Musing: On Pandemics

What’s this musing about: Well the coronavirus is really screwing up everyone’s lives, isn’t it?

My sister-in-law (Hi, Terri!) asked me about some of the other pandemics that occurred through history a couple days ago. And by “asked me,” I mean I took it upon myself to tell her about them.

As of March 21, 2020, the coronavirus has infected over 278,000 people and claimed 11,570 according to CNN/Johns Hopkins.

In comparison to the two “big ones,” namely the Black Death and the Spanish Flu…well thank God “it’s only” the coronavirus.


Death Toll: 11,570

Mortality Rate: Less than 1%

Spanish Flu:

Death Toll: 17 million to 50 million (over the course of 1 year)

Mortality Rate: 2.5%

Scary Fact: Spanish Flu killed more people in two days than are currently infected with the coronavirus.

Black Death/Plague (for you true nerds, only talking about the second one):

Death Toll: 75 million to 200 million (over 4 years)

Mortality Rate: 80%+. Basically, if you got it, you were dead.

Scary Fact: The Black Death reduced the world population by 21% (conservatively). For the coronavirus to do that it would need to kill 1.6 billion people.

I’m going to go wash my hands again. Be safe people!

More reading:

Black Death by Stephen Porter

Musing: I Hate Thomas Jefferson

What’s this musing about: Thomas Jefferson was a moody and terrible hypocrite.

I hate Thomas Jefferson.

Oh, you want to know why? I’d be happy to let you know. And now, I will employ one of my favorite things: a numbered list.

  1. His supporters talk about how madly he loved his wife. There is evidence to that. There is also evidence he raped his slave, Sally Hemings. Then he didn’t even emancipate her when he died. His daughter “kinda” did. Yes, I use “kinda” the way you say someone is “kinda” pregnant.
  2. He was a hypocrite, especially politically. Case in point: Jefferson always railed against Washington and Hamilton for being evil Federalists who wanted a strong central government. Then he became President and made the Louisiana Purchase which he technically had no right to do. Is that not enough to convince you? He originally wrote that slavery was evil and England was complicit in the Declaration of Independence. He freed almost none of his slaves upon his death.
  3. He was so whiny. Seriously, just look up any letter written by Jefferson and you will find a deeply insecure individual.
  4. He was terrible with money. When he died, he left an absolute mess for his relatives.
  5. He believed America should never industrialize and should stay an agrarian society. Yes, hindsight is 2020 (get it?), but c’mon.
  6. He sued anyone who annoyed him. Especially people who said he fathered a child with one of his slaves. That slave was Sally Hemings. And he did.
  7. His economic policy was a nightmare. Not only did he nearly destroy the economy with his embargo, it did not do a thing to stop the coming war of 1812.
  8. Even by the standards of the day, he was a pretty bad dad. He left his youngest in the care of others while he was Foreign Minister in France. No qualms there. When he decided to bring her over and she didn’t want to leave? They let her fall asleep on a ship she was playing on and then sailed away. Not terrifying at all. Abigail and John Adams welcomed her halfway to France. When Abigail told Jefferson he should really come get her as she was traumatized, he ignored her. He sent someone else. Why? Waiting on his (probable) married mistress.
  9. He fought with John Adams for years! (That’s a history joke. Everyone fought with John Adams at some point.)
  10. Even George Washington got sick of him.

Need more evidence?

Tom Chaffin, Revolutionary Brothers

Tags: American History, leadership, slavery, musings, Jefferson

My Favorite History: The White Hurricane

From November 7th through November 10th, 1913, the Great Lakes were hammered by what was called the Great Lakes Storm of 1913, or much more ominously, the “White Hurricane.”

I love history when I have absolutely no insight before I start digging in. I am huge lover of shipwreck stories and came across White Hurricane by David Brown. It looked interesting enough and had great reviews. Little did I know what was coming.

The storm wreaked such savage destruction due to two major man-made issues. First, shipping on the Great Lakes was a massive industry. There was a lot of pressure on ship captains to keep sailing until the last possible moment. For the Great Lakes, the last possible moment is early November. And sometimes, like with the White Hurricane, it’s past the last possible moment.

