Friday, November 27, 2015

NOVEMBER 27 = Alger Hiss is Released from Prison

On today's date, November 27, in 1954 Alger Hiss, a former official at the U.S. State Department was released from prison after serving 44 months (left).  Hiss had been convicted of Perjury in lying to a Federal Grand Jury when he denied having stolen State Department documents and having passed them along to Whittaker Chambers and also when he denied having known Chambers after 1935.  All of this was part of a highly-charged and very public scandal in late 1948 - 50.  And it all got mixed up with a bunch of stuff involving "Pumpkin Papers" an old typewriter, and a bird called the "Prothonotary Warbler." WHAT?? And why is any of this important in this day of computers, and a modern global economy? Does the name Edward Snowden ring a bell?

Hiss -vs- Chambers: A Study in Contrasts

In August of 1948. The House Un-American Activities Committee was conducting hearings on possible communist infiltration into the American government.  This was a very real threat in the minds of Americans who were for the first time facing a world where one bomb could destroy a city, and where the Soviets stood just a secret away from acquiring such a bomb.  Richard M. Nixon, who was then an
ambitious young congressman from California was on the Committee which was hearing testimony from Whittaker Chambers (above), an Editor at Time Magazine, who confessed to having once been a communist. Chambers was about as unlikely a source for important information as one could imagine. Nixon was aghast: "I could hardly believe that this man was our witness.  Whittaker Chambers was one of the most disheveled-looking persons I had ever seen. Everything about him seemed wrinkled and unpressed. He was short and pudgy.  His shirt collar was curled up over his jacket.  He spoke in a rather bored monotone."

But his information was anything but boring.  He named several individuals who had been a part of this cell.  One of the men he named was Alger Hiss.  Hiss had risen to the highest ranks of the New Deal establishment of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman. He had
clerked for the legendary Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.  He had advised FDR at the Yalta Conference. He was friends with Dean Acheson, the former Under Secretary of State.  And he was presently the President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Hiss insisted on rebutting Chambers' charge and did so on Aug. 5 (above).  Nixon biographer Stephen Ambrose wrote: "Tall, thin, handsome, smartly dressed, the Carnegie Endowment president (above) carried himself with assurance, making the sharpest possible contrast with Chambers."  "In a firm voice.." Nixon recalled, "...he said 'I am here at my own request to deny unqualifiedly various statements which were made... by one Whittaker Chambers.." He then went on to deny that he had ever been a communist, and that not only did he not know anyone called Chambers but as far as he could recall, he never had. At the close of his remarks his many friends crowded around him to congratulate him on his superlative performance.

The HUAC and Nixon Question Hiss Further

But Nixon objected to Hiss' attitude towards the Committee which he considered to be "insulting in the extreme." So he arranged for the two men to be questioned privately. On August 7, Nixon and HUAC members questioned Chambers who seemed to know quite a bit about Hiss and his home life. This was fine, but they needed something specific. Chambers also recalled their hobbies.  "They used to get up early in the morning and go to Glen Echo, out the canal, to observe birds.  I recall once they saw, to their great excitement, a 
prothonotary warbler." Armed with this and other info. on Aug. 16, the Committee questioned Hiss who said that he did not recognize Chambers at all. After the morning recess he amended that to say he might have known a man who looked like that named "George Crosley". When Nixon asked if he had any hobbies he said yes, tennis and ornothology. When Congressman John MacDowell asked if Hiss had ever seen a prothonotary warbler Hiss responded enthusiastically: "I have--right here on the Potomac.  Do you know that place?" The HUAC was convinced - Chambers knowledge of Hiss had to be first hand. To their mind he was clearly lying to the HUAC when he said he had never known Chambers.

