Radium Girls

From Buzzfeed, courtesy Elizabeth Keohane:

The Forgotten Story Of The Radium Girls, Whose Deaths Saved Thousands Of Workers’ Lives

During World War I, hundreds of young women went to work in clock factories, painting watch dials with luminous radium paint. But after the girls — who literally glowed in the dark after their shifts — began to experience gruesome side effects, they began a race-against-time fight for justice that would forever change US labor laws.

Read the whole thing.

Heligoland

779px-DE_Helgoland_COA.svg

Heligoland coat of arms. Wikipedia.

From the National Post:

‘Blow the bloody place up’: Why, 70 years ago, Britain blew up an entire German island

In 1947, Britain had a problem. It had thousands of tonnes of explosives left over from the Second World War. And it also had a German island in the North Sea that it hated.

So, 70 years ago this week, the Royal Navy enacted an elegant solution: Use the explosives to blow the island to hell.

“Blow the bloody place up,” was reportedly the instructions given to F.T. Woosnam, the British naval engineer tasked with making the island of Heligoland disappear.

The preparation wasn’t overly technical.

For nearly a year, crews had simply stacked up more than 7,000 tonnes of old munitions and wired them together: Depth charges, old torpedoes, boxes of grenades and stacks of aerial bombs.

Photos from the era show crews nonchalantly kicking dismantled torpedoes into large heaps.

The resulting April 19 explosion, triggered with the push of a button by a sharply dressed naval commander, not only shattered every vestige of human habitation on the island — but permanently altered the topography of the place.

The United Kingdom had plenty of reasons to hate Heligoland. For starters, the island had once been part of the British Empire after it was captured during the Napoleonic Wars.

But finding no use for a windy outcrop filled with vacationers, in 1890 London handed it over to the newly formed German Empire in exchange for the African island of Zanzibar.

To the Brits’ chagrin, the Germans then proceeded to spend two world wars using Heligoland as a fortress from which to attack the U.K.

The island was the site of the first naval battle of the First World War, and the first major aerial battle of the Second World War. In both conflicts, it was a key forward base for submarines looking to starve the U.K. into submission.

After the first war in 1918, the victorious Allies had simply ordered the island to be demilitarized.

But when that clearly hadn’t worked, the victors of another war settled on a backup plan: Detonate the place so severely that it could never again be used for military purposes.

“A very reasonable way of celebrating Hitler’s birthday,” proclaimed the narrator of British newsreel documenting the destruction.

Then, just for good measure, the Royal Air Force spent the rest of the 1940s using Heligoland as a target site for their bombers.

Only in 1952 were Heligolanders allowed to move back.

Why the Brits didn’t just keep it I do not know. I seem to remember that the place played a role in the John Malkovich movie Shadow of the Vampire (2000). Click on the link to read more and to see newsreel footage of the explosion.

Disasters

• What caused the Bronze Age Collapse? Eric Cline, author of 1177, gives an interview about it:

The urge to find a single explanation as the cause for such calamitous events seems to come from a modern human need for an easy explanation as often as possible. Certainly some of the members of the general public who have left reviews of my book on Amazon seem to want that still, and are miffed that I even-handedly go through the evidence and then conclude that there isn’t a simple solution. I actually think that it is far more interesting to delve into a multi-causal explanation, because in this case Occam’s Razor (that the simplest solution is the most likely) just won’t cut it. Although I think it seemed very logical to early scholars like Gaston Maspero and others to blame the Sea Peoples, they originally formulated that hypothesis based on Ramses III’s inscription at Medinet Habu and not much else. But, it has long been clear that it took much more than a single cause to bring down the Bronze Age civilizations. As you point out, the mere fact that the inland empires like Kassite Babylonia, Elam, and Assyria also declined shows that we can’t just blame the Sea Peoples for everything, much as one might want to do so.

Thus, my main thesis is that there must have been a ‘perfect storm’ of calamitous events at that turning point in order to cause the Late Bronze Age civilizations to collapse shortly after 1200 BC. There is both direct and circumstantial evidence that there was climate change, drought and famine, earthquakes, invasions and internal rebellions, all at that approximate time. Of these, I would rank them in that specific order of importance: climate change; drought and famine; earthquakes; invaders; and internal rebellions. Although human beings have survived such catastrophes time and again when they come individually, such as rebuilding after an earthquake or living through a drought, what if they all occurred at once, or in quick succession?

