The Lindbergh Kidnapping – The REAL Crime of the Century

Most know aviator Charles Lindbergh famously flew his single engine plane, The Spirit of St. Louis, for 33 hours from Long Island to Paris in 1927, becoming the first to cross the Atlantic solo. Blond, handsome, and only 25 years old, he became an international superstar receiving numerous awards and accolades (think today of movie-star crossed with sports-star crossed with war hero type of fame).

What most do not know is that 5 years later ‘Lucky Lindy’ would be at the center of The Crime of the Century. In March 1932, two year old Charles Lindbergh Jr. was suffering from a winter cold.  Charles Sr., his wife Anne and son were at home in Hopewell, NJ. Little Charlie’s nurse put him to bed around 7:30 pm.  At 10, she returned to check on him and made a horrifying discovery – Charlie Jr. was gone! Lindbergh rushed upstairs, flung opened the nursery door, and found the crib empty. He noticed an open window with an envelope on the sill.  A kidnapper had used a homemade ladder to climb to 2nd floor and left muddy footprints in the room. Lindbergh dashed downstairs, grabbed his hunting rifle, and went out searching.

The envelope contained a badly written ransom note that said:

Dear Sir, Have $50,000 ready … After 2-4 days will inform you where to deliver the Money. We warn you for making anything public or for notify the Police, the child is in gut care.

By 10:30, the radio was announcing the news to the world. Every US newspaper gave the story headlines the next day. Soon, false sightings of the Lindbergh baby were coming from all corners of the country.  None were real.

Col. Norman Schwarzkopf of the NJ State Police was in charge, but ceded responsibility for the investigation to the famous Lindbergh. Headquarters for the investigation were established in the family’s home. Lindbergh’s inexperience however produced some major goofs – footprints near the house were trampled and evidence was mishandled by too many people. Then, a new letter showed up, this time demanding $70,000!

Other blunders and oddities would follow …

A week later, John Condon, a retired teacher from the Bronx, called the Lindberghs claiming he’d made contact with the kidnappers! Condon had written a letter to the Bronx News offering to act as intermediary and a man claiming to be the kidnapper contacted him. Condon was allowed by a desperate Lindbergh to make contact with the kidnapper.

In April, the ransom money was delivered by Condon to a graveyard, while Lindbergh himself waited in a nearby car. The kidnapper gave Condon a note, supposedly revealing the baby’s safe location.  It led them to the coast in search of a boat called Nelly. No boat nor baby were ever found. They’d been double-crossed. In May, 72 days after the kidnapping, the decomposed body of a baby boy was found in the woods less than a mile from the Lindbergh house. The child had been dead from a fractured skull, apparently dropped from the ladder the night of the kidnapping.

The kidnapping case was now a murder investigation.

Serial numbers from the ransom money first surfaced in NY. Over the next two years more and more would pop up. Finally, in September 1934, a marked bill turned up at a gas station in NY. The attendant wrote down the license plate of the customer who gave him a $10 bill for 98 cents of gas. It was tracked to a German immigrant carpenter by the name of Bruno Hauptmann. When his Bronx home was searched, detectives found $14,000 of the Lindbergh ransom stuffed in an oil can. Despite his pleas of innocence, Hauptmann was arrested and indicted for murder 2 years after the crime.

The Crime of the Century became the Trial of the Century.

60,000 people besieged the tiny town of Flemington, NJ.  Hauptmann was defended by “Big Ed” Reilly, a flamboyant attorney who’d seen better days. Lindbergh himself testified he recognized Hauptmann’s voice from the night he & Condon delivered the ransom money in the graveyard. Hauptmann took the stand and strongly denied any involvement, claiming a deceased friend, who distrusted banks, had given him the money to hold. He said he’d been beaten by the police and forced to alter his handwriting to match the ransom note.

The prosecution’s case was not airtight. Besides the money, the main evidence was testimony from handwriting experts and the prosecution’s claim of a connection between Hauptmann, a carpenter, and the wood used in the kidnapping ladder.

Following 11 hours deliberation, the jury found Hauptmann guilty of first degree murder.

The evidence and public demand for blood were enough to convict.  Appeals were made all the way to the Supreme Court, but none were successful. The NJ Governor himself voiced doubts about the verdict. Questions were raised ranging from witness tampering, to evidence planting, to who his co-conspirators might be?  Nevertheless, Hauptmann was sentenced to death and executed in 1936 in the electric chair.  Conspiracy theories abound to this day, claiming poor Hauptmann was framed and the kidnapping was in fact ‘an inside job’ within the household.

In the aftermath of the infamous crime, kidnapping was made a federal offense via the ‘Lindbergh Law.’  Lindbergh and his wife moved away from Hopewell and went on to have 5 more children.  He died from lymphatic cancer in 1974 at age 72.

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The Black Hole of Calcutta’s Infamous Night of Horror

In 18th century India, the power of the Mughal Empire lay in the despotic hands of the Nawabs, or provincial princes. At the same time, the British and French East India Companies had built competing commercial empires on the lucrative sub-continent. The British had established a port and trading hub at Kolkata (Calcutta) and built Fort William to guard it from French attack.

