The Secret Term of America’s First Woman President

Edith Wilson

On the morning of October 2, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson stood from his bed and suffered a massive stroke. He collapsed to the floor and First Lady Edith Wilson dragged him back to bed, where he lost consciousness. Mrs. Wilson frantically phoned the White House usher, “Please get Dr. Grayson immediately! The president is very ill!

An hour later, the doctor emerged from the bedroom in shock … the President of the United States was paralyzed.

For months to come, the entire affair, including Wilson’s extended illness and disability, was shrouded from the nation in secrecy. The President’s stroke left him severely paralyzed on his left side and partially blind in his right eye, not to mention the psychological trauma that accompanies such a life-altering event. The press was told the president was merely suffering from “a severe case of exhaustion.”

Highly protective of her husband’s authority and standing, the First Lady shielded Woodrow from guests and began a “bedside government” that excluded much of Wilson’s Cabinet and Congress. Anyone who wished to see the President of the United States now had to go through Edith Wilson. She made the decision as to what was brought to the President’s attention and when.  She secretly signed her husband’s name to all manner of correspondence and legislation.  How ironic that while the Women Suffrage movement marched at the White House fence, there was in fact a secret woman president inside.

How had this dilemma come about?

For the prior 6 months, President Wilson had been in Europe negotiating World War I’s Treaty of Versailles AND planning the new League of Nations (precursor to our United Nations). As the summer progressed, he realized a defeat in was brewing in the wary Senate. So an already exhausted president returned to the US and embarked on a 4 week, 8000 mile speaking tour by train to make his case for the League of Nations directly to the public.

Wilson had a dangerous habit of working incessantly, without exercise, entertainment, or relaxation. Combining his professorial skills in history, political science, and oration, he threw himself into defending the League of Nations. But with each whistle stop, the man became paler, thinner, and ever more frail. He lost his appetite and he began complaining of severe daily headaches.

On an evening in September 1919, after speaking in Colorado, Edith discovered Woodrow in their private coach with his facial muscles twitching, along with blurred vision, and crippling nausea. In modern medical terms, the President had suffered a transient ischemic attack (mini-stroke) due to a brief loss of blood flow to the brain.

The speaking tour was abruptly canceled and the couple quickly returned to the White House. Upon their arrival in DC, the president appeared ill, but was able to walk to their car. He tipped his top hat to the crowd, shook a few hands, and was whisked to the White House.  Barely a week later, the President suffered his far more massive stroke.

So who was this bold woman who stepped in and essentially ran the presidency?

Edith Bolling was born in the small hamlet of Wytheville, VA, daughter of a local judge of modest means. She desperately wanted out of her meager existence, sharing small quarters with a large family. She eventually married an older Washington DC silver & jewelry store owner named Norman Galt. They had one child, who died in infancy. Her husband passed shortly thereafter. Though the store was deeply in debt, she took over management and brought it back to solvency.

In 1915, during a tea at the White House, she was spotted by the recently widowed President Wilson. The president’s first wife Ellen had died of kidney disease the year earlier. The lonely President was, as they say, smitten by the 43-year-old black haired beauty, who was 15 years his junior! Edith was certainly no wallflower and was in fact quite progressive in many ways. As a widow, she had purchased an automobile and became the first woman to be issued a DC driver’s license.

Though he’s often portrayed as an aloof academic, Woodrow wrote long love letters to his first wife and was playful romantic with Edith. After a brief 8 month courtship, they were married in the White House. With World War I consuming Europe, any scandal over the quick marriage was ignored. Wilson was easily re-elected to a 2nd term.

By February 1920, news of the President’s stroke finally began to leak in the press.

Nevertheless, the full details of Wilson’s disability, and his wife’s management of presidential affairs, were never realized by the American public. How could the average American not know of this? You must remember at the time there was no internet, TV or even radio.  During a meeting the bedridden president held with two demanding Senators, Edith cleverly hid the extent of his paralysis by keeping his left side covered with a blanket.

In those days, constitutional guidelines didn’t yet exist for transferring presidential power during a severe illness.  Wilson had all his mental faculties, and stubbornly refused to resign. The unambitious VP Thomas Marshall wouldn’t assume the presidency unless Congress passed a resolution, and Dr. Grayson certified the president’s “inability to discharge the powers and duties of said office” as per the constitution.  Due in large part to Edith’s actions, neither of these happened.