The second factor was the fledgling weather service. We complain about meteorologists being wrong constantly, but back in 1913 it was much worse. The weather service was not good at predicting the weather. However, what was worse was the politics. Weathermen were often scared to declare a massive storm was coming. They often feared they would damage shipping interests and had tremendous pressure to downplay or ignore their instincts.

The results would be disastrous. Nearly 40 ships were destroyed including 12 which were completely lost with all hands killed. Over 250 people lost their lives. The most poignant for me was Lightship LV-82, Buffalo, which was the only vessel lost on Lake Erie. The men on board disappeared with the Lightship. During a time of absolute catastrophe, it stings more when the people out there to protect others end up being victims as well.

I ended up reading two full length books on the storm, White Hurricane as mentioned above and November’s Fury by Michael Schumacher. I compared them in a battle of the books. Both books are excellent, and the facts are basically the same. Both authors did their homework. The biggest similarity is the feeling of being completely overpowered by Mother Nature. Couple that with a deadly irony which the books explore: you are better off staying in the middle of a lake in a storm than running for shore. I don’t know much about shipping (actually, literally nothing) and this fact was amazing to me. The ships which fared the best were the ones who braved the storm in the middle of the lakes. It let them control their boats to keep moving with the storm without smashing into rocks. Many of the ships mentioned above were the ones who tried to make a mad dash back to port.

The old adage in that part of the country is true. Don’t get on a boat come November.

For more:

White Hurricane by David G. Brown

November’s Fury by Michael Schumacher

If you’re lazy,

My Personal History: 2019

On the eve of 2020, I wanted to put up a personal post recapping my own history this year. It can be hard to summarize a whole year of someone’s life. Luckily, I have been thinking about it for a while and I think I can do it.

2019, you sucked.

That may seem harsh as I did have many good things which happened to me. I’ll get to those. But first, let me wallow please.

The year started with the loss of one of my friends. He took his own life and it was a painful shock to many of us who knew him. He was in the military with me and really woke me up to just how much was going on around me. When you open your eyes to something you never took seriously then you find yourself feeling like a complete fool. I noticed many of my friends were in tremendous pain and dealing with serious complications from our time at war. In an effort to better understand and process all of this, I finally went to a therapist.

Turns out, I am one of those people dealing with PTSD. I went to a therapist to better understand what the people around me were going through and ended up joining the club instead. Turns out, I was already in it.

Next, I won’t be adding many details to this one, but we lost a family member entirely too soon. It was another shock and one none of us will be getting over anytime soon. If at all. No, probably not at all.

Then, my marriage fell apart. Nothing drags you out of a stupor faster than watching your entire life be thrown into disarray. It’s very funny how divorce can be so prevalent and yet you never think you are ever in any danger of becoming another one of the numbers. Look, I joined yet another club I had no intention of joining!

All that being said, there was also amazing highs to balance the lows. My family and friends are more than I could ever ask for. A little website called History Nerds United started this year (and analytics say that more than just my mother actually comes here!). Now, I’ve interviewed honest to God authors who treated me with more kindness and patience than I could have expected and have others planned. Dealing with my PTSD is challenging at times but I’m fighting my PTSD and winning. And finally, I’m realizing I need to challenge myself more and I’m excited to find some new adventures.

2019, you tried to break me. You failed. Let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.

Happy 2020, Nerds!

My Favorite History: The Marquis de Lafayette (Part 4)

Lafayette was due a major vacation and he decided now was the time to head home. There was a minor problem which needed to be dealt with, however. When he last left France, the king told him not to go. And he went anyway. Surely, there would be hell to pay when he returned.

Nope, not really. The king put him under “house arrest” for 8 days in a swanky place which was befitting his new status in France. Lafayette was now a bona fide hero and the 18th century equivalent of a rock star. He was invited to hunt with the king, be at parties with the best of the best, and join all the most influential clubs. Not bad for a guy laughed out of court by the current queen.

Did Lafayette party? Or course he did. But, he never forget what he came back for and started working for the American cause from day 1. Benjamin Franklin and Lafayette were a juggernaut of charm on the people of France and they worked tirelessly.

