Archive for the ‘History’ Category.

Trial By Ordeal

Peter Leeson has an article on Medieval trial by ordeal that is getting a lot of attention.

Modern observers have roundly condemned ordeals for being cruel and arbitrary. Ordeals seem to reflect everything that was wrong with the Dark Ages. They're an icon of medieval barbarism and backwardness.

But a closer look suggests something very different: The ordeal system worked surprisingly well. It accurately determined who was guilty and who was innocent, sorting genuine criminals from those who had been wrongly accused. Stranger still, the ordeal system suggests that pervasive superstition can be good for society. Medieval legal systems leveraged citizens' superstitious beliefs through ordeals, making it possible to secure criminal justice where it would have otherwise been impossible to do so. Some superstitions, at least, may evolve and persist for a good reason: They help us accomplish goals we couldn't otherwise accomplish, or accomplish them more cheaply.

I guess I agree with the proposition that pervasive shared superstitions allow the populace to be more easily governed, or more rightly, make it easier for rulers to exercise power over the masses through leverage of shared superstition.  Whether it improves our well-being is an entirely different matter, but for a certain type of intellectual (I have no idea if Leeson is among them) more government power = well-being.  The author cites oath-swearing as a modern superstition that allows us to be governed more easily, but I am not sure that is correct as I think the power of oaths today are driven by peer-pressure and mass response to publicly broken oaths as well as perjury laws.  A better example of modern superstitions that allow easier exercise of power include things like global warming catastrophism.

I am not a medievelist, except as a hobby, but I would offer a couple of rebuttals to specific points he makes:

  • I think he overstates the cost savings of ordeals.  There were prominent folks in the Catholic Church that had doubts about ordeals long before they were banned, and ordeals were typically used as a last result when fact-finding and other methods didn't work.  We have to be careful comparing costs.  One lord gathering evidence for a few days might be, as a percentage of the government's resources, as costly then as a 1-year OJ trial is today.
  • Trials were not broken because they were too costly, they were broken because the law was bad.  There was no such thing as a state prosecutor, so all criminal actions were basically private actions, and they tended to have a rough version of loser pays.  For example, if one accused his neighbor of a capital offense, and the neighbor was acquitted, then the accuser suffered the punishment - ie death.   As a result, the state was left without an effective tool to prosecute crime, and in fact most justice was private justice (ie vengeance of family and friends) and never saw a court, ordeal or other sort.
  • I had a great Medievalist professor at Princeton that I am totally blanking on his name right now [update:  William Jordan, now apparently department head at Princeton].  He used to argue, I think compellingly, that all ordeals had an element of discretion.  Sure, you had to grab the rock in the boiling water, but the real test was that your wounds would be bound and then several days later inspected by the clergy to see if it was festering or not.   This is obviously a judgment call, and thus 1. gave the priests the power to be the effective jury for these actions and 2.  gave the priests a substantial amount of power  (as well as money, since they made good coin charging for ordeals).  [update:  A better summary of Leeson's work says that Leeson is arguing the same thing.  See here]

Update: Intriguingly, from a review of Jordan's book  "the Great Famine," a story I also discuss in my climate videos

The early 1300s must have seemed like the end of the world to the unfortunate inhabitants of Europe: brutally severe winters gave way to lightning storms and torrential, crop-destroying rains in spring, followed by cold summers and then bitter winters again. "The whole world was troubled," wrote one Austrian chronicler; yet that was only the beginning. Princeton University historian William Chester Jordan reconstructs the terrible decades when climatological change led to famine, disease, rampant inflation, and social breakdown across the European continent, a time when every prayer for relief was met by even crueler turns of fate.

Damn those 14th century oil companies!

Post-War Devastation

We associate photos like this one with the devastation of post-war Europe.

02394a.preview

In fact, this is a post-war photo, but it is of Charleston, South Carolina after the Civil War.   We seldom think of such scenes as being relevent to the US, but the South was at least as destroyed after the Civil War as Germany was after WWII.   Sherman's march to the sea in Georgia was famous for its devastation, but in their letters, many of Sherman's soldiers say they were particularly ferocious in South Carolina, the state that they most associated with the war and its start  (though much of the devastation in Charleston was self-inflicted, as a fire to burn the remaining cotton and keep it out of Yankee hands spread to the rest of the city).