Chambers and "the Pumpkin Papers"

The HUAC published a report calling the testimony of Hiss "vague and evasive." Of course by the time the whole matter of a charge of espionage had become a moot point, as the Statute of Limitations had long since passed on any such indictment.  But Hiss was open to a charge of lying before a House committee. Chambers produced documents with handwritten notes from Hiss proving that Hiss had in fact known him in the 1930's. But there was more. Chambers had
hidden some of the film on which he had photographed incriminating documents in an odd place. On December 2, 1948, Chambers lead investigators from the HUAC to a pumpkin patch on his farm in Maryland. There in a hollowed out pumpkin, Chambers produced several strips of film of  State and Navy Department documents which he said Hiss had passed to him. The press referred ever after to all of the documents taken form Maryland as "the Pumpkin Papers", which Nixon and HUAC member Robert Stripling are examining above.  These documents containing more hand written notes from Hiss built a case against the man who was now wide open to the perjury charge.

Hiss is Tried for Perjury

Hiss was charged with Perjury in a trial that began on May 31, 1949.  There were charges that Chambers had indeed known Hiss, and character witnesses galore testifying to Hiss and his sterling character. There was also a lot of testimony as to the possession of an old typewriter - a "Woodstock" typewriter with keys that would jam up on the writer. Hiss was alleged to have written up some of the secret documents he had passed to Chambers on this machine, and there was testimony that the Hiss family had given the typewriter to a family - the Catlatt's before Hiss could have written the secret
 documents on them.  All of this ended with a hung jury on July 6, 1949. The second trial began on Nov. 17, 1949, and had more testimony regarding the typewriters as well as testimony from a witness, one Hede Messing who provided some corroboration for Chamber's story. Also an expert witness, Dr. Carl A. Binger delivered testimony that Chambers was a (above, Chambers with the "Guilty" verdict announcement) psychopath who was a  "a pathological liar." Claude Cross, the attorney for Hiss said in his closing that the typewriter may have belonged to Hiss, but somehow been used by someone else to type the incriminating documents to frame Hiss. Whatever the case, the second trial returned a verdict of Guilty on Hiss on Jan. 21, and he was sentenced to five years imprisonment on the perjury charge.

The Guilty Verdict on Hiss and Its Legacy

The guilty verdict on Hiss has remained controversial . Hiss maintained his innocence to the end of his life. Richard Nixon, receiving his first national fame as a result of the case, went on with his career, which culminated in his election to the presidency in 1968, and his forced resignation amidst the Watergate Scandal in 1974.  Hiss held that his conviction had been a result of cold war paranoia, and that Nixon's forced departure was proof that he was innocent. But in 1976, Allen Weinstein wrote a book called "Perjury - the Hiss Chambers Case." Originally intended as the definitive proof that Chambers had been innocent, in reviewing the evidence, Weinstein instead came to the opposite conclusion. Further, documents released since the fall of the Soviet Union have made a strong case that Hiss was in fact a Soviet Spy during the 1930's. Whittaker Chambers died in 1961. Nixon died in 1994, and Hiss died in 1996. The case has long since faded from current memory. But as has been shown with the case of Edward Snowden (below), the problem of government operatives releasing classified
information for their own reasons, and receiving assistance from Russia for it is still very much with us - even in this age of the world wide web, and shared information. Foreign espionage did not die with the Soviet System.


"RN - the Memoirs of Richard Nixon" by Richard M. Nixon, Grosset & Dunlap, New York, 1978

"Nixon - the Education of a Politician 1913 - 1962" by Stephen E. Ambrose Simon & Schuster, New York, 1987

Monday, November 23, 2015

NOVEMBER 23 = "Boss" Tweed is Taken

"Had he gone more slowly and carried on his operations on a smaller scale, and been simpler in his habits and less ostentatious in his pleasures, he could have retained his power until now, and might have strengthened it and made his overthrow far more difficult. A villain of more brains would have had a modest dwelling and would have guzzled in secret. He found, however, the seizure of the government and the malversation of its funds so easy at the outset that he was thrown off his guard."

- The Nation Magazine on Tweed's death in 1878.

On today's date, November 23 in 1876, William Marcy Tweed, the one-time "Boss" of the corrupt Democratic Party political machine of Tammany Hall was handed over to New York City Police.  Tweed had been recognized from one of the political cartoons of Thomas Nast while he was on the lamb in Spain.