• From the National Post:

Everyone was dead: When Europeans first came to British Columbia, they stepped into the aftermath of a holocaust

Everywhere they looked, there were corpses. Abandoned, overgrown villages were littered with skulls; whole sections of coastline strewn with bleached, decayed bodies.

“The skull, limbs, ribs and backbones, or some other vestiges of the human body, were found in many places, promiscuously scattered about the beach in great numbers,” wrote explorer George Vancouver in what is now Port Discovery, Wash.

It was May 1792. The lush environs of the Georgia Strait had once been among the most densely populated corners of the land that is now Canada, with humming villages, harbours swarming with canoes and valleys so packed with cookfires that they had smog.

But the Vancouver Expedition experienced only eerie quiet….

“News reached them from the east that a great sickness was travelling over the land, a sickness that no medicine could cure, and no person escape,” said a man identified as Old Pierre, a member of what is now the Katzie First Nation in Pitt Meadows, B.C.

After an emergency meeting, the doomed forebears of the Katzie decided to face the coming catastrophe with as much grace as they could muster: Every adult returned to the home of their parents to wait for the end.

“Then the wind carried the smallpox sickness among them. Some crawled away into the woods to die; many died in their homes,” Old Pierre told the anthropologist Diamond Jenness in 1936.

• Just over one hundred years ago, the steamer Eastland overturned in the Chicago River, killing some 800 people. From the History Channel website:

The disaster was caused by serious problems with the boat’s design, which were known but never remedied.

The Eastland was owned by the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company and made money ferrying people from Chicago to picnic sites on the shores of Lake Michigan. When the Eastland was launched in 1903, it was designed to carry 650 passengers, but major construction and retrofitting in 1913 supposedly allowed the boat to carry 2,500 people. That same year, a naval architect presciently told officials that the boat needed work, stating unless structural defects are remedied to prevent listing, there may be a serious accident.

On July 24, employees of Western Electric Company were heading to an annual picnic. About 7,300 people arrived at 6 a.m. at the dock between LaSalle and Clark streets to be carried out to the site by five steamers. While bands played, much of the crowd—perhaps even more than the 2,500 people allowed—boarded the Eastland. Some reports indicate that the crowd may also have all gathered on one side of the boat to pose for a photographer, thus creating an imbalance on the boat. In any case, engineer Joseph Erikson opened one of the ballast tanks, which holds water within the boat and stabilizes the ship, and the Eastland began tipping precariously.

Some claim that the crew of the boat jumped back to the dock when they realized what was happening. What is known for sure is that the Eastlandcapsized right next to the dock, trapping hundreds of people on or underneath the large ship. Rescuers quickly attempted to cut through the hull with torches, allowing them to pull out 40 people alive. More than 800 others perished. Police divers pulled up body after body, causing one diver to break down in a rage. The city sent workers out with a large net to prevent bodies from washing out into the lake. Twenty-two entire families died in the tragedy.

Brunhilde Pomsel, 1911-2017

From the Washington Post, via the National Post:

Brunhilde Pomsel, Joseph Goebbels’ secretary and one of the last surviving top Nazi staffers, dead at 106

by Emily Langer

Brunhilde Pomsel, a secretary to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels who late in life came forward to publicly reflect on, if perhaps not fully reckon with, questions of personal and collective guilt in the face of the Holocaust, died during the night of Jan. 27 at her home in Munich. She was 106.

Her death was confirmed by Roland Schrotthofer, a director of “A German Life,” a documentary drawn from dozens of hours of interviews conducted with Pomsel when she was 103. No other details were immediately available.

Pomsel was one of the last surviving members of the Nazi hierarchy’s most intimate staff, but she spent all but the final years of her life in obscurity. She became widely known only after the premiere of the documentary in Nyon, Switzerland, in 2016. The U.S. release is forthcoming.

The film, directed by Schrotthofer, Christian Krönes, Olaf S. Müller and Florian Weigensamer, presents an arresting portrait of an ordinary German swept into the Nazi apparatus in her youth, then left to reflect for more than seven decades on her complicity, if any, in its crimes.

Pomsel sparkled on camera in her lucidity. She confessed to harboring “a bit of a guilty conscience” but professed that she had known nothing of the murder of six million Jews during the Holocaust — the “matter of the Jews,” as she termed it — until after the war was over.

