completely annexed the peninsula in 1910.
This year, we’re doing a long-form series on North Korea. We’ll get into the history, culture, and ideology of the isolated, totalitarian country. In order to get proper context, we’re starting with a (very) brief overview of Korean history. In the twentieth century, Korea is often thought of as a country in tumult, and one that is at the mercy of its more powerful neighbors. However, for most of Korea’s history, it was anything but.
Sarah Fraser is the author of The Last Highlander, which details the life of Simon Fraser, the 11th Lord Lovat. Fraser’s life was one of political intrigue, feuds, international deal making, and rebellion. He was eventually beheaded in 1747, the last British peer to face such a fate.
We’re on break for the holidays. The podcast will return on January 8th with an interview episode, and on January 15th with the launch of a new long-form series!
The Nativity scene is an iconic Christmas decoration, but it only has a tenuous biblical foundation. Christmas traditions are often varied and strange, and representations of the Nativity can vary from region to region. In Spain, one element of the Nativity scene is the caganer, a peasant man defecating behind the barn. Yes. That is a real thing. While all traditions are unusual to outsiders, Catalonia’s tradition of poop-related Christmas things might be the oddest.
David Goldfield is an American historian and the author of almost twenty books. His latest, The Gifted Generation, chronicles the benefits that his peers received from the US federal government, and goes into detail about how the Truman, Eisenhower, and Johnson administrations redefined the role and scope of what government does and means to Americans.
This episode is a little different. It’s about a topic that I’ve previously written and spoken about, though not on the podcast. Vanport was one of the largest federal housing projects in the United States during WWII. It went up hastily and cheaply just outside of Portland, Oregon, producing supply ships in less than two months, and was Oregon’s first major African-American population center. In 1948, though, it was destroyed by a cataclysmic flood that wiped the then second-largest town in Oregon off the map entirely.
Bonnie MacBird (the co-writer of Tron) is writing new, novel-length Sherlock Holmes adventures. We talked about her experience with Conan Doyle’s stories, how she adapted the author’s voice for a modern work, and other Sherlock media. We also discussed whiskey, which features prominently in her new book, Unquiet Spirits. The plot centers on a real-life catastrophe in the French wine industry, that led to more widespread consumption of whiskey in European upper classes.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. I couldn’t do this without you.
Maybe the most famous part of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a ladder that’s been propped onto the side of the building since at least the 1750s. The church is sacred to six different Christian sects, all of whom have to agree unanimously on anything in order to change any features of the church. For the past 250 plus years, none of them have agreed on where the ladder came from, who owns it, or where it should go. Tensions have occasionally led to fistfights at the Church of the holy Sepulchre, and the ladder remains a symbol of inter-sectarian non-cooperation.
Brandon Seifert has written horror comics such as Witch Doctor, Hellraiser, and The Fly. Lately, he’s been studying werewolf folklore. We talked about the history of werewolf stories, werewolf witch trials, why people believed in werewolves, and what to do if you live in the 1500s and someone accuses you of werewolfism.
Icelandic Dracula, also known as Makt Myrkranna or Powers of Darkness, is amazing. The translator/author Valdimar Asmundsson made significant deviations to Bram Stoker’s text. There’s more sexy moonlight vampire temptation, Dracula is a straight-up supervillain who wants to overthrow the democratic governments of Europe, and there’s an underground ape cult. The book was hiding in plain sight until 2014 when a scholar finally noticed, over a hundred years ago, that the Icelandic novel was a very early variation on Stoker’s vampire tale.
Dracula, anymore, is as much of a character type and a trope as he is a single character. Different takes on Dracula abound, from Bela Lugosi to Sesame Street’s Count to numerous other media. There was also, though, a historical Dracula. Vlad the Impaler was a prince of Wallachia in the 1400s, and is often cited as the inspiration for Stoker’s Vampire. But, was he? Was the real Dracula anything like the character type we know now?
When he died, Oliver Cromwell was embalmed and given a funeral befitting a head of state. However, upon restoration of the British monarchy, Cromwell was exhumed and given a postmortem execution. His severed head was placed on a spike over Westminster Hall, and for twenty years his dead visage leered down upon London. The head was eventually dislodged by a storm, and for years it found itself in the hands of several owners, exchanged for debts, exhibited as a curiosity, and passed around at drunken parties.
In February of 1943 the Nazi regime arrested between 1500-2000 Jewish men in Berlin, and imprisoned them in a former Jewish community center with the address of Rosenstrasse 2-4. These men had, up until this point, avoided deportation to death camps because they were married to non-Jewish women, and instead had been forced to work in German factories up until that point. Their wives, though, showed up in force outside the building where they were imprisoned, and soon a group of hundreds of women were able to mount an effective street protest against the Reich. It was the only effective popular protest in Germany mounted against Hitler’s regime.
Find out why I’m taking September (mostly) off.
Confederate statues have been in the news lately. Memorials always reflect the time they were built in moreso than the time they commemorate, and the vast majority of confederate statues were built in the Jim Crow era, in the early 1900s as part of a neo-Confederate propaganda campaign to bolster the South’s reputation. Most of the statues were built quickly and cheaply by the Monumental Bronze Company, which mass-produced both Union and Confederate monuments.
Aside from glorifying white supremacy and slavery, the statues (in this podcaster’s opinion) are bad history. Eastern bloc memorials such as Budapest’s Memmento Park could offer some guidance about what to do with monumental propaganda to an oppressive regime.
Popular legend holds that Isaac Newton invented not only calculus, but also the cat door. Unfortunately, this colorful legend is not supported by good evidence. Cats have been domesticated for thousands of years, with the oldest known domestic cat possibly dating back to Cyprus 9,500 years ago. Textual evidence for cat doors can be found Chaucer in The Miller’s Tale, centuries before Newton, and there’s no evidence that the natural philosopher even owned a cat. Nevertheless, the myth has been persistent and varied, initially being used to cut the scholar down to size, and later on used to demonstrate his brilliance.
For almost three hundred years Europeans were not entirely sure what rhinos looked like. The most popular image of the beast was a print made by Albrecht Durer in 1515, which shows an Indian rhinoceros as a plated, scaled, animal with an extra horn between its shoulderblades. The print also includes text about how rhinos hunt and kill elephants. Durer never actually saw the rhino, which was a gift from the sultan of Cambay the the king of Portugal, but that didn’t stop his print from becoming one of the most influential pieces of media of all time.
Pad Thai is now heavily associated with Thai cuisine, but it’s a relatively modern invention. Noodles were probably imported to Thailand via either China or Vietnam, and the style of cooking of the noodles seems to indicate that it stems from other noodle dishes from southeast China. Noodles in general, and pad Thai in particular, were popularized in the 1930s and 1940s as a way of intentionally giving Thailand a national dish. The prime minister behind reforms, Plaek Phibunsongkhram, also attempted to give his country a militaristic code of valor, fewer vowels, gendered names, and mandatory hats. Of his reforms, pad Thai is the only one that remains.
There’s no shortage of things on old maps that turned out to be fictional. Regions such as the Mountains of Kong or the continent of Lemuria dot antiquated maps, and the obviousness of their fictional nature seems quaint today. However, some fictional features of old maps were more subtle. Benjamin Morrell was an American sailor in the early 1800s who, in his memoirs, A Narrative of Four Voyages, invented islands out of whole cloth, most prominently Byers Island in the Pacific, and New South Greenland, a nonexistent region he placed off the coast of Antarctica.
A statue of a dog sits outside Shibuya station in downtown Tokyo. The statue commemorates Hachiko, an Akita who walked to and from the train station every day with his owner, Hidesaburo Ueno, a professor of agricultural science at Tokyo Imperial University. In 1935 the professor died while at work, but Hachiko kept returning to Shibuya to wait for his master. He waited for ten year for the professor to return, until his eventual death in 1935. Like Bummer and Lazarus, Hachiko is a dog that became beloved among his community, and he is one of many dogs that have waited for their humans to return long after death.
Crystal King is the author of Feast of Sorrow, a novel about ancient Roman cooking that takes the first known cookbook as its inspiration. We talked about what it would have been like to go to a Roman dinner party, what the common people would have eaten, Roman fast food, and putting spices in your wine.
Wonder Woman’s origin story is a fascinating one. Diana of Themyscira was created in 1940 by William Moulton Marston, a psychologist who helped invent the lie detector, worked for Universal Studios, and who lived in a menage-a-trois with his wife, Elizabeth, and another woman Olive Byrne. Marston believed that women were inherently superior to men, and in Wonder Woman created a character whom he believed embodied the qualities the world most needed. That, and there was a lot of bondage. So much bondage.
Sending human beings through the mail is not generally allowed, but plenty of people have tried it. The most notable person in US history to mail themselves is Henry “Box” Brown who escaped slavery in Virginia via a shipping company, and emerged in Philadelphia. Other notable human parcels include W. Reginald Bray, who made a habit of putting strange things through the mail, May Pierstorff, who was mailed by her parents as a parcel, and Reg Spiers, an athlete who mailed himself to from the UK to London and later became a drug smuggler.
One of the most dramatic (and dumbest) conspiracy theories of all time is the Phantom Time Hypothesis, put forward by the conspiracy theorist Heriber Illig. They hypothesis states that almost three centurires of the Middle Ages, AD 614 to 911, never happened, and it was all because of Otto III (pictured below) and Pope Sylvester II.
Like the legend of Polybius, though, this is a conspiracy theory with some fascinating truth behind it. There are indeed chunks of missing time in the calendar, a result of the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian systems.
In 1910 the United States almost imported hippos as a meat animal. Had it done so, the US would have imported the single most dangerous large land animal on Earth and treated it like a cow. HR2361 also known as the American Hippo Bill, would have allocated $250,000 for the importation of hippos and other animals to the US. The bill had the support of former president Theodore Roosevelt, and even the New York Times favored importing hippos, calling it “lake cow bacon.”
