Wednesday, April 30, 2014

APRIL 30 = Hitler Commits Suicide

“Berlin was no longer defensible. The Russians had already occupied almost all of the city. It was now merely a question of defense of the Chancellery. It too, was doomed, as Hitler and Borman learned at the situation conference at noon on April 30, the last that was ever to take place. The Russians had reached the eastern end of the Tiergarten and broken into Potsdamerplatz. They were just a block away. The hour for Adolf Hitler to carry out his resolve had come.”

This was how William L. Shirer summed up the bleak situation faced by Adolf Hitler early on the afternoon of today’s date, April 30, in 1945 – when he would finally face facts and kill himself.

Der Fuehrer "Celebrates" His Birthday, Fat Hermann, and Bloody Heinrich Make Themselves Scarce

It had been just a short ten days since his birthday – April 20 Eva Braun, Hiler’s mistress (to the apparently very limited extent to which the mighty Fuehrer HAD such things), had arrived just a short time before, and the “party” was attended by two of the other Nazi bigwigs, Hermann Goering, the Reichs Marshall, and Hitler’s would-be heir apparent, as well as Heinrich Himmler, the former (unsuccessful) chicken farmer, and Head of the Gestapo. These men made their birthday greetings to their Fuehrer, and then promptly booked. They would never see him again. In fact, when they misstepped and appeared to grab for power themselves, Martin Bormann was there to whisper his usual amount of poison into the Fuehrer’s ear, and get those two expelled from Hitler’s good graces, to the very limited extent that such a thing made any difference any more. Also present in the stifling and strange atmosphere of Hitler’s underground Bunker were Dr. Joseph Goebbels, his wife and their children, and a handful of others who made up Hitler’s last sad entourage. One of those had been his secretary, Traudl Junge (below), who described the odd affair that had been Hitler’s 52nd birthday “party”:

“…. There came the congratulations, and everybody shook his hand, and wished him the best. It was all very depressed; it was not a happy birthday. And when the official part was over, Hitler retired at once, but Eva Braun invited some of the people to go upstairs in her little living room to make a birthday party. And (some)one found a record, with hit songs and dance music, and then we sat around the table, and tried to forget our miserable situation, and there was laughing and everyone giggled… it was a very artificial sort of gayness.”

Hitler and Eva Braun Commit Suicide

But eventually, the end had to come. Ten days later, ten days filled with Hitlerian histrionics about traitors, and Jewish conspiracies, Generals who had allegedly stabbed him in the back, as well as plans for victories with armies that no longer existed, the mighty leader of the Thousand Year Reich which had in fact lasted twelve years called it quits. As a sop to Eva Braun (below) for standing by him all of these
years (wherein she had remained placidly, and compliantly in the shadows), Hitler married her and then promptly substituted suicide for a wedding night. Traudl Junge recalled the moment when Hitler pulled the trigger:

“Suddenly there was a bang…there was a shot, and it was obviously within the Bunker, because the noises of the outside we (recognized). And the little boy of Goebbels noticed that this was another sound. And he said ‘Oh! That was a bulls eye!’ And I thought ‘Yes, you are right. That was really a bulls eye.’ “

This account is flatly contradicted by the testimony given years later by Otto Guensche, (below) an SS officer who by this time was Hitler's personal adjutant. According to Guensche, no shot was heard by anyone:

"There were as I now recall at least six people almost as close to that door (to the private room where Hitler and his Frau went to kill themselves) as I was.... None of us heard a shot.  I believe that this was of the sealed double doors.  Both of these doors were fireproof, gasproof, hence soundproof. (Hitler had ordered them to wait ten minutes, then enter.) This is exactly what we did. I kept glancing at my watch.  I thought it must have stopped; they were the longest ten minutes in my life."

Whatever sound that was heard or not, Heinz Linge, Hitler’s Valet then stepped forward with Hitler's State Secretary, the sinister Martin Bormann (below, left) to look into the room:

“I went into Hitler’s workroom with Borman, and this picture presented itself to us: Hitler was sitting on the left of the sofa, with his face bent slightly forward, and hanging down to the right. With the 7.65 (pistol) he had shot himself in the right temple. The blood had run down onto the carpet and from this pool of blood, a splash had gotten onto the sofa. Eva Braun was sitting on his right. (She) had drawn both of her legs up onto the sofa and was sitting there with tramped lips so that it immediately became clear to us that she had taken cyanide. I took Hitler by his neck…. behind me were two other officers from his bodyguard. So we took Hitler’s body, and proceeded with it into the park. In the park, we laid the bodies together, next to each other, and poured the available petrol over them. In the Reich Chancellery Park, there was fire all around. A draft had got up so that we could not set the corpses alight with an ordinary match. So I twisted a taper out of some paper from a notebook and Borman, who meanwhile had also come upstairs with others like Dr. Goebbels , Bergdorff and some officers lit the taper, and I threw the taper onto the bodies, and in an instant the corpses were set alight.”

READERS!! If you would like to comment on this, or any "Today in History" posting, I would love to hear from you!!  You can either sign up to be a member of this blog and post a comment in the space provided below, or you can simply e-mail me directly at:  I seem to be getting hits on this site all over the world, so please do write and let me know how you like what I'm writing (or not!)!!


"The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" by William L. Shirer, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1960

"World at War" Volume 6, "Nemesis: Germany Feb. - May, 1945" by Stuart Hood, Prod. Dir. by Martin Smith, Thames Productions, 1976.

"The Berlin Bunker"  by James P. O'Donnell, Arrow Books Ltd., London, 1966.

+ 2736.
+ 423.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

APRIL 29 = Dachau is Liberated

"Here now coming from behind a cement-mixer parked at the edge of the camp, an olive drab shadow, with a spotted cape like a torero's and a helmet embellished with leaves and branches, moves cautiously forward, submachine gun in one hand, grenade in the other.  He is still quite far away but I can already imagine that I see him chewing gum.  He comes cautiously, yes, but upright, stalwart, unafraid.  I almost expect to see him followed by a pure white charger."

This was the recollection of journalist Nerin E. Gun (pictured above) of the first glimpse which he had of an American soldier coming to liberate him, and the other prisoners of Dachau Concentration Camp in Southern Germany late on today's date, April 29 in 1945. Gun goes on to describe how America had always been a faraway, distant country which he and the other Europeans had known only through the Western movies and how this soldier seemed like something out of  "...a tumultuous western."

"This soldier of the 3rd Battalion, 45th Combat Division, born in the American Midwest of Polish parents and now come to Dachau, was for us, in this moment of intoxication, the very incarnation of the American hero; not one detail was out of character -- his bearing, his face, the way he held his submachine gun, his slightly ridiculous helmet..."      

