The Infamous Hope Diamond – Cursed or Coincidence?

Without a doubt, one of the most spectacular gems in the entire world is the so-called Hope Diamond, a haunting blue stone weighing 45.52 carats. About the size of a walnut, the Hope is estimated to be worth a quarter of a billion dollars.  Today, it sits on display in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC.  However, there are many who claim it also carries an ancient Hindu curse, leaving many of its owners tragically ruined or dead.  How did the infamous blue gemstone get from India to America? And is the curse real or imagined?

The history of the famous diamond begins in 1666 when the French merchant, Jean Baptiste Tavernier, obtains a 112 carat blue diamond from the Kollur mines in Golconda (now Guntur), India. At the time, the stone was still rough in shape and rather crudely cut.  In his catalog, Tavernier described its color as a “beautiful violet.”

The Hindus at the time believed that certain gemstones had powers that protected you from evil influences. The idea being that gems absorbed negative energy and kept them within the stone, like a Pandora’s Box.  Indian Nawabs wore the biggest gems of all to provide the most protection. But what if you removed it from its native home?

Tavernier made multiple trips to India and brought hundreds of diamonds back for sale to European nobility.  In 1668, he met with French King Louis XIV at the Versailles palace outside Paris. Louis XIV called himself The Sun King and during his reign, Versailles grew in size and grandeur to the reflect it.  Louis had the greatest collection of crown jewels in all of Europe. Tavernier sold the king the 112-carat blue diamond, along with about 200 others.  And what was the merchant’s fate, if you believe in the curse? 

Tavernier was supposedly later torn apart by a pack of wild dogs in Constantinople.

In 1673, the diamond was recut by the French court jeweler, resulting in a 67 carat stone. In the royal inventory, the Tavernier Blue became known as “le bleu de France.” It was set in gold and suspended on a silk neck ribbon, which the king wore at fetes and ceremonial occasions. The French Blue was valued at about 3.6 million (in today’s dollars). 

What was the supposed effect of the cursed diamond on the powerful and vane Sun King?  Well, Louis lived a long life, but all his legitimate children with the Queen died of illness before he did, including his grandson, leaving his great-grandson (Louis XV) as his successor.  Coincidence?  Perhaps.

The blue diamond eventually passed to his ill-fated heir, Louis XVI and his Queen Marie Antoinette.  Both supposedly wore the French Blue as a pendant on numerous occasions at various ceremonies and festivities at Versailles. During the bloody French Revolution, Louis and Marie attempted to flee Paris, but were arrested and imprisoned.  The jewels of the French Royal Treasury were seized by the rebels and turned over to the new Republic.

King Louis and Marie Antoinette ultimately faced the guillotine during the French Reign of Terror.  

During a looting of the crown jewels in 1792, the French Blue disappears!  When Napoleon later becomes Emperor of France, he swore to recover the crown jewels, including the blue diamond, but failed in his attempt.

As some possible curse-related collateral damage, Marie-Louise, Princess de Lamballe, was a Lady in Waiting to Marie Antoinette and is said to have once tried on the French Blue. She was killed by a mob during the French Revolution, her body stripped and disemboweled.  Her head was decapitated, impaled on a pike, and carried to Marie Antoinette’s prison window for display!

The French Blue diamond went missing for over 2 decades.  A slightly smaller 45-carat blue diamond turns up in London in 1812 in the possession Daniel Eliason, an English diamond merchant.  Eliason sells the blue gemstone to another king, British King George IV, who used it as a trophy for defeating his despised French enemy, Napoleon. George however, spent wildly and almost bankrupts the throne.  After his death in 1830, his executor sells the blue diamond to pay off his debts. The buyer was a diamond collector by the name of Henry Philip Hope.

Hope reset the diamond in a medallion with a hanging pearl. Following the death of Henry Hope in 1839, the stone passes to his nephew’s grandson, Lord Francis Hope. The Hope family was one of England’s wealthiest. They had land, castles, paintings, and other property. But in the course of just two generations, they lost that great wealth.  Lord Francis gambled poorly on horses, his businesses, and an American actress wife, May Yohé. In 1901, Francis Hope had lost both his fortune and his wife AND had to sell the French Blue to help pay off his mounting debts.  

The buyer this time was Joseph Frankels & Sons of New York City.  The 1907 Recession however took its toll on the company.  Frankel’s had the blue diamond, but was cash poor and going bankrupt as well.  Frankel sells the diamond to Selim Habib, a wealthy Turkish diamond collector, on behalf of the Ottoman Sultan. However in 1909, the stone was auctioned off to settle Habib’s own mounting debts.   Is there a pattern of ruin here, or just coincidence?

The first stories of the “Blue Diamond Curse” came in the New York Times. 

Other newspapers then made the curse increasingly elaborate.  They wrote of the sinister power of the blue stone, and the evil that it unleashed upon its pitiful owners. They blamed the blue diamond for the executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Hope’s bankruptcy and divorce, and Frankel’s collapse.  The Dutch jeweler who last recut the diamond supposedly ended up murdered by his son, who then killed himself.  A Turkish merchant who once help sell the diamond drove his car over a cliff and killed himself, his wife, and his child.

The blue diamond, now ironically known as the Hope Diamond, was then purchased in 1910 by Pierre Cartier, grandson of Louis-Francois Cartier, founder of the famous French jewelry brand.  He took a huge chance and invested in the Hope.  If he couldn’t sell it quickly though, the House of Cartier would too be left in debt. And yet Pierre felt the risk was worth taking.

Cartier exploited the curse’s story to entice wealthy buyers.  He’d read the novel  Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins.  In it, a large, yellow diamond was the eye of a Hindu idol in an Indian temple. It was looted by a Muslim conqueror, who years later had his own treasury looted by British colonial solders, taking the diamond back to England. There, tragedy, murder, and insanity followed those who possessed the cursed gem.  Cartier used that novel’s plot as a backstory for the Hope Diamond.

Though the Hope was a magnificent stone, it proved difficult to locate a buyer who could afford it AND be brave enough to disregard the curse.  He knew of an American heiress who would relish the idea of parading the unique French Blue Hope in front of society.

Evalyn Walsh McLean couldn’t own enough jewels.

Her money came from her father, who owned one of the largest gold mines in the US. She had married 19-year-old Ned McLean, whose equally wealthy family owned the Washington Post newspaper.

“I cannot help it if I have a passion for jewels,” Evalyn once admitted. “They make me feel comfortable, and even happy.”       

The McLeans were among the richest families in America.  They owned mines, banks, real estate, and the Washington Post. McLean, VA is named after the family. In addition to Washington DC, they had estates in Newport, Rhode Island, and Palm Beach, Florida. They exemplified the extravagant wealth of The Gilded Age, flaunting their gigantic fortunes.

Pierre Cartier met with Evalyn and Ned at their hotel in Paris. He placed a mysterious-looking package before them and proceeded to retrace the Hope’s infamous history. Cartier wove together different historical accounts, as well as stories from the newspapers and Moonstone. He attributed bankruptcy, deaths, even revolutions to the stone’s curse.  By the time he unveiled the diamond, he had the couple on the edge of their seats.

Pierre had changed the setting of the stone for Evalyn to a frame of large white diamonds that enhanced the blue Hope in the center. He proposed that she keep the necklace for the weekend, knowing full well it would be impossible for her to return it. Evalyn took the bait and eventually the stone. 

The McLeans bought the Hope in 1911 for $180,000 (about $5 million today).

After prolonged legal fees, the sale of the Hope Diamond wasn’t profitable for Pierre Cartier.  And yet, there was no question the publicity around this single huge sale made House of Cartier a household name in US. Add to that the curse, and the newspaper gossip columns were all abuzz. As the saying goes, there is no such thing as bad publicity.  

Evalyn McLean, who loved the stone’s notoriety, never missed an opportunity to flaunt the Hope at lavish parties around Washington DC. She even had her great dane, Mike, wear the diamond around his large neck.  She had it made it into the pendant of a full diamond necklace, the one we know today. In the pendant, surrounding the Hope Diamond are Cartier’s 16 white diamonds. The necklace chain contains an additional 45 white diamonds.

