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 

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving, nerds! 

400 years ago, the Pilgrims landed on our shores and proceeded to find opportunity and success. 

Just kidding, they found an absolute sh*tshow. Famine. Disease.  A native population that vacillated between wanting to kill them and wanting to help them. A little bit more precarious than the times we find ourselves in now. 

Wherever you are today, I hope it is with people you love. And if you aren’t with the people you love, I am sure they are out there wishing they could be with you today. Give them a call, shoot them a text, or set up a Zoom.

Bright side? Drinking, football, and naps. You don’t need to go anywhere to enjoy those! 

And if you don’t feel like those things? 

The ultimate rendition of the Thanksgiving story is the Saints & Strangers miniseries. If you haven’t watched it, I am ashamed of you. Do so now. 

In book form, read Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick.  

Stay safe, nerds.  

The Black Prince by Michael Jones

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: This has nothing to do with the musician. 

Quick synopsis: A complete biography of Edward, the Black Prince of England. 

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: He wasn’t actually black. The name comes from…. well honestly, we still don’t know. Might have been the black armor. He might have had a dark complexion. Might also be because he was a war-fighting badass and whooped the French. Choose your own adventure!  

He also died of dysentery. Yeah, like on the Oregon Trail!

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The whole “England owns parts of France” thing is always very confusing to me. This book does a great job actually explaining that part especially in reference to Edward and how it affected his life.   

My Take: Sometimes a book takes on a subject that most people will say, “I heard of him,” but actually they know nothing more than that. This is one of those books. 

I think even non-history folks will say they have heard of the Black Prince merely because his name is pretty cool, but they would fail to know anything else, including his name is Edward. Jones takes you through the entirety of Edward’s life and keeps the narrative flowing really well. I went from knowing very little about Edward to feeling like I knew all I can.  

And this is certainly a subject worthy of a full book. Edward is a bunch of contradictions and there is just enough mystery around him to make things really interesting. I would like to know where the hell his moniker came from. Seriously, it’s very frustrating. 

Verdict: Great book on a very interesting subject. Written for serious history readers and will not be a good read for a novice. 

If You Liked This Try: 

  • Justin Pollard, Alfred the Great 
  • Thomas Asbridge, The Greatest Knight 
  • Kristin Downey, Isabella 
  • Robert Massie, Peter the Great 
  • Elizabeth Lev, The Tigress of Forli 
  • Marc Morris, A Great and Terrible King 

The Unexpected President by Scott Greenberg

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: May be the last time a politician pulled a sincere 180.

Quick synopsis: The life of President Chester A. Arthur.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Arthur had fresh flowers placed at the portrait of his deceased wife every day he was president. He never remarried.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Arthur was thought to have a part in his predecessor’s assassination. Charles Guiteau, who assassinated James Garfield, shouted something about Arthur being president now. He had nothing to do with it.

My Take: I was shocked at how interesting Chester A. Arthur was over the course of his life. I think most importantly, he is one of the few presidents in history who became a better person when he reached the highest office.

Arthur was a lawyer, devoted husband, and politically the product of one Roscoe Conkling. Conkling isn’t well known unless you are a politics nerd, but he was an extremely powerful senator and kingmaker. Conkling was the ultimate power broker and practiced patronage with absolute impunity. Arthur was part of the machine…until he became president. Arthur effectively turned on Conkling and supported civil service reform. It was an amazing reversal for someone who was seen purely as a lackey.

There are numerous other things about Arthur which are interesting. He has a presidency that looks better and better as time goes by. Go take a look!

Verdict: A good book on a very interesting man who bettered himself. Read it.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life
  • Candice Millard, Destiny of the Republic
  • Candice Millard, River of Doubt
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals

The Faithful Executioner by Joel Harrington

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Who knew being an executioner for 45 years would be depressing?

