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These Curious Spiders Evolved the Same Way Over and Over and Over Again

Smithsonian Magazine

The genus of spiders known as Ariamnes has always been known to have a few tricks up its sleeve. Measuring a max of just two centimeters in size, it can hide from predators by camouflaging itself to look like a stick in the forest. Now, scientists have discovered that these stick spiders also have a peculiar evolutionary history.

As Elizabeth Pennisi reports for Science, new research by Rosemary Gillespie, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and her colleagues demonstrates parallel evolution in the genus — that is, spiders on different Hawaiian islands independently evolved species of three different colors: gold, black, and white.

They also found that since arriving in Hawaii, the original group of spiders has diversified, spreading out across five of the islands. That one species formed 14 more over the years, George Dvorsky reports for Gizmodo, creating a total of 15 different stick spider species still alive in Hawaii—four of which the researchers identified in this latest study. Their research was published Thursday in the journal Current Biology.

For the study, the researchers examined the genetics of the spiders on five of the Hawaiian islands where gold and dark species of the spider live. Two of the islands are also home to a white version. Using this data, they constructed a family tree to study the relationships between the creatures.

While it would make sense that spiders of the same color would be the most closely related, Gillespie’s team found that wasn't the case. Residents of a single island were most closely related, while like-colored critters of other islands were distant relatives. This suggests that each island was likely colonized by one spider that then evolved into different-colored species. 

“It’s one of the coolest hidden [examples] of animals evolving new species,” Robert Fleischer, a conservation genomicist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, tells Pennisi.

Gillespie and her team think the first Ariamnes was dark or gold. It likely landed on the islands about 2 to 3 million years ago, inhabiting the oldest island of Kauai. In Hawaii, there weren’t many webs to steal food from, according to UC Berkeley's website. So the creatures started to trap and eat other spiders, as they still do today.

They each developed different colors where they could be effectively camouflaged in their own niches, Ed Yong reports for The Atlantic. One species became brown, living on rocks. Others became gold to hide on the undersides of leaves. Still others became a matte-white color, similar to lichen. ​They slowly hopped to the younger islands. And as they did, they would evolve.

What’s interesting is that throughout their history, the spiders would evolve over and over again in a predictable manner. While the different species of spiders have a similar body type, each has distinct physical traits. And their different colors allowed them camouflage themselves in their environments.

“There are only a certain number of good ways to be a spider in these ecosystems, and evolution repeatedly finds those ways,” Catherine Wagner, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Wyoming, who was not involved in the new study, tells Yong.

This diversification of species into different environments is not unexpected. Most famously, Charles Darwin witnessed this phenomenon with finches on the Galapagos Islands. But with the spiders, there isn’t any additional differentiation during each bout of diversification. "They don't evolve to be orange or striped," Gillespie says in a press release. She believes that this suggests the spiders are preprogrammed to evolve quickly to be successful, but how that works exactly isn’t clear.

The study finds similar conclusions to Gillespie's earlier work on Hawaii’s Tetragnatha spiders. The "spiny leg" Tetragnatha spiders developed colors tailored to their hunting habits. But in another group of Tetragnatha spiders, the evolution did not repeat itself. As Pennisi reports, the researchers believe it’s because this other group of Tetragnatha spiders are web-building spiders that don’t have to find a place to hide from birds during the day. 

Gillespie says in the statement that she hopes the research will provide insight into the predictable elements of evolution and the conditions that set the stage for such changes to occur. 

These Ants Immobilize Prey With Acid Then Drag Them Back to Nest for Dismemberment

Smithsonian Magazine

Floridian Formica archboldi ants have eclectic interior decorating tastes, to say the least: Whereas most ant species are content to cozy up in sand- or soil-filled mounds, F. archboldi prefer to litter their underground nests with the dismembered limbs and decapitated heads of hapless prey.

This behavioral tic has baffled scientists since the species’ discovery in 1958, but as Hannah Osborne reports for Newsweek, a new study published in Insectes Sociaux reveals exactly how the deceptively deadly F. archboldi—which is typically not known for preying on other ants—targets a specific species of trap-jaw ant, or Odontomachus.

Researchers led by Adrian Smith of North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences have found that the key to these skull-collecting ants’ success is formic acid. F. archboldi spray their trap-jaw prey with the immobilizing chemical, then drag their kills back to the nest for dismemberment.

But trap-jaw ants are far from easy prey, Gemma Tarlach writes for Discover. Thanks to a set of spring-loaded mandibles capable of striking enemies more than 41 times per second, the trap-jaw ant is actually the more likely predator of the two species. In fact, Cosmos’ Nick Carne notes, scientists have previously posited that F. archboldi is either a highly specialized predator or a moocher of sorts, simply moving into abandoned trap-jaw nesting sites.

To better understand the relationship between F. archboldi and the trap-jaw ant, Smith and his team created a miniature test arena and pitted either an F. archboldi or Formica pallidefulva ant—a related species that has no known connection with Odontomachus—against a trap-jaw. Over the course of 10 trials, F. pallidefulva partially immobilized the trap-jaw just one time. Comparatively, F. archboldi bested the trap-jaw 10 out of 10 times. Seven out of 10 contests resulted in the trap-jaw’s complete immobilization.

The process of spraying victims with formic acid is known as chemical mimicry, according to Inverse’s Sarah Sloat. Trap-jaws are capable of producing the same formic acid as F. archboldi, but the latter happen to be more effective sprayers. Typically, chemical mimicry occurs amongst parasitic species that invade and overtake their prey. But, Smith tells Sloat, there is no evidence that F. archboldi is parasitic. Instead, the researchers suggest the ants’ deployment of formic acid is a defense mechanism designed to provide camouflage and ward off stronger predators.

In addition to observing interactions between Formica and trap-jaw ants, the team recorded high-speed footage of attacks and time-lapse footage of attack aftermaths.

“You could see the Formica ants pull in a trap-jaw ant from where they get their food and bring it into the nest,” Smith says in an interview with The Verge’s Rachel Becker. “And they’d start licking it, biting it, moving it around on the ground like they would with food. And then all of a sudden, 18 hours later, you’d see the head start to pop off of the trap-jaw ant. They would pull it apart, and start to dismember it.”

The new report offers insights on how these skull-gathering creatures trap their prey, but the exact reasoning behind the process remains unclear. As Smith tells Newsweek, he thinks the F. archboldi feed on the trap-jaws and leave behind their hollow head casings in a manner similar to humans casting off chicken bones after eating a pile of wings. Still, this explanation doesn’t fully account for the ant’s use of chemical mimicry, nor the long evolutionary history hinted at by the unusual predator-prey relationship.

Formica archboldi is the most chemically diverse ant species we know of,” Smith says in a statement. “Before this work, it was just a species with a weird head-collecting habit. Now we have what might be a model species for understanding the evolution of chemical diversification and mimicry.”

The world in miniature; edited by Frederic Shoberl

Smithsonian Libraries
v.1-2 and 3-4 bound together in some instances.

Also available online.


The present state of Peru : comprising its geography, topography, natural history, mineralogy, commerce, the customs and manners of its inhabitants, the state of literature, philosophy, and the arts, the modern travels of the missionaries in the heretofore unexplored mountainous territories, &c. &c. / the whole drawn from original and authentic documents, chiefly written and compiled in the Peruvian capital ; and embellished by twenty engravings of costumes, &c

Smithsonian Libraries
Preface signed on p. xi: Joseph Skinner.

Contents derived from El Mercurio peruano "as it was carried on during the first sixteen months, commencing with January 1791, and from various authentic sources ... 'Present state of Peru' has been compiled."- Pref., p. viii.

Printer's imprint at foot of t.p. verso: Printed by B. M'Millan, Bow-Street, Covent-Garden.

Illustrations hand-colored.

Plate II is misnumbered as "III"; plate VIII is misnumbered as "II."

Errata on final p.

Abbey, J.R. Travel, 723

Sabin 81615

Also available online.

SCNHRB copy 39088011476009 has blind-embossed stamp on t.p.: Bureau of American Ethnology Library; accession no.: 10658.

SCNHRB copy has a modern black quarter-morocco leather binding with red linen-covered boards and a gilt-lettered spine label.


The natural history of Norway : containing a particular and accurate account of the temperature of the air,the different soils, waters, vegetables, metals, minerals, stones, beasts, birds, and fishes : together with the dispositions, customs, and manner of living of the inhabitants : interspersed with physiological notes from eminent writers, and transactions of academics : in two parts / translated from the Danish original of the Right Revd. Erich Pontoppidan, Bishop of Bergen in Norway, and member of the Royal Academy of Sciences at Copenhagen ; illustrated with copper plates and a general map of Norway

Smithsonian Libraries
Translated by A. Berthelson.

Title page vignettes (type ornaments).

Pagination: v. 1: xxiii, [1], 206 p.; v. 2: vii, [1], 291, [13] p.

Press figures.

Also available online.

Bound in 1 v.

Armorial bookplate: John Blackburne.

SCNHRB (formerly in the Jewett Room) has two copies; c. 2 (37 cm.) has hand colored folded map and plates 21 and 22 bound in reverse order before plate 20.


The narrative of the Honourable John Byron : (commodore in a late expedition round the world) containing an account of the great distresses suffered by himself and his companions on the coast of Patagonia, from the year 1740, till their arrival in England, 1746 : with a description of St. Jago de Chili, and the manners and customs of the inhabitants : also a relation of the loss of the Wager, man of war, one of Admiral Anson's squadron / written by himself, and now first published

Smithsonian Libraries
Frontispiece signed: S. Wale delin. C. Grignion sculp.

Signatures: A⁶ B-R⁸ [S]² (last leaf blank).

Cox, E.G. Reference guide to the literature of travel, II, p. 281

Sabin, J. Dictionary of books relating to America from its discovery to the present time, 9730

Also available online.

SCNHRB copy (9088012039533) has red emblem stamped on half-title; embossed on t.p.: Bureau of American Ethnology Library [and stamped acc. no.] 10546.

SCNHRB copy bound in recent yellow paste paper boards and black goatskin; title in gilt within leather spine label.


The Worst Parade to Ever Hit the Streets of Boston

Smithsonian Magazine

This tale is excerpted from Nathaniel Philbrick's upcoming book Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution, available for pre-order now and in stores on April 30, 2013.

Boston had always been a town on tiptoe. Just a square mile in area, with a mere sliver of land connecting it to the mainland to the south, this tadpole-shaped island was dominated by three towering, lightly settled hills and a virtual forest of steeples. From Boston’s highest perch, the 138-foot Beacon Hill, it was possible to see that the town was just one in a huge amphitheatre of humped and jagged islands that extended more than eight and a half miles to Point Allerton to the southeast. Whether it was from a hill, a steeple, or a cupola, Bostonians could plainly see that they were surrounded by two deep and endless wildernesses: the ocean to the east and the country to the west.

Boston’s topography contributed to the seemingly nonsensical pattern of its streets. Rather than follow any preconceived grid, the settlement’s original trails and cart paths had done their best to negotiate the many hills and hollows, cutting across the slopes at gradual angles to create a concave crescent of settlement within which more than fifty wharves and shipyards extended from the town’s eastern edge. 

It was in winter that this city of hills came into its own—at least if you were a boy.  Streets normally crowded with people, horses, ox carts, and carriages became, thanks to a coating of snow and ice, magical coasting trails down which a youngster on his wooden sled could race at startling and wonderful speeds. On January 25, 1774, there were at least two feet of snow covering Boston. Runner-equipped sleighs glided across roads that carts and chaises had once plodded over, moving so silently across the white drifts that tinkling bells were added to the horses’ halters so that the people of Boston could hear them coming. The boys in theirs sleds did not have this luxury, however, and that afternoon a child approaching the end of his run down Copp’s Hill in the North End slammed into the 50-year-old customs officer John Malcom—that is, at least, according to one account. Another account has Malcom falling into an argument with the boy when the child complained that Malcom had ruined the coasting run that passed by his front door by throwing woodchips on the snow.

Malcom, as his vocation as a customs agent might suggest, was a loyalist; he also had a reputation for losing his temper. Raising his cane in the air as if to strike the boy, he shouted, “Do you talk to me in that style, you rascal!” It was then that George Hewes, a shoemaker, came upon them standing at the mouth of Cross Street.

Hewes had recently participated in the Tea Party and was known to be a patriot. But at this point, political beliefs were of little concern to him; he was worried that Malcom might injure the defenseless boy and told him to leave the child alone.

Malcom turned to Hewes and accused him of being a “vagabond” who should not presume to speak to a gentleman such as himself. Besides commanding a host of coasting vessels, Malcom had served as an officer in several campaigns during the French and Indian War; he’d also fought more recently in what was known as the War of Regulation in North Carolina, where he’d assisted Royal Governor Tyrone in brutally suppressing an uprising of citizens who objected to the taxation system then prevalent in this portion of the South. Malcom claimed to have had two horses shot out from underneath him in North Carolina and later wrote in a petition to the king that “none could go further in the field of battle when the bullets flew thickest, he was then in his element.”

Malcom’s love of combat had recently gotten him into some serious professional trouble. Earlier that fall, while serving in the customs office in Falmouth (now Portland), Maine, he’d seized a ship and her 30-man crew under the slimmest of pretexts. His pompous and overbearing manner had so angered the sailors that they’d disarmed him of his sword and provided him with a “genteel” coat of tar and feathers—genteel in that they’d left his clothes on to protect his skin from the hot tar. Malcom had been humiliated but apparently not hurt, and even his superior officer at the customs office had had little sympathy for him. By that snowy day in January, Malcom was back home in Boston and arguing with not only a surly boy with a sled but this prying shoemaker as well.

Hewes was unimpressed by Malcom’s claims of social superiority, especially given what had happened to the customs agent in Maine, a story that had been repeated with great relish in Boston’s many newspapers. “Be that as it will,” Hewes replied to Malcom’s rebuke, “I never was tarred and feathered anyhow.”

This was too much for Malcom, who took up his cane and smashed Hewes in the head, ripping a two-inch gash in his hat and knocking him unconscious. When Hewes came to his senses, a Captain Godfrey was admonishing Malcom, who soon decided that it was in his best interests to beat a hasty retreat to his home on Cross Street.

All that afternoon word of the incident circulated through the streets of Boston. By eight o’clock in the evening, an angry crowd had assembled outside Malcom’s house. By that time Hewes had visited Dr. Joseph Warren, just across the Mill Bridge on nearby Hanover Street. Both a physician and a distant relative, Warren had told him that if it weren’t for his extraordinarily thick skull, Hewes would be a dead man. On Warren’s advice, he applied to a town official for a warrant for Malcom’s arrest, but it was now looking like a different kind of justice was about to be served.

Earlier in the evening, Malcom had taken a manic delight in baiting the crowd, bragging that Governor Hutchinson would pay him a bounty of 20 pounds sterling for every “yankee” that he killed. His undoubtedly longsuffering wife, the mother of five children (two of whom were deaf), opened a window and pleaded with the townspeople to leave them alone. Whatever sympathy she had managed to gain soon vanished when Malcom pushed his unsheathed sword through the window and stabbed a man in the breastbone.  

The crowd swarmed around the house, breaking windows and trying to get at the customs official, who soon fled up the stairs to the second story. Many Bostonians served as volunteer firemen, and it wasn’t long before men equipped with ladders and axes were rushing toward the besieged house on Cross Street. Even Malcom appears to have realized that matters had taken a serious turn, and he prepared “to make what defense he could.”

Collective violence had been a longstanding part of colonial New England. Crowds tended to intervene when government officials acted against the interests of the people. In 1745, a riot had broken out in Boston when a naval press gang seized several local sailors. Twenty-three years later, anger over the depredations of yet another press gang contributed to the Liberty Riot of 1768, triggered by the seizure of John Hancock’s ship of the same name by Boston customs officials. In that the crowds were attempting to address unpunished wrongs committed against the community, they were a recognized institution that all Bostonians—no matter how wealthy and influential they might be—ignored at their peril. On August 26, 1765, as outrage over the Stamp Act swept across the colonies, a mob of several hundred Bostonians had attacked the home of Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson, breaking windows, beating down doors, and ransacking the house of its elaborate furnishings. But as John Malcom was about to find out on that frigid night in January 1774, and as Thomas Hutchison had learned almost a decade before him, the divide between a civic-minded crowd and an unruly and vindictive mob was frighteningly thin.


Image by Stuart Krichevsky Literary Agency, Inc.. Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution is available for pre-order now and in stores on April 30, 2013. (original image)

Image by Ellen Warner. Nathaniel Philbrick (original image)

Image by (c) 2013 Jeffrey L. Ward. Courtesy of Viking.. Boston in 1774, where loyalist John Malcom was tarred and feathered. (original image)

Image by The Granger Collection, NYC. An artist's depiction of the tarring and feathering of John Malcom in Boston. (original image)

Malcom and his family huddled in their home’s second floor. A locked door stood between them and the angry crowd down below. They heard the thud of the ladders against the sides of the house and the cries of the men and boys as they climbed up to the second-story windows and punched through the glass. It was then that “a Mr. Russell,” perhaps William Russell, an usher (or teaching assistant) at a school on Hanover Street, appeared inside the house. Smiling broadly, he assured Malcom that he came in friendship and shook the customs officer’s hand. He then asked if he could see Malcom’s sword. Desperate for whatever assistance he could find, Malcom reluctantly handed over the weapon, only to watch as Russell (who, if he indeed was William Russell, had participated in the Tea Party) called out to the others in the house that Malcom was now unarmed. “They immediately rushed in,” Malcom wrote, “and by violence forced your memorialist out of the house and beating him with sticks then placed him on a sled they had prepared.” One can only wonder what Mrs. Malcom and her sons and daughters were thinking as they watched him disappear into the unlit streets of Boston.