Bummer and Lazarus were a pair of stray dogs beloved of San Francisco in the 1860s. The two dogs were known for their exceptional rat-catching ability, and were a favorite topic of newspapers of the day. Nowadays the two dogs are often associated with Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, but Bummer and Lazarus belonged to no one. The dogs were their own, and are, very probably, the most beloved strays of all time.
After the Kingdom of Italy surrendered to the Allies in 1943, Mussolini was a prisoner. But, during a German invasion of Northern Italy, he was sprung from his cell by German commandos and put in charge of the Italian Social Republic, a Nazi puppet state. Mussolini’s new assignment would prove to be short-lived. In less than two years the former dictator would be executed, and his body ripped apart by an angry mob.
Italy did not perform well in WWII. The Italian economy was not able to support an effective industrial war machine, and Italy saw defeat in Greece, Ethiopia, and in North Africa. In 1943 Allied forces invaded Sicily, and with the noose gradually tightening, the High Council of Fascism voted Mussolini out of power.
There’s no new episode this week. instead, we’re re-running episode 75 which debunks the persistent myth that Mussolini made trains run on time.
Italy was not well-positioned going into World War II. The Italian economy was still largely agricultural, and its industrial output was small compared with every other European great power. Also, Mussolini felt himself more and more unable to control Hitler. At the 1938 Munich conference Mussolini brokered a deal between Nazi Germany and the other European powers that gave Hitler the Sudetenland in return for not invading Czechoslovakia. A few months later, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia anyway. Mussolini’s deal was kaput, and the Italian dictator was revealed to be powerless over Hitler.
Despite being a regime birthed in martial rhetoric and symbolism, fascist Italy was in no shape, economically or diplomatically at the start of World War II. Instead of leaping into the conflict alongside it’s ally, Germany, Italy wouldn’t join the war until 1940.
Italy’s alliance with Nazi Germany certainly influenced the adoption of racist and anti-Semitic policies by Mussolini’s government. In a 1938 document called the Manifesto of Race, the fascist regime declared Italians to be Aryans, and that Jews and other minorities would be expelled from civil life. However, even prior to the alliance with Germany fascist Italy was quite capable of being racist on its own. Laws in conquered Ethiopia banned marriages between blacks and whites, and the best available land in Ethiopia was redistributed to Italian immigrants. In the end, Italy became a willing partner in spreading Nazi racism, and thousands of Italian Jews would eventually die in the Holocaust.
Hitler and Mussolini never had a great relationship. The German dictator modeled his career on the Italian fascist, imitating Mussolini’s speech and mannerisms, and unsuccessfully tried to replicate the March on Rome with the Beerhall Putsch. Mussolini, for his part, didn’t pay Hitler much mind until 1930, much to the Furher’s chagrin. When the men first met in 1934 they got into a horrible argument about the fate of Austria, and Hitler later sent some material aide to Ethiopia during Italy’s conquest. However, the to fascists would eventually find themselves isolated from Europe’s liberal democracies, and by 1938 it was almost as if they were natural allies.
It wasn’t enough for fascist Italy to adopt the rhetoric and imagery of ancient Rome, it also hoped to have a present-day empire. To do that Mussolini launched an invasion of a country that had defeated Italy in 1896: Ethiopia. To win this time, Italy would not merely invade with ground troops, like it had the last time. Instead, it would rain down chemical death upon the African kingdom, and then declare it an imperial possession.
Italy’s fascist regime sought legitimacy by packaging itself as an extension of past Italian glory. Under Mussolini Italy “restored” numerous Roman, Renaissance, and medieval sites, and sought to tie in the glories of the present with those of the past. Unfortunately, most of these “restorations” had little to no basis in evidence-based history, and the fascists often ignored historical periods (such as the Baroque era) that did not suit there needs.
Below: Fascist party headquarters in the 1930s, featuring Mussolini’s giant head.
Hello all! My schedule has changed dramatically. The podcast will now update every Monday. Talk to you then!
This week’s episode is an interview with Meagan Zurn (or “Zee,” co-producer of The British History Podcast) about Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci was a socialist, journalist, and briefly a member of the Italian parliament before getting thrown in jail by Mussolini’s regime in 1926. He died in prison in 1937. His writings, especially his prison writings, outlined the relationship of power and culture, and his insights are especially useful for understanding the rise of fascism in Italy, as well as how power and hegemony function everywhere else.
Italian fascism came to power (and solidified power) by co-opting existing political organizations and interests in Italy. That included the Catholic Church. Since Italian Unification the Church had been at odds with liberal Italy, and for fifty-nine years pope did not even set foot outside the Vatican. In 1929, though Mussolini offered the papacy a way out, with the creation of Vatican City as an independent state. Unfortunately, this would not go entirely well for the church.
I’m sick. The harrowing tale of Benito Mussolini and Pope Pius XI will have to wait until next week.
After Mussolini proclaimed dictatorship in January of 1925 fascist Italy became the first modern totalitarian state. The regime extended its power and influence to everything from the national and local government, to the press, to unions, and even to the private lives of ordinary Italians.
Following the March on Rome Mussolini and the fascists cemented their grasp on power via an electoral reform known as the Acerbo Law, voter suppression and intimidation in the 1924 election, and (possibly) by killing one of their biggest opponents, the socialist MP Giacomo Matteotti.
The March on Rome is often cited as the beginning of Italian fascism. However, there was a fair amount of a run-up to the actual blackshirt invasion of the capital. Right-wing violence ravaged the Italian provinces for years before the actual march and, when Mussolini came to power, he formed a coalition government with conservative liberals and Catholics. In the coming years, Italy’s liberal democracy would be gradually dismantled. Nevertheless, the march was a turning point, and it introduced fascist elements into the Italian governmental leadership.
In this episode we try to answer (or at least clarify) one of the most vexing questions of political science, history, philosophy, and contemporary scholarship: What, exactly, is fascism?
Fascism is the most malignant of the major political ideologies, and one of the least understood. For fascism, the nation (and therefore state) are paramount. Considerations for the needs of social classes or individuals are subordinate to the state, if they are considered at all. While Germany is easily the most famous fascist state, this ideology had its origins in Italy following WWI.
Prior to 1870 the term “Italy” was a geographic designation, referring to a collection of kingdoms, city-states, and papal states that happened to share a boot-shaped peninsula. Curiously, this collection of disparate elements would form not only a national identity, but a particularly violent, extreme one. One that would form the basis of probably the most destructive ideology of the past one hundred years.
This week’s show is an interview with Heather Arndt Anderson, author of Chilies: A Global History. We talk about the origins of chilies, their spread around the globe, how they were perceived and used by the people who found them, and how, occasionally, they have been used as a highly painful weaponized plant.
We’re still on break, but we’ll be back with an interview episode on January 5th, and the start of a long-form series on January 12th.
2016 has been a year marked by death. In this episode we get into a few other years notable for being especially deadly, and why this past year has felt so particularly lethal.
In this episode we tackled one of the major issues of our time: Why haven’t more countries used moose as Cavalry? Sweden tried it. The Soviet Union also tried it. But, the mighty moose has consistently resisted being turned into a weapon of war.
Fidel Castro, after being in power in Cuba since the 1950s, is finally dead. Castro was known for his long reign as Cuba’s dictator, but he was also known for surviving a large amount of assassination attempts. The most common figure bandied about regarding the total number of attempts on Castro’s life by the U.S. is 634, but that number only comes from a single source. We’ll probably never know, really, how many attempts on his life there were, but some of the most notable examples included a series of unconventional ways to potentially murder someone.
Squanto and other Native Americans are a fixture of popular depictions of what has retroactively been termed the First Thanksgiving, such as in the fanciful, inaccurate 1914 painting pictured below, by Jennie Brownscombe. That popular image, reproduced so much in elementary school pageants and dioramas, is pat and unsophisticated. The actual story of Tisquantum (of which “Squanto” is an abbreviation) is much more complex. It is a story of slavery, travel, exploration, tragedy, and politics, all of which lurk behind and complicate the standard picture of the first Thanksgiving.
In 1950s Portland, police and racketeers worked hand-in-hand to provide the city with gambling, protitution, and other in-demand vices such as pinball. The man in charge of all of this was Jim Elkins who, for a brief period, was Portland’s king of illegal fun things. However, Elkins had a major falling out in the late 1950s with Portland city officials, and his city’s vice network eventually came to the attention of the federal government.
For about 250 years, Europeans thought that giants lived in Patagonia. The inventor of this myth was Antonio Pigafetta, a member of the Magellan expedition who, in his memoir of the circumnavigation, reported seeing a huge man approximately ten feet tall. Later European accounts of Patagonia repeated tales of immense people living there, and Patagonian giants were a common illustration on maps from the 1500s until the late 1700s. There are (obviously) no giants in Patagonia, but the native Tehuelche population are some of the tallest people on Earth. However, they average only about six feet, not a towering ten.
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Thomas Jefferson loved mastodons, in part because he wanted to prove that American animals were not degenerate. In the late 1700s a French naturalist, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, published a massive, multi-volume natural history called, appropriately Natural History. In it, Buffon outlined what he called his “theory of American degeneracy,” wherein he argued that all people and animals native to the Americas were, well, degenerate. This enraged Thomas Jefferson, who sought to prove Buffon wrong by finding evidence of American mastodons, an animal that the third president still believed was out there, somewhere, roaming the American west.
Below: Mastodon by paleo artist Charles Knight from 1897.
“Gothic” has described a lot of things: Mustachioed barbarians just outside the Roman empire, grand cathedrals such as Notre Dame and Chartres, eerie literature like Dracula and Frankenstein, and music by bands such as Joy Division and The Cure. This week we dive into why “gothic” has been the go-to adjective for various forms of art, and what the common threads are connecting architecture, literature, and music.
Pictured below: The Abbey in the Oakwood by Caspar David Friedrich, painted in 1809. It features a procession of monks bearing a coffin before a ruined Gothic abbey.
Anymore it seems like scary clowns outnumber standard, whimsical clowns. Clowns are monsters, figures of fear, and they seem more likely to laugh with homicidal mania than laugh with joy. How did that happen? How did a figure of fun and comedy turn into a figure of fear? How did clowns get scary?
