Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Knights of the Golden Circle

On July 4, 1854, Virginia general, George Bickley, gathered five men together to talk about the current state of affairs in the United States. The country was being divided internally and the southern slave holders were worried about what was going to happen.

The proposed circle of power
Source: Knights-of-the-Golden-Circle.blogspot.com
The men came up with an outrageous plan: they proposed a golden circle of slaves states, encompassing the southern United States, Central America, the Caribbean and Mexico. Mexico itself would be divided up into 15 new states. They would control the world's supply of cotton, sugar and tobacco and would tip the balance of power in congress. With their base of power in Havana, they would call themselves The Knights of the Golden Circle.

They would become the most powerful and influential secret society in American history.

Membership in the Knights grew quickly in the southern states and among southern sympathizers. Many well-known names to history became members, including Sam Houston, the outlaw Jesse James and even John Wilkes Booth.

With numbers swelling, the invasion plan moved ahead. Newspapers in 1860 began running stories about the Knights organizing an army in Brownsville, Texas, for the attack on Mexico.

George Bickley's calling card
Source: OurArchives
But somewhere along the way, the invasion didn't happen as planned, and the Civil War began to loom. The Knights made the decision to hold off the attack and creating the new Southern Empire, until after the seemingly inevitable war concluded. They were more than prepared. Before the war even started they had 62,000 soldiers from both the North and the South.

On February 15, 1861, when Ben McCulloch began marching on the Federal arsenal in San Antonio, his 550 men included 150 Knights of the Golden Circle, from six different regions, or "castles."Armies of Golden Circle soldiers forced the closing of every other Federal Reserve between San Antonio and El Paso. More Knights then joined Lt. Col. John Robert Baylor when he took over the New Mexico Territory.

Their influence continued to grow, with numbers reaching 300,000. In 1862, former president Franklin Pierce was accused of being a Knight, because of his opposition to President Lincoln. Membership began to spread to the North, even the border states. Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois and Missouri all saw the growth of the Knights, mostly among those who saw the Civil War as a mistake and worried about the power of the Federal Government, which had just authorized the first military draft in American history. Cabinet members, congressmen, actors, judges and other politicians were reported to have been seen at induction ceremonies. (By the end of the war, the Knights had influence in every state.)

Seal of of The Knights of the Golden Circle
Source: OurArchives
Eventually the Knights decided to throw their full support behind the Confederate States of America. Most confederate military groups during the war were made up of knights. The group planned what the U.S. War Department would later call "The Northwest Conspiracy." This was a plan to use their great northern numbers to foster a revolt against the Union.

The conspiracy was broken apart, but the Knights continued their influence. They began to infiltrate Union forces. In Missouri, which was claimed by both the Union and the Confederacy, the Knights took over the Enrolled Missouri Militia, better known as the Paw Paw Militia.

The Knights had planned to kidnap Abraham Lincoln in 1860, before his inauguration. They continued to plot a kidnapping throughout the war. When it turned out this wasn't going to happen, long-time Knight John Wilkes Booth assassinated him.

When Robert E. Lee surrendered and ended the war, the Knights changed their name, first to the Order of American Knights, then to the Order of the Sons of Liberty. After the war, the Knights went underground again, but continued to use their influence to help salvage the south for many decades. Members spread out to remote locations, organized cities and prepared for a second war, should it be necessary.

The Knights continued to wield considerable influence in the newly reunited U.S., until they apparently ended operations in 1916, as the United States entered WWI.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Woman Who Carried Death

New York. In the summer of 1906, the Warren family decided to go on a vacation. As a banker, Charles Henry Warren was a wealthy man and spared no expense for his family, renting a summer home in Oyster Bay, Long Island, from Warren's good friend, George Townsend, the U.S. representative from New York. Oyster Bay is and was a historical town, first occupied in 1650 by new settlers, but originally occupied by Matinecock Indians over a thousand years ago. Many pivotal moments in the history of the colonies and the United States occurred in this town.

Mary Mallon, 1910
Source: Wikipedia
As they were planning on staying all summer, the Warren family also hired a cook: an immigrant from Cookstown, Ireland named Mary Mallon.

With eleven people living in the house, Mallon worked tirelessly and cooked for everyone. Then things began to take a strange turn. Between August 27 and September 3, six of the people living in the house came down with typhoid fever, even though the disease was not prevalent in Oyster Bay. Typhoid fever is caused by the Salmonella bacteria. It lives inside a carrier, is deposited in food or water by the carrier, and is then spread like wildfire. Washing hands before handling food, washing utensils with soap, and eating fully cooked foods helps to control the disease. It wasn’t discovered until 1880 and before 1940, one in ten victims died of the disease. By the 1920s, there were 35,000 known cases of typhoid fever in the United States. It was a feared disease, as it could be spread by simply touching something that had the disease on it, such as fruit. Those infected suffered from fevers as high as 105 degrees, massive headaches, numbing nausea, coughs, hoarseness, inflamed skin, and rashes. 

George Townsend feared for the future of renting the home and contacted George Soper, a sanitation engineer (and later managing director of the American Cancer Society) to come and investigate. As an expert in typhoid fever, he knew the disease spread through food and water contact. He suspected cook Mary Mallon, but she had departed the home soon after the outbreak.

Soper discovered that typhoid outbreaks followed Mallon wherever she went. From 1900 to 1907, 22 people became infected, all connected to the seven jobs Mallon had held during this time. In 1900 she started work as a cook in Mamaroneck, New York. Within 14 days of her starting there, residents began to come down with the disease. She moved on to work for a family in Manhattan in 1901, but members of that family began to come down with typhoid symptoms. It got so bad that even the laundress died.  Her next job was with a lawyer, until all but one member of his household developed the disease. This pattern followed her wherever she went: hired, worked, cooked, death.

