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ROTTEN HISTORY

Posted by Alexander Jerri

In 1894 – (124 years ago) – more than four hundred people were killed in a firestorm that resulted when two separate forest fires merged in the lumber country around Hinckley, Minnesota, at the end of an unusually hot and dry summer. In those days it was common for loggers to strip trees of their branches before cutting them down. That practice covered the forest floor with chunks of dead wood and flammable tinder in areas where steam locomotives regularly passed through, spewing red-hot coal cinders from their smokestacks. In the Hinckley firestorm, powerful convection currents sucked up so much oxygen that many victims died by suffocation. In just four hours, some 300,000 acres of pine forest were destroyed. A few hundred people managed to survive the blaze by taking shelter in a gravel pit and a muddy lake. But their livelihood, the local lumber industry, was completely wiped out. And though an effort was made to rebuild the town of Hinckley, it would never regain its former economic importance.

In 1914 – (104 years ago) — the world’s last known passenger pigeon was found dead on the floor of her cage at the Cincinnati Zoo. Known by the name “Martha,” she was about twenty-nine years old, the last survivor of years of failed breeding attempts by ornithologists in Cincinnati and at the University of Chicago. She had never in her life laid a fertile egg, and the last male passenger pigeon had died four years earlier. For thousands of years before the arrival of European settlers, passenger pigeons had been the most abundant bird species in North America and perhaps the world, numbering some three to five billion at their peak. In 1813 the naturalist John James Audubon described seeing migrating flocks that numbered in the millions, so vast that they blackened the sky and took hours or even days to pass overhead. Frontier settlers found they could easily bring the pigeons down by shooting into the sky without bothering to aim, or by using torches to smoke them out of the trees where they nested. Some used the birds as a source of cheap food, while others killed them for fun, leaving them on the ground to rot. In the mid- to late nineteenth century, passenger pigeons were the target of uncontrolled commercial hunting that drastically reduced their numbers. Meanwhile, the timber industry decimated the forests of the eastern United States, depriving the pigeons of their favored breeding habitat. By the time their population decline became obvious, it was too late to save the species — and after Martha’s death, the passenger pigeon was declared extinct. In more recent years, the Harvard University biologist E. O. Wilson has estimated that humans are driving some thirty thousand species to extinction every year.

Rotten History is written by Renaldo Migaldi


Posted by Alexander Jerri

In 1941 – (77 years ago) — four truckloads of Nazi German paratroopers arrived at the village of Kondomari, on the Greek island of Crete, where local farmers, armed with crude weapons and assisted by New Zealand troops, had fiercely resisted the German invaders just days before. The Germans had lost several hundred troops in their World War II invasion all across Crete, and now their survivors on the island were being ordered to carry out reprisals against Greek civilians — and to do it fast, without trials or other formalities. At Kondomari, the Germans surrounded the village and rounded up men, women, and children in the town square. Then a number of Greek men were chosen from the group, while the women and children were let go. The Germans led the men to a nearby olive orchard, where they methodically lined them up and shot them dead. German records list twenty-three victims, but Greek sources put the death toll at or near sixty. The lieutenant who led the massacre at Kondomari was later killed by Allied troops at Normandy. A German military photographer who captured the Kondomari episode on film was later arrested by the Gestapo and jailed for having secretly helped some Cretans to escape. He survived the war, to testify against Hermann Göring at Nuremberg — but his chilling photographs from Kondomari lay forgotten in German archives until their rediscovery in 1980.  


Posted by Alexander Jerri

In 1637 – (381 years ago) — more than a hundred English Puritan colonists were joined by some two hundred indigenous Mohegan, Narragansett, and Niantic warriors in an attack on a fortified Pequot village near the Mystic River in what is now southeastern Connecticut. The Mohegans, in particular, had once been in a single tribe with the Pequots before the two groups split over tensions regarding trade with English and Dutch settlers. But now the Mohegans were allied with the English, who had their own territorial and trade ambitions and had been at war with the Pequots for almost a year. In an early morning raid led by two English captains, the combined forces surrounded the Pequot village, breached its wooden palisade, and forced their way in. The Pequot defenders quickly fought them off, so the English responded by setting the whole village on fire, blocking its two exits, and shooting anyone who tried to come out. Within a half hour, some four hundred to five hundred men, women, and children were horribly burned to death. The few villagers who managed to escape were quickly hunted down and shot. After another year of war with the settlers, the Pequot would effectively cease to exist as a tribe, and the stage was set for further colonial expansion in New England.