Full sized image at Shorpy

What's Next -- Dreaming of Mussolini?

Violet at Reclusive Leftist writes in an article entitled, "Dreaming of Diocletian":

When the Roman Empire was broken, Diocletian fixed it. He completely revamped the imperial government, discarding centuries of tradition in favor of a new organizational structure designed to meet the challenges of the day. You can do stuff like that when you're an emperor. It was sort of a one-man Constitutional Convention.

I think of Diocletian whenever I contemplate the political mess in this country.

Let's make sure we understand what Diocletian did.  What she calls "fixing the Roman Empire" was in fact the imposition of a new level of autocracy.  The best modern equivalent would be if Putin were reunify the old Soviet Union through military force and repression.  Would we celebrate this? No?  Then why do we celebrate when it happened 18 centuries ago?

Certainly since Augustus, the Empire had been ruled autocratically, but there were checks on the Emperor's power, not the least of which was the fact that the Empire simply didn't have the bureaucracy or communications for real command and control governance.  Further, the Emperors had at least maintained a facade, and sometimes a reality, of being a servant of the people - calling themselves Princeps , or something like the "first man."

Diocletian changed all of that.  He demanded people call him Dominus and Deus, meaning Lord and God.  But Lord is a poor translation of Dominus - literally dominus meant master to a slave.  The Empire became a nation of slaves with one master, Diocletian.  Any who approached Diocletian for audience had to approach on hands and knees with face averted.  If Diocletian ruled in ones favor, he was allowed to crawl on hands and knees and kiss the hem of the Emporer's tunic.

Diocletian was faced with an enormous economic problem - the debasement of a currency by generations of emperors who spent more than they had (sounds familiar).  Instead of forcing the hard changes to re-establish a sound currency, Diocletian dealt with the rampant inflation from the debased currency by setting maximum prices for every good and service in the Empire, with violations punishable by death.

When the inevitable shortages occurred (as happen whenever the government enforces a price ceiling), Diocletian dealt with the shortages by forcing key businessmen (bakers, sausage makers, etc.) to remain in business (can you say directive 10-289?)  Further, he mandated that all children of these men must remain in the same profession perpetually.  If your father was a baker, by law you were to be one as well.  He also did this for a number of underpaid government jobs that no one wanted - making them hereditary so people of the future would be forced to fill them.

Diocletian also had a tax problem.  Much of his taxes came from property taxes on farm land.  The tax was attached as a fixed amount to certain pieces of land.  When those values got too high, the occupants abandoned the land and moved to the city, and no one was there to pay the tax.  Diocletian took a census and forced peasants to return to the land of their birthplace, and forced them to remain in perpetuity on certain plots of land and then pay the taxes on that land to the government  (eventually these taxes morphed into rents to the local government noble in charge).

If you see the origins of much of the worst of the middle ages in all of this -- serfs tied to the land, paying rents to the master, with hereditary professional guilds in the towns -- you are not far off.

When I dream of Diocletian, all I get is a nightmare.

PS- Which is really what the quoted author wants, some sort of fascism by females.

Things I Didn't Know

As both a computer geek and a WWII buff, I of course know something of Alan Turing's incredible contributions to both.  I also knew he was gay, but didn't think much about it.  What I didn't know was how horribly he was abused by the British government, actions for which the government has now appologized:

In 1952, he was convicted of "˜gross indecency' -- in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence -- and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison -- was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later.

A lot more at the link.  I am constantly amazed at how we tend to elevate the mediocre while treating the truly great so shabbily.

Postscript: The most entertaining way to learn something about Turing, albeit in fictionalized form, is to read Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, one of my favorite books.  The story is good (not great, but good) but the writing is just fabulous.  Who else could entertain one for page after page on the physics of eating Cap'n Crunch cereal?

A Better Time

4a24890u

Via Shorpy, Cadillac Square in 1916 Detroit.  A substantially more prosperous city than today.

Generation Skipping

Glen Reynolds linked this a while ago, but I was fascinated that two of President Tylers grandsons are still alive.   President Tyler was born in 1790 and died before the Civil War was over.  The younger of the two is profiled here. The key seems to be that his father was conceived when President Tyler was in his 60's, and he was conceived when his father was about 75.

Those Stable, Happy 1950's

From an article about the Edsel:

total new car sales in the United States declined 31% from the 1957 to 1958 model years

Gosh, and we managed to get out of that without spending a trillion dollars.  Wow.