Soper eventually found Mallon and approached her about spreading typhoid. She went crazy. Refusing to give urine and stool samples, fighting, screaming, yelling that she wasn’t sick. But what Mallon didn’t know, was that she was a carrier. In fact, she was the first asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever: she had the disease, was not infected by it, but spread it around like the air she exhaled from her lungs. After the confrontation, she disappeared.

Soper found Mallon again in March of 1907, working for another family. He tried to get her to provide stool samples. She refused and attacked him with a knife. Then, the New York State Health Department attempted to apprehend her with the aid of five police officers. Again, Mallon attacked and managed to get away. She was caught a short time later, hiding in a closet.

Once in custody, Mallon was sent to Willard Parker Hospital in New York. Tests revealed that her gallbladder was crawling with typhoid salmonella. She was sent to an isolated cottage, which was part of Riverside Hospital, on North Brother Island, near the Bronx. After two years of isolation, she sued for her freedom and lost. It wasn't until 1910 that she was released, on the promise to never work as a cook again. Mallon agreed to the stipulation, as well as agreeing to follow other hygienic procedures to protect others from the disease she carried and left the island. To protect her identity, she was given the name Mary Brown and given a new job as a laundress.

For five years, the woman known around the world as Typhoid Mary, disappeared. 

Then, in 1915, a new typhoid epidemic rushed through New York's Sloane Hospital for Women, infecting twenty-five people. Authorities investigated and found that one of the cook staff was an Irish woman named Mary Brown, and she was now missing. Mallon/Brown was found a short time later on Long Island. She was instantly sent back to the cottage on North Brother Island.

She stayed isolated on the island for the next 23 years. Eventually she suffered a stroke and died in 1938 at the age of 69.

The exact number of people she infected, and the resulting deaths associated with those infections, is still up for debate.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The (Almost) Second Civil War

In 1921, the United States was still feeling the sting of the Civil War when fighting erupted again in Logan County, West Virgina. For one week in late August and early September, 13,000 armed coal miners clashed with 3,000 law officials and strikebreakers on Blair Mountain. In what would become one of the largest civil uprisings in U.S. history, the event wouldn't end until the United States Army intervened.

In the early twentieth century, unions were trying to take shape. The coal mining industry was one occupation that the unions were trying to organize. Miners were treated poorly. They were forced to live in company towns where the mining company owned all the property. In 1912, at Paint Creek, the mining company drove a train through a tent city and opened fire upon women and children with a machine gun.

Blair Mountain, where the battle took place.
Source: Sierra Club
By 1920, northern West Virginian miners were organized by the United Mine Workers of America. However, in the southern part of the state, the mining companies still ruled and did everything in their power, including employing private detectives and local law enforcement to stop union organizers, even firing, blacklisting, and evicting workers who were found to be union sympathizers. They even tried placing machine guns on rooftops to keep the workers in line.

In nearby Matewan, 3,000 of 4,000 workers organized and were fired. When the mining companies came to town to deliver the eviction notices, the local sheriff, Sid Hatfield, the town's mayor, and deputized miners told them to leave. A fight broke out and nine people were killed, including the mayor. Sheriff Hatfield became a hero to the miners, and they began to organize themselves.

Shortly thereafter, Sheriff Hatfield was placed on trial for the murder of the mining company men. He was acquitted, but then placed on trial again after being accused of dynamiting a non-unon mine, after mines were being reopened with new, non-union workers and fighting had begun to envelope the entire region. On August 1, 1921, Sheriff Hatfield, his friend Ed Chambers, and both of their wives arrived at the courthouse. After talking to reporters, they began to advance up the steps when company agents opened fire. Hatfield and Chambers were riddled with bullets, in front of their wives. After the shooting, Chambers was still alive and company agents ran down and shot him point blank in the back of the head.

The mining companies army, preparing for battle.
Source: Coal County Tours
When word of the deaths of Hatfield and Chambers reached the miners, they armed themselves, tied red bandanas around their necks (thus the phrase 'redneck' was born), and decided to organize southern West Virginia by force. By August 25, the battle was in full swing, with 13,000 miners fighting against 1,000 law officials and the coal mining companies own personal armed force of 2,000 men, which quickly swelled to 30,000, and wore white armbands to recognize themselves from the 'redneck' miner army. When word came that union sympathizers were being killed in Sharples, the miner army marched to help. Only the 1,952-foot tall Blair Mountain and the mining companies stood in the way. 

As the miners advanced, the mining companies and their allies set up on the ridges above the miners and used rifles and sub-machine guns. They hired planes to drop homemade bombs and bombs leftover from World War I. President Harding threatened to send in the United States Army to break the union if the miners didn't cease their attack. The Army's 88th Squadron was used to provide aerial surveillance for the coal companies.

The miners refused to stop and pressed their attack onward. Five days later, they broke through the coal company's defensive perimeter just as the U.S. Army arrived, as promised by the president. The miners stood down, refusing to fight the newly arrived soldiers. 

In the end, 100 people were dead, 1000 miners were arrested for murder and treason, and over one million rounds of ammunition were fired. Not a single company fighter was charged with anything.

The union had been broken and the second largest civil uprising in U.S. history had finally come to a close.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Girl Who Gave Birth at Five Years Old

One day in 1939, in the tiny town of Pisco, Peru, a man carried his five-year-old daughter, Lina Medina, into the local hospital. Her abdomen was swollen and the doctors in his village had said it was a tumor; they had been unable to cure her. The man begged the doctor to help his young child.