So tirelessly, in fact, that Lafayette did not spend nearly as much time with his poor wife as he probably should have. The story of the Marquis and Adrienne is a complicated one which I will look at in a later post, but safe to say at this point in time the Marquis had other priorities. Well, not entirely. Adrienne did give birth to a son. George Washington Lafayette. I wonder how they came up with the name.

A little over a year after coming back home, Lafayette was once again crossing the Atlantic. He had new promises from the King of France for the fledgling United States and was once again ready to do battle. He would not be disappointed nor would the people who put their trust in him.

Soon, Lafayette would be integral in this little siege at a place called Yorktown.

(Part 5 coming soon)

For more:,_Marquis_de_Lafayette

My Favorite History: The Marquis de Lafayette (Part 3)

It was a legendary bromance that would echo through the ages. George Washington and the Marquis. It started like all great stories, at a pub. George was introduced to the Marquis and to say Lafayette was star struck would be underselling it. The Marquis was already completely taken with the American cause and Washington was the epitome of it. George liked him well enough, but he also knew he needed to be kind to the Marquis because of his patriotic zeal. Just kidding, he knew he was rich and well connected.

A funny thing happened shortly after. The Marquis won over Washington quickly with something he would use effectively throughout his life: his humility. Washington invited the Marquis to review his troops and found them sorely lacking. Each soldier was wearing different clothes if they were barely clothed at all. Washington was horribly embarrassed and admitted it to Lafayette. The Marquis replied with a comment that is often cited as the very moment George Washington took on Lafayette as adopted son. Lafayette replied to Washington’s admission by saying, “I am here to learn, not to teach.” Washington realized this extremely privileged, rich, and well-connected aristocrat was not cut from the same cloth as the others. Moreover, Washington never had children of his own (Martha Washington had children from a previous marriage) and Washington would treat Lafayette as a surrogate son from that point on.

The Marquis would find very soon that being a favorite of Washington had its advantages. Even though the Marquis was supposed to be a glorified staff officer (i.e. never leading men in battle), he quickly found himself in the thick of it at the Battle of Brandywine. Lafayette would be wounded in the battle and Washington would send his personal surgeon to care for him.

Washington would eventually throw his weight behind getting the Marquis the command position he sought after. He would prove to be a very capable officer and an extremely loyal friend to Washington. In fact, he was instrumental in one of the most famous battles in American history.

But first, he needed to take a trip home.

(Part 4 next week)

For more:,_Marquis_de_Lafayette

My Favorite History: The Marquis de Lafayette (Part 2)

The Marquis heard about the American Revolution and immediately fell in love. I mean that almost literally. He would expound upon the cause of liberty for the colonies and would wear people out with his fire and passion. And since he was rich, he decided to do something most people couldn’t.

He bought a boat. A really big boat.

I don’t want to understate this. Buying a boat is not an easy thing back at this time. Want to know what else is not easy? When the government, including the king, tell you not to go because it’s bad for public relations.

And then he went anyway. He was 19. For comparison, at 19 I was drinking in the barracks and trying not to get caught. The Marquis decided to defy his KING.

When the Marquis got to America, the reception was rather…muted. You see, a bunch of Frenchmen were showing up to the colonies demanding commissions and generally acting like entitled jerks. (Try not to make a snooty French joke, try not to make a snooty French joke). The Marquis was able to sidestep these problems by being humble, passionate, and a Freemason. Just kidding, it really is because he said he’d do it for free because he’s rich and didn’t need the money. The other stuff helped, but Congress never had any money. The Marquis became a major general in the Continental Army in July of 1777.

Well, kinda. No one actually intended for the Marquis to be anything but a political sock puppet. He was never supposed to serve as a commander of troops because back then, as now, Americans have a problem getting ordered around by non-Americans.

Then a funny thing happened. The Marquis was introduced to this guy named George…

(Part 3 next week)

For more:,_Marquis_de_Lafayette

My Favorite History: The Marquis de Lafayette

Ever heard of Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier? How about the Marquis? Still no? How about any of the literally dozens of places named either Fayette, Lafayette, or Fayetteville? All of these places are named after one man who is my favorite historical figure. He is the Marquis de Lafayette and he is one of the most important people of the American Revolution. He was also French in case you couldn’t tell by all those names in the first line.

