Happy New Year (Almost!)

Well, how the hell do you sum up a year like this?

I got it! I’ll just plagiarize myself!

From last year: “All that being said, there was also amazing highs to balance the lows. My family and friends are more than I could ever ask for. A little website called History Nerds United started this year (and analytics say that more than just my mother actually comes here!). Now, I’ve interviewed honest to God authors who treated me with more kindness and patience than I could have expected and have others planned. Dealing with my PTSD is challenging at times but I’m fighting my PTSD and winning. And finally, I’m realizing I need to challenge myself more and I’m excited to find some new adventures.”

All of it is still true and I still mean it as much then as I do now. Probably even more so. This year was another exercise in perseverance for a lot of people. So be kind to yourself and others. Take care of your mental health. Wear a mask. Tell people how much they mean to you right after the ball (theoretically?) drops and continue to do it all year. Read my blog because, honestly what else do you have to do while sitting in your sweatpants?

Oh, and as for challenging myself? Well, I guess it’s time to get those podcasts out to you. Stop nagging. It’s unbecoming.

Happy New Year, Nerds!

Labyrinth of Ice

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Just don’t go to the Arctic. It’s a bad idea.

Quick synopsis: The story of the Greely Polar Expedition in 1881. It went badly.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: You don’t get a cold in the Arctic. The lack of people and germs means you just won’t get it. You may die of starvation like most of the Greely Expedition but at least you won’t have an annoying cold. Yes, I am an optimistic person. Why do you ask?

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Robert Todd Lincoln comes out of this episode looking like a huge jerk. He never truly supported the expedition and his foot dragging most likely led to the failure of one, if not two, relief expeditions. Daddy would have been upset.

My Take: The Greely Polar Expedition is a tale of two outcomes. On the one hand, they made it furthest north which was a huge deal in 1881. The team took a tremendous amount of scientific measurements that are useful even today. And they didn’t all die!

On the other hand, most of them did die. Three relief missions were needed to finally save what was left of the expedition. Accusations of cannibalism at the end marred what many saw as a tragic triumph. One expedition member even had to be executed.

In case you can’t tell, a lot happened on the Greely Polar Expedition and it is a fantastic story. Levy does what he does best here which is give you the details you need and keep the story moving. It is easy to get bogged down in the details and the personalities, but Levy focuses on the important aspects without losing the pace.

Verdict: A great book which is very accessible to even non-nerds.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Buddy Levy, Conquistador
  • Buddy Levy, River of Darkness
  • Gay and Laney Salisbury, The Cruelest Miles
  • Alfred Lansing, Endurance
  • Bruce B. Henderson, Fatal North
  • Jennifer Niven, The Ice Master
  • Hampton Sides, In the Kingdom of Ice
  • Stephen R. Brown, Island of the Blue Foxes
  • David Welky, A Wretched and Precarious Situation

Merry Christmas!

Hello, nerds and Merry Christmas (Eve)!

Here is my list of “must watch” Christmas movies:

  1. A Christmas Story. Duh.
  2. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
  3. Die Hard. Any suggestion it is not a Christmas movie is both wrong and unamerican.
  4. A Charlie Brown Christmas.
  5. Elf.
  6. Mickey’s Christmas Carol.

Or, you know, read something. I think I’ve given you enough options.

Merry Christmas and be safe!

Catherine the Great by Robert Massie

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: She’s not even Russian! 

Quick synopsis: An in-depth biography of Catherine the Great of Russia. 

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: There is a rumor Catherine died while having sex with a horse. No, she didn’t, you sicko.  

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Catherine is one of the greatest (if not the greatest) monarchs in Russian history. She wasn’t Russian. She was Prussian.  

My Take: Catherine the Great was a badass. She really earned her epithet. She was thrown into Russian politics at a very young age as a Prussian. Bear in mind, Russian politics was ruthless and there was a high probability of ending up dead. Drop a foreign woman into the middle of this and it can be a rough situation. 

She didn’t even know the language when she arrived. She also hated her betrothed. Catherine did what she would become famous for throughout her life. She picked up books and started reading. She learned Russian as soon as possible and immersed herself in her adoptive home. It made her very popular to the masses and made it much easier for her to depose her husband.

Yes, she led a coup and took the throne. She then proceeded to be an enlightened despot. It is an oxymoron, but she is one of the few who makes it seem less so. She modernized Russia in many ways and made education the forefront. 

Don’t be fooled into thinking she was a saint, though. She was enlightened, but she was a despot. After all, she probably had her husband murdered. She wasn’t especially kind to the Jews and war was never far away. 

What I always found most fascinating was her love life. After her marriage (ahem) ended, Catherine would take on various lovers the rest of her life. However, she never (officially, maybe) married any publicly. She was her own woman back when that was unheard of. 

Verdict: This is a big book, but it is so well done you won’t notice. 

If You Liked This Try: 

  • Andrew Roberts, Napoleon 
  • Ron Chernow, Hamilton and Washington 
  • Robert Massie, Peter the Great 
  • Kristen Downey, Isabella 

Special mention: “The Great” on Hulu. It’s loosely based on Catherine’s life but more of a farce. It is hilarious, though. It also gets the history right way more than you would expect.