After a stop at a nearby wharf to pick up a barrel of tar (at some point, down-filled pillows, perhaps taken from Malcom’s own house, were also collected), the crowd, which now numbered more than a thousand people, hauled Malcom through the snowy streets to the center of town, where after three “Huzzas,” they loaded him into a cart parked in front of the Customs House. Almost four years before, this had been the site of the Boston Massacre, and as a consequence the building was now referred to as Butchers’ Hall. Bonfires were common in this portion of King Street, a 60-foot-wide plaza-like space in front of the Town Hall paved with seashells and gravel where the stocks and whipping post were also located. One of these fires may have been used to heat the stiff and sludgy pine tar (a distillation of the bituminous substance that bubbled from a smoldering pine tree) into a pourable black paste.

It was one of the bitterest evenings of the year. Boston Harbor had frozen over two nights before. Malcom was undoubtedly trembling with cold and fear, but this did not prevent the crowd from tearing off his clothes (dislocating his arm in the process) and daubing his skin with steaming tar that would have effectively parboiled his flesh. Once the feathers had been added, Malcom was clothed in what was known at the time as a “modern jacket”: a painful and mortifying announcement to the world that he had sinned against the collective mores of the community. Tarring and feathering went back centuries to the time of the crusades; it was also applied to the effigies used during Pope Night; several Boston loyalists before him had been tarred and feathered, but none could claim the level of suffering that Malcom was about to endure.

Soon the crowd began pushing Malcom’s cart up King Street toward the Town House, the cupola-topped brick building emblazoned with the king’s seal that was the home of the colony’s legislature. Once passed the Town House, they turned left onto Boston’s main thoroughfare, known in this portion of the city as Cornhill. With the three-story brick edifice of Boston’s first Congregational Meeting, referred to as the Old Meeting, on their right, they made their way through a gauntlet of tightly packed buildings of varying heights. Lights flared in the windows as they passed, the crowd’s shouts and whistles washing across the brick and clapboard facings and echoing up into the hills to the right, where the almshouse, the asylum for the “disorderly and insane,” the workhouse, and the granary overlooked the rolling 45-acre sweep of the Common.

Cornhill became Marlborough Street by the time they reached the block containing the governor’s official residence, Province House. On the cupola of this stately, three-story brick structure was a copper weathervane depicting an Indian with an arrow in his bow. When the wind was from the east, the Province House Indian seemed to be aiming at the even higher weathercock on the spire of the Old South Meetinghouse just across the street. The crowd stopped between these two soaring buildings and ordered Malcom to curse Governor Hutchinson (who was safely ensconced at his country house ten miles away in Milton that night) and “say he was an enemy to his country.” Malcom steadfastly refused.

On they proceeded through the freezing darkness, the cart’s wheels crunching through the snow. They were now in the heart of the South End, the more affluent side of town, where Marlborough turned into Newbury Street. At the corner of Essex on their left, they stopped at the huge old elm known as the Liberty Tree. A staff rose up out of the topmost portion of the tree’s trunk on which a flag was often flown. This was where the first protests against the Stamp Act had been held back in 1765, and in the years since, the Liberty Tree had become a kind of druidical, distinctly American shrine to the inherent freedoms of man and that Enlightenment sense of “the state of nature” that exists before a people willingly submit to the dictates of a government of their own choosing.

On this cold night, the people of Boston were directing their anger against a man who resolutely, even fanatically insisted that they must defer to a distant king and a legislature that no longer respected their God-given rights, that obedience must be paid not only to their royal sovereign but to a man like John Malcom: a bitter and grasping underling whose world was crumbling beneath him. Malcom stood in the cart below the tree’s bare winter branches and once again refused to curse the governor.

They continued down Newbury to where it became Orange Street. Soon they were approaching the town gate at Boston Neck, more than a mile from the Town House. The old brick fortification dated back to King Philip’s War, when Boston had become a refuge for those attempting to escape the Indians, and once through the gate, they were out onto the thin strand of wave-washed earth that connected Boston to the town of Roxbury. On either side of them, the icy marshes and shallows extended out into darkness. On the left, just past the gate was the gallows.

They placed a rope around Malcom’s neck and threatened to hang him if he would not do as they’d previously ordered. By this time the tar had congealed into a frozen crust; his body’s inner core had probably become so chilled that he no longer had the ability to tremble.  Once again, he refused to curse the governor, but this time he asked that they would “put their threats into execution rather than continue their torture.”

They took the rope off Malcom’s neck, pinioned his hands behind his back and tied him to the gallows. Then they began to beat him with ropes and sticks “in a most savage manner.” According to one account they even threatened to cut off his ears. At last, he said he would do “anything they desired.” They untied him and made him curse the governor and the Customs board of commissioners. But his sufferings were not over.

For several more hours they continued to parade Malcom through the streets of Boston. Not everyone shared in the crowd’s pitiless delight; a few people, including the man whose intervention had started this horrifying concatenation of events, the shoemaker George Hewes, were so appalled by Malcom’s treatment that they attempted to cover him with their jackets. 

By the time the crowd reached Copp’s Hill near Malcom’s home in the North End, he must have passed out, for he makes no mention of this final stop, which is described in several newspaper accounts. Here, in the cemetery near the summit of the hill, was the grave of Malcom’s younger brother Daniel. Daniel appears to have had the same fiery personality as his brother. Whereas John became a customs agent; Daniel sided with the opposite, more popular camp, famously barricading himself in his house in 1766 to prevent the crown’s agents from finding the smuggled wine he had supposedly hidden in his cellar. When Daniel died in 1769 at the age of 44, he was a patriot hero, and the inscription on his gravestone described him as “a true son of Liberty / a Friend to the Publick / an Enemy to oppression / and one of the foremost / in opposing the Revenue Acts / on America.”

Daniel had been celebrated for breaking the laws of his day. That night in January 1774, his loyalist brother John sat slumped in a chair that someone had placed inside the cart. It was true that he was obnoxious and impulsive, that he’d virtually invited the treatment he’d received. But the fact remained that this “enemy of the people” had been scalded, frozen, and beaten to within an inch of his life not because he’d taken a swipe at a shoemaker but because he upheld the unpopular laws that his brother had scorned. It had been a brutal, even obscene display of violence, but the people of Boston had spoken.

Around midnight, the crowd finally made its way back to Malcom’s house on Cross Street, where he was “rolled out of the cart like a log.” Once he’d been brought back into the house and his frozen body had begun to thaw, his tarred flesh started to peel off in “steaks.” Although he somehow found the strength to make a deposition five days later, it would take another eight weeks before he could leave his bed.

Later that year Malcolm sailed for London with hopes of securing compensation for what he’d suffered at the hands of the Boston mob.  In addition to a detailed petition, he brought along a wooden box containing the ultimate trophy: a withered hunk of his own tarred-and-feathered flesh.

On January 12, 1775, he attended the levee at St. James’s, where he knelt before King George III and handed his majesty a petition. What Malcom wanted more than anything else, he informed the king, was to return to Boston and resume his duties as a customs official—but not as just any customs official.  He wanted to be made “a single Knight of the Tar…for I like the smell of it.”

From the book Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick to be published later this month by Viking. Copyright © 2013 by Nathaniel Philbrick

The Unsolved Murder of Civil Rights Activist Harry Moore

Smithsonian Magazine

It was late on Christmas night, 1951, but Harry and Harriette Moore had yet to open any gifts. Instead they had delayed the festivities in anticipation of the arrival of their younger daughter, Evangeline, who was taking a train home from Washington, D.C. to celebrate along with her sister and grandmother. The Moores had another cause for celebration: the day marked their 25th wedding anniversary, a testament to their unshakeable partnership. But that night in their quiet home on a citrus grove in rural Mims, Florida, the African American couple were fatal victims of a horrific terrorist attack at the hands of those who wanted to silence the Moores.

At 10:20 p.m., a blast ripped apart their bedroom, splintering the floorboards, ceiling and front porch. The explosion was so powerful that witness reported hearing it several miles away. Pamphlets pushing for voters’ rights floated out of the house and onto the street, remnants of a long fight for justice. Harry Moore had spent much of the last two decades earning the enmity of Florida’s white supremacists as he organized for equal pay, voter registration, and justice for murdered African Americans. And yet despite his immense sacrifice and the nation’s initial shock at his assassination, Moore’s name soon faded from the pantheon of Civil Rights martyrs.

After the attack, Moore’s mother and daughter knew they would be unable to get an ambulance willing to transport a black victim, so nearby relatives drove the wounded Harry and Harriette to the town of Sanford, which was more than 30 miles away on a dark, two-lane road bracketed by dense foliage. Harry died shortly after arriving in the hospital, Harriette would die a little more than a week later. When Evangeline arrived at the train station the next day, “She didn’t see her mother and father, but she saw her aunts and uncles and family members. She knew something was wrong,” says Sonya Mallard, coordinator for the Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore Cultural Complex, who knew Evangeline before her death in 2015. Her uncle broke the news on the drive to the hospital, and “her world was never the same again. Never.”

In the years before his death, Harry Moore was increasingly a marked man—and he knew it. But he had begun charting this course in the 1930s, when he worked tirelessly to register black voters. He later expanded his efforts into fighting injustice in lynching cases (Florida had more lynchings per capita than any other state at the time), putting him in the crosshairs of Florida’s most violent and virulent racists.

“Harry T. Moore understood that we had to make a better way, we had to change what was going on here in the state of Florida,” says Mallard. Traveling around the state on roads where it was too dangerous to even use a public restroom, Moore’s mother, Rosa, worried he’d be killed, “but he kept on going because he knew it was bigger than him,” says Mallard.

Moore was born in 1905 in the panhandle town of Houston, Florida. His father, Johnny, owned a small shop and worked for the railroad, and died when Harry was just 9 years old. After trying to support her son as a single parent, Rosa sent Harry to live with his aunts in Jacksonville, a hub for African American business and culture that would prove to be influential on the young Moore. After graduating from Florida Memorial College, as today’s university was then known, Moore likely could have made a relatively comfortable life in Jacksonville.

However, the climate in Florida as a whole as hostile to African Americans. His formative years were ones of pervasive racial violence often unchecked by officials. Before the 1920 election, displaying the impunity enjoyed by white supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan “marched in downtown Orlando specifically to intimidate black voters,” says Ben Brotemarkle, executive director of the Florida Historical Society. When a man named July Perry came to Orlando from nearby Ocoee to vote, he was beaten, shot and hung from a light post and then the primarily African American town was burned in a mob rampage that killed dozens. For decades after, Ocoee had no black residents and was known as a “sundown town”; today the city of 46,000 is 21 percent African American.

A portrait of Harry T. and Henrietta V. Moore (Courtesy of the Moore Cultural Complex)

In 1925, Moore began teaching at a school for black students in Cocoa, Florida, a few miles south of Mims and later assumed the role of principal at the Titusville Colored School. His first year in Cocoa, Harry met Harriette Simms, three years his senior, at a party. She later became a teacher after the birth of their first daughter, Annie Rosalea, known as Peaches. Evangeline was born in 1930.)

His civic activism flowed from his educational activism. “He would bring his own materials and educate students about black history, but what he also did was bring in ballots and he taught his students how to vote. He taught his students the importance of the candidates and making a decision to vote for people who took your interests seriously,” says Brotemarkle.

In 1934, Moore joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an indication of his growing interest in civic matters. In 1937, Moore pushed for a lawsuit challenging the chasm between black and white teachers’ salaries in his local Brevard County, with fellow educator John Gilbert as the plaintiff. Moore enlisted the support of NAACP lawyer (and later Supreme Court Justice) Thurgood Marshall, the start of their professional collaboration. The lawsuit was defeated in both the Circuit Court and the Florida Supreme Court. For his efforts, the Moores later lost their teachings jobs—as did Gilbert.

In the early 1940s, Moore organized the Florida State conference of the NAACP and significantly increased membership (he would later become its first paid executive secretary). He also formed the Progressive Voters’ League in Florida in 1944. “He understood the significance of the power of the vote. He understood the significance of the power of the pen. And he wrote letters and typed letters to anyone and everyone that would listen. And he knew that [African Americans] had to have a voice and we had to have it by voting,” says Mallard. In 1947, building on the U.S. Supreme Court case in which Marshall successfully argued against Texas’ “white primary” that excluded minority voters, Moore organized a letter writing campaign to help rebuff bills proposed in the Florida legislature that would effectively perpetuate white primaries. (As the Tampa Bay Times notes, Florida was “a leading innovator of discriminatory barriers to voting.”)

Before his death, Moore’s efforts in the state helped increase the number of black voters by more than 100,000, according to the Moore Cultural Complex, a figure sure to catch the attention of influential politicians.

But success was a risky proposition. “Moore was coming into a situation in Central Florida where there was a lot of Klan activity, there were a lot of Klansman who had positions in government, and it was a very tenuous time for civil rights,” says Brotemarkle. “People were openly being intimidated and kept away from the polls, and Moore worked diligently to fight that.”

Moore was willing to risk much more than his job. He first became involved in anti-lynching efforts after three white men kidnapped 15-year-old Willie James Howard, bound him with ropes and drowned him in a river for the “crime” of passing a note to a white girl in 1944. The perpetual inaction in cases like Howard’s, in which no one was arrested, tried, or convicted, spurred Moore to effect change. In a 1947 letter to Florida’s congressional delegation, Moore wrote “We cannot afford to wait until the several states get ‘trained’ or ‘educated’ to the point where they can take effective action in such cases. Human life is too valuable for more experimenting of this kind. The Federal Government must be empowered to take the necessary action for the protection of its citizens.”

Moore letters show a polite, but persistent, push for change. His scholarly nature obscured the profound courage it took to stand up to the hostile forces around him in Florida. Those who knew him recall a quiet, soft-spoken man. “The fiery from the pulpit speech? That was not Harry T. Moore. He was much more behind the scenes, but no less aggressive. You can see it from his letters that he was every bit as brave,” says Brotemarkle.

Two years before his death, Moore placed himself in harm’s way in the most prominent manner yet with his involvement in the Groveland Four incident. The men had been accused of raping a white woman; a mob went to drag them from jail and not finding them there, burned and shot into nearby black residents’ homes. After their arrest, conviction by an all-white jury was practically a foregone conclusion, despite attorneys’ assertions that the defendants’ confessions were physically coerced. The case also pitted Moore against Sherriff Willis McCall, who was investigated numerous times in his career for misconduct related to race.

While transporting two of the suspects, McCall shot them, killing one. McCall claimed he had been attacked, but the shootings elicited furious protest. All this took place against the backdrop of the ongoing legal battle—eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a re-trial, which again ended in the conviction of the surviving suspect, who was represented by Thurgood Marshall. (In recent years, Florida has posthumously pardoned and apologized to all four of the accused).

Moore wrote repeatedly to Governor Fuller Warren, methodically dismantling McCall’s claims. He admonished Warren that “Florida is on trial before the rest of the world,” calling on him to remove the officers involved in the shooting. He closed with a reminder that “Florida Negro citizens are still mindful of the fact that our votes proved to be your margin of victory in the [runoff election in] 1948. We seek no special favors; but certainly we have a right to expect justice and equal protection of the laws even for the humblest Negro. Shall we be disappointed again?”

Compounding Moore’s woes, just weeks after the shooting of the Groveland suspects and weeks before his own death, he lost his job at the NAACP. Moore had clashed with the organization’s national leadership for his forward political involvement and disagreements over fundraising. It was a severe blow, but he continued his commitment to the work—albeit now on an unpaid basis.

During the fall of 1951, Florida saw a rash of religious and racial violence. Over a three-month period, multiple bombs had hit Carver Village, a housing complex in Miami leasing to black tenants, in what was likely the work of the KKK; a synagogue and Catholic church were also menaced. “As dark shadow of violence has drifted across sunny Florida—cast by terrorist who blast and kill in the night,” the Associated Press reported days after the Christmas bombing. If lesser known black residents were targeted, then Moore’s prominence meant his situation was especially perilous.

“Moore ruffled a lot of feathers, and there was a large population of Florida that didn’t want to see the type of change that he was part of,” says Brotemarkle.

“I tried to get him to quit the N.A.A.C.P., thinking something might happen to him some day,” Rosa Moore told a reporter after the bombing. “But he told me, ‘I’m trying to do what I can to elevate the Negro race. Every advancement comes by the way of sacrifice, and if I sacrifice my life or health I still think it is my duty for my race.”

News of Moore’s Christmas night death made headlines across the country. Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt expressed her sadness. Governor Warren called for a full investigation but clashed with NAACP executive secretary Walter White, who accused the governor of not doing enough. Warren said White “has come to Florida to try to stir up strife” and called him a “hired Harlem hatemonger.”

While Moore may have been out of favor with the NAACP’s national leadership shortly before his death, he was venerated soon after. In March of 1952, the NAACP held a fundraising gala in New York City, featuring the “Ballad of Harry T. Moore,” written by poet Langston Hughes. His name was a rallying cry at numerous events.

“The Moore bombings set off the most intense civil rights uproar in a decade,” writes Ben Green in Before His Time: The Untold Story of Harry T. Moore, America’s First Civil Rights Martyr. “There had been more violent racial incidents…but the Moore bombing was so personal, so singular – a man and his wife blown up in their home on Christmas Day – that it became a magnifying glass to focus the nation’s revulsion.”

While the publicity helped galvanize awareness for civil rights on a national level, the assassination soon had a chilling effect on voter registration in Florida. “People were petrified, they were scared,” says Mallard. The KKK “terrorized you, they killed you, they lynched you, they scared you. They did all that to shut you up.”

