On This Day: April 14

On April 14, 1865, as the nation celebrated the end of the Civil War, its President, Abraham Lincoln, attended a play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. Often considered one of the darkest moments in American history, this night at the theater ended with John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathizer, sneaking into the President’s box and shooting him in the back of the head.

Most Americans know the story of the assassination, including that as John Wilkes Booth jumped down from President Lincoln’s box onto the stage, he yelled “Sic semper tyrannis” (thus always to tyrants). You might not know that the phrase appears in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, after Brutus assassinates Caesar.

Source: Library of Congress

As an actor himself, Booth would have been familiar with the phrase as well as its interpretation, meaning that tyrants will always be overthrown. The phrase was also adopted as the motto of the state of Virginia at the dawn of the American Revolution, no doubt a dig at the sovereign King George. Intending to overthrow what he saw as an autocratic government, Booth was the mastermind behind a conspiracy that intended to take out the President as well as Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. He and his co-conspirators hoped they could decapitate the Union government and revive the Confederacy.

Thankfully, Booth’s efforts to upend the government did not succeed, however; after being shot, President Lincoln was carried across the street to a boarding house, where he succumbed to his injuries the following morning.

To read more about this event, start here:

Washington Post: Abraham Lincoln’s assassination: Great joy, then a gunshot

On This Day: April 11

On April 11, 1968, the United States took a significant step towards advancing civil rights and equality with the signing of the Civil Rights Act or Fair Housing Act. Intended to build on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex, or national origin in employment and voting, the Fair Housing Act addressed housing discrimination by specifically prohibiting discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin. The act also established penalties for those who violated its provisions, including fines and imprisonment. Additionally, the act established the Fair Housing Office within the Department of Housing and Urban Development to investigate complaints of discrimination and enforce the law (1).

The passage of the Civil Rights Act was a major victory for civil rights advocates, but it faced serious opposition. The act itself was considered by Congress several times from 1966-1968 but failed to gain a majority vote. However, on April 4, 1968, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, TN. His death led to riots and protests across the nation as a generation of progressive Americans grieved his loss. In the wake of this shock, President Johnson seized the opportunity to push the bill through Congress yet again, this time receiving the majority votes needed in both houses (2).

In a letter written to Speaker of the House, John W. McCormack, President Johnson wrote, “Last night, America was shocked by a senseless act of violence. A man who devoted his life to the nonviolent achievement of rights that most Americans take for granted was killed by an assassin’s bullet.” President Johnson wanted “all good men to look deeply into their hearts . . . when the nation so urgently needs the healing balm of unity, a brutal wound on our conscience forces upon us all this question: What more can I do to achieve brotherhood and equality among all Americans?” (2).

A NYT article written 55 years after the signing of the Fair Housing Act reminds us that black applicants today are twice as likely to be denied a mortgage loan. Disparity in homeownership rate between black Americans and white Americans continues to rise (3). Certainly, the Fair Housing Act opened up new opportunities for minorities and helped to break down the barriers that had long kept them out of certain neighborhoods and communities, but has housing discrimination really ended?

For more information, visit these resources:

  1. NYT Times: President Signs Civil Rights Bill
  2. Washington Post: The Fair Housing Act was languishing in Congress
  3. The New York Times: Discrimination Seeps Into Every Aspect of Home Buying for Black Americans
Source: Smithsonian

This week in History: 57 People Escape East Berlin Through Secret Tunnel

Although many of us are old enough to remember when the wall in East Berlin was still in place and the whole of East Germany was controlled by the former Soviet Union, it feels so long ago that it almost seems unreal.

In my own childhood, I remember movies and stories about great escapes in Germany as people tried to flee from East Germany to West Germany, which was controlled by the UK, US and France.  

One story in particular caught international attention, in the first week of October of 1964, 57 East German refugees were able to escape through a tunnel dug by a group of students and others from West Germany.  This was the largest and most successful tunnel escape during this era. The tunnel, which according to a wonderful article in the Smithsonian, took five months to dig, started in an abandoned bakery in West Berlin and surfaced in an abandoned apartment building on StreilizerStrasse in East Berlin.