Easy: Clowns have always been scary.
Kara Helgren has previously worked for the city of Salem, Massachusetts as a tour guide, leading visitors through the ominously-named Witch House. According to Helgren tourist expectations veered toward the lurid and macabre. Visitors expected tales of ghosts, black magic, and torture. Helgren (whose thesis was about the witch trials) gave them none of that. Instead, she crushed their dreams and broke their hearts with a bunch of historical accuracy.
We made it to 100 episodes! For the occasion we’ve a new name, a new logo, and your questions and my answers.
The platypus appears to be some kind of melding or mashup between a duck and a beaver. It is not, though the first Western scientist to examine a specimen thought that it was exactly that: A taxidermy hoax made of existing animal parts.
Plus: An important announcement about the future of this podcast.
Belief that one’s blood type affects personality is common in Japan. Dating sites, celebrity profiles, and vital statistics for fictional characters often include blood type, and belief that it affects personal attitude or character is somewhat akin to belief in astrology in the United States. The beliefs have their roots in pseudoscience from before World War Two. In the 1970s a series of Japanese self-help books claimed that understanding blood type was the key to understanding personality, and a phenomenon was born.
It’s easy for an outsider to mock beliefs in pseudoscience like this, but humans do have a persistent desire to put themselves into boxes and groups, and to assign themselves certain group characteristics. This can take the form of astrological sign or blood type, but it also shows up in online quizzes, debates about which Ninja Turtle you are, or deciding which house you’d be sorted into if you went to Hogwarts.
Immigration from Mexico to the US is not new. Workers have been deciding to immigrate to the US, legally or not, for over a century. However, legal channels for immigration have often not been forthcoming. In the early twentieth century the Mexican government attempted to stop migration northward so that local agribusiness interest could freely exploit Mexican labor. The US did institute a guest worker program known as the Bracero Program, but it proved to be insufficient. The demand from Mexico for job, and the demand from American agribusiness for cheap labor, proved to be more than the legal channels would allow.
Later in the 1950s American border officials enforced a sweeping, large-scale crackdown known as (and this was the program’s official name) Operation Wetback. That program dealt with large groups of migrants all at once and ultimately deported over a million people from the United States. However, errors and human rights abuses were unavoidable, and the “solution” to the problem of illegal immigration proved to be worse than the perceived problem that it sought to fix.
It was bound to happen eventually. There’s no new episode this week.
There is a statue on the moon. In 1971 the crew of Apollo 15 placed a small figurine and a plaque on the lunar surface to memorialize American and Soviet astronauts who had died in the pursuit of space exploration. The memorial, dubbed “Fallen Astronaut,” was meant to enshrine their memory in space. However, the artist who made the figurine itself, Paul Van Hoeydonck, had other ideas.
Van Hoeydonck did not see the statue as a memorial. Instead, he wanted to make a statue that represented all of humanity reaching for the stars. He also wanted to be known as the man who made the statue on the moon, and hoped to sell replicas of the work in his New York gallery. The public reaction to Van Hoeydonck’s attempt to commercialize space was mostly negative, and he never gained the fame or success that he thought the moon statue would bring him.
Teddy Roosevelt buried a time capsule in Portland in 1903. One hundred years later, Roosevelt’s time capsule was nowhere to be found. The box laid by the president that was meant to preserve history for 100 years could not be found a century later. However, time capsules are generally not valuable finds for serious historians or archaeologists. The artifacts preserved are generally out of context from people’s daily life, and therefore they lack the provenance that is of interest to future scholars. For the most part, time capsules serve mostly to get the public interested in history, rather than preserve it.
This episode was part of Stumptown Stories, a Pacific Northwest history collective in Portland, Oregon.
In 1854 the anti-immigrant Know-Nothings made their debut into American politics. They ran candidates in 76 of the 82 available House of Representatives races, and won 35 of those seats. At the same time, they also became a force to be reckoned with in state and local governments. After their initial success, the Know-Nothings installed one of their own as the Speaker of the House and, at the local level, began passing laws and ordinances that restricted the rights of immigrants.
In 1856 they made a play for the Oval Office, nominating former president Millard Fillmore. As president, Fillmore signed the Fugitive Slave Act that led to the dissolution of the Whig party and (indirectly) to the power vacuum that allowed for the Know-Nothings’ ascendancy. Fillmore did not identify with the Know-Nothings, but saw the nomination as a chance to form a national party that was untroubled by the issue of slaver.
Unfortunately for Fillmore and the Know-Nothings, slavery is possibly the most contentious and important political issue in American history. The issue of slavery (and secession and disunion) dominated the 1856 election. The anti-immigrant Know-Nothings continued to ignore the issue, and after 1856 the momentarily successful party slid into irrelevance.
Episode 100 is coming up, and I’m going to make it a Q&A episode. Send me your questions! Ask about past episodes, ask about things that I didn’t talk about or maybe missed and (if you like) ask about me, what I think, and what my deal is. Click on the “Contact” link, write out a question, and I will answer it on Episode 100. Looking forward to hear from you!
Decades before the modern versions of the Democratic and Republican parties formed, the US also had a few other major political parties. One was the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. Another was the Whigs, who had intermittent success before collapsing in the middle 1800s. Out of the ashes of the Whig party two other parties rose to take its place: The anti-slavery Republican party, and the anti-immigrant American Party, better known as the Know-Nothings.
The Know-Nothings opposed immigration to the United States, particularly from Catholics. Anti-Catholic paranoia has a long history in the US. Catholics (the thinking went) were more likely to be loyal to the pope than the country they lived in, were unable to work with people whom they deemed to be “heretics” and were, in general, less hardworking and virtuous than their fellow Protestants. This xenophobia, paranoia, and bigotry was prevalent enough that in the election of 1856 the Know-Nothings would contend as a major political party, albeit a failed one.
The ancient Mesoamerican ball game is very probably the oldest ball game in the world. We know that it was played with a rubber ball on a stone court, and that players would try to hit the ball with their hips, knees, and sometimes elbows and forearms around the court. Ballcourts often featured a stone hoop that was possibly the goal, but it is impossible to know if hitting the hoop was the only goal of the game. No written rules survive, though the game is mentioned multiple times in Popol Vuh, the written account of Mayan mythology.
Contemporary mentions of the game often conflate it with human sacrifice, but it is impossible to know what, if any, role sacrifice played in the game. Oftentimes history writers have assumed that the loser was sacrificed, but we have no way of proving one way or the other whether that was true. It is entirely possible that human sacrifice was an integral part of the game, and it is also possible that it played no role at all.
This week’s episode is an interview with artist and cartoonist Kory Bing about dinosaurs and other extinct megafauna. We talked about drawing dinosaurs, what dinosaurs are, and how dinosaurs and other extinct animals are portrayed in popular culture. Kory writes and draws the webcomic Skin Deep and regularly illustrates dinosaurs, pterosaurs, ichthyosaurs, and other extinct megafauna. Find her work here.
Theme music: Cowboy Surfer by the Vivisectors
Today PT Barnum is remembered as one of the founders of modern advertising and one of America’s greatest hucksters. His first successful hoax was to successfully promote a taxidermy monkey sewn to a fish as the corpse of a mermaid. To do this, Barnum wrote fake letters from different regions of the country to various New York newspapers, and hired an associate of his to pose as an English scientist who had the mermaid in his possession. Using deceit, fake names, and fraudulent correspondence, Barnum successfully stoked interest in the so-called “mermaid.”
The fate of the mermaid is unknown. It was possibly destroyed in a fire, but Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology has a specimen that is, possibly, Barnum’s original. After Barnum several other sideshows, museums, and curiosity shops copied the mermaid, and today many is the tourist trap cabinet of curiosities sports the horrific corpse of a monkey glued to a fish.
Theme music: Cowboy Surfer by the Vivisectors
In 1897 the US Supreme Court carved out an exception the 13th Amendment, which bans slavery and involuntary servitude. Robertson v. Baldwin held that merchant marine sailors could be arrested by law enforcement, imprisoned, and then returned to their ships. Essentially, forced labor in the United States was legal, as long as it was on boats. It was not until 1915 that Congress banned the practice.
This episode was part of Stumptown Stories, a Pacific Northwest history collective in Portland, Oregon.
Pictured below is a still from the 1915 Charlie Chaplin film Shanghaied, which came out the same year that Congress passed legislation guaranteeing certain rights for sailors.
Theme music: Cowboy Surfer by the Vivisectors
As far as your humble podcaster is concerned, pasta is a wonder of the world right up there with the Pyramids and the Internet. We don’t exactly know where it came from, though. In the United States Pasta is often erroneously identified with Marco Polo. Supposedly, Polo brought back a variation on Chinese noodles from his travels, and introduced it to Italy. This story originates, though, in the United States. In 1929 a publication called the Macaroni Journal invented the Polo story, and ever since then that myth has refused to die.
Some Italian sources claim that pasta originated with the Etruscans, a pre-Roman civilization on the Italian peninsula, but evidence for this is spotty. It is more likely that pasta originated in the Middle East and traveled to the Italian Peninsula via the Emirate of Sicily.
Theme music: Cowboy Surfer by the Vivisectors
One of the most bizarre myths about the Soviet Union is that Joseph Stalin attempted to create human/chimp hybrid supersoldiers. This bit of pseudohistory has become especially prevalent in the alternate universe of fundamentalist Christianity. Often, this myth is held up as a way to conflate Darwinism with Communism. While loosely based on actual events, it does not hold up to scrutiny.
Ilya Ivanov (pictured) was a Russian Scientist who, beginning in 1910, attempted to hybridize chimpanzees and orangutangs with humans. He was not successful. Ivanov’s experiments, though, began long before Stalin took power, and even before the Communist revolution. What’s more, Stalin did not believe in evolution. Stalin rejected Darwin’s ideas and, instead, promoted an alternative view known as Lysenkoism, a pseudoscience that Stalin saw as more consistent with his version of communism.