Quick synopsis: A biography of Frantz Schmidt of Nuremberg who was an executioner for 45 years and executed 394 people.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Executing was a family affair, literally. If you were an executioner, you passed it on to your child like a trust fund.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: How did Schmidt’s dad become an executioner? They pulled him out of the crowd and made him do it. Executioners and their families were shunned so that sucked.

My Take: Sometimes the best books are about people you never would have heard of otherwise. This is one of those books.

Frantz Schmidt was an executioner. The mantle was passed from his father who was plucked out of a crowd to be the new executioner. Officials needed to do that because no one wants to be an executioner. Besides the whole killing thing, it also brought shame to your family and you were shunned by the populace. So much for respecting civil servants.

Schmidt left a journal which gives Harrington amazing insight into his life and activities. It also talks about how Schmidt tried to have the stigma erased from his family line once he retired from executions. Turns out that is much harder than one would expect.

Want to know what else is hard? Killing people, apparently. I thoroughly enjoyed (in a macabre sense, obviously) how hard it is to execute people properly. Who knew?

Verdict: A truly amazing look into the man of someone who was not famous but left a lot of his life written. This is a history book and may not be for general audiences, but history lovers will find it fantastic.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Hallie Rubenhold, The Five
  • Thomas Asbridge, The Greatest Knight

(Un)well (Netflix)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: If you can’t have the Tiger King, have some Sasha Cobra.

Quick synopsis: A TV series which looks at a different, ahem, medicinal alternative in each episode.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: I’ll just go ahead and list some of the alternative medical treatments in this series in order of sheer ridiculousness from low to high: bee venom, breast milk, tantric sex, and the old reliable of “No, it doesn’t cure cancer, you idiot” – essential oils.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Young Living is a massive multi-level marketing scheme (yes, scheme). It used to be called Young Life, but they had to change it when they almost killed someone.

My Take: If you are coming down from the thrill of watching the nutjobs on Tiger King then I have your new binge!

(Un)well is a really interesting show because it really tries to see both sides of each subject it tackles. For instance, the first episode on essential oils follows a mother of an autistic child who uses essential oil scents to help her child sleep. That’s it. And it seems to work. She says it doesn’t cure anything, but it helps her family and Godspeed to them.

Then it cuts to an idiot saying orange extract (or something like that, I think I had an aneurysm as she talked) cured her brain cancer. The show won’t come straight out and say this is ridiculous, but it will follow up an idiot claim by putting on AN HONEST TO GOD DOCTOR, who will point out that no, it did not.

Each episode gives you someone you can relate to and then shows you how people will recklessly believe something dangerous is safe and does things that science says NOPE.

I won’t tell you anything about Sasha Cobra. Episode 2. You are welcome.

Verdict: If you care at all about health, shysters, or like crazy people then this is for you. 

If You Liked This Try:

  • The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley
  • High Score
  • The Tiger King

Floodpath by Jon Wilkman

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Came for the flood, got too much else.

Quick synopsis: The story of the St. Francis Dam flood.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Mulholland Drive in L.A. is named after the designer and builder of the St. Francis Dam. He was alive when the flood happened and killed scores of people.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: L.A. as a city was a bully to the areas surrounding it and often used the scarcity of water to get its way. The St. Francis Dam was a perfect example. Building the dam forced many surrounding communities to join with L.A. in order to get at the water.

My Take: Books on historical disasters need to do two things: tell you about the disaster and make you want to cry. You need to feel the emotion come off the page as people’s lives are taken or taken apart. Wilkman in this book gets too bogged down into the details. Before you get to the flood, you had to wade through a whole lot of politics and quite frankly, uninteresting details.

Th St. Francis Dam disaster is steeped in dirty politics and some of these details are necessary to understand the flood and the repercussions after it. Unfortunately, Wilkman is not discerning enough with these facts and beats you down with names of people tangentially involved. The politics around William Mulholland is much better told in Gary Krist’s The Mirage Factory and Krist does it faster according to page count.

