Timely History: The Plague of Justinian

Everyone knows about the Black Death. One of the worst pandemics in history and caused by fleas on rats. People merely refer to it as the plague and associate it with the Black Death, which is true.

But it’s not the first time the plague is seen in history and it’s definitely not the first time it killed off massive amounts of the human population.

The Plague of Justinian is the first pandemic in recorded history. It is also the first time the plague burst onto the scene. It first appeared in 541 and then continued to appear sporadically…. for 200 years. When it was done, it killed upwards of 100 million people which was the equivalent of about half the population of Europe at the time. The plague then disappeared for the most part. That is, until it roared back in 1347 in the form of the Black Death.

Where did the name come from? Well, poor Emperor Justinian got screwed twice by the plague. First, he was emperor when it first occurred, so he has his name attached to it. Second, he actually GOT the plague. Don’t worry, he got better. He lived to be 83 and became known as St. Justinian the Great. He did all right.

Oh, and the plague wasn’t done after the Black Death. There are three plague pandemics in history… so far.

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Timely History: Juneteenth

The country recently celebrated Juneteenth on 19 June. For a lot of people, it was the first time hearing about the holiday. Allow me to conduct a quick Q&A to answer your burning questions on the holiday.

This is a new thing that was just made up because of what’s going on, right? No, stop being racist. Just kidding, I’m sure you’re not a racist. Juneteenth goes back to June 19, 1865 when Union General Gordon Granger announced to slaves in Texas that they were free. This date is significant because Texas was so remote at that point that the announcement effectively informed the last corner of the Confederacy of emancipation.

(Just in case you actually are a racist reading this, kindly go —- yourself.)

Oh, so slavery ended in the U.S. on this date, right? Haha, history is never that clean. Kentucky and Delaware still had legal slavery until the 13th Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865. I can’t find empirical evidence, but I think Delaware does tax free shopping to distract from this fact. Don’t quote me.

Well you are a history nerd so you must have known about this for a while, right? Nope. Didn’t know about it until I saw it on Blackish. Good show, by the way.

Why is it called, “Juneteenth”? It’s a portmanteau of “June” and “19th”.

Well, that’s dumb. First, that’s not a question. Second, here’s a list of portmanteaus I guarantee you use in real life, so get off your high horse: guesstimate, botox, athleisure, motorcycle, and taxicab. If you are my age, you also remember, “Bennifer.”

Fine, but no one really celebrated this before this year, right? You are really negative. Juneteenth is recognized as a holiday in 47 out of 50 states. Hawaii and the Dakotas are the only states who don’t recognize it. I don’t know what their problem is.

But President Trump said he made it very famous, right? (Sigh) Ask your Black friend if that’s true. If you don’t have a Black friend, go make one.

(Note: I thought the capitalization of “Black” and “White” when referring to ethnicity was a new thing. Apparently, it’s been APA standard way before this. You’re welcome, English nerds.)

Ok, but this is only a holiday for Black Americans, right? I don’t know, the end of the worst legacy of the United States is probably worth celebrating by everyone. But as the kids say, “you do you, boo.”

Well then how should I celebrate it, jerk? Same way you celebrate every other U.S. holiday, have some family and friends over and get drunk. It did start in Texas so have a BBQ, too.

For Further Reading:





Holy Hell (Netflix)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Holy Hell:

Buddhafield is a dumb name for a cult.

Quick synopsis:

A documentary about the Buddhafield cult which the filmmaker was in for 22 years.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

This cult still exists in Hawaii.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

This cult leader, Michel, had his people under control to the point that he made them build a ballet stage for him to put on shows only for the cult.

My Take on Holy Hell:

The most interesting aspect of this look into a cult is that you are taken through its evolution by someone who was in the cult but also filmed everything for over 22 years.

Will Allen was the documentarian of Buddhafield starting in the mid to late 1980s. Allen would ultimately stay in the cult for 22 years. He was deeply immersed including his family members being a part of it as well.