This blatant military build-up infuriated Bengals’ new, 23-year-old Nawab, Siraj-ud-daula who took power in 1756. He ordered Calcutta’s British governor to immediately cease all work on the fort. When the predictable Brits ignored him, the hot-headed Nawab marched his massive army of 50,000 on Calcutta, including elephants and artillery. The governor and residents fled to company ships on the River Hooghly, leaving behind a small garrison of only 170 English soldiers to defend the fort.

Siraj’s attack came the morning of Sunday June 20th. John Holwell, in command of the fort, had no military experience, they were hopelessly outnumbered, and the fort was no match against 50,000 attackers. By the afternoon, he was forced to surrender – under the condition they would be treated fairly.

That night occurred the Black Hole horror which would become legend.

Holwell and 145 British prisoners, including two women, plus the wounded, were all squeezed at scimitar-points into the fort’s ‘Black Hole.’ This was the name given a single small cell built for prisoners. It measured only 18 by 15 feet and had but two small barred windows near the ceiling.

The heat of an Indian summer is suffocating, even at night, reaching 40C/104F. Conditions were so tight they could not sit or lie down. The prisoners trampled each other to get near fresh air near the 2 windows, and fought over the small cups of water they were handed. They pleaded for mercy from indifferent guards, who jeered at them while they screamed in agony.

The prisoners were left to suffer in the oppressive heat, sucking the perspiration from their shirts or resorting to drinking their own urine. The next morning, when the door was finally unbarred, steaming corpses were still standing as they were packed too tight to fall.

Only 23 of the 146 prisoners survived the hellish night.

The rest had died from a mixture of suffocation, trampling and dehydration. A large pit was dug for the dead and the bodies were dumped unceremoniously in a mass grave. The Nawab claimed to have had no knowledge of the inhumane incarceration.  Few believed him.

British vengeance was swift. When news of the ‘Black Hole’ reached London, a rescue expedition led by Colonel Robert Clive was immediately dispatched.  It arrived in Bengal by October.  Clive wasted no time, marching on Calcutta. He set siege to the Mughals at Fort William, which he bombarded from a fleet of warships in the river.

The fort fell to the British after a relentless siege, with the Mughals retreating.

But Robert Clive, a war hero from his last Indian campaign, was not finished with his vengeance.  In June 1757, with an army of a mere 3,000 men, Clive marched to the Bengal capital and defeated Siraj’s army  of 50,000 at Plassey with their 500 war-elephants and artillery.  Siraj fled to his capital Murshidabad, where he was killed by his own people for desertion.

John Holwell survived the Black Hole and later describing in great detail the horrors of that night in: A Genuine Narrative of the Deplorable Deaths of the English Gentlemen, who were Suffocated in the Black Hole. Holwell’s tale caused uproar in Britain. The story inspired patriotic fervor in Britain and rage at the Indian Mughals.

Clive’s victory at the Battle of Plassey was the start of British colonial rule in India, that would last uninterrupted for nearly 200 hundred years, until the Gandhi-inspired independence in 1947.

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The Sad Fate of the SS St. Louis Jewish Refugees

st-louisIn May 1939, 937 anxious Jewish refugees fled Nazi Germany aboard an ocean liner named the SS St Louis. Most were German citizens, though a few were from other countries like Poland and Austria. The passengers planned to reach Cuba first, then ultimately travel to the US.

Ever since Kristallnacht (the “Night of Broken Glass”) the Nazi’s had begun burning synagogues and confiscating Jewish property.

By 1939, Adolf Hitler had plans to close the German borders and many countries were imposing quotas limiting the number of Jewish refugees they’d take in. Havana was seen as a safe, temporary port to get to the US.

At the Hamburg docks, tearful relatives waved to their loved ones aboard the St. Louis. Given Hitler’s escalating anti-Jewish campaign, they didn’t know when they might see each other again. Those on the ship knew they were the lucky ones, managing to get out in time.

For many passengers, the anxiety they felt soon faded as the St Louis began a quiet 2 week voyage across the Atlantic. On board was a swimming pool, dance band in the evenings and even a movie theater. There were regular meals with rich foods the passengers rarely ate given the rationing in Germany.

Under Captain Gustav Schroder, the crew was ordered to treat the passengers with respect, a sharp contrast to the open hatred Jews received under the Nazis. Children were told by relieved parents that they were finally safe. They were going away and didn’t have to look over their shoulders ever again.

When the ocean liner reached Havana in May, that sense of relief soon evaporated, replaced by fear and a growing dread. Passengers were up on deck, their suitcases packed and ready to disembark, when Cuban officials came aboard … but nothing happened!

It quickly became clear the ship was not going to be allowed to dock and no-one would be allowed off.

