Life in ancient Germany was rough, to put it lightly. You knew who your second cousins were, because you never knew when someone and his cousins were planning to kill you. Maybe you stole some of his family’s livestock, maybe you accidentally insulted his father or maybe one of your ancestors killed one of his generations ago, and he still wants revenge.
In these ancient tribes, blood feuds and violence were all too common. To address this problem people came up with innovative solutions to settle disputes and pass judgments: trial by ordeal. An ordeal required the accuser and the accused in a dispute to perform an action to “test” the gods, asking them to come down on the side of the righteous. Even after the Germanic peoples became Christian, these ordeals were retained, sometimes to the chagrin of Church authorities. Here are 6 of the craziest medieval ordeals.
1. Trial by combat
Everyone knows this one, in no small part due to its popularity in historical or fantasy dramas, like Game of Thrones. The idea was that in a battle between the accuser and accused, God would intervene on the side of the innocent and grant them victory. Interestingly, the Germanic peoples appear to have been the only ones on the European continent with this practice; there is no such record of the Greeks, Romans and Celts practicing trial by combat
2. Trial by the cross
Trial by combat wasn’t popular with everyone, however. Charlemagne encouraged the “ordeal of the cross” in its place, which required the accuser and accused to reach out their arms in the position of the crucifixion, and whoever lowered his arms first lost. Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious later banned the practice, since it seemed a little impious to imitate Jesus Christ on the Cross for the sake of a minor human problem.
3. Trial by fire
If you thought trial by combat was unpleasant, just wait until you see this. In the trial by fire, the accused would have to hold a burning red-hot piece of iron in their hands and walk a full nine paces before letting go. Their hands would then be wrapped and bandaged, and in three days would be examined by a priest. If their hands were healing properly, then they were innocent, but if the wound became infected, then God was not on their side, and they were guilty.
4. Trial by hot water
Medieval Europeans couldn’t get enough of the heat. A pot would be filled with boiling water (or sometimes oil) and a stone dropped into it. The accused would have to reach into the pot to remove the stone, and their burnt hands would be bandaged for three days. Like with the trial by fire, if their hands started the healing process properly, then the priest would proclaim that the accused was innocent.
5. Trial by cold water
It was believed in the early Middle Ages that water was pure, especially water used for baptism. In this trial, the accused would be thrown into a body of water to see if he would float or sink, but the best water was the one he was baptized in. If he sank, then the water had accepted him because he was innocent, and if he was guilty, he would float because the water was rejecting him. Many modern people might think this was a catch-22, because you would either be found guilty or you would drown, but not so. People were usually attached to ropes that could easily pull them out if they sank.
6. Trial by… cheese?
One of the strangest medieval ordeals required a man to stuff his mouth full of dry cheese and then take an oath of innocence. If the man accidentally spat some of the cheese out or choked on it, then he would be found guilty. The trial could also be conducted with bread, which was probably no less dry than the cheese.
Though these ordeals were prominent throughout the early Middle Ages, these never sat well with everyone. Plenty of people in the Church opposed these ordeals, claiming that it was sacrilegious to “test God” with ordeals that had their origin in older pagan traditions. By the thirteenth century, popes and kings were starting to discontinue the ordeals, and these nearly disappeared until the witch-hunts of the early modern period.
The next time you’re frustrated thinking about jury duty, be thankful that in our system you only have to risk your time, not your life.
The favoured instrument of the likes of Lisa Simpsons, former President Bill Clinton, and the co-author of this article and founder of TodayIFoundOut, the saxophone has variously been described as everything from “the most moving and heart-gripping wind instrument” to the “Devil’s horn.” Rather fittingly then the instrument’s inventor, Adolphe Sax, was a similarly polarising figure and led a life many would qualify as fulfilling all of the necessary specifications to be classified as being “all kinds of badass.”
Born in 1814 in the Belgian municipality of Dinant, Sax was initially named Antoine-Joseph Sax but started going by the name Adolphe seemingly almost from birth, though why he didn’t go by his original name and how “Adolphe” came to be chosen has been lost to history.
The son of a carpenter and eventual master instrument maker Charles Sax, Adolphe Sax was surrounded by music from an early age, becoming especially proficient at playing both the flute and clarinet. Sax’s affinity for wind instruments quickly became apparent in his early teens when he began improving upon and refine the designs of these instruments, as well as coming up with many more. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves because Sax was immeasurably lucky to even make it to adulthood given what he went through as a child.
Described as chronically accident prone, throughout his childhood Sax fell victim to a series of increasingly unusual mishaps, several of which nearly cost him his life. Sax’s first major incident occurred at age 3 when he fell down three flights of stairs and landed unceremoniously at the bottom with his head smacking on the stone floor there. Reports of the aftermath vary somewhat, from being in a coma for a week, to simply being bedridden for that period, unable to stand properly.
A young Sax would later accidentally swallow a large needle which he miraculously passed without incident or injury. On that note, apparently keen on swallowing things that could cause him harm, as a child he drank a concoction of white lead, copper oxide, and arsenic…
In another incident, Sax accidentally fell onto a burning stove reportedly receiving severe burns to his side. Luckily, he seemingly avoided severe infection that can sometimes follow such, though part of his body was forever scarred.
Perhaps the closest he came to dying occurred when he was 10 and fell into a river. This fact was not discovered until a random villager observed Sax floating face down near a mill. He was promptly plucked from the river and later regained consciousness.
But wait, we’re not done yet, because in another incident he got blown across his father’s workshop when a container of gunpowder exploded when he was standing next to it.