Slowly, Wilson partially recovered and (with Edith) managed to complete his second term. He died three years later … with his last word being, of course – ‘Edith.’ Cognizant of her husband’s legacy, for the rest of her life Edith Wilson always insisted Woodrow had performed ALL of his presidential duties after his stroke. She stated in her memoir:

I studied every paper sent from the different Secretaries or Senators, digested and presented the items that, despite my stewardship, warranted the attention of the President. I, myself, never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs. The only decision that was mine was what was important and when to present matters to my husband.

Today, historians agree that First Lady Edith Wilson was much, much more than a mere “steward” of the President. She was in fact, essentially the nation’s First Female President until Wilson’s 2nd term ended in 1921. Edith Wilson is buried next to her husband in the crypt of Washington’s National Cathedral.

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How One Teenager Started a World War!

On 28 June 1914, Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his beloved wife, Sophie were visiting the picturesque city of Sarajevo. As Inspector General of the Army, he was attending military exercises in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina. Franz Ferdinand was also the nephew of the Emperor, and due to the suicide of the crown prince, was heir to the throne as well!  The Austro-Hungarian Empire had recently annexed the Balkan provinces, infuriating neighboring Serbia, which also coveted the two territories.

The Young Bosnians, a revolutionary student group of Serbian nationalists, learned of the Archduke’s visit, and secretly plotted his assassination.

Franz and Sophie boarded an elegant open-topped car for a pleasant motorcade ride to the town hall, waving to the populace as they drove by.  As the cars passed, one Serb assassin hurled a bomb at their vehicle, watched it bounce off the folded roof top, and roll underneath the wrong automobile! The explosion wounded two army officers and some unlucky bystanders, but not Franz Ferdinand and Sophie.

“I AM FINE!” the Archduke bellowed.  And rather than flee Sarajevo, they continued on to town hall. Only upon finishing his royal duties did they drive away, at a higher speed this time to dissuade other potential bombers. Unfortunately, their chauffeur was unfamiliar with Sarajevo and turned off the Appel Quay onto a side street by mistake.  At a corner where Serbian Gavrilo Princip was waiting.

As the cars attempted to back up, Princip whipped out his pistol, charged forward and fired two shots at point-blank range!

Bullets pierced the Archduke’s neck and Sophie’s abdomen as she lunged forward to protect her husband. “Sophie, Sophie, don’t die!” he managed to cry out. “Live for our children.”

Gavrilo (Gabriel) was a skinny 19-year-old peasant Serb, barely able to grow a mustache.  He and his co-conspirators had been radicalized by the infamous Black Hand society after the army rejected them.  Princip was attacked by an angry mob as he attempted to commit suicide. He shouted proudly to the crowd, “I am a hero of Serbia!” The motorcade rushed to a hospital but within the hour, both Franz Ferdinand and Sophie had expired. Sadly, it was their wedding anniversary as well.   They left behind three young children in Vienna.

Tensions were already running high between Europe’s great allied powers. There had not been a continental war for almost 60 years.  Austria-Hungary considered the Serbs thieves, pigs and dogs in no particular order. The Archduke’s assassination set off a rapid chain reaction of events, culminating in our planet’s first ever WORLD WAR:

  • Exactly a month later, on 28 July 1914 Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia
  • Russia, bound by treaty to Serbia, began to mobilize its vast army in Serbia’s defense
  • Germany, allied to Austria-Hungary, saw this as an act of war, and declared war on Russia August 1st
  • France, bound by treaty to Russia, mobilized its army as well, so Germany declared war on France on August 3rd.
  • Germany then invaded neutral Belgium the next day to reach Paris.  Britain, allied with Belgium & France, declared war against Germany on August 4th, and by extension Austria-Hungary
  • With the British Empire came it many colonies – Australia, Canada, India, and South Africa
  • Japan, bound by treaty with Britain, declared war on Germany August 23rd.  Austria-Hungary responded by declaring war on Japan August 24th.  It’s tragic how quick and easy it all was.
  • Italy managed to stay out of it for a year, but joined on the side of the Allies in 1915
  • US President Woodrow Wilson stated neutrality at first, but finally declared war against Germany and entered the war in 1917

 Overall, more than 9 MILLION soldiers on both sides would die in the bloody trenches and battlefields of “THE GREAT WAR TO END ALL WARS.”