Meanwhile Harriette Moore remained hospitalized for nine days, dying from her injuries one day after her husband’s funeral. “There isn't much left to fight for. My home is wrecked. My children are grown up. They don't need me. Others can carry on," she had told a reporter in a bedside interview. Harriette’s discouragement was palpable, after years of facing the same threats side by side with Harry. “She adored her husband,” says Mallard.

The crime has never been definitively solved, despite commitments from notorious FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover in the bombing’s aftermath and from Florida Governor Charlie Crist in the mid-2000s. After almost 70 years, the identity of the killer or killers may never be pinpointed, but those who have studied Moore’s life and the multiple investigations of the case are confident it was the work of the KKK.

“As the movement’s ranks swelled and the battle was carried to Birmingham, Nashville, Tallahassee, Little Rock, Greensboro and beyond, the unsolved murders of Harry and Harriette Moore, still hanging in limbo, were forgotten,” Green writes. “For Evangeline and Peaches Moore, the pain and heartache never ceased. The murderers of their parents still walked the streets, and no one seemed to care.”

A quote by Harry Moore adorns a fountain outside the Moore Cultural Complex (Francine Uenuma)

Moore’s life and death underscore that not all heroes become legends. Today cities like Selma, Montgomery and Memphis—not Mims—evoke images of the Civil Rights struggle. Moore worked for almost two decades without the weight of national outrage behind him. No television cameras documented the brutal violence or produced the images needed to appall Americans in other states. The Maya Lin-designed Civil Rights Memorial situated across the street from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s office in Montgomery, Alabama, recognizes martyrs from 1955 until Martin Luther King Jr.’s death in 1968. That was 17 years after the Moores were killed.

“When you talk about the contemporary civil rights movement, [people] look at the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 as kind of the starting place for the timeline, and while that can be seen as true in a lot of ways, it overlooks a lot of activity that led up to that,” says Brotemarkle.

Nonetheless Moore’s work and legacy helped lay the groundwork for the expansion of civil rights onto the national platform, and Moore has received some belated recognition in recent decades. The Moore Cultural Complex in Mims welcomes visitors to a replica of their home, rebuilt on the original property. Several of their personal effects are on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C.

In looking back at Moore’s life and work, it is abundantly clear he was never motivated by name recognition in the first place. Moore’s goal was singular - his daughter would later remember him saying before his death that “I have endeavored to help the Negro race and laid my life on the altar.”

The Unlikely Medical History of Chocolate Syrup

Smithsonian Magazine

At first glance, nothing seems particularly odd about the December 1896 edition of The Druggists Circular and Chemical Gazette, a catalog of products that any self-respecting pharmacy ought to carry. But look closer: Hiding among medical necessities like McElroy's glass syringes and Hirsh Frank & Co's lab coats, you’ll find some more curious finds—including Hershey's cocoa powder.

"Perfectly soluble,” boasts the ad in bold, capital lettering. “Warranted absolutely pure.” It reads as if it was peddling medicine—and in fact, it sort of was.

Druggists of the day often used the dark powder to whip up a syrup sweet enough to mask the flavor of objectionable remedies, explains Stella Parks, a pastry chef with the food and cooking website Serious Eats. Parks happened upon these vintage advertisements while she was researching her new book, BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts, which features lesser-known histories of our favorite sweet treats.

The Hershey's ad intrigued her. "What in the world are these guys doing advertising to druggists?" she recalls wondering at the time. By digging into the history and tracking down more pharmaceutical circulars and magazines, she discover the rich history of chocolate syrup, which began not with ice cream and flavored milk—but with medicine.

(The Druggists' Circular and Chemical Gazette, Volume 40, 1896)

Our love of chocolate goes back over 3,000 years, with traces of cacao appearing as early as 1500 B.C. in the pots of the Olmecs of Mexico. Yet for most of its early history, it was consumed as a drink made from fermented, roasted, and ground beans. This drink was a far cry from the sweetened, milky stuff we call hot chocolate today: It was rarely sweetened, and likely very bitter.

Still, the roughly football-sized pods that cradled the beans were held in high esteem; the Aztecs even traded cacao as currency. Chocolate didn’t become popular overseas, however, until Europeans ventured into the Americas at the end of the 15th century. By the 1700s, the ground beans were avidly consumed throughout Europe and the American colonies as a sweetened, hot drink that was vaguely reminiscent to today’s hot cocoa.

At the time, chocolate was touted for its medicinal properties and prescribed as treatment for a range of diseases, says Deanna Pucciarelli, a professor of nutrition and dietetics at Ball State University who researches the medicinal history of chocolate. It was often prescribed for people suffering from wasting disease: The extra calories assisted in weight gain, and the caffeine-like compounds helped perk patients up. "It didn't treat the actual illness, but it treated the symptoms," she explains.

Yet for pharmacists, it wasn’t only the supposed health benefits but also the rich, velvety flavor that held such appeal. "One thing about medicines, even going way back, is that they are really bitter," says Diane Wendt, associate curator of the division of medicine and science at Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Many medications were originally derived from plants and fall in a class of compounds known as alkaloids, which has an acrid, mouth-puckering flavor. The first of these alkaloids, isolated by a German chemist in the early 1800s, was none other than morphine.

Chocolate, it turns out, effectively covered the toe-curling taste of these foul flavors. "Few substances are so eagerly taken by children or invalids, and fewer still are better than [chocolate] for masking the taste of bitter or nauseous medicinal substances," according to the 1899 text, The Pharmaceutical Era.

It's unclear exactly when pharmacists first combined cocoa powder and sugar to brew the sticky syrup. But its popularity was likely helped along by the invention of cocoa powder. In 1828, Dutch chemist Coenraad J. Van Houten patented a press that successfully removed some of chocolate's natural fats, reducing its bitter flavor and making it easier to dissolve with water. Still, the result wasn’t exactly the "same kind of smooth mellow chocolate we have now," says Parks; to make it palatable, pharmacists would mix cocoa powder with at least eight times more sugar than chocolate.

The popularity of chocolate syrup exploded in the second half of the 19th century, coinciding with the golden age so-called patent medicines. These are named after the "letters of patent" the English crown awarded to inventors of supposedly curative formulas. The first English medicine patent was awarded in the late 1600s, but the name later came to refer to any over-the-counter drugs. American “patent medicines” went by the same name, but were not typically patented under this system.

Patent medicines emerged at a time when public need for treatments and cures outpaced medical knowledge. Many of these "cures" did more harm than good. Often marketed as cure-alls, the concoctions could contain anything from pulverized fruits and veggies to alcohol and opioids. At the time, the common use of these addictive substances in remedies was legal; regulation didn't come about until the 1914 passage of the Harrison Narcotic Act.

One popular remedy featuring tincture of opium as its active ingredient was Stickney and Poor's Paregoric. This syrup was marketed as a treatment for many ills, and given to cholicky infants as young as five days old. “Remedies” like this weren’t completely ineffective. The inclusion of narcotics and alcohol in the cures did indeed give customers temporary relief from illness—and, more sinisterly, their addictive nature kept them coming back for more.

Vintage Hershey's ad showing chocolate syrup as a "stepping stone to health." (Hershey's Company)

The boom of factory mass production in the 1900s brought with it the rise of easy-to-swallow medical pills. But before that, "pill making by hand is pretty labor intensive," says Wendt. "To actually make a pill of a certain dose—to mix it up and cut the pills, and roll the pills, and dry the pills, and coat the pills—that's a pretty lengthy process." That’s why, during this time, medications were mostly served up in liquid or powder form, says Wendt.

Druggists would mix each liquid remedy with a base of sugary flavored syrups, like chocolate, and take it either by the spoonful or mixed into a beverage, says Wendt. Alternatively, powders could be directly poured into your refreshment of choice. The base for these medicinal drinks could be anything from plain water to tea to a couple fingers of whiskey. But over the course of the 1800s, one particular drink was gaining popularity as a medicine masker: carbonated water.

Not unlike chocolate, soda water was initially considered a health drink in its own right. The carbonated beverage mimicked the mineral-rich waters bubbling up in natural springs that had become known for its curative and healing powers. Soda became a truly widespread phenomenon in America around the turn of the century thanks to the pharmacist Jacob Baur, who invented the process necessary to sell tanks of pressurized carbon dioxide.

Part health drink, part delicious treat, sweetened carbonated water began spreading like wildfire in the form of soda fountains, Darcy O'Neil writes in his book Fix the Pumps.

Syrups became ever more popular to keep pace with the soda craze. Many of these flavors are still common today: vanilla, ginger, lemon and, of course, chocolate. By the late 1800s hardly a pharmacist publication went without some mention of chocolate syrup, Parks writes in Bravetart. And hardly a drug store went without a soda shop: Soda fountains served as a lucrative side business for druggists and pharmacists who commonly struggled to make ends meet, says Parks.

At the time, carbonated concoctions were largely still seen as cures. "Soda is an excellent medium for taking many medicines," according to the 1897 book, The Standard Manual of Soda and Other Beverages. "For example, the best method of administering castor oil is to draw a glass of sarsaparilla soda in the usual manner and pour in the requisite amount of oil." (Sarsaparilla, a flavor derived from the root of a tropical vine, is still used today in some root beer variants.)

One example still very much available today is Coca Cola: Originally mixed up with cocaine, the fizzy drink was touted it as a healthful stimulant to revive the brain and body.

At the turn of the century, however, chocolate syrup began to shift from treatment to treat. "It just seemed to naturally segue into all the ice cream [desserts] that pharmacists had to keep on hand just to stay afloat," says Parks.

A fortuitous mix of events helped elevate the state of chocolate to commercial confection. First, in the early 20th century, concerns over false health claims and downright dangerous cures helped lead to the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, which required druggists to disclose the remedy ingredients with clear and accurate labels. Similarly, a clamp down on American patent medicines may have further driven the chocolatey transition.

At the same time, other forms of chocolate were gaining traction as confections in their own right. As the industrial revolution ushered in machinery that took over the time-intensive process of turning cacao to cocoa, prices began to fall, explains Pucciarelli. "It all comes together," she says. "The price of manufacturing drops, the price of sugar drops, and then you have [chocolate] bars."

In 1926, Hershey's began marketing pre-mixed chocolate syrup in both single and double strength varieties for commercial businesses. The cans were shelf stable, meaning druggists (and soda jerks) didn't need to continually mix up new batches. By 1930, both Hershey's and other chocolate companies like Bosco's had begun marketing chocolate syrup for home use.

The rest is sweet, sweet history. These days, despite many modern claims of health benefits—some founded and some unfounded—chocolate is considered more confection than cure. Chocolate accounts for the "vast majority" of the $35 billion confection market in the United States, according to the National Confectioners association.

Yet the use of a sweet cover for medications remains isn’t completely dead. You can find sweetness masking medicine in many forms, from cherry cough syrup to bubblegum-flavored amoxicillin. It seems Mary Poppins was right: A spoonful of sugar—or in this case, chocolate—really does help the medicine go down.

The Ten Most Disturbing Scientific Discoveries

Smithsonian Magazine

Science can be glorious; it can bring clarity to a chaotic world. But big scientific discoveries are by nature counterintuitive and sometimes shocking. Here are ten of the biggest threats to our peace of mind.

1. The Earth is not the center of the universe.

We’ve had more than 400 years to get used to the idea, but it’s still a little unsettling. Anyone can plainly see that the Sun and stars rise in the east, sweep across the sky and set in the west; the Earth feels stable and stationary. When Copernicus proposed that the Earth and other planets instead orbit the Sun,

… his contemporaries found his massive logical leap “patently absurd,” says Owen Gingerich of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “It would take several generations to sink in. Very few scholars saw it as a real description of the universe.”

Galileo got more grief for the idea than Copernicus did. He used a telescope to provide evidence for the heliocentric theory, and some of his contemporaries were so disturbed by what the new invention revealed—craters on a supposedly perfectly spherical moon, other moons circling Jupiter—that they refused to look through the device. More dangerous than defying common sense, though, was Galileo’s defiance of the Catholic Church. Scripture said that the Sun revolved around the Earth, and the Holy Office of the Inquisition found Galileo guilty of heresy for saying otherwise.

2. The microbes are gaining on us.

Antibiotics and vaccines have saved millions of lives; without these wonders of modern medicine, many of us would have died in childhood of polio, mumps or smallpox. But some microbes are evolving faster than we can find ways to fight them.

The influenza virus mutates so quickly that last year’s vaccination is usually ineffective against this year’s bug. Hospitals are infested with antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus bacteria that can turn a small cut into a limb- or life-threatening infection. And new diseases keep jumping from animals to humans—ebola from apes, SARS from masked palm civets, hantavirus from rodents, bird flu from birds, swine flu from swine. Even tuberculosis, the disease that killed Frederic Chopin and Henry David Thoreau, is making a comeback, in part because some strains of the bacterium have developed multi-drug resistance. Even in the 21st century, it’s quite possible to die of consumption.

3. There have been mass extinctions in the past, and we’re probably in one now.

Paleontologists have identified five points in Earth’s history when, for whatever reason (asteroid impact, volcanic eruptions and atmospheric changes are the main suspects), mass extinctions eliminated many or most species.

The concept of extinction took a while to sink in. Thomas Jefferson saw mastodon bones from Kentucky, for example, and concluded that the giant animals must still be living somewhere in the interior of the continent. He asked Lewis and Clark to keep an eye out for them.

Today, according to many biologists, we’re in the midst of a sixth great extinction. Mastodons may have been some of the earliest victims. As humans moved from continent to continent, large animals that had thrived for millions of years began to disappear—mastodons in North America, giant kangaroos in Australia, dwarf elephants in Europe. Whatever the cause of this early wave of extinctions, humans are driving modern extinctions by hunting, destroying habitat, introducing invasive species and inadvertently spreading diseases.

4. Things that taste good are bad for you.

In 1948, the Framingham Heart Study enrolled more than 5,000 residents of Framingham, Massachusetts, to participate in a long-term study of risk factors for heart disease. (Very long term—the study is now enrolling the grandchildren of the original volunteers.) It and subsequent ambitious and painstaking epidemiological studies have shown that one’s risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, certain kinds of cancer and other health problems increases in a dose-dependent manner upon exposure to delicious food. Steak, salty French fries, eggs Benedict, triple-fudge brownies with whipped cream—turns out they’re killers. Sure, some tasty things are healthy—blueberries, snow peas, nuts and maybe even (oh, please) red wine. But on balance, human taste preferences evolved during times of scarcity, when it made sense for our hunter-gatherer ancestors to gorge on as much salt and fat and sugar as possible. In the age of Hostess pies and sedentary lifestyles, those cravings aren’t so adaptive.

5. E=mc²

Einstein’s famous equation is certainly one of the most brilliant and beautiful scientific discoveries—but it’s also one of the most disturbing. The power explained by the equation really rests in the c², or the speed of light (186,282 miles per second) times itself, which equals 34,700,983,524. When that’s your multiplier, you don’t need much mass—a smidgen of plutonium is plenty—to create enough energy to destroy a city.

Image by North Wind Picture Archives / Alamy. The Aztecs slaughtered tens of thousands of people to inaugurate the Great Pyramid of Tenochititlan. Recent archaeological findings suggest that is was common for people around the world to ritually kill—and sometimes eat—other people. (original image)

Image by AlaskaStock / Corbis. The consequences of burning fossil fuels are already apparent. We have just begun to see the effects of human-induced climate change. (original image)

Image by INTERFOTO / Alamy. Copernicus' contemporaries found his proposal that the Earth and other planets orbit the Sun "patently absurd." (original image)

Image by The Natural History Museum / Alamy. For the past 151 years, since On the Origin of Species was published, people have been arguing over evolution. (original image)

Image by Mark Peterson / Corbis. In 1948, the Framingham Heart Study enrolled more than 5,000 residents of Framingham, Massachusetts, to participate in a long-term study of risk factors for heart disease. The study is currently enrolling the grandchildren of the original volunteers. (original image)

6. Your mind is not your own.

Freud might have been wrong in the details, but one of his main ideas—that a lot of our behaviors and beliefs and emotions are driven by factors we are unaware of—turns out to be correct. If you’re in a happy, optimistic, ambitious mood, check the weather. Sunny days make people happier and more helpful. In a taste test, you’re likely to have a strong preference for the first sample you taste—even if all of the samples are identical. The more often you see a person or an object, the more you’ll like it. Mating decisions are based partly on smell. Our cognitive failings are legion: we take a few anecdotes and make incorrect generalizations, we misinterpret information to support our preconceptions, and we’re easily distracted or swayed by irrelevant details. And what we think of as memories are merely stories we tell ourselves anew each time we recall an event. That’s true even for flashbulb memories, the ones that feel as though they’ve been burned into the brain:

Like millions of people, [neuroscientist Karim] Nader has vivid and emotional memories of the September 11, 2001, attacks and their aftermath. But as an expert on memory, and, in particular, on the malleability of memory, he knows better than to fully trust his recollections… As clear and detailed as these memories feel, psychologists find they are surprisingly inaccurate.

7. We’re all apes.

It’s kind of deflating, isn’t it? Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection can be inspiring: perhaps you’re awed by the vastness of geologic time or marvel at the variety of Earth’s creatures. The ability to appreciate and understand nature is just the sort of thing that is supposed to make us special, but instead it allowed us to realize that we’re merely a recent variation on the primate body plan. We may have a greater capacity for abstract thought than chimps do, but we’re weaker than gorillas, less agile in the treetops than orangutans and more ill-tempered than bonobos.

