Saturday, January 29, 2011


Who could I be?  That's the mystery!  Go ahead and take a guess and then go enjoy your day.  Check back tomorrow and I'll reveal the answer.  The first correct post will be declared the winner.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Henry IV of France (and the case of the missing head of state)

In all the busyness around Christmastime, I got a little behind my 'current events in historical news' reading.  I'm now catching up, so forgive me if you already saw this one, but this last December, scientists announced they'd found the skull of King Henry IV of France in the attic of a retired tax collector.

You may be wondering how a private collector came to posses the head of a former king and why it wasn't attached to the rest of his body in the first place.

For those who don't know about Henry IV, he was a fascinating individual.  He was born in 1553, heir to the Kingdom of Navarre and a claimant to the French throne.  Although he was baptized as an infant in the Roman Catholic Church, he was raised as a Huguenot (French Protestant) and fought with Protestant forces in the Wars of Religion.

(St. Bartholomew's Day in Paris)

In an effort to promote peace between French Catholics and Huguenots, a marriage was arranged between Margaret of Valois (the Catholic daughter of the King of France) and Henry (now Protestant King of Navarre).  The wedding took place in Paris on August 19, 1572.  However, sensing the opportunity to destroy Protestantism in France, Catholics, at the instigation of the Queen, Catherine de'Medici, massacred several thousand Protestant leaders on St. Bartholomew's Day who were in Paris to celebrate the wedding.

(Margaret protecting Henry during the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre)

Henry was going to be killed as well, but the intercession of his new wife spared his life on the condition that he convert to Catholicism.  Henry was forced to remain in court, but escaped in 1576.  Rejoining the Huguenot forces at Tours, he renounced Catholicism and reconverted to Protestantism.  Although a member of the Protestant minority in France, Henry ironically became the legal heir to the French throne in 1584 after the last male of the Cadet branch of the Capetian dynasty died.  Henry III (the brother of Margaret of Valois) was still the Catholic King of France, but was opposed by the Catholic League, a militant force of Catholics founded by Duke Henry of Guise, who thought that King Henry III was too accommodating of French Protestants.

(King Henry III)

This led to what became known as the War of the Three Henries (Henry III, Henry of Guise, and Henry of Navarre) in 1587.  King Henry III allied himself with the Huguenots (and Henry of Navarre) against Henry of Guise and the Catholic League who were receiving support from Spain and the Pope.  In December 1588, Henry III had Henry of Guise murdered, but the Catholic League retained control the city of Paris and Henry III had to flee to the protection of Henry of Navarre.

(Death of Henry of Guise)

As Henry III supported by Henry of Navarre was about retake Paris in August of 1589, a Roman Catholic monk mortally wounded Henry III.  On his deathbed, Henry III urged his supporters to give allegiance to Henry of Navarre (who then became Henry IV).  Henry was unable to take Paris after a siege in 1590, largely due to the strength of Catholic opposition to a Protestant King Henry.

(Henry III naming Henry IV his successor on his deathbed)

The Catholic League found itself in control of Paris, but in need of a Catholic claimant to the throne.  Not finding a French claimant, the League indicated their support for the Catholic Princess Isabella of Spain.  This move weakened the League's support of the French people.  In 1593, Henry IV sensing the necessity of Catholic support to take Paris, reconverted to Roman Catholicism for a second time.  The following year, his army was able to finally take Paris where he was crowned King of France.  Regarding his conversion, Henry is reputedly stated, "Paris is well worth a Mass."  His reconversion alienated Henry from the Huguenots and also from his previous ally Queen Elizabeth of England, but made him very popular with the Catholic majority in France.

(Henry entering Paris)

Henry went on to become a wildly popular and charismatic king.  He was known as intelligent and humorous, and being handsome and well liked by women.  His people considered him caring and compassionate and he undertook projects to improve the condition of the poor in France.  He improved trade with other nations and was successful militarily.  Perhaps he is best remembered for ending religious strife with his 1598 Edict of Nantes, which provided increased religious tolerance for Huguenots.  For his achievements, he was popularly known as Henry the Great or Good King Henry.