Source: Smithsonian
Source: Smithsonian

Refugees who traversed this 400 meter underground road to freedom had to successfully share a passcode at the entrance to the apartment building. One of the escapees, Hans-Joachim Tilleman, recounted his experience to the Smithsonian. “We didn’t see a light, so we continued to the building,” he said. “There were some people inside, and we told them ‘Tokyo’ and they let us into the hallway where we took off our shoes and tiptoed to the inner courtyard. In a little outhouse in the back, they let us down a shaft, and we crawled through.”

On October 5, 1964, the tunnel was discovered by soldiers and during the ensuing scuffle, an East German corporal, Egon Schultz, was killed by gunfire.  According to a New York Times article written at the time, “The East German Defense Ministry charged, in a statement issued by the press service ADN, that agents and murderers had penetrated into East Berlin from ‘the NATO base of West Berlin’ and that one of these ‘armed bandits’ killed the corporal.”

A different New York Times article, published in 2001, clarified that in 1994, the Berlin district attorney’s office re-investigated the shooting of Egon Schultz, and found that he had been accidentally shot by another East German soldier.

In that same New York Times article from 2001, one of the West German diggers, Wolfgang Fuchs, who worked tireless to free East Germans in several less successful tunnel escapes, said of Tunnel 57, “’The marks of their knee prints in the tunnel floor looked like the ripples on a beach left behind by the receding tide. ‘I will never forget that. That is beautiful.”

To learn more about the Tunnel 57 escape, visit these resources:

May History Hits: The Opening of the Golden Gate Bridge

The 1937 opening of the Golden Gate Bridge was a week-long affair dubbed the “Golden Gate Fiesta. “ The event started with a pedestrian only opening on May 27th and then opened to automobiles on May 28th after US President, Franklin D. Roosevelt pressed a telegraph key.

According to the Library of Congress, during the May 27th “Pedestrian Day” over 200,000 people paid a princely sum of 25 cents each to walk the bridge. Black and white films of the day show the excitement and energy.

The Blue Lake Advocate, a Northern California newspaper, reported on an in person visit to the nearly completed bridge by Eleanor Roosevelt earlier that month on May 6, 1937. The paper called her, “M Franklin D. Roosevelt, First Lady of the Land,” and said that she wanted to make a personal inspection of the bridge.  She was escorted on this pilgrimage by San Francisco Mayor Angelo Rossi; James Reed, general manager of the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District; Mrs. Arthur M. Brown Jr., chairman of the women’s division of the Fiesta; and Charles Duncan of the chief engineer’s office. 

It’s interesting that the fiesta had a “women’s division.”

The First Lady’s party could not fully traverse the bridge because of construction, but when she got out to take in the view, Roosevelt was quoted as saying, “It’s one of the greatest sights I have ever seen.” 

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Golden Gate Bridge was constructed over a four year span after a $35 million construction bond was approved in1930, and has become an iconic symbol of San Francisco. The 4,200 square foot suspension bridge depends on steel cables to endure the earthquakes that impact the region.

To learn more, visit these resources:

Book Review: The Lincoln Conspiracy

Abraham Lincoln was marked for death from the minute he was elected.  Apparently, even he understood his grave fate.

But what I didn’t know was that there were several assassination attempts on his life before his death on April 14,1865 at the hands of John Wilkes Booth.  I recently read The Lincoln Conspiracy by bestselling authors, Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch which details the very first, purported attempt on his life prior to his inauguration on March 4,1861.

To buy the book on Amazon, click here.

Meltzer and Mensch did an excellent job researching this book and included many wonderful details about Lincoln and his life including information about his temperament, inner circle and habits, which helped me gain a better understanding of who he was as a person. 