Charles Darwin started life as a creationist and only gradually came to realize the significance of the variation he observed in his travels aboard the Beagle. For the past 151 years, since On the Origin of Species was published, people have been arguing over evolution. Our ape ancestry conflicts with every culture’s creation myth and isn’t particularly intuitive, but everything we’ve learned since then—in biology, geology, genetics, paleontology, even chemistry and physics—supports his great insight.

8. Cultures throughout history and around the world have engaged in ritual human sacrifice.

Say you’re about to die and are packing some supplies for the afterlife. What to take? A couple of coins for the ferryman? Some flowers, maybe, or mementos of your loved ones? If you were an ancient Egyptian pharaoh, you’d have your servants slaughtered and buried adjacent to your tomb. Concubines were sacrificed in China to be eternal companions; certain Indian sects required human sacrifices. The Aztecs slaughtered tens of thousands of people to inaugurate the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan; after sacred Mayan ballgames, the losing team was sometimes sacrificed.

It’s hard to tell fact from fiction when it comes to this particularly gruesome custom. Ritual sacrifice is described in the Bible, Greek mythology and the Norse sagas, and the Romans accused many of the people they conquered of engaging in ritual sacrifice, but the evidence was thin. A recent accumulation of archaeological findings from around the world shows that it was surprisingly common for people to ritually kill—and sometimes eat—other people.

9. We’ve already changed the climate for the rest of this century.

The mechanics of climate change aren’t that complex: we burn fossil fuels; a byproduct of that burning is carbon dioxide; it enters the atmosphere and traps heat, warming the surface of the planet. The consequences are already apparent: glaciers are melting faster than ever, flowers are blooming earlier (just ask Henry David Thoreau), and plants and animals are moving to more extreme latitudes and altitudes to keep cool.

Even more disturbing is the fact that carbon dioxide lingers in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. We have just begun to see the effects of human-induced climate change, and the predictions for what’s to come range from dire to catastrophic.

10. The universe is made of stuff we can barely begin to imagine.

Everything you probably think of when you think of the universe—planets, stars, galaxies, black holes, dust—makes up just 4 percent of whatever is out there. The rest comes in two flavors of “dark,” or unknown stuff: dark matter, at 23 percent of the universe, and dark energy, at a whopping 73 percent:

Scientists have some ideas about what dark matter might be—exotic and still hypothetical particles—but they have hardly a clue about dark energy. … University of Chicago cosmologist Michael S. Turner ranks dark energy as “the most profound mystery in all of science.”

The effort to solve it has mobilized a generation of astronomers in a rethinking of physics and cosmology to rival and perhaps surpass the revolution Galileo inaugurated on an autumn evening in Padua. … [Dark energy] has inspired us to ask, as if for the first time: What is this cosmos we call home?

But astronomers do know that, thanks to these dark parts, the universe is expanding. And not only expanding, but expanding faster and faster. Ultimately, everything in the universe will drift farther and farther apart until the universe is uniformly cold and desolate. The world will end in a whimper.

The Plymouth Hero You Should Really Be Thankful for This Thanksgiving

Smithsonian Magazine

Almost everything we know about the first Thanksgiving in 1621 is based on a few lines from a letter.

"Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty."

–Edward Winslow, December, 1621

Not surprisingly, the sparse details of the harvest festival Winslow describes bears little resemblance to the turkey-and-pigskin-imbued holiday most Americans celebrate on the fourth Thursday of November.

But more interesting than the letter’s content is its author, a figure largely missing from the Thanksgiving story.

Edward Winslow—diplomat, printer, author, trader and politician (some might even call him a social scientist and a public relations practitioner)—was one of the most important, and today, perhaps least remembered, leaders of the group of separatists called Pilgrims. Without Winslow, Plymouth—and indeed, the New England colonies—might not have survived.

“He was hugely significant,” says Rebecca Fraser, a British historian whose book about the Winslow family will be published next year. “He was one of those people who have so much energy. He needed to be striding around doing lots of things."

The prominent Boston theologian and writer Cotton Mather, writing in 1702, referred to Winslow as a “Hercules” for his strength and fortitude in dealing with multiple challenges facing the Plymouth settlement and later, New England as a whole. Winslow faced down Native American tribes hostile to the colonists and their allies and confronted warring political and economic factions on the other side of the Atlantic. In those latter battles, the ones fought in the corridors of power and the court of public opinion back in England, Winslow was the equivalent of a modern-day lobbyist.

"Winslow was the designated defender of New England's reputation," says Donna Curtin, executive director of Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts. "It wasn't in the political interest of Plymouth or Massachusetts Bay to be viewed as fractious or repressive by authorities back in England,.”

Winslow's unique background more than qualified him for the job. Most of the Pilgrims were yeoman farmers, with little formal education. Not Winslow. Born in 1595, he was educated in an Anglican cathedral school where the students spoke Greek and Latin, and he may have attended university in Cambridge. He then became an apprentice printer in London, although he left  before he had completed his training. “I suppose he was inspired by the last book he worked on,” says Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs, director of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum in the Netherlands. That book, he says, was what we might now call a travel memoir by an Englishman who had spent time in Europe.

Possibly influenced by Puritan literature, Winslow ended up in Holland, a refuge for many English separatist groups, including the congregation that formed a new community in the Dutch university town of Leiden.

“As far as we know, he wasn’t involved with a separatist church until he got to Leiden,” says Bangs, who also authored a biography of Winslow.

In Leiden, young Winslow worked with William Brewster, a printer and prominent member of the group. He immersed himself in the theology and goals of the Pilgrims who decided, after a decade in Holland, that their best hope for creating the kind of religious community they aspired to could be found in the New World. Winslow was one of the 102 passengers on the Mayflower. Later, he wrote a stirring account of the ship's arrival on distant shores after a fearful Atlantic passage:

Falling in with Cape Cod, which is in New England, and standing to the southward for the place we intended, we met with many dangers and mariners put back into the harbor of the Cape, which was the 11th of November, 1620: Where considering winter was come, the seas dangerous, the season cold, the winds high and being well-furnished for a plantation, we entered upon discovery and settled at Plymouth: Where God please to preserve and enable us.

That preservation was made possible by the local Wampanoag people, whom the Pilgrims befriended. Here, Winslow played a critical role. He was a natural diplomat, a keen observer and inherently curious. “He really is interested in learning more about the Wampanoag people and their beliefs and customs,” says Curtin “Not only does he observe their life ways, but he records them.”

“You’ll find out more about the Indians from Winslow than almost anyone else,” agrees Bangs. Notably, he was also willing to re-assess his attitudes based on what he learned from the indigenous people he met. “In the first year, he thought they had no concept of religion at all,” says Bangs. “In the next year or two, though, he had a more elaborate idea of what they thought in philosophic and religious terms and he corrected what he said.”

In his best-selling 2006 book Mayflower, historian Nathaniel Philbrick praises a detailed, first-person description of wigwams co-written by Winslow and William Bradford; “a modern anthropologist would have a hard time outdoing the report,” he writes.

When the Wampanoag sachem, or leader, Massasoit—himself a skilled diplomat—first visited the hardscrabble Plymouth settlement, Winslow was chosen from among the English settlers to walk out and greet him personally. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship; one that would prove critical to the stability of the colony. “[Winslow] had a terrific relationship with Massasoit,” says Fraser. The friendship was forged in a dramatic way. When the chief was seriously ill, Winslow—who had no medical training—walked to his village and reportedly nursed him back to health using a time-honored remedy: chicken soup. “There’s a wonderful relation by Winslow about going to Massasoit’s home and making chicken broth for him,” Fraser says. “It’s very tender.”

Like most Pilgrims, Winslow suffered personal loss in the early years of the settlement. His first wife Elizabeth died in March, 1621. Barely six weeks later, Winslow married Susanna White, whose husband had died as well. It was the first marriage in the new colony and produced five children.

In terms of his career, Winslow went further and higher than anyone else from the Plymouth settlement. He was the man selected first by Plymouth, and later by the emerging new Massachusetts Bay Colony to the north, to be the colonists’ liaison with London. In 1624, he returned to England to represent the interests of his fellow Pilgrims.

Though the Pilgrims were far from their native shores, the Plymouth colony was still affected by the mother country. Fish and furs needed to be sent back to help pay off their debts to those who had helped underwrite the cost of the journey. Many fellow separatists had remained in England and Holland—what would become of them? Would they join the new religious community founded by their friends in the new world? If so, how…and who would pay for it?

The colonists had other far-off struggles, too. There were conflicts with a rival colony in Maine, formed soon after the founding of Plymouth. There were denominational issues about church membership that needed to be addressed by Puritan authorities back home. And most important of all was the looming tussle between Parliament and the sovereignty, held by James I, whose attitudes towards the Pilgrims and their ilk had inspired them to leave England in the first place. The dispute between the Pilgrims and the crown finally exploded into the English Civil War two decades after the Pilgrims first landed.

Edward Winslow found himself in the midst of this roiling, complex political drama. His first mission was to sort out a boundary dispute in the wilds of Maine. "A settler named John Hocking had been killed by the Plymouth settlers because he went onto a part of the Kennebec River which belonged to the colony." Fraser explains. "Winslow had to apologize to Lord Saye, who was one of the founders of the Piscataqua settlement."

He had other business, too. Winslow published a number of pamphlets defending and promoting the New England colonies. After the English Civil War, when at first Parliament and later, in 1653, Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protectorate, Winslow’s entreaties on behalf of the colonists were more warmly received than before. Cromwell recognized Winslow’s talents and appointed him to number of important committees, including one overseeing the confiscation of property from royalty. Soon, Winslow found himself doing everything from inventorying palaces to hearing the grievances of aristocrats who felt they had been unfairly treated.

Winslow’s 17th-century equivalent of jet-setting diplomacy didn’t always sit well with his friends back in Plymouth. In 1646  as Winslow headed for England yet again, William Bradford, Plymouth's governor and Winslow's close friend, grumbled that he had done so without permission. And Winslow's open-mindedness had limits. In 1645, Curtin notes, "he opposed a remarkable proposal to establish full religious freedom for all faiths in Plymouth despite his own experience of religious toleration as an exile in Holland."

Winslow’s star appeared to be reaching its zenith when, in 1655, he was sent by Cromwell to the West Indies as part of a military expedition aimed at establishing English settlements there. He had been designated by Cromwell to be the new governor of Jamaica.  “That was an enormously powerful position,” Bangs says.

But he never made it to the new colony. During the voyage, Winslow took ill and died at sea.

While Edward Winslow did indeed travel more widely and in higher circles than the rest of his original group of settlers from Plymouth, he seems to have remained at heart, a god-fearing Pilgrim, and never lost his pride in what he and his fellow dissenters had accomplished with their small settlement on the edge of a vast new continent. Plymouth was a community, he wrote, “not laid upon schism, division or separation, but upon love, peace and holiness; yea, such love and mutual care of the Church of Leyden for the spreading of the Gospel, the welfare of each other and their posterities to succeeding generations, is seldom found on earth.”

The Murderous Story of America’s First Hijacking

Smithsonian Magazine

Earnest Pletch was mad on planes and mad on flying. In itself, that was scarcely uncommon in the America of the 1930s, a dozen years after Charles Lindbergh’s solo crossing of the Atlantic turned the United States into the epicentre of everything exciting in the aviation world. Yet Pletch was a pretty unusual case. He came from a well-off family, but had dropped out of school to find work in a travelling show. He was a serial husband and adulterer who was already, at the age of 29, planning to abandon his third wife. And he had actually been taking flying lessons.

Now – late on the afternoon of October 27, 1939 – Pletch was looking forward to going solo. He was not going to take the controls in the usual way, however. He was going to do so after shooting his pilot in the back of the head.

He may be long forgotten now, but Pletch came briefly to America’s attention that autumn after chartering a flight in Missouri with a pilot by the name of Carl Bivens. Midway through the third of these sessions, while airborne at 5,000 feet and sitting in the rear seat of a tandem training plane equipped with dual controls, he pulled a revolver from a trouser pocket and, without giving any warning, sent two .32 caliber bullets through Bivens’s skull. Pletch then managed to land the plane, dumped the instructor’s body in a thicket, and took off again, heading north to his home state to…well, what he intended to do was never really clear.


Pletch (who was known to his family as Larry) came from an apparently good home. His father, Guy, was a wealthy farmer and a county legislator from Frankfort, Indiana, and the young Earnest seems to have grown up wanting for little. Like many young men in the interwar period, he was a decent mechanic and a self-proclaimed inventor, and, while he was still at school, he began begging his father to buy him an aircraft. It was at this point that Pletch first revealed the self-centeredness that characterizes his life story. Told that he would have to graduate from high school first, he instead left school in disgust around 1926 and impulsively married the first of his at least four wives.

It seems likely that Pletch more or less lost contact with his family at about this time. Later, he would tell the authorities that he had stolen Bivens’s plane so that he could fly it into the side of his father’s barn – which would certainly have made some sort of statement. In the end, he never went through with that plan. But the peripatetic life that the young Pletch led between 1926 and 1939 was scarcely something that his father would have approved of, and perhaps that was the point.

Earnest Pletch, ‘The Flying Lochinvar': pioneer highjacker and committer of a spectacularly pointless murder

How Pletch supported himself for most of those dozen years is largely unknown. One newspaper of the period described him as a “farm hand,” but it seems more likely that he made a living as a mechanic, since he “preferred repairing cars and tractors to working on the family farm.” According to his own account, he began to study flying seriously in 1935, working solely from books. He doesn’t seem to have laid his hands on an actual aircraft until 1938, when – according to his obituary – he took a job at a traveling fair that offered brief airplane rides to thrill-seeking locals.

This was no ordinary job, and Pletch was working with no ordinary fair. His employer was the Royal American Shows, an enormous traveling funfair that toured through the United States and Canada for nine months each year, billing itself both as “the most beautiful show on earth” and as the proud possessor of “the world’s largest midway.” The attractions that Pletch would have worked alongside included girlie shows that featured the likes of Gypsy Rose Lee. When the fair traveled, it did so using its own special train, which at its peak consisted of almost 100 carriages.

In June 1938, now 28 years old and feeling that he had learned all that he could from reading books and watching the pilots of the Royal American, Pletch returned home to Frankfort. While there, he stole an aircraft in the middle of the night and – incredibly – managed not only to take off, but also to return safely to ground in it. “It was the first time I had ever been at the controls,” he later bragged. “The boys said it couldn’t be done. I took off in that plane at three o’clock in the morning and flew it to Danville, Illinois [about 75 miles due west], and landed it in a seven-acre field.”

Presuming that the missing plane would be reported, Pletch kept moving. From Danville, he flew to Vernon, Illinois, where he set up as a freelance pilot offering thrill rides to paying customers. It’s hard to say how long he might have contrived to keep this business going before anyone caught up with him, because he managed, in short order, to get himself entangled in yet another problem. One of the customers who paid for a ride in his plane was a 17-year-old Vernon girl by the name of Goldie Gehrken. Pletch (who was calling himself Larry Thompson and claiming to be 24, five years younger than his real age) quickly fell for her, and the pair embarked on a five day aerial romance, flying from place to place around the state while Pletch repeatedly begged Gehrken to marry him. When she refused, Pletch abandoned her, leaving her sitting under a tree in a field while he flew off.

The girl’s parents, who had been frantically searching for her for the best part of a week, professed themselves reluctant to press charges – because, the mother said, “the young man took such good care of our daughter.” But the police proved less accommodating. Pletch was tracked down and arrested, charged with theft and then freed on bond to await a trial and likely a spell of imprisonment. That trial was scheduled to begin the week after he murdered Carl Bivens and made off with his plane.

The precise circumstances of the Bivens murder are rendered hazy by the endless lies that Pletch spun after the shooting. It seems, though, that he had rejoined the Royal American Shows and that it was the carnival that took him to Missouri – where, in September 1939, he married Francis Bales, of Palmyra. She may have met him at the fair, and she was, apparently, his third wife. Whatever the truth, the marriage didn’t last. Bales left Pletch after only a few days – one source says that he robbed her – and not much more than a month later, after borrowing a car in which he searched unsuccessfully for his missing wife, he did something just as impulsive, but with vastly more serious consequences. He pitched up in the little town of Brookfield, Missouri, and asked Carl Bivens to teach him to fly.

Carl Bivens’s fatal encounter with Earnest Pletch over Missouri left a wife without a husband, and two sons without a father.

Pletch took two lessons on the cool autumn afternoon of October 28, and they went well enough for him to request a third flight in the little yellow Taylor Club monoplane that Bivens had borrowed from a friend. It was 40 minutes into that third session, while “zipping along” at about 5,000 feet, that the instructor was murdered.

Pletch’s motive for killing Bivens was never really clear. He gave several different versions of events, saying at one point that he had plotted to steal the plane in order to use it to test his inventions – which supposedly included a new sort of high-performance aviation fuel – and at another, in an account that was rather plainly intended to reduce the charge he faced from first to second degree murder, that he and the instructor had agreed to abscond together in the plane and head for Mexico.

In this version of events, Bivens had tried to back out of the deal while in mid-air above Missouri. Pletch’s story was that the two men had argued – “I told him that he was not going to double-cross me” – and that Bivens had reached back and attempted to grapple with him, losing control of the plane in the process. It was only because he feared that they were about to crash, Pletch said, that he drew his gun and fired. The best evidence that this was simply a lie can be found in the killer’s own account; having claimed that he acted in a panic to save his own life, Pletch went on to concede that the emergency only really began after he had shot the pilot: “The ship began to pitch and then to dive,” he claimed. “I remembered reading about a dying man ‘stiffening at the controls,’ and then I fired another shot… I reached forward and pulled his body away from the controls, and after a few seconds I got the plane straightened out.”