The doctor, Gerado Lozada, examined her and determined that it was not a tumor. Upon pressing her father for more information, Dr. Lozada was shocked to hear that Medina had been having her monthly menstrual cycle since age three. Using a stethoscope, the doctor heard what he thought was a tiny heartbeat. He quickly performed an x-ray, which confirmed what he had heard.

Five-year-old Lina Medina was seven and a half months pregnant.

Lina Media
Source: The Telegraph
Dr. Lozada had the girl flown to a larger hospital in Lima, where she would have a cesarean to give birth to the baby. Several doctors in Lima confirmed that Medina was indeed pregnant. She even had the ovaries of fully grown woman. Upon further examination, it was determined that Medina was suffering from extreme precocious puberty, a disorder that causes sexual maturity to begin as early as 18 months of age. The causes are unknown, but it is thought to be linked to chemicals, stress, obesity, and lack of exercise. Some doctors think the disorder is linked to pituitary glands.

On Mother's Day, 1939, Medina delivered the baby. It was a healthy baby boy, weighing in at 6 pounds. She named him Gerado, after Dr. Lozada. Her father was investigated on charges of incest. When no evidence could be found, the charges against him were dropped.

Medina, her father, and her newborn baby returned to Pisco, Peru. The baby was raised as Medina's little brother. When he was 10 years old, he discovered the truth about his mother. Median eventually went to work for Dr. Lozada, with the doctor giving her an education and helping put her son through high school. When Gerado was 33, his mother married Raul Jarado. A second child was born in 1972.

Medina's son Gerado lived a healthy life, but died at age 40 due to bone marrow disease. Her second son currently lives in Mexico. Medina and her husband still live in Lima, Peru. To this day she has never revealed who was the father of her first child. She is still the youngest mother in recorded history.

There is only one known photograph of the pregnant five-year-old Lina Media. But because she is nude in the picture, Fanciful Truths will not post it.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Explosive Sinking of the Unsinkable Rhone

For as long as man has traveled by ship, there have been shipwrecks, both big and small. Their names litter the history books: Titanic, Estonia, Carpathia, Mary Rose. But one of the most shocking shipwrecks was the sinking of the RMS Rhone, destroyed by a hurricane, its passengers drowned because they were tied to their beds.

The RMS Rhone, with her 40-foot masts
The RMS Rhone was a mail and passenger ship in the royal fleet of Great Britain, whose route routinely wound through England, the Americas, and the Caribbean. Built in 1865, the Rhone was a prized possession of England, measuring 310 feet in length and 40 feet wide, with two massive masts that topped out at 40 feet. The hull was made of iron and its propeller was made of solid bronze, only the second bronze propeller ever built. Inside, the Rhone was enriched with lavish cabins, 253 of the 313 them first class. The Rhone was the fastest and most modern ship of its time clocking in at fourteen knots. The British said it was unsinkable.

The Rhone proved her worth with several voyages to Brazil in 1865, where she weathered numerous storms.

On October 19, 1867, the Rhone rendezvoused with the RMS Conway near St. Thomas, in the former Danish Virgin Islands. Both vessels arrived to refuel, restock, and transfer cargo. While anchored, the clouds began to darken and the barometer dropped. The captain of the Rhone, Robert F. Wooley, was worried, since hurricane season was thought to be over. The Rhone and the Conway decided to stay in the harbor.

The storm that hit was a class-5 hurricane, a catastrophic-sized storm with winds over 157 mph. The ships kept their anchors down and remained at full steam, in order to combat the huge winds. The ships were tossed around, but managed to survive until the storm seemed to end. The Conway's passengers were transferred over to the Rhone, swelling the numbers to almost 300. Suddenly, Captain Wooley realized that the storm wasn't over; they were merely in the eye of the hurricane.

The Conway fled the harbor and got away safely. Inside the Rhone, Captain Wooley order all passengers tied to their beds, so they could avoid injury. Worried that she would be thrust against the rocks, the Rhone headed for the open sea.

Salt Island
Captain Wooley hoped to make it between Dead Chest Island and Black Rock Point on Salt Island, but as the eye moved on, the full force of the hurricane struck the vessel. The waves thrashed the Rhone, tossing it around like paper. Nearing the islands, the Rhone swung wide in order to avoid an underwater reef that could have been exposed during the storm. The route took the ship dangerously close to Black Rock Point.

A huge wave struck the ship so hard that Captain Wooley was thrown overboard, lost to the sea. The wave also knocked the Rhone into Black Rock Point. The sharp rocks spilt the ship in half. Ice-cold sea water flooded inside. When the water made contact with the smoking boilers, the boilers exploded.

The stern sank quickly in 30 feet of water. Passengers tied to their beds were helpless to do anything but drown. Four people were able to climb to the top of one of the forty-foot masts, and were later rescued. The aft of the ship floated away and sank in deeper water.

Of the 300 people aboard, only 23 survived: 22 crew members and one passenger. Eight bodies were recovered from the icy depths.

Her masts remained sticking out of the water for nearly 100 years. In the 1950s, the Royal Navy decided the masts were too much of a hazard and blew up the remains of the stern. Today, the rest of the wreckage has become a popular diving destination.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Tragedy of the Von Erich Brothers

Former pro wrestling superstar Kerry Von Erich stood in the wings of the Sportatorium in Dallas, Texas, watching the night's matches unfold. It was February 12, 1993, and the man formerly known as the Texas Tornadao in the WWF (now WWE) found himself out of the national spotlight and back on the indie circuit with the Global Wrestling Federation.