Theme music: Cowboy Surfer by the Vivisectors
No one knows who wrote The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. There is no record of an English knight alive at the right time with that name who could have written it. One oft-repeated theory is that Mandeville retired to Belgium, lived under a pseudonym, and only confessed his authorship of the Travels on his deathbed. Other than the uncorroborated word of a Liege notrary, though, we have nothing to substantiate this theory.
What we do know is that the work was not wholly original, and combined elements of several pre-existing fantasies and romances into a single narrative. And, despite or maybe because of the fantasy elements, it did so well. It remains a fascinating look at what it means to encounter the unfamiliar, to travel, and to see the world that lies just beyond the lands you know.
Theme music: Cowboy Surfer by the Vivisectors
As the Travels of Sire John Mandeville move away from the familiar and the Holy Land, they get progressively more bizarre. The laws of convention and even reality seem to break down as Mandeville encounters cannibals, dog people, weaponized elephants, and headless humans who have faces on their chest. In one particularly striking passage Mandeville says that not only is the world round, but that one can circumnavigate it, and he also characterizes the Kingdom of the Great Khan as perhaps the most advanced nation in the entire world. The book ends with description of the Earthly Paradise, the one spot on the globe that Mandeville, despite all of his experience, cannot reach.
Theme music: Cowboy Surfer by the Vivisectors
Supposedly, The Travels of Sir John Mandeville is about an English knight who sets out for the Holy Land in the 1330s. However, the journey to Jerusalem and the surrounding environs are only a small part of a larger narrative that involves fantastical creatures, foreign kingdoms, and wonders both inspiring and gross. During the first part of his journey Mandeville describes the life and religion of the Greeks (including their opinions on beards), a woman who was turned into a dragon (and the knights who failed to save her) and the temple of the Pheonix. That’s only the beginning, though. Next week, we’ll stay with Sir John Mandeville as he ventures further into the unknown and into even more bizarre foreign lands.
Among the pseudohistory of Mandeville’s travelogue is the theory that the pyramids were meant to store grain, pictured below.
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This week’s episode is an interview with author Bill Lascher about his upcoming book Eve of a Hundred Midnights, about two American war correspondents covering the East Asian theater of WWII. In it, Lascher details how they got into journalism, what it was like to cover wartime China, and their various encounters with and escapes from the dangers of war.
Eve of a Hundred Midnights comes out on June 21st, 2016.
Anymore, pinball is an archaic amusement found in the corners of old arcades and bars, but in the mid twentieth century it was the center of a moral panic. Cities across the country banned pinball for its associations with gambling. Most notably, New York’s mayor Fiorello La Guardia had machines rounded up and smashed, often in highly visible public settings. The game’s association with gambling wasn’t baseless, though. After prohibition, coin machines did become a notable stream of income for organized crime, and some pinball tables did indeed disperse cash or prizes. It wasn’t until 1976 that the New York ban was lifted, and that pinball became a commonplace and acceptable amusement.
I’ve previously written about pinball and organized crime in Oregon for the Portland Mercury. Check out that feature here.
The origins of coffee are encircled by myth and legend, sometimes involving goats. It’s one of the most popular beverages on Earth, and for many people (including your humble podcaster) one of the most important. Drinking coffee is a daily ritual enjoyed by millions, and there are myriad stories about coffee’s history that seem to buttress its importance and mystique.
Dancing livestock, beverages on trial, self-sacrificing Frenchman, a sexy Portuguese guy, and a totally wired philosopher all figure into coffee’s mythology. In all probability none of these events ever happened, but their very existence says something about humanity’s reverence and need for the fortifying beverage.
Claymation was a dominant force in American popular culture during the late 1980s, which characters such as the California Raisins and the Noid achieving a sort of pre-Internet media ubiquity. The creative force behind Claymation was Will Vinton Studios, a Portland, Oregon production house that first rose to fame with the hallucinatory 1975 short Closed Mondays which won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short. Despite a fair amount of critical and commercial success, though, Will Vinton Studios only made a single feature film, The Adventures of Mark Twain, and in the 1990s Claymation ceased to be the powerhouse that it once was.
The live event featured in this episode was put on by Stumptown Stories, a local Portland history collective dedicated to popularizing weird and overlooked episodes in Pacific Northwest history.
Before the interstate highway system spread over the US, the country was knit together through a network of railroads and auto trails. One of the longest of these was the Lincoln Highway, a coast-to-coast collection of roads that linked New York to San Francisco at the dawn of the 20th century, and could take weeks for early automobiles to traverse. Given that this was a huge tract of land, people wrote songs about it.
Cecelia Otto is a classically trained singer who recently toured the remains of the Lincoln Highway and performed turn-of-the century popular music about the highway at various venues along the way. Otto wrote a book about and released an album after the tour, and is currently crowdfunding a project on the songs of World War I. I talked to her about her experience, how you crossed the country in an old automobile, and how popular music was distributed before electronic recording.
If it’s ever completed, South Dakota’s Crazy Horse Memorial will be the largest statue in the world. The gigantic structure will feature the Lakota leader’s face, upper body, and mount, and will dwarf every other monument and memorial on Earth. Crazy Horse’s head and headdress, for instance, will be larger than Mount Rushmore.
If, that is, the work is ever completed. The first blasts to transform Thunderhead Mountain into a memorial were in 1948, and since then, only Crazy Horse’s face has been totally carved. The memorial is also controversial among present-day Lakota, many of whom do not think that blasting into a mountain is the best memorial to Crazy Horse. One person who’d almost certainly opposed to the memorial is Crazy Horse himself. The Lakota leader did not allow himself to be photographed, and turning his image into a statue of epic proportions seemingly runs counter to what the man himself believed in.
This week’s episode is an interview with Quizmistress and Jeopardy! contestant Molly Newman. Molly runs multiple successful trivia nights in Portland, Oregon, hosts private trivia events, and knows what makes questions good, bad, boring, easy, hard, funny, and compelling. With hundreds of fans in the Portland area (including your humble podcaster) she has made a career about entertaining people with facts both widely-known and obscure. We talked about how to craft good trivia questions, why some questions are too hard or uninteresting, and the surprisingly scandalous origins of Trivial Pursuit.
Nowadays, comic books are mainstream. Movies about superheroes dominate the box office, and you can’t go ten feet in a major retail outlet without seeing something related to popular comics culture. This is not new. Comics and comic books have always been an integral part of American popular culture ever since the 1890s, with the introduction of the Yellow Kid, America’s first popular comics character.
The Yellow Kid (created by former Edison employee R.F. Outcault) sported a shaved head (a common deterrent for lice) and a ragged, hand-me-down nightshirt as his only garment. He eventually became a star in 1890s New York City, and his distinctive image could be found on everything from cigar boxes to cookie tins. Eventually the Kid led to a fight between newspaper magnates Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, who each tried to woo the public with their own distinct and competing versions of the popular comics character.
“Sure, Mussolini was bad, but at least he made the trains run on time.”
You’ve probably said it. Or, you’ve been in a conversation and you heard somebody say it. Or you’ve seen it written somewhere. This cliche has been repeated time and again in countless different media (such as in the panel below, from DC’s New Earth series) to the point that one is almost more likely to associate the Italian dictator with railways than with the fascist ideology he invented. However, the commonly repeated trope does not have a basis in fact.
Supposedly punctual trains were part of Mussolini’s propaganda machine that put up a facade of well-functioning infrastructure for foreigners, suppressed reports of train collisions and accidents, and took credit for improvements implemented by earlier democratic regimes. There was no real bright side or silver lining to the authoritarian dictator’s reign. Not even well-functioning trains.
You can be forgiven for thinking that L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz is all about monetary policy and populism. More than a few scholars, critics, academics, and teachers, have reiterated that line, and found parallels in the narrative between Baum’s fairy tale and the state of American politics at the end of the 1800s. The Scarecrow (the theory goes) is the agrarian worker, the Tin Man (or Tin Woodman, if you’re going by the book’s terminology) is the industrial laborer, and the Cowardly Lion is… Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan. For some reason. Other perceived equivalencies include the Yellow Brick Road as the gold standard, and Dorothy’s silver slippers (they were changed to ruby in the Judy Garland film) as silver coinage.
This theory began in 1964 with an article titled The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism by high school history teacher Henry Littlefield. It has since taken on a life of its own, to the point where this podcaster first heard this theory from his freshman history teacher. However, there is no real basis for The Wizard of Oz being a satire, parody, fable, or any other kind of tale about populism. Baum’s own biography and a closer reading of the text do not support that oft-repeated theory.
Easter jumps around. Sure, it’s always on a Sunday, but unlike, say, the U.S.’s Labor Day (which always falls on the first Monday in September) Easter jumps around. It could be on the third Sunday in March. Or the fifth. Or the fourth. Or sometime in April. It jumps around. The dating of Easter comes from a combination of lunar and solar calendars, astronomical events, and religious tradition all crashing together. The result is that Easter is sometime in March. Or April. It’s complicated.
To help shed some light on when Easter is actually supposed to happen, we sat down with Jamie Jeffers, the man behind the excellent British History Podcast. Jeffers has previously gotten into some of the controversies surrounding Easter on his own show, and has detailed how fights over the holiday led to actual, real violence among early Christians. Also, there were some very bad haircuts involved. Again: It was complicated.
Pictured below: The Council of Nicea, which tried (tried) to sort this all out. They only kind of did.
You’ve probably heard to Atlantis, but that’s not the hypothetical lost continent out there. There’s a whole subgenre of supposed submerged continents, with Atlantis being only the most prominent example. Other mythical lands include Mu and Lemuria.
Anymore, Lemuria is now associated with new age pseudohistory, but as an idea it was first posited by an actual scientist. In 1864 Philip Sclater was trying to puzzle out why there were lemurs in both Madagascar and India, but not in Africa or the Middle East. If the animals had migrated from one of those regions to the next, then it stood to reason that there would also be lemur populations between them. To solve this problem, Sclater proposed that there was once a large mass of land in the India Ocean he called “Lemuria” that would have allowed lemurs (and, presumably, other fauna) to migrate from India to Madagascar and back again.