Given the seating arrangement in the plane (Bivens was seated directly in front of Pletch, and also had to fly the aircraft, meaning that he was scarcely in a position to seriously threaten his student), this last story rings spectacularly false. It seems much more likely that the murder was nothing more than a means to an end, and that Pletch was simply doing what he had already done once before – stealing a plane and fleeing his responsibilities, albeit in a startlingly strange and brutal manner. He seems to have hinted as much in what was probably the closest that he ever came to telling the truth, a statement made to prosecutors in Missouri:

Carl was telling me that I had a natural ability, and I should follow that line [a career in aviation]. I had a revolver in my pocket and without saying a word to him, I took it out of my overalls and I fired a bullet into the back of his head. He never knew what struck him.

Having landed briefly in order to dispose of Bivens’s body – which he did, after relieving the dead man of his wrist watch and several hundred dollars in cash, by dumping it in a cow pasture near Cherry Box, Missouri – Pletch flew north. He landed in another field as it grew dark, spending the night in a barn and moving on first thing in the morning. He was heading, apparently, for his parents home, and even circled over it – but, having decided against the suicidal plan of crashing into his father’s barn, he landed instead in a field in Clear Creek, just outside the central Indiana town of Bloomington. It was dusk by then, and just over a day since the murder: plenty of time for Bivens’s body to be discovered and for word of the stolen plane to spread through the Midwest.

The first people in Clear Creek to notice the plane’s approach were two young children, Bobby Joe and Jimmy Logsdon. The brothers had been doing chores when they heard the sound of an engine overhead. Bobby Joe, who was “crazy about aviation,” just like Pletch, had never seen or heard a plane at such close quarters, but his father would not allow him to run out to touch the aircraft as he wanted to. Plenty of others did hurry to the site, however – nothing quite so exciting had happened in the little farming community for years – and when Pletch climbed down from the cockpit and asked if there was anywhere nearby to eat, they pointed him in the direction of the Williams & Wampler General Store, which had a lunch counter that served hamburgers and coffee.

There was still enough light for several of the locals crowding around the plane to notice something suspicious about the pilot: there was blood on the front of his blue overalls. Pletch explained the stains away by saying that it came from “a nosebleed that he got from the altitude,” but word of his arrival quickly reached Clear Creek’s telephone operator, Bertha Manner, and she had been listening to her radio when it reported a sighting of Pletch’s stolen yellow aeroplane as it circled over Frankfort. Manner, who prided herself on her “vivid imagination and a nose for news,” lost no time in calling the Bloomington police.

Interviewed by a local reporter 70 years after the events of that exciting evening, Bobby Joe Logsdon recalled that the phone soon rang in the general store:

Bill Wampler answered it. The deputy instructed Bill to say only ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in response to his questions. He asked if the pilot was there, then if Bill could stall him, but not to do anything foolish because the man was dangerous. Bill was frying the hamburgers for the pilot. He was a nervous, jittery kind of a guy, but he just scooted the burgers over to the cool part of the grill so they wouldn’t cook so fast.

Thanks to Wampler’s quick thinking, Pletch was still in the middle of his meal when the state and local police arrived and surrounded the building. He gave up without a fight, turned over his pistol, and was led away from the store in handcuffs. Interviewed in Monroe County Jail, he made much of his love for aircraft. “I would rather fly than eat,” he said.

The case threatened to establish some interesting legal precedents. It was, to begin with, the first case of highjacking, or “air piracy”, in the United States – the Chicago Tribune termed it “one of the most spectacular crimes of the 20th century, and what is believed to be the first airplane kidnap murder on record.” Since Pletch could not really navigate (and had every incentive, in any case, to fudge the issue), it was also not at all clear exactly where the murder had occurred, and hence where the case ought to be tried. In the course of their lesson, Bivens and Pletch had flown over three Missouri counties, each of which was a separate jurisdiction. That was confusing enough, but – as James L. Robinson, a law professor and director of the Indiana University Institute of Criminal Law pointed out – the statutes in force at the time had not been drafted to take account of killings that took place in mid-air.

“Suppose a murder is committed in an airplane out of sight of land,” Robinson hypothesized,  “making it impossible to prove the county over which the offense occurred. Could the murder be prosecuted, and, if so, where?”

Etta Bivens and her son Russell shortly after hearing news of Carl Bivens’s murder. Etta asked for mercy for the killer, but did not intend what happened next.

Unfortunately for Earnest Pletch, the prosecutors in Missouri took a much less abstract approach when he was handed over to them next day. There was some potential for a tussle – Fred Bollow, who was the prosecutor for Shelby County, where Bivens’s body had been found, lost little time in filing murder charges. But the plane had spent most of its time in the air over neighboring Macon County, and Bollow’s colleague there, Vincent Moody – “holding Pletch’s confession authentic as to the murder location” – successfully claimed jurisdiction.

Moody wasted no time in bringing Pletch to court – feelings were running so high in the district that there were fears that he might be lynched if there was any delay – and the killer himself speeded things along by waiving his right to a preliminary hearing. When he was brought into the sparsely attended court on 1 November, he pleaded guilty.

There seems little doubt that this was a legal maneuver designed to give Pletch the best possible chance of avoiding the death penalty, but it was Etta Bivens who did more than anyone to save her husband’s killer from an appointment with the gas chamber. She told the presiding judge, Harry J. Libby, that she did not wish to seek the death penalty. Instead, Libby sentenced Pletch to life – having first extracted a promise that he would never apply for either pardon or parole.

What happened next remained something of a mystery for many years. Pletch certainly lived on, and on, finally dying at the age of 91 in June 2001. That ought to have meant that he served a sentence of almost 62 years in Missouri State Prison, long enough to win him an unwelcome place on the list of the ten longest sentences ever served in American jails. When Pamela Keech, an Indiana journalist who interviewed the surviving witnesses to his plane’s landing for Bloom magazine in 2009 wrote up her story, she assumed that Pletch had died in jail.

My own research shows that that was not the case. The U.S. Social Security Death Index lists Pletch, but gives the place of his death as Eldridge, Missouri – an isolated spot nowhere near any of the state’s prisons. And a careful search of local newspapers revealed that Pletch’s name cropped up twice among the small ads published by the Kansas City Star years earlier, in 1964 and 1965 – on the first occasion selling a “new ranch type house” together with an associated lot on the Lake of the Ozarks, and on the second auctioning a service station, together with “several items of personal property including boats, motors, café equipment, and some antiques.” Not only that – a man by the name of Earnest Pletch had found employment as a pilot with a firm called Cox Aviation and married a woman named Mary Leap on the day after Christmas 1973. There must have been other wives as well; when this Pletch died, he left 16 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren.

It took some correspondence with the Missouri State Archives to resolve the problem – and reveal an outcome that the merciful Etta Bivens surely never intended when she interceded to save Pletch’s life in 1939. The killer, it turned out, had served less than 20 years for the murder of her husband. Pletch had kept his promise not to apply for a pardon or parole, but then he hardly needed to – his life sentence had been commuted to one of 25 years on January 9, 1953, then further commuted on March 1, 1957, the day of his release.

“We looked at the commutation records,” an archivist wrote, “and they do not give any information as to why his sentence was commuted twice… Commutations for convicted murderers or people with life sentences were fairly common. Overcrowding was an endemic problem at the [Missouri State Prison], so prisoners with good behavior were often let out early.”

There does not seem to be any evidence that Earnest Pletch committed any further crimes after his early release. Perhaps he realized he was lucky. Lucky to have landed the Taylor Club successfully that Friday afternoon with a dead man at the dual controls. Lucky not to have been executed when he was sent back to Missouri. Lucky, again, to have served his time in a grossly overcrowded jail such that commutation was his way to freedom. But fortunate above all to have been offered mercy by a woman to whose husband he had shown no mercy at all.


Contemporary newspapersCapital Times [Madison, WI], 8 Jul 1938; Miami News [FLA], 8 Jul 1939; Daily Republican [Monogahela, PA] 12 Jul 1939; Vidette-Messenger [Valparaiso, IN], 12 Jul 1939; Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, 30 Oct 1939; Sweetwater Reporter, 30 Oct 1939; San Jose Evening News, 30 Oct 1939; Evening Courier (Prescott, AZ), 30 Oct 1939; Montreal Gazette, 30 Oct 1939; Spartenburg Herald, 1 Nov 1939; Joplin Globe, 1 Nov 1939; Ottawa Journal, 2 Nov 1939; and Kansas City Star, 27 Sep 1964 and 13 Jun 1965. Other sources: Private correspondence with Missouri State Archives, July 2014, author’s files; Pamela Keech. “The killer who fell from the sky: a true-life B-town crime story,” Bloom [Bloomington, IN], Oct-Nov 2009; Missouri Obituary and Death Notice Archive; United States Social Security Death Index.

This story was originally published on Dash's "All Kinds of History" blog. Stay tuned for more amazing stories from Mike in the months to come.

The Literary Salon That Made Ayn Rand Famous

Smithsonian Magazine

For 19-year-old Nathan Blumenthal, reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead for the first time was nothing short of an epiphany. Published several years earlier, in 1943, Blumenthal wrote of finding the book in his memoir, My Years with Ayn Rand. “There are extraordinary experiences in life that remain permanently engraved in memory. Moments, hours, or days after which nothing is ever the same again. Reading this book was such an experience.”

Little could the Canadian teen have imagined that within the next 10 years he would, with Rand’s approval, change his name to Nathaniel Branden; become one of Rand’s most important confidantes—as well as her lover; and lead a group of thinkers on a mission to spread the philosophy of Objectivism far and wide.

At 19, Branden was only a teenager obsessed by the words of this Russian-born writer—until March 1950, when Rand responded to the letter he’d sent and invited him to visit her. That meeting was the start of a partnership that would last for nearly two decades, and the catalyst for the creation a group she dubbed “The Class of ’43,” for the year The Fountainhead was published. Later, they knowingly gave themselves the ironic name “The Collective.” And although 75 years have passed since The Fountainhead was first published, the impact of that book—and the people who gathered around Rand because of it—still play an important role in American political thinking.

Leading Republicans today, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, have spoken publicly of her influence. In 2005, he told members of the Rand-loving Atlas Group that the author’s books were “the reason I got involved in public service, by and large.” Mick Mulvaney, a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus and current director of the Office of Management and Budget, spoke in 2011 of his fondness for Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: “It's almost frightening how accurate a prediction of the future the book was,” he told NPR. Other self-described Rand acolytes who have served in the Trump Administration include former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (“Favorite Book: Atlas Shrugged”) and current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (Atlas Shrugged “really had an impact on me”).

Initially, Branden was responsible for bringing new members into the “Class of ‘43” and mostly recruited family and friends who were equally riveted by The Fountainhead so that they could listen to Rand’s philosophy. Without him, the group may never have formed; as Rand herself said, “I’ve always seen [the Collective] as a kind of comet, with Nathan as the star and the rest as his tail.” Branden brought his soon-to-be-wife, Barbara, as well as siblings and cousins. Soon the core group included psychiatrist Allan Blumenthal, philosopher Leonard Peikoff, art historian Mary Ann Sures and economist Alan Greenspan. Every Saturday evening, during the years in which Rand was engaged writing Atlas Shrugged, the Collective gathered in Rand’s apartment and listened to her expound on the Objectivist philosophy or read the newest pages of her manuscript.

“Even more than her fiction or the chance to befriend a famous author, Rand’s philosophy bound the Collective to her. She struck them all as a genius without compare,” writes historian Jennifer Burns in Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. As for Rand, she “saw nothing unusual in the desire of her students to spend each Saturday night with her, despite being more than twenty years her junior. The collective put Rand in the position of authority she had always craved.”

Rand’s fiction and her philosophy butted up against conservatism of the era (which saw inherent value in the federal government even as it opposed social programs like the New Deal) and then split from it entirely. She was less interested in reshaping her adoptive country’s democratic government than in upending it completely. While politicians of the 1950s were rocked by McCarthyism and a new concern for traditional values and the nuclear family, Rand took it upon herself to forge a new path into libertarianism—a system being developed by various economists of the period that argued against any government influence at all.

According to Rand’s philosophy, as espoused by the characters in her novels, the most ethical purpose for any human is the pursuit of happiness for one’s self. The only social system in which this morality can survive is completely unfettered capitalism, where to be selfish is to be good. Rand believed this so fervently that she extended the philosophy to all aspects of life, instructing her followers on job decisions (including advising Greenspan to become an economic consultant), the proper taste in art (abstract art is “an enormous fraud”), and how they should behave.

Branden built upon Rand’s ideas with his own pop psychology, which he termed “social metaphysics.” The basic principle was that concern over the thoughts and opinions of others was pathological. Or, as Rand more bluntly phrased it while extolling the benefits of competence and selfishness, “I don’t give a damn about kindness, charity, or any of the other so-called virtues.”

These concepts were debated from sunset to sunrise every Saturday at Rand’s apartment, where she lived with her husband, Frank O’Connor. While Rand kept herself going through the use of amphetamines, her followers seemed invigorated merely by her presence. “The Rand circle’s beginnings are reminiscent of Rajneesh’s—informal, exciting, enthusiastic, and a bit chaotic,” writes journalist Jeff Walker in The Ayn Rand Cult.

But if the Saturday salons were exciting, they could also be alienating for outsiders. Economist Murray Rothbard, also responsible for contributing to the ideals of libertarianism, brought several of his students to meet Rand in 1954 and watched in horror as they submitted to vitriol from Rand whenever they said anything that displeased her. The members of the Collective seemed “almost lifeless, devoid of enthusiasm or spark, and almost completely dependent on Ayn for intellectual sustenance,” Rothbard later said. “Their whole manner bears out my thesis that the adoption of her total system is a soul-shattering calamity.”

Branden only fanned the flames by requiring members to subject themselves to psychotherapy sessions with him, despite his lack of training, and took it upon himself to punish anyone who espoused opinions that varied with Rand’s by humiliating them in front of the group. “To disparage feelings was a favorite activity of virtually everyone in our circle, as if that were a means of establishing one’s rationality,” Branden said.

According to journalist Gary Weiss, the author of Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America’s Soul, all of these elements made the Collective a cult. “It had an unquestioned leader, it demanded absolute loyalty, it intruded into the personal lives of its members, it had its own rote expressions and catchphrases, it expelled transgressors for deviation from accepted norms, and expellees were ‘fair game’ for vicious personal attacks,” Weiss writes.

But Branden wasn’t satisfied with simply parroting Rand’s beliefs to those who were already converted; he wanted to share the message even more clearly than Rand did with her fiction. In 1958, a year after Atlas Shrugged was published (it was a best-seller, but failed to earn Rand the critical acclaim she craved), Branden started the Nathaniel Branden Lectures. In them, he discussed principles of Objectivism and the morality of selfishness. Within three years, he incorporated the lecture series as the Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI), and by 1964 the taped lectures played regularly in 54 cities across Canada and the United States.

“Rand became a genuine public phenomenon, particularly on college campuses, where in the 1960s she was as much a part of the cultural landscape as Tolkien, Salinger, or Vonnegut,” writes Brian Doherty in Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement. “NBI’s lectures and advice on all aspects of life, as befits the totalistic nature of Objectivism, added to the cult-like atmosphere.”

Meanwhile, as her books sold hundreds of thousands of copies, Rand continued amassing disciples. Fan mail continued to pour in as new readers discovered The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and these letters were sometimes a useful recruiting tool. Writers who seemed particularly well-informed were given assignments to prove themselves before being invited to the group, writes Anne C. Heller in Ayn Rand and the World She Made. “In this way, a Junior Collective grew up.”

The Collective continued as an ever-expanding but tight-knit group until 1968. It was then that Branden, who had already divorced his wife, chose to reveal he was having an affair with a younger woman. Rand responded by excoriating him, his ex-wife Barbara, and the work that Branden had done to expand the reach of Objectivism. While members of the group like Greenspan and Peikoff remained loyal, the Collective was essentially disbanded; the Randians were left to follow their own paths.

Despite the dissolution of the group, Rand had left an indelible mark on her followers and the culture at-large. Greenspan would go on to serve as Chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006, while Branden continued working at his institute, though with a slightly tempered message about Objectivism and without any relationship with Rand. In 1998, Modern Library compiled a readers' list of the 20th century’s greatest 100 books that placed Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead in the first and second spots, respectively; both continue to sell hundreds of thousands of copies.

The irony of her free-thinking followers naming themselves “The Collective” seems similar to the techniques she used in her writing, often reminiscent of Soviet propaganda, says literary critic Gene H. Bell-Villada. “In a perverse way, Rand’s orthodoxies and the Randian personality cult present a mirror image of Soviet dogmas and practices,” Bell-Villada writes. “Her hard-line opposition to all state intervention in the economy is a stance as absolute and unforgiving as was the Stalinist program of government planning and control.”

The Director of the African-American History and Culture Museum on What Makes “12 Years a Slave” a Powerful Film

Smithsonian Magazine

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in “12 Years a Slave”.

As I sat in the theater crowded with nervous patrons, unsure of what to expect from a movie about slavery, I was startled by the audience’s visceral reaction to a scene depicting the violence that was so much a part of what 19th century America called the “peculiar institution.” And then I found myself beginning to smile, not at the violence but with the realization that this movie, this brilliant movie, just might help to illuminate one of the darkest corners of American history. In many ways, American slavery is one of the last great unmentionables in public discourse. Few places, outside of history classes in universities, help Americans wrestle with an institution that dominated American life for more than two centuries. The imprint of slavery was once omnipresent, from the economy to foreign policy, from the pulpit to the halls of Congress, from westward expansion to the educational system. I smiled because if 12 Years a Slave garnered a viewership, it just might help America overcome its inability to understand the centrality of slavery and its continuing impact on our society.