The Rise of William M. Tweed

Born on April 3, 1823 in New York City to a third generation Scottish-Irish chair maker, Tweed rose rapidly through the ranks of local politics from an ax-wielding volunteer fireman to a member of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1852. In 1858 the New York City democratic party, in an attempt to block Republican reformers at the state capitol of Albany, appointed Tweed to the NYC Board of
Supervisors. In this post, Tweed got his first taste of graft. Tweed and his fellows forced vendors to pay a 15% overcharge to them in order to do business with the city. Tammany Hall was the corrupt political organization (founded by Aaron Burr) which ruled NYC's democratic politics for many years. By the mid 1860s,  Tweed (right) had risen to command the organization and through the “Tweed Ring,” which openly bilked millions from city contracts, bought votes, and which cultivated judicial corruption, he and his henchmen dominated the political life of New York City. For example, Tweed's Ring got a new charter passed which put NYC's finances under the control of the Board of Audit, which consisted of Tweed and his men. This meant that the Ring was able to vastly over charge vendors for doing business with NYC, and then they could pocket the extra cash.

Tweed -vs- Thomas Nast 

Of course along the way to all of this ill-gotten gain Tweed, who actually held the office of a State Senator from New York, acquired a good many enemies. The New York Times attacked him vigorously. And most damaging of all were the illustrations of Thomas Nast,
a political cartoonist for Harper's Weekly, a very popular news magazine of the day. Nast regularly portrayed Tweed and his henchmen as stealing money from the people of the city, and loving every moment of it. A famous depiction of Tweed from the pen of Nast is at the top of this posting. Another (above) depicts the Tweed ring saying "Who stole the people's money? T'was him!" Tweed is said to have complained "Stop them damned pictures. I don't care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents don't know how to read, but they can't help seeing them damned pictures!"

Tweed's Downfall

But all of this activity came to a head with The New York Times reports on the cost overruns in the re-modeling of the City Courthouse in 1871. With the cost of the re-done NYC Courthouse reaching well over $3,000,000 and counting, greater scrutiny came onto the project than any other Tammany-backed project had ever seen before. In a series of articles, the Times made the greed of the Tweed Ring apparent, picking
apart piece by piece the obviously frivolous expenses attached to the project. Huge sums were attached to furniture, carpeting and shades. New Yorkers became outraged, and fully supported the investigation of the whole matter by Samuel Tilden (right), a non-Tammany democrat who was looking to end the corruption of the Tammany organization. Ultimately Tweed's man, the city Comptroller was obliged to resign, and was replaced by Tilden's man, Andrew Green. Tilden and Green examined the city's records and discovered that money from the contractors was going directly into Tweed's pockets. He was arrested the next day.

"Boss" Tweed Goes to Jail

He got out on bail, and attempted to regain his position via elections. But the public had had enough of Tweed and his cronies. The election went very poorly, and Tweed was re-arrested. The jury at his first trial in January of 1873 was unable to agree on a verdict. But the second trial in November of that year returned a verdict of guilty on most of the counts. Tweed was locked up in the Ludlow St. Jail. But he was
allowed visits to his home, and during one of these, he escaped and fled to Spain wherein he worked as a common seaman. But his infamy followed him, as did his image as depicted by Thomas Nast (left).  It was from one of Nast's drawings that he was recognized, and taken prisoner, and handed over to the U.S. Navy who returned him to the NYPD on today's date in 1876.  Tweed was returned to prison.  And it was there that he died from severe pneumonia on April 12, 1878. Tweed is to this day remembered as one of the most corrupt figures of all of the big city political bosses. And it was the cartoons of Thomas Nast that lead to his downfall, and eventually to his recapture. Then we shall let Nast have the final word on the man with his January, 1876 cartoon depicting Tweed's escape from prison: "Stone walls do not a prison make.."


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

NOVEMBER 18 = Time Zones Are Adopted in the U.S.A.

“All over the United States and Canada, people changed their clocks and watches in synchronization with their zone’s standard time... In one moment the many different standards of time that had caused conflict and confusion, were resolved into four simple standards.”

- The Library of Congress

On November 18, 1883, at the stroke of midnight, the United States adopted Standard Time Zones throughout the country.  This meant that instead of each town having its own time, the entire country would run according to four time zones: Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific. And all at once the confusion and chaos of time changes across the country became a thing of the past.

