The White Cascade by Gary Krist

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: 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: 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.

Verdict: One of the best disaster books I have ever read. I’ve read a lot.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Gary Krist, The Mirage Factory, Empire of Sin, City of Scoundrels
  • Charity Vogel, The Angola Horror
  • Gary Krist, The White Cascade
  • Michael Wallis, The Best Land Under Heaven
  • Gay and Laney Salisbury, The Cruelest Miles

The Confession Killer (Netflix)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: If you can’t trust a murderer, who can you trust?

Quick synopsis: An investigation into the confessions of Henry Lee Lucas, who confessed to over 100 murders.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Lucas told a Japanese documentary director that he may have killed people in Japan. When asked how he got there, he said, “I drove.”

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Any self-respecting law enforcement officer will be horrified about the conditions Lucas lived in while confessing. He was given special privileges, field trips to confess, and even called the officers around him his “friends.”

My Take: Who would admit to a crime they didn’t commit? Henry Lee Lucas, apparently.

Some things are irrefutable. He murdered his mother and even he admits that. After that, it all gets a little more confusing. Lucas most likely killed his girlfriend and his employer. He took authorities to the bodies and it seems pretty clear he did it.

In custody, he suddenly started confessing to a lot of other murders. He confessed to so many that a task force was created solely to identify his victims. This is where the documentary truly takes off as you can see these wheels moving and immediately it seems too good to be true. It is.

Once these confessions start coming under fire, then you start to see law enforcement turning on itself. The whole thing takes on a life of its own and it’s a very interesting watch.

Verdict: It is very infuriating but a very interesting phycological look at cohesion and the mind of someone desperate to please. 

If You Liked This Try:

  • Chernobyl
  • Saints & Strangers
  • John Adams
  • Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez
  • Tiger King

Ship Ablaze by Edward O’Donnell

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Sometimes life preservers are a bad idea.

Quick synopsis: The story of the disaster of the General Slocum in 1904.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: On a pleasure cruise around New York City, the boat caught fire and sank killing 1,342 people on board. It was the worst disaster in New York history until September 11th.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The safety features of the boat were so out of date that the life-jackets actually made people sink faster rather than float.

My Take: Some disaster stories defy belief. First, you can’t believe they happened without ever hearing about them. Second, the details sound so alien to what we know today that it seems like fiction. The story of General Slocum fits the bill.

In 1904, a Lutheran Church from Little Germany in New York City chartered the General Slocum for an excursion. It was an annual trip which was now on its 17th year. As you may expect, whole families were planning on going. They boarded and the ship set off at 9:30 am. The fire was first noticed at 10 am.

Let me quickly list some of the safety features we now expect on ships like this and their condition at the time of the fire: fire hoses (rotted and couldn’t hold water), lifeboats (bolted in place), life preservers (weighted down with iron because the cheap cork used didn’t make minimum weight requirements). There were over 1,400 people on the boat. The estimated deaths were between 1,021 to 1,342.

O’Donnell doesn’t revel in the death. He takes the time to give backstory and make the reader feel the aftermath as a massive amount of a few city blocks were decimated by the deaths. Entire families died within Little Germany. O’Donnell tells the full story and doesn’t turn this story into disaster porn.

Verdict: This is a horrific and amazing read. O’Donnell does a great job giving the full story and not just the disaster.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Timothy Egan, The Big Burn
  • Stewart O’Nan, The Circus Fire
  • Denise Gess and William Lutz, Firestorm at Peshtigo
  • Daniel James Brown, Under a Flaming Sky
  • David Von Drehle, Triangle

The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (HBO)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: I think I could lie my way to a billion dollars. Who’s with me?

Quick synopsis: A documentary focused on Elizabeth Holmes and her company Theranos. She became the youngest self-made female billionaire in history. She is also a fraud.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Here is a partial list of the people swindled by Holmes: James Mattis, George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Bill Frist, and Sam Nunn.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Holmes even swindled Walgreens. She used the age-old strategy of “FOMO” (fear of missing out, for you old people who aren’t hip). She pushed hard and made the Walgreens executives afraid to lose out to CVS.

My Take: Elizabeth Holmes is an a-hole.

She grew up privileged, a bit shy, maybe bullied, and then went on to create one of the biggest scams American has ever seen. Along the way, she led a man to suicide, ruined countless lives financially, and threatened anyone who got in her way. She even lied about her dog being a wolf. The woman is unhinged.

Apparently, she was magnetic to be around. It is the only way to explain the inexplicable. Numerous men (yup, exclusively it seems) fall for her charms. These masters of industry and politics fell for some of the simplest tricks in the book. Refusing to show the inside of her machine, adjourning tests for lunch and magically having the results afterward and hiding behind trade secrets.

This is just the high-level details. There is much more. The documentary is good but see my verdict for the best way to learn about Theranos. Ultimately, the documentary did not leave me as outraged as the book did. And make no mistake, you should be outraged.

Verdict: This is a good documentary for someone who knows nothing about the subject. However, Bad Blood the book is more comprehensive and gives the reader a much clearer pictures of the damage this woman and her associates did. 

If You Liked This Try:

  • The Confession Killer
  • Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez
  • Tiger King

Voyage of Mercy by Stephen Puleo

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Want to know why Ireland hates England? Well, here is one of the many reasons!

Quick synopsis: The story of America’s first true humanitarian mission during the Great Irish Famine.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: One of the donations to Ireland came from the Choctaw Indian tribe. Why is that significant? They were the people forced to endure the Trail of Tears just fifteen years prior.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: During the famine, Ireland was still a net EXPORTER of food stuffs. England never slowed the exports even while the people of Ireland starved. Yeah, Irish hatred of the Brits making more sense now?

My Take: Not a good look, England! Great look, USA!

Black ’47 is a reference to the worst year of the Irish Famine (Or Great Hunger). England’s policy (read: unconscionable indifference) of making the Irish fend for themselves meant little was done for Ireland in the beginning of the famine, which lasted 4 years. Additionally, when they did finally act, it was often late, plagued with administrative nonsense, and then ended prematurely.

Enter the United States. For the first time in its history, the US government chose to perform a purely humanitarian mission to help the people of Ireland. The mission was quickly executed while the people of the US contributed even faster than the wheels of government could work.

Puleo focuses on two main characters in his book: an American ship captain and Irish Catholic priest. It is a short book comparatively to the events, but Puleo does a fantastic job of giving you all the facts you need without getting too in depth. He also hammers England’s indifference and incompetence, which I truly appreciated as a person of Irish ancestry.

Yes, I am filing this under “true crime.” Slainte.

Verdict: A great book about an event that is equal parts horrible and uplifting. It is high level enough even for people who have no idea about these events.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Patrick Radden Keefe, Say Nothing

A Killing on the Cape (Podcast)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Hide your shock about who they pin it on.

Quick synopsis: A podcast which focuses on the murder of author Christa Worthington on Cape Cod in 2002. (Note to the technological illiterate: A podcast is like a recorded radio show you can listen to. You can get it on your phone. You’re welcome, mom.)

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: People went to check their mail and were asked to provide DNA when they got there.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: In 2008, an appeal was made based on three jurors saying racism was involved in the verdict. The appeal was denied.

My Take: Christa Worthington was a big deal. Besides having one of the whitest names ever, she was a well-known author and writer who had articles in Cosmopolitan, ELLE, and The New York Times. She was living in Truro, Massachusetts on Cape Cod in 2002 when she was murdered. Her two year old was living with her and was found clinging to her body but thankfully unharmed.

The podcast covers a lot of ground when it comes to understanding a beach-side town in the off-season. Cape Cod (my favorite place on Earth) is a summer destination but can be desolate in the off-season. It also means that the people living there year-round may be a bit…. interesting.

Add in the fact that the Cape Cod police force was not extremely experienced with a crime of this magnitude and you end up having some very interesting ideas for cracking the case.

In the end, you will feel like I did when watching Making a Murderer or Serial: Season 1. I’m not positive he did it. I am also not sure he didn’t.

Verdict: If you like true crime then this is for you. 

If You Liked This Try:

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

Sudden Sea by R.A. Scotti

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: It was a wicked stahm, brah. (Note to my editor: This is me mocking a New England accent. Please don’t tell me I have two misspellings.)

Quick synopsis: The story of the 1938 Great New England Hurricane.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Katharine Hepburn was caught up in this hurricane! The family house she stayed in was completely destroyed. (And this dear reader, is the fact which will finally get my Aunt Carol to read my site. Probably just once, though.)

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The hurricane was a “100-year storm.” Most people think it means a storm like this only happens once every hundred years. It actually means any hurricane season there is a 1% chance for this type of storm. Technically, you could have 100-year storms in back to back weeks.

My Take: The 1938 Great New England Hurricane was a monster for a variety of reasons. First, it was a Category 5 which is the highest classification in the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale. Second, it targeted New England mostly which is not an area accustomed to strong hurricanes. Third, meteorologists still didn’t have a great handle on forecasting (still don’t, I kid, I kid). Finally, when it made landfall, it did so at high tide which made the storm surge that much worse.

What did it result in? 682 deaths and $306 million in damages. In today’s money, it would have been about $5.1 billion in damages.

Scotti writes a compelling disaster story. She focuses on specific people and places to drive home the overwhelming might of the storm. The time leading up to the storm showcases just how completely unprepared many people were for a storm of that magnitude.

Verdict: Great book for hurricane enthusiasts and even the casual reader. Get it for the summer.

If You Liked This Try:

  • David Laskin, The Children’s Blizzard
  • Daniel Brown, Under a Flaming Sky
  • Matt Lewis, Last Man Off
  • Wallace Akin, The Forgotten Storm
  • Gary Krist, The White Cascade
  • Michael Tougias and Casey Sherman, The Finest Hours
  • Brantley Hargrove, The Man Who Caught the Storm
  • Erik Larson, Isaac’s Storm

Never In Finer Company by Edward G. Lengel

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Military egomaniacs get their men in a jam? You don’t say.

Quick synopsis: Story of the “Lost Battalion” in World War I.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Jokes about using pigeons to send messages are commonplace as jokes. I think people forget that it actually was a useful way to communicate in World War I. Don’t believe me? Read this and tell me Cher Ami isn’t a badass (bird).

Fun Fact for History Nerds: When the German’s started talking smack to the encircled Americans, they were surprised when vicious epithets were sent back in their own language. The diversity of New Yorkers wins again.

My Take: It’s a tale as old as time. A high-level military egomaniac creates a horrible situation because they don’t know how war works, someone else bails them out, and then they celebrate themselves as if it was the plan all along.

The Lost Battalion of World War I was 9 companies of the 77th Division which were dangerously forced beyond their fellow units to their left and right. Ultimately, they were encircled by German forces and were cut off for days.

Lengel takes the reader through the story of how the 77th was formed and their movements which allowed for the story to take place. Lengel mostly focuses on specific characters both in and out of the unit to give a full view of how the Lost Battalion changed many lives. Unfortunately, it was mostly for the worse.

The book is an easy and quick read by history nerd standards, but it’s much deeper than it seems. Lengel touches on a lot of things, such as PTSD and incompetent leadership, but doesn’t use too heavy a hand. His subjects are complex people in horrible situations and he recognizes that.

Verdict: Great book for anyone. Go read it.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Neal Bascomb, The Escape Artists
  • Laura MacDonald, Curse of the Narrows

My Favorite History: Adrienne de Lafayette

I am a great admirer of the Marquis de Lafayette as is clear by my five posts on him during the American Revolution. That is not to say he didn’t have his flaws and the one I focus most on is his philandering. This is because I am not a fan of philandering in the first place, but also because he married maybe the most supportive wife of all time.

Born Marie Adrienne Françoise de Noailles, Adrienne was what we call “filthy rich” from the cradle. She was from the very famous (in France) Noailles and d’Aguesseau families. She would of course be wedded to someone as equally as distinguished (read: rich). Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette was chosen when they were both very young. They were so young, Adrienne’s mother kept them apart for a year in order to control their courtship.

Once they were brought together, they didn’t waste any time. They were finally allowed to be together in 1775 and their first child was born in 1776. In 1777, the Marquis left for America and the first of his many great adventures. This is also the first time Adrienne got to show her unbelievable talents for holding down the fort at home.

Now, before anyone gets in a huff about me praising a woman for staying home and tending to the children, you need to hear the conditions under which Adrienne did so. Lafayette would leave multiple times and get into plenty of bad situations. Here’s what Adrienne had to deal with.

  1. Lafayette leaves for America. Oops, he did so in defiance of the king of France. Adrienne was left to deal with her family and the freaking king.
  2. Lafayette returns a hero. Adrienne is happy to have him home. He probably cheats.
  3. Lafayette is involved in the French Revolution. He is first in imminent danger from the rioters and then has to flee France to escape execution by the new government. Adrienne is left behind with the children. She would live to see her grandmother, mother, and sister guillotined during the Terror. She and her children would live only by a mixture of luck and American interference.
  4. Lafayette is imprisoned in Prussia. Adrienne did everything in her power to have him released. When she failed, SHE VOLUNTARILY JOINED HIM IN PRISON WITH HER DAUGHTERS.  She wasn’t crazy, though. She knew the political fallout of a woman and children in prison would force people’s hands. They would remain in prison for two years.
  5. Once released, the Lafayettes were poor and political problems meant they could not return home. See, the Marquis refused to pledge allegiance to the new leader of France. His name was Napoleon or something. The Marquis felt he came to power in an unconstitutional manner. How’d he get back to France? Well, his wife politically outmaneuvered everyone in her path, including her husband. She restored their wealth through various means.
  6. She never cheated.

The stay in prison destroyed Adrienne’s health. She would carry on for another decade but was sickly the entire time. After her death, Lafayette would sit alone in her room once a day for the rest of his life.

We should all be lucky enough to find our own Adrienne.

For more:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilbert_du_Motier,_Marquis_de_Lafayette

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adrienne_de_La_Fayette

My Favorite History: The Marquis de Lafayette in America (Part 5)

When Lafayette returned from France in 1780, he walked right into the final major phase of the American Revolution and his adoptive father, George Washington, was going to ensure he played a major role. Washington sent Lafayette south to Virginia without telling him the big secret of his mission: Washington wanted to win the war in the south and Lafayette would be his weapon.

Lafayette was still showing his trademark good and bad traits. He nearly got trapped overextending himself in a battle with Lord Cornwallis but escaped. He also showed his unparalleled tenacity. Cornwallis started moving towards the coast in order to link up with the British navy. As he marched to the sea, Lafayette constantly attacked his rear guard and retreated. These tactics annoyed Cornwallis something fierce (he called Lafayette “the boy”), but also created a very important illusion. Americans along the route started to believe Lafayette was actually chasing Cornwallis to the ocean. Enlistments started to soar as people wanted to be part of the winning effort.

Cornwallis arrived at Yorktown and was hemmed in by Lafayette. The Siege of Yorktown began and became a clear-cut victory when the French navy defeated the British navy at the Battle of the Capes. Cornwallis lost all of his support and knew his fate was inevitable.

Lafayette took one more visible role at the surrender. When the British troops marched out, they refused to look at the American side and instead faced the French forces. Lafayette became enraged and had the band play Yankee Doodle as loud as possible. They did and the British needed to turn away and look at the American forces to deal with the noise.

Lafayette returned to France afterwards to continue pushing to end the war and would ultimately take part in the final peace negotiations.

The final coda to Lafayette’s American odyssey occurred in 1824. He returned as one of the final links to the revolution to take a tour of his adoptive country. The tour was supposed to be 4 months long and became 16 months because he was mobbed wherever he went. It is hard to overstate just how beloved he was back then. Now, I mention his name and get blank stares most of the time.

History is weird.

For more:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilbert_du_Motier,_Marquis_de_Lafayette

https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/marquis-de-lafayette/