They kept hearing the words “manana, manana” from the Cubans. For 7 nerve-wracking days, Captain Schroder tried in vain to persuade the Cuban authorities to allow his passengers to disembark. The Cubans declined their visas out of fear of being seen as a sanctuary and inundated with even more Jewish refugees.

Even before the ship sailed, Cuban newspapers demanded the government stop admitting Jews. The Cuban President had issued a decree a week before the ship left Germany that invalidated all landing certificates. Like the US, Cuba suffered with the Great Depression. Many resented the refugees already admitted, as they competed for scarce jobs. The owners of the St. Louis knew before the ship sailed that its passengers might have trouble disembarking, but told none of them.

The plight of the St. Louis attracted a great deal of media attention. After Cuba denied entry to the refugees, the press in Europe and the US broke the story to millions around the globe. Though US newspapers were sympathetic to the refugees’ plight, only a few editors suggested the US actually admit them. Hostility toward immigrants had fueled xenophobia and isolationism in the US as well.

Captain Schroder had no choice but to leave Havana and sail to Florida.

Unfortunately, US authorities also refused to allow it to dock. Sailing so close to Florida they could see the night lights of Miami, passengers telegraphed the President, pleading for refuge. Roosevelt never responded directly. The State Dept sent a telegram to the ship stating that passengers must wait their turns and qualify for visas before they could be admitted.

Quotas established in the 1920’s strictly limited the number of immigrants who could be admitted each year. In 1939, the annual German immigration quota was quickly filled with a long waiting list of several years.

US public opinion, though critical of Hitler and sympathetic to the refugees, favored immigration restrictions. Like Cuba, the Great Depression left millions without work and fearful of competition for scarce jobs. President Roosevelt could have issued an executive order, but public hostility to immigrants and a forthcoming election were among his considerations.

By June, Captain Schroder had no option but to turn the ocean liner back to Europe.

The joy the Jewish passengers had felt in May was replaced by desperation. No-one dared speak about what the Nazis would do to them once they returned to Germany. People were openly weeping as they wandered the ship – one passenger even committed suicide by slitting his wrists and jumping overboard.

As it turned out, the Jews did not have to return to Nazi Germany. Instead, 4 European countries agreed to split up the refugees. In June, the St. Louis docked at Antwerp, over a month after it left Germany. Four governments agreed to secure visas for the passengers: Great Britain took 288; the Netherlands 181, Belgium 214 and France 224.

Of the 288 passengers admitted to the UK, all survived World War II. Of the 620 passengers who returned to the continent, 532 were trapped when the German military stormed through Western Europe taking Belgium, Holland and ultimately France. Nearly all were captured and sent east to Nazi Death Camps. 278 managed to survive the Holocaust … 254 did not.

The journey of the SS St Louis and its ill-fated passengers was the subject of the 1976 film Voyage of the Damned.

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The Secrets of Michelangelo’s David

md1How much do you think you know about Michelangelo’s David? Oh sure, you’ve seen countless pictures of the famous statue on the internet, TV or in books. You recognize the muscular nude male, standing with his feet apart, looking off into the distance. But did you know the statue was originally commissioned to sit atop the roof of an Italian cathedral? That the version standing outside Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio is actually just an inferior bronze replica? How about that Michelangelo was only 26 when he sculpted it?

The statue of David was commissioned in 1501 during the reign of the famous Medici ruler, Lorenzo the Magnificent.  The cathedral guild hired the young artist to create a statue of King David to stand atop the roof the Duomo Santa Maria del Fiore in Firenze. Though quite young, Michelangelo was already famous for sculpting The Pieta in Rome – the famous statue of Mary cradling the body of a crucified Jesus in her lap. He was provided a 6 ton rectangle of white Tuscan marble that two prior sculptures had deemed too flawed to use. Michelangelo however, took on the challenge. David would not be life-sized, but rather 17 feet tall!

It took him two painstaking years to complete the statue.

The stone sat in a small courtyard behind the cathedral, so he worked year round, outside in rain, heat and cold. Rarely stopping to eat, Michelangelo often slept on the spot, where he dropped from sheer exhaustion. Rather than a robed & bearded King David, he chose instead a young man on the day that made him famous, the day in the Book of Samuel that David was the only one to step forward and accept King Saul’s challenge for anyone to face down the Philistine giant Goliath. A simple shepherd boy, naked yet toned, armed only with a rock, sling and fierce determination.

David stands with his legs apart in a fencing (or pitcher) like pose, left heel slightly raised, looking over his left shoulder at Goliath, the sling is draped over the same shoulder, across his back to his right hand where he conceals the deadly stone. Michelangelo dissected corpses to learn the intricacies of human muscles and put that knowledge to use. Though David at first appears relaxed, on closer examination one sees the tension in his legs, the glare in his eyes, the bulging veins in his hands. His head is slightly larger and out of proportion, so that when viewed from below it would appear a normal size. The sling and stump were originally gilded in gold, but has long since wore off.

When completed, the reviews were beyond positive, they were ecstatic!