Sclater’s idea was eventually rendered obsolete by plate tectonics, but the idea of a lost continent was seized upon by occultists such as Helena Blavatsky. Charlatans such as Blavatsky claimed to have received special knowledge of humanity’s origin from the lost continent, and a whole subgenre of fake history was born.
Oregon Trail is arguably the most successful education video game of all time. Created in 1971 by student teacher Don Rawitsch, the popular simulation began its life as a game played on paper with dice and cards. Eventually Rawitsch, along with two other student teachers, adapted the game for play on teletype machines. The game eventually migrated to what would now be called a PC, and something like 65 million copies of Oregon Trail have made their way to various machines across the country.
However, the Minnesota Educational Computing Conortium (MECC) that oversaw Oregon Trail’s distribution crumbled in the face of a hostile takeover and subsequent purchase by Mattel. The last real copy of Oregon Trail was released in 2001, and MECC is gone. The game now exists primarily on emulators and in the memory of people who played it as children.
This talk was part of Stumptown Stories, a history collective that hosts monthly events in Portland, Oregon.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton is an antidote to the traditional (and boring) way that America’s founding fathers have often been portrayed. The Founders are often shown as almost godly (like in the statue of Washington pictured below), without flaws, above mere mortals, and removed from the normal experiences humanity in general and politics in particular. However, Hamilton, the rap musical about America’s first ever treasury secretary, acts as a sort of antidote to that. In it, the founding fathers are very human, and that humanity and complexity makes them all the more compelling and inspiring.
Also in this episode: Your humble podcaster getting yelled at by a Supreme Court Justice at the age of sixteen.
Mahdist Sudan died violently.
The religious state persisted for approximately a decade and a half but after that the British, eager to solidify their influence and control in the region, brought the country to heel. Egypt had never recognized Sudanese independence, and thought of the new country as little more than a renegade province. Under British control and influence, the Anglo-Egyptian forces crushed the independent Sudanese state, making short work of the armed forces. The key to their victory was a new technology: The machine gun.
After the British victory the military and cultural foundations of the Mahdist state were destroyed, and Sudan was soon in the same state of repression that it had previously been in, though instead of dealing with the Ottoman boot, now it suffered under the British.
After successfully defeating the Ottoman-Egyptian and British forces at Khartoum, Sudan formed an independent government based around Muhammad Ahmad, the self-proclaimed Mahdi or “expected one.” Unfortunately for Sudan, though, Ahmad died of Typhus only six months after the birth of the new state, and Mahdist Sudan was almost immediately faced with a succession crisis.
It would only be the first of many trials for the new state. Regional rebellions and border skirmishes, a war with neighboring Ethiopia, and economic isolation and famine would all take their toll on Sudan, and over the lifetime of the Mahdist state, millions of Sudanese citizens would die as a result of violence and privation.
In the early 1880s Sudan suffered under the heel of the Ottoman empire. Military occupation and heavy taxes led to widespread discontent that eventually led to a religiously-infused rebellion. Muhammad Ahmad styled himself as the Mahdi or “expected one,” a prophesized Islamic figure, and drawing on discontent, Ahmad led a rebellion throughout the country.
The British officer Charles George Gordon (pictured below) was put in charge of evacuating Egyptians and other foreigners from the Sudan. But, because of his poor relations with the British and the Ottoman-Egyptian governments, Gordon ended up holed up in Khartoum, under siege by the rebel forces, and eventually dead at the hands of the Sudanese. The Mahdi had successfully defeated the foreign occupiers, and a new state formed under his religiously-inspired revolutionary power.
Depending on how you measure and define things, the longest war in human history may very well have been between the Netherlands and a tiny collection of islands 28 miles off the coast of Britain known as the Isles of Scilly (the flag of which is pictured below) . The “war” lasted for three hundred and thirty five years and consisted of zero battles. It was a “war” only in the sense that the Netherlands had made a declaration of war in the 1600s, and then simply forgot to rescind it.
In 1986 a historian on Scilly set out to debunk what he thought was a local legend but, instead, ended up confirming that, yes, his small island community was technically still at war with the Netherlands. The historian alerted the relevant authorities, the Dutch ambassador visited the isles, read a scroll aloud, and declared peace. After 335 years of “war,” one of the longest declared military conflicts ended without the loss of a single human life.
In January of 1992 international trade routes, bad weather, and a shipping container full of bath toys all collided to form an amazing natural experiment in oceanography. 28,800 bath toys known as Friendly Floatees spilled into the Pacific Ocean, and over the years the easily-identifiable toys washed up on shores throughout the world. Though often referred to as “rubber duckies,” the toys were in fact made of plastic, and, in addition to yellow ducks, also included red beavers, blue turtles, and green frogs.
The oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer (pictured below) seized upon the opportunity to study the effects of so much readily-identifiable flotsam released into the Pacific, and eventually found that the Floatees didn’t just circulate in the Pacific. They also made their way to the Arctic, Indian, and Atlantic Oceans. The brightly-colored, cute little bath toys had gone international, and eventually were being scooped up by beachcombers worldwide.
It’s always fun to look back on predictions about the future that were wrong. For instance, Victorian portrayals of the 20th and 21st century had everyone flying around in blimps and ornithopters, which did not exactly come to pass.
Looking back at past predictions is especially satisfying now because we are well into the 21st century. For decades, years that started with “20” (or even “199”) were simply vaguely futuristic. Now, they’re simply a date on the calendar. In this episode, we count through some of the most notable years in science fiction that have already happened from 1997 (Escape From New York) to 2001 (2001) and see how the year from pop culture lined up to the actual year that happened.
Last week Asano, Lord of Ako was ordered to commit seppuku, and his newly unemployed samurai were plotting revenge on Kira, the noble whom they blamed for their lord’s death. This week, the 47 ronin extract their revenge on Kira, and the incident becomes one of the most retold narratives in Japanese history.
The image below illustrates a scene from Kanadehon Chushingura, the most famous fictionalized version of the 47 ronin story. The characters in Kanadehon Chushingura have different names than the actual historical figures whom they purport to represent, audiences in 1748 and onward would have recognized the fiction as being roughly analogous to actual events. Anymore, Chushingura refers to the entire body of media either directly about or touching on the 47 ronin incident.
One of the most famous and bloody incidents in samurai history is the story of the 47 ronin, a group of masterless samurai who extracted bloody revenge on behalf of their dead lord. The actual events of the incident are hard to parse out, as the facts of the events have been occluded by popular culture, drama, reinterpretation, and retelling. What we do know for sure is that in 1701 the daimyo of Ako (a domain near modern Osaka) was forced to kill himself after assaulting a courtier, Kira, in Edo. After the lord was dead, his various samurai were suddenly unemployed, and forty-seven of them planned revenge.
The traditional telling of the story is that Kira was supposed to instruct Asano in the ways of etiquette at the Shogun’s court, and that Asano was supposed to bribe him in order to be treated well. Kira was dissatisfied with Asano’s bribe, insulted the young lord, and, in a fit of rage, Asano drew his short sword and wounded the etiquette instructor. After Asano’s death, his samurai took it upon themselves to finish what Asano had started, and vowed to kill Kira.
The image below is a probably stylized rendering of Asano, the lord of Ako, drawing his weapon on Kira in a fit of rage.
Happy New Year! There are some changes in store for 2016.
Also, I wrote an ebook. The Legend of Polybius is all about everybody’s favorite mythical video game that supposedly warped your mind. It’s now available on Amazon as a Kindle download for $1.99.
There is no war on Christmas. But there was.
Contemporary political commentators have, in the past, complained and ranted about a supposed secular war on Christmas, a crusade to erase spirituality and religion from late December, a campaign to turn the occasion of the Nativity into merely “the Holidays.” But, Christmas has always been a season more about revelry and celebration than spirituality. The holiday is a re-appropriating by Christianity of pre-existing Roman festivals such as Saturnalia and the birthdate of Sol Invictus the sun god. Christian reinterpretations are just that: Reinterpretations.
One group that knew this very well was the Puritans, who saw Christmas as a fundamentally ungodly holiday, and sought to ban it and all of its various trappings in both England and Massachusetts. Puritan leaders such as Cotton Mather (pictured below) saw the holiday not as something for the glory of God or Christianity, but directly counter to it. In Puritan-controlled areas shops and businesses stayed open on Christmas, and anyone caught celebrating the offensive holiday was fined the sum of five shillings.
At the end of the eleventh century, a group of would-be conquerors followed a goose on crusade.
The standard (and almost certainly overly simplistic) narrative of the First Crusade is that, in 1095 Pope Urban II rallied religious leaders at the Council of Clermont to retake the Holy Land. After a few stirring speeches and cries of “deus vult!” (God wills it!) a holy war began. Again, this narrative is almost certainly factually incorrect, but it’s stayed in the popular imagination.
The First Crusade, though, was far more disorganized than its neat and tidy origin myth suggest. Several lords, kings, and independent military leaders operated more or less independently. One of the most notable leaders of what would become known as the People’s Crusade was an itinerant preacher named Peter the Hermit who stirred his followers with tales of apocalypse, end times, and final battles. Among Peter the Hermit’s followers was a group of crusaders who followed a goose, claiming that that bird was speaking to them through the Holy Spirit.
The Wicker Man is one of the most creative and fearsome execution devices of all time. A figure of a giant, made of bent wood and reeds, looms up over a desolate Celtic moor, and hapless captives write inside of its cage-like form. A horde of barbaric and bloodthirsty Celts chant in the distance, eager to see the sacrifice, and a Druid, clad in fur and leather, ignites the massive statue and the captives within, sending them as a burnt offering to the insatiable gods who are forever thirsty for human blood.
Like the iron maiden though, there’s scant evidence that the iconic wicker man ever existed. The only evidence that we have to go on is Julius Caesar’s propagandistic memoir The Gallic Wars. Despite that, though, burning effigy festivals are still popular throughout the world today. Guy Fawkes Night, the Burning of Judas, Zozobra, and, of course, Burning Man all remain immensely popular, despite the oldest known effigy probably being more folklore than fact.