Dachau: A Center for Evil

Dachau was one of the first concen- tration camps in Germany estab- lished in the very heart of Bavaria, near the city of Munich.  Built originally to confine some 5,000 political prisoners of the Nazi Government of Germany, it eventually became the central establishment in a network of some 150 subcamps in that area, and by this point in 1945, was housed over 30,000 beaten, starved inmates.
Here on the other side of gates which cynically bore the phrase "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("Work brings freedom") the inmates of Dachau were beaten, starved, and subjected to slave labor, and truly inhumane experiments by sadistic Nazi doctors.  They were made up primarily of Jews, but every group which the Nazi government considered unfit, such as Communists, liberals, Clerics, Gypsies, and Homosexuals, were represented there.  And dangerous writers such as the journalist Gun, who as a Swiss correspondent published accounts of Nazi activities in the Warsaw Ghetto, and their defeats in Russia, found themselves imprisoned behind the barbed wire fences of this hell on earth. And true to Dante's vision, this inferno was equipped with gas chambers to murder the maximum number of inmates possible along with ovens to cremate their remains.  

Margaret Higgins Reports

In a report published in the New York Herald Tribune on May 1, 1945, reporter Margaret Higgins described the wild delirium of those first hours after the liberation of the camp by elements of General Wade H. Hailslip's XV Corps of the United States Seventh Army:

"...the minute the two of us entered a jangled barrage of 'Are you Americans?' in about sixteen languages came from barracks 200 yards from the gate.  An affirmative nod caused pandemonium. 
Tattered emaciated men, weeping, yelling and shouting 'Long Live America!!' swept toward the gate in a mob.  Those who could not walk limped or crawled.... I happened to be the first through the gate, and the first person to rush up to me turned out to be a Polish Catholic Priest... who was not a little startled to discover that the helmeted, uniformed, begoggled individual he had so heartily embraced was not a man."

It was a moment of overwhelming thankfulness for Nerin E. Gun and the other men who were liberated by this American soldier: "It was you, unknown GI, coming from the shadowy edge of the field, with your submachine gun in your hand; you. carefree, brave and daring GI who made us men again."  

General Eisenhower's Reaction to the Nazi Death Camps

It was in reaction to a liberation of a death camp earlier in April that Allied Supreme Commander General Dwyght D. Eisenhower recorded his shocked reaction in explaining why he requested that reporters and news reel cameras be dispatched to record the atrocities for the world to see:

"I have never felt able to describe my emotional reaction when I first came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality and ruthless disregard for every shred of decency. I am certain however that I have at any other time experienced an equal sense of shock.... I felt that evidence should immediately be placed before the American and British publics in a fashion that would leave no room for cynical doubt."


"Day of the Americans"  by Nerin E. Gun, Fleet Publ. Co., New York, 1966

"The Redemption of the Unwanted"  by Abram L. Sachar, St. Martins/Marek, New York, 1983

"Reporting World War II" Part Two, Literary Classics of the United States Inc., New York, 1995
"A General's Life"  by Omar N. Bradley and Clay Blair, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1983. 

"Crusade in Europe"  by Dwyght D. Eisenhower, Doubleday & Co., Garden City, New York, 1948

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Monday, April 28, 2014

APRIL 28 = Mutiny on the Bounty

"Just before Sunrise Mr. Christian and the Master at Arms came into my cabin while I was fast asleep, and seizing me tyed my hands with a cord and threatened instant death if I made the least noise. I however called sufficiently loud to alarm the officers, who found themselves equally secured by centinels at their door. There were now three men at my Cabbin door and four inside (a) (Fletcher Christian, Alexander Smith, John Sumner, Mathew Quintal) Mr Christian had a Cutlass and the others were armed with Musquets and Bayonets -- I was now carried on deck in my Shirt in torture with a severe bandage around my wrists behind my back, when I found no man to rescue me. I ask'd the reason for such a violent act, but I was threatned to be put to death if I said a word."

So wrote William Bligh (Pictured, below right, as a Rear Admiral)
in his ship's log entry for today's date, April 28 in the year 1789, when his crew mutinied (The spelling is Mr. Bligh's). It was the climax of a story which would be immortalized by authors Charles Nordhoff and James N. Hall in 1931 as "Mutiny on the Bounty". It became famous around the world when in 1935, Hollywood producer Irving Thalburg of Metro Goldwyn Mayer concluded that it would make a good movie. Thanks to classic performances by Charles Laughton as Capt. Bligh, and Clark Gable, the image of a cruel and despotic sea captain driving his overworked crew to mutiny as a cry for simple human dignity has lived on through two more filmed versions of the story. The truth was something different.

"Breadfruit" on Tahiti

By 1786, the British plantation owners of the West Indies found that the events of the American Revolution had cut them off from their best supplies of cheap subsistence food for their slaves. They believed that the breadfruit tree (below) found on the Polynesian island of Tahiti by
the great explorer Capt. James Cook was the answer. The planters got the right people to lobby the British Admiralty to dispatch a small ship to get the breadfruit trees for them to cultivate. Command of the HMS Bounty, a small armed merchant vessel was given to Lieutenant William Bligh. Bligh had sailed with Capt. Cook, and was determined to make the voyage of the Bounty letter-perfect.

Bligh's Needling Style of Command

Bounty set sail in December of 1787. A rough voyage made matters difficult. Bligh's style of command made matters worse. His first mate was one Fletcher Christian (pictured right in an artists conception based on written accounts),
a man with an aristocratic background. Bligh had worked with Mr. Christian in past voyages, and considered him a reliable friend. While the crew had all signed on voluntarily -a singularly unusual occurrence in those days- many had done so to visit the island paradises of which they had heard, and thus were better dreamers than sailors. Bligh was not a violent man by the standards of the day. In fact he resorted to flogging his crewmen fewer times than had the great Captain Cook. But his micro-managing, needling style of command, with his regular use of foul and belittling language left his crew seething with resentment towards him.

Tahiti - An Island Paradise Seduces the Bounty Crew

The Bounty arrived in Tahiti in October of 1788, and stayed five months while waiting for the breadfruit trees to mature. During this time, the crew grew attached to the tropical climate, and to the Tahitian women; the two combining into much of what they had hoped for in a tropical paradise. Thus when it came time to leave in April of 1789, many of them were loath to return to the hard life of a sea under the command of a captain whom they disliked. While there is little evidence to support the Hollywood view of Bligh as a cruel despot, his frequent bursts of temper at an incompetent crew which had just left paradise behind drove them over the edge. The result was the April 28'th insurrection which Bligh described above, which was bloodless, but which seems to have taken Bligh completely by surprise.