Evalyn wasn’t convinced of the curse, but a previous wearer of the diamond, May Yohe (the ex-wife of Lord Hope), publicly warned her. She blamed the Hope bankruptcy and her failed marriage on the cursed diamond.  Evalyn couldn’t help but be a little put off. She had the diamond blessed by a Monsignor in a Roman Catholic Church. The diamond sat on a velvet cushion, when lightning suddenly flashed outside and thunder shook the church! 

“Ever since that day,” she declared, “I have worn my diamond as a charm.”

Evalyn owned the diamond till her death, and though she never fully believed the curse, she did suffer a fair amount of bad luck. Her husband, Ned, ran off with another woman, eventually went insane, and later died in a mental institution. Their family paper, The Washington Post, went bankrupt.  Her 10 year old son was killed in a car accident.  Her daughter Evie later died of a drug overdose of sleeping pills.  Her two other children had a string of failed marriages.  Her and Ned had an ugly divorce of their own.

When her son, Vinson, was killed by a car in Washington, DC, newspapers headlines proclaimed: THE CURSE HAS STRUCK AGAIN, and wondered WHO IS NEXT?  The story resonated with other curse stories of the day, like the Curse of King Tut’s Tomb. Some felt that the family, who had flaunted their wealth, were now getting the punishment they deserved.  Evalyn actually pawned the Hope Diamond during the Great Depression, only to later buy it back. 

President Warren Harding and his wife were close friends of the McLeans, so of course his heart attack & death in office was attributed by the press to the curse. In her autobiography, she remained ambivalent towards her Hope Diamond, sometimes dismissing the curse and other times wondering if it was payback for the way in which she spend her life. Evalyn herself died in 1947 of pneumonia at the age of 60.  Her estate then sold the Hope Diamond to Harry Winston, Inc.

Winstons of New York City in fact purchased Mrs. McLean’s entire jewelry collection, including the Hope, in 1949.  For the next 10 years, Winston had the Hope Diamond shown at dozens of exhibits and charitable events worldwide.

On 1958, Harry Winston agreed to donate the Hope Diamond to the Smithsonian Institution

It would be the centerpiece of the National Gem Collection of the National Museum of Natural History.  He actually had it sent through the U.S. Mail in a simple cardboard box, wrapped in plain brown paper!  He sent it as simple registered mail, insured for $1 million at a cost of $145.29, of which $2.44 was for the postage. 

Almost immediately the famous Hope Diamond became the premier attraction.  Of course, if the Smithsonian was the national museum, was then the entire US government cursed?  This was the Cold War and the public was already high on anxiety. Many wrote letters to President Eisenhower to turn down the cursed diamond.  Even the postman who delivered that package, James Todd, suffered a series of bad luck. His wife died, his leg was crushed, and his house burned down.   

So what became of the curse?  Well for the Smithsonian, the Hope Diamond has been a source of surprising good luck.  The blue diamond is on display in the Harry Winston Gallery and viewed by millions annually.  Even the brown paper box is in the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, illustrating the trust the famous jeweler placed in the U.S. Postal Service.

So did curse solely come from the imagination of newspaper reporters and Pierre Cartier? 

Some of its many owners committed suicide, were murdered, or left penniless. Their families suffered failed marriages, dead children, addiction, and insanity. Still, was the Hope Curse more or less concocted to sell newspapers and the stone itself?  Some, like Louis XVI’s and Marie Antoinette’s beheading by guillotine, were undoubtedly real.

Others argue the seemingly disastrous lives of the French Blue’s owners can be created by simply leafing through their history and picking anything bad that happened to them. Since nearly every family has something tragic happen at least once in their lifetime, it’s not difficult to collect a list of such bad events and blame it all on the Hope Diamond.

If there is perhaps one true curse of the blue gemstone, it is the cardinal sin of greed. It was said that only a person with a “pure heart” could escape the Hope’s terrible curse.  Could this mean someone who did not to profit from it, but rather gave it away philanthropically?  If that is the case, the curse ended, not with its blessing by a priest, but rather when Harry Winston donated it to the Smithsonian. 

If you are ever in the U.S. capital, spend some time with the infamous blue diamond, if you dare.

Mata Hari – Exotic Dancer, Mistress, and French Spy

The name Mata Hari is almost synonymous with femme fatale, or any wicked temptress who uses her sexual charms to seduce the hero of the day. In reality, Mata Hari was a professional exotic dancer and mistress, who ultimately became a spy for France during World War I.   Suspected of being a double agent, she was executed by firing squad in 1917.  While that might sound like the stuff of Hollywood movies, it was all true.  But how did she get from exotic dancer to wartime spy?

Mata Hari was actually born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, in 1876.  Her father was a haberdasher, or hat maker, who went bankrupt, and her mother died when Margaretha was 15. She and her three brothers were split up and sent to live with various relatives. At 18, desperate for a better life, she answered a newspaper ad for a wife.  Knowing she was attractive, she sent a striking photo of herself. It worked.  She married the much older (by 21 years) Dutch army Captain Rudolf MacLeod. His military career took the newlyweds to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). 

There they had two children, but their unhappy marriage was plagued by frequent infidelity on her part and violent alcoholism on his. Following the death of their son, they moved back to Europe and divorced after 9 rocky years. She lost custody of her daughter and the 27-year-old Margaretha suddenly found herself impoverished. In 1903, she moved to Paris and looked to completely start her life over. “I wanted to live like a colorful butterfly in the sun,” she once said.

It was in the City of Lights that Margaretha Zelle reinvented herself as ‘an artist.’

She knew that, though Dutch, she possessed features granting her an exotic allure towards males.  She became the mistress of a French diplomat who helped support her for a time. Drawing on her experiences in Indonesia, Margaretha created a dance routine and began performing under the name “Lady Gresha.” As part of each dance, she would cast off a series of colorful veils and silk robes until she was almost nude, a daring act for the time!

I could never dance well,” she admitted. “People came to see me because I dared to strip naked.”

To add an aura of mystique, Margaretha changed her stage name to “Mata Hari,” or “Eye of the Dawn” in Malay, and claimed be actually from India. Paris in 1905 tuned out to be the perfect time for her exotic looks and “temple dance” as the Far East was all the rage.  She claimed that her provocative, undulating movements were part of an ancient Hindu temple rite.  Her shows quickly became a sensation.  Declared a “Star of Dance” by the press, Mata Hari spent the next several years traveling the European capitals, performing before sold out crowds.

Along the way, she helped turn the striptease into an art form and captivated even her staunched critics. A reporter in Vienna described Mata Hari with “the flexible grace of a wild animal.” Another enamored reviewer called her “so feline, feminine, and majestic. The hundred curves and movements of her body trembling in a hundred rhythms.” Ooh-la-la!

She also began affairs with a long list of wealthy aristocrats & military officers, many of whom showered her gifts.

Tonight, I dine with Count A and tomorrow with Duke B,” she once quipped. After nine years on the road, however, Mata Hari’s looks and prestige began to fade.  Younger copycat dancers took the stage and her bookings became fewer.

By 1914, her liaisons had become her primary source of income. Mata Hari was now 38, and her dancing career was stagnant. She was still charming, alluring and fluent in French, Dutch, English and German.  She still was able to seduce the wealthy and powerful men of multiple nations.

At the outbreak of World War I, she had the freedom of move about as a neutral Dutch citizen, and took full advantage of it. In wartime however, Mata Hari’s cavalier travels and liaisons began to attract the attention of British and French intelligence. She rather foolishly knew no borders with her lovers, who included several German officers.  Her suspicious behavior began to elicit suspicions of espionage.

Mata Hari’s true spy career began in 1915.

She was approached by Karl Kroemer, the German consul in Amsterdam. He offered her 20,000 francs to become a spy for Kaiser Wilhelm. The cash-strapped dancer accepted the money, seeing it as payback for when her German accounts were seized in Berlin at the start of the war. She was assigned the German codename: “H21.”

She sank deeper into wartime intrigue in 1916. French intelligence agent Georges Ladoux approached her in Paris with yet another offer—this time to spy for France. Mata Hari had fallen in love with an injured 21-year-old Russian captain, Vladimir de Masloff. Anxious to make enough money to start a new life with him, she accepted Ladoux’s deal.  She agreed to seduce military secrets out of high-ranking Germans.