12 Years a Slave, imaginatively directed by Steve McQueen with an Oscar worthy performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is the story of Solomon Northup, a free African-American living in New York who is kidnapped, “sold south” and brutally enslaved. Northup’s struggle to refuse to let his enslavement strip him of his humanity and his dignity and his 12-year fight to reclaim his freedom and his family are the dramatic heart of this amazing movie. Part of what makes this film experience so powerful is that it is based on the true story of Northup, a musician and man of family and community who had known only freedom until his kidnapping transplanted him into the violent world of Southern slavery.

The film’s depiction of slavery is raw and real. From the moment of his capture, Northup experiences the violence, the confinement, the sense of loss and the uncertainty that came with being enslaved. It is interesting that some of the criticism heaped on this film revolves around its use of violence. The scenes where Northup is beaten into submission or where the brutal plantation owner, Edwin Epps (played with nuance and depth by Michael Fassbender) whips Patsy, an enslaved woman who could not avoid the owner’s sexual abuse and rape have been called excessive. In actuality, these scenes force us to confront the reality that the use of violence was a key element used to maintain the institution of slavery. It is interesting that movie audiences accept and revel in the violence that dominates films from Westerns to horror flicks to the recently lauded Django Unchained, and yet, have a difficult time accepting the notion that some Americans used violence to attempt to control other Americans. This is a result of the fact that the violence in this movie makes it problematic for Americans not to see our historical culpability, something unusual for a nation that traditionally views itself as on the side of the right and the righteous.

12 Years a Slave is such an important movie because it entertains and educates in a manner that is ripe with nuance, historical accuracy and dramatic tension. It reveals stories about the African-American experience that are rarely seen or rarely as well depicted. Northup’s life as a free person of color is revelatory because it hints at the existence of the more than 500,000 African-Americans who experienced freedom while living in the north in the years just prior to the Civil War. Northup’s life of middling class respectability and community acceptance was not the norm; most free blacks lived on the margins with lives and communities limited by laws and customs that sought to enforce notions of racial inequality. Yet Northup’s very presence belied many of the racial beliefs of the period. There is a scene in the movie where Northup and his well-dressed family are walking down the street about to enter into a shop and they are being observed by an enslaved man whose southern owner has brought him north to serve the owner while he is on holiday in Saratoga. The enslaved man is amazed at the sight of a black family strolling freely and being greeted with respect by the shopkeeper. The owner quickly calls the man away as if to ensure that he not be infected by the freedom exhibited by the Northup family.

The importance of family is also a key element in the film. While Northup’s desire to be reunited with his wife and children is part of what motivates him to survive his time of bondage, the power of kinship is revealed in the scenes where a mother struggles to keep her family together. Like Northup, a young boy is kidnapped and held in a slave pen in Washington, D.C. (ironically, I am writing this piece within 30 yards of where the slave pen where Northup was first enslaved stood). When the mother learns where her son has been detained she enters the pen with her daughter hoping to reclaim her child. She is devastated when she and her daughter are also captured and readied to be sold into slavery. As the family is offered at auction, the pain the mother feels is almost unbearable as she begs, ultimately in vain, for someone to buy them all and to not destroy her family. During the months that follow the sale, the woman is inconsolable. On the plantation where she and Northup now live, she cries almost non-stop, whether serving the owner’s family or attending church service. Eventually she is sold to another owner because the mistress of the plantation does not understand why she cannot just get over the loss of her children. These scenes make clear that time could not heal all the wounds inflicted by slavery. In the years immediately following emancipation, thousands of the enslaved searched for any hint that would help them reunite with their family. Letters were sent to the Freedman Bureau seeking assistance and well into the 1880s, the formerly enslaved placed ads in newspapers searching for love ones cruelly separated by slavery. Rarely did these hoped for reunions occur.

While 12 Years a Slave rightfully and appropriately privileges Solomon Northup’s resiliency and resolve, it also reminds us that men and women of good will crossed the color line, stood against the popular sentiments of the period and risked much to help abolish slavery. Northup’s encounter with a Canadian sympathetic to the cause of abolition played by Brad Pitt revealed much about Northup’s ingenuity and the need to enlist the help of sympathetic whites. After hearing Pitt’s character engage in a debate with the plantation owner, Epps, over the morality of slavery, Northup cautiously convinces the Canadian to send a letter to the shopkeeper who knew him in New York and could prove that Northup was a free man. This begins a process that eventually returns Northup to his family in upstate New York. While Solomon Northup reunited with his family, most who were kidnapped never escaped the brutality of enslavement.

12 Years a Slave is a marvel. It works as a film and it works as a story that helps us to remember a part of the American past that is too often forgotten. We have all been made better by this film if we remember the shadow that slavery cast and if we draw strength and inspiration from those who refused to let their enslavement define them and those who, by refusing, helped make real the American ideals of freedom and equality.

The Clever Way the Easter Island Statues Got Hats

Smithsonian Magazine

It sounds like a riddle: How did the moai, the giant stone carvings on Easter Island, get their hats?

In fact, it’s a legitimate conundrum. Somehow, the native Rapa Nui people cut stone from a quarry and moved the massive blocks distances as far as 11 miles throughout the island. In total, they created 887 of these statues, with some weighing over 80 tons. Each of these moai were adorned with 13-ton hats made of a different type of stone that came from a separate quarry.

Now, reports Kat Eschner at Popular Science, researchers think they’ve figured out just how the Easter Islanders got those massive toppers, called pukao, up there.

The new study, which appears in the Journal of Archeological Science, came about because a team of anthropologists and physicists wanted to ground their hypothesis in the archeological record.

“Lots of people have come up with ideas, but we are the first to come up with an idea that uses archaeological evidence," Sean W. Hixon, a graduate student in anthropology at Penn State and lead author of the study, says in a press release.

Hixon and his team worked under the assumption that the hats were all produced in a similar manner and placed on the moai using the same technique. So they looked for common features in the hats, creating detailed 3-D scans of 50 of the pukao found across the island as well as 13 cylinders of the red scoria rock found at the quarry where the hats were cut. What they found is that, besides their round shape, all the hats also include an indentation where they fit on the head and all the statues sit on similarly shaped bases.

Using this information, the team believes that the hats were rolled from the quarry to the site of the moai. Instead of being put on top of the head while the statue was lying down, as some researcher have proposed, they hypothesize that a ramp made of dirt and rocks was built to the top of the statue, which was tilted forward at a roughly 17 degree angle. Two teams of people would then pull the hat up the ramp using a technique called parbuckling, which allows the heavy stone to be rolled up the ramp without rolling back down.

George Dvorsky at Gizmodo reports that technique would allow a group of as little as 10 or 15 people to move the pukao, which was then further modified at the top of the ramp, something evidenced by shards of the red scoria found at the base of some moai. The hat was then turned 90 degrees and levered onto the statue’s head and the ramp was removed, forming wings on either side of the moai that still exist. In the final step, the base of the statue was then carved flat, causing it to sit upright with the fetching hat on top of its head.

While figuring out just how people created such monumental stone works before the advent of cranes and modern machinery is interesting, it challenges current assumptions about the ultimate fate of the Rapa Nui people. In recent years some historians have suggested that the inhabitants of the island were in such a fever to create the stone statues to their gods and ancestors that they used up all their resources, cutting down the palm forests that once covered the island to transport the stones, leading to resource depletion, starvation, civil war and cannibalism.

But a previous study in 2012 by the same group of researchers found that it’s likely the giant statues were engineered to be moved by rocking them back and forth. That technique does not require vast amounts of timber and uses relatively few people. That, along with the new research on the hats depicts a tradition that undoubtedly took some effort and planning, but wasn’t so overwhelming that it destroyed a society.

“Easter Island is often treated as a place where prehistoric people acted irrationally, and that this behavior led to a catastrophic ecological collapse,” anthropologist Carl Lipo of the University of Binghamton says in another press release. “The archaeological evidence, however, shows us that this picture is deeply flawed and badly misrepresents what people did on the island, and how they were able to succeed on a tiny and remote place for over 500 years…While the social systems of Rapa Nui do not look much like the way our contemporary society functions, these were quite sophisticated people who were well-tuned to the requirements of living on this island and used their resources wisely to maximize their achievements and provide long-term stability.”

So what actually happened to Easter Island and its inhabitants? Catrine Jarman of the University of Bristol writes at the Conversation that the colonizers of the island, likely Polynesian sailors, brought with them Polynesian rats, which ate seeds and sapling palm trees, preventing the forests from sprouting back after sections were cut. And there is no evidence of population crash before European contact. Instead, she writes, disease as well as several centuries of the slave trade reduced the island’s population from thousands to just 111 people by 1877.

The Burning Truth Behind an E-Waste Dump in Africa

Smithsonian Magazine

They are some of the most iconic photos in environmental journalism: young African men, often shirtless, standing over small fires fueled by digital detritus imported from richer countries. The toxic smoke swirls around them and over Agbogbloshie, the roughly 20-acre scrap yard in the heart of Accra, Ghana, where these men live and work.

During the last decade, some of the world’s most respected media organizations have transformed Agbogbloshie into a symbol of what’s believed to be a growing crisis: the export—or dumping—of electronic waste from rich, developed countries into Africa. It’s a concise narrative that resonates strongly in a technology-obsessed world. There’s just one problem: The story is not that simple.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, 85 percent of the e-waste dumped in Ghana and other parts of West Africa is produced in Ghana and West Africa. In other words, ending the export of used electronics from the wealthy developed world won’t end the burning in Agbogbloshie. The solution must come from West Africa itself and the people who depend upon e-waste to make a living.

At Agbogbloshie, the fastest, cheapest, and favored way to recycle copper from insulated wire is to burn it. (©Jon Spaull/SciDev.Net)

Agbogbloshie is not a pleasant place to work. Most of the site is threaded by muddy lanes that cross in front of dozens of small sheds holding recycling businesses. Inside, owners, their families and employees manually dismantle everything from automobiles to microwave ovens. E-waste, defined as old consumer electronics, is actually a very small part of the overall waste stream in these lanes, filled with the clanking of hammers on metal. And phones, laptops and old TVs aren’t the only things that can be dangerous when recycled improperly.

At Agbogbloshie, burning takes place at the edge of the site, and most of what’s burned is automobile tires, which are lined up for hundreds of feet and left to smolder, producing dangerous levels of carbon monoxide and other hazardous substances. Later, workers will gather up the steel left behind. 

Elsewhere, around 40 men, most in their teens and early 20s, tend five- and ten-pound bundles of burning insulated copper wire. They contain everything from harness wires used in automobiles to USB cables. In Ghana and across the world, insulated wire is highly sought by recyclers big and small, who covet the metal but not the insulation. The task of the recycler is to separate the two substances as quickly and economically as possible. 

In the course of a day, perhaps a few hundred pounds of wire are burned, with the remains sold for recycling to local metal dealers and Nigerian traders who frequent the area. Depending on when the insulation was made, the smoke emitted can contain dioxin, heavy metals and other pollutants that pose a strong threat to human health.

Over the last half century, technologies have been developed to do that separation in an environmentally sound manner. But even the lowest-cost solutions tend to be too expensive for Ghana’s capital-poor recyclers. And if they were affordable, green methods would still be too slow compared to setting the wire on fire and burning off the insulation.

The site poses an undeniable risk to air quality and human health. But solving the problem is about more than stopping Western exports of old electronics.

“The problem is that reporters come here thinking this is the destination for old laptops exported from the United States,” explains Robin Ingenthron, CEO of Good Point Recycling in Burlington, Vermont. His firm exports used, working laptops to Ghana. “But this isn’t the destination at all. The computer shops are.”

Vendors outside of Ghana's Port of Tema sell imported, working goods from around the world, including the United States. Some are repaired and refurbished in Ghana. Most are working when imported. (Adam Minter)

To understand what he means it’s necessary to leave Agbogbloshie and take a ten-minute taxi ride to Bugi Computers, a small, independently owned electronics repair and refurbishment business in a residential neighborhood. Inside, Steve Edison, a self-taught computer repairman, is busy fixing a laptop that a customer brought in. The shop is compact, perhaps the size of a small bedroom, and it’s packed with used laptops, accessories and monitors purchased from Ghanaian importers who, in turn, purchase them from people like Ingenthron.

“If something breaks, I keep the parts to use for repair or a new computer,” Edison says as he leans over the laptop, carefully soldering a circuit board. It certainly looks that way. Cables hang from hooks in the walls, spare hard drives are stacked on his work desk and memory chips are kept in display cases. He sells around ten newly refurbished computers per day, assembled from machines and parts that people in wealthier countries didn’t want.

Edison’s business isn’t unique. There are thousands of similar repair and refurbishment businesses across Ghana and West Africa, catering to consumers who can’t afford, or don’t want, new machines. It’s an important business that plays a key role in bridging the so-called digital divide between wealthy consumers in developed countries and those in places like Ghana.

The most detailed study of the used electronics issue was performed in 2009 by the UN Environment Programme, which found that Ghana imported 215,000 metric tons of “electric and electronic equipment” that year. Thirty percent of that total was new equipment. Of the 70 percent that constituted used goods, 20 percent needed repairs and 15 percent—or roughly 22,575 tons—was unsellable and bound for the dump.

That’s a lot of unusable electronics (many of which are damaged in transit to Ghana). But it’s less than one percent of the 2.37 million tons of e-waste generated by the United States in 2009, and a nearly imperceptible fraction of the 41.8 million metric tons of e-waste generated globally in 2015. In other words, Agbogbloshie is not a global dumping ground. Like most places on Earth, it’s struggling to deal with what it generates on its own.

Edison gives a concise accounting of how it works: “If something can’t be fixed anymore, I then sell it to the carts,” he says. The carts are four-wheeled, heavy-duty wheelbarrows operated by men who spend their days walking Accra, looking for used goods—electronics to furniture—that can be bought and sold for recycling. If the objects contain metal, they’re bound for Agbogbloshie, where they’re sold to (or pre-ordered from) the dozens of small businesspeople who own stalls at the site.

Not everything is recycled at Agbogbloshie. Much of it is recovered and re-used instead. “People in the West forget that if they send something to Ghana, it’s used a lot longer than it is back home,” Ingenthron points out. “Where I come from, that’s considered good for the environment.”

Workers salvage metal from broken tools. (Jon Spaull/SciDev.Net</A>)

It’s by no means a simple picture, and it eludes simple solutions. “At first you think these guys are doing something really bad and they should become plumbers,” says D.K. Osseo-Asare, a Ghanaian-American architect who is co-lead on the Accra-based Agbogbloshie Makerspace Project, or QAMP, an effort to change perceptions and the economy of the site. “But then we said, let’s arm them with information so that they can do things better.”

QAMP set up a shed among the established recycling businesses and spent months getting to know the site, the people who work there and what they need. Most of the workers are migrants, oftentimes with little education and few connections in the big city, Osseo-Asare tells me. “They’re here to make money, quickly. If we want people to do this work in a safe and environmentally sound way, [making a living] has to be part of [it].”

With that in mind, QAMP is developing a digital platform that can be loaded onto the smartphones used by scrap workers, which will begin beta-testing in January. In addition to offering a Twitter-like scrap marketplace that will allow scrappers to find and buy metal throughout Ghana, the digital platform includes health and safety information.

“If we beat people over the head with safe e-waste recycling, it will never work," says Osseo-Asare. "But if you help them find business, and you give them some interesting pieces of info regarding safety, they might look at it.” Meanwhile, QAMP is working with the Agbogbloshie community to develop new products out of the junk sold at the site, rather than sending it for direct recycling.

Plastics, which generally have a low value in the recycling chain, are a natural target. Recognizing this, QAMP has worked on simple equipment that can help transform the plastics generated at Agbogbloshie into recycling bins. “The idea, again, is to help them make money,” Osseo-Asare explains.

Meanwhile, Robin Ingenthron is working with his Ghanaian importers to establish a model in which every ton of electronics that he exports must be offset by a ton of electronics that’s collected and recycled properly in Ghana. If Ghanaian importers want access to his used electronics in Vermont, they’ll have to comply. Ingenthron believes it will work, in large part because he ran a similar “fair trade” recycling business with Malaysian importers for nine years.

Agbogbloshie won’t be solved quickly. It plays a key economic and environmental role in Accra, and shutting it down would just shift what happens there to another location. “You have to change how people perceive the place,” Osseo-Asare explains. “Once they see the potential, they understand that the solution comes from Agbogbloshie and not from outside.” Patience, as well as hope, should take care of the rest.

The Amazing (If True) Story of the Submarine Mechanic Who Blew Himself Up Then Surfaced as a Secret Agent for Queen Victoria

Smithsonian Magazine

At 8:45 on the evening of February 17, 1864, Officer of the Deck John Crosby glanced over the side of the Federal sloop-of-war Housatonic and across the glassy waters of a calm Atlantic. His ship was blockading the rebel port of Charleston from an anchorage five miles off the coast, and there was always the risk of a surprise attack by some Confederate small craft. But what Crosby saw that night, by the dim light of a wintry moon, was so strange that he couldn’t be certain what it was. “Something on the water," he recalled to a court of inquiry a week later, "which at first looked to me like a porpoise, coming to the surface to blow.”

Crosby alerted the Housatonic’s quartermaster, but the object had already disappeared—and when he saw it again, a moment later, it was too close to the sloop for any hope of escape. As the Housatonic’s crew scrambled to their battle stations, there was a huge explosion on the starboard side. Their ship sank in minutes, taking five crewmen with her.