Rotten History is written by Renaldo Migaldi.


Posted by Alexander Jerri

On This Day in Rotten History...

In 1732  – (285 years ago) – the armory at a castle in Campo Maior, Portugal — which contained some five thousand pieces of ammunition, and almost a hundred tons of gunpowder — was struck by lightning during a thunderstorm. The explosion was spectacular, not only destroying the armory but starting a fire that caused major damage to the castle and its fortress,  injuring most of its inhabitants.  

In 1893  – (124 years ago) – one of the last large tracts of unassigned public land in the American West was opened for settlement in a land run at the so-called Cherokee Outlet in what is now the state of Oklahoma. The Cherokee nation had been pressured to sell the federal government six million acres of grazing land. On the morning of the land run, more than a hundred thousand people with horses and wagons prepared to race into the area to plant claim flags on some forty thousand surveyed and plotted homesteads. Some of the would-be settlers had been camping in the area for months — and though US Army troops tried to keep order, they failed to prevent a number of violators, later known as “Sooners,” from sneaking in before the noontime starting gun to grab the best plots of free land for themselves. In the manic chaos of the run, most participants failed to claim a plot. And of those who did, many would soon be disappointed to find that the dry, dusty land was no good for growing crops.  

In 1977 – (40 years ago) — Marc Bolan, star of the British pop-rock band T. Rex, emerged at four in the morning from a long dinner with friends at a restaurant in London’s Berkeley Square. He was accompanied by his girlfriend, the American singer Gloria Jones. It had been a long day and evening, and Bolan had been drinking through most of it. He gave Jones the keys to his Mini GT, and they began the drive home. Neither Bolan nor Jones wore a seat belt. Less than a mile from Bolan’s house, Jones lost control of the car — which slid off the road, crashed into a steel-reinforced fence, and came to rest at the base of a sycamore tree. Both occupants were thrown from the car. Jones survived the accident, but Bolan’s skull was ripped open by a protruding bolt on a fencepost, and he died instantly — two weeks before what would have been his thirtieth birthday.

Rotten History is written by Renaldo Migaldi


Posted by Alexander Jerri

On This Day in Rotten History...

In 1716  – (301 years ago) – thirty-three thousand soldiers died and untold thousands more were wounded when forces of Austria’s Habsburg monarchy met an army of the Ottoman Empire at Petrovaradin, in what is now Serbia. The Ottomans had been driving toward the heart of Europe when they ran smack into a massive encampment ordered on the banks of the Danube by the Austrian military commander, Prince Eugene of Savoy. After three days of minor skirmishes, and in just a few hours of unspeakable carnage, the Ottoman troops were outmanuevered, overwhelmed, and wiped out. Barely one-third of them managed to escape with their lives after their leader, the Grand Vizier Damat Ali, was captured and killed. His tomb is in Belgrade.

In 1858  – (159 years ago) – having already failed in several attempts, oceangoing engineers from the United States and Great Britain finally completed laying the first-ever telegraph cable across the Atlantic Ocean. The 2,500-mile-long cable was made of five copper wires wrapped in a casing of gutta-percha, tar, and hemp. It lay on an undersea plateau two miles under the waves, and connected a station in Newfoundland with another one in Ireland. After a few days of testing, Britain’s Queen Victoria sent the ceremonial first message to US President James Buchanan. The technology was so crude that her ninety-eight-word message took sixteen hours to send. Within days the transmission quality grew even worse, and engineers argued about how to fix it. The English chief electrician, Wildman Whitehouse, finally chose to pump an extra charge of two thousand volts into the cable to get it working. But instead of fixing the problem, the shock burned the cable out, rendering the hugely expensive project worthless after only three weeks in service. Whitehouse’s reputation was ruined, though he would spend the rest of his life defending his decision. Many people suspected that the whole cable project had been a big hoax, and six years would pass before it was attempted again.