Postscript: Sometimes it is hard for fiction to top reality.  In vacation, the movie-makers tried to create the ugliest station wagon they could imagine.

truckster

They didn't even come close to topping reality

edsel

The Original 9/11, Except it was on 9/16

This was a bit of history I never knew:

wall-street-bomb

"Wall Street bomb." Aftermath of the explosion that killed dozens of people in New York's financial district on September 16, 1920, when a horse wagon loaded with dynamite and iron sash weights blew up in front of the J.P. Morgan bank at 23 Wall Street. The attack, which was attributed to Italian anarchists, was never solved. 5x7 glass negative, George Grantham Bain Collection.

This is from Shorpy.com, a blog that has daily posts with really nice photography from the 19th and early 20th centuries.  The photo above is actually just a thumbnail - go to the original post and click on the full size image.  All of their photos are posted in huge, high-resolution scans.

Save Our Industry, The Economy Depends on It

I have been on a Civil War reading binge lately, which began when I read "Time on the Cross", which is a really interesting economic analysis of American slavery.  Since I have read a number of other Civil War and Ante-Bellum history books, including James McPherson's excellent one volume Civil War history.

I was struck in several of these books by the reaction of British textile manufacturers to the war and, more specifically, the informal southern embargo of cotton exports in 1860-61.  These textile producers screamed bloody murder to the British government, demanding that they recognize the Confederacy and intervene on their behalf, claiming that the lack of cotton would doom their industry and thereby doom the whole country.  On its face, this was a credible argument, as textiles probably made up more of the British GDP at the time than any three or four industries account for in the US today. 

Fortunately, the British chose not to intervene, and risked the economic consequences of not supporting the textile industry by jumping into the American Civil War.  As it turned out, the British economy was fine, and in fact even the textile industry was fine as well, as demand was still high and other sources around the world stepped up (because of the higher prices that resulted from the Southern boycott) with increased cotton supplies.

Historical Revisionism

I think regular readers know that I am not one to see Islamic terrorists hiding under every rock.  In fact, I am not sure I have written a single post on the current state of Islam or ties to terrorism.  I don't see the world primarily in terms of some great culture war with Islam.  Certainly a number of fundamentalist Islamic states suck in terms of human rights, and some of that is probably due to ties with Islam, but many other states suck nearly as much without any Muslim help.

That being said, I must say as someone interested in history that this argument from Dr. Mahmoud Mustafa Ayoub of Berkeley, as reported from the Canadian human rights tribunal by Andrew Coyne, strains credulity:

What is jihad? Article equates it with Al Qaeda: fighting,
suicide bombing etc. But word actually means, originally, "to strive,
to do one's best." Koranic sense is that religious struggle we must all
engage in within our souls against evil tendencies. There is also
"social jihad," the obligation to change things that are wrong. This does not mean violence. The Koran is not a book of violence.

The notion of armed struggle, or violent jihad, is
mentioned in the Koran. "Permission has been given to those who have
been wronged only because they say God is our lord that they fight in
self-defence." (Sura 22.) So jihad is not limited to fighting "” it's just one type of jihad,
and should only be done in self-defence. The extremist, violent types
are an anomaly. "They are more a problem for us than for the west."

I have no problem with modern folks interpreting the Koran in this way for themselves.  But this is absurd from a historical context.  This portrayal of jihad as a sort of peaceful civil rights movement may be how moderate Muslims want to make the Koran relevant to their modern life, but it is outrageous in the historic context of if the 7th century.  People of all faiths in this era didn't have sit-ins to correct social wrongs -- they gathered up their friends and some swords and went out to try to chop up the folks who did them wrong.  Muhammad was a brilliant military leader, uniting disparate Arab tribes out of nowhere to carve out a huge part of the western world as their empire.  His (and his successors') achievement is roughly equivalent to an unknown set of tribes suddenly bursting out of the Amazon and taking over modern North America.

The concept of jihad as originally applied in the 7th and 8th centuries was bloody and militaristic -- and effective.  So much so that the Catholics copied many of the key parts for their crusades.  The 7th century was a totally different world in its outlook and assumptions.  Here is one example:  We have heard many times of the slave revolts in Rome, and most of us have seen Spartacus.  But not a single person in the 1000 years of the Roman empire, slave or not, is recorded to have ever advocated the elimination of slavery.  They may have wanted to be free themselves, or treated better, but everyone accepted the institution of slavery even while trying not to be a slave themselves.  We, with our 19th century anti-slavery movement, see the slave revolts of Rome as something they simply were not.  I believe a similar revisionism is at work here on jihad.