Time-Keeping Chaos Across America

For the most part in man's history, time was kept in towns according to the sundial. One had only to look up at the sun, and there was the standard time for the area you were in. Now this was fine, as long as man could travel no faster than he could on the back of a horse. And most towns did indeed keep their own time based on the sundial. But once the Telegraph was introduced, and the Railroads, and these new modes of transportation shrunk the amount of time it took to get from one place to the other scheduling became a nightmare. Railroad timetables in most of the major cities of the U.S. would be obliged to list several differing arrival and departure times for a single train each one linked to a separate time zone in a different locality.

The Effort to Standardize Time Zones

In order to keep an accurate schedule of when goods, services or passengers could be expected to arrive at a certain place at a certain time, railroads needed standardized time zones. It is a mark of the power possessed by railroads that they, and not the government brought about this fundamental change in everyday American life. In the 1870's international efforts to bring standardized time zones into use began being made. In 1870, Charles F. Dowd proposed running U.S. railroads on four different time zones based on a meridian that ran through Washington D.C. In 1872 he amended this
to basing it on a meridian that ran through Greenwhich, England. Sandford Fleming (right), a Canadian inventor and railroad engineer proposed worldwide Standard Time at a meeting of the Royal Canadian Institute on February 8, 1879. In 1879 at the General Time Convention, Cleveland Abbe, an American meteorologist recommended four time zones across the contiguous U.S. based on Greenwhich Mean Time (the basic standard for world time). Eventually this was the plan which was adopted. And the date set was the 18'th of November.

On November 18, 1883...

As Dennis Cummings has colorfully recorded:

"At noon on Nov. 18, the U.S. Naval Observatory adjusted its signals to reflect the new time zones. Crowds gathered near town clocks across the country to watch the clocks be changed. In many places where the time was moved back, it became known as the 'day of two noons,' while other areas 'lost' minutes."

There was consid- erable resistance to this change in certain localities, but the railroad was by this time the lifeblood of the country, and frequently the only link for many such towns with the rest of the world. So most Americans and Canadians fully embraced this new idea of time zones. But it was actually not until 1918 that Congress - then as now catching up with what the country was already doing - officially adopted the four tine zones, placing in the supervision of the Interstate Commerce Commission.  


Friday, September 18, 2015

SEPTEMBER 18 = Washington Lays Capitol Cornerstone

On today's date, September 18, in 1793, President George Washington laid the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol building. In a report found in a newspaper, the Alexandria Gazette, a grand procession which included two brass bands was said to have begun at the site wherein the White House was still being constructed in this, the still very new federal city. President Washington's parade then moved across the Potomac River to the ground construction site for the capitol there to be met a volunteer artillery company, and a delegation of Masons in full regalia. And there the solemn ceremony commenced.

The New Nation's Capitol

As a brand new nation, the United States lacked a set spot for her capitol.  Eight different cities served as the meeting place of Congress between 1789 and 1791, including Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore.  The Congress, on July 16, 1790 granted the President the authority to choose a permanent home for our nations federal government by passing the Residence Act.  In 1791, Washington chose
the site for the new seat of government from land provided by the State of Maryland - this would be called the District of Columbia, "Columbia" being a poetic name for the United States which was commonly used at that time. President Washington then chose three commissioners who in turn selected French engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant (right) to design a plan for the city. However, L’Enfant, a brilliant man but possessed of a headstrong temperament fought with these commissioners and wound up being fired in 1792. A competition for design was then held, and a Scotsman named William Thornton put forth the winning idea for the Capitol building. And on today's date, the cornerstone was laid.

The Silver Cornerstone

It is known from the newspaper article, and from Masonic ritual that a trench having been dug for the foundation, the group took its place around the southeast corner of what would become the North Wing of the Capitol. A silver plate was presented by Washington (below) which read:
“This South East corner Stone, of the Capitol of the United States of America in the City of Washington, was laid on the 18th day of September 1793, in the thirteenth year of American Independence, in the first year of the second term of the Presidency of George Washington, whose virtues in the civil administration of his country have been as conspicuous and beneficial, as his Military valor and prudence have been useful in establishing her liberties..."