His benefactors indeed proclaimed in ‘Perfect!” Too perfect in fact to sit so far away atop the Duomo roof. So a commission was formed, which included an aging Leonardo da Vinci, to choose a ground level location somewhere in Florence. Oh to be a fly on the wall, overhearing the conversations between Michelangelo and Leonardo. The chosen site was atop a pedestal outside the Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza della Signoria. It took 40 men, four nerve wracking days to transport “the Giant” through the narrow streets. Even the orientation was taken into account, with David facing Rome, as if the Medici were staring down the Pope himself.

Michelangelo’s fame grew beyond David and the Pieta when was he was next commissioned by the Pope to paint the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel.  He never married or had any children, leading to theories he may have been secretly gay. He lived to a ripe old age of 88, the aged and bearded figure depicted in many of his portraits.

David’s exposed manhood caused quite a bit of consternation when Queen Victoria was presented a replica in the 19th century. So much so that a plaster fig leaf was made and hung on his curly public hair so that the queen might not faint from the vapors. It was an amusing bit of history mimicked in a Simpson’s TV show episode. It’s also curious to note Michelangelo chose to not make him circumcised, which was of course the Jewish custom.

The perfect statue stood outdoors for over 350 years, exposed to the Italian elements. Only in 1873, over concerns that the weather was eroding the statue, was it finally transferred indoors to the Galleria dell Accademia. A bronze replica was put in the plaza for the pidgeons to mark the spot it once stood.

The years have taken their toll of the great masterpiece, as microfractures have appeared in his ankles from centuries of vibrations. One of his toes was once hammered off by a spectator. Unfortunately, David is actually oriented the wrong way for the best public viewing. As visitors approach, they see the often photographed angle facing his hips and chest. But the view Michelangelo intended was facing him from the right.  There you see the brave David as Goliath would have – eyes glaring, muscles tense, ready to load his sling for that fateful throw.

Such a perfect masterpiece is not just a piece of art for Florence, but an eternal gift to the world and all its descendants.

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The American Legacy of the Trail of Tears

trail-of-tears“Old Hickory” General Andrew Jackson won the nasty, negative election of 1828 and was elected to the White House.  At this time, over 125,000 Native Americans still occupied millions of acres in western North Carolina, Tennessee, north Georgia, Alabama, and Florida – land they’d lived on for generations. By 1840, there’d be few left anywhere east of the Mississippi.  Frontier Americans both feared and resented the many southeastern tribes. To them, Indians were an alien race who occupied land white settlers believed they deserved.  They desperately wanted to grow cotton and other crops in the fertile soil of the south.


George Washington had believed the solution to “The Indian Problem” was to civilize the savage and make them as American as possible. This included conversion to Christianity, learning English, and adopting the principles of property ownership. In the southeastern US, some Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole tribes took up white customs and became known as “The Five Civilized Tribes.”  But their land was still valuable, ever more so as thousands of white settlers continued to flood the southeast. Many white settlers did not care how “civilized” the tribes were.  They wanted that land and would do anything to get it. They burned and looted villages and squatted on property that belonged to those tribes.

The new populist President Jackson was staunch advocate for “Indian Removal.”

As a General, he’d led brutal campaigns against the Creeks & Seminoles that transferred thousands of acres from Indians to white farmers. As President, he continued this crusade as his solution to The Indian Problem. In 1830, he signed the INDIAN REMOVAL ACT, giving government the authority to exchange Native land in the southeast for land west of the Mississippi in the Oklahoma territory.  The new law did required fair, voluntary and peaceful removal treaties and did not permit forced removal of tribes from their land. Nevertheless, Jackson ignored the wording of the law and proceeded to force Native tribes to vacate their ancestral lands.

The forced displacement of native American had some eloquent opposition in Congress. Senators Daniel Webster and Henry Clay both spoke out frequently against the removal.  President Jackson ignored them.  In the winter of 1831, the Choctaws became the first tribe to be expelled from their land by the US Army. They made the journey to Oklahoma on foot, some bound, marching double file at gunpoint, without any food, shelter or other help from the military. Thousands died along the way. It was just the beginning of what one newspaper called the Trail of Tears and Death.  While Jackson put a very positive and populist spin on ‘Indian Removal’ in his speeches, the actual removal was anything but. There was little the native tribes could do to defend themselves.

The Cherokees however chose to take legal action. They were by no means frontier savages. They’d developed their own written language, printed newspapers and elected representatives to their government.   When the state governments threatened to seize their land, the Cherokees took their case to the Supreme Court AND WON! a favorable decision. In 1832, the opinion of Court was that states had no jurisdiction over the Cherokee Nation or claim to their lands.

However state officials simply ignored the Supreme Court’s decision, and President Jackson refused to enforce it. He was furious and personally insulted by the Court’s ruling shouting:

“The Court has made their decision, now let them enforce it!”