Kerry Von Erich
As a member of the famous Von Erich clan of wrestlers, Kerry had achieved the greatest fame of all his brothers by signing and competing in the then World Wrestling Federation. From 1990 to 1992, he appeared on TV and at pay-per-views, even competing in Wrestlemania VII. But just as quickly as his star began to rise, he run ended. The WWF /WWE regulated him to a jobber, the wrestler who goes out week after week and loses to bigger-named stars. He asked for and was granted his release in 1992.

He returned to Dallas, Texas and the GWF, quickly winning and then losing the USWF Texas Heavyweight Championship. Nothing seemed to be going right for him. On the evening of February 12, he entered the ring for a tag team match, teaming with 'Gentleman' Chris Adams against Johnny Martel and Black Bart. The match was uneventful and Von Erich found himself having a hard time focusing. There was too much on his mind from his personal life. Drug charges, a marriage falling apart, his career flailing. The match ended in the pre-determined disqualification of Von Erich and Adams.

After the match Von Erich fled back to his father's ranch in Denton. Back in 1986 he had lost a foot during a motorcycle accident and had become addicted to pain killers. On February 17, he was indicted on drug charges for a forged prescription and was facing jail time.

The next day, on February 18, 1993, Kerry Von Erich committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest with a magnum revolver.

He was the fifth of six children to die before the age of 35:

  • First-born son Jack Jr. died in 1960 at the age of 6, when he was accidentally electrocuted. 
  • David Von Erich was a rising star in pro wrestling, when he overdosed on drugs while on tour in Japan, on February 10, 1984. 
  • Mike Von Erich had no real interest in being a wrestler, but was forced into the ring nonetheless by the family patriarch, Fritz Von Erich. While on tour in Israel, he suffered a shoulder injury and developed Toxic Shock Syndrome after his surgery. Never able to regain full strength, he retired from wrestling and committed suicide by overdosing on tranquilizers on April 12, 1987. 
  • Chris Von Erich was the youngest, smallest, and least athletic of the Von Erich brothers, but he had the most desire to become a pro wrestler. Despite years of trying, his career never took off. Severe depression set in and on September 12, 1991, he committed suicide with a gunshot wound to the chest.

The Von Erich wrestling clan. From left: Kerry, Fritz,
Kevin, Chris (front), Mike, and David.
Source: Wikipedia
After Kerry Von Erich's death in 1993, only second-oldest son Kevin Von Erich remained. He retired from the ring in 1993 and moved to Hawaii.

Fritz Von Erich lived into his late 60's until September 10, 1997, when he finally succumbed to lung cancer that had spread to his brain.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Drunk Vice President

On November 8, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln won re-election, defeating Geogre B. McClellan, former commander of the Union Army of the Potomac. The race was extremely lopsided, with Lincoln winning all but three states (Kentucky, New Jersey, and Delaware) and securing 212 electoral votes to McClellan's 21.

Four months later, on March 4, 1865, inauguration day arrived. It was raining heavily in Washington, but that didn't deter the festivities and the gathering of roughly 50,000 people. The day began, as it did back then, with the swearing in of the vice-president in the Senate Chamber. The room was packed with various House members, justices, diplomats, and other high-ranking governmnet officials, including President Lincoln himself, who sat himself down in the front row.

Andrew Johnson
At noon, the room was gathered into order, the doors opened, and Lincoln's first vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, entered with Lincoln's second vice president, Andrew Johnson. Lincoln's decision to replace Hamlin with Johnson had been based on three factors: Hamlin had been a very ineffective vice president during Lincoln's first term; Hamlin had strong ties to the Radical Republicans, a group of politicians who strongly opposed slavery during the Civil War and now, after the war, distrusted ex-Confederates, demanded extremely harsh policies for the South, and strongly opposed Lincoln; Johnson was a southerner and having him on the ticket spoke volumes more for reconciliation than any speech by Lincoln ever could.

After Hamlin's remarks, it was Johnson's turn to speak, and it was obvious that he was drunk. The night before, Johnson had been drinking with the secretary of the Senate and this day had consumed three more glasses of whiskey before the ceremony, in an effort to cure an "illness."

With Lincoln simply closing his eyes and his jaw visibly tensed, Johnson's speech rambled on from topic to topic. Sometimes he whispered, other times he shouted. At times he seemed to forget where he was altogether. Hamlin attempted to get Johnson to leave the dais, but he refused, or ignored him. According to the US Senate website, Johnson said, "I am a plebian. I glory in it! I am going to tell you here today, yes today, in this place, the people are everything." At the end of the speech, he grabbed the bible and said, "I kiss this book in the face of my nation of the United States."

Later, President Lincoln would write to a cabinet member, who had concerns over Johnson and his ability to lead, and tell them that everything was just fine and that Andrew Johnson "ain't a drunkard."

A little over a month later, on April 15, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and Andrew Johnson became president. He is considered to be one of the worst presidents in American history.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Cat Mayor

Talkeetna, Alaska, a little over 2 hours from Anchorage, sits between three rivers: the Susitna, Chulitna, and Talkeetna. The tiny town was established 1918 and in 2010 its population stood at 876. Its a rough place to live, with not much to do. The only industries in town are flightseeing, camping, fishing and hunting.

Fifteen years ago, the town was holding its elections for mayor. The citizens of Talkeetna were unhappy with all the candidates and were unsure and unwilling to vote for anyone. Then an idea popped into their heads.

Mayor Stubbs Facebook photo
They decided to write-in a candidate. They chose a new-born cat with no tail. 

The cat won by a landslide.

Today, newly re-elected, Mayor Stubbs has been a boon for the tiny town. In the nearly two decades since his election, tourism has boomed. Papers routinely write about the mayor and the town has no plans to replace him.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Woman Who Had Nothing But Millions

When Huguette Clark passed away at the age of 104 in May 2011, she left behind a few things: a bewildered family, an unknown identity, and an estate worth roughly $400 million. She left it all to her family…and she left none of it to her family. It was the final twist in a life full of mystery.

Huguette Clarke as a child
Ms. Huguette Clark, born on June 9, 1906, in Paris, France, was the daughter of United States Senator William Andrews Clark. Senator Clark of Montana, who lived from 1839 to 1925, and served one full term as a Democrat from 1901 to 1907, was known as one of the Copper Kings and was always mired in controversy. He was elected to the senate in 1900, but gave up the seat due to a bribery scandal, involving other legislators, and that scandal spawned the 17th Amendment, which gave the direct election of senators to the people, instead of the legislators that Clark was bribing. He was dubbed one of the Copper Kings because he made his fortune in copper mining, owning mines in Montana and Arizona, as well as owning numerous banks and newspapers, investing in real estate, and other profitable ventures. He was, at the beginning of the 20th century, either the richest or second-richest man in America, possibly behind only John D. Rockefeller himself.

Senator Clark shocked the world by announcing, when he was 64, that he had married in secret three years earlier, and had a daughter, Andrée. Huguette Clark was born two years later and in 1908, the family moved into a massive 121-room house, located at Fifth Avenue and 77th Street. Essentially a New York City mansion, the massive residence was filled with the French painting collection of the senator. Already, the young Ms. Clark lived a secluded, yet wealthy and privileged life. In 1925, Senator Clark died, and Huguette inherited one-fifth of his massive wealth. At a total value of $3.6 billion in today’s money, Huguette’s one-fifth share was equal to $700 million. (When her mother died in 1963, she inherited almost all that fortune too.)

Things began to get weird after that.

The last known photograph of
Huguette Clarke, circa 1930
Huguette became a recluse, so much so that the last known photograph of her was taken in 1930. Very little is known of her during this time. She married briefly but had no children. Her only full sister, Andrée, died at age 16 and also had no children. So everything became hers and she became more withdrawn. Her amassed wealth included a $100 million oceanfront estate in Santa Barbra, CA; a $20 million country house in CT; three apartments in New York, whose total combined value is estimated at nearly $100 million; priceless paintings by such masters as Renoir and Monet, and an equally priceless doll collection.

In 1991, she decided to live in various hospital rooms under numerous fake names, perhaps to end the emptiness she must have felt from nearly a lifetime alone. In 2010, a reporter discovered that her three apartments in New York were empty and she became fodder on the internet and tabloids, as people tried to figure out exactly who she was.

Huguette originally had two wills made out, when she was 19 and 22 respectively, that left everything to her mother. Under New York state law, these first two wills should leave everything to her current relatives making claims now, nearly 50 of them, all somehow related to Senator Clark. On March 7, 2005, she hand-wrote a new will, leaving $5 million to her long-time nurse, and only those relatives of hers that were related to her father from his first marriage. Then, six weeks later, on April 19, 2005, she wrote a new will, leaving her family nothing. In the new will, her nurse now received $34 million. Her attorney and her accountant, who worked on both wills, each received $500,000. Her doctor got $100,000. Finally, a massive amount of money went to a charity that is run by both her attorney and accountant.

So the fight begins over this lost fortune as both sides try to figure out what happened in that six-week span and try to piece together the mysterious puzzle that was the life of Huguette Clark.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Day the Mississippi River Ran Backward

The Mississippi River
The Mississippi River is part of the largest and most powerful river system in North America. Flowing entirely in the United States, it runs southward for 2,530 miles. It drains 31 different states and is the fourth longest and tenth biggest river in the world. But in 1811 and 1812, a series of powerful earthquakes struck so hard that for one day, the mighty Mississippi ran backward.

On the early morning of December 16, 1811, the tiny town of New Madrid, Mississippi, was struck by an earthquake. With less than a thousand residents in the area, there was little damage and no deaths. Then, a few hours later, between 7:15 and 8:15 am, another quake struck, only much larger in magnitude. This second quake registered an 8.6, knocked people off of their feet, snapped trees in half, and destroyed buildings in the area. The quake caused fissures to open in the ground, and sulphur pockets erupted. Thousands of acres of forest were flooded by the rise in the Mississippi river.

A third earthquake struck the same region on January 23, 1812. This one was slightly smaller, registering an 8.4, but causing the same type and amount of damage. Thankfully the death toll was lower, since the area was still recovering from the last great quake.

But the earth wasn't done with New Madrid just yet.

The destruction of New Madrid, Mississippi
On Februrary 7, 1812, at 4:45 am, the fourth and largest earthquake struck. It registered an 8.8 and the town of New Madrid was destroyed in seconds. The quake caused depressions in the waterbed of the river, creating massive whirlpools. The movement of the ground under the New Madrid area also created a thrust fault, where ground on one side of a fault moves up and over the other side of the fault. This thrust fault caused large sections of the Mississippi to rise up, creating huge waterfalls, throwing at least 30 ships around like paper, and forcing the waters of the river to flow north!

The quake was felt thousands of miles away: In Boston and Toronto, church bells rang with the swaying of the ground; walls in Cincinnati, Ohio crumbled; sidewalks spilt and cracked like eggs in Washington D.C. In and around the New Madrid area, large islands in the middle of the Mississippi, once used by pirates, disappeared forever. Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee and Big Lake in Arkansas were created in one night, as the river flowed into newly created depressions.