The cult leader, Michel, is very creepy as it seems all cult leaders are. He is strange, but he of course is somehow magnetic to the people who end up following him. Like most cults you see on documentaries, it starts off well with people feeling included and valued. However, sooner or later the cult leader begins to use people purely for their own devices. Michel is no different.

This documentary brings many former members in the front of the camera and adds a lot to the old footage. I really enjoyed it.


This is a personal film for the creator and can be pretty powerful at certain parts. It does not have the shock value of some other true crime documentaries but it’s very good all the same. Watch it here!

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Battle of the Books: Catherine of Aragon

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Catherine of Aragon:

Yes, they all talk about the same woman (Catherine/Katherine). They just spelled it differently.

Quick synopsis:

Biographies of Catherine of Aragon by Giles Tremlett, Patrick Williams, and Amy Licence. She was the first wife of Henry VIII and yes then it all went wrong.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

Catherine was the daughter of Queen Isabella. Yes, the one who sent Columbus across the ocean. She did more than that, you know.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

How impressive was Catherine during her lifetime? Thomas Cromwell, who was decidedly not a fan of hers, said, “If not for her sex, she could have defied all the heroes of History.” Sexism aside, it is a compliment.  

My Take on Catherine of Aragon:

Catherine of Aragon was much more than just the woman in the way for Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. She was the daughter of Isabella I and Ferdinand II and she wasn’t even supposed to marry Henry VIII. She was married to his older brother, Arthur, who died six months into their marriage. This short marriage would be how all the divorce nonsense came into being. Also, Henry being one of history’s most notorious hornballs.

Catherine became beloved by the people of England which was not an easy thing to do for a Spanish princess. Spain was not always in favor with England and Catherine had to work hard to earn favor with the people and she did through various charitable functions.

What most people fail to realize is Henry and Catherine were married for a long time before Anne Boleyn came along. In fact, they were married in 1509 and did not get “divorced” until 1533. She had bad luck with children and only gave birth to one who would live to adulthood. Her name was Mary, although many probably know her as “Bloody Mary.”

Man, the Tudors really knew how to pile on the drama.

Can’t go wrong with any of them, although Williams’ and License’s has a bit more detail than Tremlett.


Read any of the three and you will get a great story about Catherine. Buy them all below!

Catherine of Aragon by Amy Licence

Catherine of Aragon by Giles Tremlett

Katherine of Aragon by Patrick Williams

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The Book Was Better: The Lost City of Z

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for The Lost City of Z:

Who would have thought the Amazon could be so dangerous?

Quick synopsis:

The story of famed explorer Percy Fawcett and his disappearance looking for the Lost City of Z. I compare the book by David Grann and the movie of the same name.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

There are still indigenous people within the Amazon rain forest who have not had contact with the outside world.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

Fawcett is one of the few British explorers known for not treating the locals like garbage. The movie and book show the lengths he went to create a positive relationship with indigenous peoples. The movie scene is pretty damn intense.

Book vs. Movie The Lost City of Z:

The movie, The Lost City of Z, holds a special place in my heart. It was the first time I ever went to a movie alone. I had already read the book and loved it. I had an odd day off from work and knew full well that no one would go see the movie with me on a normal Friday or Saturday. This story is just to reveal to you, dear reader, that scarfing down popcorn without worrying about other people’s judgement is delightful. I looked like the floor of the movie theater when I was done. I regret nothing.

As for the movie, it was pretty fantastic and close to the book as it can be. The cast is stellar, and the best part is just how immersive the Amazon scenes are. The movie is intense and a little weird. Which is good, because Fawcett was kind of weird.

The book gives you more detail about this explorer who was equal parts obsessive and blissfully ignorant. He was driven, a bit of an absentee father and husband, and by the end maybe insane. I won’t ruin it for you.

The medium doesn’t matter here. You are in for a good time. I won’t tell you if they find the lost city of Z.