The Bounty by Caroline Alexander

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: All of this over a plant.

Quick synopsis: The story of the mutiny on the Bounty in 1789 in the middle of the South Pacific.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The mutineers who ended up at Pitcairn Island created a society that today comes from only 4 family lines on the entire island. Why only 4? Read the book, dude.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: When some of the crew were jettisoned, Captain Bligh captained his open boat and the survivors 4,000 miles to safety. Ask any sailor, it’s one of the most amazing feats of sailing ever.

My Take: This is what happens when you give your people too much time off in Tahiti.

It all started innocently enough. The Bounty was bound for the South Pacific in order to collect breadfruit plants to transport them to the West Indies. It was thought they would grow well there and become a profitable endeavor. An able sailor was chosen to lead this mission, Lt. William Bligh. Wait, shouldn’t it be Captain Bligh? Good question. Read the book.

Various reasons made the ship stay in Tahiti for about 5 months. Do you know what’s in Tahiti? Apparently, during that time, beautiful women who loved Europeans. A perfect climate helped too. By the time the sailors were told to get back on the boat, some were less than enthused.

What follows is one of the most famous mutinies in history. Why is it so famous? Well, the lead mutineer founded his own society on Pitcairn Island. Bligh made one of the most amazing sailing trips in history.

And the finally, retribution for all involved in variously gruesome ways. This story makes you believe in karma.

Verdict: One of my favorite books of all time.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Mike Dash, Batavia’s Graveyard
  • Diana Preston, Paradise in Chains
  • Alfred Lansing, Endurance
  • Bruce Henderson, Fatal North
  • David Cordingly, Under the Black Flag

The Axeman of New Orleans by Miriam Davis

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: I guess this guy didn’t like Italian food.

Quick synopsis: A true crime story from the early 1900s. The Axeman murdered 6 people and assaulted 6 more while they slept in New Orleans from 1918 to 1919 (maybe as early as 1910).

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The Axeman sent a letter saying he loved jazz music and anyone who played jazz during the night he specified would not be murdered. Dance halls were packed that night.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The Axeman is very interesting for criminologists because his signature was very consistent but the reason for his killings is elusive. He murdered mostly Italian grocers as they slept with an axe or a razor. Profilers can’t decide whether he was a sadist, Mafia hitman, or just a regular psychopath.

My Take: I like my historical true crime to give me some very specific elements. First, I need to be able to feel what it was like to be in that time period. Second, I need to feel the terror which each crime solicited. Finally, I need to feel like the criminal can be identified, even if it is just a best guess.

Davis does all of those things in this book. You feel what it is like to live in New Orleans (pardon me, N’Awlins) during a vicious crime wave. Davis is also meticulous in laying out the crime and the crime scene after so that you feel like you are actually part of the investigation. Finally, she posits some very possible if not probable answers to who the Axeman actually was.

If you like true crime but may not know if you’d like historical true crime, then this is the book to start with. It’s relatively short, sticks to the important details, and immerses you into the time period. Check it out!

Verdict: This is really good historical true crime. Read it!

If You Liked This Try:

  • Simon Baatz, The Girl in the Velvet Swing
  • Skip Hollandsworth, The Midnight Assassin
  • Gregg Olsen, Starvation Heights
  • Douglas Starr, The Killer of Little Shepherds
  • Hallie Rubenhold, The Five
  • J. Robinson, Mystery on the Isle of Shoals

Uncover Season 1: Escaping NXIVM

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: If I have to be branded to join a group, then I am not joining said group.

Quick synopsis: A woman discusses her involvement with NXIVM, a now notorious cult known for branding women and making them sex slaves. Yes, it happened in the United States.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Remember the show Smallville, where a young Superman has a best friend named Chloe played by actress Allison Mack? Yes, so she was second in command of this cult.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Allison Mack came up with the idea of branding women. I won’t spoil what the brand actually is.

My Take: Everything is fun and games until a cattle prod comes out. Right, everyone?

Keith Raniere is apparently a very smart guy who loves committing a wide array of crimes. His most successful for a time was NXIVM. It began, like most cults do, as a self-improvement seminar targeted at people who needed “executive success.” No red flags yet, right? Unless you count that Raniere already got caught running a pyramid scheme. Oh, and that this also followed the tried and true methodology of a multi-level marketing scheme.

Raniere hit the jackpot when he was able to pull in some major donors early on. Among them, the Seagram’s heiresses (yes, THAT Seagrams), and a slew of actors and actresses. Allison Mack became the number two in the organization. It then started going from another humdrum white-collar crime to SFU (short for seriously f—– up and yes, I just made that up, why you do ask?). I’ll say no more to avoid other spoilers.

As you’ll see in my verdict, the one downside is that the podcast is two years old and a lot has happened which you’ll have to look up or watch a newer documentary on it. Besides that though, it’s a great listen.