Wilkman does not disappoint when describing the flood. He puts together a pretty compelling narrative of the dam break in the middle of the night and the details which come along with that. Unfortunately, that is only one third of the book.

The final third of the book which deals with the aftermath of the flood is interminable. It feels like a movie with too many endings in which you beg the lights to go up in the theater so you can leave. Wilkman needed to choose one narrative of the post-disaster (probably Muhlholland) and tie up loose ends swiftly.

Verdict: If you want all the details of the St. Francis Flood (and I mean all of them), then this will work for you. If you are looking for an entertaining story from beginning to end, see the list below.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Gary Krist, The Mirage Factory
  • Charity Vogel, The Angola Horror
  • Gary Krist, The White Cascade
  • Gay and Laney Salisbury, The Cruelest Miles

The Gateway (Podcast)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: A woman named Teal Swan is a nutjob? Get out of town!

Quick synopsis: A look at the cult-like following of Teal Swan, a new age YouTube life guru.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Why is she dangerous? For one thing, she teaches people to “visualize their suicide,” because it’s not a big deal. (Additional Fun Fact: It IS a big deal to do that and don’t ever do that.)

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Teal Swan may be crazy, but she is not stupid. Her YouTube videos are so popular for a few reasons but also because she cracked the code on search engine optimization.

My Take: Admittedly, in the pantheon of cult leaders who lead their people to utter destruction, Teal Swan is on the lower end. She mostly comes off as a new age guru with way too many YouTube videos and uses a whole bunch of fancy sounding words that do not mean what she thinks they mean. If you watch one of her videos, you may even find yourself thinking she is harmless.

She is not, and this podcast goes a long way to make sure you get it. Also, unlike most projects which cover cults, this podcast actually interviews Teal Swan herself and asks her the questions you want answered.

This podcast is great because it gets a lot of things right. It is about someone who is interesting (in a bad way). It has the right amount of episodes for the subject matter and while it makes the point it wants to make, it does try to remain as objective as it can until confronted with the evidence.

Verdict: One of the better podcasts out there especially if you are into cults and weird people.

If You Liked This Try:

  • A Killing on the Cape
  • Uncover: Escaping NXIVM

Napoleon by Andrew Roberts

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Such a big life from such a little man.

Quick synopsis: A (very) in depth biography of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Napoleon was once set upon by hundreds of rabbits during a hunt and needed to flee in a carriage just to get away. Everything I just typed is true.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Napoleon was way ahead of the curve when it came to religious tolerance. He is very much known as a brilliant, if warmongering, leader but he had some very positive traits. He generally let conquered peoples continue their lives and religion with little interference. Now was this due to it being his true feelings or politically expedient, we don’t know. However, it is worth pointing out that many tyrants never learned this lesson.

My Take: This book is very good. And at over 800 pages of actual writing, it is also very long.

Roberts takes on one of the most famous men in history and writes a very well rounded and all-encompassing biography. Nothing is left to the imagination. You learn about Napoleon’s family life and are taken through all of his campaigns.

Roberts does his best work when he focuses on these battles, actually. It is a fine line to take a casual reader through a battlefield. If you are too broad, then it’s hard to even understand how complex battle can be. If you are too detailed, people will be completely lost in the minutiae. Roberts gets the best of both worlds by explaining Napoleon’s genius without giving a blow by blow.

Roberts also doesn’t deify or vilify Napoleon. The good and bad of the man are on full display and it’s almost jarring to see how complex Napoleon was. He goes from attention loving tyrant to man madly in love with his wife on the same page. It’s a great book to understand a very famous man who is steeped in myth (he actually wasn’t short!).

Verdict: If you want to know as much as possible about Napoleon in one book then this is for you. It’s a great read but very dense.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Ron Chernow, Hamilton and Washington
  • Robert Massie, Catherine the Great
  • Kristen Downey, Isabella