Mixed Bags of History

Genghis Kahn’s empire killed 2/3 of Northern China, but people under his rule knew unrivaled gender equality and religious freedom. Mother Teresa gave aid to the poor, but also encouraged their suffering. Spiky cacti sometimes contain life-sustaining water, and even the most beautiful roses have thorns. We’re all some mix of good and bad.

Content advisory: today’s episode includes racial language in its historical context.

For 50+ years, the only thing people have known singer/actor Al Jolson for is for appearing in blackface in the first motion picture with embedded sound, The Jazz Singer. But he also promoted the work of playwright Garland Anderson, leading to the first all-black Broadway show, as well as pushing to hire a black dance group at a time when black performers were outright banned from Broadway. Beloved country singer Johnny Cash was an impassioned spokesperson for prison reform, going so far as to appear before a Senate subcommittee, to call for things like as separating first-timers from hardened criminals and focus on rehabilitation. But, he also started a forest fire that burned over 500 acres and displaced or killed dozens of endangered condors. Continue reading

Stolen Innocents

Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Funny how that only seems to apply to bad things. Without getting into current politics, which you’re safe from here, we can’t ignore the plight of children seized from parents of a particular group. And it’s not the first time either. The American government took tens of thousands of children from Native families and placed them in boarding schools with strict assimilation practices. Their philosophy – kill the Indian to save the man. My name’s Moxie and this is your brain on facts.

That was the mindset under which the U.S. government Native children to attend boarding schools, beginning in the late 19th century, when the government was still fighting “Indian wars.” There had been day and boarding schools on reservations prior to 1870, when U.S. cavalry captain, Richard Henry Pratt established the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. This school was not on a reservation, so as to further remove indigenous influences. The Carlisle school and other boarding schools were part of a long history of U.S. attempts to either kill, remove, or assimilate Native Americans. “As white population grew in the United States and people settled further west towards the Mississippi in the late 1800s, there was increasing pressure on the recently removed groups to give up some of their new land,” according to the Minnesota Historical Society. Since there was no more Western territory to push them towards, the U.S. decided to remove Native Americans by assimilating them. In 1885, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Hiram Price explained the logic: “it is cheaper to give them education than to fight them.”
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Swiss Army Wife, with Bunny Trails Podcast

I’m pretty good at this wife business, but I can’t say that I would take over my husband’s public office after his death, re-edit his film to launch a genre-defining franchise, or kill an enemy general after he was over-run. However, there are a lot of women in history who would, and did, all those things and more.

From French pirates to Chilean warrior to American filmmakers, we look at women who earn the title “super wife,” with help from Bunny Trails Podcast.

It’s not uncommon, across the world and throughout history, for a woman who has been widowed to take over her husband’s business. This may be a ranch or a store, even a mine, but what if your late husband earned his bread in the US Congress? Believe it or not, there is a protocol known as “widow’s succession” or “widow’s mandate.” “Widow’s succession used to be THE way that women got into Congress, with very few exceptions,” explains Debbie Walsh of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. It wasn’t a blue-moon occurrence. 47 women have taken over their husband’s seat, 8 in the Senate and 39 in the House. Neither was this an old-timey system that’s been long forgotten. The practice actually peaked in the mid-twentieth century. “There was a period when you could look at all the women serving in Congress, and a majority had initially gotten in that way.” Widow’s Succession has declined, but two women are serving in Congress presently because of it – Lois Capps and Doris Matsui, both Democrats from California.
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Ink and Pain: Tattoos, with Hobbit from GUI Podcasts

“The body is a temple and it’s our job to decorate it.” From tatau in Polynesia to Sailor Jerry to the oppressed class that gave rise to the Yakuza, we touch on some highlights from the history of tattoos.

Huge thanks to my guest presenter Mike “Hobbit” Bickett from Geeks Under the Influence Podcast network. Check out the episode of Smack My Pitch Up he let me do with him.

For those who don’t know me personally, I’m coming to you today from Richmond, VA, the #4 most tattooed city in America, depending on which list you’re looking at, a city with 15 tattoo shops per 100,000 people. Our unnofficial motto is “The body is a temple and it’s our job to decorate it,” right after “We don’t like the way things are, but don’t you dare suggest changing it.”