A war that introduced such new implements of death like tanks, machine guns, bi-wing airplanes and poison mustard gas for the very first time. Only after millions already perished, and the introduction of American forces tipped the scales. Germany and Austria-Hungary were finally forced to surrender at the Paris armistice, signed in railroad car on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month – 11 November 1918.

But it wasn’t over for many as the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918 (see related blog post)would bring further death to the world as the surviving troops returned home with the deadly virus. Gavrilo Princip was  too young to be hanged, just 20 days shy of his 20th birthday.  He was instead given a 20-year sentence, but died in prison of tuberculosis at only 23.

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Operation Gunnerside: The Most Important WWII Mission You Never Heard Off

heavy water wars

Operation Gunnerside was arguably the most important covert mission of World War II. It’s goal was daunting – to prevent Adolf Hitler from creating the atomic bomb first. Gunnerside would do so by denying the Nazi’s enough heavy water (deuterium oxide) to build a nuclear weapon.

The Vemork hydroelectric plant, located in a remote valley in Norway, produced both electricity and fertilizer. A precious byproduct was heavy water. When the Nazis invaded Norway, they took control of the Vemork plant. Major Lief Tronstad, a former chemist at Vemork, now with SOE (Special Operations Execution) was assigned the task of denying the Nazi’s heavy water.

In late 1942, the Allies launched Operation Freshman to destroy the plant with a full assault. Norwegian and British commandos were to parachuted into Norway.

The mission was a complete disaster!

One airplane and two gliders crashed near the plant in bad weather. Those who survived were captured, interrogated and ultimately executed by the Gestapo, 41 in all. Plus now, the Nazi’s knew of the British interest in destroying Vemork.

The Allies still had to disable the plant, so they attempted a second mission. This time a small covert raid called Operation Gunnerside, the brainstorm of Major Tronstad. Lt Joachim Ronnenberg lead the new mission with 5 hand-picked Norwegian commandos, none over the age of 31. Training for the raid included memorizing a scale model of the Vemork plant meticulously built by Tronstad.

In February 1943, Operation Gunnerside got off to a bad start. A freak snowstorm forced the team to be air dropped 18 miles from the plant! It took the men a week to trek cross country on snow shoes and skies to meet up with 4 Norwegian commandos who had managed to survive Operation Freshman.

The original 4 had carried out extensive reconnaissance on Vermork.

Following the failed assault, the Germans had laid land mines along the steep mountainside above the plant. Plus they doubled the guards on a narrow suspension bridge, the main entry to the facility. The weak point in the defenses was the steep, 660-ft deep ravine the bridge spanned, which the Germans judged too treacherous and impassable. But 1 Norwegian had discovered a way to descend the ravine, cross the frozen river, ascend the other side and reach the plant unseen at night!

So just before midnight, the saboteurs crossed the icy ravine in darkness and below zero temperatures. During a changing of the guards, they managed to creep into the facility undetected. The 10 men split into two teams; five would destroy the equipment while the other five would act as lookouts. Lt Ronnenberg and another man began laying the charges. Their target was a battery of 18 electrolysis ‘cells’ which held the last stage of heavy water production.

They encountered a Norwegian foreman inside the electrolysis chamber, reading the instruments and filling out logbooks. The man seemed more concerned about having his reading glasses before they lit the charges. They ordered the man to run upstairs, lie down and keep his mouth open so as not to burst his eardrums. There were four main charges with short two-minute fuses. Ronnenberg did not trust the foreman and decided to cut the fuses to just 30 seconds!

He ordered his men from the room, lit the fuses and ran for his life.

The blast was deafening inside the chamber, but the guards outside barely noticed. As the lookout team held their machine guns ready, only one guard emerged with a flashlight, and after brief inspection, returned to his station! The guards assumed the sound came from the plant’s machinery which occasionally made loud noises.

Ronnenberg’s team met the lookout party just outside the gates. What astonished them all was that the Germans did not yet realize that their facility had been sabotaged. The guards’ attention was probably more focused on staying warm in the below zero winter night than on any loud noise. The foreman would soon report the explosion however.

