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

https://nationalpost.com/news/beirut-blast-measured-2-75-kilotons-how-does-that-compare-with-other-major-explosions-in-history

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

https://www.forbes.com/sites/kelseyatherton/2020/08/04/think-halifax-not-hiroshima-for-beirut-explosion/#66763bc11c66

My Favorite History: Saint Thomas More

Imagine being one of the great philosophers of your age. You serve a king, die a martyr’s death, and are revered by the Catholic Church.

However, your greatest contribution to the world is a book you wrote on a lark. And the title is used today to mean the exact opposite of the point you were trying to make.

Meet Saint Thomas More, the author of Utopia.

He was born in London in 1478. He came from a well to do family and received an excellent education. By all accounts, however, Thomas More was naturally one of the smartest people of his age. He was friends and acquaintances with many famous people including this guy named Henry. We will come back to him.

More was very religious. He almost became a monk and while he ultimately did not become one, he practiced what they preached. He was secretive about it, but he wore a hair shirt most of his life. Yes, a hair shirt is exactly what you think it is. More felt that suffering brought you closer to God. I need to shower right after a haircut because the little hairs annoy me. I was never meant to be a monk.

More was a lawyer by trade but just about everything else for fun. That guy, Henry, that I mentioned? He was Henry VIII, the one with all the wives. As you can imagine, a very Catholic More and a very stubborn, divorce-seeking Henry had their relationship fall apart in spectacular fashion.

Before all that went down, though, More did something most people recognize even if they know nothing about history. More was toying around with ideas with his buddy Erasmus (real name) and the idea for Utopia was born.

I tried to read it. I had no idea what was going on. The basic premise is a made up nation-state named Utopia. I’d try to explain more (pun intended!) but people much smarter than me still argue about what things mean in the book. Just know that when you say, “Utopia,” you have More to thank for it.

Oh, and what happened to More? Henry VIII had him executed. It wasn’t that simple, though. More was too smart for his captors and kept avoiding saying anything incriminating. He was a lawyer after all. Ultimately, perjured testimony was needed to convict him.

I’d also like to point out that he was amazingly funny. Here are quotes FROM HIS EXECUTION:

After moving his beard so it didn’t sit on the chopping block: “This hath not offended the king.” His meaning? He means his beard didn’t do anything wrong since he grew it after his conviction. Leave the beard alone!

On trying to climb the execution platform: “See me safe up: for in my coming down, I can shift for myself.” His meaning? Help me up the platform. My head will come down the platform by itself after.

As part of his most famous last words: “I die the king’s faithful servant, and God‘s first.” His meaning? F— you, Henry. According to me, anyway. He was much classier than I am.

For more:

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

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

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utopia_(book)

https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Thomas_More

https://ivypanda.com/essays/thomas-more-and-king-henry-viii-their-relationship/

History Nerd United’s First Birthday!

Happy 4th of July, nerds!

Also, it’s been one year since I launched the site. It would be a massive understatement to say it’s been an interesting 365 days. I’ve been able to meet and talk with awesome people. I’ve also been able to bore tons of people with pleas to visit the damn thing. I had fun in both types of instances.

Thank you for anyone who ever visited, sent suggestions, edits, or had an interminable conversation with me about why Lafayette is amazing and Jefferson sucks.

Two major programming notes for my many (haha, not really) followers.

We added a donate button to the site. You can see it in the bottom right corner. If you have a few dollars to spare, anything would be appreciated. It’s actually not free to bring you all this history goodness. Stupid technology and it’s upkeep.

Finally, I have started recording podcasts. I’ve already interviewed a bunch of history authors and plan on putting them up in the next couple months. If you don’t like reading but like your dose of history, then you will soon have a whole new avenue to explore! I’ll keep updating the site on when to expect the first installment.

Thank you all for reading. Happy 4th (and 1st)!

Timely History: The Plague of Justinian

Everyone knows about the Black Death. One of the worst pandemics in history and caused by fleas on rats. People merely refer to it as the plague and associate it with the Black Death, which is true.

But it’s not the first time the plague is seen in history and it’s definitely not the first time it killed off massive amounts of the human population.

The Plague of Justinian is the first pandemic in recorded history. It is also the first time the plague burst onto the scene. It first appeared in 541 and then continued to appear sporadically…. for 200 years. When it was done, it killed upwards of 100 million people which was the equivalent of about half the population of Europe at the time. The plague then disappeared for the most part. That is, until it roared back in 1347 in the form of the Black Death.