The book is better, but much closer than most. You can’t go wrong with either. Buy the book here or watch the movie here!

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Timely History: The Tulsa Race Massacre

Well, this is frustrating on multiple levels.

The Tulsa Race Massacre occurred 99 year ago. I write “Timely History” to highlight current events through the prism of history. It’s the nerd equivalent of “staying in my lane.” I’m not a sociologist and there are many others who will write opinion pieces which will articulate things much better than me.

However, historical events very often do the speaking for you. I find it’s more powerful when you just report facts.

Over Memorial Day weekend in 1921, Dick Rowland, a shoe shiner, entered an elevator to go to the top floor restroom. It was the only one available to him in the area due to segregation. Sarah Page, an elevator operator, was working the elevator at that time and was the only other person with Rowland in the elevator. At some point, someone else in the building heard Page scream and then saw Rowland leave. They reported the incident to the police. There are no records about the police questioning Page, but she is on record later declining to press charges on anything.

Rowland was picked up while the investigation was ongoing. A white mob found out where Rowland was held and made threats about a lynching. Willard McCullough, the Sheriff of Tulsa County, proceeded to take extensive defensive measures to protect Rowland including placing Rowland on upper floors, disabling the buildings elevator, placing armed deputies on the roof and stairs (with the instructions to shoot anyone unauthorized who attempted to use the stairs), and then went to talk to the crowd himself in an attempt to disburse them (he was booed away).

Rumors of a lynching brought members of the nearby black community to the scene to stop the lynching. They came armed. White crowd members went home for guns and returned. More black men arrived with weapons when they heard whites were showing up with guns. A shot was fired.

All hell broke loose.

In an attempt to just stick to the facts, reporting the aftermath is the only somewhat reliable information. Approximately $32 million in today’s dollars damage was done to sections of Tulsa. The vast majority of the damage done was to the Greenwood section of Tulsa, which was known as “Black Wall Street.” 6,000 blacks were detained in nearby fairgrounds over the ensuing days.

If the facts seem to leave some maddeningly large holes in the narrative, well, that’s because there are maddeningly large holes in the narrative. Here are the main ones:

Why have I never heard of this? Because this event was generally not talked about. All sources I found point this out. It wasn’t until 1996 that efforts were made to document this fully.

How many people actually died during the massacre? 36 officially. Maybe 300. The numbers vary wildly and rumors of mass graves which seem unsupported make for very murky details. However, it is *generally* accepted that 36 is way too low. It is fact that black victims made up the majority of the dead.

What actually happened in the elevator? The most popular opinion is that Rowland tripped and grabbed Page as he fell. She was startled and screamed. No one knows, basically.

How did the rumor of the lynching get started? This seems like the most important part of how this thing exploded. The white crowd showed up because of what was reported and the rumored lynching. The black crowd showed up to avoid the lynching. So how did it start? Apparently, the Tulsa Tribune seems like a possible culprit as it was rumored that the paper published an editorial entitled, “To Lynch Negro Tonight.” Smoking gun, right? Well, no one can locate that edition of the paper. The microfilm copy of that edition has the relevant page missing. (Did you just say, “What the f—?” I sure did.)

What else should we know? Tons. This is just the slightest overview of the event and I didn’t even touch on the racial tensions of the era because, holy hell, good luck trying to do that in a blog post. Read below for a lot more. Educate yourself.

For Further Reading:





Freedom’s Detective by Charles Lane

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Freedom’s Detective:

Even criminals hated the KKK.

Quick synopsis:

The life of Hiram C. Whitley, one of the earliest leaders of the Secret Service and renowned KKK detective. He was also a criminal.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

Why does the President have the ability to pardon criminals? It was intended to end insurrections faster by giving the executive power to entice leaders to quit rebelling without fear of jail.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

Do you live in Chipley, Florida? Congratulations! Your town is named after a man who was part of the murder of a reconstructionist politician! His Wikipedia page erroneously tries to discuss it away. The references section is hilariously lacking.