The planet Earth holds over seven billion humans. Somehow, against all manner of predictions to the contrary, we feed all of them. This would have astounded Thomas Malthus who, in 1798, predicted that humanity was careening toward a demographic catastrophe, despite the world population still being under a billion at that time.
Part of the reason why humanity can now feed itself is because of agricultural advances in the 20th century known as the Green Revolution. Advances in crop yields, land use, pesticides, herbicides, and general efficiency have given us a food supply unlike anything that our ancestors knew. At the forefront of the Green Revolution was a biologist named Norman Borlaug who developed a type of semi-dwarf wheat that saved an estimated billion lives.
The Irish crown jewels were stolen in 1907. To this day, no one knows who absconded with the regalia. While known as the “Irish crown jewels” today, they were not referred to as such until after their theft. In fact, they were the regalia of the Order of St. Patrick, a British Knightly Order associated with Ireland (England and Scotland had the Order of the Garter and the Order of the Thistle, respectively) and were worn by either the British monarch or their stand-in during investiture ceremonies or other state events.
When they were stolen in 1907 from a safe in Dublin Castle, there was no sign of a break in, no forced locks, an no other damage of any kind. Since 1907 theories about the theft of the crown jewels have ranged from an operation carried out either by Irish Unionists or British Republicans to humiliate the monarchy, blackmail and bacchanals at Dublin Castle, jewel stealing femme fatales, and simple drunken incompetence. To this day, the fate of the jewels remains an enduring mystery.
Nowadays, Lewis and Clark are lionized and mythologized as American heroes, but their reputation was not always so grandiose. The expedition was initially considered a failure after their return, they were virtually un-talked about in the 1800s. In the early twentieth century they gradually began to molded and shaped into figures of American myth (in particular by a large, World’s Fair-style 1905 expo in Portland that bore their name) but it wasn’t until the sixties that they actually became popular. The painting below, Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia by Charles Marion Russel, is from 1905 and shows the first glimmer of Lewis and Clark as mythological figures, as opposed to strictly historical figures.
This live event was part of Stumptown Stories, a monthly lecture series that focuses on Portland and Oregon history.
Nowadays the US-Canada border is one of the most peaceful international boundaries in the world, but in 1859 the US almost went to war with British North America in what is now Washington State. A war sparked by a pig.
The 1846 Oregon Treaty was poorly worded and it left San Juan Island itself in something of a state of limbo. This island was claimed both by the British Empire and the United States, and for several years American settlers and the Hudson’s Bay Company mutually occupied the island. However, an American frontiersman shot a British pig, and the squabble between neighbors threatened to turn into an international incident. The two powers were ready for armed conflict and, had a British rear admiral not disobeyed orders to engage the Americans, the conflict might very well have turned violent. In the end, it was a bloodless conflict. There were no casualties, excepting, of course, the pig.
For years, mummies were a commodity. Beginning in the sixteenth century, Europeans used mummy dust (as in real, actual, ground-up human corpse) as a medication to cure just about everything, and the pigment mummy brown was the color of dry, dusty corpses because it was literally made of dried, dusty corpses. Despite being an extraordinarily macabre commodity, there was still demand for mummy dust, so much so that a trade in counterfeit mummies (that is, bodies that had been dried out and treated with bitumen) sprung up, and the recently dead sold alongside ancient corpses.
As a pigment, mummy brown was easy to work with, but prone to fading and cracking. It remained available until the 20th century, and modern versions of the color are made of minerals rather than corpses. Mummy dust and mummy parts also remained available for purchase until the middle twentieth century, though mostly in curiosity and oddity shops. The photo below shows a mummy seller in 1875, when mummy brown and medicinal mummy dust would have been on the wane.
The Life and Death of Mummy Brown from the Journal of Art in Society
The Gruesome History of Eating Corpses as Medicine from Smithsonian
Mummy Brown and Other Historical Colors from the always-delightful Veritable Hokum
Weird History launched one year ago today on October 27th, 2014. Thank you, all of you, for listening, and here’s to many more years to come.
Elizabeth Bathory is one of history’s most notorious killers. Supposedly, the Bloody Countess (as she is sometimes called) murdered an unknown number of young girls in a variety of way, ranging from stabbing, to burning, to exposure to cold. One detail of the story is that Bathory also bathed in the blood of her victims to preserve her youth and vitality, but that is almost certainly an embellishment added years after the fact. Still, Bathory’s appetite for murder has made her a popular figure of horror, and she has been the inspiration for movies, video games, and at least one metal band.
Nowadays, there is some doubt about whether or not Elizabeth Bathory really was the excessive and cruel killer that she was made out to be. There is no evidence that she ever bathed in the blood of her victims (for instance) and most of the evidence obtained against her was gathered under torture, a notoriously unreliable method for getting to the truth. Nevertheless, even if the stories about Elizabeth Bathory were completely fabricated, her life still has the makings of a chilling horror story.
It’s October. For the next three weeks, we’ll be focusing on bloody, violent, and generally horrifying historical episodes. This week: The Bloody Benders, America’s first ever documented serial killers.
The Benders operated an on the Osage Trail (later called the Santa Fe Trail) where they allowed travelers to stay the night, resupplied pioneers with food and dry goods, and one of them, Kate Bender, promoted herself as a spiritual healer and fortune teller. They also killed several travelers, and buried their bodies in a garden (pictured below) that became known as “Hell’s Half Acre.” Probably the most famous person associated with the Benders is Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the Little House on the Prairie novels. Wilder was very young when her father joined a posse to hunt for the killer family, and did not include them in any of her books. While she had no compunctions about including violent and unflattering portraits of Native Americans in her novels (including several references to massacres supposedly perpetrated by the Osage Indians), Wilder, it seems, demurred at the idea of including killer white people in her work.
The Sator Square is a level of palindromic perfection untouched by other palindromes. It reads perfectly backward, forward, up, and down. The inconsequential sentence (something like “The farmer Arepo works the plow”) is not not profound, but the structure of the phrase is a level of balance and perfection untouched by other word squares.
The exact origin of the square is unknown, but it’s been the subject of all manner of speculation and pseudohistory. Multiple (spurious) sources have attempted to link the palindrome to Christian mysticism, but, in all likelihood, it was much more likely to be a meme than mystical. Before human beings obsessively reproduced “Kilroy was here” or LOLcats, they obsessively reproduced this perfect Latin sentence.
I’m serious. Send me your best palindromes, word games, and linguistic weird stuff on Facebook. Do it!
I mentioned that “S” that we used to draw on binders and such. Here’s a video about it.
The tiny island nation of Nauru once had one of the highest GDPs per capita on Earth. Today, the country has been stripped of resources and impoverished. Nauru’s booming economy during the 20th century was based on strip mining away the small island’s phosphorous-rich bird guano soil. The money flowed in, but a series of bad investments, con jobs, and one very bad London musical left the island impoverished. Nauru turned to money laundering and selling passports to foreign nationals to raise funds, but to no avail. Today, the island and its economy are both depleted shells of what they once were.
A Pacific Island Nation is Stripped of Everything from the New York Times
Paradise Well and Truly Lost from the Economist
Island Raiders from ABC Four Corners, 2004
1932 was a bad year for farmers in Australia. Hot weather withered grain, because of the Great Depression, promised agricultural subsidies were not forthcoming and, worst of all, there were emus. The large flightless bird devoured Australian grain, prompting the government to go after them with machine guns.
It was called the Emu War, and the emus won.
Veritable Hokum did a delightful comic about the Emu War. It features an emu in a hat. Emus probably did not wear hats.
Attack on Emus from the Melbourne Argus, 1932.
The story of the the Titanic is usually one of human hubris, and then nature putting humanity back in their place. Implicit in any Titanic narrative is a critique of technology in general, of human arrogance, and of the supposed ability of our species to strive in the face of insurmountable laws of nature.
The Titanic, though, is not the best fit for that narrative. The ship sank, yes, but it still worked the way it was supposed to before it hit an iceberg. Another vessel, though, fits that profile better. The Vasa was an immense warship commissioned by the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus in the 1620s. The gigantic ship was a marvel, and like nothing that the world had seen before. It dwarfed other vessesl, bristled with canon, and was covered with elaborate ornamentation.
And then, under the weight of all of its fancy guns and ornamentation, sank on its maiden voyage. The Vasa was, quite literally, too fancy to live, and is a better example of boat-based overreach and arrogance than the Titanic ever was.
The image below is of a 1:10 scale model of the Vasa at Stockholm’s Vasa musuem, and it shows off some of the elaborate ornamentation that covered the exterior of the ship.
This episode was part of Stumptown Stories, a Portland history lecture collective. Stumptown Stories meets on the second Tuesday of every month at downtown Portland’s Jack London Bar, and various authors, journalists, podcasters, and historians get into the good, the bad, and the downright weird of Portland’s past. This past Tuesday, September 8th, I talked about the origins of the Portland Building, the world’s first ever postmodern office building. In the early 1980s the Portland Building, and the design philosophy that it embodied, was considered the future of architecture. However, in the intervening decades postmodernism has not fared well, and is now considered a blind alley that’s been largely abandoned by architecture at large.
Before Batman, before Superman, before even the Phantom, there was the Golden Bat. “Ogon Batto” (as he’s known in Japanese) is, arguably, the world’s first costumed superhero. The skull-headed, ruff-wearing, sword-wielding hero’s backstory was one that would fit in any of the wackier comics that Marvel and DC would later publish: He was a dweller of Atlantis from 10,000 years in the future, and sent back in time to fight injustice. In particular, he battled against Nazo, the evil Emperor of the Universe.
Golden Bat wasn’t a comics character. Not exactly. He was from a form of storytelling called “kamishibai,” a words-and-pictures form of public performance popular in Japan during the first half of the 20th century. Kamishibai storytellers would set up in public spaces and tell tales of samurai, ninja, pulp heroes, cowboys, and superheroes to crowds of eager children, thrilling them with outrageous tales from the worlds of history and science fiction. The medium produced, among other characters, the Golden Bat, a superhero who proceeds Clark Kent by almost a decade.