Yet again courting death, a young Sax was injured while walking in the streets when a large slate tile flew off a nearby roof and hit him right on the head, rendering him temporarily comatose.
All of these injuries led Sax’s understandably worried mother, Maria, to openly say her young son was “condemned to misfortune”, before adding, “he won’t live.” Sax’s numerous brushes with death also led to his neighbours jokingly referring to him as “the ghost-child from Dinant.”
Besides apparently giving his all to practicing for a future audition in a “Final Destination film,” on the side, as noted, Sax made musical instruments.
In fact, he became so adept at this that when the young man grew into adulthood and began submitting his instruments to the Belgian National Exhibition, for a few years running he was recommended by the judges for the Gold Medal at the competition, only to have the Central Jury making the final decision deny him such because of his age. They explained to him that if he won the gold, he would then have already achieved the pinnacle of success at the competition, and thus would have nothing to strive for in it the following year.
In the final of these competitions he entered at the age of 27 in 1841, this was actually to be the public debut of the saxophone, but according to a friend of Sax, Georges Kastner, when Sax wasn’t around, someone, rumored to be a competitor who disliked the young upstart, kicked the instrument, sending it flying and damaging it too severely to be entered in the competition.
Nonetheless, Sax was recommended for the Premier Gold Medal at the exhibition thanks to his other submitted instruments, but the Central Jury once again denied this to him. This was the final straw, with Sax retorting, “If I am too young for the gold medal, I am too old for the silver.”
Now a grown man and having seemingly outgrown what it was possible to achieve in Dinant, Sax decided a move was in order, choosing Paris as is destination to set up shop. As to why, to begin with, in 1839 he had traveled to Paris to demonstrate his design for a bass clarinet to one Isacc Dacosta who was a clarinet player at the Paris Academy of Music. Dacosta himself also had created his own improved version of the bass clarinet, but after hearing and playing Sax’s version was quickly impressed by it and Sax himself. He then subsequently introduced Sax around town to various prominent musicians, giving Sax many notable connections in Paris to start from.
Further, not long after he was snubbed at the Exhibition, Sax had learned that certain members of the French government were keen on revitalizing the French military bands and were seeking new and improved instruments to do so. After mulling it over for some time, he decided to try his hand in the big city.
Upon arriving in Paris in 1842, supposedly with a mere 30 francs in his pocked, Sax invited noted composer Hector Berlioz to come review his instruments, resulting in an incredibly glowing review published on June 12, 1842 in the Journal des debats.
Unfortunately for him, this was the start of an issue that would plague Sax for the rest of his life — pitting himself up against the combined might of the rest of the musical instrument makers in Paris who quite literally would go on to form an organization just to take Sax down.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
As for Berlioz’s review of Sax’s work, he wrote,
M. Adolphe Sax of Brussels… is a man of penetrating mind; lucid, tenacious, with a perseverance against all trials, and great skill… He is at the same time a calculator, acoustician, and as necessary also a smelter, turner and engraver. He can think and act. He invents and accomplishes… Composers will be much indebted to M. Sax when his instruments come into general use. May he persevere; he will not lack support from friends of art.
Partially as a result of this piece, Sax was invited to perform a concert at the Paris Conservatoire to much fanfare and success. This, in turn, along with his former connections from his 1839 visit, ended up seeing Sax making many friends quickly among certain prominent musicians and composers impressed with his work. All this, in turn, saw Sax have little trouble acquiring the needed funds to setup the Adolphe Sax Musical Instrument Factory.
Needless to say, this young Belgian upstart, who was seemingly a prodigy when it came to inventing and improving on existing instruments, threatened to leave the other musical instrument makers in Paris in the dust.
Said rivals thus began resorting to every underhanded trick in the book to try to ruin him, from frequent slanderous newspaper articles, to lawsuits, to attempts to have his work boycotted.
For example, in 1843, one Dom Sebastien was composing his opera Gaetano Donizetti and had decided to use Sax’s design for a bass clarinet which, as noted, was significantly improved over other instrument makers of the day’s versions. Leveraging their connections with various musicians in the opera, many of whom worked closely with various other musical instrument makers around town, the threat was made that if Sebastien chose to have Sax’ bass clarinet used in the opera, the orchestra members would refuse to play. This resulted in Sebastien abandoning plans to use Sax’ instrument.
In the past, and indeed in many such instances where his instruments would be snubbed or insulted by others, Sax had been known to challenge fellow musicians besmirching his name to musical duels, pitting their talents against one another in a very public way. Owing to his prodigious skill at not just making extremely high quality instruments, but playing them, Sax frequently won such “duels”. In this case, it is not clear if he extended such a challenge, however.
Whatever the case, as one witness to the harassment, the aforementioned composer Hector Berlioz, would write in a letter dated Oct. 8, 1843,
It is scarcely to be believed that this gifted young artist should be finding it difficult to maintain his position and make a career in Paris. The persecutions he suffers are worthy of the Middle Ages and recall the antics of the enemies of Benvenuto, the Florentine sculptor. They lure away his workmen, steal his designs, accuse him of insanity, and bring legal proceedings against him. Such is the hatred inventors inspire in rivals who are incapable of inventing anything themselves.
His audacious plans didn’t help matters. As noted, when he got to Paris, one of the things he hoped to accomplish was to land a rather lucrative contract with the French military to see his instruments alone used by them. A centerpiece of this, he hoped, was his new and extremely innovative saxophone.