She had an affair with German attache Major Arnold Kalle and made an attempt to gain information from him. By the time she returned to Paris, a French wireless station had intercepted a coded message from Major Kalle to Berlin. The communiqués referred to agent “H21.  Kalle suspected Mata Hari was a French spy.  In order to expose her, he purposely he sent the telegram in an old code that the Germans knew the Allies had already cracked!

This was all the evidence the already suspicious Georges Ladoux needed to have her placed under arrest as a double agent. French authorities arrested the unsuspecting Mata Hari in a Paris hotel in 1917. “This is impossible! This is impossible!” she protested. They threw her in a cell at Paris’ infamous Prison Saint-Lazare.  The neutral Dutch government did little to intervene on her behalf.

The once famous temple dancer spent the next several months in a rat & lice infested cell.

During the lengthy interrogation, Mata Hari, who’d long lived a career based on her own lies, could not convincingly defend her activities. She swore to investigators that she never actually fulfilled the bargain with the Germans, always remained faithful to France.

A courtesan, I admit it. A spy, never!” she defiantly told her interrogators.

While she freely acknowledging to her promiscuous lifestyle, she was adamant that she’d never spied for any country other than France.  While she admitted accepting money from the Germans, she denied passing them any secrets. Mata Hari’s low morals conspired against her though. The interrogators concluded, “Without scruples, accustomed to make use of men, she is the type of woman who is born to be a spy.”

At Mata Hari’s espionage trial, no evidence was produced that she provided useful information to any party.

Despite this, the prosecution pointed to her numerous German affairs as proof that she had been gathering intelligence for the enemy. “The evil that this immoral, shameless woman has done is incredible. This is perhaps the greatest woman spy of the century.” It took the military tribunal less than an hour to find her guilty and sentenced her to death.  Some think France was simply looking for a scapegoat to blame after years of defeats on the battlefield. 

At dawn on November 17, 1917, Mata Hari now 41, was driven to a field on the outskirts of Paris with two nuns. She refused a blindfold and was executed by a firing squad of 12 French soldiers. Ever the performer, she smiled and blew a kiss to the men moments before the shots rang out. Her remains were donated to the University of Paris Medical School for dissection. The true extent of her espionage, whether for France or Germany ,may never be known.

Mata Hari’s glamorous life and alleged time as a double agent, became the stuff of legend. Her amazing life and career has produced numerous biographies, movies, even a musical and ballet.  The most famous film being the 1931 Mata Hari, starring Greta Garbo. Her legacy became that of the quintessential female spy.  To this day, her very name evokes mystery, deception and seduction.

Simón Bolívar, Hero & ‘Libertador’ of South America

Simón Bolívar is the most famous political and military hero in Latin American history.  He led revolutions against the Spanish Empire in no less than 6 South American countries. His short life and personal story is without doubt the stuff of legend. Yet today, outside of Latin America, where he’s still revered as El Libertador, his name is nearly forgotten. He was the George Washington (and more) of Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, AND Bolivia. 

In each country, he was able to gain the people’s support for revolution and liberation from Spain.  He succeeded in leading small armies of mixed units in defeating the larger, highly-trained Spanish forces.  He wrote a constitution which developed the ideals of democracy and national identity amongst the Spanish colonies.  

His amazing life is impossible to compress into a 10 minute read, so here are the key highlights of this heroic man.

Simón Bolívar was born Simón José Antonio de la Santísma Trinidad Bolívar y Palacios in Caracas in1783. He belonged to a wealthy, aristocratic family, owning gold and copper mines in Venezuela.  His father died when he was only 3 and his mother when he was just 9. Young Simón was raised by an uncle, nurse and tutor. They sent him to a colonial academy, where he began to develop his keen affinity for military strategy. 

At 16, his uncle sent Simón to Spain to complete his education. While in Madrid, he fell in love with the daughter of a Spanish nobleman, María Teresa Rodríguez.  They fell in love, courted for 2 years and married in 1802. He eagerly took his beautiful new bride back to his home in Venezuela to begin a life together. Sadly, María quickly contracted yellow fever in Caracas, sickened, and died.

The 20-year-old Bolívar was emotionally crushed and vowed never to marry again.  He returned to Europe and immersed himself in his studies. He visited Paris and became enamored with the bold French and American Revolutions.  They planted in his mind the need for similar independence for Spanish Latin American.  Simón met his old tutor in Madrid.  He grasped his teacher’s hands, dropped to his knees, and vowed to not rest until he had freed his country as well.

At that time, the Viceroyalty of New Granada included Columbia, Panama, Venezuela and Ecuador.  Bolívar returned to Venezuela in 1807 and found that the colonists were indeed ready for independence. Bolívar became heavily involved in the rebellion.  He boldly spoke out passionately in public.

Let us lay the cornerstone of American freedom without fear. To hesitate is to perish!“ 

The Venezuela National Assembly declared independence from Spain in 1811.  The new Republica de Venezuela became the 1st colony of the Spanish empire to begin a war for independence.  Simón was thrilled and quickly joined the Venezuelan army.  Though he had little formal military training, he was made a Lieutenant Colonel.  He soon began to distinguish himself in early battles against the Spanish forces. It would be a long road to independence however.

By 1812, Spanish forces regained control of Venezuela.  Bolívar and the revolutionary army fled to rebel-friendly New Granada (Columbia). There he wrote his famous, “El Manifesto de Cartagena” in which he urged Venezuelans not to give up and instead retake their independence.

Not the Spanish, but our own disunity led us back into slavery. A strong government could have changed everything.”

In 1813, he was given his first military command. He lead the revolutionary army back into Venezuela to begin the “Campaña Admirable” and liberate the country again.  After numerous hard-fought battles against the Spaniards, he was able to reenter Caracas an establish the Second Venezuelan Republic. Bolívar at only 30 was hailed as El Libertador and awarded presidential powers. 

However, this second republic was also to be short-lived. 

The people were war-weary and turned against independence.  Many still preferred Spanish colonial rule.  A Civil War soon erupted, with Spain backing the loyalists. By 1815, half of Venezuela still belonged to Spain.  Spanish led forces succeeded in driving Bolívar and his rebel army out of Venezuela a second time! He fled once again to Cartagena in New Granada.

A large Spanish army followed him, and Bolívar was forced to sail for Jamaica with only his officers. Never one to be discouraged, he simply planned for his return. The indefatigable Bolívar wrote his most famous essay, la Carta de Jamaica, directly to the Venezuelan people.  He detailed his vision of a great federation of South American republics.

“I have been chosen by fate to break your chains.  Misfortune is the ‘school of heroes.’  A people that love freedom will in the end be free!

A man of great energy and charisma, Bolívar set out to persuade the entire world to back his vision for an independent South America. He sought international support, but sadly both Great Britain and the U.S. declined.  They were unwilling to anger the Spanish Empire and send aid of any kind.

Nevertheless, in 1816, his first expedition sailed with only 250 men and 7 ships, a force far too tiny to engage the 10,000-strong royal army. The Spanish were sure the foolish young rebel was finished this time.   Bolívar began circulating proclamations, making up stories about supposed victories not yet achieved across the colony, building an image the invincible liberators in the people’s eyes.

“You are human beings, they are beasts. Fight, and you shall win! For God grants victory to perseverance.”

Bolívar then conceived one of the most daring military campaigns in history.  

It involved attacking not Caracas, but rather the capital of all New Grenada, Bogota.  He’d been attacking on the eastern plains. On the western plains, Generals Francisco de Santander and Jose Paez were conducting similar guerrilla campaigns. During the rainy season, the plains turned to swamp and the Spanish troops withdrew.

Bolívar also knew the Spanish considered the Andes Mountains impassable during winter and lightly guarded that frontier. He called a War Council of his generals, all of them under 40, in a small hut without furniture, to discuss his daring plan to take Bogota.

In 1818, Bolívar’s 2,500 ragtag soldiers marched 350 miles through torrential rains, flooded plains, and swollen rivers.  Half their cattle drowned. Nevertheless, Bolívar continually encouraged his tired men to push forward.  In June, they began their ascent of the Andes. The army was woefully unprepared. By the time they were at 18,000 feet, their horses and cattle had died. The thinly uniformed men had little wood for fire. Nearly 1,000 men died of exposure on the perilous trek.