The Capitol Building's Neo-Classical Design

At that point in time the U.S. capitol was set up in the city of Philadelphia, which was primarily a city built of bricks.  But George Washington, like many men of his day, saw his new republic as being based on the democracy of classical Greece, and wanted his new city to be styled accordingly. In fact he envisioned sitting atop Capitol Hill, a magnificent domed structure so he naturally enough favored the design idea with which the Scotsman Dr. Thornton had won the contest. possessing as it did “grandeur, simplicity, and beauty.” In a letter to Commissioner Johnson, Thomas Jefferson was even more effusive, saying that "It is simple, noble, beautiful, excellently distributed and moderate in size.", noting that "No one is more delighted than him {President Washington}whose decision is most important." The President would periodically return to the construction site to observe and oversee its progress, but sadly enough Washington would never see the end product of his cornerstone as he would die on December 14 of 1799, almost a year before the Capitol building's completion.

The Capitol Building Since Then....

The Congress moved into its new digs and began work on November 17, 1800 working in the North Wing.  The House of Representatives moved into the south wing in 1807, with the finish to work on that portion of the building coming in 1811. However the old girl wasn't peacefully humming for very long before the British Army attacked Washington D.C., during the War of 1812,  sacked the town and burnt a number of buildings.  Among these were the President's Mansion (the White House), the U.S. Patent Office, and of course... the Capitol Building. Happily, God took pity on the U.S. that night by calling up a rain storm which saved her from burning to the ground.  Since then she has survived Civil War. during which troops were bivouacked inside her, and a military hospital was set up there as well.  In fact it was during the Civil War that the Capitols famous dome was actually completed at the direction of President Abraham Lincoln, who insisted on the work's continuance. She has even survived the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001 during which she was said to have been one of the
murderer's intended targets. She is now is visited by 3 million to 5 million people every year.

But That Silver Plate In the Capitol Cornerstone...

has never been located. The Masonic and other records speak of the silver plate as having been laid in the "southeast corner" but we simply do not know whether this refers to the southeast corner of the Senate wing, which was the first completed section of the building , or the southeast corner of the entire Capitol building as she was originally envisioned. This would place the priceless silver plate across the building on the House side. To this day, more than a couple of centuries later, the Architect of the Capitol is still looking in every conceivable spot for that cornerstone. But even with the use of Metal detectors he has never able to locate the silver plate.

Sources =,_D.C.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

SEPTEMBER 15 = "Lost in Space" Premieres - 50 Years Ago!

"Star Trek was a show that aimed at your head. Lost in Space was a show that aimed at your heart."

- Mark Goddard

This was one view expressed explaining the longevity of "Lost in Space" an Irwin Allen produced TV show about a family which was literally lost in space, which had its premiere on the CBS television network on the evening of today's date, September 15, in 1965- 50 years ago.  I freely admit that this event was certainly not a great historical moment. But it was an important part of popular culture when I was a kid. So if you, my "Today in History" readers will indulge me for a few minutes, I would like to reminisce about one of my favorite TV shows of all time. I call it a favorite not because its production values, which were pretty poor by today's standards. But the character of Dr. Zachary Smith played with pompous delight by the actor Jonathan Harris made the show frankly hilarious fun to watch. An "iconic" character in TV history? Maybe not, but he certainly was iconic for me!

The Original Story of "Lost in Space"

The original story was set in the year 1997. Earth at this time is vastly overpopulated, so a family - the Robinsons are selected for a mission which sends them to the third planet in the Alpha Centauri
 star system in hopes of estab- lishing a colony where other earthlings can settle.  Professor John Robinson, his wife Maureen, their children (Judy, Penny and Will) and Major Don West are sent on their space craft - the Jupiter 2, to investigate this possibility.  But an agent is sent by an enemy government to sabotage the mission; one Dr. Zachary Smith.  But the hapless Dr. Smith in the process winds up being trapped on the ship when she takes off. As a result of Smith's excess weight the ship runs into a meteor shower, and the Jupiter 2 and all aboard are thrown way off course and she, and the Robinsons, Major West, and Dr. Smith all become lost in space, and now must find their way home to earth.