So the encroachment continued unabated.  Jackson proclaimed that if no one enforced the Court’s rulings (and he certainly did not), then the decisions was in essence still born.  Jackson himself defied the court’s decision  and ordered further removal of Native Americans. Under orders from President Jackson, the U.S. Army began strict enforcement of the Indian Removal Act. This defiant action set a precedent the government would use for decades to come when the forced removal of Native Americans from their ancestral land was deemed ‘necessary.’

In 1835, representatives of the Cherokee Nation negotiated a Treaty which traded all Cherokee land in Georgia east of the Mississippi for $5 million dollars and relocation assistance. While the treaty was a done deal, many Cherokee felt betrayed by their representatives and refused to leave.  The removal process continued nonetheless. In 1836, the government forced the Creek Nation from their land. Over 3,500 of 15,000 Creeks would not survive the long, harsh journey west.

By 1838, only 2,000 Cherokees had left.  The President was fed up with the delay and sent 7,000 troops to “expedite the removal process.”  The soldiers forced the remaining Cherokee refugees into stockades at bayonet point while white settlers looted their villages. About 20,000 Cherokees marched westward at gunpoint more than 1,200 miles. Diseases, dysentery, and starvation were rampant along the way.  More than 5,000 Cherokee, nearly a quarter, would die, with the remainder left to seek survival in a territory totally foreign to them.

By 1840 the deed was done.

Tens of thousands of Native Americans had been forced off of their lands. The government promised their new territory would remain untouched forever, but of course history tells us how that went.  As white settlers pushed westward across the Mississippi, “Indian Country” would shrink yet again.  According to legend, the white Cherokee rose, the state flower of Georgia, grew everywhere a tear fell on the sad Trail of Tears. The flowers continue to grow wildly along many of the trails the Native American tribes took on their long journey westward.

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The Mysterious Disappearance of Agatha Christie

agatha-christieOn a cold winter’s night in 1926, 36-year-old mystery novelist Agatha Christie vanished from her English estate in Berkshire without a trace! Around 9.30 p.m. on December 3rd, Christie kissed her 7 year-old daughter Rosalind goodnight and went back downstairs. Instead of retiring herself, she climbed into her Morris Cowley automobile and drove off into the dark countryside. She would not be seen again for 11 days.

Agatha Christie was already one of the most famous mystery writers in all the world. So her disappearance sparked one of the largest manhunts in English history. Her car was found empty on a steep slope at the edge of a quarry, not far from her home.  Its hood was up and lights still on. Inside was Christie’s fur coat and driver’s license. But there was no sign of Agatha herself, and no evidence of an accident.

Authorities suspected foul play, maybe even murder!

News of the famous novelist’s disappearance spread quickly, and a massive manhunt was organized.  A thousand police officers and 15,000 volunteers combed the English countryside. Dredge teams scoured the surrounding lakes, ponds and rivers. Biplanes searched from the air – the first ever in England’s history for a missing person.

Even fellow mystery writers contributed to the hunt. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries was an avid occultist. He gave one of Christie’s hand gloves to a London medium in hopes that the “Spirit World” might provide a clue. Alas, it did not.

By the end of the week, Christie’s disappearance was making headlines around the world. Newspapers had a field day, inventing lurid theories as to what might have happened. After all, it was the perfect story, with all the elements of one of her own mysteries. Suicide seemed unlikely for her career was as lucrative as ever. Doubters proclaimed the whole thing was nothing more than an elaborate publicity stunt, a clever ploy to sell more of her novels. Others hinted at a far more sinister plot …

Who could have abducted the Queen of Mystery?

Suspicions fell upon Christie’s older husband, Colonel Archie Christie, a former World War I pilot. It seemed the retired Colonel had struck up an affair with a much younger woman by the name of Nancy Neele. The philanderer made no attempt to hide his affair from his wife, or anyone else for that matter. On the day of Agatha’s disappearance, the Christie’s had quarreled after Archie announced he planned to spend the weekend with his mistress rather than his wife! Did that argument lead to murder?

Agatha Christie remained missing for 11 days. Then suddenly, on December 14th, she was finally found – not in a roadside ditch but safe and well, hiding away at the elegant Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, England.  She was eventually recognized by one of the hotel’s musicians, who alerted the local police. They quickly informed her husband. Colonel Christie came to collect Agatha, but she was in no hurry to leave. She kept her husband waiting at the bar while she changed into a travelling dress.

It seemed Agatha had registered under the name Theresa Neele from Cape Town, South Africa, using the last name of her husband’s mistress no less.  The circumstances raised more questions than answers. Christie herself was unable or unwilling to provide any clues. She claimed she remembered nothing of the night she disappeared. It was left to the police to piece together what might have happened. They concluded that Agatha Christie had abandoned her malfunctioning car and boarded a train to Harrogate. Upon arrival, she checked into the Swan under an assumed name with almost no luggage.

This particular plot twist shocked the public.

Some suggested darker motives – suicidal depression or a clever scheme to frame Archie and his mistress for murder. Others surmised an upset Christie merely sought to shame her cheating husband.  Agatha Christie never spoke publicly about those missing days. Her husband said she’d suffered total memory loss as a result of a car crash.  Psychiatrists suggested she been in  a ‘fugue’ state or trance, brought on by the trauma or depression of her husband’s affair.  She never discussed the matter in interviews and the incident does not appear in her own autobiography.

In the days after her return, the author blamed her vanishing on a mysterious state, in which she took on an entirely new identity: “For 24 hours I wandered in a dream, and then found myself in Harrogate as a well-contented and perfectly happy woman who believed she had just come in from South Africa.”

Christie made a full recovery and soon took to her typewriter once again. But she would no longer tolerate her husband’s philandering. Agatha divorced the Colonel in 1928 and later remarried.  Today the only person who truly knows what happened in those lost eleven days is long gone. Alas, Agatha Christie left us a mystery even Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple would find unsolvable.

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What Caused Siberia’s Mysterious Tunguska Blast?

tunguskaOn 30 June 1908, around 7 in the morning, a massive explosion ripped through the quiet air above a remote Siberian forest at the Tunguska River. A fireball erupted 100 meters wide, destroying 2,000 sq km of the taiga forest, flattening about 80 million trees as if they were twigs!  The earth trembled and windows shattered in villages over 60 km distant. Locals were blown off their feet, the intense heat felt like their clothes were on fire. The ear piercing sound that followed was described as a thousand guns firing.

The Tunguska area was sparsely populated so no eye witnesses were near ground zero. No reports of human casualties were ever recorded, though hundreds of charred reindeer carcasses were discovered by shocked locals.  Whatever the so called “Tunguska Event” was, it produced about 200 times more energy than the Hiroshima atomic bomb. Seismic rumbles were detected as far away as England.  The Tunguska region is a remote area with long harsh winters and short summers, when the ground thaws into a deep muddy swamp. So even after the event, nobody ventured to the site to investigate. There was some mention in local papers, but nothing in St Petersburg or Moscow.

Over a century later, researchers are still asking the question:

What in the hell happened at Tunguska?

Many are convinced it was an asteroid or comet. But very few traces of such a large object have ever been found, fueling many more crazier theories.   It was only in 1927, that a Russian team finally ventured to remote Siberia. When they arrived, the damage was still apparent, almost 20 years later. They found a 50 km area of flattened trees in a strange Butterfly shape. The leader proposed a meteor had exploded in the atmosphere above the forest. It puzzled them however, that there was no impact crater like in Arizona, or any meteor fragments. They theorized the swampy ground was too soft to preserve whatever had hit it.

Russian researchers later declared it was a comet not a meteor. As comets are largely made of ice, the absence of fragments or a crater would make more sense. But that was not the end of the debate. Bizarre alternative theories soon began to pop up like alien mushrooms. One suggested the cause was matter and antimatter somehow colliding. Another that a Russian nuclear explosion caused the blast. Still another felt it was somehow linked to Nikola Tesla’s Death Ray experiments a half a world away in the US. A 1973 a paper suggesting that a Black Hole collided into Earth! Locals thought it was a thunderous visitation of their god Ogdy.  And of course where would we be without a conspiracy theory of an alien spaceship crash like Roswell. We may never know if the Tunguska Event was meteor, comet or something more exotic.

A 1958 expedition discovered tiny remnants high in nickel, a known element in meteors.  In 2013, researchers analyzed rocks collected from a layer of peat dating back to 1908. They determined the  rocks did indeed have a meteoric origin.  So today the consensus is that the Tunguska Event was likely caused by an asteroid or comet, colliding with Earth’s atmosphere.  Our atmosphere is highly efficient at protecting our planet. It breaks apart the vast majority of meteors. The process is similar to a chemical explosion where the energy is transformed into heat,  In other words, any remnants were instantly turned into cosmic dust . This would explain the lack of large chunks or impact crater. To create a blast with the energy of Tunguska, the object would have needed to be 10 times the size of the Titanic!.

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Welcome to Hell – the Town that Burned from Beneath

centralia2If you drive north on Route 61 in northeastern Pennsylvania, you will come across an innocent looking detour at the top of a low mountain.  Thinking nothing of it, you follow the signs around something unseen, perhaps road construction up ahead or a bridge repair. Upon closer inspection however, it seems to be a permanent closure. You’re soon back on the highway and greeted by an eerie site, the ghost town that is Centralia, PA. It was the inspiration for the town in the movie Silent Hill.  Vacant, weed filled lots occupy a grid of empty streets. Here and there tufts of white smoke appear to be drifting from the earth itself.

What could have caused the abandonment and demolition of an entire town?