All that being said, I have no opinion on whether or not the militaristic concept of jihad animates any substantial number of modern Muslims or not.  I simply am not well enough informed, and currently find it hard to find any text discussing this issue that is trustworthy on either side.

Postscript:  It is true that the Muslims showed special respect in their lands to Jews and Christians  - in part for religious reasons and in part for practical reasons related to special taxes.  The Spain of three religions under Muslim rule was certainly more dynamic and tolerant than the counter-reformation Catholic Spain.  But this fact does not obviate the militaristic origins of jihad.  Islam respected Christians and Jews .... in the lands where the Muslims had taken over and ruled. Where Muslims did not yet rule but wanted to, all bets were off.

Rewriting History

I was watching the History Channel last night and watching a show on the nuclear arms race.  Interestingly, they described the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba as happening before JFK took office, and then discussed the Cuban Missile Crisis as JFK's first interaction with Russia.  I find this to be really odd revisionism, and if it were not for Coyote's Law, I would ascribe this to the ongoing Kennedy family effort to polish JFK's historical legacy.  But, having written Coyote's Law, I will just assume the show's producers were ignorant.

Update: I take the point that the Bay of Pigs invasion was a CIA plan in the Eisenhower presidency.  However, JFK was deeply involved in the planning and decision to go ahead, and in fact he and his advisers actually modified the plan, including the invasion site, in ways that hurt the probability of success (if there ever was any).

Nothing New Under the [Rising] Sun

Sixty-six years ago today, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, which turned out to be about as smart of a strategic move as taunting the New England Patriots just before the game.  During subsequent years, there was an inevitable investigation into why and how the US got caught so flat-footed, and who, if anyone, was to blame.

Decades later, revisionist historians reopened this debate.  In the 1970's, not coincidently in the time of Watergate and lingering questions about the Kennedy assassination and the Gulf of Tonkin, it was fairly popular to blame Pearl Harbor on ... FDR.  The logic was (and still is, among a number of historians) that FDR was anxious to bring the US into the war, but was having trouble doing so given the country's incredibly isolationist outlook during the 1920's and 1930's.  These historians argue that FDR knew about the Pearl Harbor attack but did nothing (or in the most aggressive theories, actually maneuvered to encourage the attack) in order to give FDR an excuse to bring America into the war.  The evidence is basically in three parts:

  • The abjectly unprepared state of the Pearl Harbor base, when there were so many good reasons at the time to be on one's toes (after all, the Japanese were marching all over China, Germany was at the gates of Moscow, and France had fallen) could only be evidence of conspiracy.
  • The most valuable fleet components, the carriers, had at the last minute been called away from Pearl Harbor.  Historians argue that they were moved to protect them from an attack known to be coming to Pearl.  They argue that FDR wanted Pearl to be attacked, but did not want to lose the carriers.
  • Historians have found a number of captured Japanese signals and US intelligence warnings that should have been clear warming of a Pearl Harbor attack.

I have always been pretty skeptical of this theory, for several reasons:

  • First, I always default to Coyote's Law, which says

When the same set of facts can be explained equally well by

  1. A massive conspiracy coordinated without a single leak between hundreds or even thousands of people    -OR -
  2. Sustained stupidity, confusion and/or incompetence

Assume stupidity.

I think it is more than consistent with human history to assume that if Pearl Harbor was stupidly unprepared, that the reason was in fact stupidity, and not a clever conspiracy

  • The carrier argument is absurd, and is highly influenced by what we know now rather than what we knew in December of 1941.  We know now that the carriers were the most valuable fleet component, but no one really knew it then (except for a few mavericks).  Certainly, if FDR and his top brass knew about the attack, no one would have been of the mindset that the carriers were the most important fleet elements to save.
  • I find it to be fairly unproductive to try to sort through intelligence warnings thirty years after the fact.  One can almost ALWAYS find that some warning or indicator existed for every such event in history.  The problem occurs in real-time, when such warnings are buried in the midst of hundreds of other indicators, and are preceded by years of false warnings of the same event.
  • I don't really deny that FDR probably wanted an excuse to get the country in the war.  However, I have never understood why a wildly succesful Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was more necessary than, say, an attack met strongly at the beach.  I can understand why FDR might have allowed the attack to happen, but why would he leave the base undefended.  The country would have gotten wound up about the attack whether 5 ships or 10 were destroyed.

