Fyre (Netflix)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: This made me hate Instagram more than I already did. Yes, get off my lawn.

Quick synopsis: Documentary on the Fyre festival. It was supposed to be a concert on a Caribbean island which would last for days. It turned into a legitimate nightmare.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Oh, you are going to like all of this my non-history nerd friends. History lover or not, everyone loves a train wreck. This qualifies.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: We want to believe that we, as a society, have become smarter. That we can spot charlatans a mile away because of the infusion of knowledge into the world via the internet. NOPE!

My Take: Let’s get straight to the point. The villain in this mess is a guy who sold a massive amount of tickets to his event called the Fyre festival. People would fly down to an abandoned Caribbean island where there would be bands and events for days. Basically, take Lollapalooza, move it to the Caribbean, and make everyone live there.

There was one problem. None of it was actually set up. This is a story of someone who absolutely mastered marketing and especially how to use “influencers.”

The documentary doesn’t totally throw everyone under the bus. Ultimately, the real sin in the story was not knowing when to pull the plug and also proper planning. Don’t let that explanation fool you, though. There is a ton of craziness and this is well worth the watch.

Verdict: This is a must watch. (Disclosure: Never saw the Hulu documentary on the same topic so I can’t compare.) 

If You Liked This Try:

  • Abducted in Plain Sight
  • Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez
  • Tiger King

Dead Mountain by Donnie Eichar

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: This is why I never go camping. OR In Soviet Russia, mountain kill you!

Quick synopsis: The story of the mysterious death of 9 hikers in the Ural Mountains of Russia in 1959. 

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The nine hikers’ bodies were found in various forms of undress over a spread-out crime scene.  

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The biographies of some of the hikers are an excellent crash course in how Russia was in the late 1950s and why even “friends” were never really “friends.” 

My Take: As if living in communist Russia wasn’t rough enough, you can apparently die under mysterious circumstances in the mountains with your friends. 

The basic story is very simple. Nine hikers head into the Ural Mountains. They knew each other well for the most part and were experienced with hiking and camping in rough conditions. They never return.  

A rescue party is sent to find them and can’t explain most of the evidence. It seems like some may have been attacked by animals, some seemed to die from exposure, and there is no sign of an animal or murderer. No rational explanation exists. 

Eichar actually heads to the scene decades later for the book. His journey there is almost as interesting as the mystery. Even today, getting to the scene requires a lot of help and some very shady characters. Eichar eventually posits a rational theory but it will never be known for sure. And unless you are a hardcore scientist, you will not even realize such a thing exists. 

Verdict: This mystery is worth reading. The author goes the extra mile (literally) to provide a viable answer.  

If You Liked This Try: 

  • Charity Vogel, The Angola Horror 
  • Laura MacDonald, Curse of the Narrows 
  • David McCullough, The Johnstown Flood 
  • Ed O’Donnell, Ship Ablaze 
  • R.A. Scotti, Sudden Sea 
  • Daniel Brown, Under a Flaming Sky 

Timely History: Dexiosis

With COVID-19 running rampant and people being even more cognizant of spreading germs, many normal conventions have gone out the window. Some people have even questioned the fate of one of the oldest traditions in humanity: dexiosis. You know it as the handshake. Did you know you spread more germs to someone through a handshake than by making out? Surely the handshake must go away. After all, it hasn’t been around that long, right?  

Well buckle up. The handshake has been around since at least the 5th century BC. Remember, the “BC” means “Before Christ.” The handshake is older than Jesus. We know from early art on various items that the handshake is captured during this time period and may have even originated earlier than that. 

The main purpose of the handshake was most likely to check for concealed weapons when meeting someone. It began by actually grabbing each other’s forearm to do the check. Scholars believe the up and down motion came about during Medieval times in order to shake loose any hidden weapons. 

Will COVID-19 kill the handshake? If the bubonic plague, flu, typhoid, smallpox, typhus, and the measles couldn’t then I don’t think the chances are good.  

I may try the footshake for a while though. 