(Henry signing the Edict of Nantes)

Although he was generally well liked, Catholic fanatics made repeated attempts on his life in 1593 and 1594.  The second attack, left Henry with a gash across his upper lip.  Henry was eventually assassinated in Paris in 1610 as his carriage was stopped in the congested streets.

(Assassination of Henry IV)

Since the 900s, all but three kings had been buried at the Basilica of St. Denis (just north of Paris) and Henry was no exception; his body was embalmed and interred with the rest.

(Death mask of Henry IV)

Henry was the first of the Bourbon line.  For those familiar with French history, you'll know that the Bourbons ruled from Henry IV through the French Revolution when Louis XVI was executed in 1793.  The Revolution quickly spun out of control with the National Convention issuing all manner of odd decrees including changing calendars and clocks.  One such decree in 1793 ordered the destruction of all royal tombs, so on October 12, 1793, a mob broke through the crypt of St. Denis.  Bodies of former monarchs were pulled from their resting places, stained glass windows were shattered, and sculptures were smashed.  The corpses were pulled apart and tossed about in jest, arms were merrily tossed around and skulls were kicked about for fun.  When the ugly scene was complete the royal remains were taken outside and tossed into two common ditches.  Quicklime was then poured over the corpses to hasten decomposition.

(Looting of a French church)

With the exception of Marshal Turenne, whose body was taken to be placed on display at the Museum of Comparative Anatomy, it was believed that most of the remains at St. Denis were lost.  When the Burbons briefly returned to power, the ditch was ordered excavated, however no individual identification of the various monarchs could be made, so what was left was placed in a collective ossuary in the crypt at St. Denis.  Ironically, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette had been buried in common graves after their executions and as such escaped the desecration at St. Denis.  In 1815, their remains were also brought to St. Denis.

(Royal Tombs at St. Denis)

It was believed that no royal remains originally at St. Denis survived the Revolution.  However, rumors would surface from time to time about artifacts saved from destruction.  In 1919, a photographer, Joseph-Emile Bourdais, purchased the head at Drouot's during an auction for three francs.  He kept the head in a glass case at his photography gallery and charged visitors to look at it.  Bourdais was convinced the head belonged to Henry, but could not convince museums of his day.  Even the Louvre declined his attempt at gifting the head.  When Joseph-Emile died, his widow sold the head in in 1955 for 5,000 francs to Jacques Bellanger, a tax collector.  Bellanger kept the head in his attic where it remained until a journalist, curious about a story found in some old news accounts, found Bellanger and asked if he still had the head and if so if he would allow it to be tested for authenticity.

(The head in the 1930s)

A 19-man team of international scientists revealed in December that after extensive analysis, the skull was indeed that of Henry IV.  Bellanger has since given the skull to Prince Louis Alphonse, the Duke of Anjou, who in turn has returned the head to St. Denis.

(Louis de Bourbon discussing Henry IV)

Anything interesting in your attic?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

L. L. Zamenhof

Yesterday's Person-of-Mystery was Dr. Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, the creator of the made up language of Esperanto.

Zamenhof was born in 1859 in the town of Bialystok, Poland (at the time Imperial Russia).  Growing up, Zamenhof was saddened by the ethnic prejudices of the various groups living in Bialystock.  Although his family belonged to the Yiddish-speaking Jewish majority, there were also large numbers of Poles, Germans, and Russians.  Zamenhof believed that the primary reason for hatred between these populations was attributable to their inability to understand each other's languages.

(Zamenhof about 1879)

As early as his time at secondary school, he began work on crafting an international language and by 1878 he had nearly finished what he called the Lingwe Uniwersala.  At that time, he was still too young to be recognized for his linguistic work, so he went on to study and practice ophthalmology in Polish Russia and Austria, all the while working on his international language.

In 1879, Zamenhof authored the first grammar of the Yiddish language and was active in Jewish affairs.  A series of pogroms in Russia motivated Zamenhof to join with Zionists in 1882, but he left the Zionists five years later declaring that all forms of nationalism produced human unhappiness.