The Dr. Smith, the Robot and the Robinsons

The show's original concept focused on the Robinson family. But the character of Dr. Smith (below) wound up as the primary foil and the source of most of the troubles.  Initially conceived as a completely evil, saboteur, the character became a self-centered, scheming, and eternally
greedy man who provides comic relief for the more serious characters of the Robinson family (his original identity as an enemy agent was not mentioned again). But while always protesting his good motives ( "I'm innocent!!"), Smith always maintained a measure of good underneath his surface cowardice. He developed a friendly relationship with the boy - Will Robinson, played by Bill Mumy and an abusively working relationship with the Robot whom he is forever dismissing with his articulate tongue ("Silence, you babbling booby!"). But the basis for all of this was the Robinson clan - with the father John played by Guy Williams and his wife Maureen played by June Lockhart, providing gentle but firm parental guidance. Major Don West, the ship's pilot, played by Mark Goddard was the male action hero who had a kind of romance going with the eldest of the Robinson children, Judy played by Marta Kristen. And Angela Cartwright as Penny and Will provided an innocent and trusting child's eye view of life in space.

"Lost in Space".... Lost in the TV Ratings

The show ran for three seasons, between September 15, 1965, and March 6, 1968, putting out a total of 83 episodes.  The first season was in black and white, and the second and third seasons were in color. "Lost in Space" was Irwin Allen's most successful television program. While the ratings were lackluster at the start, they improved by the second month. By January of 1966, "Lost in Space" was a top ten show, soundly topping its competition on the other networks. When "Star 
Trek" premiered in September 1966 on NBC, there were inevitable compar- isons between the two. Trek maintained a fairly serious science fiction focus, but by its second season "Lost in Space" had become a kind of parody of science fiction. The ratings began to suffer, and LIS dropped out of the top 20. And it has been said that Guy Williams and Mark Goddard were unhappy with the shift in emphasis to Dr. Smith and away from serious sci-fi. In the third season the show took on a more adventurous sci-fi bent with the crew of Jupiter 2 visiting different planets every week and the shift back to science fiction produced some of the better episodes o the series.  But the shift didn't hold - one of the worst episodes of the series, "The Great Vegetable Rebellion" (above) came late in that season. Amid talk of declining ratings and escalating production costs the show was cancelled in early 1968.

"Never Fear... SMITH is here!!"

The main reason why I've made this TV show the subject of a Blog is that I had soooo many enjoyable moments watching it. The over-the-top performances by Jonathan Harris as the scoundrel Dr. Smith made it one of the happiest parts of my childhood.  Now tell me, any of you who watched this show: can you recall with the same hilarious reaction I always had these signature Dr. Smith lines:  "Oh my back! My delicate back!!", or "WHAT DO YOU WANT WITH MEEEE?!" , or the slimy greed exuded by this one: "Did you say... diamonds??"  The
man was a textbook hypochondriac, a sniveling coward, and as greedy as they come.  And yet, he loved the Robinson children.  A main idea in the show was that although he was a stowaway, it had been his excess weight on board that not only drove the Jupiter 2 far off course and hence "Lost", it had also pulled them from a collision course with a huge meteor that would have killed everyone aboard. Nevertheless in an episode wherein Smith went back in time and had a chance to avoid getting left on board, he stays. All the time crying that "Wild horses couldn't pull me back onto that ship!!" he sees Penny and Will boarding, and knowing that without his presence aboard that they will die in the meteor crash, he runs aboard at the last minute.  Yes, as he said countless times with Dr. Smith's usual mock bravado:

"Never fear.... SMITH is here!!"

Sources =

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

SEPTEMBER 2 = The Great Fire of London, 1666

A large portion of the city of London burnt to the ground in a fire which began in the early morning hours of today's date, September 2, in 1666. And it all began when on of the King's own bakers didn't turn off his oven before going to bed. In spite of the flame's widespread progress throughout the city, only about 16 people were killed.  But a huge amount of damage had been done with 430 acres being swallowed up, 13,200 homes nearly 87 parish churches, including  St Paul's Cathedral and most of the buildings of the City' government. 70,000 of the City of London citizens were left without homes, all of their possessions lost, and themselves financially ruined.  Estimates are that some 80% of the city was destroyed. The fire threatened but did not actually reach the Palace of Whitehall, the residence of King Charles II.