Where did the name come from? Well, poor Emperor Justinian got screwed twice by the plague. First, he was emperor when it first occurred, so he has his name attached to it. Second, he actually GOT the plague. Don’t worry, he got better. He lived to be 83 and became known as St. Justinian the Great. He did all right.

Oh, and the plague wasn’t done after the Black Death. There are three plague pandemics in history… so far.

For Further Reading:

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

https://www.ancient.eu/article/782/justinians-plague-541-542-ce/

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

Timely History: Juneteenth

The country recently celebrated Juneteenth on 19 June. For a lot of people, it was the first time hearing about the holiday. Allow me to conduct a quick Q&A to answer your burning questions on the holiday.

This is a new thing that was just made up because of what’s going on, right? No, stop being racist. Just kidding, I’m sure you’re not a racist. Juneteenth goes back to June 19, 1865 when Union General Gordon Granger announced to slaves in Texas that they were free. This date is significant because Texas was so remote at that point that the announcement effectively informed the last corner of the Confederacy of emancipation.

(Just in case you actually are a racist reading this, kindly go —- yourself.)

Oh, so slavery ended in the U.S. on this date, right? Haha, history is never that clean. Kentucky and Delaware still had legal slavery until the 13th Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865. I can’t find empirical evidence, but I think Delaware does tax free shopping to distract from this fact. Don’t quote me.

Well you are a history nerd so you must have known about this for a while, right? Nope. Didn’t know about it until I saw it on Blackish. Good show, by the way.

Why is it called, “Juneteenth”? It’s a portmanteau of “June” and “19th”.

Well, that’s dumb. First, that’s not a question. Second, here’s a list of portmanteaus I guarantee you use in real life, so get off your high horse: guesstimate, botox, athleisure, motorcycle, and taxicab. If you are my age, you also remember, “Bennifer.”

Fine, but no one really celebrated this before this year, right? You are really negative. Juneteenth is recognized as a holiday in 47 out of 50 states. Hawaii and the Dakotas are the only states who don’t recognize it. I don’t know what their problem is.

But President Trump said he made it very famous, right? (Sigh) Ask your Black friend if that’s true. If you don’t have a Black friend, go make one.

(Note: I thought the capitalization of “Black” and “White” when referring to ethnicity was a new thing. Apparently, it’s been APA standard way before this. You’re welcome, English nerds.)

Ok, but this is only a holiday for Black Americans, right? I don’t know, the end of the worst legacy of the United States is probably worth celebrating by everyone. But as the kids say, “you do you, boo.”

Well then how should I celebrate it, jerk? Same way you celebrate every other U.S. holiday, have some family and friends over and get drunk. It did start in Texas so have a BBQ, too.

For Further Reading:

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

https://www.juneteenth.com/history.htm

https://nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/historical-legacy-juneteenth

https://www.history.com/news/what-is-juneteenth

Timely History: The Tulsa Race Massacre

Well, this is frustrating on multiple levels.

The Tulsa Race Massacre occurred 99 year ago. I write “Timely History” to highlight current events through the prism of history. If you know where we have been then you are better equipped to understand where we are now. It’s the nerd equivalent of “staying in my lane.” I’m not a sociologist and there are many others who will write opinion pieces which will articulate things much better than me.

However, historical events very often do the speaking for you. I find it’s more powerful when you just report facts.

Over Memorial Day weekend in 1921, Dick Rowland, a shoe shiner, entered an elevator to go to the top floor restroom. It was the only one available to him in the area due to segregation. Sarah Page, an elevator operator, was working the elevator at that time and was the only other person with Rowland in the elevator. At some point, someone else in the building heard Page scream and then saw Rowland leave. They reported the incident to the police. There are no records about the police questioning Page, but she is on record later declining to press charges on anything.

Rowland was picked up while the investigation was ongoing. A white mob showed up to where Rowland was being held and made threats about a lynching. Willard McCullough, the Sheriff of Tulsa County, proceeded to take extensive defensive measures to protect Rowland including placing Rowland on upper floors, disabling the buildings elevator, placing armed deputies on the roof and stairs (with the instructions to shoot anyone unauthorized who attempted to use the stairs), and then went to talk to the crowd himself in an attempt to disburse them (he was booed away).

Rumors of a lynching brought members of the nearby black community to the scene to stop the lynching. They came armed. White crowd members went home for guns and returned. More black men arrived with weapons when they heard whites were showing up with guns. A shot was fired.

All hell broke loose.