Bligh's Amazing 4,000 Mile Voyage

Bligh and eighteen other crewmen were put over the side in the ship's launch boat with five day's worth of supplies. Bligh was a sailor of the greatest skill, and in an incredible feat of seamanship, he guided his 24 foot launch on 4,000 mile voyage to the island of Timor. The Bounty and the mutineers sailed on back to Tahiti, picked up some of the islanders, and moved on in search of a hiding place. They ultimately found one in the remote Pitcairn Island in the eastern Pacific. Bligh had returned to England to report on the mutiny. He was given the ship HMS Providence to return to the Pacific for the Breadfruit. Another officer was sent with the HMS Pandora to hunt down the mutineers. Fourteen who had remained on Tahiti were captured and put in chains. When Pandora wrecked off the Australian coast,
four of the prisoners were drowned. The remaining ten wound up being court-martialed in England. Six of them were convicted. Of these, three were hanged, two were given the King's mercy, and one escaped on a legality. The mutineers who arrived at Pitcairn Island fell into strife with one another, and many of them were killed by each other or by the Tahitians. The grave of Fletcher Christian has never been found. By the time Pitcairn Island was found by an American ship some 18 years later, only one of the original mutineers remained- John Adams. The descendants of the Bounty mutineers reside on Pitcairn Island to this day.

Hollywood Takes a Hand

(Click on the highlighted words below for film clips)
However the story was not to end there. In 1931 authors Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall published a novel; a trilogy of books based on the events of the mutiny. It was in these books that the picture of William Bligh as the vicious and tyrannical captain was presented to the world. MGM Producer Irving Thalberg read the books and was convinced that they would make good and popular movie material. Well Thalberg, genius film maker that he was proved to be quite right about this - the film "Mutiny on the Bounty" with Charles Laughton (left)
as Bligh and Clark Gable as Christian was a huge hit with audiences. And Laughton plays the character of Bligh as a singularly unfeeling and tyrannical man, with Christian trying to protect the crew. The film was remade in 1962 with Trevor Howard and Marlon Brando as the aforementioned Bligh and Christian. This film version cast essentially the same light on the relationship. Not until 1984 was the film remade as "The Bounty" (below, right) with more of a balance to the character of Bligh. Played
by Anthony Hopkins, the Bligh in this version comes off as a rather uptight and stiffly formal man who was simply overwhelmed by his situation. Christian as played by Mel Gibson is a basically decent man who is seduced by the tropical charms of Tahiti. The ending of the story is the same, but in this version, Bligh is much less of a villain. Still with Christian having been played not once but three times by matinee idols Gable, Brando, and Gibson, the image of the tyrant versus the decent man lingers....

READERS!! If you would like to comment on this, or any "Today in History" posting, I would love to hear from you!!  You can either sign up to be a member of this blog and post a comment in the space provided below, or you can simply e-mail me directly at:  I seem to be getting hits on this site all over the world, so please do write and let me know how you like what I'm writing (or not!)!!


by Greg Dening.
Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, U.K., 1992

WHAT HAPPENED ON THE BOUNTY. Translated from the Swedish by Alan Tapsell. by Bengt Danielson
Rand Mc Nally Co., Chicago, 1964.

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Sunday, April 27, 2014

APRIL 27 = "The Sultana" Explodes, Killing Hundreds

“I stood bewildered for a moment, and then saw the river perfectly alive with human beings struggling in the water, and the cry from all quarters was ‘put out the fire!’ which was getting a good headway by this time. But there was such a mass of confusion and such a complete wreck of the boat that nobody, apparently, could get out of the position they were in.”

This was the recollection of one N. Wintringer, the Chief Engineer of the SS. Sultana. On today’s date, April 27 in 1865, the SS Sultana was destroyed in an explosion. An estimated 1,600 of the 2,400 passengers were killed - most of whom were returning to their homes after surviving the horrors of captivity in Confederate Prisoner of War Camps - when three of the ship's four boilers exploded and the Sultana sank near Memphis in the greatest maritime disaster in United States history.

"The Sultana" Built in 1863

The wooden steamship was built by the John Lithoberry Shipyard on Front Street in Cincinnati in 1863. Meant for the cotton trade and weighing 1,719 tons, the steamer usually had a crew of 85. "Sultana" ran a regular route between St. Louis and New Orleans for two years, and was many times commissioned by the War Department to carry troops.

Overcrowding on board "the Sultana"

The Sultana departed from New Orleans on April 21 with 100 passengers. When she stopped at Vicksburg, Mississippi, in order to repair a boiler which was leaking, R. G. Taylor, the boilermaker on the ship, told Captain J. Cass Mason that two sheets on the boiler would have to be replaced. Mason, who was part owner of the ship, ordered Taylor to go ahead and patch the plates until the ship reached St. Louis. The federal government had offered $5 for each enlisted man and $10 for each officer which Sultana brought North, and such a contract promised huge dividends. So instead of having the bad boiler replaced, a small patch repair was made to reinforce a leaking area with a section of bulged boiler plate being removed, and a patch of less thickness than the parent plate being riveted in its place. This repair took only one day instead of three, and during that repair time in port, enough men managed to push their way on board that the Sultana was packed to the rafters with men, many of them recently released from captivity in Southern Prisoner of War camps. Over two thousand men crowded aboard. Chester D. Berry, a volunteer with the 20’th Michigan Infantry

had been captured at the Battle of Cold Harbor, and had endured captivity in the notorious Confederate Prison Camp at Anderson- ville, Georgia. He recalled how anxious his comrades were to get home:

“A happier lot of men I think I never saw then than those poor fellows were.  The most of them had been a long time in prison, some even for about two years, and the prospect of soon reaching home made them content to endure any amount of crowding.  I know that on the lower deck we were just about as thick as we could possibly lie all over the deck and I understood that the other decks were the same."

Most of these men were sound asleep at about 2:00 a.m., with Sultana about 7 to 9 miles north of Memphis, when a tremendous rupture occurred on one or more of the patched-up boilers, and the sound tore into what had been a quiet and restful night.  Berry described the moment of the boiler's explosion:

"... when the terrific explosion took place... I was awakened from a sound sleep by a stick of cord wood striking me on my head and fracturing my skull... I lay low for a moment when the hot water soaking through my blanket made me think I had better move."

This vast explosion threw many of these men into the water, while destroying a large portion of the ship. Hot coals that had been spewed out of the ship's engines soon set fire to whatever remained of the ship's superstructure.  Berry then described what he saw of this inferno:

"I sprang to the bow of the boat, and turning I looked back upon one of the most terrible scenes I ever beheld.  The upper decks of the boat were a complete wreck, and the dry casings of the cabins falling in upon the hot bed of coal was burning like tinder.  A few pailsful of water would have put the fire out, but alas, it was ten feet to the water and there was no ropes to draw with, consequently the flames swept fiercely up and back through the light wood of the upper decks."