In began innocuously enough in 1962, when a careless trash fire was started in a landfill next to an open coal pit strip mine. The pit was doused with water for hours and thought to be out.  But it wasn’t. The fire snaked underground along old coal veins, venting hot smoke up through cracks in the earth. Eventually it crept underneath the quiet town itself, venting poisonous gases up through the basements of homes and businesses. With a slow horror, residents realized that the underground fire had reached their town. It could not be extinguished, or even burn itself out in the near future –not until all the coal under the mountain was consumed. As the fire worked its way under row after row of family homes and businesses, the threat of fires, asphyxiation, and carbon monoxide poisoning became a daily fact of life. For the next two decades, the town battled the fire, flushing the mines with rivers of water, excavated the burning veins, digging trenches, backfilling the holes, digging AGAIN and AGAIN in an vain attempt to find the boundaries of the fire.

By the 1980s, the fire had affected over 200 acres and homes had to be abandoned as carbon monoxide had reached life threatening levels.  A study concluded that the fire could burn for another century or more and spread over 3,700 acres of the mountain. The government eventually became involved and Centralia was declared municipalis non grata. The town was slowly abandoned, street by street, properties condemned, citizens relocated, and homes demolished. A few die hard residents remained, their hopes pinned on continued efforts to contain the blaze. The town hoped to dig a 500-foot deep trench completely across the hilltop on which Centralia sat, holding back the fire and saving half the town. To no one’s surprise, the expensive trench was never dug.

Ironically today, the Centralia Fire Department is the only modern building still remaining along with a half dozen houses and the Assumption BVM Church. 522 homes are gone in all. The hillsides are peppered with holes spewing noxious gases. Large cracks and pits make the streets through town undrivable. Though there are no visible flames, you can feel the heat radiating from the breaches in the earth. In winter, like Yellowstone National Park, snow never sticks because the ground is too warm in some places.  Over 54 years and 42 million dollars later, the fire still burns on several fronts underneath Centralia and the surrounding mountain. But the vacant streets and empty plots remain, along with a handful of aging citizens.  By 2000, the fire had moved into Saints Peter and Paul cemetery, with white smoke wafting up around the tombstones. In 2004, the PA Department of Environmental Protection explicitly discouraged visitors from stopping in Centralia. Signs warn:

UNDERGROUND MINE FIRE. Walking or driving could result in serious injury or death.   Dangerous gases are present. Ground is prone to sudden collapse. 

Gawkers like myself irresistibly come anyway, renaming it Helltown USA, drawn to the eerie streets, rent with fissures oozing white smoke.  In 2013, the seven remaining elderly residents reached an agreement with the state allowing them to remain in their beloved homes until they died.  I grew up in the same county as Centralia and as a young boy, witnessed the sad evacuation and slow demolition of this quaint little town. The residents certainly did not deserve this.  But in the end, nature would not be tamed by man..

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The Chernobyl Disaster and its Lingering Legacy

czarnobylThe greatest nuclear disaster the Earth has ever known, worse than Fukushima, began innocently enough in the early hours of Saturday 26 April 1986 in Ukraine’s Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.

Prior to a routine shutdown of Reactor #4, the crew disabled automatic shutdown mechanisms, leaving the reactor in an extremely unstable condition. Because of a design flaw, when the graphite control rods began to be inserted, a dramatic power surge occurred. The contact of the hot fuel with its cooling waters lead to a dramatic increase in steam. The intense pressure caused a massive explosion, blowing the roof off the containment building, releasing radioactive particles and gas into the atmosphere.

Three seconds later, a second explosion blew out fragments from the reactor core itself.

Two workers died instantly in the explosions. They were the lucky ones. Thirty one deaths are attributed to the two explosions and the attempts to put out the fire. The casualties included the firefighters who fought the fires on the roof of the turbine building.

Most of the radioactivity was deposited within a few kilometers as dust and debris. But the radioactive plume went on to drift over large parts of the Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and Eastern Europe. Only after drifting radiation set off alarms in Sweden, over 1000 km away, did the Soviet Union publicly admit that an accident had occurred. Only after evacuating the nearby city of Pripyat, was a warning message was read on Soviet state TV:

Pripyat was built in 1970, 4 km away, to house the employees of Chernobyl and had grown to a population of 50,000. The city however was not immediately evacuated after the explosion. The majority were unaware of the disaster and went about their usual business. Children played outside and gardeners worked on their plants. The black smoke rising from the Power Plant was explained away as a routine steam discharge. Residents gathered on rooftops to watch the burning reactor and exposed themselves to fatal doses of radiation.

Within hours of the explosion, scores of people began to fall ill, reporting headaches, nausea, coughing and vomiting. By Sunday morning 1200 buses began arriving in Pripyat in preparation for evacuation. The order was finally announced at Noon. Residents were asked to carry with them only what would be needed for 2-3 days away, some food and a change of clothing. Employee dosimeters were confiscated. By nightfall, the city was empty. No one would live in Pripyat ever again. It now lies within the Exclusion zone and remains abandoned to this day.

The Chernobyl disaster caused the largest uncontrolled radioactive release ever recorded.

Large quantities of radioactive materials were released into the air for the next 10 days. A massive concrete and metal shell was hastily constructed to encase the remains of Unit 4, both as a means to halt the release of radiation and to allow continuing operation of the other 3 functional reactors. About 200 tons of highly radioactive material remains buried within.

