The Innocence Files (Netflix)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Don’t worry about leaving teeth marks at a murder. You’re all good.

Quick synopsis: A look at various cases where someone was exonerated by the Innocence Foundation.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Teeth mark impressions are extremely unreliable. You can basically only eliminate someone and not identify someone. Bite away.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Lineups are even worse. It is somewhat well known that eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable. However, when not run properly, massive miscarriages of justice happen.

My Take: Well, this is certainly distressing.

The show takes you through very specific cases where the convicted person was innocent and shows step by step what was needed to get them out. There is usually a theme where some piece of evidence is shown to be flawed or intentionally falsified.

Among the major things the series takes umbrage with police lineups, bite marks, and prosecutorial immunity. The case they make for each is very convincing. The people they show who are exonerated are clearly innocent and seeing their lives after lockup is pretty depressing for the most part.

The show is tilted very one sided as you may imagine. One person interviewed literally says, “I would tear down the entire justice system.” While there are major issues, to suggest everything about the justice system is wrong is ridiculous. It is called The Innocence Files so it’s not like it’s being coy about it’s slant.

Verdict: A really interesting series which highlights some major problems in the justice system. It is one sided in parts, but not enough to make it unwatchable.   

If You Liked This Try:

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

The Forgotten Storm by Wallace Akin

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: I’m never living in Tornado Alley.

Quick synopsis: The story of the Tri-State Tornado of 1925. It is the deadliest tornado in US history.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The author of this book was in the tornado. In fact, he was in his house. Which the tornado picked up and placed on top of two other destroyed buildings. He was fine though.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: It was the longest lasting tornado in world history at 3 hours and 37 minutes.

My Take: You’ve probably never heard of it, but the Tri-State Tornado was a true monster. The book is short and to the point. In keeping with that, here are the facts to get you interested in it:

  • Deadliest tornado in US History (and second in world history) with 695 deaths. That’s twice more than the second deadliest in US history.
  • Stretched to over a mile wide at one point.
  • Forward speed was put at 73 miles an hour.
  • Wind speed probably around 300 miles per hour.
  • Traveled across three states: Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana.
  • Completely destroyed the towns of Gorham, Illinois and Griffin, Indiana. Some sources say “nearly annihilated.”
  • Traveled the farthest of any tornado in history at 219 miles.

Verdict: An amazing event which is not well known. Due to the fact tornados are short-lived (even if this one was extremely long), the book is rather short.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Timothy Egan, The Big Burn
  • David Laskin, The Children’s Blizzard
  • Daniel Brown, Under a Flaming Sky
  • Michael Tougias, Casey Sherman, The Finest Hours
  • Matt Lewis, Last Man Off
  • R.A. Scotti, Sudden Sea
  • Gary Krist, The White Cascade

Washington (History Channel)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Eh, it’s fine.

Quick synopsis: The life of George Washington, mostly focused on his British and American military careers and the presidency.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: George Washington’s teeth were not made of wood. They were made of ivory and other people’s teeth (slaves mostly).

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Thomas Paine was a jerk. He was constantly complaining about everything and everyone including saying Washington had no integrity by the time he left the presidency. To say those words aged badly would be an understatement.

My Take: I mean, this is fine.

The miniseries is part reenactment and part talking heads. You have very famous historians talking about the major events in Washington’s life interspersed with actors playing out those events. My major problem with this arrangement is that the historians get to narrate these powerful anecdotes while the actors usually get very dense and overwrought dialogue right after. Since you are shortening the time you have for the reenactments then they come off very simple to the point of uselessness. The visuals can be striking but it doesn’t make up for how clunky it all feels.

If you read Ron Chernow’s book, then you will get way more than this miniseries will give you and will get a much better understanding of Washington and everyone else in his life. This seems like a severe distillation. If you are unfamiliar with all of this then it will be fine. Otherwise, eh.

Verdict: If you don’t know Washington all that well then it will be enlightening. If you read anything on him then there isn’t much here for you. Go to Mount Vernon instead.  

If You Liked This Try:

  • Chernobyl (HBO)
  • Saints & Strangers (NATGEO)
  • John Adams (HBO)
  • Grant (History Channel)

Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: John Brown was a nutjob. A well meaning nutjob, but a nutjob.

Quick synopsis: The story of John Brown’s Raid on the Harper’s Ferry Arsenal before the Civil War. It went poorly.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: John Wilkes Booth was at John Brown’s execution.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Robert E. Lee was in charge of the mission to retake the arsenal. Stonewall Jackson and Jeb Stuart were also part of the mission.

My Take: When you look at John Brown through the lens of history, you have to be willing to see the dichotomy of the man. He was a powerful abolitionist. He was severely mentally ill. He was a murderer. He killed some very bad people.

He staged an audacious and brave attack on a US military arsenal. It was intended to signal for the slaves of America to rise up. That is very uplifting. It was also incredibly dumb as it had basically no chance of actually working.

History looks on John Brown somewhat fondly because he ended up on the side of the angels. He was no angel, though.