Those who made it were half-starved, but found a Columbian population eager to help.  After Bolívar’s men had a few skirmishes with Spanish outposts, word reach the New Granada commander Pablo Morillo.  He prepared to meet the rebels in battle. At Boyaca near Bogata in August 1819, in a two-hour clash, Bolívar’s republic forces captured half of the 3,000 Spanish troops, the rest were either killed or fled. 

It was the turning point for independence in South America.

The Spanish began to evacuate New Granada and the colonial empire started to collapse. Desertions from the royal army increased and citizens began supporting Bolívar.  The legislature declared a new country of united provinces, the Republic of Gran Colombia consisting of New Granada (Colombia), Venezuela and Ecuador. Bolívar was made president and military dictator. 

Now Bolívar also showed excellent political skills in negotiating the challenges of setting up a new republic, including writing a constitution. Bolívar and Morillo, the Spanish commander met in 1820 and signed a treaty. Bolívar did not rest on his laurels however.  In 1821, he cleared the remaining Spanish forces from his beloved Venezuela. 

Still, other Spanish forces remained entrenched far to the south.

With the help of his best commander, Antonio Jose de Sucre, he split the army, pushed south and attacked Quito from two sides, liberating Ecuador in 1822.   It was in Quito that the Liberator met the second great love of his life, Manuela Sáenz. She was the illegitimate daughter of a Spanish nobleman and a zealous revolutionary.  They never married, but she was his constant companion for the rest of his life.

This now left the remaining Spanish Viceroy of Peru to the south.  The Argentine revolutionary General Jose de San Martin had successfully liberated parts of lower South America (first Argentina, then Chile).  Between his army and Bolívar’s troops lay Peru, with 20,000 Spanish troops, the last in South America. San Martin’s troops marched over the Andes and took Lima on the coast in 1821. However, they’d not been able to push further inland and struggled to maintain independence.  He sought out the help of Simón Bolívar.

In July 1822, San Martin and Bolívar met in Guayaquil Ecuador. 

They met alone and there are sadly no records of their conference.  They had two vastly different visions for governing the continent. It’s believed San Martin was disheartened by Bolívar’s insistence that only his view would prevail.  He must have felt that only Bolívar’s military and political strength would free Peru. Gran Colombia was proof of that.  San Martin decided to resign on the spot, turned over his army and returned to Argentina. The fate of Peru was now in Bolívar’s hands!

In 1824, Bolívar led his combined armies up into the Andean plateaus.  At the top, Bolívar reviewed his troops and told them:

Soldiers, you are about to finish the greatest undertaking Heaven has confided to men–that of saving an entire world from slavery!”

A cat and mouse game ensued through the mountains crossed by steep ravines and deep rivers.  The Spanish army, which had numbered 18,000, was eventually out maneuvered and surrendered to General Sucre. 

Sucre’s report to Bolívar proudly announced, “The war is ended. The liberation of Peru complete.”

The people of upper Peru deciding to form a separate nation in 1825.  They named it Bolivia in Bolívar’s honor. He eventually wrote its constitution and accepted the position of lifetime president.

Bolívar received a letter from the then-aged Marquis de Lafayette on behalf of the family of President George Washington.  Along with a gold medallion coined after the British surrender at Yorktown, Virginia. It read: “To the second Washington of the New World.” Bolívar was deeply touched and cherished it the rest of his life.

He began vigorously rebuilding and administering the war-devastated new republic. He convened a congress of the republics in Panama in 1826. Bolívar felt that a union of states would be mutually beneficial.  He envisioned a combined league of the young nations.

“Its principles should be the sovereignty of the people, division of powers, civil liberty, prohibition of slavery and the abolition of monarchy.”

But alas, it was not to be.  Bolívar had succeeded in freeing colonies into federations, but their governments were inexperienced and fragile. Despite his desire to create a union of republics, similar to the United States, he faced opposition from factions that pushed for independent nations.

Bolívar was now torn between his republican values and the need to maintain order. He loved democracy, but feared that only a strong leader could hold it togethers.  Bickering between factions, political conflicts, and resentment of his rule caused his influence to wane. Bolívar was forced to take dictatorial powers in 1828 just to hold Gran Colombia together.

Then in September 1828, he narrowly escaped an assassination attempt. 

Twenty six conspirators attacked the San Carlos Palace in Bogota at midnight.  Bolívar’s life was saved by his mistress, Manuela Sáenz, who awakened him. He escaped by jumping out a window.  The conspirators were captured and executed.  It must have been a disheartening moment for Bolívar. He realized that he had become a dangerously polarizing figure in the same countries he freed.

In 1830, Bolívar resigned his presidency – turning down offers to become president for life.  He  preferred now to simply return to being an ordinary citizen. He planned to sail to Europe again and self-exile.  But before he could set sail, he became gravely ill from tuberculosis.  The treatment of the period was arsenic.

“Colombians! My last wish is for the happiness of the patria. If my death contributes to the consolidation of the union, I shall be lowered in peace into my grave.”

In December 1830, Simón Bolívar died at only 47 in Santa Marta, Colombia, losing his battle with tuberculosis.  He is buried in his beloved Caracas, Venezuela. Bolívar was a visionary and charismatic leader. When the cause seemed lost, he always showed determination and courage. He had no desire for personal wealth. He began life wealthy, but ended it modestly. His legacy remains behind in the six countries he freed from Spanish colonial rule. To Latin Americans, Bolívar remains El Libertador, one of the greatest independence leaders in the history of the world.

Podcast: The Mysterious Madame Blavatsky, Psychic or Charlatan?

Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (or HPB to her followers) was a controversial 19th century medium, psychic, author and co-founder of the Theosophical Society.  She claimed to be in contact with the ‘The Masters’, astral beings of great psychic powers who bestowed upon her the ancient secret science of Theosophy.  The society grew from a modest start in 1875 to become a multi-national organization with thousands of members and branches that still exist to this day. But who was she really?

Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (HPB)

The Munich Massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympic Games

During the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, West Germany, eight terrorists disguised in tracksuits, carrying gym bags filled with assault rifles and hand grenades, breached the Olympic Village security.  Just before dawn on September 5th, Black September terrorists of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), managed to enter the building where Israeli athletes were sleeping. Once inside, they murdered one athlete and one coach, taking 9 others hostage.  

Thanks to coverage of the Olympics, audiences around the world watched in horror as the nightmare unfolded on live television. More than 900 million watched the terrorist attack unfold on their home TVs.  Terrorists armed with assault weapons wearing black ski masks patrolled the apartment balcony. It was the first time a terrorist act took place during an Olympic games.

Black September demanded the release of 234 Arab prisoners held in Israeli jails, and negotiations took an agonizing 23 hours. When authorities finally attempted a botched rescue attempt, all nine hostages were killed by the terrorists, along with five Black September members and one West German police officer.  How could such a thing have happened during an Olympics, the symbol of world peace through athletics?

The 1972 Munich Olympic Games were supposed to be joyous.

West Germany was set to celebrate an international sporting festival of peace. Over a quarter century after World War II had been unleashed by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, West Germany wanted to present itself as a modern, democratic state. Reminders of the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics, with its heavy Nazi propaganda, were a distant memory.

Less than 30 years after the Holocaust, when approximately 6 million Jews were murdered in Nazi Death Camps, Israel was going to the Munich Olympics with its biggest team ever.  The significance was not lost on anyone. Several of the older team officials were Eastern Europeans, still bearing the arm tattoos from Nazi concentration camps.

The West German government wanted to downplay any military presence. Hailing the event as “The Games of Peace and Joy,” they avoided uniformed soldiers and police for unarmed guards. Israeli officials voiced concerns about the obvious lack of security at the Games. Nevertheless, Munich introduced the first-ever Olympic mascot, the dachshund “Waldi,” and its official motto, “The Cheerful Games.”