The Baker Sets the Blaze Going

At this point in time, London was an extremely flammable city.  Most of its dwellings were made of wood with many of the poorer homes covered with tar. This worked well in keeping the rain out, but
was really perfect for catching fire.  Plus they were built very close together, with very narrow streets separating them.  Put this with a long dry summer and a good wind, and you had the makings of a perfect storm. So it happened that late on the evening of September 1, the king's baker, one Thomas Farrinor (of Farynor according to one source), located on Pudding Lane failed to properly douse the oven he was using, and sparks from it ignited firewood that was lying nearby.  At about 1:00 a.m. the whole bakery had caught fire. The good baker was able to escape with his family, but the fire rapidly spread adjacent buildings, and the Great Fire of 1666 was on.

Samuel Pepys (below), a member of Parliament, and a naval official to the King recorded much of his experiences in the fire in his diary:

"Jane called up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City. So I rose, and slipped on my night-gown and went to her window, and thought it to be on the back side of Mark Lane at the farthest; but, being unused to such fires as followed, I thought it far enough off, and so went to bed again, and to sleep. . . . By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down tonight by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish Street, by London Bridge. So I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower; and there got up upon one of the high places, . . .and there I did see the houses at the end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side . . . of the bridge. . . "

The Fire Spreads...

Well in spite of Mr. Pepys originally blase' reaction to the flames, they continued to spread and eat up more and more real estate. The fire department didn't exist back then, so the old fashioned bucket brigade was the only way of fighting this fire. But the strong winds that settled on London that morning saw to it that flames and sparks flew everywhere. The fire spread into Thames Street which was crowded with riverfront warehouses which were packed with oil, tallow, and tons of other highly combustible items. And of course this all went up immediately before spreading the fire even further.
The usual solution at this point was to blow up everything in the fire's path to create firebreaks, But this was only of limited use, since the explosions would be set off, but before the debris could be cleared away, the strong winds would blow right into the break and light it anew.

And the People of  London Flee the Flames..

Pepys remarked on the people carrying away their belongings, and the dismay of one govern- mental representative to the peoples indifference to his authority:

"[I hurried] to [St.] Paul's; and there walked along Watling Street, as well as I could, every creature coming away laden with goods to save and, here and there, sick people carried away in beds. Extraordinary goods carried in carts and on backs. At last [I] met my Lord Mayor in Cannon Street, like a man spent, with a [handkerchief] about his neck. To the King's message he cried, like a fainting woman, 'Lord, what can I do? I am spent: people will not obey me. I have been pulling down houses, but the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it.' . . . So he left me, and I him, and walked home; seeing people all distracted, and no manner of means used to quench the fire. The houses, too, so very thick thereabouts, and full of matter for burning, as pitch and tar, in Thames Street; and warehouses of oil and wines and brandy and other things."

Thousands of ordinary citizens of London resorted to dragging their possessions with them as described above, many of those either travelling near the Thames River, and in some cases on thee river with whatever craft they could find (above).  These benighted souls ran to the hills on the surrounding areas of London. By September 5, the fire had finally burnt itself out.  They seemed to return briefly in the legal district, but these buildings were successfully blown with gunpowder, and that at last brought the fire to an end. In the 1670s, a memorial column the Great Fire of London was built near the starting point of the blaze. Even though an official investigation of the fire declared that “the hand of God, a great wind, and a very dry season” was the cause of the inferno, an inscription darkly hinted that it had been the work of “treachery and malice of the Popish faction.” In 1986 the bakers of London finally admitted the culpability of one of their ancestors, Thomas Farrinor and presented a plaque attesting to that fact on Pudding Lane,

Sources =

"Eyewitness to History" Edited by John Carey, Avon Books, New York, 1987

Saturday, August 29, 2015

AUGUST 29 = Hurricane Katrina

In the early morning hours of today's date, August 29, in 2005 - ten years ago - Hurricane Katrina entered the Gulf Coast of the United States. When it slammed into the city of New Orleans the storm had a Category 3 rating – it brought sustained winds of 100–140 miles per hour.  The storm reached some 400 miles across. Levee breaches brought about massive flooding in the city of New Orleans herself, and hundreds of thousands of people across three states, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi were displaced from their flooded homes. It is estimated that Katrina caused approximately $131 billion in damage, and the death toll came to 1,833 people.