While it seems commonplace today, in a lot of ways the saxophone was a revolution at the time, effectively combining major elements of the woodwind families with the brass. As Berlioz would note of the saxophone in his review of it, “It cries, sighs, and dreams. It possesses a crescendo and can gradually diminish its sound until it is only an echo of an echo of an echo- until its sound becomes crepuscular… The timbre of the saxophone has something vexing and sad about it in the high register; the low notes to the contrary are of a grandiose nature, one could say pontifical. For works of a mysterious and solemn character, the saxophone is, in my mind, the most beautiful low voice known to this today.”
Exactly when Sax first publicly debuted the saxophone to the world isn’t clear, with dates as early as 1842 sometimes being thrown around. However, we do know that during one of his earliest performances with the instrument at the Paris Industrial Exhibition in 1844, Sax played a rousing solo from behind a large curtain. Why? Well, Sax was paranoid about his instrument’s design being copied and, as he hadn’t patented it yet, decided that the best way to avoid this was to simply not let the general public see what it looked like.
This brings us to the military. As previously noted, the French military music was languishing in disgrace. Thus, keen to revitalize it in the name of patriotism, the French government created a commission to explore ways to reform the military bands in innovative ways. Two months after announcing this to the world and inviting manufacturers to submit their instruments for potential use by the military, a concert of sorts was put on in front of a crowd of 20,000 in Paris on April 22, 1845.
Two bands would perform in the concert, with one using more traditional instruments and the other armed with various types of saxophones and other modifications on existing instruments by Sax. Both bands played the same works by composer Adolphe Adam.
The band using Sax’s instruments won by a landslide. Several months later, on Aug. 9, 1845, they awarded Sax the lucrative military contract he’d set out to get when he first moved to Paris.
This was the last straw — when Sax, a Belgian no less, secured the contract to supply the French military, his rivals decided to literally form an organization who might as well have called themselves the “Anti-Sax Club”, but in the end went with — L’Association générale des ouvriers en instruments demusique (the United Association of Instrument Makers). This was an organization to which the most prominent and talented instrument maker in France at the time was most definitely not welcome to join.
Their principal order of business throughout Sax’s lifetime seemed to be to try to ruin Sax in any way they could. To begin with, adopting the age old practice of “If you can’t beat ’em, sue ’em,” a long running tactic by the organization was simply to tie up Sax’s resources, time, and energy in any way possible in court.
The first legal action of this group was to challenge Sax’s patent application on the saxophone, initially claiming, somewhat bizarrely, that the instrument as described in the patent didn’t technically exist. When that failed, they claimed that the instrument was unmusical and that in any event Sax had simply modified designs from other makers. They then presented various other instruments that had preceded it as examples, none of which the court agreed were similar enough to the saxophone to warrant not granting the patent.
Next up, they claimed that the exact design had long existed before, made by other manufacturers in other countries and that Sax was falsely claiming it as his own. To prove this, the group produced several literally identical instruments to Sax’s saxophone bearing foreign manufacturing markings and supposedly made years before.
The truth was that they had simply purchased saxophones from Sax’s company and sent them to foreign workshops where Sax’s labeling had been removed and replaced with the shop owner’s own.
Unfortunately for the United Association of Instrument Makers, this ruse was discovered and they had to come up with a new strategy.
They then claimed that since Sax had very publicly played the instrument on several occasions, it was no longer eligible for a patent.
At this point, fed up with the whole thing, an infuriated Sax countered by withdrawing his patent application and giving other instrument makers permission to make a saxophone if they had the skill. He gave his rivals a year to do this, in which time nobody was able to successfully replicate the instrument with any quality. Shortly before the year was up, with no challenger apparently capable, he then re-submitted his patent application and this time it was quickly granted on June 22, 1846.
Apparently not content with just trying to metaphorically ruin his life and business, at one point Sax’s workshop mysteriously caught fire and in another an unknown assassin fired a pistol at one of Sax’s assistants, thinking it was Sax, with it being rumored that the United Association of Instrument Makers was behind both of these things.
Whether true or not, things took a turn for the worse for Sax after King Louis-Philippe fled the country in 1848. In the aftermath of the revolution, and with many of Sax’s high placed friends now ousted, the United Association of Instrument Makers were able to simultaneously petition to have Sax’s contract with the military revoked and, by 1849, were able to have his patents for the bugles-a-cylindres and saxotromba likewise revoked, freeing his rivals up to make the instruments themselves. They also attempted to have his patent for the saxophone squashed, but were unsuccessful on that one.
Sax, not one to take this sitting down, appealed and after a five year legal battle, the Imperial Court at Rouen finally concluded the matter, siding with Sax and reinstating his patents, as well as ordering the Association to pay damages for the significant loss of revenue in the years the legal battle had raged.
Nevertheless, before this happened, in 1852, Sax found himself financially ruined, though interestingly, his final downfall came thanks to a friend. During this time, as noted, Sax was fighting various legal battles, had lost his military contract, and was otherwise struggling to keep his factory afloat. That’s when a friend gave him 30,000 francs to keep things going. Sax had originally understood this to be a gift, not a loan. Whether it was or wasn’t isn’t clear, but when said individual died a couple years later in 1852, his heirs certainly noticed the previous transaction and inquired about it with Sax, demanding he repay the 30,000 francs and giving him a mere 24 hours to come up with the money.
Unable to do so, Sax fled to London while simultaneously once again finding himself embroiled in yet another legal drama. In this case, the courts eventually demanded Sax repay the 30,000 francs, causing him to have to file for bankruptcy and close down his factory.