He was born in 1757 in Chavaniac-Lafayette. As you can tell by the name, he was a big deal based on his family name alone. He was from a very long and distinguished lineage in France and to say he was rich would be an understatement. And he was rich. Mainly because his family members kept dying very early on in his life including his father who was killed by British cannon. As you will see, he never quite got over it. But back to how rich he was. I’m not great with conversions, but by the time everyone in his family died and left him an orphan, they also left him a fortune of about 120,000 livres a year. How much is this? Again, conversion is a huge pain, but let’s just say there were not many richer than him maybe even the King included.

Lafayette grew up in the same court that would see the rise of Marie-Antoinette. In fact, she and Lafayette were in the same social circles. What did they think of each other? In today’s parlance, she found him to be a huge loser. He was skinny, awkward, and his manners did not befit a gentleman. He was roundly whispered about in the French court.

It didn’t hurt his marriage prospects all that much. He was engaged to Marie Adrienne Francoise when he was 14 and she was 12. The Marquis and Marie didn’t actually find out they were engaged for two years however. Marie’s mother thought they were too young, so they were slowly and inconspicuously introduced in social settings for two years before getting the news. The whole thing feels so very French, in a good way! Marie would become the most loyal person to the Marquis for the entirety of her life. In many respects, Marie would be one of the most devoted wives I have ever read about. The same could not necessarily be said of the Marquis. We do have to remember that this was France in the 1700s. Taking another lover was part of the scene back then. However, the Marquis certainly did love Marie, and would return the devotion she showed in due time.

As much as Marie loved him, the Marquis had his sights on one passion first and foremost. He always had his sights on winning glory in war. Couple that with his undying hatred of the British for killing his father and his next steps became crystal clear. You see, there was this little revolution that had started across the Atlantic…

(Part II next week)

For more:,_Marquis_de_Lafayette

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving, nerds!

Wherever you are I hope it is with people you want to be with doing things you love to do.

My day will be filled with food, football, reading (of course), and probably just a wee bit of scotch.

What? You came here for your history fix? Well, of course, I won’t let you down.

Don’t feel like reading? Saints & Strangers is an amazing miniseries which chronicles the first Thanksgiving. How good is it? Mama History Nerd and I re-watched it again yesterday.

Feel like reading (I mean, of course, you’re here aren’t you)? Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick.

Oh, and a nap. Definitely taking a nap today. Happy Thanksgiving!

Author Interview: Mike Dash (Part 2)

(Read Part 1 here.)

Brendan:              This is an interesting question for you, especially talking about your process and everything, and doing this for so many years, and your life’s work. As you talked about, you’ve done a lot of things, blog posts, journalism, being an author. How do you balance those things? Are you the type of person where it’s I’m writing a book now the blog posts go away? Or do you use blog posts as a break from writing a book?

Mike:                     Interesting. I’m not a typical author and I’m aware of that. I meet a lot of people who want to talk to me about being a writer who essentially they believe that they live to write, they couldn’t be the person they want to be if they’re not writing, I guess I’m not saying they’re not telling me the truth, I’m just not like that. I started off as a journalist, I take ultimately a journalist perspective on this in the sense that I think I ought to get paid for what I’m doing pretty well, if I’m doing it pretty well. And one of the reasons I’ve stopped publishing books is that I was essentially faced with a choice. The time of the last financial crisis all those advances went to the floor throughout the world, and literally to the point where you would probably be earning somewhere between 5% and 10% of what you were earning before. So I was faced with a choice of either churning stuff out incredibly quickly and sloppily to try and maintain my income, or stop writing books, and I chose to stop writing books because I didn’t want to write terrible books.

Mike:                     But I also didn’t want to spend two years of my life writing something that I would have to self-publish or get a … I could probably find some tiny publishing house and put it out and it would go down a large well with a small pop at the end and a few hundred people would read it. But ultimately I just perhaps in a sense I’ve been almost spoiled by my experiences in journalism because when you’re writing for a magazine, or more recently for the Smithsonian, which is putting the blogs I write up on its website, you get really quick and substantial response. You put something out, within a couple of weeks or a few months you’ve got people writing about it, sending you comments on it. In the case of the … I wrote this thing for the Smithsonian about a family of Siberian hermits who escaped into the Tiger before World War II, and were found in 1978 not knowing that World War II had happened, and that went viral, and over 20 million people read it.

Mike:                     And it was a really rewarding experience. People were commenting on this saying, “This has changed my life the spirituality of these people’s experience.” And stuff. And when you’ve had that it’s hard to go back to writing a book in two years and putting it out there at a time where now there are very few outlets that would even review it. And you know you’re going to get a couple of hundred to a couple of thousand sales unless you’re very lucky. And the reality is, especially when you’re me and you’re writing stuff about things that don’t catch people’s attention because they’re about really obscure topics, you need to have a bit of really good luck to be successful. It’s not a function of if you write a really good book it will be successful. I put a lot of effort, for example, into my Mafia and it, for whatever reason, I don’t know, it wasn’t commercially successful. So I just felt a bit like I wasted quite a large amount of time relative to what I could’ve got at spending those same two years writing a bunch of blog posts with the Smithsonian, for example.

Mike:                     I was lucky with the Batavia because at that time the biggest newspaper in the UK, it was a Sunday paper called the Sunday Times, which had a big book review section every week and for reasons that … It was nothing to do with me, they assigned this book to somebody who was very enthusiastic about it and wrote a two page review. So suddenly it was a big hit in the UK, which then encouraged my American publisher to put a lot more weight behind it. And that was just happenstance. If the Sunday Times had not published that one review then the Batavia, the book would’ve come out, but it would’ve been a much smaller book than it turned out to be and I’d probably be feeling even more jaundice about writing books. So I’m a bit … I don’t know how people are going to respond to me saying this. It makes me sound like a total mercenary I suppose, in a sense, but I honestly don’t really any longer see the point of spending a large portion of what’s left of my life writing for a few hundred people.

Mike:                     Maybe that makes me a bad author, but that’s the way I am. And I think it was journalism that did it.

Brendan:              I don’t think so at all. I think it, not to get too heavy or anything, but it highlights a lot of the way that more people read nowadays is that I started a blog about history books mainly because I knew it’s very niche society where you talk about stuff from history and most people just totally glaze over. And for me, my site is … I’ll probably never make money off of it because there will probably never be enough people on it for that, but my thought was if I find 10-15 like-minded people who start sharing, “I love this book. I didn’t love this book. I want to discuss this with somebody who actually cares.” I think what you’re talking about is just highlighting that you want to get the information out there and it’s hard to have a book right now. If you go on Amazon, you look under history, there is the 10 biographies of Churchill, and Napoleon, and things like that, but finding these little obscure things like Batavia’s Graveyard, which I only found because I was looking for shipwreck books, I love shipwrecks, saw this, and I’m like, “Oh yeah, definitely.”

Brendan:              But no one’s ever heard of it that I have talked with. You have to have that connection that’s society that says, “Here’s where we are, here’s what we like to talk about.” And that can sometimes be a pretty small group of people.

Mike:                     And I’m curious on this. Were you at all put off by the idea of the fact that it’s a Dutch shipwreck at that not particularly sexy time period, 1629. Did you hesitate at all before you decided to buy it?

Brendan:              Not at all just because I do love reaching back historically. I think the fact that you’re learning so much more the further back you go just about how things have changed and how things are still the same. And yet you can get strange crazy people into situations and they become mass murderers. It happens. And for me, I looked at it and it was … I don’t care what nationality, I like it a little bit the older the better in my perspective. For me it was there was just and amazing story here. Just actually crashing the ship, planning to crash a ship on the Western Coast of Australia, just how did anyone under ordinary circumstances think that was going to work out very well. And then just the short blurb on it says, “This is an amazing story.” And it definitely turned out to be. And especially the way you set it up where you really get a flavor for the culture that they came from before they hit the rock.

Brendan:              So it felt almost like two books to me, but first is that set up to understand the psychology of these people, and then when all of these crazy things start happening after the wreck you say, “Well, Mike explained to me where they’re coming from so now all of this absolute insanity makes sense and I believe it.”

Mike:                     Okay. You have responded to that book as I hoped readers would and I’m delighted to hear you say that. One of the things I think you very quickly realize whenever you publish a book is that you absolutely can’t satisfy everybody, and for every person who’s responded to any of my books the way you just have there’s another one who goes online and posts a review saying, “Why is the first off so boring? It’s full of …” It’s not full of bloodshed and murder, but it sets up. How could anybody want to read 150 pages about Dutch ship building or whatever. So there are a lot of people out there who just want something that I don’t particularly want to give them in terms of the writing and there are people who do appreciate it. And the way I look at it, as I said, one of the things that I do know is that if I don’t do a good job on this chances are that nobody’s going to do a good job on it because not many other people know the story or care enough to spend time writing about it.

Mike:                     And in the case of the Batavia in particular where 125 people were murdered one by one by a gang of cutthroat mutineers, most of them we don’t even know the names of. I actually thought it was very important to give these people back some of their human dignity by telling their story properly, by humanizing them. There are far too many books, and I don’t really enjoy for this reason actually reading most true crime books, although some of the stuff I’ve done could be labeled I guess true crime. In a sense it’s a true story about a crime, but a lot of books in that field I find are too much obsessed with the murderer and tend to glamorize that person as a result, and the murder victims are there as means to an end, means to make this murderer more interesting, more horrible, more glamorous sometimes. And they get very short shift in far too many books in my opinion.

Mike:                     There was a book actually that came out literally a month or two ago in the UK written by, very tellingly, by a female author about the victims of Jack the Ripper, making more of exactly this point. Of course, I can’t remember the name unfortunately.          

Mike: She starts the        book by saying essentially, “I want to write a book about who these women were because I’m not interested in Jack the Ripper.” Apart from being a deeply unpleasant person he’s probably not nearly as interesting as all these books assume he is. And when you read the corpus of literature on someone like Jack the Ripper one of the things you notice apart from the fact that every author seems to think that it’s their job to come up with a new suspect, which gets very boring after a while, the suspect themselves has to be usually somebody who is in themselves interesting. The most obvious case being fingering the eldest son of the future Edward the seventh. So remember the royal family was Jack the Ripper. That stuff happens all the time and have no idea that Jack the Ripper was probably a deeply uninteresting, boring, inadequate, absolutely almost certainly inadequate person runs very contrary to the whole tenet of this massive publishing industry that has erupted around this one rather unpleasant, seedy, and as I say, probably inadequate and rather boring in person murderer. And I find that pretty distressing actually as a human being.

Brendan:              And the book is actually called The Five. I just handed it to my mother last week and said this is just a complete 180 of what you’re saying most true crime books are. It’s going through and looking in all these women’s lives, which you wouldn’t think in just a very poor time in England that there would even be that much history to write down, and then the way she just completely cuts the narrative as soon as Jack the Ripper enters it. It would probably drive a lot of people nuts if they don’t read what the book’s about, but my mother and I, she’s a huge history reader too, she was a history teacher, she also thought just how fantastic it was because it was the focus on the women who were murdered, but also to put them in context of their time without, for lack of a better term, trying to make it sound too much like Oliver Twist and just keeping to the history and making sure you get that across.

Mike:                     Yeah. And I implore them, I implore anybody who puts that sort of effort into it because I know how hard it is. But ultimately as a historian I’m firmly in the camp for people who believe in writing what’s called history from below, in other words the social history that 95% of the people who very rarely get written about by historians who are obsessed by great men, and it usually is men as well, isn’t it? And the whole crux of the way in which history was researched and written up until the 1950s at least, was almost entirely that sort of history, and thank God I’m young enough to come along at a time when other sorts of history writing was possible because ultimately history is supposed to be the story of us and we’re not mostly Kings, and Generals, and Prime Ministers, and Presidents are we? So it should be about other things than that I think.

Brendan:              And you’ve given me a master class of just looking at being an author from a lot of different perspectives. And one of the questions I have, and it’s cliché and cheesy, but for a young Mike Dash, everything that you’ve learned, what would be that one lesson that you’d go back and tell him? Would it be the, “You’re not going to be able to make everyone happy with what you do.” Or is there other lessons that you wish you could’ve told yourself from day one?

Mike:                     Well I suppose there’s a philosophical take on that and there’s a practical take on that. The philosophical take on that would be to say, “You’re probably going to be happier writing more shorter stories because you will reach more people and ultimately you can do more history.” And I just love history. It’s pretty much all I read and it’s all I write about. And I guess one of the things I’ve learned is I would rather write 20 pieces at a shorter depth. As you very kindly pointed out my idea normally is not the same as writing 600 words because I’ve read one source on it, it does involve a fair bit of work. I personally find that more satisfying because the more history I do the wider I want to do it. And since I stopped publishing books I’ve discovered times and places in history that have completely compelled me.

Mike:                     Right now, my main obsessions are with the Swahili Coast, little merchant city states, although the East Coast of Africa that used to trade up and down the Indian Ocean before the Portuguese got there, and the Maritime Trade with Tang China in the ninth century. So things like that I’d never even really knew existed I’ve become completely obsessed with. And I enjoy finding a new obsession and throwing myself into it. And if I can only do that once every two years then I as a historian am being impoverished in my view. So that’s the philosophical take. And the more practical take, I guess is to say that, “I discovered it was worth waiting for technology to catch up.” I mentioned earlier, this project I’ve been working on for years and years. So this is a story about a … Let’s not … It’s a research project on that. A Victorian urban legend Spring Heeled Jack, he’s a demonic leaping boogey man figure who terrorized early Victorian London.

Mike:                     And it’s very hard to research, and I spent literally six to eight months of my life sitting reading old Victorian newspapers on micro film, which is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do because in that period newspapers didn’t have headlines, they didn’t have illustrations. Micro film’s a terrible way to read in this stuff. And it’s all in six-point print and there no way to do keyword searching it so you’re reading micro film after micro film hoping to find words, scanning pages, hoping to find words. And I spent, as I said, six to eight months reading that stuff and I ended up with 45 thousand words of transcribed original source material when I first published a paper on this back in 1996, and now with digital newspapers and the digitalization programs that are going on, I’ve got well over 350 thousand words in a very much less painful way of extracting information as well. So, in a sense I wasted my time back in 1996, a large amount of my time, when I could’ve done it really easily if I had waited 10 years. But I wasn’t to know that.

Mike:                     That’s what I would tell myself if I could go back, I would save myself that pain.

Brendan: It is      very interesting thing that I saw on your personal website, that you have about 3000 books in your place. Now I only have 600, but big question from me is how much of that is … Do you have a bunch of different genres? Because even though I’m not a snob in any sort of way, mine are only history books. I tell my wife, “Keep the fiction somewhere else.” Everything’s history where I am. Do you have different genres or is it all history?

Mike:                     We are exactly the same. I freely admit that probably my biggest weakness as a human being is I don’t really read literature. And I’m sure that impoverishes me all sorts of ways, I’m scarcely aware of, and almost everybody I know who reads seriously reads a bit more literature than anything else, but essentially there is so much history that I want to learn that I don’t have time for it. So all of my books are history books. My wife is keen on literature and we have a separate set exactly as you’re describing of books on poetry, the works of Dickens, Thomas Hardy, people like that, which don’t mix. And I had a conversation actually once about this with a friend of mine about what happens when you marry somebody? Do you combine your libraries or do you keep them the same, and most people I’ve met actually don’t like combining their libraries no matter how much they love their wife or husband, or partner of any sort, because libraries are so deeply personal. And I’m not saying whether it works, may I keep mine absolutely separate. And I need to extend my house actually, it’s more than 3000 now.

Mike:                     But I haven’t got room to display that many so actually the whole thing is double stacked. I’ve got shelves of books with other shelves of books arranged in front of them until I can build another story on my house.

Brendan:              Well this is very good because now when my wife rolls her eyes at me about how finicky I am about the books I can say there is a very good published author who said that I’m supposed to be this way. So that’s good.

Mike:                     Call me. I’ll drop her a line if you need me to.

Brendan:              I would appreciate it. So what I’d like to do, I’d like to ask one more question. It’s a bit more hard hitting than the other ones. Now when you’re not reading, and researching, and writing, do you watch trashy TV like the rest of us, and if so will you admit to what show’s your favorite?

Mike:                     Yeah. I suppose I should say there is another element to history I spend more time doing than watching trashy TV and that’s I teach history as well now. And I spend a lot more hours of the week day in that than I do … I normally watch maybe one hour of television a day on average. I’m not that surprising. I use it actually as a way of making up to my wife the fact that I spend far too much time sitting alone in a room reading or writing. So we share things. We just finished Stranger Things 3. Before that we just finished Killing Eve 2. So it’s mainstreamy and slightly shocky entertainment actually. What I remember when I first got cable TV I was very excited by the idea that I was going to get access to the History Channel because I might watch some history programs on it, and boy was that disappointing.

Mike:                     So the reality is that the stuff I do is fundamentally absolutely doesn’t make good television so I guess that’s where I part ways with history when it comes to television I just watch the same stuff as everybody else. And being a Brit I’ve actually just enjoyed watching the Cricket World Cup Final, which is one of the most amazing games there’s ever been. Ended in a tie, which is pretty rare in Cricket. And so that was my most recent TV session. But realistically I don’t watch a lot of television. Maybe as I said, five or six hours a week or something like that. Not a huge amount. And I’m glad because frankly I get a lot more out of reading original stuff than I do after watching the same television as everyone else. I’m sure that makes me a snob, it probably does.

Brendan:              No, not at all. It’s actually funny, especially Stranger Things is more paranormal. I want to prepare people in case they read this and they’re like, “Oh I got to look at Mike Dash’s books.” Are you also the Mike Dash who is apparently a paranormal investigator?

Mike:                     I am. Yeah. That sounds weird maybe at first glance, but it isn’t really because two things. Firstly, the stuff that interests me in both these fields is the really obscure oddities of human behavior. I’ve always thought as a historian that it’s the extreme stories that tell us most about what it is to be human, and fundamentally the stuff I do in what’s called the fortune area, which you call strange phenomena, is similar. The one thing I would stress to people out there is that although when I was maybe 10 or 11 I took a lot of this stuff a bit more seriously, now I’m fairly … Because I research this stuff and because I understand as a historian maybe a bit about humans as well, I’m interested in it more from the socio cultural point of view. In other words, why are people interested in, and tell, and claim these amazing things rather than literally believing stuff. And one of the curious things about this actually, and it’s something you can try on people, is that more than even most history this subject comes laden with a gigantic vast quantity of presumption.

Mike:                     So, someone will say to you, “Do you believe in UFO’S?” What they mean by that question is, “Do you believe we are being visited by aliens?” They say, “Do you believe in ghosts?” Well what they mean by that, “Do you believe that the spirit of the dead can survive death, and remain on the Earth, and be seen by us?” People report this stuff. They do see it. They do interact with it. That doesn’t have to mean that there are spirits of the dead or alien spacecrafts out there. Most of this stuff is coming from inside their own heads, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting to me.

Brendan:              And I think it’s probably easier when you’re in London, we’re Americans, we think that the entire island is just ghosts and graves because it sounds like every time you guys tear up a street or something you find out that there’s a King underneath it or something.

Mike:                     Pretty much, yes.

Brendan:              So, it’s very interesting to see how that would be. And then you also were just talking about Cricket. It’s very funny, I was thinking about my first fear for actually this interview was looking up and seeing you’re from Wales, is I met a few people from Wales and sometimes I can’t understand a word that they say.

Mike:                     My parents moved away from Wales before I was born so I have the very unthick Welsh accent that you can hear. I have a Southern English accent in fact, so probably more intelligible. I’m glad to see that point of view.

Brendan:              Yes, I definitely got a good 90% of the words you’ve said this entire time so I think we’re on solid ground here.

Mike:                     Excellent.

Brendan:              But it was very funny you saying the whole Cricket ending in a tie and I just, with my American brain, it just immediately broke it, I’m like, “Ties shouldn’t happen.” We don’t believe in ties over here.

Mike:                     Exactly. That’s one of the things about our two cultures. I guess you’re right. Yes.

Thanks so much to Mike for his time. Hope you enjoyed this, nerds!