The Official Inquiry Findings

The Mississippi was filled with the waters from the spring run-off, and was nearly freezing cold, so many of those who were thrown into the water died of hypothermia.  And many more simply couldn't swim. Berry referred to the water as being " with human beings many of whom were sinking and taking others with them."  The Sultana's officers, among them Captain Mason were killed.  An official inquiry found that as the Sultana cruised north through the twists and turns of the river her overcrowding caused her to list severely from one side to the other. Her four boilers were mounted side by side, so this careening of water from one side to the other created sudden surges in pressure which likely caused the explosion of the poorly-repaired boilers.

That was the official finding, but all that Berry would recall was the horror of the dead and dying:

The horrors of that night will never be effaced from my memory -- such swearing, praying, shouting and crying I had never heard; and much of it from the same throat -- imprecations followed by petitions to the Almighty, denunciations by bitter weeping."


"Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors"  by Mr. Chester D. Berry and Dr. David Madden

+ 143.
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Saturday, April 26, 2014

APRIL 26 = Picasso & the Death of Guernica

"We were hiding in shelters and praying. I only thought of
running away, I was so scared. I didn't think about my parents,
mother, house, nothing. Just escape. Because during those three
and one half hours, I thought I was going to die."

- Luisa Aurtenetxea

"They kept just going back and forth, sometimes in a long line,
sometimes in close formation. It was as if they were practicing
new moves. They must have fired thousands of bullets."

- Juan Guezureya

Above are two descriptions of one of the most brutal episodes of the bloody Spanish Civil War - the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica in northern Spain on today's date, April 26, in 1937. The two quotes are eyewitness accounts of two Spanish citizens who lived through the experience. The image above the quotations - that of the famous painting by Picasso of the scene - has become the enduring image of slaughter and death; the reaction of a Spanish artist to the carnage taking place in his homeland. And long after the events of the Spanish Civil War have been forgotten, Picasso's work has been there to remind all who see it of the destruction and chaos of war.

The Spanish Civil War Breaks Out

(Pictured right: Guernica after the bombing) Civil War had broken out in Spain in July of 1936 between the Republican forces supporting the elected Spanish government, and those of the insurgent army officer, Francisco Franco. The fascist governments of Hitler's Germany, and Mussolini's Italy extended military assistance to fellow-fascist Franco in return for access to raw materials in Spain for use in their growing war machines. The town of Guernica was a small rural city of only 5,000 inhabitants which had declared non-belligerence in the conflict. But the independence-minded Basque region as a whole was seen as stronghold of opposition to Franco. Thus when Luftwaffe Lt. Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen (cousin of the famous World War One flying ace, Manfred von Richthofen) proposed bombing Guernica on Franco's behalf, Franco approved of the attack as a way of breaking Basque resistance to his forces. The attack commenced on that April day at 4:30, the busiest hour of the market day. For over three hours, some of the best planes in Germany and Italy's arsenal dumped 100,000 pounds of high explosives and incendiary bombs on the helpless village, systematically reducing it to rubble. Over 1600 civilians, more than a third of the population were killed, and fires engulfed the city, leaving it burning for days.

Picasso, in Paris is Horrified by the Slaughter

In Paris, Spanish artist Pablo Picasso (pictured left, circa 1962) had agreed to paint a mural that was to be the centerpiece of the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 World's Fair in the French capitol. But he had been unable to settle on an inspiration for the work. On May 1, news of the bombing of Guernica reached Paris. The eyewitness reports which appeared in French newspapers along with stark black and white photographs left the stunned Picasso filled with rage. There had been rumors that Picasso was indifferent to the suffering of his country. Picasso issued a statement while he was working on the mural that would become "Guernica":

"The Spanish struggle is the fight of reaction against the people, against freedom. My whole life as an artist has been nothing more than a continuous struggle against reaction and the death of art. How could anybody think for a moment that I could be in agreement with reaction and death? ... In the panel on which I am working, which I shall call Guernica, and in all my recent works of art, I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death."

His anger over this atrocity in his native land gave him the inspiration for which he had been searching and resulted in the famous painting which Picasso did in the same black, white and gray colors that he saw in the newspaper photos. Thus has the memory of Guernica and of Picasso's reaction to its savage destruction at the hands of Franco's forces endured long after the Spanish Civil War has faded from memory. Will there ever be a similar image to remind us of the intense brutality being inflicted innocent civilians in the Civil War in Syria, and throughout the Arab world? Will those wars EVER end? We can only guess and hope....

For additional insight into the killing field that was Guernica, please take a look at my article previously published on "Suite 101" :

READERS!! If you would like to comment on this, or any "Today in History" posting, I would love to hear from you!!  You can either sign up to be a member of this blog and post a comment in the space provided below, or you can simply e-mail me directly at:  I seem to be getting hits on this site all over the world, so please do write and let me know how you like what I'm writing (or not!)!!


 + 161.
 + 53.

Friday, April 25, 2014

APRIL 25 = Ella Fitzgerald is Born

 "If this woman was the greatest American singer, it was in part because she could turn any song into an oxygen rush of bouncing melody that reached the listener's ears as pure, untroubled joy -- the eternally young sound of a young country. "

- Frank Rich on the talent of Ella Fitzgerald.

The great American singer,  Ella Fitzgerald was born on today's date, April 25 in 1917.  Frank Rich was speaking here on the occasion of the death of Ella which came in June of 1996.  He was certainly right in his assessment that her voice brought joy and energy to everything which she sang. But her life, at least in her early years was certainly fraught with troubles. She was born on this date in 1917 in Newport News, Virginia the daughter of a common-law couple, William and Temperance "Tempie" Fitzgerald. Soon after Ella was born, her parents separated, and her mother moved with her to Yonkers, New York, wherein they lived with Tempie's longtime boyfriend, Joseph Da Silva. The couple had a daughter together, Ella's half-sister, Frances Da Silva,  born in 1923. Ella loved music and dance as a youth.  She enjoyed listening to Jazz records of such musicians as Louis Armstrong, and the Boswell Sisters. Of their lead singer, Connee Boswell (above), Ella would later remember: "My mother brought home one of her records, and I fell in love with it....I tried so hard to sound just like her." But Ella's mother Tempie died in 1932, leaving her 15-year-old daughter an orphan during the Great Depression, when America herself faced the hardest economic times in her history.  Ella was taken in by an aunt who lived in Harlem, but her grades in school suffered and she soon dropped out of school altogether.  She worked as a lookout in a bordello and as a courier for a local Mafia numbers-runner. Not surprisingly, this got her into trouble with the law. She was placed in Riverdale Colored Orphan Asylum but was moved from there to a tough reformatory near Albany called the New York State Training School for Girls. She ran from that place, and was for a time homeless.