They also did an excellent job of detailing the mood in the United States at the time of Lincoln’s election.  They read newspaper articles from the time as well as the journals and letters of the people who surrounded Lincoln and his rivals. And for me, the balance of detail and cultural context in relation to the broader story they are telling was spot on.

I particularly loved the quote they included from the famous Black abolitionist, reformer and writer, Frederick Douglass, when he said, “The hour and the man of our redemption had somehow met in the person of Abraham Lincoln.” 

Now about the conspiracy part of The Lincoln Conspiracy. According to the book summary: “The conspirators were part of a white supremacist secret society that didn’t want an abolitionist [Lincoln] in the White House. They planned an elaborate scheme to assassinate the President-elect in Baltimore as Lincoln’s inauguration train passed through, en route to the nation’s capital.”

The retelling of Lincoln’s inaugural train ride into Washington, which included many stops and appearances along the way, was an incredibly well told part of the story.  I felt like I was almost experiencing the journey alongside Lincoln. The writers also provide the underlying story to Lincoln’s long-term dealings with famous American detective, Allen Pinkerton, who investigated the conspiracy, and for the women’s history lovers, the book shares interesting information about the first American female detective, Kate Warne.

The book moves quickly and is told in such a way that it is easily digestible to modern readers.  I highly recommend it for all history lovers out there. Happy Reading!

To buy the book on Amazon, click here.

Happy Birthday to America’s First Female Lawyer

May 23rd marks the birth of the woman who was to become the first female lawyer in the US, Belle Aurelia “Arabella” Babb Mansfield.  Born in 1846 in the Benton Township of Des Moines County in Iowa, Arabella was influenced by her parents who valued education and her older brother, Washington Babb, who was also a lawyer.

Arabella Mansfield
Arabella Mansfield, Source: Wikimedia Commons

The interesting part of her story is that she never actually went to law school. After graduating valedictorian of her class at Iowa Wesleyan College, she taught school for a year and married her college sweetheart, John Mansfield.  She then went on to “read the law” in her older brother’s law practice where she worked as an apprentice.

She took the bar exam and passed on June 15,1869 despite the fact that women were legally prohibited. In Iowa, at the time only “white, male citizens” were eligible for admittance to the bar. 

Mansfield argued that women should be allowed to practice law to the Iowa Bar Association and was admitted.  Apparently, she impressed the committee as they wrote:

Your committee takes unusual pleasure in recommending the admission of Mrs. Mansfield, not only because she is the first lady who has applied for this authority in the state, but because in her examination she has given the very best rebuke possible to the imputation that ladies cannot qualify for the practice of law.

Iowa Bar Association

Although admitted to the bar, Mansfield earned a living teaching first at Iowa Wesleyan College and later at DePauw University where she served as the Dean of the school of Art and then later as the Dean of the school of Music.

She was also, notably, active in the suffragette movement and knew famous activist, Susan B. Anthony as they worked to pass the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote.

To learn more about Arabella Mansfied, visit these sources:


April History Hits: When FDR Seized Montgomery Ward

In fairness to Franklin D. Roosevelt, he didn’t want to do it.  But, Sewell Avery, the CEO of Montgomery Ward, was refusing to work with labor unions, and the US was a country at war.

Montgomery Ward & Co.S Building, Chicago Source: Wikimedia Commons

At the time, Chicago-based Montgomery Ward was equivalent to Amazon today. According to Matthew Waxman, a law professor at Columbia University, “By 1943, Montgomery Ward served 30 million customers not only through mail-order deliveries but also via 600 stores and 78,000 employees in 47 states. Two-fifths of U.S. mail-order business went through Montgomery Ward, as did one-fifth of all manufactured products purchased by American farmers.”

Avery had capitulated to Roosevelt once in 1942, but by the beginning months of 1944, he was not having it.  Roosevelt’s fear was that a labor strike would interfere with the war effort, and according to the War Labor Disputes Act of 1943, the National War Labor Board could get in the middle of anything that might lead to a “substantial interference with the war effort.”