Damage comparison between New Madrid, MS in 1812
and Northridge, CA in 1994
It took several hours for the Mississippi River to correct itself and begin flowing south once again.

Aftershocks continued for several years after the series of earthquakes officially ended in March, 1812.

What was once the New Madrid area is still an active fault line. Experts predict that in the next 50 years, there is a 40 percent chance of 6.0 earthquake or greater on the New Madrid fault line, and a 10 percent chance of an earthquake between 7.5 and 8.0. An earthquake of 7.5 or greater in this area today would result in the largest natural disaster in United States history.

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Man Who Disappeared From a Plane

Thanksgiving Eve, 1971. It was late afternoon at the Portland International Airport, and the rain outside was pouring. A thin, olive-skinned man wearing a suit and a raincoat calmly walked up to the Northwest Orient Airlines desk and purchased tickets for a one-way flight to Seattle for $20. This was the start of what would end up as the only successful plane hijacking in United States history.

Sketch of Dan Cooper. No trace of him
has ever been found after he jumped from
the hijacked plane. 
After purchasing his ticket, the man, Dan Cooper, sat in the airport for nearly an hour, until his 4:35pm flight boarded. He got onboard with his only carryon, a black briefcase, and took a seat in the back of the plane. Once the nearly empty plane was in the air,  he put on a pair of sunglasses and ordered himself a glass of whiskey. Just before the drink came he lit up a cigarette. When the flight attendant arrived with his drink, he handed her a note.

The flight attendant, a young woman named Florence Schaffner, took the note and dropped it in her purse without reading it and turned to walk away. Cooper grabbed her hand and whispered that she needed to read the note, because he had a bomb.

Hands shaking, she took the note out and read it. Written in all capital letters, it said:
The flight attendant did as Cooper requested. She asked to see the bomb. He opened his briefcase and showed her the jumble of wires and red cylinders. Then, he told her his demands. He wanted $200,000, four parachutes, and a refueling truck standing by in Seattle to refuel the plane. If they did as they were told, no one would get hurt, and he'd let all the passengers go when they touched ground in Washington.

The pilot notified the Seattle-Tacoma Airport which then contacted the FBI. While the plane circled the airport for two hours so the authorities could gather the money, Cooper, sat calmly with Florence Schaffner, pointing out different landmarks around the Seattle area. He was never angry, violent, or rude. In all ways, he seemed like he was on any normal, run-of-the-mill flight. He even ordered another drink and paid the tab.

On the ground, the passengers were released and the money and parachutes loaded up. The plane was refueled and took off with Cooper, the pilot, co-pilot and engineer still onboard. He had also dimmed the lights inside the plane, so he couldn't be shot. Two f-106 fight jets were scrambled to follow the plane. They flew above and below the aircraft, so Cooper couldn't see them.

He told the remaining flight crew to fly toward Mexico City, at the lowest possible altitude. He instructed them to lower the landing gear, so they could get even lower. The speed of the plane dropped. Just after 8pm, the airstairs in the rear of the pane were lowered. Then, at 8:13pm, as the plane was flying over the Lewis River and the lower Cascade mountains, Dan Cooper, with his briefcase, a parachute strapped on, and the other three chutes with him, jumped off the plane...and disappeared.

The wanted poster for DB Cooper
Neither of the planes saw Cooper jump. Over the next few weeks, 300 soldiers, the largest manhunt in U.S. history, searched the area and turned up no evidence. Nothing was ever found and all potential leads turned up false. (It was at this time that Dan Cooper was misidentified in the press as DB Cooper.) The man and the money had simply vanished.

In 1972, U.S. Attorney John Mitchell released the serial numbers to the bills given to Cooper. Only counterfeited bills surfaced. In 1980, an 8-year-old boy found three stacks of cash, bound by a rubber band, on the shores of the Columbia River. They were severally disintegrated. The FBI confirmed the serial numbers matched those given to Cooper in 1971. No other money was found.

To this day, the rest of the money has never turned up anywhere in the world and the serial numbers are available online. The identity and whereabouts of Dan Cooper are also still unknown.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Man Who Was President for a Day

In the United States, the process of succession for the presidency is taken seriously. So seriously in fact, that there are 18 people in line to take over...should anything happen to the person in front. Every precaution is taken to ensure that there is no chaos in the event that the president should die. (An event that has happened four times, with Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy.)

Zachary Taylor, 12th president
Up until the 1930s, all presidential and congressional terms would commence at noon on March 4 of the year following an election year. Zachary Taylor, former major general from the Mexican-American War, was elected president in 1848. The following year, March 4 fell on a Sunday. Taylor refused to be sworn in on a Sunday, choosing instead to wait until the following day, Monday, for his inauguration.

This left the United States in a positon it had never been before. If things stayed as President-elect Taylor wanted, there would have been a single day when there was no president.

In today's line of succession, the vice-president is next in line, followed by the speaker of the house and then the president pro tempore of the Senate. The Constitution of the United States says that the vice-president is also the president of the Senate and presides over the Senate sessions. The president pro tempore is elected to preside over the Senate when the vice-president is absent. 

David Rice Atchison, 12th president?
In 1849, the president pro tempore was third in line of succession, and in that role was Senator David Atchison, a Democrat from Kansas City, Missouri. Senator Atchison was elected to the Senate in 1843 and was elected president pro tempore 13 different times, including on March 2, 1849.

With no president or vice-president from noon on March 4, 1849 until noon on March 5, 1849, Atchison technically became acting president. Opponents of the president for a day theory say that, technically, Atchison's Senate term also expired on March 4 at noon, and he never took the oath of office.