For more reading: 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Handshake

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dexiosis

https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/05/the-coronavirus-is-seeing-the-footshake-replace-the-handshake.html

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: If you thought doctors were clueless now….

Quick synopsis: The story of the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak in England and how two men figured out why it was happening.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The cholera outbreak chronicled here killed 616 people. It all came from one water pump.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: This wouldn’t be known back when this happened but one of the best treatments for cholera is somewhat ironic. Cholera causes you to go to the bathroom an excessive amount of times. If only people knew the best solution was to keep eating and drinking excessively. Eventually, the cholera would run its course and the infected person would not succumb to malnutrition of other effects.

My Take: This story is really straight forward but takes into account a lot of the confusion when trying to treat diseases before the idea of a germ was totally understood.

In 1854, a major outbreak of cholera occurred in London. Why? Basically, because no one understood sanitation, people’s waste was going into the Thames. Since no one knew about germs or how cholera infected people, it meant that many water pumps were contaminated. The one on Broad Street was particularly bad and would take over 600 lives.

It would have been worse if not for Dr. John Snow (no, not the Game of Thrones guy) and the Reverend Henry Whitehead. Yes, it sounds like the perfect set up for a buddy comedy, but this actually happened. Between Snow understanding how infection works and Whitehead knowing the neighborhood, they were able to pinpoint the Broad Street pump as the source of the infection and save lives.

Johnson tells this part of the story well but then tries to extrapolate a bit too much. The story itself is interesting enough and explains how the competing theories of a disease made this particularly difficult for Snow and Whitehead.

Verdict: A good book that falls apart a bit when the actual historical event ends. Still worth a read.

If You Liked This Try:

  • John Carreyrou, Bad Blood
  • Donnie Eichar, Dead Mountain
  • Hallie Rubenhold, The Five

Timely History: Gruinard Island

Quarantine is important. It allows us to safely flatten the curve and not spread disease at an exponential rate. Quarantining is not a new idea and even mentioned in the Bible to stop the spread of disease.

Oh, it’s also been used because the British government contaminated an entire island in Scotland to see how effective anthrax would be as a biological weapon. Welcome to Gruinard Island!

Dear reader, before you grab your tinfoil hat and scream, “down with big government!” I will need you to hear me out. This experiment began with the noblest of intentions: killing Nazis. In 1942, the British government decided to see if anthrax would be the new rage in wiping the Third Reich from existence. (Fun Fact: it was codenamed “Operation Vegetarian.” I will refrain from vegetarian jokes but just know I thought of 7.)

Luckily, they decided not to drop an anthrax bomb in London but on a small uninhabited island in Scotland. They brought a bunch of sheep (aww) to test how it would work. Let’s just say the sheep didn’t do well. Amazingly, it also turns out anthrax would completely contaminate German cities and make them uninhabitable for decades. Who knew?! The anthrax bomb was shelved.

Is this not a weird enough story? Oh, don’t worry, now it gets weird. In 1981, a militant group executed “Operation Dark Harvest (which is cooler sounding then “Vegetarian” but not as hilarious.” This operation centered on forcing the British government to clean up the island. They even went to the island to collect soil and send them to officials as a threat.

In 1986, the British government finally got around to it and cleaned up the island. Probably. I’m not going to check and neither should you.

For more reading:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gruinard_Island

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark_Harvest_Commando

https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/gruinard-island

Musing: Staying Sane in Quarantine

Quarantine can be challenging. Locked into our homes with little ability to go out and enjoy the company of others can drive anyone batty. There are numerous templates from history for how to fight off insanity, but I’d like to look at two of the most successful under extreme circumstances. Say hello to the Greely Polar Expedition and the survivors of the shipwreck Grafton.

The Greely Polar Expedition (AKA Lady Franklin Bay Expedition) went to the Arctic in 1881 to perform various scientific measurements and attempt to reach the North Pole (they “only” achieved furthest north). They lived in the Arctic for what became a 3-year ordeal and most of them died of starvation waiting for relief. Let’s not focus on that part too much. The important part for this post is how the leader, A.W. Greely, kept 25 men occupied in the Arctic for 3 years with no mutinies. Well, there was almost a couple, but he squashed them. And he had one guy executed. Again, let’s not focus on that part.