According to Waxman, Montgomery Ward’s attorneys maintained that Roosevelt was overstepping in the matter.  On April 25, 1944, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9438, where he proclaimed “that there are existing and threatened interruptions of the operations of the plants and facilities of Montgomery Ward and Company, located in Chicago, Illinois, as a result of labor disturbances arising from the failure of Montgomery Ward and Company to comply with directive orders of the National War Labor Board.”

Roosevelt ordered his then Secretary of Commerce, Jesse H. Jones, who hailed from my hometown of Houston, Texas, to seize control of Montgomery Ward’s headquarters, retail store, mail order house and warehouse in Chicago and to operate them for the “successful prosecution of the war.”

When a federal dispatch consisting of US Marshalls, deputies and soldiers visited Avery at the headquarters they were not only met with verbal resistance, but Avery refused to leave his office chair leading to the amusing photo that headlined throughout the country at time showing him being literally carried out of his office.  

Sewell Avery being forced from his office
Source: Iconic Photos

Waxman, who made the extraordinary effort to read and summarize for us the very best part of Attorney General Francis Biddle’s memories on the incident who noted that Secretary of War Henry Stimson had pleaded unsuccessfully with Roosevelt that “[E]very man was needed in the war effort; it is a great army, Mr. President, it must not be sent to act as clerks to sell women’s panties over the counter of a store.”

As a woman, I take exception to the fact that Stimson found our under-clothing the furthest possible thing from a successful prosecution of the war, but I get his point, rude as it may be.

Avery fired back in several ways including a statement released to the Associated Press on May 10, 1944 and reprinted in the New York Times where he called the seizure illegal and demanded that the matter be resolved in court.  “Ward’s has been deprived of its property by force and bayonets,” he wrote.

According to Waxman, due to public disapproval, the government released Montgomery Ward back to Avery two weeks later, but then seized the company again, and this time they seized control in nine cities including Chicago after a labor strike broke out at the end of 1944.  Litigation ensued and it looked like the government would win, but the end of the war brought an end to the matter.

To learn more about the Montgomery Ward Seizures, visit these resources:

Forgotten Heroes: Texas Airman Dies in 1961 Diverting Falling Plane from Suburban Neighborhood

It’s hard to even fathom what thoughts go through a person’s head in the final moments of a crisis where they must choose between their own life or the lives of others.  

Such a crisis came to Captain Gary L. Herod on Wednesday, March 15, 1961.  A pilot for the Texas Air National Guard, Herod was barely in the air over Houston, Texas when his plane began to falter.  With the plane’s engine failing, he tried first to return to Ellington Field Airport, and radioed the control tower that he planned to eject himself from the plane.

Captain Gary L. Herod, Source: Texas Air National Guard

Somewhere in those seconds, though, he realized that doing so would leave the plane to crash into a suburban neighborhood filled with young families in a popular Houston suburb known as Meyerland.  

This excruciating choice included the fact that Herod had a wife and two children of his own.  As the tower asked for confirmation of his intent to eject, Herod’s last words were “not yet.”  

He went down with his plane into a vacant field on the north bank of Brays Bayou, the lone casualty of this tragedy.  Maybe he hoped that he might be able to safely land the plane, or maybe he fully knew the sacrifice he was making.

A couple of months later, a “Hero” tree was planted with a plaque commemorating his sacrifice at the site of the popular Meyerland Plaza Shopping Center, and in 1965, a local elementary school was named for him.  Nearly 57 years later, with the tree failing in health, his plaque and memorial were moved to the nearby elementary school bearing his name.  Herod was also posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross from the United States Air Force.

In April of 1961, a month after the accident, a memorial fund dispersed $2,600 in donations to Herod’s wife.  She wrote a thank you letter, which was published in the Bellaire Texan, a local newspaper.  