Horwitz tells a great story. He gives you all the details of the planning and does not hide from the contradictions of John Brown. When the raid starts, Horwitz tells a great action story from there.

Verdict: A great book for everyone.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Charles Bracelen Flood, Grant and Sherman
  • Jamie Malanowski, Commander Will Cushing
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals
  • Timothy Egan, The Immortal Irishman

Grant (History Channel)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: I’m a big fan too, but this borders on hero worship.

Quick synopsis: The life of Ulysses S. Grant, mostly focused on his Civil War exploits.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Grant was actually gifted a slave by his in-laws. When he was nearly broke (which was constantly), he actually manumitted his slave, William Jones, without any payments changing hands.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Ulysses S. Grant was not his name. It was Ulysses H. Grant. A clerical mistake at West Point changed it. When Grant pointed it out, he was told, in essence, “Well, you are now.”

My Take: I enjoyed this, but it leaves a lot out and simplifies way too much.

If you know the story of Ulysses S. Grant, then you know his entire life revolves around a few things.

First, he was a drunk. There are a lot of arguments over how much of a drunk he was and when, but there is no argument he had an alcohol problem. The show glosses over this way too much.

Second, his love for Julia (and vice versa) was amazingly important to him. Their relationship was extremely strong and romantic. Proof? Julia had a wandering eye (literally not figuratively). When it was suggested that a surgery could correct it, she set an appointment. Grant never tried to exert control over Julia and left her to make decisions herself. However, he did send a letter saying, “I don’t want to have your eyes fooled with. They are all right as they are. They look just as they did the very first time I ever saw them – the same eyes I looked into when I fell in love with you – the same eyes that looked up into mine and told me that my love was returned…” She cancelled her surgery. The show does not cover their relationship enough.

Third, Grant was an amazing general. The show nails this perfectly.

Fourth, Grant was a good intended president who is ultimately a failure because he trusted the wrong people. The show truly stumbles. It tries to flatter him entirely too much and not dig into what makes him lowly ranked as a president.

Verdict: It’s a good watch but feels very incomplete if you know Grant or the time period.  

If You Liked This Try:

  • Washington (History Channel)
  • Chernobyl (HBO)
  • Saints & Strangers (National Geographic)
  • John Adams (HBO)

The Ghost Ships of Archangel by William Geroux

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Stalin was kind of a jerk? You don’t say.

Quick synopsis: The story of PQ-17, a World War II supplies convoy headed for Russia. The convoy needed to pass across German occupied seas, and it goes…. badly.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Technological limitations lead to “funny” situations in war. The convoy could clearly see a German plane circling them and targeting their position for other attack aircraft. However, none of the guns on the ships could shoot down the plane. A ridiculous staring contest ensued. At one point, men on the ships signaled to the pilot that they were sick of seeing him flying in a circle. He signaled he understood and started flying in the opposite direction.  

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Another problem? The convoys were only partially protected on their trip. Due to ship strengths, weaknesses, and limitations, part of the convoy’s protection had to turn back before the destination.

My Take: Again, this is why I don’t like boats.

Geroux’s book is a perfect example of what happens when people at the top have no idea what is going on at the bottom. Two main threads make up the narrative. The politics between England, the U.S., and Russia is the smaller story but supremely important because they put PQ-17 in the horrible situation it ultimately ends up in.

The other thread is, of course, the boats of PQ-17. Geroux is a concise writer and he focuses more on the action than the numerous people and ships which make up PQ-17. He has three main characters to see the action through and he gives the reader a clear idea of what they are up against and how royally screwed they end up being.

Geroux’s book is a quick and fun read. You get a lot of little details about World War II which you will not find in a lot of other books.

Verdict: A really great World War II book about a very specific episode in the war. Only the biggest World War II nerds will know anything about it before reading it.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Mitchell Zuckoff, Lost in Shangri-La
  • Mark Obmascik, The Storm on Our Shores
  • Neal Bascomb, The Winter Fortress

My Favorite History: Saint Thomas More

Imagine being one of the great philosophers of your age. You serve a king, die a martyr’s death, and are revered by the Catholic Church.

However, your greatest contribution to the world is a book you wrote on a lark. And the title is used today to mean the exact opposite of the point you were trying to make.

Meet Saint Thomas More, the author of Utopia.

He was born in London in 1478. He came from a well to do family and received an excellent education. By all accounts, however, Thomas More was naturally one of the smartest people of his age. He was friends and acquaintances with many famous people including this guy named Henry. We will come back to him.

More was very religious. He almost became a monk and while he ultimately did not become one, he practiced what they preached. He was secretive about it, but he wore a hair shirt most of his life. Yes, a hair shirt is exactly what you think it is. More felt that suffering brought you closer to God. I need to shower right after a haircut because the little hairs annoy me. I was never meant to be a monk.

More was a lawyer by trade but just about everything else for fun. That guy, Henry, that I mentioned? He was Henry VIII, the one with all the wives. As you can imagine, a very Catholic More and a very stubborn, divorce-seeking Henry had their relationship fall apart in spectacular fashion.