They hurried back across the ravine’s river and began climbing a zigzag trail leading to the top of the mountain. That was when the plant’s sirens finally began to sound. It took them three long hours to climb 700 meters to the ridge summit. Only then could they could put on their skis and escape down the other side of the mountain.

Unlike its predecessor, Operation Gunnerside was a complete success.

Though the plant itself was only slightly damaged, more than 1,000 pounds of heavy water had been destroyed, along with the electrolysis equipment needed to create it. The Nazis responded with a heavily armed search party of 3,000 German soldiers that scoured the mountainside. They would be too late. All 10 commandoes escaped to the coast alive.

The raid halted production of heavy water for nearly a year, but the Allies knew the Nazis would soon be making it again. Another raid was out of the question due to heightened security, so a bombing raid was launched in November 1943 that severely damaged the facility. This was followed in 1944 by the SOE sinking the ferry SF Hydro near Telemark, carrying a shipment of heavy water to Germany.

The mission was arguable the most productive act of sabotage of the entire war. Every member of the team received war honors, with Ronnenberg receiving the Distinguished Service Order. Their exploits were even turned into 1965 movie The Heroes of Telemark starring Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris.

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Life Before the US EPA, Earth Day, and 1970

In 1969, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River was so polluted with industrial waste it literally CAUGHT FIRE! The Potomac, Chicago, Delaware and Hudson rivers all stunk to high heaven with millions of gallons of waste deposited every single day. Most cities dumped their sewage directly into rivers, with little or no treatment. Boston and Baltimore harbors were noxious dead zones.

Massive floating fish kills were a common sight.

Heavy choking smog was blocking the sun and sickening citizens in Los Angeles and New York City. Lake Erie’s oxygen content was so low it sustained precious little fish. Leaded paints and auto exhausts were at high enough levels they could cause birth defects. Industrial cities like St. Louis and Newark, with scores of belching smoke stacks, stank to the point of causing nausea and skin rashes.

I’m not painting some dystopian future landscape here. I was in grade school at the time and it was all real.  Whether in the air, water or earth, we could not escape the fact we were destroying the very country we lived in. By 1970, there were few pollution deniers about [including in Congress!], as the evidence was widespread and undeniable.

Ecology had become a legitimate science and a topic of daily dinner table discussions.

The burgeoning environmental movement reminded people that our air, water and land resources were finite. In the 1960s, our industrial states were more worried about losing industries than about preventing pollution. It was clear the US needed a federal environmental policy.

President Richard Nixon was at first reluctant to create a federal agency that set and enforced environmental laws. He had bigger fish to fry at the time, like the ongoing War in Vietnam. But by 1970, the Vietnam War no longer dominating headlines. Concerns about pollution became a new priority for the White House. With backlash from all directions, the message of outrage and concern was getting through to even Nixon.

The first Earth Day took place in April 1970 with support of both Republican and Democratic Senators.

In the end, Nixon created the EPA not because he himself shared those concerns, but the public and Congress obviously did. “It is literally now or never,” he said in his 1970 State of the Union address.  He signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which began a federal role in environmental protection by creating a new agency – the US EPA. It’s hard to imagine such overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress for environmental protection in our current world of climate change denial, but it happened in 1970.  After establishing the EPA, Nixon took little interest in its actual work, but he should have.

There are countless ways our world has changed for the better, thanks in part to the US EPA. Here are just a few:

The CLEAN AIR ACT of 1970 gave EPA the authority to regulate air pollutants like lead. Americans were dying every year from heart disease linked to lead poisoning and children were growing up with lower IQs. The levels of other air toxins like mercury, benzene, and arsenic have also been dramatically reduced.

The CLEAN WATER ACT of 1972 gave EPA the authority to set national regulations over municipal and industrial waste waters AND enforce them.

The  Pesticide Control ACT of 1972 gave EPA authority to regulate pesticides. Before it banned the use of DDT, the insecticide was the most popular agricultural pesticide in the US. People had little notion of its dangers when they let their children in play in the spray, or that is was causing the extinction of the bald eagle.