It is interesting how so much of this parallels the logic of the 9/11 conspiracists.  And, in fact, I have the same answer for both:  I don't trust the government.  I don't put such actions and motivations past our leaders.  But I don't think the facts support either conspiracy.  And I don't think the government is capable of maintaining such a conspiracy for so long. 

Did the Chinese Discover America?

Cool map and historic speculation of whether the Chinese explored America circa 1421.  The map, which is a later copy of a purported 15th century map, may be a little too accurate for credibility, particularly on the Atlantic side.

History I Never Knew

Via Maggie's Farm, the heretofore unknown (to me) history of the Republic of West Florida.  Its annexation into the US denied Dickie Scruggs and Trent Lott the chance to be king of their own banana republic.

Middle East Empires

A cool animated map showing the ebb and flow of empires in the Middle East.  Like watching a Civilization game replay at high speed.

Hat tip:  Mises

Revisiting the New Deal. Finally.

By this definition of "not normal", I am not normal either.  I share with Tabarrok the strong sense that the New Deal (combined with shockingly stupid use of Wilson's Federal Reserve and of course rampant scorched-earth protectionism) extended rather than shortened the Great Depression. 

Imagine, increasing the power of
unions to strike and raise wages during a time of mass strikes and mass
unemployment. Imagine thinking that cartelizing whole industries
thereby raising prices and reducing output could improve the economy.
Not everything Roosevelt did was counterproductive - he did end
prohibition (although in order to raise taxes) - but plenty was and
worst of all was the uncertainty created by Roosevelt's vicious attacks
on business.

One of the things I think we have done historically is understate the true degree to which Roosevelt showed himself willing to take the country down the road to socialism, or more accurately, Mussolini-style fascism. Via David Gordon:

Roosevelt never had much
use for Hitler, but Mussolini was another matter. "'I don't mind
telling you in confidence,' FDR remarked to a White House
correspondent, 'that I am keeping in fairly close touch with that
admirable Italian gentleman'" (p. 31). Rexford Tugwell, a leading
adviser to the president, had difficulty containing his enthusiasm for
Mussolini's program to modernize Italy: "It's the cleanest "¦ most
efficiently operating piece of social machinery I've ever seen. It
makes me envious" (p. 32, quoting Tugwell).

Why did these
contemporaries sees an affinity between Roosevelt and the two leading
European dictators, while most people today view them as polar
opposites? People read history backwards: they project the fierce
antagonisms of World War II, when America battled the Axis, to an
earlier period. At the time, what impressed many observers, including
as we have seen the principal actors themselves, was a new style of
leadership common to America, Germany, and Italy.

Once more we must avoid a
common misconception. Because of the ruthless crimes of Hitler and his
Italian ally, it is mistakenly assumed that the dictators were for the
most part hated and feared by the people they ruled. Quite the
contrary, they were in those pre-war years the objects of considerable
adulation. A leader who embodied the spirit of the people had
superseded the old bureaucratic apparatus of government.

If you don't believe me, it is probably because you are not familiar with the National Recover Act (NRA) -- the famous "blue eagle".  This program was the very heart of Roosevelt's vision for the American economy, a vision of cartelized industries managed by government planners. (via Sheldon Richman of the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics):

The image of a strong
leader taking direct charge of an economy during hard times fascinated
observers abroad. Italy was one of the places that Franklin Roosevelt
looked to for ideas in 1933. Roosevelt's National Recovery Act (NRA)
attempted to cartelize the American economy just as Mussolini had
cartelized Italy's. Under the NRA Roosevelt established industry-wide
boards with the power to set and enforce prices, wages, and other terms
of employment, production, and distribution for all companies in an
industry. Through the Agricultural Adjustment Act the government
exercised similar control over farmers. Interestingly, Mussolini viewed
Roosevelt's New Deal as "boldly... interventionist in the field of
economics." Hitler's nazism also shared many features with Italian
fascism, including the syndicalist front. Nazism, too, featured
complete government control of industry, agriculture, finance, and
investment.