Before all that went down, though, More did something most people recognize even if they know nothing about history. More was toying around with ideas with his buddy Erasmus (real name) and the idea for Utopia was born.

I tried to read it. I had no idea what was going on. The basic premise is a made up nation-state named Utopia. I’d try to explain more (pun intended!) but people much smarter than me still argue about what things mean in the book. Just know that when you say, “Utopia,” you have More to thank for it.

Oh, and what happened to More? Henry VIII had him executed. It wasn’t that simple, though. More was too smart for his captors and kept avoiding saying anything incriminating. He was a lawyer after all. Ultimately, perjured testimony was needed to convict him.

I’d also like to point out that he was amazingly funny. Here are quotes FROM HIS EXECUTION:

After moving his beard so it didn’t sit on the chopping block: “This hath not offended the king.” His meaning? He means his beard didn’t do anything wrong since he grew it after his conviction. Leave the beard alone!

On trying to climb the execution platform: “See me safe up: for in my coming down, I can shift for myself.” His meaning? Help me up the platform. My head will come down the platform by itself after.

As part of his most famous last words: “I die the king’s faithful servant, and God‘s first.” His meaning? F— you, Henry. According to me, anyway. He was much classier than I am.

For more:

Madame Fourcade’s Secret War by Lynne Olson

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Spying sounds exhausting.

Quick synopsis: The story of Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, the spy master of a massive network in France throughout World War II.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Spying in France during World War II was very often a family affair. Olson notes multiple instances where an entire family would be spies including children younger than their teens. “Pick up some milk, Timmy, and then get me those troops deployment numbers on your way home.”

Fourcade also escaped from the Germans by stripping naked and squeezing between the prison bars.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: If you want to know everything you possibly can about a spy ring, then this is the book for you. Too many great history nerd tidbits to pick just one!

My Take: Olson is one of those talented writers who seems to give you an immense amount of detail about her subject without making it feel like a literary lobotomy. This book is no exception.

Olson chronicles the life of Madame Fourcade focusing mostly on her spy ring during World War II. It is absolutely fascinating to read about how these spies could be both ingenious in their methods while also being complete novices who make stupid decisions. Fourcade ended up in charge of the spy ring because the original leader was kind of a gallant idiot.

Olson toes a tight rope. She throws hundreds of names at the reader while moving at a brisk pace. I could see how some people could be overwhelmed, but it also adds a vital element to understanding Fourcade. Olson’s writing and pace lets the reader feel how Fourcade must have felt. Overwhelmed, exhausted, and dizzy with the sheer amount of chaos going on around her.

And in the end, the Nazis get what’s coming to them. I love happy endings.

Verdict: Great read even for novices or even non-history nerds.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Larry Loftis, Code Name: Lise
  • Neal Bascomb, The Escape Artists
  • Candice Millard, Hero of the Empire
  • Ben MacIntyre, The Spy and the Traitor

History Nerd United’s First Birthday!

Happy 4th of July, nerds!

Also, it’s been one year since I launched the site. It would be a massive understatement to say it’s been an interesting 365 days. I’ve been able to meet and talk with awesome people. I’ve also been able to bore tons of people with pleas to visit the damn thing. I had fun in both types of instances.

Thank you for anyone who ever visited, sent suggestions, edits, or had an interminable conversation with me about why Lafayette is amazing and Jefferson sucks.

Two major programming notes for my many (haha, not really) followers.

We added a donate button to the site. You can see it in the bottom right corner. If you have a few dollars to spare, anything would be appreciated. It’s actually not free to bring you all this history goodness. Stupid technology and it’s upkeep.

Finally, I have started recording podcasts. I’ve already interviewed a bunch of history authors and plan on putting them up in the next couple months. If you don’t like reading but like your dose of history, then you will soon have a whole new avenue to explore! I’ll keep updating the site on when to expect the first installment.

Thank you all for reading. Happy 4th (and 1st)!

Timely History: Cats and the Catholic Church

Do you own a cat? Are you Catholic? You are a heretic! Burn at the stake!

Just kidding. It’s not like cats were excommunicated by the Catholic Church. I mean there’s even a “cat” in the name for God’s sake (see what I did there?)!

Except, cats were officially excommunicated by the Catholic Church at one point.

Pope Gregory IX (yes, that Pope Gregory) came to the papacy in 1227. We could probably call him the ultimate “not a cat person.” You see, he thought cats housed Satan. Yes, he actually decreed that Satan was half-cat. Cats were used in Satanic masses and that is how Satan would show up. As a Catholic, I’d like to tell you I am making any of this up. I am not. It gets dumber from here!

Guess when people killed lots of cats? During the Great Plague! See, since cats were evil then obviously they brought the plague around. Of course, now we know that rats brought them. And now of course you just made the connection that less cats meant more rats. Welcome to historical irony!

Oh, want to know why there are so few black cats? They were deemed the evilest. So, a lot more them were killed leading to a smaller population today, probably.

Ever hear the saying, “never let a black cat cross your path?” Well, that’s because there is a crazy Catholic behind them attempting to kill them and you may get hurt.

Okay, I made the last one up but everything else is true.

For Further Reading: