Timely History: The Halifax Explosion

On August 4th of this year, a gigantic explosion ripped through Beirut in Lebanon. Final numbers on the destruction are not fully understood, but it looks like at least 220 people were killed and 7,000 injured. The blast was approximately 2.75 kilotons of ammonium nitrate.

Nerd that I am, I immediately thought of the Halifax Explosion of 1917. During World War I, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada was an active port. In order to ward off German U-Boats, an actual net was pulled across the Narrows at night to keep submarines from attacking the boats in the port.

All of this meant boats were eager to get out on their routes right away in the morning when the net opened. First, to be on schedule, but also because being out on the open ocean was better than being cooped up in a port like fish in a barrel. A ship named the Imo was one of them.

Also, since this was World War I, many boats were full of extremely dangerous cargo.

Like the Monte-Blanc. Which had 6 million pounds of high explosives. Oh, and airplane fuel stacked ON TOP of the high explosives.

There is a lot that goes into what happened, but the gist is this: the Imo wanted out, the Monte-Blanc wanted in, and they both wanted to do so at the same time. They collided.

A fire began on the Mont-Blanc. Everyone who knew what was going to happen tried to warn everyone they could while abandoning ship. 20 minutes after the collision, at 9:04 am, the Mont-Blanc exploded.

The results were immediate and horrendous. Everything, including buildings, within a half mile radius was obliterated. People just outside the blast radius were horrifically disfigured. One of the main issues was people’s eyes. If they were looking in the area of the blast, their eyes exploded from the concussion. This is to say nothing of the debris thrown by the blast.

Or the tsunami, yes tsunami, called by the blast which displaced the water in the harbor.

Or the fact that when people finally started comprehending and sending for help, a blizzard hit.

In the end, the Halifax Explosion killed 1,950 people. 9,000 people were injured. It was a 2.9 kiloton explosion compared to Beirut’s 2.75 kiloton explosion. Halifax is the largest human-caused explosion besides the atomic bomb.

For Further Reading:

Curse of the Narrows by Laura MacDonald

The Great Halifax Explosion by John Bacon





Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: I am…. whelmed.

Quick synopsis: The biography of Alexander Hamilton in musical form.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Yeah, Hamilton wanted to sex up his sister in law.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The whole thing is more accurate than it isn’t.

My Take: I mean, it’s fine.

Let’s talk about the history since, you know, that’s what my website is about. It’s pretty good for a musical. It is based on Ron Chernow’s book (which is very good) and follows the flow and major broad strokes really well. There are a few anachronisms, Lafayette was not in the U.S. as early as portrayed, Hamilton meeting and getting in well with Washington was not as fast as it showed, etc. They were not so egregious to be worth pillorying the play over. Hamilton was not nearly as important militarily in the revolution as it seemed.

Now let me switch to “Theater Nerd” Brendan. (What gives me the right and credentials? I played Barnaby Tucker in The Matchmaker in high school. So, suck it.) The hype train went way too far down the tracks on this thing. It is not as good as the sum of its parts. Almost all the actors are fantastic with the exception of Lin-Manuel Miranda (LMM from here on out) who is out of his league. No, I couldn’t do better and that’s also besides the point. His writing is quite good, and this truly is an interesting art piece. The problem is that it is a spectacle and not a moving piece of art. It is interesting, but not transcendent. LMM did something very interesting. It is new.

When I started to watch it, I thought back to the plays I have seen on Broadway. When they are good, you forget you are watching a play and time flies by. To me, the pinnacle is Les Miserables. The most macho idiot you can find will sit through it without realizing how long it is. Each song seems carefully crafted to drag an emotion out of you and does just that. I paused Hamilton multiple times and kept checking how much longer I needed to go. Oh, also WHY IS THE SAME ACTOR PLAYING ONE OF THE BEST PEOPLE EVER AND ONE OF THE WORST PEOPLE EVER?! WHY?! And for those of you who told me to watch this and didn’t warn me, WE ARE IN A FIGHT.

King George III was hilarious.

Ultimately, I’m not going to be singing about throwing away my shot. You can bet your ass I can break out into, “Master of the House,” right now.

Verdict: It’s fine. Don’t listen to the hype beforehand and you’ll probably enjoy it.  

If You Liked This Then You Must Watch:

  • Les Miserables

The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio by Hubert Wolf

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Lesbian nuns. Don’t give me a dirty look. It’s literally true. 

Quick synopsis: It’s 1858 at a convent in Rome. Stuff is about to go down. 

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Lesbian nuns. Am I appealing to the lowest common denominator? Yes. It’s still true. 

Fun Fact for History Nerds: You can get away with a lot in a convent in 1858. I won’t spoil it. 

My Take: This is a very challenging book to review because I don’t want to give anything away. As you can see above there is some salacious stuff in here. It’s just the tip of the iceberg. It gets darker and weirder as you go along. 

The author was allowed to go into the Vatican Archives in order to write this book. It is in depth and can drag at places but stick with it. The payoff is crazy. 

Verdict: If anything mentioned above or historical true crime is interesting to you then take a gander at this! 

If You Liked This Try: 

  • Miriam C. Davis, The Axeman of New Orleans 
  • Skip Hollandsworth, The Midnight Assassin 
  • Gregg Olsen, Starvation Heights 
  • Sinclair McKay, The Lady in the Cellar 

Grand Avenues by Scott Berg

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: This is why Washington, D.C. traffic sucks.

Quick synopsis: The story of Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s efforts to plan out Washington, D.C.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: L’Enfant got hired to plan D.C. and got fired before completing it because of bureaucracy. Yes, D.C.’s problems preceded D.C. itself!

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Washington, D.C. was created as a homage to Paris. L’Enfant also set up many of the roads and causeways in order to maximize the view.

My Take: Anyone who has ever been in Washington, D.C. asks the same question, “Who the hell set up a city like this and why?!” The answers are Pierre Charles L’Enfant and he didn’t get to do it all otherwise it would have been much better.

L’Enfant was a very intelligent man who had wonderful vision and ambition. Unfortunately, he missed the one thing that is truly required in the Capitol. He did not know how to get along with others including the ones actually in charge.

L’Enfant was a personal favorite of George Washington who personally asked him to design D.C. Along the way, however, he decided to make an enemy of Thomas Jefferson which is not a good idea in the early days of the republic.

Berg gives all the gory details. And the myth of “the swamp” was well on its way.

Verdict: The story is a bit thin, but Berg tries to keep it as interesting as possible.

If You Liked This Try:

  • David McCullough, The Great Bridge
  • Eric Jay Dolin, Brilliant Beacons
  • Brantley Hargrove, The Man Who Caught the Storm

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