The Lady in the Cellar by Sinclair McKay

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: A lady in the cellar and a lot of bats in the belfry.

Quick synopsis: A true crime story about a woman murdered in a boarding house in the late 1800s.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Asian décor was big in the late 1800s of London.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: This book is full of interesting stuff. The research done to identify the previous history of all the subjects as well as having a firm grip of London during the late 1800s. Most impressively, the description of the mental hospitals is clear and free from clichés.

My Take: This book is truly good from beginning to end. McKay found a very interesting case to write about and the characters are full fleshed out by his research. McKay also does an excellent job of clearly describing each setting as he moves from London, to the boarding house, to the mental hospital and back again.

The story has enough twists and turns to almost make you doubt its authenticity if not for very clear primary sources to pull from. Often, historical true crime can get very bogged down in unimportant things or the crime is so straightforward to the reader that it loses interest. This crime is the opposite. You think you know what happened, then you don’t, and then you might again.

In under 300 pages, McKay keeps the book moving at a very good pace while making sure to give all the details you need to picture the action. Additionally, McKay’s scenario of what probably occurred is earned through the previous evidence presented rather than the author pulling out new evidence or conjecture to convince the reader.

Verdict: This book is a lot of fun in a macabre sense. If you are not into historical true crime, then the book won’t change your mind. McKay moves at a deliberate pace and the twists and turns are not as grand as something you might find in a John Grisham novel. Also, while McKay’s murder scenario is believable, we will never know for sure. Sorry folks with true crime OCD! Can’t be sure about this one!

If You Liked This Try:

  • Miriam C. Davis, The Axeman of New Orleans
  • Skip Hollandsworth, The Midnight Assassin
  • Gregg Olsen, Starvation Heights

Mailbag #1

I asked and then you asked! Here are the questions I got from my loyal readers. Some were good, some were bad, and some were quite profane. You people need a therapist or Jesus. I am not sure which one.

I did some editing to the questions for clarity, space, and again, because some were filthy. I also changed the names to protect the (not really) innocent. Let’s do this!

Dare in Virginia asks: You can invite 3 people from history to a dinner: they can be from any time periods, but one must be a woman and one must come from a non-western culture – who would you choose and why?

  1. Marquis de Lafayette – if you read this blog at all you know why. I won’t belabor the point.
  2. Isabella I of Castile (better known as Queen Isabella of Columbus fame) – one of the most remarkable women ever who ruled in her own right and very fairly (for her time). I might want to ask about the whole Inquisition thing. Maybe she needed to take that down a notch.
  3. Gautama Buddha – I feel like it would be a real chill conversation.

Pushy asks: If you were going to author a work of historical nonfiction, what would the subject matter be and what would you title it?

I would write a book on Cape Cod Highland Lighthouse. It is the oldest lighthouse on Cape Cod. It was built in 1797 (reconstructed in 1857) and has seen a lot in that amount of time. Bonus: I’d obviously have to make the publisher pay for me to live on the Cape while I was writing it. It’s just the right way to go about it.

Classic Book Nerd asks: I just finished reading “The Scarlet Letter” which takes place in the 1640s in the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony. My history question is who was coming to the New World at that time? Was it in hopes of making money or was it all to escape religious persecution? And how many unaccompanied women were coming over at that time?

All of the above! We think of the Puritans as the only passengers but there were also non-Puritans as well, who were called “Strangers” because the Puritans were kind of jerks. This is how you get the title of the amazing miniseries Saints & Strangers which everyone should watch. Some people came for religion, others because their prospects were limited back in the home country for various reasons. Oh, and some were just plain criminals.

As for unaccompanied women, it depended on where you were. The first group to land in Jamestown was all men. Often, men would be sent with no women to begin settlement of the land and then women would be shipped in later. The businessmen running these enterprises knew men would need women sooner or later and would send unaccompanied women to settle once a beachhead was set. In contrast, the Puritans sailed as full families in some instances.

The other thing to remember is many women ended up unaccompanied without intending to be. The death rates for early American colonization were shockingly high. That was the bad news. The good news is they tended to remarry immediately if only for survival’s sake. Silver lining?

Jersey Girl asks: Boxers or briefs or pantaloons?

Easy, pantaloons. Do you see how much freedom and room you have in those bad boys?

Jay-Quell-In asks: Colonialism vs neocolonialism- discuss

HNU: If you don’t know, the difference between these two is subtle. Colonialism is the control over a country or culture directly while neocolonialism is indirect involvement. For example, we all know Great Britain had a colonial relationship with the U.S. before the Revolutionary War. We were called “the colonies” after all.