My Take on Freedom’s Detective:

It takes a thief to catch a thief. The Grant administration took this quite literally.

This book does a great job on two fronts. First, it is an unflinching look at Hiram C. Whitley. One on hand, he was a villain, racist, and thief. On the other hand, he was a hero, innovator, and friend to the black community. Lane lets you see both sides of him and does not make excuses to exonerate him.

Lane also does a fantastic job in describing the backdrop of Reconstruction in the south following the Civil War. Politics and violence were the ways of life for everyone and no one in between would be tolerated. This book makes you wonder how a single black person even survived in the south post-Civil War.

Lane also gets right to the point and moves the story along fast. For those who like to have sources to back up the facts, Lane has one of the most expansive references section especially considering it’s a short book.


Really great book. Reads like a novel and could even interest non-history nerds. Buy it here!

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Interview with Larry Loftis Author of CODE NAME: LISE

It still amazes me how generous history authors are with their time. I read CODE NAME: LISE (my review is here) a few months ago and absolutely loved it. The book is about Odette Sansom (or Hallowes or Churchill) who was World War II’s most highly decorated spy. Anything more starts to verge on spoilers, so I won’t say any more. (FYI: For non-history nerds, SOE is the Special Operations Executive. Think spies.)

Since I am wonderfully free from shame, I decided to reach out to Larry Loftis and ask him some questions I had about the book and a few other questions about being an author. Larry got right back to me (which is amazing because he is really busy, just check out his bio) and was happy to answer them. Enjoy our (email) interview below and then go buy Larry’s books!

(Note: Larry says he doesn’t watch TV. I don’t know, sounds like a Real Housewives addict to me but I digress…)

(HNU) We definitely need a movie about Odette, right? The last one about her was in 1950 as far as I can see.

(LL) That’s correct.  We’ve actually been contacted by five or six groups from Hollywood, with three offers.  We’re waiting for the right person to do it, though (Steven Spielberg, if you’re out there….).

(HNU) Odette can often be characterized in different ways. Some have portrayed her as a bored housewife who wanted to have an adventure and get away from her husband. Your book shows her as deeply conflicted between patriotism and her children. What do you think about her characterization as someone just looking for a change?

(LL) Indeed, many have raised that question, and people are often shocked to hear that Odette left three young children at home to go on a very dangerous mission (the fatality rate of SOE couriers was 42%, second only to Bomber Command’s 45%).  No one can read Odette’s heart, of course, but it very well may have been a combination of both. 

(HNU) Additionally, George Starr, another SOE agent described her as, “a dreadful lady,” and called her out for seductive behavior. Her affair with Churchill would suggest there may be some truth to that. However, do you think it may be more due to her stubbornness and determination to get the job done? (I personally feel her withstanding later torture says more about her iron will than anything else.)

(LL) Odette had an intense personality, no doubt.  After meeting her, Peter   described her as an “angry gazelle.” But he and Arnaud (their radio operator) loved working with her.  But a clarification is in order: there is not a shred of evidence in any primary source that suggests she had “seductive behavior,” or that she had an affair with Peter during the war.  I address this in one of the end notes, I believe.              

(HNU) The SOE has a somewhat muddled legacy. While dealing with highly complex challenges, there was also massive lapses in judgment and security. Looking at the full scale of SOE operations and numerous successes/failures, do you think it should be seen as a successful wartime organization? Or does the fact the Allies won the war cover up the myriad mistakes they made?

(LL) Every operation incurs mistakes, and any operation in any war by any country would provide ample evidence of this.  Absolutely, SOE had their share of mistakes, the Dutch (Operation North Pole) fiasco being at the top   of the list (where the Abwehr’s Hermann Giskes turned an SOE radio and some 50 SOE agents were dropped into waiting German arms), but to suggest that the organization and its operations as a whole were unsuccessful is grossly inaccurate. On the whole, the SOE was very successful, and was of tremendous help in Operations Overlord (D-Day) and Anvil (later, Dragoon, the invasion of southern France).