The “Chernobyl Nuclear Zone of Alienation” is the officially designated exclusion area around the site. Established by the Russian military, it covers the areas worst affected by contamination, an area of 30 km radius evacuated and placed under military control. By May, 116,000 people had been evacuated. The Exclusion Zone remains one of the most radioactively contaminated areas in the world and oddly draws an increased tourist crowd.

The effort to contain the contamination and repair the site eventually involved over 500,000 workers, known as ‘Liquidators’ and cost 18 billion Rubles. Unit 2 was shut down in 1991, and unit 1 in 1997. Energy shortages necessitated the continued operation of unit 3 until 2000. Almost 6000 people continued to work at the plant every day.

A Russian publication concluded that 985,000 premature cancer deaths occurred across Europe and Asia between 1986 and 2004 as a result of radioactive contamination from Chernobyl. Nearly 5 million people, including more than 1 million children, still live near dangerous levels of radioactive contamination in Belarus and Ukraine.

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Step Aside Ebola, the 1918 Pandemic Beats Them All!

spanish-fluBefore Zika, before Ebola, the 1918 Flu Pandemic killed more humans than all of World War I combined, over 40 million people worldwide! In just over a year, the so-called ‘Spanish Flu’ would infect a fifth of the world’s population. It remains to this day THE most devastating epidemic in recorded history. More people died in that deadly year than in 4 years of the Dark Ages’ dreaded Black Death (Bubonic Plague).

By the fall of 1918, WWI was finally winding down in Europe and peace negotiations had begun. America had joined the war, tipping the balance in favor of the Allies and against Germany, Austria & Hungary. Earlier in the year however, in small pockets across the globe, what was first thought to be very bad cases of the common cold began to erupt.

The exact origin of the 1918 Pandemic is unknown. The virus is believed to have mutated in China – a new, rare influenza variant with almost no human immunity. At the time, some thought it was biological warfare spread by the Germans in the trenches of France and Belgium. It was erroneously dubbed The Spanish Flu since some of the largest mortalities were seen in Spain.  The first US cases actually appeared at a Kansas army base in the spring of 1918. Few doctors paid attention to the flu in the middle of a raging world war.  By the winter of 1918 however, the epidemic could not be ignored.

Children in the streets would skip rope to a frightening new nursery rhyme:

“I had a little bird …  Its name was Enza …  I opened up the window … And in-flu-enza!”

Thanks to modern steamships, the epidemic methodically circled the globe along trade routes and shipping lines. Ironically, the outbreak swept the world rven quicker due to the mass movements of army troops aboard ships.

The Spanish Flu’s mortality rate was 20 times higher than previous recorded flus. Once people were struck with the disease they died rapid deaths, typically within 24 hours! Death came from a particularly viscous pneumonia until they literally suffocated, struggling to clear fluid filled lungs of a blood-tinged froth that gushed from their mouths.  Meanwhile, the relatively new science of infectious disease was helpless to treat it.

Oddly, the flu was most lethal for those between 20 and 40, an unusual pattern since the flu usually killed children and the elderly. Over one quarter all Americans became infected causing 675,000 deaths, ten times as many as died in World War I. Young soldiers, men in their prime, were becoming ill in frighteningly large numbers. Of the U.S. troops who died in WWI, over half were from the flu and not warfare.

Ironically, the end of the war enabled a resurgence in the disease. As the world celebrated Armistice Day, a second wave of the epidemic occurred as troops began returning home. East coast ports reported sick men in massive numbers, suffering with fevers as high as 105 degrees. Within days, the disease had spread westward by train.

With troops coming home having amputations and mustard gas burns, hospitals were already taxed. Confronted with an acute shortage of hospital beds, schools were transformed into emergency hospitals. An instant doctor shortage forced medical students to step up and act as interns, many of them getting sick as well.

That terrible winter, millions more became infected and hundreds of thousands died.

As the disease spread, schools and businesses closed. Telegraph and telephone service collapsed, garbage went uncollected, the mail piled up. Quarantines were imposed on schools, theaters, and even churches. Cities passed laws requiring people to wear cloths masks even though they offered little protection from the virus. Railroads would not accept passengers without a signed doctor’s certificate. Advertisements suggested drinking alcohol prevented infection, causing a run on booze. Funerals were limited to 15 minutes and a quick burial. Corpses piled up with a shortage of coffins and gravediggers.

No one was left untouched by the pandemic. With one-fifth of the world infected, it was impossible to escape. Spain’s King Leopold died of the flu early on.  Even US President Wilson caught it in 1919 while negotiating the Treaty of Versailles to end the World War 1.

By the spring of 1919, the pandemic blessedly ground to a slow halt, as those that were infected but survived developed immunity. The global death toll sits officially 40 million but is believed to be as high as 100 MILLION including the Third World.  With today’s jet airlines, such a disease could jump the globe in a matter of hours rather than months.  A sobering thought when contemplating our world’s next great pandemic.

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