Verdict: The only thing wrong with this podcast is a lot happened in the 2 years since it aired. Read up on it after you listen.

If You Liked This Try:

  • A Killing on the Cape
  • The Gateway

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: I’m reviewing the book, not the play, dorks. Come at me.

Quick synopsis: A (very) in-depth biography of Alexander Hamilton.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Hamilton was not born in the United States (or the colonies, actually). He was born in Nevis in the Caribbean.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Hamilton and Aaron Burr were not always enemies. In fact, they were co-counsel on one of the first fully-documented murder trials in New York. They won.

My Take: This is an amazing biography. There is a reason it could be turned into a play.

It is a great book about one of the most interesting Founding Fathers. It spares no details so a non-history nerd may be scared away by its sheer size.

Hamilton’s life is full of events which we see in other literature. However, where someone’s life may hinge on one thing, like being an orphan, or the protégé of a great man, or being a genius, Alexander Hamilton was all of these things.

He was born in the Caribbean. His family was less than reputable. He was an orphan. He went to King’s College (now Columbia) based on his own sheer intelligence and hard work. He became a protégé of George Washington and led troops in the American Revolution.

He hated Thomas Jefferson who hated him right back. (Reminder: I hate Thomas Jefferson, too.) He would cause a massive scandal over his marriage and would die in a duel.

The most amazing aspect of Hamilton is his legacy. Fiscally speaking, he was hundreds of years ahead of his time. Many of the tenets of finance he espoused are how the U.S. became the financial monolith it has become. Read and see.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Ron Chernow, Washington
  • Robert Massie, Catherine the Great
  • Kristen Downey, Isabella
  • Andrew Roberts, Napoleon

Timely History: Smallpox

With Thanksgiving in the rear-view mirror, there was plenty of mentions about American Indians and how they were treated in the creation of this country. Then, we are also in the midst of a pandemic. I had the brilliant idea of writing about smallpox. (Actually, someone suggested it, but she’s an egomaniac and I refuse to give her credit. It’s for the best.)  

Here are some random facts about one of the deadliest killers in history. 

  • There is evidence of smallpox back as far as the 3rd century on Egyptian mummies. 
  • Smallpox didn’t get its name until the early 16th century. They needed a new term to distinguish it from the “great pox” which was syphilis.  
  • Smallpox had about a 30% death rate. It was no black plague, but those are still scary numbers. Also, if you had no real acquired immunity, it would be even deadlier (like the American Indians). 
  • Don’t google photos of smallpox. Seriously. 
  • A famous story is that Hernan Cortes used smallpox blankets to conquer Tenochtitlan. It is only half right. The Aztecs caught it from the dead body of an infected soldier and then devastated the population. 
  • George Washington had smallpox and survived, thus giving him lifelong immunity. 

Here’s the big one! 

  • Smallpox is the only disease to be globally eradicated. It was done so with vaccination. Imagine that. Vaccines eliminating a disease entirely. Almost like maybe people should get vaccinated and not make up stupid reasons not to. (Shrugs shoulders) 

For more reading: 

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

https://www.medicinenet.com/smallpox/article.htm

https://www.cnn.com/2013/09/02/health/smallpox-fast-facts/index.html

https://www.cnn.com/2016/12/08/health/smallpox-child-mummy-17th-century-lithuania/

https://www.cdc.gov/smallpox/history/history.html

https://www.livescience.com/65304-smallpox.html

https://www.history.com/news/smallpox-george-washington-revolutionary-war

The Promise of the Grand Canyon by John Ross

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: A lot of heartache just to explore a big hole. 

Quick synopsis: A partial biography of John Wesley Powell focused on his exploration of little-known parts of the Grand Canyon. 

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: John Wesley Powell took on a crazy exploration of the Grand Canyon. He had one arm at the time.   

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Powell was a super smart dude. Many of the things he extrapolated and hypothesized turned out to be true. Most impressively, he clearly identified the massive problems with water scarcity in the American West which is still a huge challenge today.  

My Take: This is easily the type of book which can get boring when not handled right. If you focus too much on the rock nerdery of Powell then you can really get caught in the weeds. Ross does a really good job by sticking to the exciting parts but not ignoring the science altogether. 

Powell does make himself a pretty interesting subject. Ross gives a short biography of Powell before his exploration of the Grand Canyon, including losing his arm in the Civil War. You would think that would be enough to make someone stay home and enjoy their other arm. Not Powell! 

I am still not quite sure how he did 90% of the things he did while only having one arm. One of the most famous anecdotes about him is while he was scaling a cliff, he got caught and hung by his one arm until one of his fellow explorers helped out. It makes me feel like a very lazy person just reading it. 

The final section of the book digs into the science of everything and how Powell was able to come to many of his conclusions. This part of the book was presented simply but still made me feel dumb.  

Verdict: Great book with a great story that the author makes very approachable even for non-science nerds (like me!).  

If You Liked This Try: 

  • Peter Stark, Astoria 
  • Michael Wallis, The Best Land Under Heaven 
  • Gary Krist, The Mirage Factory