(HNU) It seems like you have to love researching to be an author. Do you agree?

(LL) You have to love research if you want to provide a quality nonfiction book, and the best way to see how thorough an author has been is to look at the end notes and bibliography.  With a novel it’s not required since all of it can be untrue. That said, the better fiction writers do some research so that  their story sounds believable. 

(HNU) What is the best part of the entire writing process for you?

(LL) Turning in the manuscript. 🙂  No, the really fun part is finding nuggets of gold during research.  In all three of my books (Into the Lion’s Mouth, CODE NAME: LISE, and The Princess Spy, which hits Feb. 9, 2021) I have found the most incredible things in the archives (US or UK).  For example, with ILM, I held in my hands the very document Popov gave to the FBI on August 18, 1941 (his translated German questionnaire to investigate the defenses at Pearl Harbor), which Hoover held in his hands the following day. With LISE, I had tremendous joy finding on GoogleMaps the exact spots of landings or drops in Bassillac and Mt. Semnoz, France, both of which look exactly like they did in 1943.  And with The Princess Spy, I discovered a murder (addressed in a memo in the OSS files) that has been lost in history and was quite incredible.

(HNU) Is there anything you wish you knew ahead of time before you started your writing career?

(LL) Yes, the time involved in everything is much longer than you expect.  It took me longer to find an agent, for example, than it did to write my first book. It took my publisher 16 months to publish my first book after I turned in the manuscript. And an author’s “advance” is typically spread over four years.

(HNU) How do you balance the various jobs you do? One at a time, little bit of everything all at once?

(LL) With nonfiction, you really have to spend at least six months doing research before you even think about writing.  When I wrote Into the Lion’s Mouth, I spent a year doing full-time research, and then another six months spending half the day in research, half in writing, followed by six months of pure writing. 

The killer with what I do is the end notes.  During my pure writing time, I might spend an entire day working on one end note (which doesn’t count toward your contract “word count” length).  And invariably, that end note will require additional research, or spot checking.

(HNU) What are your favorite guilty pleasure TV shows while on lockdown?

(LL) I don’t watch TV, so the lockdown is no different for me from any other day; I read instead of watching TV.  And my pleasure reading right now is The Winter Fortress, the excellent WWII book by Neal Bascomb on the Vemork (Hitler’s heavy water production facility) attack. 

(HNU) Thanks again to Larry for taking the time! Go read CODE NAME: LISE, Into the Lion’s Mouth, and then get The Princess Spy as soon as it comes out!


Buy The Princess Spy

The White Cascade by Gary Krist

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for The White Cascade:

A horror movie in book form.

Quick synopsis:

The story of Wellington avalanche of 1910 which left 96 people dead. It is the deadliest avalanche in American history.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

The disaster was so terrible that the town of Wellington quietly changed its name to Tye in order to avoid the awful association. It was later abandoned and burned to the ground.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

The winter in the area was so bad that another avalanche in Canada killed 63 more people.

My Take on The White Cascade:

This book is about a horrible disaster that very few people know about. I certainly didn’t until I was surfing Amazon’s recommendations and came across it. It also made Gary Krist one of my favorite authors.

In 1910, two trains were stopped at the railroad depot in Wellington, Washington. A blizzard, which lasted 9 days, snowed in both trains. The blizzard was so bad that on one day 11 feet of snow fell. Once the snow stopped, it was replaced by rain and then a lightning strike started the avalanche and well…

Before you accuse me of a “spoiler alert”, the basics of the disaster are not what you read the book for. Krist turns this into a book of suspense and then horror by creating palpable tension. You know the avalanche is coming. You feel the buildup just like the snow outside the trains. The aftermath is the horror movie.

Krist does something most authors are incapable of. He takes something you know and still makes you dread what is coming. You are almost surprised when the avalanche finally comes.


One of the best disaster books I have ever read. I’ve read a lot. Buy it here!

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