In an attempt to just stick to the facts, reporting the aftermath is the only somewhat reliable information. Approximately $32 million in today’s dollars damage was done to sections of Tulsa. The vast majority of the damage done was to the Greenwood section of Tulsa, which was known as “Black Wall Street.” 6,000 blacks were detained in nearby fairgrounds over the ensuing days.

If the facts seem to leave some maddeningly large holes in the narrative, well, that’s because there are maddeningly large holes in the narrative. Here are the main ones:

Why have I never heard of this? Because this event was generally not talked about. All sources I found point this out. It wasn’t until 1996 that efforts were made to document this fully.

How many people actually died during the massacre? 36 officially. Maybe 300. The numbers vary wildly and rumors of mass graves which seem unsupported make for very murky details. However, it is *generally* accepted that 36 is way too low. It is fact that black victims made up the majority of the dead.

What actually happened in the elevator? The most popular opinion is that Rowland tripped and grabbed Page as he fell. She was startled and screamed. No one knows, basically.

How did the rumor of the lynching get started? This seems like the most important part of how this thing exploded. The white crowd showed up because of what was reported and the rumored lynching. The black crowd showed up to avoid the lynching. So how did it start? Apparently, the Tulsa Tribune seems like a possible culprit as it was rumored that the paper published an editorial entitled, “To Lynch Negro Tonight.” Smoking gun, right? Well, no one can locate that edition of the paper. The microfilm copy of that edition has the relevant page missing. (Did you just say, “What the f—?” I sure did.)

What else should we know? Tons. This is just the slightest overview of the event and I didn’t even touch on the racial tensions of the era because, holy hell, good luck trying to do that in a blog post. Read below for a lot more. Educate yourself.

For Further Reading:

https://www.history.com/topics/roaring-twenties/tulsa-race-massacre

https://www.britannica.com/event/Tulsa-race-riot-of-1921

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

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenwood_District,_Tulsa

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/

Timely History: Dexiosis

With COVID-19 running rampant and people being even more cognizant of spreading germs, many normal conventions have gone out the window. Some people have even questioned the fate of one of the oldest traditions in humanity: dexiosis. You know it as the handshake. Did you know you spread more germs to someone through a handshake than by making out? Surely the handshake must go away. After all, it hasn’t been around that long, right?  

Well buckle up. The handshake has been around since at least the 5th century BC. Remember, the “BC” means “Before Christ.” The handshake is older than Jesus. We know from early art on various items that the handshake is captured during this time period and may have even originated earlier than that. 

The main purpose of the handshake was most likely to check for concealed weapons when meeting someone. It began by actually grabbing each other’s forearm to do the check. Scholars believe the up and down motion came about during Medieval times in order to shake loose any hidden weapons. 

Will COVID-19 kill the handshake? If the bubonic plague, flu, typhoid, smallpox, typhus, and the measles couldn’t then I don’t think the chances are good.  

I may try the footshake for a while though. 

For more reading: 

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

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

https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/05/the-coronavirus-is-seeing-the-footshake-replace-the-handshake.html

Timely History: Gruinard Island

Quarantine is important. It allows us to safely flatten the curve and not spread disease at an exponential rate. Quarantining is not a new idea and even mentioned in the Bible to stop the spread of disease.

Oh, it’s also been used because the British government contaminated an entire island in Scotland to see how effective anthrax would be as a biological weapon. Welcome to Gruinard Island!

Dear reader, before you grab your tinfoil hat and scream, “down with big government!” I will need you to hear me out. This experiment began with the noblest of intentions: killing Nazis. In 1942, the British government decided to see if anthrax would be the new rage in wiping the Third Reich from existence. (Fun Fact: it was codenamed “Operation Vegetarian.” I will refrain from vegetarian jokes but just know I thought of 7.)

Luckily, they decided not to drop an anthrax bomb in London but on a small uninhabited island in Scotland. They brought a bunch of sheep (aww) to test how it would work. Let’s just say the sheep didn’t do well. Amazingly, it also turns out anthrax would completely contaminate German cities and make them uninhabitable for decades. Who knew?! The anthrax bomb was shelved.

Is this not a weird enough story? Oh, don’t worry, now it gets weird. In 1981, a militant group executed “Operation Dark Harvest (which is cooler sounding then “Vegetarian” but not as hilarious.” This operation centered on forcing the British government to clean up the island. They even went to the island to collect soil and send them to officials as a threat.

In 1986, the British government finally got around to it and cleaned up the island. Probably. I’m not going to check and neither should you.

For more reading:

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

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

https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/gruinard-island