In 1962 – (55 years ago) — near the town of Howick in South Africa, police arrested Nelson Mandela, leader of an armed wing of the banned African National Congress that had been classified as a terrorist organization by South Africa’s white minority government. Mandela was arrested along with a group of associates who were charged with sabotage, treason, and violent conspiracy against the apartheid regime. After a trial in which he acknowledged his illegal activity, including several bombings, and stated his willingness to die for the cause of abolishing apartheid, Mandela would spend eighteen years in the notoriously brutal Robben Island prison near Cape Town, followed by nine years in another prison and under house arrest, during which time he would become world-famous and turn down a series of government compromise deals for his release. Not until 1990, at the age of seventy-one, would he finally be freed.

Rotten History is written by Renaldo Migaldi


Posted by Alexander Jerri

On This Day in Rotten History...

In the year 904 – (1,113 years ago) — the Byzantine city of Thessalonica in Greece was sacked by an army of Arab Saracen invaders. The Saracens had departed from Syria with the original intention of taking Constantinople, but they’d been repelled by that city’s defenders. So they took a spontaneous detour to Thessalonica, where they found a city totally unprepared for their onslaught. Not only were the crumbling city walls in urgent need of repair, but the city’s two army commanders, who could not communicate with each other, were issuing conflicting orders that threw the troops into disarray. After a brief siege, during which the combatants used catapaults to bombard each other with flying rocks, the Saracens essentially hurled themselves, through a rain of stones and arrows, over the walls and into the city. Once inside, they spent a week killing, burning, looting, and taking prisoners. They captured sixty Byzantine ships, released four thousand Muslims held captive in the city, and took more than twenty thousand Thessalonicans as captives, most of whom they would later sell into slavery.       

In 1967 – (50 years ago) — 250 people were killed and more than 1,500 were injured when a 6.5-magnitude earthquake struck near the Caribbean coast of Venezuela. In one fashionable neighborhood in Caracas, people and cars were buried under tons of debris when a quartet of ritzy highrise apartment buildings shook and staggered on their foundations, pounded into each other, and then collapsed like stacks of pancakes. The earthquake caused more than $100 million worth of property damage in Caracas alone, and left more than eighty thousand people homeless across northern Venezuela.

Rotten History is written by Renaldo Migaldi


Posted by Alexander Jerri

On This Day in Rotten History...

In 1916 – (101 years ago) — in San Francisco, business leaders and the local chamber of commerce sponsored a “Preparedness Day parade” to cheer the entry of US troops into World War I. Labor leaders, radicals, and anarchists who opposed US participation in the faraway European war planned to protest the parade, and had been warned of possible mischief by provocateurs. Shortly after the parade got underway, a pipe bomb exploded in the middle of the crowd, killing ten people and wounding forty. Two locally prominent left-wing labor leaders, Thomas Mooney and Warren Billings, were among those arrested by police, and were held for six days without being allowed to see a lawyer. In defiance of loud protests by labor and civil liberties activists, both men were soon found guilty — their death sentences later commuted to life imprisonment. More than twenty years later, a state commission found that their trial had been marred by false testimony and other irregularities, some of which were publicly admitted by the trial judge and jurors. Mooney and Billings were released from prison in 1939 and later pardoned. To this day, the real perpetrators of the San Francisco bombing remain unknown.    

In 1962 – (55 years ago) — at Cape Canaveral, Florida, a rocket was launched carrying the spacecraft Mariner 1, intended to be the first to fly near the planet Venus. Soon after launch, the rocket veered off course and stopped responding to guidance commands sent from the ground. Fearful that it might come down and hit a populated area, mission controllers sent a command for the rocket to self-destruct, which it did. Analysts later found that a computer programmer who transcribed guidance software for the rocket had unwittingly introduced a typo, which science writer Arthur C. Clarke later called “the most expensive hyphen in history.” Five weeks later, a second launch sent the Mariner 2 spacecraft to a successful Venus flyby, where it measured hellish temperatures on that planet’s surface of nine hundred degrees Fahrenheit — hot enough to melt lead.  



Posted by Alexander Jerri

On This Day in Rotten History...