(Zamenhof's Unua Libro)

In 1887, his first international language textbook was published in Russian under the pseudonym "Doktoro Esperanto," which meant "Doctor Hopeful" in his created language.  This book is now known by Esperantists (those who speak Esperanto) as the Unua Libro or the "first book."  Over the next few years editions were published in English, Hebrew, German, Polish, French.  Due to the catchy pseudonym Zamenhof used, the language became known as Esperanto.  Zamenhof's goal was to create an easily learned and politically neutral second language for the purpose of uniting the people of the world.

Unfortunately for Esperantists, at the same time Esperanto was being advanced, English was increasingly becoming the new lingua franca and has largely fulfilled Zamenhof's goal of creating an international second language, albeit without the easily learned and politically neutral purposes envisioned by Zamenhof.  Esperanto is supposedly five times easier to learn than other existing languages.

(First World Conference of Esperanto, 1905)

A World Congress of Esperanto was created in France in 1905 and has been held every year since excepting during the World Wars.  Zamenhof in a bid to encourage its use, released his control over Esperanto and allowed the Esperanto community to dictate its development.  Symbols of Esperanto were even created including a flag (a green star on a white canton imposed on a green field) and Esperantists often use the green star by itself or with with a letter "E" superimposed on the star.

Dr. Zamenhof died in 1917 in Warsaw and is buried there.  Unfortunately, for obvious reasons, 20th century dictators took a particular dislike for Esperanto.  Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf that the spread of Esperanto was a Jewish plot to destroy national differences, so they could assume control and when the German Army took control of Warsaw, the Gestapo received specific orders to find and eliminate the Zamenhof family.  Zamenhof's son Adam was found and executed and his two daughters, Sofia and Lidia, were taken to Treblinka where they perished in the Holocaust.

(Zamenhof's grave)

Esperanto still emerges from time-to-time by advocates of internationalism or those who seek to downplay the prominence of English or traditional religion.  It also appears in some movies and other media when a fictitious language would better serve to give the feeling of a non-specific foreign land.  It was even used for an entire song in one of my more favorite movies, the 1940 comedy, Road to Singapore.  Ironically, it was also used in the Charlie Chaplin film The Great Dictator, where the shop signs of the Jewish ghetto are in Esperanto

Saturday, January 22, 2011


The mystery theme for today is "Lost in Translation."

Who could I be?  That's the mystery!  Go ahead and take a guess and then go enjoy your day.  Check back tomorrow and I'll reveal the answer.  The first correct post will be declared the winner.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Correction (why bbl. is not the abbreviation for 'blue barrels')

A few days ago, I wrote a post about why the word barrel is abbreviated bbl.  I thought I had done my homework.  I had checked my sources and it seemed like my post was reliably sourced (going back as early as 1904) when I had attributed the abbreviation bbl to the use of blue colored barrels in the Pennsylvania oil industry in the 1860s.

Thankfully, an anonymous reader wrote in with a tip saying that bbl was in use long before the Pennsylvania oil industry.  Sure enough, I did a little poking around on the internet and found some old cargo manifests from the early days of sail.  I found one as early as 1764 that use the bbl abbreviation and it was certainly in use even before this.

(Manifest of the brig Sally, dated September 11, 1764 - note the bbl abbreviation)

So where did bbl come from?  I contacted three reference librarians across the country, and after doing their research, all three came back with the "blue barrel" answer.  When after I explained my earlier cargo manifest finds, one librarian from New York still put up a defense saying that "blue barrel" was well researched and had a long history of documented evidence.

One site I found took a couple of good guesses stating that the "b" may have been doubled originally to indicate the plural (1 bl, 2 bbl), or possibly it was doubled to eliminate any confusion with bl as a symbol for the bale.  Of course these are just guesses.