A contemporary example of kamishibai. It is, obviously, in Japanese.
Manga Kamishibai by Eric P. Nash, which collects multiple kamishibai tales from the Golden Bat and others.
In September of 1940 an American Explorer named Theodore Morde proclaimed in the Milwaukee Sentinel that he had found “the Lost City of Ancient America’s Monkey God.” Morde described a city of white stone
Is there a ruined city deep in the Honduran jungle dedicated to a mysterious simian god, one who accepted sacrifices of human flesh by fanatical worshippers?
No. Probably not.
But the story behind the myth is entertaining, at least.
Theodore Morde’s account, In the Lost City of Ancient America’s Monkey God.
The El Dorado Machine from the New Yoker.
Rosemary Joyce’s critique of the “discover” of La Ciudad Blanca Good Science, Big Hype, Bad Archaeology.
Richard III is one of Shakespeare’s most compelling villains. Unlike other tragic figures who do terrible things (Macbeth, Othello, Brutus) Richard does not fall. He does not have some kind of tragic flaw that drives him to perform an evil act. Instead, he is a through-and-through villain from the very first scene of the play, and is all the more compelling for it.
As you can imagine, the actual, real Richard III was somewhat different.
Last week I spoke at a Portland performance space, The Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven, about some differences between the real Richard and the character in Shakespeare’s play. The event was a benefit show for an upcoming performance of Richard III that Steep and Thorny is putting on, and the evening also featured dancing, music, and other performers.
One of the most high-profile maritime disasters in French history also inspired a famous, and gigantic work of art. In 1816 the French frigate Medusa ran aground in the Bay of Arguin. The captain and several officers escaped on life boats, but 147 people were abandoned on a hastily built raft. For almost two weeks the raft-goers suffered from starvation, dehydration, and malnutrition. The desperate survivors descended into violence and resorted to cannibalism before being rescued (by chance) by another vessel. Of the 147 people abandoned on the raft, ten survived.
A few years later, in 1819, the 25-year-old Romantic painter Theodore Gericault painted a gigantic, larger-than-life painting entitled The Raft of the Medusa. To compose his masterpiece, Gericault sought out dead and decayed bodies, contacted survivors, and memorialized the tragedy like a man possessed.
Humans have invented writing not once, not twice, but three times. Ancient Sumeria, China, and Mesoamerica all invented the written word independent of each other. In the case of Mesoamerican writing, there’s some ambiguity about when and who made it. Most experts agree that by around 500 BCE Zapotec peoples had created a writing system, but there’s some debate about whether or not the Olmec, an even older civilization, were the first in Mesoamerica to invent writing. One artifact, the 3,000 year old Cascajal Block, suggests that the Olmecs did, in fact, have a writing system. The Block is strewn with glyphs in a language that nobody speaks or understands, and is, potentially, the oldest piece of writing in the Western Hemisphere.
For more on misconceptions about Olmecs, check out Episode Three of this show, Incorrect Ideas About Olmecs.
In 1820 a Scotsman named Gregor MacGregor pulled off one of the most audacious cons of all time. MacGregor claimed to be descendant of Rob Roy and ancient kings of Scotland, and also claimed to have been granted a certain amount of land in what is now modern day Honduras. Calling his new (and entirely fictional) country “Poyais,” MacGregor began to solicit investments for his new, up-and-coming Central American country.
The image below is a landscape of the supposed country of Poyais, taken from Sketch of the Mosquito Shore, a book that MacGregor penned under the pseudonym Thomas Strangeways. MacGregor promised that his land in the New World was filled with libraries, cathedrals, and a native population who were eager to welcome Europeans. There was nothing of the sort, and when colonists showed up in what is now modern day Honduras, they found nothing.
For more on Scotland’s failure to have Central American colonies, check out Episode 20, The Lost Empire of Scotland.
“Morals reformed – health preserved – industry invigorated instruction diffused – public burthens lightened – Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock – the gordian knot of the Poor-Laws are not cut, but untied – all by a simple idea in Architecture!” Those are the words of Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher who is now known as one of the founders of utilitarianism. The architecture that he refers to is a proposed prison known as the panopticon, a circular prison that would allow a single guard to see all of the inmates, and the inmates would not know if they were being observed or not. Bentham hoped that, because prisoners would not know whether they were being watched or now, that they would always act as if they were being monitored, and that the panopticon would lead to a gradual change in behavior for those confined within it.
No true panopticons were ever built but several prisons (such as Cuba’s Presidio Modelo, pictured below) were based on the design. The panopticon’s true legacy is as a metaphor, most notably one used by the French philosopher Michel Foucault in his book about power and the history of prisons Discipline and Punish. In a panopticon, the discipline of the prison is not something that comes from chains, whips, or gross application of power. Rather, power and discipline is inscribed upon the mind of those imprisoned.
Jeremy Bentham’s wishes were that his corpse be preserved in a cabinet called an “auto-icon” and viewable by… anyone who wanted to view it. The auto-icon now sits at University College London and you can find more info here and an interactive auto-icon here.
The Mona Lisa wasn’t always an icon. Before 1911 Leonardo’s painting was certainly known and respected, but it wasn’t yet the most famous, most adored, most duplicated, and most parodied piece of art in the world. It was not yet the symbol and pop culture juggernaut that it is today. What made the Mona Lisa famous its theft at the hands of Vincenzo Peruggia who, along with two accomplices, lifted the painting off of the wall of the Louvre and simply walked out with it. He kept the portrait in a box in his apartment for over two years before attempting to ransom it, and, upon its return, the Mona Lisa went from merely a respected piece of Renaissance art to the single most famous painting in the world.
The image below shows the blank spot left by Peruggia, and the four wall hooks that had previously held the Mona Lisa before its 1911 abduction.
In 1959 the United States had a secret plan to explode a nuclear weapon either on or near the surface of the moon. The plan was known as Project A119 and the hope was that a nuclear explosion on the moon would kick up a cloud of dust visible from the Earth, and would act as a demonstration of American power and technology. The project was shelved (obviously) and classified for years, and the only reason we know about it now is because Carl Sagan, who was involved with A119, let slip the existence of the plan to nuke the moon on a job application.
While it might sound absurd, the idea of a nuclear demonstration to awe the world was a common idea among scientists in the waning days of WWII and the early days of the Cold War. There were multiple proposals for detonations on desert islands or other, similar uninhabited areas to show off the power of nuclear weapons and, hopefully, impress America’s enemies into submission.
And, it wasn’t just the US. There were also rumors that the Soviets, too, wanted to bomb the moon.
Last week the US Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. It was an amazing victory for equality and a long time coming. There were, however, dissents. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote:
[T]he Court invalidates the marriage laws of more than half the States and orders the transformation of a social institution that has formed the basis of human society for millennia, for the Kalahari Bushmen and the Han Chinese, the Carthaginians and the Aztecs. Just who do we think we are?
Roberts’ dissent is a version of the appeal to authority fallacy, with his authority here being the supposed constancy of monogamous heterosexual marriage throughout time.
On the other side of things, several media outlets began posting articles about how, in fact, gay marriage had been practiced a millennium ago by various sects of Christianity with a rite called adelphopoeisis. Two saints, Sergius and Bacchus (pictured below) were probably the highest-profile pair to undergo the rite which formalized and sanctified their relationship.
The articles on adelphopoeisis as an early gay marriage rite went back to one historian, John Boswell, who claimed that it sanctified homosexual unions. Other historians contest Boswell’s claim, and claimed that adelphopoeisis was more of a brotherhood ritual.
In this episode, I take the position that ultimately it does not matter what the nature of adelphopoeis was, and that it is also perfectly acceptable to contravene the traditions that John Roberts held so dear. The rightness of legalizing gay marriage does not rest upon what our ancestors did or did not do, but the future that modern people choose to make.
In the 1590s Japan invaded Korea. The Imjin War lasted from 1592-1598, and it included all manner of land battles, guerilla skirmishes, sieges, spying, and everything else that you would expect to find in a full-on conflict. The entire war would take several episodes to cover properly, and this episode just focuses on the naval aspect, and one naval battle in particular.
Under Admiral Yi Sun-sin, the Korean navy was able to successfully rack up victories against the Japanese. Yi was an admiral with no formal military training and, for complicated political reasons, was stripped of his rank, and a rival briefly took over the Korean naval forces. That rival led the Korean navy into a disastrous battle that destroyed almost all of the Joseon Dynasty’s ships, and Admiral Yi was let out of prison to command the remnants of the Korean fleet.
At the Battle of Myeongnyang, Admiral Yi had all of thirteen ships. The Japanese had well over a hundred. With his small force, Yi managed to defeat a force larger than him by an order of magnitude, and the Battle of Myeongnyang remains, today, one of the greatest come-from-behind military victories of all time.
The Admiral was a 2014 film about the life of Admiral Yi. Reviews seem to be mixed.
It’s very likely that Hillary Clinton will become the Democratic nominee for president in 2016. When/if she does, some talking head will likely call her “the first women to run for president.” That talking head will be wrong. Women have been running for president for decades. The first woman to do so was Victoria Woodhull, a former Wall Street trader, traveling clairvoyant, spiritualist, newspaper publisher, and advocate for women’s suffrage. Woodhull advocated strongly for free love, i.e., the ability for women to marry whomever they chose, and for the disentangling of marriage as a social institution from the law.
Woodhull obviously lost the 1872 election (Ulysses S. Grant won it) but many of her ideas about gender, women’s rights, free love, and marriage, have been integrated into what is now considered “normal.” Woodhull was a firebrand and a revolutionary at the time and, even though she lost that electoral contest, we now very much live in her world.
victoriacwoodhull.org is a site devoted to, obviously, Victoria Woodhull.
An 1871 report of one of Woodhull’s campaign speeches. (Requires login)
Woodhull was demonized for her support of free love. As in, cartoonists drew her as a demon. A famous caricature of her declared her to be “Mrs. Satan.”