 

More at the link.

Oh, They Built the Ship Titanic…

From The Independent:

The sinking of the RMS Titanic may have been caused by an enormous fire on board, not by hitting an iceberg in the North Atlantic, experts have claimed, as new evidence has been published to support the theory.

More than 1,500 passengers lost their lives when the Titanic sank on route to New York from Southampton in April 1912.

While the cause of the disaster has long been attributed to the iceberg, fresh evidence has surfaced of a fire in the ship’s hull, which researchers say burned unnoticed for almost three weeks leading up to the collision.

While experts have previously acknowledged the theory of a fire on board, new analysis of rarely seen photographs has prompted researchers to blame the fire as the primary cause of the ship’s demise.

Journalist Senan Molony, who has spent more than 30 years researching the sinking of the Titanic, studied photographs taken by the ship’s chief electrical engineers before it left Belfast shipyard.

Mr Maloney said he was able to identify 30-foot-long black marks along the front right-hand side of the hull, just behind where the ship’s lining was pierced by the iceberg.

He said: “We are looking at the exact area where the iceberg stuck, and we appear to have a weakness or damage to the hull in that specific place, before she even left Belfast”.

More at the link.

On This Day…

Ninety-eight years ago Boston witnessed an event similar to the London Beer Flood. From New England Today, notice of the Great Molasses Flood of 1919:

In January of 1919 Purity Distilling Company of Boston, maker of high-grade rum, was working three shifts a day in a vain attempt to outrun national Prohibition. The company’s huge iron tank along the water’s edge at 529 Commercial Street in the North End was filled with more than two million gallons of molasses. Pipes entering the tank were heated to aid the flow of the dense liquid. A solitary vent was the only outlet for the fermenting gases.

It was just after noon on January 15 when the great molasses tank exploded with a ground-shaking blast. Those nearby who survived the ensuing catastrophe reported strange noises coming from the tank just before it let go. “It was like someone was on the inside hammering to get out,” said one witness.

A massive tidal wave of molasses swept across Commercial Street, smashing into a house at 6 Copps Hill Terrace, demolishing the building and killing Mrs. Bridget Clougherty. The metal latticework of the Boston Elevated Railway Company’s Atlantic Avenue line, running above Commercial Street, was struck by a large chunk of the shattered tank. A section of the El collapsed. A quick-thinking motorman, seeing the rail disappear ahead of the train, dashed to the rear car and, with the steel wheels spinning, managed to get it headed in the opposite direction.

The Bay State Street Railway freight depot and several motorized boxcars were destroyed. On the waterfront, Boston Fireboat #31 was sunk at its dock with loss of life. A five-ton Mack truck was picked up by the wave of molasses and slammed into a building. The city paving department office and stable were erased within seconds, killing five men and a number of horses. Scores of buildings, vehicles and bystanders were swept away. In all, 11 people were killed and more than 50 injured by the initial explosion.

Click on the link for more, including numerous photographs. Residents of the area claim that on hot summer days you can still smell the aroma of molasses in the air. I’m pleased to note that unlike Meux’s Brewery, the Purity Distilling Company actually was found responsible for the accident, and had to pay compensation to the survivors.

Prime Ministers

For what it’s worth, the Historical Writers’ Association has conducted a poll of its membership, to vote on the worst Prime Minister of the last hundred years. From the Guardian:

Margaret Thatcher has narrowly beaten David Cameron to be named the worst prime minister of the past 100 years by historical writers.

The Historical Writers’ Association surveyed its membership on their views of the 19 prime ministers who have led the UK since 1916, in advance both of this year’sHarrogate History festival later this week, and Theresa May’s 100th day in office on 22 October. Thatcher, who died in 2013, came in first with 24% of the vote, followed by Cameron (22%) and Neville Chamberlain (17%).

Authors singled out Thatcher’s attitude to society as a chief problem with her premiership. “She destroyed too many good things in society, and created too many bad ones, then left a social and moral vacuum in which the selfishly rich and unimaginatively fortunate could too easily destroy still more of what they don’t need and can’t see that everyone else does need,” said the writer Emma Darwin.

“Thatcher made the idea of society, in the sense of a community that cares for all its members and accepts the premise that people need support and should not be stigmatised for it, an anathema,” wrote historical novelist Catherine Hokin in her response. “It is easy to demonise politicians and resort to ad hominem rather than policy attacks, but Thatcher encouraged the worst behaviour across all aspects of society and we are still reaping her poisoned harvest.”