And further, from John Flynn's The Roosevelt Myth via Anthony Gregory:

[Mussolini] organized each trade or industrial group or professional
group into a state-supervised trade association. He called it a
corporative. These corporatives operated under state supervision and
could plan production, quality, prices, distribution, labor standards,
etc. The NRA provided that in America each industry should be organized
into a federally supervised trade association. It was not called a
corporative. It was called a Code Authority. But it was essentially the
same thing. These code authorities could regulate production,
quantities, qualities, prices, distribution methods, etc., under the
supervision of the NRA. This was fascism. The anti-trust laws forbade
such organizations. Roosevelt had denounced Hoover for not enforcing
these laws sufficiently. Now he suspended them and compelled men to
combine.

And read this to see the downright creepy Soviet-style propaganda Roosevelt used to promote the NRA.  One example:

A hundred thousand schoolchildren
clustered on Boston Common and were led in an oath administered by
Mayor James Michael Curley: "I promise as a good American citizen to do
my part for the NRA. I will buy only where the Blue Eagle flies."

The fact that the worst of the NRA was dumped by the Supreme Court, and eventually by FDR under pressure, cause us to forget what businessmen in the 1930's were seeing.  The unprecedented fall in asset prices in the early thirties would normally have started to attract capital, at least from the bottom-fishers.  But any reasonable observer at that time would have seen the US government on a path to controlling wages, prices, capacity, etc  -- not an environment conducive to investment.  In fact, under Roosevelt's NRA industry cartels, its not clear that private industrial investment was even legal without the approval of the Code Authority for that industry.

People look back fondly and give credit to the CCC and large public works programs for our recovery, but in fact these programs were necessary because FDR's New Deal, and particularly the NRA, made private investment dry up.

Postscript:  By the way, questioning the greatness of the New Deal is one of those issues that will get you labeled a wacko almost as fast as being a climate change skepticHere is Janice Rogers Brown getting slammed for questioning the New Deal.

The Arizona Great Escape

[Note this post is a reprint from prior years]

This week is the anniversary of one of my favorite bits of Phoenix history.  Many people have seen the Steve McQueen movie "the Great Escape",
about a group of 60 or so prisoners who cleverly dug a tunnel out of a
German POW camp and escaped in various directions across Europe, many
of whom where eventually recaptured.

I don't know if such an event occurred in Europe, but an almost
identical real-life POW escape (tunnel and all) occurred right here in
Phoenix, Arizona almost exactly 60 years ago.

Like many isolated western towns in WWII, Phoenix played host to a
number of German POW's, in our case about 1700 in Papago Park.
Phoenix, and in particular Papago Park, with its arid climate and red rocks, must have been quite a culture shock to the Germans.

Anyway, I won't tell the whole story, but it is fascinating and you can read it all here.  A short excerpt:

The
German prisoners asked their guards for permission to create a
volleyball courtyard. Innocently obliging, the guards provided them
with digging tools. From that point on, two men were digging at all
times during night hours. A cart was rigged up to travel along tracks
to take the dirt out. The men stuffed the dirt in their pants pockets
which had holes in the bottoms, and they shuffled the dirt out along
the ground as they walked around. In addition, they flushed a huge
amount of dirt down the toilets. They labeled their escape route Der Faustball Tunnel (The Volleyball Tunnel).

They
dug a 178 foot tunnel with a diameter of 3 feet. The tunnel went 8 to
14 feet beneath the surface, under the two prison camp fences, a
drainage ditch and a road. The exit was near a power pole in a clump of
brush about 15 feet from the Cross Cut Canal. To disguise their plans,
the men built a square box, filled it with dirt and planted native
weeds in it for the lid to cover the exit. When the lid was on the
tunnel exit, the area looked like undisturbed desert.

There
is some dispute about how many people actually escaped -- official
records say 25.  Others argue that as many as 60 escaped, but since
only 25 were recaptured, 25 was used as the official number to cover up
the fact that German POW's might be roaming about Arizona.

The prisoners who led this escape were clearly daring and inventive,
but unfortunately in Arizona lore they are better known for their one
mistake.  Coming from wet Northern European climes, the prisoners
assumed that the "rivers" marked on their map would actually have
flowing water in them.  Their map showed what looked like the very
substantial Salt River flowing down to the Colorado River and eventual
escape in Mexico.  Unfortunately, the Salt River most of the year (at
least in the Phoenix area) is pretty much a really wide flat body of dirt.  The German expressions as they carried their stolen canoes up to its banks must have been priceless.