A sketch by artist William Waud entitled, "Destruction of Housatonic by a rebel torpedo," dated February 17, 1864, Charleston (William Waud/Library of Congress)

It was not clear until some time later that the Housatonic had been the first victim of a new weapon of war. The ship—all 1,240 tons of her—had been sunk by the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley: 40 feet of hammered iron, hand-cranked by a suicidally brave crew of eight men, and armed with a 90-pound gunpowder charge mounted on a spar that jutted, as things turned out, not nearly far enough from her knife-slim bow.

The story of the Housatonic and the Hunley, and of the Hunley’s own sinking soon after her brief moment of glory, of her rediscovery in 1995 and her eventual salvage in 2000, has been told many times. We know a good deal now about Horace Hunley, the Louisiana planter who assembled the syndicate that paid for the submarine. We know about the design defects and the human errors that drowned two earlier Hunley crews, 13 men in all. We even know a little of James McClintock and Baxter Watson, the two mechanics who built the Hunley—not least that McClintock was the man who actually designed her, and so is probably the most important person in the story.

What has not been known, at least until now, is exactly what became of James McClintock. The Hunley’s hundreds of historians sketch his story in a sentence or two. They take their information from McClintock’s grandson, Henry Loughmiller, who—writing to the researcher Eustace Williams—explained that his ancestor was “killed [in 1879] at the age of 50 in Boston Harbor when he was experimenting with his newly invented submarine mine.”

It seems to be a fitting ending, but the Loughmiller account has been repeated endlessly for more than half a century without being checked. Yet fresh research suggests that each part of the story is dubious. Those who met James McClintock in 1879 thought him much closer to 60 years old than 50; the explosion that supposedly claimed his life took place outside Boston Harbor, and the evidence that it killed him is remarkably flimsy. Many people heard the explosion, but not a single person witnessed it. There was no body. There was no inquest. Not so much as a shred of mangled flesh was ever recovered from the water. And 16 months later, in November 1880, a man who said his name was James McClintock walked into the British consulate in Philadelphia to tell a most outlandish tale—and offer his services to Queen Victoria as a secret agent.

James McClintock spent his boyhood navigating not eastern harbors, but the great rivers of the American interior. Census records confirm that the inventor was born in Ohio, and family tradition suggests that he grew up in Cincinnati and left home at an early age to join the crew of a Mississippi riverboat, acquiring sufficient skill to become “the youngest steamboat captain on the river” in the years before the Civil War. At some point, McClintock also began to show talent as an engineer and inventor. Caught in New Orleans by the war, he and Baxter Watson drew up plans for a new machine for making Minié balls, the rifled-musket bullets used by both sides throughout the conflict.

James R. McClintock, the inventor of the H.L. Hunley, shortly before journeying to Boston in February 1879. (Image: Naval Historical Center)

According to the New Orleans Bee, the two men boasted that their invention would cost only $2,000 or $3,000 to make, and “with it two men can turn out a thousand balls per hour, or with steam power it makes eight or ten thousand per hour. This one machine, worked night and day, could turn out 1,200,000 balls every week, more than enough to supply the Confederate armies in the most desperate and extended war possible.”

The Minié ball machine was never made, most likely because its usefulness had been thoroughly exaggerated. But it served as a calling card, and must have helped to persuade Horace Hunley to assemble a consortium that invested somewhere north of $30,000 in McClintock’s submarines. Reading between the lines of Civil War accounts, it seems likely that it was the desire to recover this investment, as much as patriotic fervor, that persuaded the boats’ owners to persevere in the face of repeated disaster: at least three sinkings, reported stiflings and near-stiflings, and even the death of Hunley himself, who, having fatally dived to the bottom during trials at Charleston in October 1863, was recovered with his crew when the submarine was salvaged three weeks later—“a spectacle,” one contemporary report related, “indescribably ghastly; the unfortunate men were contorted into all kinds of horrible attitudes, some clutching candles, evidently attempting to force open the manholes; others lying in the bottom, tightly grappled together, and the blackened faces of all presented the expression of their despair and agony.”

Of all the men known to have boarded the Hunley, indeed, only about half a dozen escaped death in her belly. But McClintock himself survived the war, and when, in the fall of 1872, he traveled to Canada in an attempt to sell his submarine designs to the Royal Navy, the officers who interviewed him proclaimed themselves “strongly impressed with the intelligence of Mr. McClintock, and with his knowledge on all points, chemical and mechanical, connected with torpedoes and submarine vessels.”

What led McClintock to Boston is only hazily known. By 1879 he was living in New Albany, on the Ohio River at the southern tip of Indiana, where his occupation was recorded as “salesman.” This suggests that his fortunes had reversed since 1872, when he had been the moderately prosperous owner-operator of a dredge boat on Mobile Bay. He was also married and the father of three daughters, and the evidence suggests that he had plenty of motivation to leverage his expertise in building secret weapons in the hope of snagging a fortune in the shady private armaments market.

A view of New Albany, Indiana, as painted by George Morrison in 1849. The township stood on the north bank of the Ohio river, which during the Civil War marked the border between Union and Confederate territory. (George Morrison/New Albany-Floyd County Public Library)

By 1877, certainly, McClintock had established contact with two other men who shared these views—George Holgate, a Philadelphian just setting out on what would become an infamous career as a free-lance bomb-maker, and a mysterious New Orleans river pilot by the name of J.C. Wingard, who had been with him in Mobile during the war. Both of these men were extraordinary characters.

Holgate, who seems to have been born in lowland Scotland, was the prolific inventor of an alarming collection of elaborate explosive devices that he hawked to all comers—Irish freedom fighters, Cuban patriots and Russian nihilists. “I no more ask a man,” he informed one newspaper reporter, “whether he proposes to blow up a Czar or set fire to a palace...than a gunsmith asks his customers whether they are about to commit a murder.” He claimed to be the former proprietor of a London paint shop that had been a front for a bomb-making business, though there is no trace of any such activities in a British press that became obsessed with bombers when the Irish Republican Brotherhood—a precursor to the IRA—began deploying them in London in 1867.

By the early 1870s, Holgate was living in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where he purchased a gun shop and touted a highly dubious invention that, he boasted, used injections of ozone to keep fruit, vegetables and even beef fresh for weeks. He was, the local Northwestern newspaper would recall, a “blatherskite” and “ of those wild erratic individuals who now-a-days are gaining such cheap notoriety by cheap means.” But he was also—potentially, at least—a very dangerous man. The wares that he touted, Ann Larabee records, included a good deal more than conventional explosives:

a cheap hand grenade, a bomb concealed in a satchel that had a fuse running through its keyhole, and a hat bomb comprised of dynamite pressed between two sheets of brass sewn into the crown with a fuse running around the rim. His “Little Exterminator” operated through a delicate watch mechanism that moved a tiny saw, releasing a chemical that smelled like cayenne pepper, killing anyone within one hundred feet.

Wingard was even more remarkable. When the Civil War disrupted an early sideline as a prominent medium, he too turned to invention, re-emerging in New Orleans in 1876 as the proprietor of a death ray that he claimed was powerful enough to annihilate enemy ships across several miles of open water. Although a self-styled river “captain,” Wingard was almost entirely uneducated—“a plain, simple, straightforward man,” Emma Hardinge wrote in 1870. But he exhibited extraordinary talents as a medium.

Amid the great spiritualism craze, which had burst on the United States late in the 1840s, Wingard became renowned as early as 1853 as a faith healer and for the “spirit drawings” he produced in darkened séance rooms “on paper which had previously been examined and found not to contain any marks.” His most remarkable performances, however, involved the production of automatic writing, messages that were supposedly produced by spirits that had taken control of a medium’s body. According to Thomas Low Nichols, the revivalist preacher Jesse Babcock Ferguson swore that he had seen Wingard “write with both hands at the same time, holding a pen in each hand, sentences in different languages, of which he was entirely ignorant. He saw him, as did many other persons of undoubted credibility, write sentences in French, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic.”

The Civil War found Wingard in New Orleans. Just as the crisis had turned James McClintock’s interests toward bullets, it focused Wingard’s thoughts on an early sort of machine gun. This device was never built, but like the Minié ball machine it was extravagantly promoted. Wingard claimed that weapons made to his design would be capable of discharging 192 bullets a minute “at a range as great as any gun then in use.”

Wingard’s interest in mechanical death-dealers persisted after the war, and early in 1876 he reappeared in New Orleans, calling himself “Professor” Wingard and claiming to have invented an astonishing new weapon capable of annihilating enemy warships at distances up to five miles. The manner in which this destruction was to be effected was left vague, though Wingard mentioned electricity—which, in the 1870s, was a new, powerful and poorly understood form of energy—and a separate Nameless Force, which in some mysterious way transmitted electrical power across water and focused it upon its target. This Nameless Force, he promised, would become “a factor controlling the destinies of a nation.”

Wingard’s “Nameless Force” makes the press. An advertisement placed by the inventor in the New Orleans Times-Picayune of May 7, 1876. (New Orleans Times-Picayune)

The tremendous public interest in Wingard’s invention survived two unsuccessful efforts to put the Nameless Force to work on Lake Pontchartrain. Chastened by his double failure, Wingard decided not to invite the New Orleans public to a third demonstration on June 1, 1876, but a “committee of gentlemen” was present when, at 2:35 p.m., the Professor—a small figure just visible across a mile or more of water—fired the weapon from a skiff. It was aimed at the Augusta, an old wooden schooner that had been anchored about two miles away, off a popular amusement park on the southern shore known as the Spanish Fort.

This time, it seemed, the Nameless Force took effect, and the Augusta “suddenly blew up” about 90 seconds after Wingard’s invention was discharged. When the witnesses reached what remained of the vessel, they found her “shattered in small fragments,” and it seemed all the more impressive that Wingard “could not receive the congratulations of his friends” as he had somehow sustained severe burns to one hand in the course of the operation.

Pictured here circa 1880-1920, the Spanish Fort amusement park on Lake Pontchartrain was the spot chosen by “Professor” Wingard for a public demonstration of his Nameless Force. (Photo: George François Mugnier/Louisiana State Museum)

From our perspective, though, the most important aspect of the demonstration was not Wingard’s brief lionization in New Orleans, but a deflating coda reported by the Galveston Daily News a few days later. According to that paper, “a delegation of newsboys, who happened to be in the vicinity, with a spirit of scientific research...visited the schooner despite repeated warnings to keep away, and reported that they found a large gas pipe filled with powder, and a wire leading towards [the skiff] that was anchored some distance away.” The entire demonstration, thus, had been a fraud; the only force involved, the News concluded, was a quantity of gunpowder concealed beneath the Augusta’s decks, and a long wire, “tightened by means of a windlass on the skiff,” that triggered the explosive. This discovery dented Wingard’s reputation, and he seems not to have been heard from again until he appeared in Boston late in 1879.

What happened to McClintock, Holgate and Wingard in Massachusetts can be established from local newspaper reports. The men appeared in Boston in the first days of October and chartered first the steamboat Edith and then, on October 13, a sailboat, the Ianthe, with a rowboat as tender and a Nantucket man named Edward Swain as crew.

On the afternoon of the 13th, Swain sailed the Ianthe to a spot off Point Shirley, to the east of Boston Harbor. It is at this point that accounts become confused, but the most considered and most detailed state that Wingard had taken command of the Edith and was towing an old hulk that was to be used as a target. Holgate, who had been due to join Swain in the tender, complained of seasickness and retreated into the Ianthe’s deckhouse to lie down, so McClintock took his place, carrying with him a “torpedo”—mine—packed with 35 pounds of dynamite, which (the Boston Daily Advertiser reported) he had boasted was powerful enough to “blow up any fleet in the world.” He and Swain rowed off.

Shortly thereafter, with the tender about a mile from the Ianthe and two miles from the Edith, there was an ear-shattering explosion. Wingard told the Advertiser that he had been “looking the other way” at the fatal moment but turned in time to see a column of spray and debris rising high into the air. Holgate, who said he had been lying in his bunk, likewise missed the explosion, but when the Ianthe and the Edith converged on the spot there was no trace of McClintock or Swain; all they could see floating on the surface was a mass of splinters.

Neither Holgate nor Wingard seems to have been eager to make comments to the press, and both men quickly fled Boston—Holgate after securing McClintock’s possessions from his hotel room and without reporting the incident to the police. “He had a horror of recounting the event,” the Philadelphia Times explained after interviewing the old bomb-maker two decades later, “and so he said: ‘There can’t be an inquest unless there is a body to hold it upon, and there is not even a scrap left of my unfortunate companions.’ ” Indeed, the local authorities took remarkably little interest in what had happened. There seems to be no trace of any real investigation, nor even much curiosity as to why a trio of civilians were experimenting with unregulated explosives.

Thus far, the accounts in contemporary newspapers contain nothing to contradict Henry Loughmiller’s belief that his grandfather died that day in Boston. But they offer odd pieces of testimony that do not mesh with the tales that Holgate and Wingard told. The Daily Globe, for instance, reported that Holgate’s involvement in the catastrophe had been greater than he was willing to admit; the “torpedo” was electric, the Globe explained, and the explosion had occurred when Holgate somehow set the charge off remotely. Strangest of all was a note in the same paper stating that a reliable witness—a hunter out shooting at Ocean Spray—had seen McClintock’s rowboat still afloat after the explosion, “so that the men, he thinks, could not have been blown to pieces.”

Nothing came of any of this at the time. Holgate hastened to New York, and then home to Philadelphia, wiring McClintock’s family—so he said—to tell them of the awful accident. Wingard vanished. Boston’s harbor police dropped the halfhearted enquiries they had made, and nothing more was heard from any of the participants for more than a year.

A good deal happened in the interim, however. Perhaps the most significant of these developments took place in New York, where an ambitious splinter group from an Irish secret society known as the Clan na Gael began to plan a large-scale terrorist campaign on the British mainland. Led by Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa, an Irish journalist who had been elected “Head Centre” of the Fenian movement in the United States, it began raising funds and looking for ways to manufacture bombs and smuggle them across the Atlantic.

O’Donovan Rossa and his associates were nothing if not ambitious—they raised $43,000 (just over $1 million today) with the aim of spreading “terror, conflagration and irretrievable destruction” the length and breadth of England, and established a “Dynamite School” in Brooklyn to teach recruits how to make, conceal and use their bombs. But Rossa was also enduringly indiscreet about their plans, and by the fall of 1880—a year after the explosion in Boston, but months before their terror campaign was due to begin—British diplomats in the United States were in a state of high alert, and desperately seeking information about how Rossa planned to spend his money.

It was against this background that Robert Clipperton, the British consul at Philadelphia, received an unexpected visitor in October 1880. This man introduced himself as James McClintock, explained that he had a background in submarine and mine warfare—and revealed that he had been hired by Rossa’s Skirmishing Fund to build 15 examples of a new sort of torpedo so powerful that a single weapon filled with 35 pounds of explosives “could sink an ironclad if exploded under her bottom, and could be carried in a great-coat pocket.”

This McClintock’s purpose in calling on Clipperton was to offer his services as a double agent. In exchange for payments of $200 ($4,650 today) each month, he was willing to betray his employers, slow down the work, hand over samples of the weapons and guarantee not to supply working models to Rossa’s terrorists.

Clipperton was impressed by his visitor, and so were the consul’s masters at the British embassy at Washington. The British naval attaché, Captain William Arthur, arrived posthaste in Philadelphia, where on November 5 he met with McClintock and recommended his recruitment as a spy. The weapons, Arthur wrote, seemed viable, and the informant’s plans were workable—the doubt was his loyalty, not his truthfulness. As a result of this report, the man calling himself McClintock was paid $1,000, and Clipperton and his assistant, George Crump, continued to meet with him well into 1881. That March, the consul was handed samples of three different sorts of bomb—one disguised as a lump of coal and intended to be slipped into the bunkers of a transatlantic steamship, to explode with catastrophic consequences when it was shoveled into a furnace while the ship was out at sea.

But who was the man whose appearance in Philadelphia caused Clipperton’s diplomats so much concern? Nothing in the official correspondence—lodged today in Britain’s National Archives—contains a physical description of the informant. But we can say he was just as traitorous as he appeared to be. By the time the official record petered out, in July 1881, he had extracted a four-figure sum from both Rossa’s Irish freedom fighters and Queen Victoria’s secret service fund. Moreover, he had betrayed both of his employers. Rossa never received his final consignment of torpedoes, and the samples that McClintock supplied to the British were fakes—“the contents of his cases are not dynamite,” a worried official reported from London when the test results came in, “but a powder made to resemble it of a very slightly explosive quality.”

This James McClintock slipped away before either the British or the Fenians could lay hands on him. It seems that he was never heard from again.

So who was the Philadelphia McClintock? There are certainly problems with the idea that he was the same man who was supposed to have died in Boston in 1879. That McClintock never returned to his family. He was listed as dead—killed in Boston—in the mortality schedule for 1880 that was compiled in his hometown in Indiana, and his grandson knew of nothing to suggest this was not true. And Holgate was vividly retelling the story of McClintock’s atomization as late as 1896.

One possibility is that Clipperton’s informant was Holgate, posing as his old partner. A few details suggest that this might be the case. One is that “McClintock” chose to reappear in Philadelphia—which was, by 1880, Holgate’s home. The other is that the man who turned up at the British consulate explained that his device contained 35 pounds of explosives. Perhaps not coincidentally, that was precisely the size of the device that Holgate told the Boston press had blown up James McClintock.

But would Holgate really have had much to gain by posing as his former partner? True, Holgate was no expert in underwater warfare, while McClintock was. But McClintock’s name would have carried no weight with any British diplomat in 1880. His role as the designer of the Hunley had never been disclosed. His visit to Canada had remained a state secret. And it would not be until well into the next century that his role in the destruction of the Housatonic would be celebrated.