But this is Adolphe Sax we’re talking about — a man who had survived major blows to the head, drowning, explosion, poisoning, severe burns, beatings by thugs presumably hired by the United Association of Instrument Makers, an assassination attempt, and literally the combined might of just about every prominent instrument maker in his field in Paris leveled against him.
Adolphe Sax in the 1850s.
Fittingly for a man who is quoted as stating, “In life there are conquerors and the conquered; I most prefer to be among the first”, Sax wasn’t about to quit.
And so it was that continuing to work at his craft, in 1854, Sax found himself back on top, appointed Musical Instrument Maker to the Household Troops of Emperor Napoleon III. His new benefactor also helped Sax emerge from bankruptcy and re-open his factory.
It’s at this point, however, that we should point out that, as indicated by his childhood, it clearly wasn’t just other instrument makers that were against Sax, but the universe as well.
A year before his appointment by Napoleon III, Sax noticed a black growth on his lip that continued to grow over time. By 1859, this tumor had grown to such a size that he could not eat or drink properly and was forced to consume sustenance from a tube.
Just to kick him while he was down, shortly before this, in 1858, Sax’s first born child, Charles, died at the age of 2.
Going back to the cancer, his choice at this point in 1859 was to be subjected to a risky and disfiguring surgery, including removing part of his jaw and much of his lip, or submit himself to experimental medicine of the age. He chose the latter, ultimately being treated by an Indian doctor by the name of Vries who administered some private concoction made from a variety of herbs.
Whether the treatment did it or Sax’s own body simply decided that it would not let something trivial like cancer stop it from continuing to soldier on, within six months from the start of the treatment, and after having had the tumor for some six years at this point, Sax’s giant tumor began to get smaller. By February of 1860, it had disappeared completely.
The rest of Sax’s life went pretty much as what had come before, variously impressing the world with his talents in musical instrument making, as well as fighting constant legal battles, with the United Association of Instrument Makers attempting to thwart him in any way they could, while simultaneously the musical instrument makers behind it profited from Sax’s designs as his patents expired.
Finally fed up with everything, a then 72 year old, near destitute Sax attempted to get justice outside of the courts, with an aptly titled article called “Appeal to the Public”, published in the La Musique des Familles in 1887. The article outlined the many ways in which Sax had been wronged by the United Association of Instrument Makers and the near constant, often frivolous, legal battles he fought throughout his time in Paris with them. He summed up,
[B]efore me, I am proud to say, the musical instrument industry was nothing, or next to nothing, in France. I created this industry; I carried it to an unrivaled height; I developed the legions of workers and musicians, and it is above all my counterfeiters who have profited from my work.
While none of this worked at getting the general public to rally to his defense, it did result in many prominent musicians and composers around Paris petitioning that Sax, who had indeed contributed much to the French musical world, should be given a pension so that he could at least be comfortable in the latter years of his life. The results of this was a modest pension ultimately granted towards this end.
On the side when he wasn’t fighting countless legal battles and inventing and making instruments, Sax also had a penchant for dreaming up alternate inventions, such as designing a device that could launch a 500 ton, eleven yard wide mortar bullet, he called — and we’re not making this up — the Saxocannon. He also designed a truly massive organ intended to be built on a hillside near Paris, capable of being heard clearly by anyone throughout the city when it was played.
In the end, Sax died at the age of 79 in 1894 and was buried in the Montmartre Cemetery in Paris.
This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.
The Army has a saying, “Ain’t no use in looking down, ain’t no discharge on the ground.” But for some old sailors, looking down would have revealed a DD-214, just not the kind of DD-214 that are discharge papers.
That’s because the USS Tracy — a destroyer and minesweeper — was commissioned as the DD-214, the Navy’s 208th destroyer (DD-200 through DD-205 were canceled).
The Tracy was laid down in 1919 and commissioned in 1920 before serving on cruises around the world prior to World War II. It was at Pearl Harbor undergoing a massive overhaul when the Japanese attacked in 1941.
The Tracy’s gun batteries, boilers, ammunition, and most of her crew had been removed during the overhaul but that didn’t stop the skeleton crew on the ship from taking action that December morning.
The duty watch kept a log of all their actions, including dispatching fire and damage control crews to other ships and setting up machine guns with borrowed ammunition to fire on Japanese planes attacking the nearby USS Cummings and USS Pennsylvania. The Tracy suffered one man killed and two lost during the battle.
The crew of the Tracy got it back in fighting shape quickly and the ship took part in minelaying activities in March 1942. A few months later, the Tracy joined Task Force 62 for the assault on Guadalcanal.
The Tracy then supported the American-Australian offensive at Bougainville Island before heading back north to take part in the Okinawa invasion, rescuing survivors of a ship hit by a suicide boat attack.
The war ended a short time later and Tracy emerged from the conflict nearly unscathed with seven battle stars.
While it’s great to imagine an entire generation of sailors that had to serve on the DD-214 while dreaming of their DD-214 papers, no old seamen were that unlucky. The DD-214 discharge form wasn’t introduced until 1950, four years after the Tracy was decommissioned and sold for scrap.
In reading the history books, one might come to believe the Mongol Empire under Genghis Khan was an unstoppable machine that rolled over everything and everyone in its path. Largely, they would be right to think so.
Until the Great Khan’s death in 1227, there weren’t a lot of things that would give the Mongol Hordes any kind of pause, and a killer hangover would usually top the list. By the time Khan died, he ruled an empire that spanned from the Pacific Ocean to the Caspian Sea in the west.
There was a military leader that the Mongols did not want to fight, and it comes from an unlikely and less often remembered place. He was Jalal ad Din Mingburnu, the last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire.