Source: Texas Digital Newspaper Program: The Bellaire Texan

“I cannot help but consider, in wonder,” she wrote, “the circumstance which could make it possible for my husband to gain for himself in a few short tragic minutes, more friends than many men gain in a lifetime.”

She went on to say that she planned to dedicate these funds to her childrens’ education. “I feel this is fitting, for I am conscious of the fact that these funds represent to a large degree the gratitude of parents for the well being of their own children and concern for our children who must face life without their father.”

She signed the letter, “Mrs. Gary L. Herod.” 

To learn more about Gary L. Herod, visit these resources:

The Great Fire of London: Fire and Pandemic, Sound Familiar?

September marks the anniversary of the Great Fire of London, which occurred in 1666.  This fire, which destroyed the homes of an estimated 70,000 to 100,000 people, raged for nearly five days.

Now, 1666 seems so very, very long ago, but the circumstances surrounding this moment in history are very familiar.  The world had been through a massive pandemic, the Bubonic Plague, in 1665, just the year before, and much of the destructiveness of the fire was blamed on a hesitant and weak politician and foreign actors.

The Great Fire of London, 1666, By Unknown artist , Source: museumoflondonprints.com, Public Domain,

That all sounds familiar, right?  We have a pandemic and massive wildfires happening in 2021 and we have our fair share of political problems and blaming.  The one thing history will definitely teach you is that the way humans react to the forces of nature and other crises is fairly similar throughout the generations.

The Great Fire of London started on a Sunday in a bakery on Pudding Lane.  There are many possibilities for how the fire actually got started, but the fact that it spread so far and so wide throughout the city had to do with a couple of different issues.

The first was the architecture and city planning in London at the time. Fire was an issue that people were aware and cognizant of, and even though building with wood and thatch had been largely outlawed, the poorer parts of the city still used these more inexpensive materials as well as something even worse, tar paper, to construct their homes.  

And just like the urban infill building practices that we see today, the city was so crowded that people back then started building vertically with the higher floors being wider than the bottom floors, so much so, that the upper floors of buildings might protrude so far as to nearly touch or kiss the neighboring buildings across the street. There were also houses built directly on the London Bridge, which is interesting and amazing.  I would have loved to have seen that.

This overcrowding, combined with a long, hot, dry summer previously, and a Lord Mayor that was hesitant to act made London a veritable death trap. There were also many foundries, glaziers and other businesses with combustible materials, and to make matters worse, the population had an excess of gun powder, often in private homes, left over from the English Civil War.

The people that suffered the most, not unlike today, were the poorest.  The aristocracy had fled to their country homes during the pandemic (also sound familiar?) to avoid catching the Bubonic plague, and so crowded living conditions were deadly both in terms of health, but also destruction by fire.

Example of the use of fire hooks from 1612, Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, was an ineffective politician who waited way too long to give the order to start pulling down houses.  During this time in history, they had some rudimentary ways of pumping water to fires, but the streets were so crowded and the fire was moving so fast that this was not an option.  What would have worked, is a fire fighting method that involved using hooks and other tools to literally bring a house down. I am including a picture of this practice.  It was helpful in that it created a “firebreak” or a way to stop the fire.

The Great Fire of London raged on for days and while there are few accounts of deaths, we don’t know if all of those killed- especially the poorer folk- were accounted for.  We do know that camps had to be set up for the survivors.

While King Charles II and his brother the Duke of York eventually overrode the authority Lord Mayor of London and worked hard to pull houses down and fight the fire, the final ending did not come until the fire began approaching the Tower of London on Tuesday where a garrison used gunpowder to blow up houses quickly and stop the forward progression of the fire. By the end of the day on Wednesday, four days after the fire started the previous Sunday, the fire was officially over and London was devastated.

Samuel Pepys, an author and politician, who kept a diary at the time wrote that it was, “…the saddest sigh of desolation that I ever saw.”

In addition to blaming Sir Thomas Bloodworth, many people also blamed the Catholics and foreigners and even spread rumors about the fires being part of an invasion attempt.  I guess fake news is not a new thing!