I'll keep looking for a satisfactory answer and I'll let you know if I find anything.  Of course if there's someone else with more information, feel free to post in the comments.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson

Congratulations to the Chuck Kelly of Sugar Land, Texas, winner of the Person-of-Mystery contest!  I chose Stonewall Jackson for two reasons.  The first being that we are so very close to the anniversary of his birth.  The second being that I ran across the uncharacteristic 1857 photo of Jackson while a professor at the Virginia Military Institute, it is a period between the clean shaven Mexican War look and his more recognizable full bearded Civil War appearance.

(Stonewall Jackson, full beard)

(Stonewall Jackson, no beard)

Over Christmas, I conducted a short-lived experiment in facial hair myself (did you know that the technical name for this is 'pogonotrophy'?).  I grew a beard from Christmastime until this morning.  I thought it added greatly to my face, but my wife thought otherwise, so it is now a thing of the past.  I wonder myself if Jackson would have been regarded so highly if he wore the 1857 look throughout the war.

(Stonewall Jackson, mid-beard)

Thomas Jonathan Jackson, was born January 21, 1824, in Clarksburg, Virginia.  Which means that this Friday will be the 187th anniversary of his birth and in his honor, the Commonwealth of Virginia, celebrates his birth each year with a state holiday.

Jackson is one of the most beloved and enigmatic figures from the Civil War.  He was born in a part of Virginia, that during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln (disregarding the Constitution) declared was a new state of West Virginia.  When Thomas was two years old his father died of typhoid.  His mother remarried, a year later, she too died in childbirth.  Thomas' new stepfather did not like having stepchildren, so Thomas (now orphaned at age seven) was sent to live with his uncle, Cummins Jackson.  Jackson was treated with stern discipline by his uncle and largely educated himself and other slaves in his uncle's employ.  Eventually, Thomas became a schoolteacher in the town and through determined efforts obtained an appointment to West Point.

(Jackson's Clarksburg home prior to demolition)

Due to his lack of formal education, Jackson began his studies at the bottom of his class, but through determination, eventually rose in rank and graduated in 1846 with honors, 17th in a class of 59.  He soon was called to serve in the Mexican War as a second lieutenant of the 1st US Artillery.  He served with distinction, earning two brevet promotions during the conflict.

In the spring of 1851, Jackson resigned from the army and accepted a teaching position as an artillery instructor at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI).  He was a very intelligent, but unpopular teacher.  Jackson was known for memorizing his lectures and then reciting them from memory.  He was so unpopular that on one occasion several students threw a brick at him from a third floor window, narrowly missing his head.  He was known for his piercing gaze with his bright blue eyes, earning him the nickname "Old Blue-Light."  It was said that if a student were bold enough for an explanation of his lecture, Jackson would recite the same lecture a second time.  He was so disliked that a group of alumni unsuccessfully tried to have him removed in 1856.

(Jackson's statue at VMI today)

Jackson married first in 1853, but his wife died the next year shortly after giving birth to a stillborn son.  Jackson married a second time in 1857.  The two had a daughter who only lived a month in 1858.  A final child, a daughter, was born in 1862, shortly before Jackson died.  As unaffectionate as he was towards students, Jackson is remembered for being very tender with his wife and children, giving them nicknames and doting on them.

(Mary Anna Morrison, second wife of Jackson)

At the onset of the Civil War, the Confederacy was in need of experienced leaders and Jackson was placed in command of the combined 2nd, 4th, 5th, 27th, and 33rd Virginia Infantry regiments.  These regiments were all from the Shenandoah Valley and were to be later known as the "Stonewall Brigade." At one of the first major engagements of the war, the Battle of First Manassas, when many inexperienced soldiers began to retreat, the South Carolinian General Bee, pointed to Jackson and encouraged his men to behave like Jackson's well drilled soldiers.  He said, "There is Jackson standing like a stone wall.  Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer.  Rally behind the Virginians!"  Bee was mortally wounded in the action, but thereafter Jackson was known as Stonewall Jackson.

Over the course of the war, Jackson proved adept at inspiring his highly motivated and well-drilled men quickly over vast distances, using terrain and surprise to his advantage, constantly keeping the enemy off balanced and defensive.