Khan conquered two-thirds of what is today China and after their defeat, sent a caravan of traders into the Khwarezmian Empire, in modern-day Turkey, Iran, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. The Mongols were looking to establish trade relations. Khan had no desire to actually invade the empire. But the caravan was attacked and looted by a local governor before it could reach its destination. The governor refused to pay restitution for the caravan.
Still, unlike the Khan of the history books, the Mongols sent three emissaries to resolve the situation diplomatically. Shah Ala ad-Din Muhammad, ruler of the Khwarazmian Empire, had them put to death, along with the survivors of the caravan.
This is where the old Genghis Khan you read about shows up. He assembled the largest Mongol Army ever created, a force of 100,000 men to reduce the Shah’s empire to rubble. And that’s pretty much what happened. The Mongols leveled all the major cities and tried to destroy any historical mentions of the Khwarezmian Empire.
The Shah and his sons escaped to the Caspian Sea, where he named his son, Jalal ad Din Mingburunu, as his successor to what was left of the empire. It was Jalal ad-Din who was eventually able to defeat the Mongols.
Khan, now in his 60s, warned his sons Jochi, Jebe, and Tolui not to mess up when fighting Jalal ad-Din. The young ruler was everything the Great Khan feared he would be.
Now in command of the Khwarazmian army, Jalal ad-Din made his way to the former capital at Samarkand. Along the way, he encountered a Mongol cavalry with just his 300-man bodyguard to fight them. The young ruler, only 21 years old, handed the Mongols their first defeat.
He gathered what was left of the army at the old capital and made his way to Nesa, where he relieved the city of a Mongol siege and headed to the new capital at Ghazni, where he defeated the Mongols once more.
Jalal ad-Din’s general soon got into a scuffle about how to divide the spoils of war and the divide led to 30,000 men abandoning the young king. Khan, now in awe of the young man’s ability, heard about the split and decided it would be the only chance he had to defeat the Khwarazmian. He assembled a force that would overwhelm what was left of the Khwarazmian army.
At the 1221 Battle of Indus, Jalal ad-Din was on his way to exile in India, but Khan caught up to him as he was fording the river. The Khwarazmians stood to fight, but were simply overwhelmed. Jalal was forced to swim across the Indus River to escape alive.
He spent three years in India but soon returned at the head of another army. Jalal ad-Din spent the rest of his life harassing the Mongol forces but was never able to re-establish his empire.
In 1775, the Royal Navy sent a fleet to Falmouth, Maine, the site of modern-day Portland, and rained heated shells down on it for eight hours, burning nearly the entire town to the ground — but also pouring tinder onto the burgeoning flames of American rebellion.
The idea was to cow the rebels into submission, but it was basically a Revolutionary Pearl Harbor.
An American ship resists a British boarding party during the War of 1812. Naval engagements like this were common in the Revolutionary War as American raiding parties stole British ships or British forces tried to enforce tax laws against American merchants.
(U.S. Coast Guard archives)
The struggle leading up to the burning of Falmouth began with the rebels and smugglers in the colonies blowing off British taxes. A 26-ship fleet was sent to back up the revenue collectors, but they had over 1,000 miles of coastline to patrol, and their efforts were largely unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. George Washington and his 16,000-man army had the 6,000 British troops under Lt. Gen. Thomas Gage pinned up near Boston. The British were getting frustrated as rebel colonialists repeatedly embarrassed one of the most powerful militaries in the world.
Amidst all this tension and simmering violence, rebels in Falmouth captured multiple British merchant ships as well as the commander of one of the ships of that 26-ship fleet sent against them, Lt. Henry Mowat, in May, 1775. He was held for ransom for a few days, but returned to his ship after town leaders pressured the rebel leader.
So, when the British senior command sent orders to the fleet to conduct whatever operations were necessary to quell the rebellion, Vice Adm. Samuel Graves ordered the elimination of whatever rebellious sea port towns that the Royal Navy could reach. Multiple towns were selected, including ones where residents had kidnapped or killed British officers.
Mowat returned to the town of Falmouth with four ships sporting over 20 cannons and ordered the town to evacuate before he destroyed it. The town petitioned for mercy, and Mowat conceded to delay the attack as long as all arms and powder, including artillery and gun carriages, were turned over and the residents swore an oath of loyalty.
Falmouth quietly turned over a few muskets, but then everyone just evacuated quietly. No one was giving an oath to the Mad King. At 9 a.m. on October 18, Mowat ordered the final evacuation. At sometime before 10 a.m., he ordered the flotilla to open fire, even though people were still visibly making their way out of town.
Heated shot was a great weapon in the age of wooden ships and buildings. Cannon crews would get their ammo from ovens where the shots were heated for hours, allowing them to stay red hot even when skipping across the water and flying through the air.
For the next eight hours, the ships heated cannonballs in their ovens, got them red hot, and sent them into the wooden buildings of the town. Whenever a neighborhood of the town failed to catch fire, the ships landed marines and had them get the job done up close.
A group of armed town residents attempted to put out some of the flames, and the winds were on their side, but the construction of the town made it nearly impossible. The town consisted of hundreds of wooden buildings, most of them packed tightly together. Fire spread from building to building, slowly but steadily.
In the end, over 400 buildings were destroyed, many of them homes or places of business. 1,000 people were left homeless and destitute.
Colonial leaders, even many of those formerly loyal to the crown, were pissed. State legislatures and the provincial congress ordered aid, mostly corn and other foodstuffs, sent to the families now forced to weather the Maine cold without shelter.
“In a word,” one reverend wrote, “about three quarters of the town was consumed and between two and three hundred families who twenty four hours before enjoyed in tranquility their commodious habitations, were now in many instances destitute of a hut for themselves and families; and as a tedious winter was approaching they had before them a most gloomy and distressing prospect.”
Revenue Cutter Service personnel prepare to defend their wreck against British attack during the War of 1812. In 1776, many seaport towns had built quick defenses like these to prevent themselves suffering the fate of Falmouth, Maine.
(Coast Guard archives)
The political backlash against the attack was real and immediate. Damage was estimated at 50,000 British pounds — converted to modern U.S. dollars, that’s nearly million. Royal subjects in Britain were outraged and those living in America were livid.
Even France, which was closely watching the progress of the rebellion in their rival’s colonies, was shocked.
But the greatest consequences came when former residents of Falmouth, their family members, and other outraged colonial citizens began turning up for duty in colonial militias. Other seaport towns immediately beefed up their defenses, making an attempt against another town nearly impossible to conduct without losses.
By the start of 1776, it was clear that the American rebellion had grown from an effort by an angry minority to throw off a perceived yoke to a growing revolution that would eventually hamstring the British Empire.
Falmouth, for its part, eventually re-built and re-grew into modern Portland, Maine. This was actually the third time the town had to re-build after a major fire, and it would happen a fourth time in the 1800s. The town seal now features a phoenix, for obvious reasons.
Nazi Germany may have been one of the most evil regimes in history, but that regime also had some very good equipment. The Tiger tank, the Bf 109 and FW 190 fighters, the U-boat, and the MG42 machine gun were all very good.
Perhaps the most notorious weapon they had was called the “88.” Technically, it was called the 8.8 centimeter Flak 18, 36, 37, or 41, but most folks just described it with the number that referred to the gun’s bore diameter in millimeters. That was a measure of how notorious the gun was.
The first 88s were intended as anti-aircraft guns to kill bombers. They were very good at that – as many allied bomber crews found out to their sorrow. But the gun very quickly proved it was more than just an anti-aircraft gun, starting with its “tryout” in the Spanish Civil War. The gun also proved it could kill tanks.
According to MilitaryFactory.com, it could kill tanks from a mile away. When the Germans discovered that, they began to churn out 88mm guns as quickly as they could. As many as 20,700 were built, and they found themselves used on everything from Tiger tanks to naval vessels. Even after the war, the gun hung around, and during the war, it was something that allied forces quickly tried to neutralize. The 88 was even pressed into service with some Seventh Army units due to an ammo shortage.
The gun had a crew of seven, and weighed nine tons. The gun could be fired at targets as far as nine miles away. Very few of these guns are around now, but in World War II, many Allied troops wondered if the Germans would ever run out.
You can see video of one of the few surviving “88s” being fired below.
Imagine looking out your window to see an eerie green glow resonating from your neighbor’s shed. Or seeing government trucks being loaded with barrels marked radioactive by men dressed in hazmat suits outside your home.
The residents of Golf Manor, Michigan, don’t have to imagine it, because in 1995, a young teenage boy built a nuclear breeder reactor in his mother’s potting shed, an idea he came up with while working on his Atomic Energy merit badge in attempt to earn Eagle Scout status.
At an age when most adolescents are consumed with sports, friends, or dating, Hahn spent his free time conducting chemical experiments. Much to the chagrin of his parents, he had several chemical spills and even created an explosion that rocked their tiny house and left David “lying semi-conscious on the floor, his eyebrows smoking.”
Even his scout troop was not immune to his scientific curiosity. David once appeared at a scout meeting, “with a bright orange face caused by an overdose of canthaxanthin, which he was taking to test methods of artificial tanning.” Then there was the night at camp where his fellow scouts accidentally ignited a pile of powdered magnesium he had brought to make fireworks.
There’s no question that David was increasingly bold in his attempts to learn more about the chemical compounds of our world, but even with the goal in mind to build a nuclear breeder reactor, you have to wonder how he obtained the radioactive elements.
David worked a series of jobs at fast-food joints and grocery stores after school to finance his experiments. He admitted to Harper’s that he used several aliases and a string of mail communications with individuals working for agencies that control nuclear elements. None were as helpful as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, where David was able to engage the agency’s director, Donald Erb.
Erb provided David with a list of contacts who provide commercial sale of some elements and how to harvest others. David broke apart smoke detectors to obtain americium-241, commercial gas lanterns provided him thorium-232, and with the help of a Geiger counter, he found an antique luminous clock that contained a vial of radium paint used to keep the clock face glowing. He even purchased $1000 worth of batteries to extract the lithium.
After several attempts to create energy, David was finally successful but he soon learned that his small reactor was producing so much radiation that it was spreading through his neighborhood. Unfortunately, his safety precautions only consisted of wearing a makeshift lead poncho and throwing away his clothes and shoes following a session in the potting shed. So he took apart the reactor.
Stashing some of the more radioactive elements in his house and the rest in his car, he was later found by the police after a call was made about a young man trying to steal tires. The police opened his trunk to find an array of scientific materials and a tool box locked with a padlock and sealed with duct tape. The police were rightly concerned about the box, and after David advised that it was radioactive, they were worried he had a nuclear bomb.
While being questioned by the police, David’s parents became afraid that they would lose their house, so they ransacked his room and his “laboratory” and tossed everything they could find. This left the authorities with nothing but what was in the car.
“The funny thing is, they only got the garbage, and the garbage got all the good stuff,” Hahn told Harper’s.