If you were out and about in San Francisco between 1860 and 1880, you might have seen a curious figure on the streets. Joshua Abraham Norton wore a uniform reminiscent of European nobility, made proclamations, and styled himself as “Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.” Norton seems to have been embraced by the city he “ruled” over, to the point where citizens actually used the currency that he issued. His proclamations were popular reading in the city at the time, and often reprinted and imitated by newspapers of the era. He’s best known for proposing a bridge between San Francisco and Oakland, and renaming the Bay Bridge in honor of Norton has been proposed numerous times.
Norton today is remembered as an eccentric and benevolent monarch, and his grave, just south of San Francisco, proclaims him simply as “Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.”
Read a collection of Norton’s proclamations from the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco, who have tried to suss out which ones are genuine and which are hoaxes or pranks.
Renaming the Bay Bridge as the Emperor Norton Bridge is a perennial topic of discussion, and (unsurprisingly) there’s a change.org petition out right now to do exactly that.
There’s a tour guide who apparently dresses up as Norton and does walking tours of San Francisco. That sounds absurd, and I’m totally signing up for one of those the next time I’m in the Bay Area.
This episode is a little different. About a year ago I was approached by a team of documentary film makers who were making a movie about Polybius, Portland’s mythical video game of doom. I’d previously spoken about Polybius at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo, and they asked if I would also like to talk about it on camera for the movie. I said yes. They set up an event at Velo Cult, a bike/bar/event space here in Portland, and I had a great time talking to people about a creepy nonexistent video game that, supposedly, did weird things to people’s brains.
The Polybius Conspiracy is running a Kickstarter campaign to help with the funding of the film. If you want to see a movie about a legendary video game with me in it (and I hope you do) then consider giving them some of your dollars.
Imagine a medieval dungeon. You probably imagine prisoners chained to the wall, a torturer in a black mask tormenting the occupants, several machines of torture such as the rack or the Catherine wheel, and, most imposingly, the dreaded iron maiden, a casket lined with spikes that would slowly bleed a prisoner to death in a grim mockery of an embrace.
In all probability, though, the iron maiden was never an actual torture device, at least not in the middle ages. There may have been machines that resembled the famed spiked sarcophagus, but in all probability the most famous and feared resident of the medieval dungeon was probably a hoax dating back to the late 1700s.
The British Empire and other colonial powers did a lot of things wrong, and they famously ignored actual human patterns when drawing borders of Africa. In 1899, the British drew a border between Egypt and Sudan that simply ran in a straight line across the 22nd parallel, ignoring how people in the area moved and identified. A few years later, in 1902, they corrected their mistake and re-drew the boundary.
The result has led to a border dispute between Egypt and Sudan where Egypt claims the 1899 border, and Sudan the 1902 border. This dispute means that a small patch of desert, Bir Tawil, is not claimed by either nation. In 2014 a man from the United States attempted to claim the land and declare it to be the Kingdom of North Sudan. Why? So his daughter could be a princess, of course.
The image below shows Bir Tawil on Google Maps, with the pin in its location. Next to it is the Hala’ib Triangle, which both countries claim.
An opinion piece about Jerimiah Heaton and his micronation over at the the Independent. The author points out, with cause, how bad it looks for a white westerner to suddenly be claiming to own a chunk of Africa.
Hong Xiuquan and his Taiping rebels successfully founded a new kingdom in southern China. The Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace sought to overthrow the Manchurian Qing Dynasty and form a new, radically different China. Hong, the supposed younger brother of Jesus Christ, retreated to a life of luxury in an opulent palace, and the actual governance of the kingdom was carried out by his cousin Hong Rengan, who acted as essentially the Heavenly Kingdom’s prime minister. Hong sought out aide from foreign powers to assist the Taiping in their struggle against the Qing, but none came.
Instead, the Manchurian Dynasty and the United Kingdom would join forces to crush the rebels, and the supposed brother of Christ would die ingloriously while besieged in his palace. The image below is a memorial Taiping Heavenly Kingdom in Guanxi.
In the 1850s a man who styled himself as the younger brother of Jesus Christ led China into a bloody rebellion. China in the early 1800s was ravaged by famine, natural disasters, and British meddling that introduced opium (and the Opium Wars) to the population. The country was ripe for rebellion against the Qing Dynasty who, being Manchurian, were often perceived as foreigners by many of China’s Han population. Into all of this chaos and discontent came a man called Hong Xiuquan who claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ. Hong founded an organization called the God Worshipping Society, and he and his Christian rebels would attempt to destroy not only the Qing Dynasty, but also prevailing Chinese ideas of religion and civilization.
This week’s show tracks the reasons behind China’s Taiping Rebellion, and gives a bit of background about Hong himself. Next week’s show will focus on the war itself, and the eventual fall of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. The image below (made some time after the Taiping rebellion in 1886) shows Chinese Imperial soldiers retaking a provincial capital from Taiping rebels.
A website all about the Taiping Rebellion with a fairly obvious URL.
The foreboding form of Alcatraz Island looms just beyond San Francisco, an obvious symbol of isolation and punishment. Alcatraz was never the biggest, or worst, or longest-lived prison in American history, but it’s definitely the most iconic. The island fortress seems to invite resistance and escape attempts, a setting like Alcatraz demands a narrative just as striking. In 1946 a handful of convicts attempted to violently escape from the island, giving that dramatic setting a dramatic narrative to match it. The resulting conflict, known today as the Battle of Alcatraz, claimed the lives of five people and wounded just over a dozen others. Ordinary San Franciscans were able to watch from their city as guns, explosives, and conflict raged just beyond the bounds of civilization.
The image below shows the exterior of Alcatraz as U.S. Marines pelt the prison with mortars in an attempt to kill and suppress the rebels inside.
Read more about the battle and other Alcatraz history here.
One of the most persistent myths of the Middle Ages was that of Prester John, a mythical Christian king whose supposed domain was located beyond the eastern Muslim regions. Probably the most vivid portion of the myth is a letter received by the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos in 1165 claiming to be from the monarch. The letter (ostensibly written from one king to another, but with an arrogant, bragging tone that glorifies Prester John’s position relative to that of Byzantium) details a kingdom flowing with milk and honey, populated by fantastical animals such as centaurs and fauns, and featuring such wonders as Mount Olympus and the Fountain of Youth.
Some writers, most notably Marco Polo, identified Prester John with the Mongols, and later versions of the story would move his kingdom to Ethiopia. Below is a 15th century painting depicting Ong Khan, a rival to Genghis Khan, as the legendary king Prester John.
Prester John is profiled in chapter three of S. Baring-Gould’s Curious Myths of the Middle Ages from 1867.
Prester John and Europe’s Discovery of East Asia from East Asian History, June, 1996.
This YouTube video by a medieval studies grad student nicely illustrates the legend of Prester John with action figures. I have a serious amount of admiration for that kind of thing.
Today’s episode is slightly different than our other entries. We have another interview episode, this time with Joseph Barker, who has a PhD in artifical intelligence, and whom I quoted in the last episode about the mechanical Turk. Instead of talking about fake, illusory artificial intelligence, this episode is devoted to how real, actual machines play games and formulate strategy.
The picture below shows Claude Shannon (whom Barker mentions in the podcast) and his chess machine at MIT in 1950. The machine, impressive at the time, could handle all of six chess pieces.
Barker mentioned John Von Neumann and Prisoner’s Dilemma by William Poundstone is an excellent introduction to Von Neumann and his ideas.
Read more about Claude Shannon, a pioneer of chess programming.
Play Dots and Boxes online courtesy the UCLA math department.
Humans have pursued artificial intelligence, in one form or another, for generations. One of the most potent signifiers of intelligence has, historically, been chess. Even though the ability to play the game does not actually require as much cognition as, say, cooking or carrying on a conversation, the ability to play the game has been used as a symbol of intelligence, such as when Deep Blue shocked the world by defeating chessmaster Gary Kasparov in 1997.
Probably the most famous artificial chess player was a fake. The mechanical Turk, initially built in 1870, appeared to be an automaton that could outsmart and outplay human beings. In fact, it was a human being. A living, breathing operator was nestled inside the Turk’s innards, controlling the game. Nevertheless, it remains one of the most famous illusions of all time.
Tom Standage’s The Turk at Powells.com, the book that introduced me to the chess player, and annoyed me when I found out it was a hoax.
Maelzel’s Chess Player by Edgar Allan Poe.
The Turk was the inspiration for the 1927 silent film The Chess Player, about a fictionalized version of the Turk.
The Turk lends its name to Amzon.com’s Mechanical Turk service, the subject of a podcast by NPR’s always excellent Planet Money.
In 1904 a Greek-American playboy, Ion Perdicaris was, along with his stepson Cromwell, kidnapped in Morocco by a man who would later be called “The last of the Barbary pirates.” The incident sparked a degree of outrage in the US, and was a talking point for Theodore Roosevelt in the 1904 presidential election. But… Perdicaris himself didn’t mind being kidnapped. In fact, he had a great time being held hostage by a roving band of desert brigands.
The 1904 cartoon below from the Review of Reviews shows the US boldly telling the Sultan of Morocco to… pretty much give in to a kidnappers demands.
Hostages to Momus by O. Henry, based on the Perdicaris Incident
The Wind and the Lion on IMDB
The most complete tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in the world, nicknamed “Sue,” in honor of the paleontologist who discovered her, stands over adoring crowds at Chicago’s Field Museum. However, Sue’s journey the field museum was not an easy one, though. Prior to finally being put on display in 2000, there was a battle for Sue’s bones. A fossil hunter, the ranch owner, the federal government, and a Native American tribe all vied for ownership of the dinosaur, in a fight that involved the FBI seizing a warehouse of dinosaur bones, and a man going to prison.
“Bones of Contention” from the Chicago Tribune, 2003
“A Dinosaur Named Sue Divides Fossil Hunters” from the New York Times, 1992
On Sunday, March 15th I had the privilege of introducing one of my favorite movies of all time at the historic Clinton Street Theater, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The organizers of the event asked me to talk about actual Arthurian legend prior to the screening