It certainly started out that way.  American swimmer Mark Spitz, with his thick black mustache won 7 gold medals, setting world records in all seven of his events. He became the undisputed star of the Munich games. The image of Spitz with 7 gold medals on his bare chest was everywhere.  It was a feat that stood for decades, surpassed only by American Michael Phelps at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games.

The excitement continued with the surprising Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut.  The sixteen year old “Sparrow from Minsk” came out of nowhere and soared to three gold medals in the balance beam, floor exercise, and team competition.  Her acrobatic and athletic show helped revolutionize women’s gymnastics, ushering in a new era of popularity.  Every little girl in the world wanted to be Olga Korbut.

Lastly, there was the infamous men’s basketball final game. The US team of college stars suffered its first-ever loss in the final seconds, by 1 point to the Soviet Union, at the height of the Cold War.  The game remains one of the most controversial in Olympic history due to multiple questionable calls in the last few seconds.  The US team boycotted the medal ceremony and still refuses to claim silver.

For 10 days, the Munich Summer Games continued and were indeed joyous and cheerful.  But behind the scenes, there were still questions regarding lax security.  The early 1970s were overshadowed by numerous airplane hijackings by terrorists. The Munich police could have been better prepared for what was to come.   

The Summer Games came to an abrupt the morning of September 5th.

On Monday evening, the Israeli athletes enjoyed a night out, watching a performance of Fiddler on the Roof, then dining out with the Israeli star of the musical, before returning to the Olympic Village. At 4:35 am early Tuesday morning, 8 members of the Black September terrorist group, disguised as athletes, scaled a chain link fence and entered the village. 

They forced their way into the Israeli athletes’ quarters, apartments 1 and 3.  Two team members, weightlifter Yossef Romano and wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg, attempted to fight back, only to be shot and killed.  The terrorists collected nine other Israeli team members as hostages, tightly binding their hands and feet. Following the shots, chaos erupted at the Olympic village and the Munich police were called.

Black September demanded the release of 234 Palestinians and Arabs imprisoned in Israeli jails. To prove their intent, they tossed the bullet-ridden body of Weinberg out the main door onto the street.  They kept the bloody body of Romano at the feet of the athletes as a grim reminder to remain submissive.  The terrorists set a 9AM deadline for release of the political prisoners.  Failure to meet it, they said, would result in 1 hostage being executed every hour.

Thanks to the Olympic TV and press coverage, soon the entire world knew. 

The image of black masked kidnappers with assault rifles quickly spread across the globe.  Munich’s law enforcement was woefully unprepared.  They were trained for everyday crimes, not military trained terrorists. With no counter-terror unit, the West German government took control of the negotiations, along with Munich’s Police Chief Manfred Schreiber. But they did not have a cohesive plan.  Hours of negotiation ensued, with much of the drama unfolding on live television.

West German negotiators were inclined to give in to the terrorist demands, but Israel leaders in Tel Aviv adamantly refused, stating there would be absolutely NO negotiations.

“If we should give in, then no Israeli anywhere in the world can feel that his life is safe.”

Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir

At one point in the day, a Munich policewoman was used as an intermediary with the lead terrorist, Luttif Afif, who called himself ‘Issa.’ The two could be seen on live TV, Issa confidently standing in a doorway, leaning against the frame in a white hat and sunglasses.  He shared cigarettes with the policewoman, dressed in civilian clothes, wearing a dress and sports jacket.

The terrorists rejected a German counteroffer of an unlimited amount of money. Responding back, ”Money and our lives mean nothing to us.” The  Libyan and Tunisian ambassadors to Germany, as well as Egyptian members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) were brought in.  They succeeded in getting Black September to extend their deadline a total of five times, without further deaths.

At one point, two of the Israeli hostages were allowed to appear on a second floor window to prove they were still alive. But when one tried to answer a question from German police, a terrorist clubbed him in the head with the the butt of his rifle. The rest of the Israeli team quickly left Munich, as did Jewish-American swimmer Mark Spitz.

At the same time, the media provided the terrorists with valuable information on TV. West German authorities forgot to switch off electricity to the apartments and failed to remove the foreign press contingent from the Olympic Village.  That meant that the terrorists were able to watch on TV how the police and snipers were positioned all around them. The poor hostages, closely trapped with them, must have realized there was no hope for rescue or release.

Finally at 4:30 pm, a squad of Munich police arrived at the Olympic Village disguised in sweat suits.

Their plan was to crawl down from ventilation shafts and kill the terrorists. However, camera crews followed the officers and broadcast the images live on TV. The terrorists were able to watch the police preparation live from the couches in the apartments.  Issa was furious and threatened to kill two of the hostages if they did not withdraw immediately.  The police retreated.

With negotiations failing, Black September shifted their demands and asked for transport to Cairo with the hostages.  It seemed as though German authorities agreed to the terrorists’ demands and it was here TV coverage ended. Two military transport helicopters were brought to the Village. They flew the terrorists and hostages 15 miles to the nearby Fürstenfeldbruck NATO Air Base, where a 727 jet airplane was waiting. 

It was there a second rescue was attempted.  Unfortunately, only five police snipers were deployed as the German authorities still didn’t know the exact number of PLO terrorists. The snipers were inadequately trained for such an operation, poorly equipped with the wrong rifles, and had no radio contact with each other.  The two helicopters landed in the dark at 10:30pm. The Bavarian Interior Minister then ordered the snipers to open fire.  

The terrorists scrambled beneath the helicopters and returned fire, killing Anton Fliegerbauer, a German sniper. The 2 helicopter pilots managed to escape in the melee. Armored personnel carriers had been stuck in traffic and arrived late. When the attack vehicles rolled in, Issa shouted in anger and threw a hand grenade into one of the helicopters.  The explosion incinerated the still bound hostages and destroyed the aircraft. The terrorists then riddled the Israeli athletes bound in the other helicopter with bullets.  

The  nine victims were wrestling referee Yossef Gutfreund, sharpshooting coach Kehat Shorr, track and field coach Amitzur Shapira, fencing master Andre Spitzer, weightlifting judge Yakov Springer, wrestlers Eliezer Halfin and Mark Slavin, and weightlifters David Berger and Ze’ev Friedman. 

When the shooting ended, the leader Luttif Afif (Issa) and four other terrorists were also dead.  Three surrendered and were captured alive by the police.  West German spokesman Conrad Ahlers declared that the hostage operation had been a success.  But hours later, the world found out the truth about the failed rescue attempt and the death of ALL 9 hostages.

The tragedy cast a dark shadow over what had been the memorably “Cheerful Games.” The Summer Games were put on hold for 34 hours. A memorial ceremony, attended by 3,000 athletes and 80,000 spectators, was conducted at the Olympic Stadium on September 6th with all nation flags flying at half- mast. The IOC president, Avery Brundage, then proclaimed: “The Games must go on!

The deadly operation gave the PLO a worldwide audience and made them a household name, ushering in a new era of bold global terrorism. Sadly, 3 weeks after the massacre, the 3 captured assassins were released as part of the hijack negotiations of German Lufthansa flight 615.  The trio was flown to Libya where they received a hero’s welcome.  In response, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir set up a covert unit within Israel’s Mossad agency to hunt down and eliminate all those involved in the Munich Massacre.  She called it Operation Wrath of God.

Several terrorist suspects were assassinated in the coming months throughout Europe and the Middle East. Black September’s Head Ali Hassan Salameh, was assassinated by car bomb in 1979 in the operation’s final mission.  Mohammed Daoud Odeh, who masterminded the deadly assault, fled to Syria and died of cancer in Damascus in 2010.

The way the terrorists were so easily able to access to the village would forever change Olympic security protocols. Four years later, at the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics, the Israeli team commemorated their fallen at the Olympic stadium Opening Ceremony when they entered carrying the Israeli flag adorned with 9 black ribbons. 

The massacre has been the subject of a number of films, including one by Hollywood director Steven Spielberg, who used it, and the subsequent Mossad assassinations, in his 2005 film, “Munich.” Forty-four years later, the IOC commemorated the victims before the 2016 Rio Summer Games. We should do the same in Tokyo, and at all future Olympic Games.