The Young Ella Makes Her Debut and Makes a Legendary Career

In spite of all of this turmoil in her life, the young Ella was determined to make a career for herself in music, and she made her debut at the age of 17.  The legendary Apollo Theater in New York City was a venue where she pulled in a weekly audience, and won the opportunity to compete in one of the earliest of its famous "Amateur Nights" on November 21, 1934. She had  intended to go on as a dancer but, intimidated by the Edwards Sisters, a local dance duo, she decided to try singing instead. Going on in the style of her idol, Connee Boswell, she sang the song "Judy" and "The Object of My Affection," songs recorded by the Boswell Sisters, and won the first prize of $25.00.  After that she had an opportunity to sing with Band leader Chick Webb, who at first was:  "reluctant to sign her....because she was gawky and unkempt, a diamond in the rough." But Webb did sign her, and after that her career gradually took off.  In her long and fabulous life in music she sung with most all of the great jazz bands and musicians of her day, and recorded countless classic songs. Ella (pictured above, circa 1940) came to be called "The First Lady of Song," and one other great, the composer Ira Gershwin: said: "I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them." She never spoke publicly about her tumultuous early years, but said that she did find a unique acceptance in life through her time on the singing stage:  "Once up there, I felt the acceptance and love from my audience," Ella said. "I knew I wanted to sing before people the rest of my life."

She was late in her career when I had the pleasure of seeing her perform at the Palace Theater in Cincinnati with the Count Basie Orchestra, and also with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra in the late 70's. She had a full, throaty quality to her voice that added meaning to her versions of ballads like "My Funny Valentine", to whimsical songs like "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" , but also to an odd song like "Mack the Knife" .   Her intonation was perfect, and her vocal range was quite large: spanning three octaves(D3 to D6) She was famous for her purity of tone, and a "horn-like" improvisational ability, particularly in her "scat" singing, which I recall her really highlighting in the tune "How High the Moon". She was always a joy to listen to, and as Frank Rich said she always filled her music with energy! I considered myself very lucky to have heard her do her scat* in person!!

* = Here's an absolutely KILLER example of Ella doing "scat" with the incomparable Mel Torme'!!

READERS!! If you would like to comment on this, or any "Today in History" posting, I would love to hear from you!!  You can either sign up to be a member of this blog and post a comment in the space provided below, or you can simply e-mail me directly at:  I seem to be getting hits on this site all over the world, so please do write and let me know how you like what I'm writing (or not!)!!


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Thursday, April 24, 2014

SPECIAL: "City of Chester" Shipwreck Found in S.F. Bay

The following information has been copied directly from the Huffington Post at the following address:

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The first images of the newly discovered wreckage of a steamship that sank in San Francisco Bay in 1888, killing 16 people, were released Wednesday by federal ocean scientists.

The wood and iron steamship City of Chester (above) went down on Aug. 22, 1888, after it was struck in dense fog by a larger ship.

The collision came soon after family members bid their loved ones safe passage and the Chester departed with 106 passengers for Eureka, Calif., and Portland, Ore.

Moments later, it was split in two by the Oceanic, a ship more than twice its size, killing 13 passengers, including two children, and three crew members.

More than 125 years later, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration team found the shipwreck in 217 feet of water just inside the Golden Gate Bridge while the scientists were charting shipping channels.

A display featuring the images and history of the shipwreck is planned at San Francisco's Chrissy Field, which looks out over the spot where the Chester sank, just in front of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Laura Pagano, a member of the NOAA team, said she became emotional while learning they had found the wreckage.

"It was sad in a way because of the loss of life," she said, with the Golden Gate looming behind her. "But to be able to connect with maritime history from a wreck found ... more than 100 years ago was immensely fulfilling."

The crew used a multi-beam sonic imaging system to capture three-dimensional images of the wreckage.

The NOAA researchers then put together research about what happened, and found newspaper articles and transcripts of testimony from the accident investigation.

James Delgado, a NOAA shipwreck researcher and archaeologist who was chief scientist for the 2010 mapping of the Titanic, said newspapers at the time put much of the blame for the deaths on the crew of the Oceanic immigrant steamer that survived the ordeal with a few dents in its hull.

NOAA scientists, however, say much of the newspaper coverage failed to include witness accounts of heroism, and that the official investigation faulted the Chester's skipper with the accident.

"The papers initially reacted, talking about the tragedy and accusations that the Chinese crew stood by and let people drown," Delgado said. "But what happens is you start to see things also come out ... countering that. Some leapt in water to save a drowning child."

At the time, San Francisco Bay was one of the world's busiest and most important shipping ports.

While there was fog when the Chester set off, research showed the seas were calm except for a strong incoming tide that created a rip current off Fort Point that affected the Chester's ability to move quickly.

The two ships spotted each other when they were about a half-mile apart but failed to reverse their engines in time.

The Oceanic's bow went 10 feet into the hull of the Chester, and the Oceanic's captain kept some momentum in the ship to keep the hole plugged in an effort to give people a chance to escape.

Still, five or six minutes later, the Chester was gone.

"The Oceanic crew was up on the bow reaching down to survivors on the Chester, lifting them on the deck," said Robert Schwemmer, NOAA's West Coast regional maritime heritage coordinator. "After the collision, in five or six minutes, the Oceanic crew went on to save a lot of people."

It was the second worst maritime disaster inside the bay in terms of loss of life, NOAA said. The worst was the SS City of Rio de Janeiro in 1901, a steamer that struck a reef inside the bay and led to the deaths of more than 120.

Accompanying video:

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

APRIL 23 = William Shakespeare is Born/Dies

Tradition has it that the great English dramatist and poet William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-on-Avon on today's date April 23, in 1564. The exact day on which the celebrated bard was born is actually unknown, but church records show that he was baptized on April 26, and as three days was a customary amount of time to wait before baptizing a newborn, today's date is likely his birth date. Shakespeare's date of death is however known for certain: it was April 23, 1616. It was his 52nd birthday; he had retired to Stratford three years before.

Little Known For Sure of Shakespeare's Life

There are in fact very few details that are known for certain about Shakespeare's life. His station in his world was that of a non-noble, so however celebrated the man might have been (and still is) in literary circles, it is not very surprising that not much has survived by way of historical record. What IS known about the man, and his life comes from official records: court, wills, and marriage. From these sources, modern historians can create a rough sketch of the man's life. Anecdotes and criticisms by his rivals and his contemporaries also speak of Shakespeare and suggest that he was indeed a playwright, poet and an actor, and was well-known as all three.