David never went back to his experiments and later served four years in the U.S. Navy – including service aboard the USS Enterprise, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. He also briefly served in the Marine Corps before returning home to Michigan. In 2016, David died from alcohol poisoning – not from exposure to radiation.
Though David Hahn is gone, the small town of Golf Manor will never forget their “Radioactive Boy.”
If you listen to Francis Currey describe his life, he’ll tell you he’s an average man. Never mind that he’s been featured on a U.S. postage stamp and was a model for one of the most famous dolls in history — G.I. Joe.
Despite his protests, Currey is a genuine hero.
Awarded three Purple Hearts, he is also New York State’s only living Medal of Honor recipient from World War II, but he views those medals and the ensuing accolades with modesty.
“I got it, that’s all,” Currey once said of his Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor that he received in 1945.
Maybe not, but the five men Currey saved on Dec. 21, 1944, thought differently.
Currey was a 19-year-old Army sergeant when his platoon of 30 men was assigned to defend Malmedy, a small town in Belgium. His team had very few weapons, and most were small arms that had little effect on the German tanks. After prolonged fighting, his group was forced to withdraw to a nearby factory.
There, Currey found a bazooka and crossed the street to secure rockets, meanwhile enduring intense fire from enemy tanks and hostile infantrymen who had taken up a position at a house a short distance away. In the face of small arms, machine gun, and artillery fire, he knocked out a tank with one shot. Moving to another position, he observed three Germans in the doorway of an enemy-held house. He killed or wounded all of them with his automatic rifle.
Currey emerged from cover and advanced alone to within 50 yards of the house, intent on wrecking it with rockets from his bazooka. Covered by friendly fire, he stood erect and fired a shot which knocked down half of one wall. While in this forward position, he observed five Americans who had been pinned down for hours by fire from the house and three tanks.
Realizing that they could not escape until the enemy tank and infantry guns had been silenced, Currey crossed the street to a vehicle, where he procured an armful of antitank grenades. These he launched while under heavy enemy fire, driving the tankmen from the vehicles into the house. He then climbed onto a half-track truck in full view of the Germans and fired a machine gun at the house.
Once again changing his position, he manned another machine gun whose crew had been killed; under his covering fire, the five soldiers were able to retire to safety.
Deprived of tanks and with heavy infantry casualties, the Germans were forced to withdraw.
Through his extensive knowledge of weapons and by his heroic and repeated braving of murderous enemy fire, Currey was greatly responsible for inflicting heavy losses in men and material on the enemy, for rescuing his comrades — two of whom were wounded — and for stemming an attack which threatened his unit’s position.
Currey’s actions are credited with shortening the war by at least six weeks and saving countless American lives, because if the Germans had broken through that day, they would have gained a huge advantage.
For his bravery, Currey was awarded the Medal of Honor in a ceremony, Aug. 17, 1945, in Reims, France, with just over two weeks left before the end of the war. At the time, Currey was recovering from a wound that earned him his third Purple Heart — a gunshot he sustained while disarming a German soldier in Bavaria.
When the war in Europe ended, Currey became a counselor for veterans. He retired from the Department of Veterans Affairs in 1980 and currently lives in Albany County with his wife of more than 65 years, Wilma.
There’s no army on earth more anti-Communist than that of South Korea. When your closest neighbor and mortal enemy is North Korea, there’s just no other way. South Korea, also known as the Republic of Korea, suffered heavily from the surprise invasion from the north that started the three year long Korean War. The south has been willing to fight communism anywhere in the world ever since.
When the United States intervened in the war in Vietnam, one of the earliest allies to send combat troops was the Republic of Korea. When the ROK 2nd Marine Brigade arrived in October 1965, its commander made sure the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong knew who they were going up against.
“We have only one purpose here — combat,” he said. He went on to say that they would be ready to fight any communist “anywhere, anytime.” And they were.
A total of 37,000 Korean Marines would find their way to the battlefields of Vietnam and they were able to accomplish what other allies could not. Korea’s 2nd Battalion took over the assault on Ca Tau Mountain in November 1965. It was a heavily fortified position that the North had held for more than 18 years. The French couldn’t take it. The South Vietnamese failed to take it. The South Koreans took it in just nine hours.
Everywhere South Korean Marines went, they cleared entire areas of communist aggression, securing rice fields, ports and the flanks of U.S. and South Vietnamese allies. In February 1966, the NVA attacked the Korean 3rd Marine Division at Tra Binh Dong. The Koreans held off the advance, despite being outnumbered 5-to-1.
What they did next would likely embed itself in the minds of communnist forces in Vietnam anytime they considered fighting South Korean Marines.
More than 2,400 North Vietnamese soldiers pressed their attack but were pushed back – until the Marines ran out of ammunition. Once the shooting from the Marines stopped, the communists charged the Korean lines. Where other armies might have broken off or retreated, the Marines stayed put.
When the NVA poured through the Korean defenses, they found a force armed with fixed bayonets, pickaxes, and entrenching tools, which the Koreans used to such devastating effect that that forced the advancing communists back out of their perimeter.
Upon returning to their lines, the Koreans detonated charges they’d set up around their camp. If the NVA planned an orderly withdrawal, that plan was now out the window. The Marines decided they would box in their enemy with the controlled detonation.
The NVA also quickly found out that the Koreans weren’t completely out of ammunition. A detachment of Marines had left the perimeter and taken out the NVA’s mortar company. The communists tried one last time to charge the perimeter, but by then the detachment had returned and the NVA attacked a line that exploded with machine gun fire, cutting them down.