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Podcast: The 10 Most Successful Vaccines in History

We used to take vaccines for granted. After all, they’ve been around for decades, some given to our grandparents and even great-grandparents. We all received our last childhood shots as kids. So much so, we were shocked by a modern pandemic in 2020, due in part to the lack of a ready COVID vaccine. How could that be?

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The Oversteegen Sisters – Teenage Resistance Assassins

The Oversteegen sisters were only teenagers when they joined the Dutch resistance during World War II. Together with a young friend, Hannie Schaft, they gathered intelligence for the Resistance, provided Jewish safe houses, bombed railways and, most remarkably, lured Nazi officers into the woods, and shot them.

When World War II erupted in 1939, sisters Freddie and Truus Oversteegen, and their friend Hannie Schaft were just 14, 16 and 18 years old. Despite their ages, they formed an effective trio in the Dutch Resistance against their Nazis occupiers. Hannie was the intellectual one, Truus their leader, and Freddie the planner.

The two sisters initially lived on a barge with their family in Schoten.  They were raised with the mindset of resistance. Her parents had hidden Lithuanian refugees in the hold of their ship before the beginning the war.  Once their parents divorced, Freddie and Truus were raised by their mother.

They grew up in Haarlem with their now single, working-class mom. Their mother considered herself a free-thinking communist and taught her daughters the importance of fighting injustice. When the Netherlands was on the brink of war in 1939, she took a Jewish refugee couple into their home.

In their mother, Freddie and Truus witnessed both her moral compass and willingness to act when it really mattered. It’s no surprise the sisters would go on to join the Resistance. They would also learn that to help, you had to make sacrifices yourself. Fighting injustice and doing the right thing took exceptional bravery and fortitude. 

They were to also learn it was harder and far more brutal than they imagined.

In the spring of 1940, the Nazis invaded Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands.  It began an occupation that lasted 5 long years. In response, the girls joined their mother in distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets for the Resistance.  Under cover of darkness, they glued resistance posters over German posters calling Dutch men to work in Germany, then scurried off on their bikes.

These simple acts weren’t just subversive, they were highly dangerous. If the Nazis caught the sisters, they’d likely be shot. The fact that they were both young girls meant that officials MIGHT not suspect them. This might be the reasons why, in 1941, a Haarlem Resistance commander asked their mother if he could recruit Freddie and Truus.

The sisters were eager to formally join and their mother consented. Only later would they learn what they’d actually have to do. Their initial duties included working in an emergency hospital in Enschede, shepherding Jewish refugees to new hiding places, and helping blow up the Haarlem railway line. When the resistance leader saw the girl’s dedication, he initiated their next level of involvement.

The sisters, who had never even held a gun before, were told they must “learn to shoot — and to shoot Nazis.” 

How could young girls manage to commit such an act?  Freddie described their motivation years later: “While we were biking, we saw German soldiers picking up people from the streets, including children, pushing them against a wall, and shooting them.  This aroused such an enormous anger in me, such disgust, a feeling of ‘those dirty bastards.’ At that moment you are just a human being confronted with something very cruel. If you experience something like that, you find it justified to act against it.”

Young Freddie was the first to assassinate someone, a female Dutch official who was handing over lists of Jewish people to their Nazi occupiers.  Freddie approached the woman as she was walking alone in a park, asked the lady for her name — and then with her heart pounding in her chest, shot her.

Freddie was the youngest and shortest, and wore her hair in two braids which made her look even more innocent.  They enabled her to get away easily after shots were fired.  Their method of attack often included drive-by shootings.  Truus would cycle their bike near the target, while Freddie rode on the back.  Freddie made sure there were no witnesses and then fired.

They always rode a bike, never walked.  Freddie and Truus also became adept and famous for a 2nd assassination technique.  They would use their natural good looks lure to German officers to their deaths.  Freddie or Truus would flirt with an SS officer or Dutch collaborator in a local tavern, asking them if they would like to go “for a stroll” in the woods.   The lustful victim would be led to the woods and shot by the other sister in a surprise attack. For Dutch collaborators, they focused on those who arrested or endangered Jewish refugees or Resistance members.

How did killing – even Nazis – make such young girls feel?  In an interview, Freddie talked of the strange compulsion to help the victims get up again. “Yes, I’ve shot a gun at them and I’ve watched them fall. And what is inside us at such a moment?  As humans, you still want to help them.

In 1943, they joined forces with another young woman, Hannie Schaft.

Hannie was a red haired, former law student who dropped out because she refused to sign a pledge of loyalty to Germany. Hannie became their best friend and together, the three young women formed an effective sabotage and assassination cell. Young Freddie was particularly good at following targets or keeping a lookout in broad daylight, since she looked so innocent.

The trio did have to draw the line once.  The Resistance asked them to take the children of a senior Nazi officer hostage. The children were then to be exchanged for captured members of the Dutch resistance.  But if the negotiations fell through, they would have to kill them to demonstrate their resolve.  At that point, the girls refused to carry out the mission. We are not Nazis,” they said.  “The Resistance doesn’t murder children.” 

A former commander commented.  “They were unusual, these girls. There were women involved in the Dutch resistance, but not in the way these girls were.” Both sisters never revealed how many Nazis or collaborators they assassinated.  Their response would be that ‘they were soldiers, and soldiers don’t say.’ There are no records of how many “liquidations,” as they called them, were conducted successfully, but they are credited with many during the war.

Hold no romantic image of their escapades. They were not Hollywood spies. While their feats were remarkable, their pursuit of the right thing was nevertheless ruthless. The Oversteegens struggled to come to terms with their actions. All three of them suffered from depression, insomnia, and severe nightmares.

In 1945, Hannie Schaft was caught at a checkpoint and arrested for treason.

She was executed by the Nazis just 3 weeks before the end of the war. When the executioner only wounded her on the first try, Hannie’s last words were, “I’m a better shot.”  The ‘girl with the red hair’ went on to become a legendary icon of female Dutch resistance.  The sisters were devastated when the Nazis killed their best friend. Truus and Freddie both survived the war, but carried emotional scars for the rest of their lives.

After the war, the sisters dealt with the trauma of killing people and losing their best friend.  Freddie lived a quiet life. She went from espionage to coping with more normal things like getting married and having babies.  Truus expressed herself in her art through sculpture, shared her story in lectures, and became famous in the Netherlands. Freddie lived a more secluded life, focusing on her family.

Freddie’s son, Remi, believes the war never stopped for his mother and aunt, and actually lasted 80 more years for them. Freddie expressed a similar sentiment in an interview  “We never had to say ‘Remember when,’ because it was always remained at the top of our minds.”

Throughout much of their long lives, the Netherlands failed to properly recognize the Oversteegen sister’s achievements, even sidelining them as “communists” due to their mother. During the last years of their lives they yearned, not for fame, but simply more acknowledgment of their role. It was only in 2014 that Freddie and Truus were awarded the Mobilisatie-Oorlogskruis, Dutch Mobilization War Cross by Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

It became the highlight in their lives. Two streets in Haarlem were named after them. So many years after doing their heroic work in secret, they were glad for the public recognition. They wanted their stories to be known—to teach people that, even when such acts are necessary, “you must always remain human.” Truus Menger-Oversteegen died in 2016 at age 92.  Freddie Dekker-Oversteegen passed 2 years later in 2018, also at 92.

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Podcast: Whodunit? Who Burned the Great Library of Alexandria?

Egypt’s Great Library of Alexandria was once the largest of the ancient world, containing the works of Homer, Plato, Euclid, Socrates, Aristotle and hundreds more. Close to one million books and scrolls from across Greece, Assyria, Egypt, Persia and India filled its vast shelves.  It’s believed to have been completely destroyed in a devastating fire about 2000 years ago and its thousands of priceless works burnt to ashes.  But exactly How, When and Who is responsible remains a perplexing mystery.

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Stalin’s Great Purge and the Brutal Gulags

After the death of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, the infamous Josef Stalin came to power in the Soviet Union.  In the late 1930s, Stalin began a ruthless campaign known as The Great Purge, referred to by Soviets as the Great Terror. Any person or group perceived in twisted Stalin’s mind as a threat to his power was arrested, given a sham trial, and either executed on the spot or sent to the Gulags.  The Gulags were the Soviet system of horrific forced labor camps scattered across the USSR, many in Siberia. While Hitler had his Nazi Concentration Camps, Stalin had his Gulags.  They were far from the Bolshevik dream of a Communist utopia – free from the evils of imperialism.

Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks revolted against Czar Nicholas in 1917 to create a supposedly equal communist society, free of capitalism.  The Soviet Union became anything but.  Lenin died of a sudden stroke in 1924. Under his successor Josef Stalin, the USSR became a regime laced with suppression and brutality. The Gulag system was a shrewd punishment. Stalin’s ‘threats to Communism’ weren’t just eliminated, they were turned into forced labor to build his state.

Stalin had to fight his way to power, declaring himself premier in 1929. The United Opposition was a political group which never approved of Stalin’s rule.  Some members of old Bolshevik party questioned his authority. Some Communists saw Stalin as dictatorial and corrupt.  Stalin’s authority was questioned by influential comrades like Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin.  A suspicious Stalin believed anyone with ties to Lenin was therefore a threat and needed to go

Stalin’s solution was his Great Purge.

It began quietly in 1934 with the assassination of Sergei Kirov, a prominent Bolshevik. Kirov was murdered in broad daylight at Communist Party headquarters in Leningrad. Many believe Stalin himself, a friend of Kirov, ordered the hit.  This gave Stalin the perfect excuse to commence his purge.  He used Kirov’s death as evidence a traitorous faction in the Communist party was trying to eliminate its leaders.  There’s no hard evidence that Stalin ordered Kirov’s death, but it’s simply too much of a coincidence.

Stalin decided to get rid of the loudest dissidents and original Bolsheviks from the 1917 Revolution.  He launched his purge claiming he’d uncovered a dangerous cabal of Communist traitors.  Kirov’s death led to staged trials in Moscow of Stalin’s rivals and critics, which he labeled the “Leftist Counter-Revolutionary Bloc.” 14 former high-ranking Communists, like Nikolai Bukharin, were arrested for treason. The accused were tortured, or their families threatened, until the pathetic men admitted to being traitors and spies.  Stalin had them all executed.

From 1936 to 1938, the Soviet secret police, the NKVD [People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs], then conducted field trials of lesser threats who were arrested, tried, found guilty and executed as well.  While the Moscow Trial’s were conducted in legitimate courtrooms, the secret police utilized a swift, unjust method, employing 3-member committees responsible for sentencing the ‘anti-Soviets.’

Stalin didn’t stop with executing just his rivals.

Stalin freely used the term The Fifth Column, to identify his “Enemies of the People.” Stalin often used propaganda buzzwords like “subversives, intelligentsia, and counter-revolutionary.” Any of these labels would land a person in a Gulag or firing squad. The labels meant one thing: TRAITOR.  In all, about 1/3 of the Communist Party’s 3 million members were purged and sent to the Gulags. 

Stalin even had 30,000 members of his own Red Army and Navy executed, because he suspected, without evidence, that they were plotting a military coup. The Great Purge removed field marshals, generals, admirals, commanders, and commissars. Over 100 high ranking officers were all executed.

And still Stalin was not satisfied.  He expanded his Great Purge to include aristocrats landowners, ethnic minorities, and foreigners.  Then came the educated academics, scientists, even doctors.  Finally it included journalists, writers, artists and students. All were sent to the Gulags. No one, it seemed, was safe.

When everyone was a potential suspect, Soviet-wide paranoia meant everyone suspected their neighbor. The rampant Purge caused pervasive fear and eventually broke the will of the Soviet people.  At least 750,000 were executed during the Great Purge. Some believe the true death count to be twice as high.  More than a million others were sent to the Gulags. Overall, the camps held about 18 million Soviet citizens from the late 1920s until Stalin’s death in 1953.

So what was life like in the Gulags, where millions were sent to suffer? 

The word “Gulag” is an acronym for Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei, Russian for Main Camp Administration. All laborers were officially known as “political prisoners.” Conditions were brutal: prisoners worked up to 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, often in cold, severe weather. Thousands died of starvation, disease, or execution.  Even women endured the harsh conditions. Many of them facing the daily threat of rape or assault by guards or male prisoners.

By the time Stalin took control, the Gulag system had 84 small labor camps spread across the USSR, most in Russia and Siberia. Under Stalin’s rule, the prison population grew exponentially.  Daily life was organized around forced hard labor as both a tool of ‘Re-education,’ and a source of revenue for Stalin’s regime. He viewed the Gulags both a way to get rid of threats and as cheap labor to boost his industries.

Gulag inmates dug canals, built railroads and highways, constructed dams and cargo ships. They mined coal, tin and copper, and cut acres of timber from Siberia’s thick forests.  Prisoners were given sentences, and if they met their quotas and survived their term, they were released.  But since there was a constant influx of new prisoners, Gulag officials thought little about preserving the health of their workforce.  The Gulag inmates were both expendable and replaceable.

Prisoners were given crude tools and no safety equipment. The daily tasks were so grueling, some would cut or burn themselves to avoid work.  Prisoners drudged through brutal Russian weather in sub-zero temperatures. Food was rationed and if prisoners didn’t complete their quotas, they received less.  Thousands died of exhaustion, starvation or disease.

Starvation in particular was a constant factor and deliberate.  It allowed camp officials to control the population. Even normal rations, which were given to prisoners who exceeded their quotas, did not make up for the calories lost during hard labor.  As the hopeless inmates grew physically weaker, and failed to meet their quotas, they earned less food and became weaker still.

Camp conditions were overcrowded and unsanitary. Violence was common among inmates as they stole food and supplies from each other.  The environment created a form of cruel Darwinism — survival of the fittest.  Any potential friendship with a fellow prisoner was squashed by competition.  It was hard to form alliances or rebellions when you’re fighting over over food and resources.

‘Any human feelings — love, friendship, charity, mercy, decency —  vanished along with your body’s flesh due to prolonged starvation.  Bread was not issued in equal pieces, but thrown onto a pile in the dirt.  Run fast and grab! Knock down your comrades, and tear it from their hands! … You hate them — they are your rivals in life and death.’

Quote from from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (1973).

By 1939, Stalin had to focus on the Nazis and World War II, so he slowed his purge in order to send men to the German front instead.  Stalin then had the head of his NKYD shot. Nikolai Yezhov was feared only next to Stalin. Yezhov’s predecessor was in the Moscow trials and executed. After dutifully carrying our Stalin’s orders, he too met a similar fate.  Yezhov was executed in 1940, after ‘confessing‘ to anti-Soviet activity.  Stalin didn’t just target threats, but also those who served him.

The final act of the Purge occurred when Stalin had his old rival Leon Trotsky killed in 1940. Trotsky was expelled from the Communist party in 1929 and exiled by Stalin.  At the Moscow Trials, Trotsky was sentenced to death in absentia. After several assassination attempts, Leon Trotsky was finally murdered in Mexico. A communist agent killed him with an ice pick to the head.   

After WW II, the arrests and exiles continued until Stalin’s death in 1953 at age 74.  The Gulag system weakened immediately. Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchez, was a staunch critic of the camps and the Purge.  He acknowledged that most prisoners were, in fact, innocent. Within days, millions were released.  Some camps were turned into criminal prisons. It wasn’t until 1987 that Mikhail Gorbachev, grandson of Gulag victims, officially eliminated the camps. 

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics itself collapsed in 1991.

Over their 30 years, the Gulags killed at least six million, roughly a third of all those imprisoned. A true death toll is hard to determine as the NKVD covered their tracks well. The Gulags left deep scars, both physically and psychologically. The Gulag’s dark history left generations of Russians scarred and damaged. Survivors suffered poverty and PTSD long after their release. Even today, some survivors are still too fearful to talk about their experiences.

The true horrors of the Gulags were kept hidden within the USSR for decades. Unlike the Nazi Holocaust camps, no film or images of the Gulags were shown to the public. In 1973, The Gulag Archipelago was published by Russian survivor Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The book detailed the true atrocities of the Gulags.  Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Soviet Union, but returned to Russia in 1994.