The only other plausible alternative is that the Philadelphia man was exactly who he claimed to be. Of course, for McClintock to have survived the explosion in Boston, he would have had to fake his death—and probably to become a murderer as well, for the unfortunate Edward Swain was never seen again. He would surely have needed a good reason to take these drastic steps, and it is possible to speculate that he had one—by the time he got to Boston, he was definitely short of money, and a spectacular apparent death might have seemed a good way to escape his creditors, or perhaps an angry backer calling in a loan.

In the final analysis, however, we cannot be certain that McClintock was desperate, and there are really only two ways to determine whether Clipperton’s informant was the man he said he was. One is to ask whether the events of 1879 make any sense viewed as a fraud. The other is to search the British archives for scraps of information that could have been provided only by the real McClintock.

Certainly it strains credulity to suppose that McClintock rigged an explosion and then made a clean getaway without assistance from Wingard or Holgate. It would have been all but impossible for him to have escaped the scene without being noticed by one of them. And that the two men might have helped McClintock fake his death is not implausible; neither was a paragon of decency. But it is hard to imagine what their motive might have been, unless McClintock was their boss and paying them.

Holgate’s accounts do suggest that his partner was the man in charge. But a clue buried in the Boston Daily Advertiser suggests that this was not the case. According to the Advertiser’s files, Wingard lodged at the United States Hotel, McClintock and Holgate at the Adams House. Since the United States was Boston’s second-best hotel, while the Adams House was a theater district dive, the implication is that it was Wingard who had hired the other two. This certainly ties in with a note that appeared weeks later in the Chicago Daily Tribune, which reported that Wingard had traveled to Boston to stage another fraudulent trial of his Nameless Force for the benefit of fresh investors, and that he spent the first half of October assembling a joint stock company willing to plough $1,500 into his venture. The explosion put an end to that (the Tribune wrote), and a shaken Wingard confessed to his investors that the blast had taken place while two of his men were on their way to install hidden charges on the hulk selected for his demonstration.

“Professor” Wingard put himself up in Boston’s sumptuous United States Hotel, pictured here, in 1883. McClintock and Holgate stayed at the less ostentatious Adams House. (Boston Public Library)

But if Wingate had no motive to assist McClintock, the same may not have been true of George Holgate. In this scenario, McClintock simply stayed on board the Ianthe with his partner and sent Swain off to die in the rowboat. The fact that the explosive charge was designed to be detonated remotely by wire, just as it had been in New Orleans, adds some weight to this theory, for if Swain rowed off trailing cable, as he must have done, the charge could have been detonated at any point—and, as the Boston Globe alleged, the explosion could have been triggered by Holgate. All McClintock needed to do at that point was to stay below while the Ianthe and the Edith converged upon the fatal spot. Wingard would have been none the wiser, McClintock would have escaped his creditors, and Holgate would have been owed favors by a man with extensive experience of explosives and underwater warfare.

Bearing all this in mind, perhaps the salient point is this: the Philadelphia McClintock was able to convince the British naval attaché, Captain Arthur, that he knew all about mines and submarines. This would not have been an easy trick to pull, for Arthur was also an expert; his last posting before coming to America was as Captain of HMS Vernon, the Royal Navy’s chief research establishment for underwater warfare. So maybe, just maybe, the triple agent who tricked British officials and Irish terrorists in Philadelphia, and got away with $2,000 and his life, was precisely who he said he was: James R. McClintock, inventor of the H.L. Hunley, betrayer of countries, causes, friends and his own family, and the faker of his own strange death.


British National Archives: Admiralty papers. “Submarine warfare,” 1872, Adm 1/6236 part 2; “Fenian schemes to employ torpedoes against HM ships,” 1881, Adm 1/6551; digest for August 9, 1872 and October 19, 1872 at cut 59-8 of Adm 12/897; digest for February 8, 1873 at cut 59-8 of Adm 12/920. Foreign Office Papers. New Orleans consulate. Cridland dispatch no.2 commercial of April 5, 1872 enclosing statement by James McClintock, March 30, 1872, and Cridland to Foreign Office July 17, 1872, both in FO5/1372; Fanshawe to Cridland, December 20,1872, Cridland dispatch no.7 commercial of January 3, 1873, McClintock to Cridland, January 7, 1873, Cridland to Foreign Office, May 25, 1873, all in FO5/1441. Philadelphia consulate. Political correspondence for 1881 in FO5/1746 fols.100-02, 146-7; FO5/1776, fols. 65-71, 80-5, 247, 249, 265, 291; FO5/1778 fols. 289, 403; United States censuses 1860 and 1870; Eustace Williams, "The Confederate submarine Hunley documents," np, Van Nuys, California, 1958, typescript in the New York Public Library; Anon. "Some scientific hoaxes." In  Chambers's Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art, June 12, 1880; Victor M. Bogle. “A view of New Albany society at mid-Nineteenth Century.” In Indiana Magazine of History 54 (1958); Boston Daily Advertiser, October 15, 16, and 20, 1879; Boston Evening Transcript, October 15, 1879; Boston Daily Globe, October 14, 15, 16 and 20, and November 17, 1879; Boston Weekly Globe, October 21, 1879; Carl Brasseaux & Keith P. Fortenot. Steamboats on Louisiana's Bayous: A History and Directory. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004; Chicago Daily Tribune, November 14, 1879; Mike Dash. British Submarine Policy 1853-1918. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of London 1990; Esther Dole. Municipal Improvements in the United States, 1840-1850. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Wisconsin 1926; Ruth Duncan. The Captain and Submarine H.L. Hunley. Memphis: privately published, 1965; Charles Dufour. The Night the War was Lost. Lincoln NE: Bison Books, 1964; Eaton Democrat (OH), June 20, 1876; Floyd County, Indiana, mortality schedule, 1880; Galveston Daily News, June 6, 1876; Emma Hardinge. Modern American Spiritualism: A Twenty Years' Record. New York: The Author, 1870;  Chester Hearn. Mobile Bay and the Mobile Campaign: the Last Great Battles of the Civil War. Jefferson [NC]: McFarland & Co., 1993; Ann Larabee. The Dynamite Fiend: The Chilling Tale of a Confederate Spy, Con Artist, and Mass Murderer. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005; New Orleans Daily Democrat, March 22, 1877;  New Orleans Times-Picayune, May 12+May 30+June 4, 1876;  New Orleans Daily Times, October 15, 1879; Thomas Low Nichols. Supramundane Facts in the Life of Rev. Jesse Babcock. London: F. Pitman, 1865; Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, March 21, 1883; Ouachita Telegraph [LA], November 14, 1879; Philadelphia Times, February 26, 1896; Mark Ragan. Union and Confederate Submarine Warfare in the Civil War. Boston: Da Capo Press, 1999; Mark K. Ragan. The Hunley. Orangeburg [SC]: Sandlapper Publishing, 2006; KRM Short. The Dynamite War: Irish-American Bombers in Victorian Britain. Atlantic Highlands [NJ]: Humanities Press, 1979; Niall Whelehan. The Dynamiters: Irish Nationalism and Political Violence in the Wider World, 1867-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

The 175-Year History of Speculating About President James Buchanan's Bachelorhood

Smithsonian Magazine

At the start of 1844, James Buchanan’s presidential aspirations were about to enter a world of trouble. A recent spat in the Washington Daily Globe had stirred his political rivals into full froth—Aaron Venable Brown of Tennessee was especially enraged. In a “confidential” letter to future first lady Sarah Polk, Brown savaged Buchanan and “his better half,” writing: “Mr. Buchanan looks gloomy & dissatisfied & so did his better half until a little private flattery & a certain newspaper puff which you doubtless noticed, excited hopes that by getting a divorce she might set up again in the world to some tolerable advantage.”

The problem, of course, is that James Buchanan, our nation’s only bachelor president, had no woman to call his “better half.” But, as Brown’s letter implies, there was a man who fit the bill.

Google James Buchanan and you inevitably discover the assertion that American history has declared him to be the first gay president. It doesn’t take much longer to discover that the popular understanding of James Buchanan as our nation’s first gay president derives from his relationship with one man in particular: William Rufus DeVane King of Alabama. The premise raises many questions: What was the real nature of their relationship? Was each man “gay,” or something else? And why do Americans seem fixated on making Buchanan our first gay president?

My new book, Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King, aims to answer these questions and set the record straight, so to speak, about the pair. My research led me to archives in 21 states, the District of Columbia, and even the British Library in London. My findings suggest that theirs was an intimate male friendship of the kind common in 19th-century America. A generation of scholarship has uncovered numerous such intimate and mostly platonic friendships among men (though some of these friendships certainly included an erotic element as well). In the years before the Civil War, friendships among politicians provided an especially important way to bridge the chasm between the North and the South. Simply put, friendships provided the political glue that bound together a nation on the precipice of secession.

This understanding of male friendship pays close attention to the historical context of the time, an exercise that requires one to read the sources judiciously. In the rush to make new meaning of the past, I have come to understand why today it has become de rigeur to consider Buchanan our first gay president. Simply put, the characterization underscores a powerful force at work in historical scholarship: the search for a usable queer past.

The year was 1834, and Buchanan and King were serving in the United States Senate. They came from different parts of the country: Buchanan was a lifelong Pennsylvanian, and King was a North Carolina transplant who helped found the city of Selma, Alabama. They came by their politics differently. Buchanan started out as a pro-bank, pro-tariff, and anti-war Federalist, and held onto these views well after the party had run its course. King was a Jeffersonian Democrat, or Democratic-Republican, who held a lifelong disdain for the national bank, was opposed to tariffs, and supported the War of 1812. By the 1830s, both men had been pulled into the political orbit of Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party.

They soon shared similar views on slavery, the most divisive issue of the day. Although he came from the North, Buchanan saw that the viability of the Democratic Party depended on the continuance of the South’s slave-driven economy. From King, he learned the political value of allowing the “peculiar institution” to grow unchecked. Both men equally detested abolitionists. Critics labeled Buchanan a “doughface” (a northern man with southern principles), but he pressed onward, quietly building support across the country in the hopes of one day rising to the presidency. By the time of his election to that office in 1856, Buchanan was a staunch conservative, committed to what he saw as upholding the Constitution and unwilling to quash southern secession during the winter of 1860 to 1861. He had become the consummate northern doughface.

King, for his part, was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1810. He believed in states’ rights, greater access to public lands, and making a profit planting cotton. His commitment to the racial hierarchy of the slaveholding South was whole cloth. At the same time, King supported the continuation of the Union and resisted talk of secession by radical Southerners, marking him as a political moderate in the Deep South. For his lifelong loyalty to the party and to balance the ticket, he was selected as the vice-presidential running mate under Franklin Pierce in 1852.

Buchanan and King shared one other essential quality in addition to their political identification. Both were bachelors, having never married. Born on the Pennsylvania frontier, Buchanan attended Dickinson College and studied law in the bustling city of Lancaster. His practice prospered nicely. In 1819, when he was considered to be the city’s most eligible bachelor, Buchanan became engaged to Ann Coleman, the 23-year-old daughter of a wealthy iron magnate. But when the strain of work caused Buchanan to neglect his betrothed, Coleman broke off the engagement, and she died shortly thereafter of what her physician described as “hysterical convulsions.” Rumors that she had committed suicide, all the same, have persisted. For Buchanan’s part, he later claimed that he entered politics as “a distraction from my great grief.”

The love life of William Rufus DeVane King, or “Colonel King” as he was often addressed, is a different story. Unlike Buchanan, King was never known to pursue a woman seriously. But—critically—he could also tell a story of a love lost. In 1817, while serving as secretary to the American mission to Russia, he supposedly fell in love with Princess Charlotte of Prussia, who was just then to marry Czar Nicholas Alexander, heir to the Russian imperial throne. As the King family tradition has it, he passionately kissed the hand of the czarina, a risky move that could have landed him in serious jeopardy. The contretemps proved fleeting, as a kind note the next day revealed that all was forgiven. Still, he spent the remainder of his days bemoaning a “wayward heart” that could not love again.

Each of these two middle-aged bachelor Democrats, Buchanan and King, had what the other lacked. King exuded social polish and congeniality. He was noted for being “brave and chivalrous” by contemporaries. His mannerisms could at times be bizarre, and some thought him effeminate. Buchanan, by contrast, was liked by almost everyone. He was witty and enjoyed tippling, especially glasses of fine Madeira, with fellow congressmen. Whereas King could be reserved, Buchanan was boisterous and outgoing. Together, they made for something of an odd couple out and about the capital.

While in Washington, they lived together in a communal boardinghouse, or mess. To start, their boardinghouse included other congressmen, most of whom were also unmarried, yielding a friendly moniker for their home: the “Bachelor’s Mess.” Over time, as other members of the group lost their seats in Congress, the mess dwindled in size from four to three to just two—Buchanan and King. Washington society began to take notice, too. “Mr. Buchanan and his Wife,” one tongue wagged. They were each called “Aunt Nancy” or “Aunt Fancy.” Years later, Julia Gardiner Tyler, the much younger wife of President John Tyler, remembered them as “the Siamese twins,” after the famous conjoined twins, Chang and Eng Bunker.

Certainly, they cherished their friendship with one another, as did members of their immediate families. At Wheatland, Buchanan’s country estate near Lancaster, he hung portraits of both William Rufus King and King’s niece Catherine Margaret Ellis. After Buchanan’s death in 1868, his niece, Harriet Lane Johnston, who played the part of first lady in Buchanan’s White House, corresponded with Ellis about retrieving their uncles’ correspondence from Alabama.

More than 60 personal letters still survive, including several that contain expressions of the most intimate kind. Unfortunately, we can read only one side of the correspondence (letters from King to Buchanan). One popular misconception holds about that their nieces destroyed their uncles’ letters by pre-arrangement, but the real reasons for the mismatch stem from multiple factors: for one, the King family plantation was raided during the Battle of Selma in 1865, and for another, flooding of the Selma River likely destroyed portions of King’s papers prior to their deposit at the Alabama Department of Archives and History. Finally, King dutifully followed Buchanan’s instructions and destroyed numerous letters marked “private” or “confidential.” The end result is that relatively few letters of any kind survive in the various papers of William Rufus King, and even fewer have ever been prepared for publication.

By contrast, Buchanan kept nearly every letter which he ever received, carefully docketing the date of his response on the backside of his correspondence. After his death, Johnston took charge of her uncle’s papers and supported the publication of a two-volume set in the 1880s and another, more extensive 12-volume edition in the early 1900s. Such private efforts were vital to securing the historical legacy of U.S. presidents in the era before they received official library designation from the National Archives.

Still, almost nothing written by Buchanan about King remains available to historians. An important exception is a singular letter from Buchanan written to Cornelia Van Ness Roosevelt, wife of former congressman John J. Roosevelt of New York City. Weeks earlier, King had left Washington for New York, staying with the Roosevelts, to prepare for a trip overseas. In the letter, Buchanan writes of his desire to be with the Roosevelts and with King:

I envy Colonel King the pleasure of meeting you & would give any thing in reason to be of the party for a single week. I am now “solitary & alone,” having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them. I feel that it is not good for man to be alone; and should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick, provide good dinners for me when I am well & not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection.

Along with other select lines of their correspondence, historians and biographers have interpreted this passage to imply a sexual relationship between them. The earliest biographers of James Buchanan, writing in the staid Victorian era, said very little about his sexuality. Later Buchanan biographers from the 1920s to the 1960s, following the contemporary gossip in private letters, noted that the pair were referred to as “the Siamese twins.”

But by then, an understanding of homosexuality as a sexual identity and orientation had begun to take hold among the general public. In the 1980s, historians rediscovered the Buchanan-King relationship and, for the first time, explicitly argued that it may have contained a sexual element. The media soon caught wind of the idea that we may have had a “gay president.” In the November 1987 issue of Penthouse Magazine, New York gossip columnist Sharon Churcher noted the finding in an article headlined “Our First Gay President, Out of the Closet, Finally.” The famous author—and Lancaster native—John Updike pushed back somewhat in his novel Memories of the Ford Administration (1992). Updike creatively imagined the boardinghouse life of Buchanan and King, but he admitted to finding few “traces of homosexual passion.” Updike’s conclusion has not stopped a veritable torrent of historical speculation in the years since.

This leaves us today with the popular conception of James Buchanan as our first gay president. On the one hand, it’s not so bad a thing. Centuries of repression of homosexuality in the United States has erased countless number of Americans from the story of LGBT history. The dearth of clearly identifiable LGBT political leaders from the past, moreover, has yielded a necessary rethinking of the historical record and has inspired historians to ask important, searing questions. In the process, past political leaders who for one reason or another don’t fit into a normative pattern of heterosexual marriage have become, almost reflexively, queer. More than anything else, this impulse explains why Americans have transformed James Buchanan into our first gay president.

Certainly, the quest for a usable queer past has yielded much good. Yet the specifics of this case actually obscure a more interesting, and perhaps more significant, historical truth: an intimate male friendship between bachelor Democrats shaped the course of the party, and by extension, the nation. Worse still, moving Buchanan and King from friends to lovers blocks the way for a person today to assume the proper mantle of becoming our first gay president. Until that inevitable day comes to pass, these two bachelors from the antebellum past may be the next closest thing.

Text and vocabularies 1887

National Anthropological Archives
Negative microfilm on file, 2/70.

The text describes the manners and customs of the Ottawas, and the remainder is devoted to lexicographic data, including long lists of tribal names, names of months, and other linguistic matter. Ottawa text includes interlinear translation. 38 page text and 47 1/2 page vocabulary.
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