Tattooing is one of the earliest visual art forms and has served as a means of self-expression for thousands of years. The process was probably discovered when ash or dirt became embedded in an open wound, leaving an indelible mark when healed. The word tattoo is derived from the Tahitian word ‘tatau’ which means to mark. The earliest known reference to the word was made by Joseph Banks, a naturalist aboard Cpt. Cook’s the Endeavour, “I shall now mention the way they mark themselves indelibly; each of them is so marked by their humour or disposition”. By the 1700s, the word tattoo was in use in Europe. The term and knowledge of the practice was probably re-introduced to Europe by sailors returning from Polynesia. I say “re-introduced,” because early Britons used tattoos in ceremonies. The Danes, Norse, and Saxons tattooed themselves with clan sigils, an early form of family crest. The practice took a major hit when Pope Hadrian banned tattooing in the eighth century, but it was the Norman Invasion of 1066, with its ink-antagonist Normans that caused it to disappear from Western Europe until the 16th century.
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Secret Cities

We all lose things — keys, wallets, patience — but how do you lose an entire city? Hear the stories of three American towns built in a hurry but kept off the map, secure Soviet enclaves known by their post codes, ancient cities found by modern technology, and the ingenious engineering of underground dwellings.

In 1943, three ordinary-looking US cities were constructed at record speed, but left off all maps. Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Richland, Washington; and Los Alamos, New Mexico held laboratories and sprawling industrial plants, as well as residential neighborhoods, schools, churches, and stores. The three cities had a combined population of more than 125,000 and one extraordinary purpose: to create nuclear weapons as part of the Manhattan project, the U.S. military’s initiative to develop nuclear weapons.

Their design was driven by unique considerations, such as including buffer zones for radiation leaks or explosions. In each case, there were natural features, topographical features, that were considered to be favorable. In all three cases, they were somewhat remote—in the case of Hanford and Los Alamos, very remote—which offered a more secure environment, of course. But also, in the event of a disaster, an explosion or a radiation leak, that would also minimize the potential exposure of people outside the project to any sort of radiation danger. The sites were selected far from one another in case German or Japanese bombers somehow managed to penetrate that far into the United States, it would be harder for them in a single bombing run to take out more than one facility. K-25 plant at Oak Ridge, which was where they enriched uranium using the gaseous diffusion method, was the largest building in the world under a single roof, spanning more than 40 acres.
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Foxtrot Alpha Charlie Tango Sierra

For Independence Day, we’re doing a two-parter on heroic animals, innovations from the field, and noteworthy bad-asses. Topics include a pigeon who saved hundreds of lives, a crossbow for grenades and Jack Churchill, who went into WWI with a claymore and bagpipes, despite not being Scottish. Part 2 is in the Read More.

3,150 soldiers and 54,000 pigeons made up the United States Army Pigeon Service, from 1917 to 1957, who delivered messages with an astounding 90 percent success rate. One American pigeon known as G.I. Joe, no joke, even received a medal for gallantry after delivering a vital, last-minute message informing British forces that the Italian village they were about to attack was actually under British control, thus preventing a friendly fire disaster that might have resulted in a thousand deaths.

Though I’m related by blood, marriage, and ex-marriage to a member of all five branches of the service – yes, the Coast Guard counts – I myself am civilian through and through and not intimately familiar with daily life in the military. I’d probably be more useful, and less dangerous, in a support role than in the infantry. It takes between 1 and 4 support roles to keep one soldier in the field. There can be obvious things, like medics and supply, and more niche jobs like writers and graphic design. We had a poll on your Facebook and Instagram last week on what the topic for this week should be. Strange military jobs took a slight lead, but when I started researching, the other topics starting falling into my lap, so we’ll get to the jobs on another episode, possibly for Veteran’s Day.
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We Can’t Have Nice Things: Art & Antiquities Edition

In the height of irony, many priceless works of art and antiquities have been destroyed by the people who were trying to preserve them. Modern art can be especially susceptible to accidental destruction by well-meaning parties. Some things were destroyed by unthinking or unfeeling people. Some relics were destroyed for the sake of money, even entire pyramids. Some things were destroyed by people who think they’re more important than, ya know, the history of the planet and its people.