Neocolonialism is harder to come up with an all-encompassing definition. Bigger nerds than me still argue about it. You can say the U.S. uses this method by having smaller countries dependent on our financial aid. You can even say the proliferation of McDonald’s is an example of neocolonialism. I say it is also an example of the human craving for really good French fries.

A Catholic (ironically) asks: FMK (google it if you want, I’m not writing it all the way out)— Marie Antoinette, Catherine The Great, Anne Boleyn.

HNU: You have to marry Catherine the Great for so many reasons. She was very intelligent, and she never had her exes executed when the affair ended. Well, if you don’t count her first husband. Marie Antoinette was extremely shallow and would probably only be entertaining for a short while. As for Anne, she most likely had the worst personality of the bunch and she wasn’t even known as a great beauty. She’d have to go.

Brownie asks: If you had to experience one of the natural disasters you’ve read about, which one?

I assume I would be able to live through it, right? The Great Lakes Storm of 1913, also called the White Hurricane, would be my pick. 90 mph gusts of wind on the Great Lakes in November and numerous acts of heroism. It would be a sight. Plus I love the cold.

Argumentative asks: My friend was having fun at an 80s concert and said she would rather be living in the 80s then now. I told her she was being ridiculous. My history question is, objectively, I’m right, right?

If she said 80s music is better than now, she may have had a point. But living in the 80s again? You win in a landslide. Remember cable back in the day? Sure, you went from 7 channels to 60 but they were grainy 90% of the time. There was barely any internet! You had to go find an encyclopedia Britannica just to argue with your drunk uncle who swore the Confederacy won the Civil War! Not to mention the amount of time needed to get the right amount of hairspray in your ‘do.

Now? Amazon. Air conditioning is the norm. Hairdos are only stupid sometimes instead of completely ridiculous all the time. The knowledge of the world is in your pocket at all times. It’s not even a discussion. Punch your friend. (Don’t actually punch your friend.)

Thanks for all the questions! Keep them coming!

Billion Dollar Whale by Tom Wright and Bradley Hope

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Apparently you don’t need money to make money.

Quick synopsis: The story of how Jho Low stole billions of dollars from various entities.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The money stolen was partially used to fund the making of the movie The Wolf of Wall Street. Irony at work!

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Nothing much unless you are really into finance. In that case, you are on the wrong blog.

My Take: Jho Low did some outlandish things. He threw monstrous parties which cost millions because he could. He also didn’t care because he wasn’t using his own money.

He hung out with celebrities, heads of state, and models. He spends money like he will be punished for keeping it. This book and movie have been done before, but this book ultimately underwhelmed me.

I think the problem is that there is a repetitiveness to Low’s actions and the way he gets away with everything is less than exciting. He moves money around banks and convinces people to look the other way. His story as a whole is outlandish, but his actions seem almost mundane when taken piece by piece.

The book is not bad, and the authors do a good job with what they have since some of it is still not fully known. However, there are better books on subjects like this. Or watch The Wolf of Wall Street.

Verdict: It’s fine if you are into economic crime, but the recommendations below are better page turners.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Patrick Radden Keefe, Empire of Pain and Say Nothing
  • John Carreyrou, Bad Blood
  • Harry Markopolos, No One Would Listen
  • David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon
  • Sheri Fink, Five Days at Memorial

Hannibal by Patrick Hunt

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: This book has nothing to do with Anthony Hopkins.

Quick synopsis: A biography of Hannibal focusing mainly on his time in the area of today’s Italy and surrounding areas.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Archimedes, a nerdy math guy, came up with a mirror he could use to burn ships in the sea from shore. Probably. Never know with these ancient sources but the dude was super smart. No arguments there.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Hannibal was on or near the Italian peninsula for 16 years, give or take. Pretty strange to think about an “invasion” where a stalemate is reached and the invader basically hangs out for 16 years.

My Take: Ancient history is a rough time period for me. I like to be able to know what I am reading is the real deal and also not to have huge gaps in the story. And especially with Rome, you need to know about the difference between innumerable levels of government from consul to proconsul to I don’t even know it’s exhausting.

All that being said, Hunt does a really good job with Hannibal and this time period. He doesn’t get bogged down in the details of Roman government but gives you enough to know what is going on. His descriptions of battles are clear and concise without losing the genius of Hannibal and Scipio.

I also appreciate that Hunt lets himself report really good stories that are probably completely bogus. Some tales are just too good to pass up even if they are seriously suspect.

Verdict: If ancient history is your thing or you want a good introduction to it, this book is a great start. 

If You Liked This Try:

  • Adrian Goldsworthy, Augustus
  • Barry Strauss, The Spartacus War
  • Bart Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity

Contest for Liberty by Seanegan Sculley

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: We should have lost.

Quick synopsis: A look at the American Revolution through how the U.S. military matured from the beginning to end of the war.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Inflation of U.S. currency was so bad by the end of the war that many veterans spent their entire salaries just hitching a ride home.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Soldiers used to pick their officers. Many times, your rank was entirely dependent on how many men you could talk into enlisting. It was…ineffective. 

My Take: How the hell did we win this thing?

Seanegan Sculley spends over 150 pages of text meticulously explaining the maturation process of the American Army during the Revolutionary War. It was a damn mess! People from different states (if they bothered to show up) were paid wildly differently. When they were paid (which was far from the norm) would get paid in worthless currency.

Discipline? Haha. Supplies? What are you, stupid? Many entries contain the phrase, “their uniforms were so worn away that they were naked.” Think this is just someone being dramatic? It’s literally in every book on the Revolution when mentioning the U.S. Army.

You walk away from this book with one very clear thesis. If not for George Washington, there is zero chance we win the Revolutionary War. This army started using British methods and Washington slowly instilled what we now know as “American values” into it. You can’t argue with the results.

Verdict: If you are an American Revolution nut (like me!), this is required reading. It covers things you only hear about in passing in other books and explains how the army survived long enough to win.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Nathaniel Philbrick, Bunker Hill and Valiant Ambition
  • Ron Chernow, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton
  • Thomas B. Allen, Tories
  • Robert Watson, The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn
  • John Oller, The Swamp Fox

The Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodard

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: The English are the reason we can’t have nice things like a Pirate Republic.

Quick synopsis: The story of how pirates tried to create their own society and the man who destroyed it.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The Golden Age of Piracy was relatively short (about 80 years). As such, many of the famous pirates knew each other and interacted in Nassau such as Blackbeard, Charles Vane, Calico Jack, Mary Read, Anne Bonny, and Sam Bellamy.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Captain Woodes Rogers, who destroyed the pirate republic, is also famous for saving a deserted castaway named Alexander Selkirk. He was the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe.

My Take: Pirates still capture the popular imagination. I mean, they still keep making Pirates of the Caribbean movies after all. There is something about them which makes them the perfect antiheroes. They operate outside strict societal guidelines and are fiercely democratic. It is easy to seem them as benign escapism. That is, until you remember the murdering, raping, and pillaging of innocent people.

In any case, history once again is stranger than fiction. It turns out, a republic of pirates did exist for a little while. It wasn’t a formal agreement, but a pirate code did exist and many of the famous pirates we remember were a part of it. Turns out, when a colonial empire just decides you aren’t worth the trouble, you are left to your own devices.

Of course, cause too much trouble, and that colonial empire will once again start paying attention. Colin Woodard’s book explores all of this, including the arrival of Captain Woodes Rogers, who put an end to the pirate party. His biggest weapon? Pardons. Well, pardons and then hangings. Go read about it.

Verdict: A great book read for anyone interested in piracy.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Mike Dash, Batavia’s Graveyard
  • Buddy Levy, Conquistador
  • Caroline Alexander, The Bounty
  • Steven Johnson, Enemy of All Mankind
  • David Cordingly, Under the Black Flag

Scholars of Mayhem by Daniel Guiet and Timothy Smith

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: PhD in killing Nazis.

Quick synopsis: The story of Jean Claude Guiet and his team of saboteurs in World War II France.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Once France was liberated, you could tell which women collaborated with the Germans by their telltale shaved head which was done against their will to shame them.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: One of the inventions which was born of World War II espionage? A cold weather vehicle known as the “weasel” which was the precursor of the snow mobile.

My Take: Spying was nasty business in World War II.

There are a lot of books on spying in World War II. What makes this book different is one of the authors is the son of the subject, Jean Claude Guiet. His son tells the story almost as a parable of a time his father is not particularly excited to relive. Anyone who is the child of someone who has seen combat will know what it’s like when a parent wants to avoid the subject altogether.

The story is very streamlined and personal which allows the reader to be more immersed and gain a better understanding of the day to day as a spy. It also makes it pretty clear how easy it is to make one wrong move and end up on your way to execution.

If you don’t want to read a sprawling book on World War II or just need an introduction to espionage in World War II, this book if definitely for you.

Verdict: A great book for anyone who likes their World War II history more focused on a small group as opposed to the whole war.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Ben Macintyre, Agent Zigzag
  • Lynne Olson, Last Hope Island
  • Larry Loftis, Code Name: Lise
  • Tim Brady, Three Ordinary Girls

This is a Robbery (Netflix)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Editor wanted.