It
never occurred to the Germans that in dry Arizona a blue line marked
"river" on a map might be filled with water only occasionally. The
three men with the canoe were disappointed to find the Salt River bed
merely a mud bog from recent rains. Not to be discouraged, they carried
their canoe pieces twenty miles to the confluence with the Gila river,
only to find a series of large puddles. They sat on the river bank, put
their heads in their hands and cried out their frustration.

We
probably shouldn't make too much fun of these hapless U-boaters, living
in a land so far out of their experience:  Apparently the prison guards
made Sargent Schultz look like Sherlock Holmes:

Although
the men left in the wee hours of Christmas Eve, the camp officials were
blissfully unaware of anything amiss until the escapees began to show
up that evening. The first to return was an enlisted man, Herbert
Fuchs, who decided he had been cold, wet and hungry long enough by
Christmas Eve evening. Thinking about his dry, warm bed and hot meal
that the men in the prison camp were enjoying, he decided his attempt
at freedom had come to an end. The 22-year old U-boat crewman hitched a
ride on East Van Buren Street and asked the driver to take him to the
sheriff's office where he surrendered. Much to the surprise of the
officers at the camp, the sheriff called and told them he had a
prisoner who wanted to return to camp.

One
of the last to be re-captured was U-boat Commander Jürgen Wattenberg,
the leader of the breakout.  Interestingly, Captain Wattenberg hid out
in the hills just a few hundred yards from my current home.

Twenty-Seventh Amendment

I was doing some research for a longer post, and ran across a Constitutional amendment that I did not know even existed.  I had thought the 26th Amendment lowering the voting age to 18 was the most recent, but there is one more.  It was ratified in 1992.  Anyone know what it is? 

Answer below the fold

Continue reading ‘Twenty-Seventh Amendment’ »

Fake but Accurate, Early 20th Century Style

Were Sacco and Venzetti really guilty?  I you are like me, you hear those names and say - boy, those names sound familiar.  I am sure they came up some time in my US history class in high school...

Sacco and Vanzetti were early 19th century anarchists executed in Massachusetts for robbery and murder.  Fellow communist, anarchist and author Upton Sinclair helped to generate a lot of sympathy for the two, raising a storm of protest that the two were innocent of the crime and were being tried and executed for their political beliefs.  They have been heroes of the left and the progressive movement ever since.

Asymmetrical Information points to this article, which describes new papers that apparently belonged to Upton Sinclair that make it clear that Sinclair actually discovered that Sacco and Venzetti were indeed guilty:

Soon Sinclair would learn something that filled him with doubt. During his
research for "Boston," Sinclair met with Fred Moore, the men's attorney, in a
Denver motel room. Moore "sent me into a panic," Sinclair wrote in the typed
letter that Hegness found at the auction a decade ago.

"Alone in a hotel
room with Fred, I begged him to tell me the full truth," Sinclair wrote. " "¦ He
then told me that the men were guilty, and he told me in every detail how he had
framed a set of alibis for them."

Sinclair decided that, for the benefit of the "movement", as well as his sales, not to reveal the truth

"My wife is absolutely certain that if I tell what I believe, I will be called a
traitor to the movement and may not live to finish the book," Sinclair wrote
Robert Minor, a confidant at the Socialist Daily Worker in New York, in
1927.

"Of course," he added, "the next big case may be a frame-up, and my
telling the truth about the Sacco-Vanzetti case will make things harder for the
victims."

He also worried that revealing what he had been told would cost
him readers. "It is much better copy as a naïve defense of Sacco and Vanzetti
because this is what all my foreign readers expect, and they are 90% of my
public," he wrote to Minor.

This all resonated with me because I recently had an email exchange with a reader who reminded me of this quote:

We
have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements,
and make little mention of any doubts we have. Each of us has to decide
what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.

- National Center for Atmospheric Research (NOAA) researcher and global warming action promoter, Steven Schneider

No one knows better than a blogger that everyone picks and chooses the news they want to notice and the facts they promote and don't promote.  But at some point on the slippery slope you hit a transition to outright dishonesty.  It seems that this temptation to support your cause with a fake story was not invented by Mary Mapes.