In 1381 – (636 years ago) — John Ball, an itinerant English priest, was executed for helping provoke a peasant’s revolt against high taxes levied by the state to finance its endless warfare. As England struggled to recover from the plague years of the Black Death, Ball had traveled from town to town, using Bible passages to preach radical ideas of social equality. He achieved great popularity by voicing the grievances of the impoverished peasants in vernacular terms they could understand. After the Catholic Church, which owned a third of the land in England, excommunicated Ball, he took his preaching outdoors, where he drew large crowds. By the time of his final arrest he had already been in and out of prison several times for giving sermons in which he urged his listeners to seize and kill members of the nobility and their lawyers as well as high-ranking members of the clergy, including the archbishop of Canterbury. On the day of Ball’s execution, the fifteen-year-old King Richard II was on hand to watch him first hanged, and then drawn and quartered. The four bloodsoaked quarters of Ball’s body were then sent to four different villages to be displayed in public as a warning to those who might consider heeding his call or following in his footsteps.

In 1927 – (90 years ago) — in Vienna, demonstrators taking part in a general strike against Austria’s right-wing government stormed the National Palace of Justice and set it on fire. The blaze followed several months of earlier protests led by opposition Social Democrats against the regime, which was backed by rich businessmen and Catholic clergy. Those demonstrations had sometimes flared into violence — including one incident in which three right-wing paramilitaries had killed a World War I veteran and an eight-year-old boy and were later acquitted after pleading self-defense. At the Palace of Justice, after demonstrators attacked firefighters and cut their hoses, and after Vienna’s mayor appealed for calm and was ignored, police chief Johann Schober issued army rifles to his officers and ordered them to open fire on the crowd. Eighty-nine labor protesters were killed, along with five police; and some six hundred protesters were seriously injured. Two years later, Schober would go on to become Austria’s chancellor.

Rotten History is written by Renaldo Migaldi


Posted by Alexander Jerri

On This Day in Rotten History...

In 1523 – (494 years ago) — Johann Esch and Heinrich Voes, two monks from a monastery in Antwerp, were burned at the stake by the Roman Catholic Church for the crime of adopting religious positions of the German theologian Martin Luther, who had kickstarted the Protestant Reformation six years earlier. Luther had denounced the Catholic authorities for the practice of selling indulgences — basically, taking people’s money for the promise of getting them into heaven after their death. He maintained that the authority of the Bible took precedence over that of the Catholic pope, cardinals, and bishops. Those were dangerous beliefs in medieval Europe, and the Roman Church was so intent on stopping their spread that, contrary to usual practice, the charges against Esch and Voes were not read aloud before their public execution in the main marketplace of Brussels. As the flames rose around them, the two unfortunate monks sang Latin hymns until they fell unconscious. Their monastery was declared to have been defiled, and was demolished.

In 1766 – (251 years ago) — a twenty-year-old French nobleman named François-Jean de la Barre was awakened early in the morning and physically tortured by having his hands cut off and his tongue torn from his mouth. Later that day he was beheaded for crimes against Roman Catholicism, the state religion of France. La Barre been found guilty of failing to remove his hat when a religious procession passed, and also for mocking Catholic hymns by changing the words to include obscenities. Police had searched his bedroom and found prohibited books, including the works of the atheistic philosopher Voltaire. After le Barre was beheaded, his body was burned; his copy of Voltaire’s Philosphical Dictionary was also tossed into the flames. After the fire died, the ashes were swept up and unceremoniously dumped into the nearby Somme River.

In 1916 – (101 years ago) — eighteen British and French divisions attacked the German Second Army in positions along the Somme River, kicking off a major battle of World War I. In some areas, according to some accounts, the British and French soldiers simply marched shoulder-to-shoulder into a barrage of German machine gunfire that mowed them down, filling the battlefield with bloody corpses. In other areas, it was the British and French who had the upper hand, and the Germans who suffered the worst. The gruesome trench warfare continued all day, with occasional brief truces to allow troops on either side to retrieve and carry off their dead. As night fell, some twenty thousand men were dead and another thirty-eight thousand were wounded. It was just the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, which over the next few months would claim more than a million casualties, making it one of the bloodiest battles in recorded history.

Rotten History is written by Renaldo Migaldi