Ecce Homo, Behold the Man, was the name of a fresco, a watercolor on plaster, of Jesus Christ painted in 1930 by Elias Garcia Martinez on a church wall in Borja, Spain. For the past 6 years, people have been calling it Monkey Christ or Beast Christ, ever since a well-intentioned 85 year old woman who lived near the church took it upon herself to restore the priceless piece. She had no training in art restoration or even painting, but how hard could it really be? Pretty damn hard, as it turns out. In place of the Renaissance-style face was now a smeary circle, wreathed in what looks like a maribu balaclava, with a nose like a folk-art sock doll, the crooked, misplaced eyes of a failed anime sketch, and a mouth like a lipstick smear left by a bass.

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The family of the original artist have said they will seek legal action against Gimenez for “destroying” the work. Senora Gimenez was sincerely trying to help and, in a way, she did. When word and pictures spread across the internet, tourists began to flock to Borja. The town with a population of 5,000 or so was hit particularly hard by the global recession. In the first three years after the abuela’s mis-strokes, 160,000 people, and their money, made the pilgrimage to see it. The church began collecting a 4 euro/ $5 entrance fee, raising 2,000 euros/$2,500 in the first four days. But even a silver lining can tarnish. Gimenez did not fail to notice the fresco’s huge popularity; now she wants royalties for her work. Her lawyers insist she should be entitled to a cut of the profits. Continue reading

Mummy’s Day

We cover the way people in Victorian Europe used (and abused) Egyptian mummies, whether or not mummies were burned for fuel, Catholic saints who do not decay, natural mummies preserved in ice, moss, and salt, child mummies of the Andes, and Buddhist monk mummifying themselves.

We’ll be using the timing of this episode to talk about bandaged bodies, the preserved passed-on, those desiccated decedents, mummies. Ancient Egypt knew its business when it came to preserving their dead, there’s no two ways about it. By some estimates, over the course of three millennia, more than 70 million people and animals were mummified. While the earliest Egyptian specimen we’ve found dates to 3,000 BCE, the oldest anthropogenically modified mummy, that is a body that someone intentionally preserved through drying, dates back to approximately 5050 BCE, in the high, dry, cold mountains of South America. Even older still is a natural mummy found in the Atacama Desert in modern-day Chile; that person is believed to have died in the year 7020 BCE, over 9,000 years ago. The Atacama Desert is an ideal place for the creation of mummies, as it gets less than an inch of rain, annually.

Mummies were considered very Gothic. In the Victorian era, when Gothic equalled cool, unwrapping mummies became a must-have for any self-respecting party host. “Come to Lord Longsberry’s at 2 p.m., Piccadilly, for the unwrapping of a mummy from Thebes. Champagne and canapés to follow.”

Mummy, often sold as “mummia”, was applied to the skin or powdered and mixed into drinks as a treatment for bruising and other ailments. The belief may have come from ancients such as Pliny the Elder, who wrote that the bitumen used to embalm mummies offered healing powers. Adherents included the French King Francis I, who kept a pouch of powdered mummy on his belt and ate rhubarb and mummy powder every day — because he “thought it kept him strong and safe from assassins.”

Natural mummies are a widespread phenomenon, appearing all over the globe. You’re probably on a first-name basis with the best known, Otzi, the ice man. Also frozen in ice but much more elaborately tattooed is a mummy known as the Siberian ice princess. The remains of the immaculately dressed woman, approximately 25 of age and preserved for two and a half millennia in the Siberian permafrost were discovered in 1993. Where Otzi only had lines, the princess had both arms covered with tattoos of animals, in large, bold designs, which can still be seen as clear as day on her leathery skin.

One of the most heavily-relied-upon preservatives in the world, salt, has also given us natural mummies. Half a dozen mummies have been found in a salt mine in Iran. The first salt mummy, dated to 300 CE; the oldest is truly ancient and has been carbon dated to 9550 BCE.

No salt is needed in the high Andeas mountains and the Atacama desert that lies between them and the sea. The Children of Llullaillaco are three Inca child mummies rediscovered in 1999. Dryness and cold temperatures are both major reasons for the excellent preservation of the mummies for 500 years. Children were usually chosen from nobles families, but were picked primarily based on their “physical perfection”. The mummies have been the subject of controversy, especially with regards to indigenous rights, with their display called “a violation of our loved ones.”