On an interesting side note, when Franklin Pierce, 13th President of the United States, suffered through his vice-president, William King, passing away after six weeks in office, Atchison, technically, became acting vice-president. Pierce wouldn't officially appoint another vice-president until his second inauguration, on March 4, 1857, when he selected John C. Breckinridge.

Atchison never stopped talking about and embellishing the story of his "one-day presidency." A statue in Kansas City, erected in his honor at the Clinton County Courthouse, has an inscription on it that reads: 

David Rice Atchison, 1807-1886, President of United States One Day.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Bridge That Twisted in the Wind

The original Tacoma Narrows Bridge was one that will live in infamy for creating one of the most amazing spectacles ever captured on film: a bridge that literally twisted in the wind and ultimately collapsed on live TV.

Built in 1940, the original Tacoma Narrows Bridge (not to be confused with the twin suspension bridges now standing) was constructed to span the Tacoma Narrows Straight, which lies between the city of Tacoma, Washington and the Kitsap Pennisula. The idea for a bridge here had been tossed around since the late 1800s before the state legislature of Washington created the Washington State Toll Bridge Authority. The Toll Bridge Authority studied the requests to build a bridge in this area; they finally agreed to build in the late 1930s.

Construction began on the bridge in 1938. Almost at once, the construction crew noticed how as the bridge grew, it began to move more and more with the wind that blew through the Narrows. Once the deck was completed, it began to move up and down, vertically, with the sometimes 40-mph winds. The local papers nicknamed the bridge as Galloping Gertie.

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge was the third largest suspension bridge in the world when it opened on July 1, 1940, beaten only by the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the George Washington Bridge in Manhattan. Even after opening, work was done to try and fix the vertical movement of the bridge.

What the builders didn't know at the time was that aeroelastic flutter was what was doing the most damage. Aeroelastic flutter is the vibrations created from one object contacting another, such as wind on stone, with the effect being the forces within the struck object couple up with its own natural vibration or movement, creating even more rapid movement.

For the next few months, the bridge began to bounce up and down, more and more often, sometimes even twisting on itself like a pretzel. The cables held, but crossing the bridge became more and more difficult and dangerous. The bridge began to move in a way that was transverse, that is, when one side of the bridge went up, the other side went down.

Then came the fateful day: November 7, 1940. At 11 am, the bridge finally collapsed. Leonard Coatsworth, the editor of the Tacoma News Tribune, was the last man crossing the bridge. He had to abandon his car and his dog.

Here is his account of what happened, from the Washington State Department of Transportation:

"I drove on the bridge and started across. In the car with me was my daughter's cocker spaniel, Tubby. The car was loaded with equipment from my beach home at Arletta. 

Just as I drove past the towers, the bridge began to sway violently from side to side. Before I realized it, the tilt became so violent that I lost control of the car. . . . I jammed on the brakes and got out, only to be thrown onto my face against the curb.

Around me I could hear concrete cracking. I started back to the car to get the dog, but was thrown before I could reach it. The car itself began to slide from side to side on the roadway. I decided the bridge was breaking up and my only hope was to get back to shore.

On hands and knees most of the time, I crawled 500 yards or more to the towers . . . . My breath was coming in gasps; my knees were raw and bleeding, my hands bruised and swollen from gripping the concrete curb . . . . Toward the last, I risked rising to my feet and running a few yards at a time . . . . Safely back at the toll plaza, I saw the bridge in its final collapse and saw my car plunge into the Narrows."

The collapse of the bridge took mere moments, but the images it created have lasted nearly a century. Here is footage of the bridge and its collapse. Coatsworth's car can even be seen in the clip. (Click here if you can't view the video on your device.)

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The King of Bombs

In the years following World War II, The United States and the Soviet Union went head to head for global domination. The Americans ended the war with the detonation of two Atomic Bombs, one over Nagasaki and one over Hiroshima. Not to be out done, the Russians began to develop their own superweapon. The result? A massive beast of a bomb, known simply as Tsar Bomba, the King of Bombs. It was the largest nuclear weapon ever constructed or detonated.

Tsar Bomba, the King of Bombs
Built by the Russians in 1961, Tsar Bomba was designed to have the firepower of 100 million tons of TNT. But, in order to reduce the nuclear fallout in their own territory, the firepower was reduced to 57 million tons of TNT. To put that in perspective, the power of this bomb was five times greater than all the TNT used in World War II (including both atomic bombs dropped over Japan). Because of its design, the bomb got 97% of its energy from from fusion reactions. Had it not, the world's fission fallout would have increased by roughly 25 percent.

The plane climbed high and dropped Tsar Bomba over the Mityushikha Bay test site, which was on the western coast of Novaya Zemlya Island. Scientists had calculated that the bomb would burst at 13,000 feet, well above the ground, hopefully reducing damage. But they were wrong. 

Fireball from the Tsar Bomba explosion
The detonation of the bomb was incredible. The cloud mushroomed up and continued to grow and grow. The fireball from the blast, though detonated in the sky and reaching a height of nearly 13,000 feet, touched the ground and swelled even higher, nearly touching the plane that released it.

The blast from the explosion was both bright and hot. The blast was seen from over 621 miles away and the pressure below the inferno was six times greater than the peak pressure of the atomic bomb felt at Hiroshima. One tester, who was 168 miles away, felt the thermal burst from the explosion.