Monument to the Great Fire of London, Source: Jordiferrer, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It took a long time to rebuild the great city of London, but if there is one bright note to this tragic event, some historians believe that the Great Fire paved the way for better and more sanitary building standards in London and issued in a greater focus on new fire fighting methods like creating fire fighting brigades.

There is a monument that was built to remember the property and lives lost in the Great Fire, if you travel to London, you can see it today on Fish St. Hill.

To learn more about the Great Fire of London, please visit these resources:

April 1986: Remembering the Chernobyl Disaster

The Chernobyl Disaster, which occurred on April 26, 1986 in the Ukrainian city of Pripyat (then a part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or “Soviet Union”), was an unprecedented nuclear disaster that rocked the world.  This event happened in the last stretch of the Cold War, which lasted from the late 1940s through the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The Chernobyl Factory, Source: Tiia Monto, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I was about 13 years old when this accident occurred and had spent my early childhood being taught to fear the Soviet regime.  Our elementary schools held drills where we hid under our desks to prepare for potential fallout from nuclear missiles that might be lobbed at the United States from the Soviet Union.

Of course, I was raised in rural Texas, so the likelihood of those missiles reaching us were very slim, but then again, it is never too early to scare children.

So when the Chernobyl accident happened, I gathered all of the wrong facts based on my previous experiences and assumed it was a nuclear weapons facility rather than the nuclear power plant that it actually was.  

In reality, the explosion was the result of a failed safety test in nuclear reactor number four which also had flaws in its design.  Additionally, it is believed that operators were not properly trained to handle the safety test or design issues.

According to Wikipedia, Chernobyl “is considered the worst nuclear disaster in history both in terms of cost and casualties.”  The same article noted that the accident consisted of two explosions which ruptured the reactor core and a subsequent reactor core fire that burned for nine days afterwards dropping radioactive material throughout the USSR and Western Europe.  

The death toll within the first few months after the accident was 31 of which about 28 died from radiation sickness.  Since then another 15 people have died of Thyroid cancer, which is believed to be directly related to the incident.

The United Nations issued a report on the accident in September of 2005 stating that, “a total of up to 4,000 people could eventually die of radiation exposure from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (NPP) accident.”

Dr. Burton Bennett, Chairman of the Chernobyl Forum and an authority on radiation effects said, “This was a very serious accident with major health consequences, especially for thousands of workers exposed in the early days who received very high radiation doses, and for the thousands more stricken with thyroid cancer.  By and large, however, we have not found profound negative health impacts to the rest of the population in surrounding areas, nor have we found widespread contamination that would continue to pose a substantial threat to human health, with a few exceptional, restricted areas.”

The city sign for Chernobyl, Source: Omar David Sandoval Sida, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The accident happened a little over a year after Mikhail Gorbachev rose to power in the Soviet Union and promised a thawing of the previous Cold War isolationist approach.  The Chernobyl accident, however, turned out to not only be a global catastrophe with far reaching implications, but also was a public relations nightmare for Gorbachev as the Soviet Union was slow to release information regarding the accident.

A Washington Post article written on May 1,1986 by Michael Dobbs explains, “Western officials and foreign policy analysts agree that the Kremlin’s failure to provide detailed information about what has happened at Chernobyl could turn out to be almost as damaging for Moscow as the accident itself. The initial news blackout provoked protests from practically every government in Western Europe and raised concern among ordinary citizens on both sides of the ‘Iron Curtain.’”

Further in the article, British Foreign Office minister, Tim Eggar, was quoted as saying “the ‘lesson’ of the Chernobyl incident was that ‘the openness which Gorbachev has said is necessary in Soviet society must become a reality.’”

As we all know, Gorbachev would go on to weather this storm and Eastern Europe including the Ukraine would break away by 1989 and by 1991, the Soviet Union would dissolve, but the tragedy and human impact of the Chernobyl accident will live on.

To learn more about Chernobyl, please visit these resources: