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:




Musing: Staying Sane in Quarantine

Quarantine can be challenging. Locked into our homes with little ability to go out and enjoy the company of others can drive anyone batty. There are numerous templates from history for how to fight off insanity, but I’d like to look at two of the most successful under extreme circumstances. Say hello to the Greely Polar Expedition and the survivors of the shipwreck Grafton.

The Greely Polar Expedition (AKA Lady Franklin Bay Expedition) went to the Arctic in 1881 to perform various scientific measurements and attempt to reach the North Pole (they “only” achieved furthest north). They lived in the Arctic for what became a 3-year ordeal and most of them died of starvation waiting for relief. Let’s not focus on that part too much. The important part for this post is how the leader, A.W. Greely, kept 25 men occupied in the Arctic for 3 years with no mutinies. Well, there was almost a couple, but he squashed them. And he had one guy executed. Again, let’s not focus on that part.

Greely effectively kept the team together by keeping them busy and giving them all purpose. Each member of the expedition had a specific job which kept them busy daily for years. Additionally, Greely ensured all team members regularly did some sort of exercise. Finally, Greely had classes taught to the team on a regular basis which challenged their minds as well. When things truly began to fray towards the end, Greely did something many people in power forget to do; ask everyone what they want. Greely’s judicious use of democracy in a military expedition ultimately kept everyone together even under the worst circumstances.

The story of the Grafton has none of the caveats of the Greely Expedition, but followed the same script in leadership. The Grafton wrecked in 1864 on the Auckland Islands which are south of New Zealand and, as you can imagine, quite cold. Thomas Musgrave was the captain and he had 4 crew. One of Musgrave’s first actions was to allow the crew to choose who they wanted to lead them now that the ship had sank. They still chose Musgrave. I don’t think I need to harp on why it was extraordinary that Musgrave even broached the subject. Musgrave then did what Greely would do decades later. Each crew member had their own tasks which were constantly required. Exercise to find food was common. Musgrave ultimately kept his men together for 18 months on the islands and then made a daring escape attempt. In a newly created boat, he and two other crew sailed back to New Zealand…280 miles away. Musgrave made it and then immediately found a ship and went back for his two-remaining crew. All were saved.

What have we learned, dear readers? Keep busy! I am writing two posts a day for my dozen fans. I am working out twice a day (that’s right, I’m getting swole ladies). I’m also trying to finish reading a book a week. I’m not always successful but between these goals and baby history nerd, I am pretty busy. Make some goals, keep busy, and keep sane out there!

For more reading:



Joan Druett, Island of the Lost

Buddy Levy, Labyrinth of Ice

Timely History: Typhoid Mary

Mary Mallon was born in September of 1869 in Cookstown in what is now Northern Ireland. She immigrated to the United States in 1883 or so. In 1900, she found her calling as a cook for wealthy families in the New York City.  

Why should you care about this woman? Because as COVID-19 runs rampant around the world, there is a lot of discussion around quarantine, social distancing, and isolation. So, what does poor Mary from the 1800s have to do with this? Well, she is best known as “Typhoid Mary.” 

What’s typhoid? It’s a bacterial infection which causes a lot of symptoms like weakness, abdominal pain, vomiting, and death. The bacteria lives in urine and feces. Want to guess how you get it? I won’t continue. What I will say is lesson #1 from this post is WASH YOUR HANDS

Typhoid Mary loved cooking, apparently. She had trouble holding down a job, though. It seems whoever she worked for always had this nasty habit of getting typhoid. Once the family would get sick, Mary would change her name and disappear, popping up somewhere else. Lesson #2: ALWAYS CHECK REFERENCES

A doctor was finally hired to understand what was going on. He eventually tracked down Mary and explained the situation. Mary was an asymptomatic carrier. She wouldn’t get sick, but she could get other people sick because she didn’t wash her hands when cooking. Mary tried to kill him with a meat cleaver. Ultimately, Mary was forcibly quarantined for three years with no trial. Lesson #3: GET A LAWYER

Mary was released finally after promising not to be a cook anymore. This she did. For probably a year or so. She finally went too far once again when she became a cook for a New York City hospital. She was quarantined again until she died in 1938. Lesson #4: IF A DOCTOR SAYS YOU HAVE IT THEN YOU PROBABLY HAVE IT. 

Mary infected at least 50 people and killed at least 3. I say, “at least” because she moved so much the number could possibly be much higher. 

Don’t be like Mary. Be safe out there. 

For more reading: 



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, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Lakes_Storm_of_1913.

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)

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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)

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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)

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