New Orleans is Slammed

New Orleans was hit particularly badly. Over time, the Army Corps of Engineers had built a system of levees and seawalls to shield the city from flooding in just such emergencies. But most of these levees failed. About half of New Orleans lies above sea level, but its average elevation is in fact roughly six feet below sea level. And of course the city is effectively surrounded by water. Thus, entire neighborhoods, many of
them containing the city's poorest residents were hit very badly by flooding and were effectively wiped out. Storm survivor Alice Jackson recalls the 29th:

"At 1 a.m., wind started pummeling the house. I woke everyone up and we listened to the radio. We learned that all three of the emergency operation centers were washed away. That's when I knew we were in big trouble. Then we lost the radio.

"All night I'd been watching a giant pine tree in a neighbor's yard. It had been bending mightily, but had stayed rooted. Suddenly I heard a deafening crack, and I yelled, "Run!" Seconds later the tree smashed through the house. We had escaped to the master bedroom closet in the center of the house. My sister-in-law hauled a mattress off the bed and leaned it on top of my mother and my niece. Then we noticed that the walls were heaving, so we raced around the house, opening windows to relieve the pressure build-up.

"Looking outside, we watched in horror as the house behind us turned into what looked like a living, breathing monster. The roof would lift, the house would expand, and then the roof would fall. Finally, the house exploded."

Katrina Flooding Brings Heroism

It had already been pouring rain upon New Orleans for some hours by the morning of this day of Aug. 29.  The city's levees and most of it's drainage canals were completely overtaken by storm surges which reached as high as 9 meters. Low-lying areas suffered from water seeping through the levees left neighborhoods such as the Ninth Ward, and St. Bernard Parish under so much flooding that residents had to flee onto their roofs and attics, just to avoid drowning. In such situations as his, there was a great deal of heroism and personal sacrifice. In efforts that bring to mind the rescue of the British Army at Dunkirk in 1940, people just got into their own boats, or commandeered whatever craft they could find and began rescuing those who were stranded on their rooftops. And the U.S. Coast Guard
remained true to their calling, rescuing 34,000 people in the stricken city. Coast Guard rescue swimmer Jonathan Rice recalls:

"I did a rescue to a two-story building, where this lady threw her infant child at me, and I had to catch the child in the air," Rice said. "I'm sitting here, and I'm holding this child by the arm, and I'm going 'man, what if I would have missed this child's arm?' And she's crying and I pull her up, and I hug her real tight, and I get her inside the aircraft, and she starts smiling at me, and just reaches over and hugs me. She knew that I'd just saved her life."

The Aftermath

As a result of the winds and flooding of Hurricane Katrina some 80 percent of the city of New Orleans wound up being under water to some degree.  And what made it worse was that the governmental agencies involved seemed quite unprepared to deal with the disaster. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin waited until the last minute before declaring a mandatory evacuation of the city. This left many people stranded, and he roads choked with outgoing traffic. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco was reluctant to authorize the Federal Government to take charge of the relief effort. A large number of people who were unable to evacuate were directed to the New Orleans
Super- dome.  But the resources of that facility were quickly over- whelmed, leaving people without adequate food or water. And FEMA, (the Federal Emergency 
Management Agency) took days to set up operations in the city, and even when they did, they didn't seem to have a proper plan of action. It is not my purpose here to go through all of the many mistakes that left people stranded and dying as a result of bad government.  I simply haven't the space.  But President George W. Bush wound up looking as if he didn't understand what people were suffering on the ground. To many, he didn't seem to care. As he wrote later in his autobiography "Decision Points":

"Just as Katrina was more than a hurricane, its impact was more than physical destruction. It eroded citizens' trust in their government.  It exacerbated divisions in our society and politics. And it cast a cloud over my second term."

"Decision Points" by George W. Bush, Crown Publishing Group, New York, 2010