Stalin’s Gulags demonstrates just one of the evils of Soviet-style Communism.  The camps were justified because they were utilized for the greater good. Much like the Germans, the Soviet people didn’t see themselves as villains. Propaganda told them they were living the dream of a “virtuous revolution.”  However, Karl Marx’s utopian vision only led to a brutal dictator and the horrors of the Gulags.

And what of Josef Stalin?  After his victory over Germany in World War II, he was seen as a bold, national hero, though still greatly feared.  He led the Soviet Union to become a global nuclear superpower in the new Cold War.  Today, we might see him as a paranoid, manipulative sociopath, devoid of any humanity or empathy.  I’ll leave you with one of Josef Stalin’s more infamous quotes. 

A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.

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The Hard Lesson of California’s Shrinking Salton Sea

California’s largest lake is the infamous Salton Sea, a shallow, salt water lake in the middle of the southern California desert.  It sits just south of Palm Springs and just north of the Mexican border.  At 235 feet below sea level, the Salton Sea lies in what used to be an ancient dry lake bed, only five feet higher than Death Valley.

The original Lake Cahuilla occupied the basin until about 300 years ago as a part of the Colorado River’s path to the Gulf of California.  Silt build-up changed the river’s course to its current path, drying up the lake basin.  The inhospitable area was avoided by man until the early 1900s, when farmers realized that, with massive irrigation from the nearby Colorado River, the soil and climate would produce valuable farmland. A series of canals were built and water flowed into the dry desert.  Soon, more than 10,000 farm workers relocated to the Salton Sink region.  The surrounding area was dubbed “Imperial Valley,” and quickly turned 100,000 acres of desert into farm land.

The current Salton Sea was formed completely by human accident.

In the spring of 1905, heavy flood waters on the Colorado River burst through the walls of irrigation canals in southwestern Arizona. Almost the entire Colorado River changed its route back to its ancient path and began filling the Salton Basin, inundating the path of the Southern Pacific Railroad line. Initial efforts to seal the breach failed and for 18 months, the river flooded in, filling the Salton basin like a huge bath tub.

Water continued to fill the newly named “Salton Sea” until 1907.  A line of protective levees was built by railcars full of boulders unloaded into the breach. 2,000 workers dumped more than 3,000 railroad cars full of boulders and dirt. It worked!  But by then a new shallow inland lake was formed, about 40 miles long and 15 wide, covering about 500 square miles, though only 30 feet deep on average. It all seemed unnatural, this shimmering lake surrounded by chalky sand, cactus and tumbleweeds.

Once the canal was repaired, the Salton Sea no longer had an intake source of water.  The new lake was more or less left alone for the next several decades.  Water runoff from the Imperial Valley farms offset the heavy desert evaporation rate and kept the lake alive.  The new sea grew to support an ecosystem that attracted hundreds of species of migratory birds.  Thousands of birds began to spend their winters there every year.  Salt water fish were stocked into the lake and flourished.  By the late 1950’s, the Salton Sea was the most productive fishery in California.

In the 1950’s, developers saw resort opportunities for the Salton Sea, now California’s largest lake.

Towns like Salton City and Bombay Beach popped up along its shoreline.  Along with the rising popularity of nearby Palm Springs, resorts were built catering to tourists interested in the endless California sunshine. Water skiing, swimming, fishing, and bird watching were popular.  Bombay Beach in particular was built as a celebrity destination. The likes of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and the Beach Boys frequented its luxury resorts. At its peak in the 50’s and 60’, the Salton Sea drew 1.5 million visitors annually, more than Yosemite National Park!

However, all was not sunny in southern California.  Little thought and few resources were devoted to the management of this accidental body of water. As a terminal lake, the Salton Sea lacks any outflow.  The agricultural runoff that sustained the lake also contained not only nitrate fertilizers, but herbicides, pesticides like DDT, and high quantities of salt, all of which quietly settled into the mud at the bottom of the shallow lake.

In the 1970s, scientists started warning that the increasing salt would cause the Salton Sea to dry up and shrink, making it inhospitable to wildlife. Before the decade was out, fish started dying off and the migratory birds declined. The lake began to smell of sulfur, spurring the state to issue periodic odor advisories. Tourism and its economy quickly began to flee elsewhere.

As the agricultural runoff drained through the basin’s soil, it combined with natural salt deposits, raising the salinity even further. Over the years, the salinity slowly rose enough to kill off most of the lake’s fish. By the 1980s, the salt level was about 1.5 times higher than the nearby Pacific Ocean.  As the salinity increased, all the fish, except tilapia, stopped reproducing. Tilapia was originally introduced into the Colorado canal system to control algae growth.

In the 1990s, the lake’s shoreline began to recede dramatically, stranding the residences and businesses far from the water’s edge. 

Changing water-management priorities diverted more water from agricultural areas to California’s major southern cities. Scores of stinking dead fish now lined the dry shore line. In 2003, the Imperial Irrigation District agreed to transfer even more water to San Diego County. Farmers were forced to switch from flood to drip irrigation. This change meant there was still enough for agriculture, but not the runoff needed for the Salton Sea. In return, California was supposed to implement a plan to reduce habitat loss for migrating birds by 2018. But that plan stalled in Sacramento, the lake continued to shrink, and a new Public-Health Crisis was born.

Today, the Salton Sea has yet another problem: Climate change is making this dry desert region even drier. The growing demand for water in the suburbs of Southern California continues to reduce the amount of the Colorado River diverted to Imperial Valley. These factors dramatically increase the pace at which the Salton Sea is shrinking, exposing more dry lake bed and the agricultural toxins trapped in the mud for decades. 

The desert winds lift dust from the dry lakebed, and the toxic residue of 100 years of agricultural runoff blows into the air … and into human lungs. The Salton Sea area now has some of the worst air quality in the country. Local residents of Salton City and Bombay Beach have some of the highest rates of respiratory problems in the state. Many of the people who once relied on the lake for their livelihood have left, driven away by lack of tourism, the nauseating stench of the lake, or fear of health problems.

The few who remain – farmworkers, their families, and the elderly are too poor to live elsewhere in CA.

South of the Salton Sea, the Imperial valley still produces 2/3 of the country’s winter fruits and vegetables, but farming the desert requires a heavy cost. The Imperial Irrigation District diverts almost 3 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River, about half of California’s entire allotment. Ironically, Imperial County has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, where today 1 in 4 people live in abject poverty.

Today, the few tourists who arrive are careful to come for no more than an hour or two, due of the poor air quality and the odor of dying fish. Businesses don’t want to come for the same reasons. The smell was once described by the US Geological Survey and “noxious and pervasive.

Tourists at Bombay Beach are mostly snowbirds from Palm Beach’s spas and country clubs.  They come to see the ruins of the once-famous party town and resorts.  Across the shimmering lake, the brown Santa Rosa Mountains loom on the horizon. The town’s population has shrunk to under 300.  It is described as a modern, living ghost town. The nearest gas station is 20 miles away.  The only market left in town is a convenience store. The temperature can reach 110 in the summer.  The town is littered with windowless abandoned homes and trailers, covered in graffiti. Signs warn against swimming in the lake, not that anyone would. The smell of the Salton Sea and dead fish is everywhere.

Bird watching used to be very good at the Salton Sea.  But with the sea at such low levels, fewer birds stop there, because there’s less food for them. The locals have noticed fewer birds are coming back each year. Those that don’t get enough food to continue their migration, die on the lake shore, along with the fish.

The California Natural Resource Agency released a Salton Sea Restoration Plan in 2007.

The idea of the plan was to redirect the remaining inflows to small, man-made wetlands that would both suppress dust and create bird habitat.   The plan lacked state funding however, and over the years, promises of money evaporated like the Salton Sea as political priorities shifted in Sacramento. 

The lack of official action has led to alternative plans from environmental and advocacy groups. One proposed creating a pipeline from the Sea of Cortez, pumping in water and returning the lake to its original size. Any plan however lacked funding and water rights.  The nonprofit Pacific Institute estimates that without human intervention, the 350-square-mile lake will shrink to 100 by 2030, the salinity will triple over 15 years, and the remaining fish will disappear in 5 years.

The Salton Sea is a hard lesson of man’s attempts to intervene in mother nature.  Today, the lake continues to dry up and shrink, and is about twice as salty as the Pacific Ocean.

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