The Resource Conservation & Recovery Act of 1976 required landfills to be lined and water leaching through them collected. Up through the 1960s, hazardous waste was disposed of like ordinary trash— in unlined landfills where toxins leached into groundwater; or even worse, in open dumps on factory land, where runoff from rusting barrels contaminated city drinking waters.

The Acid Rain Program reduced emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide in the air, which were raising the acidity levels of our lakes and killing fish populations.

The Asbestos Program provides resources on how to manage asbestos fibers used in fire proofing, which when inhaled causes a brutal form of lung cancer called asbestosis.

The SUPERFUND ACT of 1980 was started to clean up our greatest mistakes and the legacy of hazardous waste sites like Love Canal, NY and Times Beach, MO recovering clean up costs from the original polluters. Whether they know it or not, 1 in 6 Americans lives near a cleaned up Superfund site.

One could think the EPA has done its job, pollution is under control, America is clean and safe again. Time to deregulate the states and industries. It will save corporations billions and create jobs, right? But as a student of history, one of the things I’ve learned is that human beings do not learn from their mistakes. Deregulation of corporations, with profit and not people as their bottom line, is a slippery slope America has already fallen down.

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Galileo Faced Science Deniers in the Catholic Church

In 1633, Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei was the Stephen Hawking of his day – both famous & respected. Nonetheless, he was ordered by the Pope to stand trial before the Italian Inquisition, the most feared and notorious court in all of Europe. His crime – Galileo’s Science, daring to state the sun, not the earth, was at the center of the universe – was pure heresy!

​The Inquisition had been rooting out what it considered sacrilege and witchcraft since the Dark Ages. Throw into this irrational mess Galileo’s evidence disproving long held Church teachings and you had the recipe for a life-threatening stand.

The Catholic Church had in essence become the first Science Deniers.

This was actually the 2nd time Galileo was called before the Inquisition. In 1616, he’d been forbidden from teaching his “heliocentric” beliefs and Galileo agreed at the time to stop.  It’s worth mentioning that the astronomer was actually a deeply religious man who supported the ideals of Christianity.

Amongst his many discoveries was not only did the planet Jupiter have 4 moons, but those heavenly bodies orbited around the planet! He discovered that Venus, like the Earth’s moon, had phases, meaning it too orbited the sun. He published his findings in The Starry Messenger and it became an instant best seller. Unfortunately, this also supported the church-banned heliocentric theories of the late astronomer Copernicus.

You see, Galileo was free to write about anything he wanted, even heliocentricism, as long as he wrote it as a personal hypothesis and did NOT try to pass it off as scientific fact. As a born scientist and stubborn intellectual however, Galileo simply could not abide by such laws.

He convinced his old friend Pope Urban VIII to let him write a book that showed both sides. His book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, had a fictional argument between two characters who held either view of where the earth and sun stood in the universe. Galileo however made the dim-witted geocentric character to be the clear loser of the debate.

A furious Pope Urban ordered Galileo to appear before the Inquisition in Rome on charges of heresy.

Galileo was no fool and knew the danger he was in; men had been tortured and burned at the stake for lesser crimes. The astronomer however still believed that TRUTH and LOGIC would win in the end, even with the single-minded, religious fanatics in the Inquisition. Alas, how wrong he was.

On the opening day of his trial, he stood before his accuser, the Grand Inquisitor Father Vincenzo Maculano da Firenzuola. Church officials interpreted his Dialogue as a clear violation of his 1616 Agreement.  Galileo disagreed vehemently, but his position hardly mattered.  Heliocentricism flew in the face of centuries of Catholic Church teaching. The court used numerous scripture passages from the Bible’s Old Testament to defend their geocentric views. The Grand inquisitor claimed that his revolutionary telescope was nothing more than a magician’s trick.

Found guilty of heresy, Galileo was condemned to imprisonment rather than death.

He was given an opportunity to recant however, and not spend the rest of his life in a cold, dark dungeon cell. At the time, Galileo was already 70 years old and in poor health.  At his daughter’s urging, he agreed to recant. Wearing the robes of a penitent, he told the Inquisition that he “cursed any heresies which he may have espoused in the past.”

Galileo hoped his old friend Pope Urban would help him, and in the end, he did. Galileo was placed under house arrest rather than prison. Having avoided burning at the stake, one could say he got off with a mere slap on the wrist. He was forced to retire to his estate in Florence, a defeated and dejected man. Although in his own house, he could neither write, teach nor travel without the Church’s permission.  There he remained till his death.

The Catholic Church finally lifted the ban on Galileo’s works over a century later in 1758. In 1992, Pope John Paul II admitted that Galileo Galilei was wrongly charged and regretted the astronomer’s treatment by the church. Perhaps as a posthumous consolation, NASA named a Jupiter probe in his honor and the sturdy satellite thoroughly explored his famous four moons in 1995.

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An Immigrant’s Ellis Island Fate Depended on 29 Questions

For a vast number of Americans, including myself, our great-grand parents arrived in the US as immigrants in the early 1900’s. For steamship passengers, newly arrived in NYC, 1st & 2nd class were left off in lower Manhattan with a precursory check. Immigrants in third class steerage however were ferried by barge, with their meager baggage to Ellis Island, in the shadow of Lady Liberty. There, with a ship’s manifest number pinned to their clothes, they queued up by the thousands.

Immigrants marched through a maze of tall metal railings in the Great Hall, with its high arched ceiling, for registry. First, each underwent a doctor’s physical exam (including their mental state). In particular, doctors looked for pregnancy, rashes, fever, birth defects, feeble mindedness, limps, labored breathing, excessive coughing, lice, and eye disease. Any suspected health issues sent them to the Ellis Island hospital where their ultimate fate would be determined.

If they passed the physical, the next step was waiting in long lines to be questioning by an immigration inspector, with translators standing by as necessary. Any issues might put them in front of a Board of Special Inquiry, who would ultimately decide if they could stay in the US.

During their crossing, they were required to complete the following 29 questions.

Their answers became part of the ship’s manifest and were scrutinized by the immigration inspectors in the Great Hall.

    1. Your manifest number
    2. What is your full name?
    3. How old are you?
    4. Are you male or female?
    5. Are you married, single, widowed or divorced?
    6. What is your occupation?
    7. Are you able to read and write? (yes or no)
    8. What country are you from?
    9. What is your race? (note: no question was asked about religion)
    10. What was your last permanent place of residence? (city and country)
    11. What is the name and address of a relative from your native country?
    12. What is your final destination in America? (city and state)
    13. Your number on the immigration list
    14. Do you have a ticket to your final destination? (yes or no)
    15. Who paid for your passage?
    16. How much money do you have? (at least the equivalent of $50 dollars was preferred)
    17. Have you been to America before? If so when, where and how long?
    18. Are you meeting a relative here in America?  If so, who and their address?
    19. Have you been in a prison, charity almshouse, or insane asylum?
    20. Are you a polygamist?  (Yes or No)
    21. Are you an anarchist? (a real anarchist would have to be a fool to say yes)
    22. Are you coming to America for a job?  What and where will you work?
    23. What is the condition of your health?
    24. Are you deformed or crippled?
    25. How tall are you?
    26. What is your skin color?
    27. What color are your eyes and hair? (much like on today’s driver’s license)
    28. Do you have any identifying marks? (scars, birthmarks, or tattoos)
    29. Where were you born? (city and country)


The key questions the inspectors focused on were purposely scattered throughout – 6, 16 and 22. Basically do you know a trade, do you have money, and where will you work in the US?

Due to the thousands being processed, the interview could take as little as two minutes! Only if all was in order would the nervous immigrant be released. The entire process could take up to 5 nerve-wracking hours. At any time, they might be denied entry and sent back across the ocean. Once cleared, could they retrieve their baggage and were ferried to train stations in New Jersey.

Imagine leaving your former life behind, with the hopes of a better world in free America, the land of opportunity. Perhaps you were fleeing war or tyranny or poverty. A single carpet bag carried all your worldly possessions. You surviving a wave-tossed Atlantic crossing in the belly of a steamship, in filthy, overcrowded 3rd class conditions. Now your fate was determined by a physical exam, two minutes, and 29 questions.

While approximately one in five were detained for the Board of Special Inquiry, only 2% of the 12 million immigrants processed at Ellis Island from 1892 to 1954 were ever sent back to their countries. The rest were welcomed into the melting pot that is the United States of America.

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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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