Shakespeare's Early Years

It is known that during his earliest years, Shake- speare lived with his father, John Shake- speare so he must have grown up in Henley Street, some one hundred miles northwest of London (pictured above, circa 1580's). We know that the King’s New Grammar School taught basic reading and writing so in all likelihood William attended this school since it existed near where Shakespeare lived, but this is not really known. It is certain however that young William never attended a University. A bond certificate dated November the 28th, 1582, shows that at eighteen years old, William married the twenty-six year old and quite pregnant Anne Hathaway. Her delicate condition is known, because just seven months later, they had his first daughter, Susanna. Anne appears never to have left Stratford, living there her entire life. Baptism records tell us that William’s first child, Susanna was baptized in Stratford in May, 1583. Such records again show that twins Hamnet and Judith were born in February 1592. Hamnet, William's only son died in 1596, only eleven years old. Hamnet and Judith were named after William’s close friends, Judith and Hamnet Sadler. For all of her lack of travel, Mrs. Shakespeare would wind up outliving her husband, in this world anyway, dying in 1623.

Shakespeare's Critics: Greene With Envy??

We do not know precisely when it was that Shakespeare began writing, records of performances show that several of his plays were being performed on the London stage by 1592. In fact he was sufficiently well known in London by then to have attracted the ire of fellow playwright Robert Greene, who said of him in his "Groats-Worth of Wit"  (1592; Title page pictured below) :

"...there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger's heart wrapped in a Player's hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country."

Most scholars believe that Greene is herein accusing Shakespeare of stepping above his rank in presuming to stand with university-educated writers, such as Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Nashe and (of course!!) Greene himself in his historical plays. The phrase in bold parodying the line "Oh, tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide" is from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, part 3, and along with along with the pun "Shake-scene", makes it clear that Shakespeare is the object of this barb. Shakespeare must have been well-known to have attracted such an extravagant rebuke.

Shakespeare Becomes Prominent

In 1594, by which time he had written such plays as Richard IIIThe Comedy of Errors, and The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare became an actor and playwright for the Lord Chamberlain's Men, a performing company of actors owned by a group of players, including Shakespeare, which soon became the leading playing company in London. After Queen Elizabeth's death in 1603, the company was awarded a royal patent by the new king, James I, and thereafter changed its moniker to "the Kings Men." Shakespeare's theatrical prominence was demonstrated by his name being recorded as one of the owners of the Globe theatre in 1599
and on May the 19th, 1603, he was granted a patent, titling him as one of the King’s Men and a Groom of the Chamber by James I, who had succeeded Elizabeth as sovereign of England. This was an honor which made Shakespeare a court favorite for all performances, and also earned his fellow-players in "the King's Men" some extra cash - as much as 30 pounds per performance - a princely sum indeed for the times. Shakespeare remained with the King's Men as both a writer and as an actor in small parts until his retirement.

Shakespeare's Most Productive Period

In 1596, John Shakespeare was granted a coat of arms, an obvious recognition his son William's growing prominence. In 1597, Shakespeare bought a large home in Stratford, and in 1599, after writing his great historical plays, the first and second part of Henry IV and Henry V, he became a partner in the ownership of the Globe Theatre. Shakespeare scored financially in 1605 with the purchase of leases of real estate near Stratford. This investment of some four hundred and forty pounds doubled its worth and wound up earning him 60 pounds income each year. It is thought by many Shakespeare scholars that this investment gave him the time he needed to concentrate on his dramatical pursuits and it is known that he was viewed as a prominent businessman in the Stratford area. Indeed, this period saw the performance of the first of his great tragedies, Hamlet. During the next decade, Shakespeare wrote some of his masterpieces: OthelloKing LearMacbeth, and The Tempest. In 1609, his sonnets, probably written during the 1590s, were published. Shakespeare died in Stratford-on-Avon as said above on this date of April 23, 1616.

Did Shakespeare Really Write the Plays?

Over the years, some scholars have argued that Shakespeare did not write any of the plays attributed to him. They suggest that that others, such as Edward de Vere,(pictured, below left)
or Sir Francis Bacon (below, right) were the real authors of the plays. On the other hand, it has been countered that proof of Shakespeare's authorship of the 37 plays attributed to him comes with Robert Greene’s criticism of him, as well as the attacks upon him as a poet by Francis Meres as being "mellifluous" and denouncing his work as honey-tongued, "sugared sonnets among his private friends" in his own Palladis

Tamia of 1598. And further proof of Shakespeare's prominence as an actor can be found in his performances before Queen Elizabeth herself in 1594 and evidence of William's interest in theatre can be found in his name being listed in 1594 and 1595 as a shareholder (part owner) of the Lord Chamberlain’s Company, a theatre company. Upon his death, his great friend the poet and dramatist Ben Jonson said, "He was not of an age, but for all time."

Whatever the case, written upon William Shakespeare’s tombstone is a clear appeal that all of the earthly controversies be left behind and that he should be left to rest in peace with a curse on those who would move his bones...

"Good friend, for Jesus´ sake forbeare
To digg the dust enclosed here!
Blest be ye man that spares thes stones
And curst be he that moues my bones."

SPECIAL NOTE = I should also note that Mr. Shakespeare shares this birthday with my grand nephew Jacob Covalcine who is a good boy, and a poet in his own particular way.....

READERS!! If you would like to comment on this, or any "Today in History" posting, I would love to hear from you!!  You can either sign up to be a member of this blog and post a comment in the space provided below, or you can simply e-mail me directly at:  I seem to be getting hits on this site all over the world, so please do write and let me know how you like what I'm writing (or not!)!!


"The Oxford Shakespeare: the Complete Works" by William Shakespeare, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2005.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

APRIL 22 = The Oklahoma Land Grab of 1889

"The order was given, the bugle blew the blast -- charge -- forward.  And that line broke with a hurrah and rush, and impetuous onward movement -- the cowboys firing their pistols and yelling, making a scene never before witnessed in this or any other country, settling up a country by the aid of a bugle call..."

- Arkansas City Republican Traveler, April 25 1889

With the crackling sound of that bugle, the Oklahoma Land Rush began at precisely noon on today's date, April 22 in 1889 (above).  This was a truly unique moment, when the U.S. government, having declared nearly two million acres of land to be open for homesteading, simply put it up for grabs, and said "go get it!!"  Of course the land had to belong to someone to begin with, and they -- the Indigenous Americans were pushed aside once again.  And there would indeed be other land grabs until the government ultimately came up with a lottery system of handing out available public land. But for the sheer grandeur of it... for the spectacle of thousands of people lined up at the starting lines and then at the sound of the cannon, or the gun, or whatever,  just racing off to grab their own plot of earth... nothing ever has or will equal this remarkable day.