Greely effectively kept the team together by keeping them busy and giving them all purpose. Each member of the expedition had a specific job which kept them busy daily for years. Additionally, Greely ensured all team members regularly did some sort of exercise. Finally, Greely had classes taught to the team on a regular basis which challenged their minds as well. When things truly began to fray towards the end, Greely did something many people in power forget to do; ask everyone what they want. Greely’s judicious use of democracy in a military expedition ultimately kept everyone together even under the worst circumstances.

The story of the Grafton has none of the caveats of the Greely Expedition, but followed the same script in leadership. The Grafton wrecked in 1864 on the Auckland Islands which are south of New Zealand and, as you can imagine, quite cold. Thomas Musgrave was the captain and he had 4 crew. One of Musgrave’s first actions was to allow the crew to choose who they wanted to lead them now that the ship had sank. They still chose Musgrave. I don’t think I need to harp on why it was extraordinary that Musgrave even broached the subject. Musgrave then did what Greely would do decades later. Each crew member had their own tasks which were constantly required. Exercise to find food was common. Musgrave ultimately kept his men together for 18 months on the islands and then made a daring escape attempt. In a newly created boat, he and two other crew sailed back to New Zealand…280 miles away. Musgrave made it and then immediately found a ship and went back for his two-remaining crew. All were saved.

What have we learned, dear readers? Keep busy! I am writing two posts a day for my dozen fans. I am working out twice a day (that’s right, I’m getting swole ladies). I’m also trying to finish reading a book a week. I’m not always successful but between these goals and baby history nerd, I am pretty busy. Make some goals, keep busy, and keep sane out there!

For more reading:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grafton_(ship)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_Franklin_Bay_Expedition

Joan Druett, Island of the Lost

Buddy Levy, Labyrinth of Ice

What Made Maddy Run by Kate Fagan

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Every parent’s worst nightmare.

Quick synopsis: The life and suicide of Madison Holleran, a young University of Pennsylvania athlete.

History Fact: The University of Pennsylvania is in the Ivy League. Who knew?

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Important Note: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-8255.

My Take: This book will chill any parent to their core.

Madison Holleran was, by all accounts, smart, beautiful, and driven. She was a star athlete. She had numerous friends. She had the same trials and tribulations as any teenager but nothing too major.

Maddy began her college career at the University of Pennsylvania. She began to become withdrawn, stressed out, and not quite herself according to her parents. One night, she committed suicide by jumping from a parking garage.

I read this book because mental health and my daughter are both very important to me. This book touches on parenting and dealing with the vagaries of teenagers.

Ultimately, Maddy’s story is very important and Fagan treats her and her family with respect. Unfortunately, it seems Fagan showed too much respect. The title of the book asks what made Maddy run but Fagan never tries to answer that question fully. She mentions the possibility of mental health issues in the family but backs off before digging in.

The book is well written, but if you want answers, you may feel disappointed like I did. You will, however, be terrified of how subtle the signs of depression and suicide are.

Verdict: A very soul crushing read. It’s well written but not as incisive as I felt it needed to be.

If This Interests You:

  • Bessel Van Der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score

Timely History: Typhoid Mary

Mary Mallon was born in September of 1869 in Cookstown in what is now Northern Ireland. She immigrated to the United States in 1883 or so. In 1900, she found her calling as a cook for wealthy families in the New York City.  

Why should you care about this woman? Because as COVID-19 runs rampant around the world, there is a lot of discussion around quarantine, social distancing, and isolation. So, what does poor Mary from the 1800s have to do with this? Well, she is best known as “Typhoid Mary.” 