Jackson's achieved early fame during the Valley Campaign, where his forces, numbering less than a third of the enemy strength, marched an average of 13.5 miles a day for 48 days, during which time they won five significant victories and eventually led the enemy to abandon the Shenandoah.  Following this action, Jackson raced his men to Richmond to defend against McClellan's Peninsula advance.  Their appearance at the battlefield led Union intelligence to greatly overestimate Confederate strength and led to the eventual retreat down the peninsula.  For all their marching, Jackson's men were humorously given the title of "foot cavalry."

Robert E. Lee placed implicit trust in Jackson to carry out his overall plans and would detach Jackson to keep Union forces constantly surprised.  He slipped his men behind General Pope and captured and destroyed the main Union supply base at Manassas.  He then held Pope with fewer men until the Confederate forces could smash the enemy a second time at Manassas.  During the Maryland Campaign, Jackson was again detached to capture Harpers Ferry and later distinguished himself at the Battle of Sharpsburg.

Perhaps his most brilliant action was during the Battle of Chancellorsville, where he led his men around the Union right flank and routed the 11th Corps.  Unwilling to let the momentum die, he continued pressing through the evening and after reconnoitering, Jackson was returning to his lines when men from North Carolina mistook his party for the enemy and shot him.  Taken to the rear, his left arm was amputated.  When hearing of Jackson, Lee sent a message to Jackson saying, "Give General Jackson my affectionate regards, and say to him: he has lost his left arm but I my right."  At first recovery was thought probable, but he came down with pneumonia and eventually died eight days later.  Throughout the South, Jackson was morned and lamented.  Songs were composed and he became the first popular national hero.

(Women visiting Jackson's grave)

Perhaps never has such a quirky military figure gained such popular adulation.  His eccentricities were well known:  he would often pray alone and trancelike before battle, he had an unnatural calm in battle, he was known to hold aloft his left arm throughout the fighting, and always enjoyed sucking on lemons, he wore old worn-out uniforms and rode an undersized steed, avoided combat on Sundays, and avoided eating pepper because he thought it made his left leg ache.

(The Last Meeting of Lee and Jackson)

In 1889, Virginia made Robert E. Lee's birthday (January 19) a state holiday.  1904, Virginia added Stonewall Jackson (January 21), making it Lee-Jackson Day.  For a short time, from 1983 to 2000, Martin Luther King, Jr. was added making it Lee-Jackson-King Day, but some thought having King celebrated with two generals of the Confederacy was not fitting, so now Virginia has two separate days reverting back to Lee-Jackson Day.  The interesting thing is that Jackson in his own time was known for being rather friendly to Black people.  In defiance of state law, he started a Colored Sunday School Lexington in 1855 and taught slaves to read and supported it financially even while away in combat.  Many of his former students went on to found Black churches and schools.  The first donation for the statue for his grave came from Lexington's Negro Baptist Church and in the Black Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church of Roanoke, Virginia, is a stained glass memorial to Jackson, the founding pastor having been a member of Jackson's class.

History is funny sometimes, isn't it?

Saturday, January 15, 2011


Who could I be?  That's the mystery!  Go ahead and take a guess and then go enjoy your day.  Check back tomorrow and I'll reveal the answer.  The first correct post will be declared the winner.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Barrel of History (or how barrel became 'bbl')

CORRECTION:  Since writing this post, I have discovered that the explanation of the origin of bbl given below is a popular myth.  For an explanation, please see my subsequent post HERE.

I was watching the TV show "Dirty Jobs" with the kids tonight.  The host was working in a whisky distillery when he asked, "Why is barrel abbreviated 'bbl'?  Where did the extra 'b' come from?"

Interesting question, so I researched it and here's the short answer.  In the early years of the oil industry in Pennsylvania, wooden barrels were used to ship oil.  Barrels of the day came in all sizes, most were somewhere between 30 and 50 gallons, but the most common was the 40 gallon barrel.  Buyers became frustrated at the lack of standardization, so in 1866 more than two dozen leading producers agreed that 40 gallons would be the standard measurement for oil sales.  An extra allowance of 2 gallons per barrel was agreed upon to account for evaporation and leakage during transport.  So by 1872, 42 gallons became the accepted national standard.