From the Nuclear Weapons Archive, a cameraman on the plane described the explosion:

The clouds beneath the aircraft and in the distance were lit up by the powerful flash. The sea of light spread under the hatch and even clouds began to glow and became transparent. At that moment, our aircraft emerged from between two cloud layers and down below in the gap a huge bright orange ball was emerging. The ball was powerful and arrogant like Jupiter. Slowly and silently it crept upwards.... Having broken through the thick layer of clouds it kept growing. It seemed to suck the whole earth into it. The spectacle was fantastic, unreal, supernatural.

Reports from around the test site were astounding. One observer reported seeing a bright, white flash on the horizon, followed by a low and heavy rumble. They described it as if the earth "had been killed."

At a settlement 435 miles away, a shock wave from the blast was felt. At another one 559 miles aways, glass in the windows were either cracked or broken. In the town Severny, a mere 34 miles away, every building was destroyed. People 120 miles from the blast site reported third degree burns. The temperature at the epicenter of the blast reached 1 million degrees Celsius. In dozens of other towns and villages spread out from ground zero, houses and buildings were destroyed and radio signals were lost for well over an hour. 

All bombs create a disturbance when detonated, where they release radioactive atoms and electrons in a blast into the high atmosphere. The explosion of Tsar Bomba created a disturbance to the atmosphere that circled the globe three times. 

The mushroom cloud rose into the sky an astounding 210,000 feet and created an earthquake that registered a 5.0.

The Russians had succeeded in creating a sun on the earth.

The explosion was captured on camera. Here is the amazing footage. (If you can't view the video on your device, then click here.)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Senator Who Was Shot Over Slavery

About two years before the first shots deep in the South signaled the beginning of the U.S. Civil War, two men met on a field in California and dueled. The subject? Slavery. The duel was important because it showed how feelings over slavery in the United States were already tearing the country apart, even before 1861.

Photo of Senator Broderick
The men were pro-slavery Chief Justice David Terry of the California Supreme Court and Senator David Broderick (Democrat-California.) Two prominent and fairly well-known figures, their fiery positions and actions were a glimpse into what lay ahead in the 1860's.

Terry was from Kentucky; Broderick was born in Washington, D.C., but his family later moved to New York City. Even with the Republicans as the leading abolitionist party, there was still an anti-slavery section of the Democratic party. Terry didn't like this and leveled personal attacks on Senator Broderick. Terry said the abolitionist Democrats have no identity, that they were simply the followers of a single man, that they followed every whim of David Broderick. He even mocked them for saying they were supported by Stephen Douglas, D-IL., who tried to straddle both sides of the debate and went on to loose his bid for the presidency in 1860.

Terry said of Broderick, "Perhaps they do sail under the flag of Douglas, but it is the banner of the black Douglass, whose name is Frederick, not Stephen," Since Frederick Douglass was a freed slave, this was considered an insult.

A series of notes between the two men escalated the tension and the publicity. California at that time was truly the wild west and many newspapers announced duels as if they were a spectacle to behold.

So it was that on September 13th, 1859, Terry and Broderick faced off. They were at the San Francisco-San Mateo county line-Lake Merced. Dozens of people came to watch.

Broderick fired first, but his gun misfired. Justice Terry had better luck: he fired a bullet into Broderick's chest and the Senator died a few days later.

Broderick reportedly said from his deathbed: "They have killed me because I was opposed to slavery and a corrupt administration."

Terry went on to join the Confederate army and was killed in 1889 by the bodyguard of another Supreme Court Justice.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Day San Francisco Was Destroyed

San Francisco burns, 1906
Natural disasters are always life-changing events. Some are more remembered than others. One such event was the great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire. As if the earthquake itself wasn't enough, hundreds died in the great fire that erupted and burned for four days and cost an estimated $500 million in early 20th century dollars.

On the morning of April 18, 1906, at 5:25 am, there was a small quake that was felt throughout all of the Bay area. About 25 seconds later, an estimated 8.3 earthquake struck the city, with devastating affect. Buildings crumbled, streets tore open like gaping mouths, and cries filled the air.

Once the shaking stopped, the real terror began: the fires. It spread from building to building without mercy; poorly constructed wooden fixtures collapsed. People were trapped inside with no means of escape. The streets liquefied and collapsed. There was nowhere to run.

The fire department was ill-equipped to fight the blaze. A few firemen fought with knapsacks, brooms, and a fraction of water from an operating hydrant at 20th and Church. But it wasn't enough. The fire continued to spread over the next four days. On 395 Hayes Street, the "Ham and Egg" fire would break out, destroying part of the Western Addition, the Mechanics' Pavilion, and City Hall. It then jumped to Market Street where the Winchester Hotel caught fire and collapsed.

Market Street as it burned
The Hearst Building at Third and Market streets became engulfed in flames and collapsed. At first the wounded were sent to the Mechanics' Pavillion, but when the fire approached they were evacuated. The same happened at St. Mary's Hospital. Shortly thereafter, the entire Financial District caught fire and began to burn.

The city in ruin
Postal Telegraph operators transmitted their last message to the outside world as army troops ordered them from the building at 534 Market St., opposite Second St., at 2:20 p.m. because of the approaching fire. Mayor Schmitz was confident that downtown could be saved, but fire broke out at the Delmonico Restaurant in the Alcazar Theatre Building. It turned to downtown and Nob Hill.

As the fire department began to dynamite buildings to stop the blaze, all they did was keep it spreading. In the end, they never put out the fire. It simply burned itself out. The estimated damage was $500 million dollars and the death toll was estimated at 1000. Three-quarters of San Francisco had burned to the ground.

Here is incredible footage of the aftermath of the fire, from The Library of Congress. If you can't view the video on your device, click here.