"Indian Territory" Becomes Valuable

This large chunk of land which was being opened up for development was located in what had been called "Indian Territory".  Previously, the area had been considered rather arid and unattractive for
white people to settle.  But it was consi- dered the ideal location to cram all of the Indigenous American tribes who were being thrown off their lands elsewhere in the country.  So beginning in 1817, and on through the 1880's a wide variety of Indigenous tribes, including the Commanche, the Cherokee, the Apache and the Creek just to name a few were forcibly relocated to an area which roughly encompasses today's state of Oklahoma.  But improvements in
irrigation and other farming and ranching techniques had by the late 1880's made the area desirable for settlement by white men for the first time.  This land had all been closed to white settlement, but @ 1.9 million acres had not been assigned to any particular tribe.  So President Benjamin Harrison (right) was convinced to open that portion of the land to settlement. Then the Dawes-Severalty Act of 1887 was passed by which the "Indians" were introduced to private ownership of their tribal lands, thus enabling the Federal government to consolidate their holdings and opening up large swaths of land to settlement.  Thus, the Indigenous Americans were pushed off of more land.

"Harrison's Hoss Race"

After the reservations were all divided into allotments, any and all remaining land was declared surplus and opened up for white settlement under the Homestead Act of 1862. This act, which had been signed into law by President Lincoln, held that settlers who stayed on their claims for five years could own the land, free and clear. This was good for up to 160 acres provided the settlers stayed on the claim and made improvements on it.  Harrison then announced on March 3 of 1889 that the land would be made available to anyone at all who was capable of getting to and laying physical claim upon it. This bonanza of land free for the taking attracted land hungry people from all over the
country to the boarders of the new Oklahoma Territory in what came to be called "Harrison's Hoss Race".  Not all of them were entirely scrupulous, of course.  The people who assembled at the territorial frontiers were called "boomers".  They were faced with some of  the settlers sneaking into the territory early and laying claim to the choicest areas ahead of the official start time.  These sneaky-types wound up being called "sooners". Sorry if that offends all of you O.U. fans out there, but that's what all of the books say.  Some of them were women (above), who were widowed, some with families to support.  The sight of all of these people straining at their various lines of departure which encircled all sides of the territory, and then breaking free to stake their claims when the signal was given at 12:00 noon that day was memorable:

From the Caldwell Journal, 5/2/1889:

"What a sight! The horsemen start in a mad race with one another, leaving the wagons behind.  For about a mile they keep together and then first one and then another will swing out to the right or to the left to get away from the rush, or to go to some place already chosen for their homestead. The sound from the earth made from this immense caravan sounds like the roaring of thunder."

From the St. Louis Republic, 4/24/1889:

"It was a thrilling sight. The great prairies, boundless and beautiful, were dotted with covered wagons and they looked for all the world like a fleet of ships upon the undulating sea. The horsemen were soon out of sight, and half an hour after the start the wagons were lost to view."

These mad charges lead not only to thousands of new farmers, ranchers, and citizens, but also to some towns such as Guthrie. Norman, and Oklahoma City, being set up very nearly overnight.  As civilization began to take root, so did the civil population of this burgeoning new territory.  Oklahoma became the 46th state to be admitted to the Union on November 16, 1907. And what of the way it had started out? Author Stan Hoig has said:

"At worst the run can be viewed as an act of conglomerated human greed, where citizens dashed frantically about to grab land that had once been faithfully promised to the Indian forever.  At best, it can be seen as a fulfillment of God-fearing citizens who wished to build homes for themselves and for future generations. In truth, the Run of 1889 was much of both."

So now, let the whole story - both the good and the bad - be told.


"The Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889" by Stan Hoig, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1984


Monday, April 21, 2014

APRIL 21 = "The Red Baron" is Killed

"Went back again and dived on a pure red triplane which was firing on Lieut. May.  I got a long burst into him and he went down vertical and was observed to crash by Lieut. Mellersh and Lieut. May."

Captain Arthur R. "Roy" Brown, R.A.F.

This is the report of today's action in the skies over Vauz sur Somme, France as recorded by the ranking British officer present at the time. Although Capt. Brown didn't know it at the time he wrote this report, the pilot of the "pure red triplane" was Manfred von Richthofen (above), the highest scoring fighter ace of World War One, popularly known as the Red Baron, who died in this battle on today's date, April 21 in 1918.  Credit for this victory for the Allies was a matter of controversy then and remains so to the present day.  But it was a kind of one-on-one battle that was seeing its last days and would never come again.

The Rise of Manfred von Richthofen

Manfred von Richthofen was born on May 2, 1892 in Kleinburg, near Breslau, Lower Silesia a part of Europe which is now part of Poland but which was then part of the German Empire. His father was Major Albrecht Philipp Karl Julius Freiherr von Richthofen, a nobleman of the old aristocratic order in Prussia, which was the leading of the Germanic states which formed the German Empire in 1872.
Manfred was the oldest of four children who included Lothar (right) who would follow Manfred into the air war.  As a youth, he loved sports.  He excelled as a horseman and a hunter wherein he honed his marksmanship in solitary contests with wild boar and stag in the forests of his native region.  When war came in 1914, he was an officer of an Uhlan cavalry unit.  But it soon became obvious that horses were of little use in this war of machine guns and barbed wire between dug-in trenches.  So by 1916 he had transferred to the air service and gotten his badge as a scouting pilot. This was a kind of combat in which he could use his natural instinct as a hunter.

The "Red Baron" and "His Flying Circus"

He studied air combat tactics under the great flier Oswald Boelcke and by November of 1916 had scored his eleventh victory over Lanoe Hawker, who was Englands greatest flying ace.  In January of 1917 he was awarded Germany's highest military decoration, the Pour le Merite (known as the "Blue Max"), and put in charge of his own unit, Jagdgeschwader 11 or "Jasta" for short.  Although he was only 23 years old, Manfred took his job of commanding younger, inexperienced fliers very seriously, teaching them the "Boelcke Dictum", air combat tactics as conceived by his old mentor Boelcke.  But his rising fame in Germany, a country which was losing the war, and needed heroes, did bring about a certain flamboyance.   Around this time, Manfred began having his aircraft (which was then the Albatross D3) painted red, after
the colors of his old cavalry unit.  Supposedly in order to keep their leader from being singled out, the other fliers in his squadron began painting all sorts of odd colors and patterns on their planes, but keeping red at certain spots in order to distinguish themselves as being a part of the Richthofen Wing.  In the German press reporters began referring to Manfred as "Der Rote Kampfflieger"—the "Red Battle-Flyer".  And eventually British fliers began to refer to Richthofen as "The Red Baron" and to his squadron with its outlandishly colored planes as his "Traveling Circus" and ultimately his "Flying Circus".  By 1918 Richthofen was flying the new Fokker DR1 Triplane, which had three wings making it highly maneuverable - pictured above.