At first, the oil industry produced far more kerosene than gasoline.  Kerosene was shipped in blue painted barrels and gasoline was put in red barrels.  Because the oil industry was now using the standard 42 gallon barrel and kerosene barrels were more plentiful, the term 'blue barrel' was used to identify 42 gallon barrels verses barrels of other sizes.  So it makes sense that 'bbl' became the abbreviation for blue barrel.  Eventually they stopped painting barrels blue, but the abbreviation stuck.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Fred Noonan

Congratulations to Azule, winner of yesterday's Person-of-Mystery contest!  Nice one!

(Fred Noonan and Amelia Earhart)

Fred Noonan, born April 4, 1893, was an seaman and airplane navigator, best known for being with Amelia Earhart when they disappeared somewhere in the Pacific.

(Noonan and Earhart boarding their Lockheed Electra in Puerto Rico)

His father dying when Fred was only four, Noonan was more of a self-made man.  Originally hailing from Chicago, at the age of 17 he left school and made his way to Seattle where he first found work as a seaman on the Crompton.  He eventually worked on dozens of merchant ships, receiving high ratings for his work and during World War I, had the distinctions of being a survivor of three separate ships sunk by U-boats.  Noonan continued his work in the Merchant Marine, eventually becoming a ship's officer and licensed sea captain.

In 1927, Noonan married his first wife, Josephine Sullivan.  Shortly thereafter, he gave up the seafaring life, for one in the skies.  Already a master navigator of the seas, he became a pilot and navigator for Pan American Airlines, but based on his impressive navigational skills was made a navigation instructor in Miami.  Rising through the Pan Am ranks, he was chosen on the first navigator for Pam Am's Flying Clipper and in 1935, he was chosen as the navigator for the first Trans-Pacific China Clipper trip from Alameda, California to Manila (flying under the Oakland Bay Bridge, still under construction).  Noonan was responsible for mapping many of the Pan Am Clipper routes across the Pacific and was known for his meticulous attention to detail and always bringing a sextant on his travels.

(Noonan and Earhart in the Dutch East Indies)

In 1937, Noonan, now living in Los Angeles, quit Pan Am with the idea that he would start an navigation school of his own.  He also divorced his wife of 10 years and two weeks later married Mary Martinelli.  Already well established as an expert navigator, Amelia Earhart chose Noonan as her only partner on her second attempt to be the first woman to fly around the world.  Noonan hoped the accompanying fame would accelerate his plans for his navigation school.

(Noonan and Earhart with planned route)

Earhart and Noonan left Oakland, California, May 21, 1937, on a easterly route around the globe.  The flight was relatively uneventful until reaching Lae, New Guinea.  Taking off from Lae, there is a distinct possibility that a radio antenna snapped off on their departure, unbeknownst to them, leaving their plane with limited means of receiving radio communications.

(Map of Noonan and Earhart's final trip)

This 18-hour leg from New Guinea to Howland had to rely on Noonan's astronomical navigation with a sextant combined with directional radio locating from signals sent by Coast Guard Cutter Itasca, waiting at Howland Island.  For whatever reason, radio contact was never established and an all-out search was ordered by President Roosevelt.  The Navy sent nine ships including 66 aircraft, covering 250,000 square miles of ocean and searching 24 islands at a total cost of $4 million dollars before calling off the search and returning empty handed.

(Search planes from the USS Lexington looking for Noonan and Earhart – from a previously unpublished photo at

In all probability, Noonan and and Earhart likely crashed their plane near Gardner Island.  Amateur shortwave listeners in the United States recorded a number of distress signals, but these were dismissed at the time.  In 1940, a British government official, recovered the remains of a European female skeleton and a sextant case (likely belonging to Noonan) on Gardner.

(Recon photo of Gardner Island taken in 1937)