What’s typhoid? It’s a bacterial infection which causes a lot of symptoms like weakness, abdominal pain, vomiting, and death. The bacteria lives in urine and feces. Want to guess how you get it? I won’t continue. What I will say is lesson #1 from this post is WASH YOUR HANDS

Typhoid Mary loved cooking, apparently. She had trouble holding down a job, though. It seems whoever she worked for always had this nasty habit of getting typhoid. Once the family would get sick, Mary would change her name and disappear, popping up somewhere else. Lesson #2: ALWAYS CHECK REFERENCES

A doctor was finally hired to understand what was going on. He eventually tracked down Mary and explained the situation. Mary was an asymptomatic carrier. She wouldn’t get sick, but she could get other people sick because she didn’t wash her hands when cooking. Mary tried to kill him with a meat cleaver. Ultimately, Mary was forcibly quarantined for three years with no trial. Lesson #3: GET A LAWYER

Mary was released finally after promising not to be a cook anymore. This she did. For probably a year or so. She finally went too far once again when she became a cook for a New York City hospital. She was quarantined again until she died in 1938. Lesson #4: IF A DOCTOR SAYS YOU HAVE IT THEN YOU PROBABLY HAVE IT. 

Mary infected at least 50 people and killed at least 3. I say, “at least” because she moved so much the number could possibly be much higher. 

Don’t be like Mary. Be safe out there. 

For more reading: 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Typhoid_fever#History

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Mallon

Tiger King (Netflix)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: It’s like white trash did a massive amount of meth and then had a baby. Then the baby did meth. 

Quick synopsis: Chronicles the ups and downs of owning tigers and running a zoo. I am so underplaying this whole thing. It’s so bonkers.  

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: She did it. You don’t know what this means as of yet, but I assure you that you will know what I am talking about as soon as you see it. 

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Joe Exotic won 19% of the vote in the Libertarian primary for Oklahoma Governor! We thought such things only happened in Florida. 

My Take: Joe Exotic owned a zoo. He had tigers. There are other people with tigers. All of these people are certifiably insane. 

One guy is definitely a cult leader with multiple wives. 

There is a woman who says she hates the other guys and wants to save the tigers. I assure you she is not the hero of this story. 

85% of the teeth in this documentary are missing. It’s a rough estimate. 

There is murder. Lots of murder. Also, a presidential campaign.  

I don’t want to ruin anything. Stop reading. Go watch. And don’t start late at night. You won’t be able to stop until you are done. 

Verdict: Just stick it in my veins! Glorious trash! 

If You Liked This Try:  

  • Abducted in Plain Sight 
  • Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez 
  • Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story 

The Book Was Better: King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild Vs. King Leopold’s Ghost

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: You’ll never look at rubber the same way again. 

Quick synopsis: The story of King Leopold II of Belgium and how he took over. 

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Leopold II of Belgium is responsible for the death of about 10 million Africans. Some people today still think he was a swell guy! 

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Would you like a crash course in how the legacy of imperialism has left many places in Africa still struggling to find identity? I don’t like being heavy handed, but holy hell, there is a lot of messed up stuff here. 

Book vs. Movie: If you read the book or watch the movie you will end up feeling the very same: haunted and horrified. 

When the European powers began carving up Africa, Leopold II of Belgium saw the opportunity for overseas expansion. He found a way to get a small piece on the Congo River and began a colony focused on rubber. 

So far, so good. He was bringing civilization and commerce to Africans, right? He also brought sadists who would cut off the hands of anyone who didn’t meet their quota. They didn’t give the workers the tools needed to get rubber safely and let’s just say, you may want to cry reading or watching it. 

The book and the movie/documentary tell the same story in different ways. The movie focuses on the visuals of course and shortens the whole story while obviously the book can go into much more detail. 

If you are in a good mood and want to stay that way then don’t take on either.  

Hitler is responsible for the death of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. No intelligent human being considers him anything but the epitome of evil. Leopold is responsible for the deaths of 10 million Africans. Enough said. 

Verdict: Both are important and well done. Do both. 

If You Liked This Try: 

  • Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea 
  • Ron Stallworth, Black Klansman