Other German air aces, among them his fellow-ace Ernst Udet (below) saw of Richthofen's rising tally of victories, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 and more, and held him in awe.  Udet wrote of him:

"What a man he was! ....Richthofen always lived on the other side of that boundary which we crossed only in our great moments. When he fought his private life was always thrust ruthlessly behind him. Eating, drinking, and sleeping were all he granted life, and  then only the minimum that was necessary to keep flesh and blood in working order.  He was the simplest man I ever met.  A Prussian through and through.  A great soldier."

The "Red Baron" Falls

On April 20, 1918, Richthofen shot down a Sopwith Camel northeast of Villiers- Brettoneaux for his eightieth victory in one-one air combat. This was a type of individual combat that was close to the Knights of mid-evil times jousting against each other, and which had always appealed to Manfred's hunter's instincts.  And this kind of combat between chivalrous foes who often respected each other, was coming to a close in this air-war of 1916 - 1918.  In fact that eightieth was to be Richthofen's last. On today's date, April 21 he was on patrol with his squadron in Northern France, not far from the Somme River, when he encountered a British patrol under the command of a Canadian officer, one Captain Arthur R. "Roy" Brown.  One of Browns pilots, Lieutenant May found himself the object of Richthofen's guns.  May tired to flee towards the safety of the British lines, with Richthofen in hot pursuit. Brown took out after Richthofen, and apparently surprised him by firing at him from behind in a high speed chase which lead them into British lines,  mere one to two hundred feet in the air.  This put Richthofen's well within easy range of the Australian anti-aircraft units on the ground. May recalled:

"I was beginning to despair -- then something happened.  Watching over my shoulder I saw something so wonderful that I could not believe it -- the red plane -- rolled drunkenly... and fell to the ground with a great crash and a cloud of dust..."

Controversy has raged ever since as to who fired the fatal shot which at long last brought down the Red Baron.  Most of the evidence points towards the Australian ground gunners as being the likely "winners" of the prize, but the R.A.F. (Royal Air Force) nevertheless awarded it's man official credit for the victory. Manfred von Richthofen was buried by the British with full military honors (above) in a ceremony complete with mourners and an armed honor guard... a gesture of respect for a fallen foe that would certainly not survive the year of 1918.  But he has certainly proven a famous name ever since.  The "Red Baron's" inclusion in the "Peanuts" comic strip as the unseen menace to a Beagle flying an imaginary Sopwith Camel, as well as his unlikely presence on a line of frozen pizza has granted this man who died at age 25, nearly a century ago a strange immortality.  

Go figure....


"Richthofen - A True History of the Red Baron" by William E. Burrows, Harcourt, Brace & World, New York, 1969

"The Day the Red Baron Died" by Dale M. Titler, Bonanza Books, New York, 1970

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter Sunday

As there is no fixed date for Easter, I have not included one in the above "Title".  BUT it does usually come sometime in early April.  More about that ("the Easter Rule") below.  But it is the celebration in the Christian religion of the day when Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead, following His crucifixion by the Roman authorities in Judea. This idea that Christ was crucified by the Romans and that in this way he paid for the sins of mankind,  that he overcame death and was resurrected into eternal life is central to the faith of Christians all over the world. As it is a faith belief, I will not attempt to document it as historical fact, although there is a very great deal about the life and death of Jesus Christ that can in fact be documented.   That it was merely the end of His life as a human being who walked among us,  and the beginning of His eternal life after His physical death must remain a point of faith for me and Christians like me (depiction of the resurrection of Jesus by Bernhard Plockhorst, 19th century).   That said, let's move on to a bit about Easter traditions.....

Easter From the Second Century in Rome

The fact that easter became a festival of holy days is an example of the early church's successful practice of co-opting popular pagan holidays (like Christmas for example), and making them part of regular christian life and traditions.  Christian missionaries who fanned out across Europe in the Second Century faced many customs and pagan beliefs already in place.  These missionaries tried to avoid interfering with these practices too much, preferring to tranform these practices into traditions which harmonized as seamlessly as possible with Christian doctrines.  This was for the very practical reason of avoiding persecution.  If the Christian rite was held at the same time and in a similar way as the pagan rite, then the new Christians might possibly survive long enough to spread the word.  The old festival of "Eastre" which celebrated the coming of the spring came at about the same as the new Christian's celebration of Christ's resurrection.  So the early missionaries simply held their "Eastre" celebrations at that same time, and thus avoided much of the persecution which might have come their way.   For years "Easter" (as it came to be spelled) was held variously on Friday, Saturday or Sunday.  But in 325 AD, the Council of Nicaea, which had been convened  by the Roman Emperor Constantine (above, Emperor from 306 to 337) who had made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire isued the "Easter Rule" which stated that Easter was to be celebrated on "the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox." Therefore, Easter must occur between March 22 and April 25. 

 The Easter Bunny, Easter Eggs, etc.

Our old friend "the Easter Bunny" originates  from the fact that according to the English historian, the Venerable Bede (an English Monk at the Northumbrian monestary of Saint Peter), the goddess of Eastre was worshiped by the Anglo-Saxons in the person of her earthly incarnation or symbol, the hare. The idea of the Easter Hare spread eventually to the Germans, who brought it to America in the 18'th & 19'th centuries.  The tradition was disdained by the Quakers, and other groups who thought that a white rabbit was rather a frivolous symbol for a serious event like Easter. Only after the Civil War with all of it's murderous destruction did the tradition of Easter, with it's emphasis on life after death, and with it the easter Bunny come to be celebrated throughout the country.  The Easter Egg goes waaaay back in time. The Egyptians placed eggs in their tombs and the Greeks placed them on top of graves. Tradition has it that Simon of Cyrene, who helped carry Christ's cross to Mt. Calvary earned his living as an egg merchant. When he returned to his farm after the crucifixion he found that his eggs had all turned a fabulous array of colors.  So it was easy for the early church to come up with this symbol for Easter. This tradition went in all manner of directions.  During the 1880's in Germany,  for example Easter eggs were actually a substitute in some areas for a birth certificate.  The egg would be dyed a solid color, and the child's name and birthdate would then be etched into the shell with a sharp tool.  Eggs of this type would actually be honored in courts as evidence of the child's age and identity.  And of course there were the fabulous jewel encrusted Faberge' eggs which were created by Peter Carl Faberge' for the Russian royal family beginning in 1886 (one of which is pictured above). Of the 50 eggs made by Faberge' through 1918, 42 have survived in museums around the world, and are valued well into the millions! But it is the symbolic value of life renewed that makes the colored Easter egg so appropriate for this holiest day in the Christian calender! So HAPPY EASTER!!

READERS!! If you would like to comment on this, or any "Today in History" posting, I would love to hear from you!!  You can either sign up to be a member of this blog and post a comment in the space provided below, or you can simply e-mail me directly at:  I seem to be getting hits on this site all over the world, so please do write and let me know how you like what I'm writing (or not!)!!



by Charles Panati, Harper & Row, New York,


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