But Paddy Ashdown, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, begged to differ: “I disagreed with Mrs Thatcher, I fought her all the way. But I thought she was a great and necessary destroyer. Some of those old structures she pulled down had to be pulled down, but what she wasn’t was a builder.

“Oddly enough, this will offend some, I put her down as one of the most successful PMs of all time, not because I agreed with her, but because she laid out her stall and she achieved it, and Britain in many ways was stronger afterwards – although in many ways it was also weaker, particularly our sense of communities,” said Ashdown, who will speak at the festival later this week about his latest book, Game of Spies.

More at the link.

Some Links

• From TheProvince.com: Evidence that Greeks settled in China in the 200s BC and may have helped to construct the Terra Cotta Army.

• From Curbed.com: “Definitive proof that no one did costume parties like the Bauhaus”

• From the Telegraph: “The Norman Conquest was a disaster for England. We should celebrate Naseby, not Hastings”

Le Sacre du Printemps

It’s over three years old now, but I missed it at the time: a significant anniversary noticed in The Verge:

100 years ago today, ‘The Rite of Spring’ incited a riot in a Paris theater

It began with a bassoon and ended in a brawl.

One hundred years ago today, Russian composer Igor Stravinsky debuted The Rite of Spring before a packed theater in Paris, with a ballet performance that would go down as one of the most important — and violent — in modern history.

Today, The Rite is widely regarded as a seminal work of modernism — a frenetic, jagged orchestral ballet that boldly rejected the ordered harmonies and comfort of traditional composition. The piece would go on to leave an indelible mark on jazz, minimalism, and other contemporary movements, but to many who saw it on that balmy evening a century ago, it was nothing short of scandalous.

Details surrounding the events of May 29th, 1913 remain hazy. Official records are scarce, and most of what is known is based on eyewitness accounts or newspaper reports. To this day, experts debate over what exactly sparked the incident — was it music or dance? publicity stunt or social warfare? — though most agree on at least one thing: Stravinsky’s grand debut ended in mayhem and chaos.

The tumult began not long after the ballet’s opening notes — a meandering and eerily high-pitched bassoon solo that elicited laughter and derision from many in the audience. The jeers became louder as the orchestra progressed into more cacophonous territory, with its pounding percussion and jarring rhythms escalating in tandem with the tensions inside the recently opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.

Things reached a near-fever pitch by the time the dancers took the stage, under the direction of famed choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky of the Ballets Russes. Dressed in whimsical costumes, the dancers performed bizarre and violent moves, eschewing grace and fluidity for convulsive jerks that mirrored the work’s strange narrative of pagan sacrifice. Onstage in Paris, the crowd’s catcalls became so loud that the ballerinas could no longer hear the orchestra, forcing Nijinsky to shout out commands from backstage.

A scuffle eventually broke out between two factions in the audience, and the orchestra soon found itself under siege, as angry Parisians hurled vegetables and other objects toward the stage. It’s not clear whether the police were ever dispatched to the theater, though 40 people were reportedly ejected. Remarkably, the performance continued to completion, though the fallout was swift and brutal.

More at the link and, if you’re interested, in Modris Eksteins’s wonderful book Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (1989).

From Lake Geneva to the Finland Station

From the Financial Times, an interesting review of four books dealing with Russia’s October Revolution, whose centennial will be observed next year:

Next April will mark the 100th anniversary of what was surely the most consequential train journey in history. Vladimir Lenin, the Bolshevik revolutionary and future founder of the Soviet state, travelled from Zurich through Germany to Petrograd, the Russian capital, on a journey that the government in Berlin set up in a bid to destabilise Russia and win the first world war. In Winston Churchill’s inimitable words: “They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland to Russia.”

From Lenin’s train ride, and from the Bolshevik seizure of power to which it led in October 1917 (November 1917 by the western calendar that Russia adopted in 1918), flowed the 20th century’s most important military and political events. “The Revolution put in power the totalitarian communism that eventually ruled one third of the human race, stimulated the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, and thus the Second World War, and created the great antagonist the West faced for the forty years Cold War balance of terror,” Tony Brenton says in his introduction to Historically Inevitable?

More at the link. (Title is a lyrical reference.)