What should have been an easy victory for the North Vietnamese Army turned into a total disaster, killing a tenth of the attacking force. Half of the communist dead were actually killed in the hand to hand fighting inside the Marines perimeter. The South Koreans lost 15 of their own, but the NVA didn’t try another offensive in the area until after the Korean Marines departed.
The mortar round detonated on impact, sending thousands of pieces of shrapnel through the plane and crew. Levitow was hit with 40 pieces of shrapnel, and the other six members of the crew didn’t fare much better.
But the worst piece of news was still coming. Levitow started to drag another injured crew member away from the door before he spotted an armed Mk-24 flare that was smoking and rolling around near stored ammo.
The flares operate on a timer set to anywhere between 5 and 30 seconds. Once armed, a crewmember would throw the flare out the door and it would parachute down. Magnesium in the flare would ignite a 4,000 degree Fahrenheit flame that illuminated the battlefield.
Levitow, despite his serious wound from the shrapnel, crawled his way to the 27-pound flare and attempted to grab it three times, but it kept escaping his hands. So he threw himself on it, clutched it to his body, and dragged it towards the door.
“I had the aircraft in a 30-degree bank, and how Levitow ever managed to get to the flare and throw it out, I’ll never know,” said pilot Maj. Kenneth Carpenter.
Somehow, Levitow got the flare to the door and out of the plane just before it ignited, saving everyone aboard. The pilot was able to limp the plane back to an emergency landing.
For Levitow, that was his 181st mission. He recovered from his wounds and completed another 20 combat missions before heading home and receiving his discharge paperwork in August 1969.
On April 22, 1915, a stiff wind outside of Ypres helped loose the first systematic poison-gas attack in history.
On a sunny afternoon in April 1915, outside the Belgian city of Ypres, the wind began blowing in the direction the German troops wanted – toward the French lines. German soldiers set up over 5,000 barrels of chlorine gas along their position, and let loose a rolling cloud of thick, yellow death. More than 6,000 French troops died in what was the first systematic use of poison gas on the battlefield. Its effectiveness caught even the Germans off guard. Willi Siebert, a German soldier, noted in his diary, “When we got to the French lines, the trenches were empty, but in a half mile the bodies of French soldiers were everywhere. It was unbelievable.” Just over 99 years later, on June 17, 2014, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed chlorine gas was used by the Syrian government in an attack on its own people.
Origins and evolution
In 1918, a German chemist named Fritz Haber won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for a method of extracting ammonia from the nitrogen in the atmosphere. The process made ammonia abundant and easily available. Haber’s discovery revolutionized agriculture, with some calling it the most significant technological discovery of the 20th century – supporting half of the world’s food base.
Haber was also a staunch German patriot who quickly joined the war effort at the outbreak of World War I. He was insistent on using weaponized gases, despite objections from some army commanders about their brutality, and treaties prohibiting their use. He personally oversaw the first use of chlorine gas at the front lines at Ypres. The next morning, he set out for the eastern front to deploy gas against the Russian army.
Chemical weapons quickly became a mainstay of warfare, public condemnation notwithstanding. They were employed by the militaries of Italy, Russia, Spain, and Japan, among others.
Timeline: chemical weapons use
During the Cold War, the United States and the U.S.S.R. made major advances in chemical-weapons technology. Their breakthroughs were accompanied by innovations in nuclear-weapons technology. It was during this period that the third generation of chemical weapons was invented: nerve agents.
Within a century of their devastating debut at Ypres, chemical weapons have increased in lethality a thousandfold.
Use in Syria’s Civil War
Organization For The Prohibition Of Chemical Weapons (background, locations, types of weapons, stockpiles, number of weapons destroyed)
United Nations Human Rights Council (Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic)
National Institutes Of Health (effects, history, and lethality)
Smithsonian Institute (history)
Violations Documentation Center in Syria (fatalities)
Human Rights Watch (types of weapons, attack locations)
On April 13, 1943, Nazi Germany announced the discovery of a series of mass graves containing the bodies of thousands of Polish officers who had been arrested and then executed by the Soviet Army. Seventy-five years later, the Katyn massacre is still a sensitive issue between Poland and Russia.
In World War II, airborne units were really in their infancy. The Germans pioneered their use in combat, and the United States built perhaps the largest airborne force in the world, with five airborne divisions.
But these divisions had a problem. There weren’t many planes to transport them for large-scale airborne ops. Today, most transports used in airborne operations have rear ramps for loading cargo (like, jeeps and artillery). Back then, they didn’t.
The C-47 Skytrain was based on the DC-3 airliner. The C-46 Commado was also based on an airliner.
Yeah, paratroops could be dropped, but they could be scattered (thus creating the rule of the LGOPs). How would they drop the heavier equipment, and keep the crews together? The answer came with the development of gliders. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union pioneered the use of them, but the U.S. and Great Britain built lots of them.
According to the National World War II Glider Pilots Association’s web site, the United States built over 13,000 CG-4A Waco gliders. Each of these gliders could carry 15 troops, or a Jeep and four paratroopers, a trailer, up to 5,000 pounds of supplies, an anti-tank gun plus operators, or a 75mm artillery piece and its crew.
About 6,500 glider pilots were trained during World War II, taking part in eight missions from Sicily to Luzon. In the 1950s, advancements in transport aircraft, both fixed-wing and rotary-wing, led to the glider units being deactivated in 1952. But the gliders helped deliver firepower, troops, and supplies during World War II – when that ability was needed.
The video below shows how gliders were used during the Normandy invasion.