Quick synopsis: The story of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft in 1990.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: This is the largest art heist in history.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The thieves stole wisely when they poached a few Rembrandts, Degas, and a Vermeer. However, they skipped Michelangelo. Guess they weren’t Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fans.

My Take: My reaction to episodes 1 and 2 of this series: you got me hooked! Episodes 3 and 4: get it over with.

This series needed to be one episode shorter. It also has a problem with tone. Unlike Operation Odessa which firmly highlights the absolute hilarity of the criminals without glossing over their crimes, this series has a tone problem. I felt like sometimes it wanted to be darkly funny, but then the final couple episodes dive deeply into the sheer murderousness of the prime suspects. What started out as a bloodless art heist becomes a total bloodbath.

Ultimately, the final two episodes drag and if it were shortened to three total, then this would be a much better watch. It’s not bad, it’s just not nearly as good as it could have bee.

Verdict: This is one episode too long and really drags at the end. It’s worth a watch if nothing else is on.  

If You Liked This Try:

  • The Lady and the Dale (HBO)
  • Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich (Netflix)
  • The Tiger King (Netflix)
  • Class Action Park (HBO)
  • Murder Among the Mormons (Netflix)
  • The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (HBO)

Six Days in August by David King

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Who wouldn’t fall in love with their kidnapper?

Quick synopsis: The story of the Norrmalmstorg bank robbery in Sweden in 1973.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Why do you care about a bank robbery with a funny name? This is how “Stockholm Syndrome” entered the public consciousness.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Even though it sounds like an official psychological disease, Stockholm Syndrome is not recognized as an actual disease by most medical authorities.

My Take: I don’t think it’s bold to say that almost everyone knows generally what Stockholm Syndrome is. I don’t think it’s bold to say that very few people know the crime which gave rise to the term.

In an effort to not have to spellcheck every single word (seriously, Sweden, what’s with all the consonants?), I am just going to say this all happened in Stockholm at a bank.

The entire episode was wild. It was a single robber who took over an entire bank and the cops showed up right away. The gunman ultimately let go of a lot of the hostages. He also got the Swedish government to release a friend of his from prison to come hang out with him. Yes, you read that right.

The entire hostage situation would last sex days, in case the title of the book didn’t give it away. I seem to remember thinking it was all much more nefarious and deadly. Nope, no one died. In fact, mostly people were very nice to each other.

King writes a short book that captures everything you need to know. I really liked it because many authors would double the page count with unnecessary facts and conjecture. King gives you what you need and nothing more (in a good way!).

Verdict: A great read for everyone. It reads fast and sticks to the facts.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Harold Schechter, Maniac
  • Patrick Radden Keefe, Empire of Pain and Say Nothing
  • John Carreyrou, Bad Blood
  • Dave Cullen, Columbine
  • Sheri Fink, Five Days at Memorial

Crazy Not Insane (HBO)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Irony: Naming your documentary how it makes the viewer feel.

Quick synopsis: A documentary about psychiatrist Dorothy Otnow Lewis. Or her theories. Or her thoughts on the death penalty. Honestly, I’m not sure what it was going for.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Dissociative identity disorder (DID), or multiple personalities, is an actual diagnosis.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Dr. Lewis thought David Bundy had DID. Probably not, though.

My Take: There is a much better documentary which can be made with the same material.

Dr. Lewis could make a compelling case about the fairness of the death penalty because of the very real evidence connecting brain injuries and crime. There is probably 15 minutes on this topic which could make you think.

Unfortunately, there’s over an hour of other stuff. It starts as a biography of Dr. Lewis, then a treatise on DID, then brain injury, back to the biography, and back and forth forever.

Ultimately, I asked myself before it was over, “what does this documentary want me to think about?” I still don’t have the answer.

There is also a complete lack of skepticism which is required for a good documentary. For me to believe Dr. Lewis, I need to hear all of the strongest arguments against her work and have them taken apart. You only hearing passing references to the criticism. In fact, Dr. Lewis at times seems a bit…out there. She basically loses it in a courtroom at one point and the documentary shrugs it off as, “Dorothy doesn’t think linearly, and you have to go with it.”

That’s basically how the documentary is. Oh wait, maybe that was the point.

Verdict: This is way too all over the place to be very good.

If You Liked This Try:

  • American Murder: The Family Next Door (Netflix)
  • Murder Among the Mormons (Netflix)
  • Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez (Netflix)
  • Abducted in Plain Sight (Netflix)
  • Night Stalker (Netflix)
  • Sasquatch (Hulu)