How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world's strongest forts - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts

Belgium’s Fort Eben-Emael was the crown jewel of the country’s defense from invasion, boasting huge gun emplacements, defensive ditches and canals, and hundreds of artillery troops, all to protect the heartland and capital.


And the whole thing fell to 87 German paratroopers after barely a day of fighting from May 10-11, 1940.

The fort was built in the early 1930s to prevent the exact situation it faced in 1940: an invasion of the country from the east. It had large guns to sweep fire across three key bridges that would be vital to an invasion. The bridges were also wired for demolition in case the defenders and the fort couldn’t keep the enemy from them.

 

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts
The defensive canals at Fort Eben Emael were massive but the Germans simply flew over them. (Photo: German Bundesarchiv CC BY-SA 3.0)

Defensive canals, barbed wire, and anti-tank ditches made a land assault nearly suicidal, especially since the thick steel and concrete walls could shrug off most munitions launched by artillery or tanks of the day.

A few anti-aircraft guns were present on top of the fort and cupolas — guns with large domes to protect the crews — could fire across the top and kill any attackers who landed there.

Also read: 5 of the most badass snipers of all time

But the fort was vulnerable to airborne assault. It had been constructed by digging into an existing large hill, and the miles of tunnels and thick walls made it tough to assault on foot, but did almost nothing to protect it from the sky.

And that’s how the Germans got in. A special force of 420 paratroopers trained for six months in absolute secrecy to take the three bridges and the fort. The highly complex operation was risky but could save the German Army weeks or months of fighting if successful.

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts
A German Gotcha Go-242 glider in flight. (Photo: U.S. War Department)

Three assault forces would hit the bridges and attempt to take them from the defenders while a fourth would hit the fort and prevent the guns from firing on the others. The assault force hitting the fort was carrying a new weapon of war to cut through the defenses, shaped charges.

But, the highly trained and well-armed commandos at the fort would be outnumbered nearly 10 to 1.

The Germans landed on the fort in gliders specially modified to stop in the short space, and German paratroopers rushed out to hit the defenders. Belgian gun crews, who knew a probable assault was coming, quickly opened fire — but they didn’t have the canister shot that could quickly decimate the paratroopers.

Instead, the paratroopers were able to rush improperly maintained machine guns as they misfired and other gun crews as they reloaded. One of the defensive guns was taken out when a paratrooper threw a stick of dynamite through a small opening. Two others were destroyed by the special shaped-charge explosives. One crew was killed by a flamethrower.

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts
The defensive works at Fort Eben-Emael were impressive, but were not well situated to deal with an airborne assault. (Photo: U.S. Army Master Sgt. Crista Mary Mack)

And there were less defenders than there should have been. The fort relied on conscripts to flesh out its ranks, and many had finished their period or been pulled away to positions in the Belgian Army. Other troops were sick or on leave.

The fort was supposed to have 1,200 men but was being defended by closer to 750.

Within the first 10 minutes, the paratroopers had taken out nine defensive positions and forced many of the defenders to go underground behind barriers. Within 15 minutes, the Germans had neutralized the major defenses that threatened the fort attackers, as well as many of the guns that could hit the bridges.

The Belgians didn’t accept this laying down, of course. Soon after the attack began, the fort commander ordered nearby artillery to fire on the fort, killing some of the German attackers.

But the Germans sheltered in the wrecked cupolas and other positions and rode out the worst of the artillery.

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts
(Photo: Public Domain)

As the Luftwaffe sent planes to silence the Belgian guns, the paratroopers used their shaped charges and other weapons to seal off exits from the fort and to wreck the few remaining positions that could fire outside.

And the bridge crews had successfully captured two bridges intact and one more that was damaged but repairable. Only 28 hours after the start of the attack, the road into Belgium was open.

The paratroopers had suffered six dead and 15 wounded by the time that the Belgian troops began surrendering.

The attackers all received high awards for valor and Hitler captured the country soon after.

Articles

Reagan taught US pilots how to recognize the Zero

Ronald Reagan probably helped save a number of lives on the front lines — and not because he was a big hero. In fact, Reagan’s eyesight was so bad, they kept him in the United States. But despite not being fit for front-line duty, Reagan still played his role for Uncle Sam.


While Reagan’s eyesight made him next to useless for combat, he did end up being involved in doing training films, one of which involved recognizing the Mitsubishi A6M Zero. Friendly fire has long been a problem — ask Stonewall Jackson.

And yes, friendly fire was a problem in World War II. The P-38 was hamstrung because someone mistook a C-54 for a Fw 200.

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts
A6M2 Zero fighters prepare to launch from Akagi as part of the second wave during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

In this training film, “Recognition of the Japanese Zero,” Reagan portrayed a young pilot who had just arrived in the Far East. The recognition angle is hammered home, and not just because of the friendly-fire problem.

Reagan’s character studies silhouettes drawn by a wounded pilot who hesitated too long — and found out he was dealing with a Zero the hard way.

Even with the study, Reagan’s character later accidentally fires at a P-40 he misidentifies, greatly angering the other American pilot. However, when he returns, he takes his lumps, but all turns out okay when the other pilots realizes there is a Zero in Reagan’s sights from the gun camera footage.

Reagan’s character explains that he stumbled across the Zero, then after a dogfight (not the proper tactic against the Zero, it should be noted), Reagan’s character shoots down the Zero.

There’s a happy ending as the earlier near-miss is forgotten and the kill is celebrated.

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts
Colin Powell briefing President Ronald Reagan in 1988. (Photo from Reagan Presidential Library)

The film is also notable in that it revealed to American pilots that the United States had acquired a Zero that had crashed in the Aleutians. The so-called Akutan Zero was considered one of the great intelligence coups in the Pacific Theater, arguably second only to the American code-breaking effort.

So, see a future President of the United States help teach American pilots how to recognize the Zero in the video below.

MIGHTY HISTORY

4 amazing things Benedict Arnold did before becoming a traitor

The name “Benedict Arnold” is a fancy way of saying “traitor” in the United States, but Arnold wasn’t the only revolutionary to switch colors and re-embrace the English. So why is he the one who became infamous?


Because before he was a traitor, he was a brilliant leader who helped win the revolution.

1. Arnold captured Fort Ticonderoga and its arsenal of cannons.

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts
Photo: New York Public Library Digital Library

In May of 1775, the British garrison at Fort Ticonderoga numbered only about 50 men. With the rebellion gaining traction throughout the colonies, revolutionary leaders knew that capturing the fort and it’s large numbers of cannons would aid an American victory.

Then-Col. Arnold and Ethan Allen attacked the fort May 10 with Allen’s troops, the Green Mountain Boys, capturing the guns and the garrison. The guns would later be used at the Siege of Boston while the fort would become a staging ground for Arnold’s invasion of Canada.

2. He and his commander nearly conquered Canada (but the final attack went horribly).

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts
Illustration: Public Domain/Charles William Jefferys

Following the success at Fort Ticonderoga, Col. Arnold led part of an invasion force whose mission was to secure Canadian support of the war by destroying British forces in the area.

Despite setbacks like mass desertion, equipment failures, and disease, the invasion did make it to the city of Quebec with enough forces to take it. Arnold’s attempt to lay siege to the city was unsuccessful, but an opportunity for a Dec. 30-31, 1775, attack gave a glimmer of hope.

Unfortunately, the attack was a disaster. Its potential for success ended almost immediately when a single round of grapeshot killed 14 men including, Arnold’s commander and two other senior officers. On the opposite side of the city, Arnold ordered his men forward and was maimed almost immediately by a shot to his leg.

Now a brigadier general, Arnold eventually recovered and antagonized the British in the area until June 18, 1776 when he was the last American to leave Canada as British forces pushed south.

3. Arnold Created an ad hoc navy to delay the British.

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts
Photo: Wikipedia/National Archives of Canada

As the British pursued his men, Brig. Gen. Benedict Arnold knew that if he could just delay the British until winter, the Continental Army could use the frozen months to rebuild and hold off an invasion.

So he immediately began construction of an improvised navy on the shores of Lake Champlain. Even though he had no naval experience, he sent his ships out that Oct. to meet the British on the lake. 15 American vessels faced off against 25 superior British ones.

Arnold fought a delaying action as he moved south, losing 11 ships to enemy fire and burning his other four when he reached the southern shore. He then burned one of his forts, Fort Crown Point, to the ground to deny the British use of it. His action worked and the British were unable to reach Fort Ticonderoga before winter set in. This would lead to two battles at Saratoga the next year.

4. He carried the charge that won the Battle of Saratoga.

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts
Photo: Flickr/Ron Cogswell

 

The American victory at the second Battle of Saratoga in 1777 was a turning point in the war that enabled France to openly support the rebellion and emboldened foreign powers to attack Britain in other parts of the world.

And it was Brig. Gen. Benedict Arnold who led the troops against the British lines. Arnold’s superior, Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates, wanted to simply wait out the British from behind fortifications, a move that would have allowed many to escape. Arnold disobeyed orders and led charges through the British ranks, saving the day and resulting in a second maiming of Arnold’s left leg.

After suffering two serious injuries for the colonies and being passed over for promotion multiple times, Arnold became deeply embittered against his own army. He would go on to try to sell the American defenses at West Point to the British, a move that would have left New York open to invasion. His plot was discovered and he was branded a traitor.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Now you can celebrate the coolest operations of the CIA every month

You might ask how someone could be so nerdy as to want a calendar of the CIA’s best operations, but let’s face it: Spies are cool. The American CIA has some of the best stories of the coolest secret operations ever — they just can’t talk about them.


Fortunately, the CIA headquarters in Virginia has an amazing series of paintings depicting the astonishing stories of the Agency’s operations. Unfortunately, you have to be able to get into the CIA’s headquarters in Virginia to see it.

Until now.

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts

“It dawned on me that the public will never see the dramatic artwork in person,” says publisher Erik Kirzinger. “As someone who lost a relative KIA as a contract pilot for the CIA, it was important to me that these stories will be told via historically accurate paintings by the best military and aviation artists in the world.”

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts

Related: That time the CIA shot down a bomber with an AK-47

Each painting was commissioned directly from the artist and is unique to the walls of CIA headquarters. Private citizens and corporations commissioned the early artwork and donated the completed painting to the CIA for permanent display. For the first dozen and a half paintings, there was no cost to the taxpayers, making this collection unique among all other government art collections.

Kirzinger resolved to create this special series of calendars, further documenting the amazing operations from the CIA’s long history.

Secret Ops of the CIA calendars aren’t just calendars, they’re more like a mixture of history books and coffee-table readers. There’s a clear-cut, beautiful effort to preserve history here.

“I hate using the word ‘calendar’ because our layout is more like a small, coffee-table book,” Kirzinger says. “In fact, many of our customers don’t hang their calendars and instead display them on their coffee tables.”

Pictures in the 2018 calendar depict outstanding, real-world CIA missions that might just blow your mind. The paintings are done by world-famous military and aviation artists and are fueled by painstaking research. In some cases, the artist is an active CIA employee.

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts

“These calendars are like gems,” says Allison Bishop, the book buyer for the International Spy Museum. “I love them because they’re not mass-produced. And the CIA is a group out there putting their lives on the line for the country and they aren’t always recognized positively for it.”

There are two different calendars: aviation operations for you A-12 enthusiasts and tradecraft ops for you cloak-and-dagger fans. The calendars are reviewed by the CIA’s Public Review Board, who gave the information a thumbs up. The historians at the Center for the Study of Intelligence also gave their approval. Most importantly, the stories are all declassified.

Special Operations of the CIA calendars are available on Kirzinger’s website or through The International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.

 

Articles

New ‘Dunkirk’ trailer focuses on pilots, civilians who saved thousands

The main trailer for ‘Dunkirk’ is out, and it seems that Christopher Nolan will be telling the amazing story of Operation Dynamo from all angles as weekend sailors, Royal Air Force pilots, nurses, fishermen, and others appear in the footage.


Operation Dynamo, often called “The Miracle at Dunkirk,” was the evacuation of nearly 400,000 British and allied troops from the coast of France in 1940 after the German blitzkrieg cut through Allied defenses much faster than anyone anticipated.

The German invasion was expected to take months, but Nazi forces slashed a corridor through France to the English Channel in just over two weeks before they halted their advance. But the Nazis hadn’t been stopped by force of arms.

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts
French troops fill a ship evacuating Dunkirk. (Photo: Public Domain)

Rather, the high command decided that they didn’t want to risk panzers in pitched fighting near Dunkirk. So the German army kept the expeditionary force pinned down on the beach and sent the Luftwaffe to kill British ships in the English channel and strafe and bomb survivors on the beaches.

On May 26, the British launched Operation Dynamo, a Hail Mary attempt to rescue those dying troops through Royal Navy assets and, when those proved to be too few, hundreds of small fishing and pleasure boats piloted by civilians. Nearly 340,000 troops were evacuated from May 26 to June 4.

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts

Previous trailers for Nolan’s movie about the event have focused on the plight of soldiers on the beach who waited for days, sometimes in shoulder-deep water while under fire from the Luftwaffe, for rescue. The new trailer shows them, but it also spends a lot of time on a father crossing the channel with his sons, as well as the nurses and pilots who made the mission possible.

It looks like World War II buffs may get to see one of the war’s most miraculous moments played out on the screen through perspectives of everyone who made it possible. Many of the troops rescued from the beaches went on to fight in North Africa, the D-Day landings, and on to Berlin.

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Why Americans are twice as likely to die in hostage situations

While the United States was celebrating its 100th birthday on July 4, 1976, four Israeli C-130 cargo planes landed at Entebbe Airport in Uganda, cargo bay doors already open. A black Mercedes and a parade of Land Rovers screamed out of two of the planes, headed for the old passenger terminal. Armored personnel carriers exited the other three.

There were 106 mostly Israeli hostages being held by pro-Palestinian hijackers and supported by the Ugandan army under dictator Idi Amin being held here. The hostages were coming home.


How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts
If anyone’s coming to rescue you, you want it to be the IDF.

The raid on Entebbe airport was one of the most daring hostage rescues of all time. The Israelis flew in some seven planes under the radars of many hostile countries, landing at an enemy airport, pretending to be the caravan of a brutal dictator, and risking an all-out war to save Israeli citizens, losing only three and only one of the Israel Defence Forces commandos. The Israelis even destroyed 11 Ugandan fighter aircraft on the ground in retaliation. In three years, Amin would be deposed.

Airplane hijackings dropped dramatically after this incident and a number of Western countries vowed never to negotiate with terrorists, especially the United States. The U.S. does not negotiate with terrorists as a matter of policy.

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts
Journalist James Foley, who has killed by ISIS in 2014 (CNN screen capture/ fair use)

In the years following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, more than 1,200 Westerners from some 32 or more countries have been captured by terrorists and held hostage by militant groups and pirates, demanding ransom or some other concession. Americans made up 20 percent of those hostages taken since 2001 and half of those were killed by their captors. The reason for this is the policy of not giving concessions to terrorists or anyone else who might take citizens hostage.

The United States believes giving in to terrorist or other militants’ demands for ransom or some other concession would just make Americans a more tempting target for those who would take hostages, allowing terrorists to perpetually self-finance through hostage-taking. As it is, Americans are twice as likely to die in captivity by their captors while countries who pay ransoms – Germany, Spain, France, Austria, and Switzerland – are more likely to have hostages released.

But citizens of those countries are not taken hostage in disproportionate numbers because taking hostages is risky and not as profitable as other ventures for terrorist groups, such a narcotics, black market oil and arms sales, and human trafficking. Civilians more likely to be kidnapped are those who are already in unstable areas. Three-quarters of Westerners taken by al-Qaeda and ISIS were freed. Only two of those were Americans.

Since a new hostage policy was announced in 2015, where the U.S. coordinates agencies to secure the release of hostages, six have been released, and none died in captivity. The only hitch is that none were held by foreign jihadist groups.

It should be noted that the Carter Administration held negotiations with Iran for the hostages taken at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran during the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Not one of the hostages were killed, and they were released on the last day of the Carter Presidency – all without firing a shot.


Feature image: screen capture from YouTube

MIGHTY HISTORY

The northernmost Confederate attack was a raid on Vermont

We hear a lot about how Gettysburg was as far north as the Confederate Army could get, while that may be true for the Army of Northern Virginia, it wasn’t true for the entire Confederate armed forces. The actual northernmost fighting took place in northern Vermont, near the U.S. border with Canada.

You can’t get much further than that.


How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts

Vermonters were not expecting this either, trust me.

Although the Confederates did make it to Gettysburg and were stopped, there were many other places in the United States, well north of Gettysburg. During the Gettysburg campaign, another Confederate expedition was making its way up through Tennessee and Kentucky, then into Indiana and Ohio. Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan led a raid that was supposed to divert men and resources from resisting the main southern thrust northward, the one at Gettysburg.

Morgan led his men, less than 3,000, through Cincinnati, Columbus, and Steubenville Ohio, only to be stopped by Union troops in Salineville, Ohio. Ambrose Burnside and his army of 40,000 relentlessly pursued Morgan up through the northern states. After they were captured, they managed to escape, retreating to Cincinnati and into Kentucky, where they took advantage of the state’s neutral status.

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts

A handful of the raiders after the incident.

One native Kentuckian, Bennett H. Young, was captured at Salineville and escaped but instead of sneaking down the Ohio River and into Kentucky, he moved North instead. He slipped into British-controlled, Confederate-sympathizing Canada and hatched his plan to continue fighting the Union from the other side of the Mason-Dixon line.

He decided that diverting Union troops from attacking the South was still the best way forward, so he devised a plan that served that end while funding his own expeditions: raiding Northern border towns. His first stop would be St. Albans, Vermont, just a few miles from the U.S.-Canada border.

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts

The raiders wanted to burn the whole town, but their accelerant didn’t work as planned.

Young’s men moved into St. Albans piecemeal, coming in groups of two to three every few days, and checking into the local hotels. By Oct. 19, 1864, 21 Confederate cavalrymen had made it to the sleepy Vermont town. Once ready, they simultaneously robbed the town’s three banks, fought off any resistance, forced others to swear loyalty to the Confederate States of America, and burned someone’s shed. They also made off with the modern equivalent of .3 million before escaping into Canada.

The United States demanded the extradition of the soldiers, but since the men had acted as official CSA soldiers, the Canadians would not turn them over to the Americans.

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This daring commando raid’s only injury was from a negligent discharge

In March 1941, over 500 British and Allied commandos, sappers, and sailors launched a daring four-pronged raid against Norwegian towns occupied by the German Army. Despite the German forces spotting the commandos 24 hours before the attack, the British suffered only one casualty.


An officer accidentally shot himself in the thigh.

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts
(Photo: War Office Capt. Tennyson d’Eyncourt, Imperial War Museum)

Operation Claymore, as it was known, was a commando raid targeting fish oil factories in the Lofoten Islands. The fish oil was a prime source of glycerin which is a crucial propellant for most types of weapons ammunition in World War II.

The islands are 100 miles into the Arctic Circle and guarded by a force of over 200 German troops. The commandos expected potentially heavy resistance and spent about a week in the Orkney Islands rehearsing their assault plan.

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts
(Photo: War Office Capt. Tennyson d’Eyncourt, Imperial War Museum)

On March 1, they began a three-day journey through rough seas to the targets. Two days later, they were spotted by a German aircraft but pressed forward, risking the possibility of hitting beaches with prepared and dug-in Nazi defenders.

When the British arrived, ice had formed further out than expected and the commandos were forced to get out of the boats early before running across it to hit the towns. All four groups managed to cross the ice and hit their targeted towns without facing any real resistance.

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts
(Photo: Royal Navy Lt. R. G. G. Coote, Imperial War Museum)

In fact, the local Norwegians watched the British coming at them like it was a small show, and the commandos made it into the buildings before they even began to see German uniforms. With many of the defenders separated or still asleep, the attackers were able to quell resistance with few shots fired.

They captured 225 prisoners while taking every one of their objectives. Despite the attack force having been spotted by the German plane, none of the defenders were ready.

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts
(Photo: War Office Capt. Tennyson d’Eyncourt, Imperial War Museum)

The grateful locals brought out coffee and treats for the attackers, the sappers planted charges against the fish oil tanks, and the Norwegians started recruiting the citizens into the Free Norwegian Forces.

There was an additional lucky break for the commandos. They hit a German-held trawler and killed 14 of the defenders.

The ship commander managed to throw the Enigma machine over the side but the British still captured technical documents and spare parts for the machine, giving code breakers in Bletchley Park near London a leg up.

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts
(Photo: Royal Navy Lt. R. G. G. Coote, Imperial War Museum)

The mission was a huge success, but as mentioned above, the British did suffer a single casualty when an officer accidentally shot himself in his thigh with a revolver.

The British knew how well the mission had gone, and got a bit cocky about it.

One group sent a telegraph to Hitler with the captured communication gear asking him where his vaunted German soldiers were. Another group hit a nearby seaplane base and took all their weapons, just for additional giggles.

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts
(Photo: War Office Capt. Tennyson d’Eyncourt, Imperial War Museum)

The German commander, who probably should’ve been grateful that he and his men weren’t added to the 225 prisoners the British had captured, later complained to his fuhrer that the commandos had displayed “unwarlike” behavior.

(Pretty sure the dudes captured without a shot fired were the “unwarlike” fellows, but whatever.)

When the commandos finally left, they blew the fish oil tanks, sending huge fireballs into the sky. They also sank some ships vital to the fish oil production including the most advanced fish factory-ship of the time.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The ‘Virginia Hercules’ was the one-man army of the American Revolution

One day in 1765, a 5-year-old boy wearing fine clothes and speaking no English was found on the docks of City Point, Virginia. No one knew where he came from, where his parents were, or even how old he was at the time. All they knew was that he kept repeating the name “Pedro Francisco.” So that’s what they called him, eventually anglicizing the name to Peter.

His past didn’t matter to history, but his future did. When the American colonies declared independence from Great Britain more than a decade later, he would be part of it and become known to history as America’s first one-man army. 

The nickname of “Hercules” would come much later, when the boy grew into a man. When the average size of an American colonist was around 5’6”, Peter Francisco stood a whopping 6’6” and 230 pounds – large even by today’s standards. A blacksmith by trade, he was a member of the 10th Virginia Infantry when the American Revolution broke out and subsequently became a member of the Continental Army.

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts
A miniature portrait of American Revolutionary War hero Peter Francisco. (Image courtesy of Virginia Historical Society, Public Domain)

His fighting ability would prove crucial to winning some of the most pivotal battles of the war, and perhaps the Revolution itself.

Francisco was just 17 when he enlisted, and saw action at the September 1777 Battle of Brandywine, where the Americans were attempting to halt the British advance on Philadelphia. Washington was a master of strategic withdrawal, and at Brandywine, it became crucial. The British outflanked the Americans. Washington needed time to escape.

Luckily for the famous general, Peter Francisco’s unit was fighting to hold the 12,500-man British assault. He and the rest of the Continentals were able to hold the line for a full 45 minutes, giving Washington’s army plenty of time to escape. Francisco was wounded in the leg, but he learned he had a real talent for killing Redcoats. 

By October, he was back in the fighting, once again keeping the British from advancing on Philadelphia. This time, he fought at Germantown, a battle that very nearly saw an American victory. His strength and prowess on the battlefield became the stuff of legend among his fellow soldiers. 

Along with the rest of the Continental Army, Peter Francisco wound up at Valley Forge. There, the army learned to fight from one of the best military minds of the day, Baron von Steuben. He taught the Americans not just how to march, but how to fight with the bayonet. 

This would serve Francisco and the Continentals well at the upcoming Battle of Stony Point, where a silent, night time assault on the fortress there began and ended with Francisco leading an advance force of 20 men to mercilessly hack the British and expel them from the area. But Peter Francisco was allegedly not using a bayonet.

According to a legend, which has never been confirmed by historians, Gen. Washington presented Francisco with a six-foot broadsword to honor his skill in battle. Some say this was the weapon he used to slash through the British at Stony Point. 

As the second man over the wall at Stony Point and being a man of his size, his legend grew among the soldiers of the American army. But his enlistment was up and he returned home to Virginia. Unfortunately for the British, they started attacking the Southern Colonies, which Peter Francisco took personally.

He rejoined the Continental Army, this time marching to Camden, South Carolina under Gen. Horatio Gates. The result of the battle was a humiliating defeat, but Francisco was able to salvage some of his commanding officer’s dignity. He impaled an British cavalryman with a bayonet and picked the man up off his horse. He then mounted it and put his colonel on it, saving the officer’s life. 

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts
For such a massive man, he looks surprisingly unintimidating. That probably wouldn’t be the case if you were standing next to him and his massive broadsword. (YouTube)

Another, maybe mythical story has the big man picking up an American cannon from the field so it wouldn’t be captured by the British. Even if it didn’t really happen, it could have, and that’s all that matters. 

Francisco’s next interaction with the British Army came under Gen. Nathaniel Greene at Guilford Courthouse. This is another battle where Francisco is supposed to have received the broadsword from General Washington. Whether he had it or not, he and the Americans killed so many of Lord Cornwallis’ regulars that the British victory became a pyrrhic one. Cornwallis wrote that the Americans fought like demons there. 

The next time Peter Francisco encountered Lord Cornwallis’ men was when the British surrendered to the Americans and French at Yorktown in Virginia, effectively ending the war with an American victory. 

It was Gen. George Washington who did really say that, “Without him we would have lost two crucial battles, perhaps the War, and with it our freedom. He was truly a One-Man Army.”

MIGHTY HISTORY

The story of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ makes your officers look pretty smart

The “Charge of the Light Brigade” has become shorthand for a military disaster, especially one that is filled with heroics but is still a catastrophe. In the actual Charge of the Light Brigade, approximately 670 men rode into the teeth of Russian artillery because their officers didn’t understand their orders and didn’t want to talk to one another.


Yes, one of history’s most famous military failures was caused by officers who couldn’t get along.

The Crimean War was fought by Britain, France, Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire against Imperial Russia between Oct. 1853 and Mar. 1856. The Battle of Balaclava in late 1854 took place in a mountainous area. Two valleys, known as the North Valley and the South Valley, ran east-to-west across the battlefield and were split by the Causeway Heights which contained a road.

 

The road was key to the movement of supplies and communications for the allied forces and the Turks were constructing redoubts to guard it. On Oct. 25, the Russians attempted to capture the road and the incomplete redoubts. A large cavalry force bore down on the Turks who retreated soon after.

The British commander, Lord FitzRoy Somerset, the First Baron of Raglan, saw this take place from his headquarters to the west of the valley. Lord Raglan sent orders for British infantry to move from the hills into the valley and for the British cavalry, who were camped in the valley, to move against the Russian cavalry.

The British cavalry Heavy Brigade under Lord George Bingham, Earl of Lucan, managed to turn the Russian attack and even sent the Russians past the Light Brigade, but the Light Brigade failed to attack the exposed Russians. The Russian cavalry dropped back to the abandoned Turkish redoubt and began attempting to capture the naval guns positioned there.

The British senior commanders were angry that the Light Brigade’s commander, Lord James Brudenell of Cardigan, had failed to attack and were worried about the potential loss of valuable cannons. Lord Raglan sent orders for the cavalry to attack the Russians before the Russians could carry away the guns. Since the infantry was still making its way to the valley, the cavalry would be on their own.

The order, written by Sir Richard Airey, read:

Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front – follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop Horse Artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. R Airey. Immediate.

This would have been a valuable use of cavalry in what was an accepted practice at the time. Cavalry riding against artillery would have been able to close the gap between themselves and the enemy guns quickly, giving the enemy just enough time for one or two shots from the cannons. Once the cavalry reached the guns, they could have cut the gun crews to ribbons with their sabers.

Even better for the British, these were Russian cavalrymen retreating with Turkish guns. Chances are, they wouldn’t have attempted to fire the cannons at all, abandoning them or dying in their attempt to remove them.

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts
Lord Fitzroy James Henry Somerset, 1st Baron Raglan. Raglan’s unclear orders would doom the Light Brigade in their famous charge. Portrait: William Salter

But, Lord Raglan worded his orders with the assumption that Cardigan knew the Turkish cannons were being carried away. From their positions on the valley floor, neither Cardigan nor Lucan could see the former Turkish positions. When the order to attack came, they didn’t know what Russian guns they were being told to attack.

This is where a quick conference between the commanders or clearly written orders would have saved everything. But Raglan and Airey provided unclear orders and the courier who carried the orders may have indicated the wrong target for attack. Cardigan and Lucan, the two cavalry commanders, hated each other. (Cardigan had married Lucan’s sister but the couple later separated, embarrassing Lucan.)

So, Lucan simply passed the order to Cardigan and the cavalry mounted for an attack. Instead of attacking the retreating cavalry and regaining the Turkish naval guns, Cardigan led the Light Brigade into the North Valley in an attempt to attack Russian artillery at the eastern end of it.

The attacking cavalrymen made it most of the way through the valley in two ranks before the Russians opened up with the 30 cannons in the main battery. Immediately after those cannonballs punched holes through the lines, additional Russian artillery placed on either side of the valley fired into the still-charging cavalrymen. Then, Russian infantry that was formed in ranks on the hill added musket fire to the mix.

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts
Painting: Richard Caton Woodville, Jr., Public Domain

 

Survivors described the carnage in vivid language, talking about severed limbs, riders decapitated in their saddles, and smoke as thick as that from a volcano.

The Heavy Brigade was behind the Light and realized that the attack into the Northern Valley was a mistake. Lucan turned the Heavy Brigade around as the Light Brigade continued charging in. Despite heavy losses, the Light Brigade made it to the Russian guns and infantry ranks and began slicing through their enemies.

Surprisingly, the Charge of the Light Brigade was costly but initially successful.

They pushed past the cannons and forced a massive retreat of panicked Russians.

The Light Brigade formed up and were preparing to kill the rest of the gun crews and advance when they realized that the Heavy Brigade had not followed them in. Without the Heavy Brigade, the British were vastly outnumbered. With the Russians forming up for a counterattack, the Light Brigade was forced to retreat back through the valley.

The retreat of the Light Brigade was soon interrupted by Russian cavalry attacks that attempted to hold them in the valley. As the horsemen on each side clashed, Russian artillery crews that had withdrawn from their guns returned to position and began firing grapeshot and cannon into the Light Brigade, killing more men and horses.

Luckily for the English, the French cavalry took it upon themselves to attack Russian positions on the north side of the valley, reducing the cannon fire coming down.

Still, of the approximately 670 men who rode forth with the Light Brigade, 110 were killed and 160 wounded. The brigade also lost 375 horses and the Turkish guns were captured from the hills and later paraded by the Russians in Sevastopol.

A correspondent for the London Illustrated News was on the hills during the battle and wrote an article about the heroic but doomed actions of the cavalry. The article would stir the imagination of the British public and lead to Lord Alfred Tennyson, the Poet Laureate of Britain at the time, writing the famous poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

MIGHTY HISTORY

That time the Viet Cong took out a Navy transport

Historically, the Vietnam War is one of America’s longest-running conflicts — only Operation Enduring Freedom has been longer. But, of all the chaos and carnage that characterized the Vietnam War, one of the most notable clashes is similar to one performed on the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Cole (DDG 67) about 36 years later.


The date was May 2, 1964. Viet Cong commandos had been trying to hit an American transport ship in Saigon to stop the flow of materiel to the South Vietnamese government. Two ships, the USNS Card and the USNS Core, had been serving as transports for helicopters and other essentials. The ships were World War II-era Bogue-class escort carriers that displaced about 16,600 tons and could travel at a top speed of 18 knots while carrying a dozen F4F Wildcats and nine TBF/TBM Avenger torpedo bombers.

U-Boat.net credits aircraft from the Card with sinking eight Nazi subs. Planes from the Core put four U-boats to rest on the seafloor.

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts
A TBF Avenger comes into land on USS Card (CVE 11) during World War II. The Card sank eight U-boats in that conflict. (U.S. Navy photo)

After World War II, these carriers were too small to operate jets and a bit too slow for front-line service. Still, when a ship has a flight deck that is 439 feet by 70 feet — almost 31,000 square feet – and a hangar deck of roughly the same size, it’s still useful. So, the Military Sea Transport Service (the forerunner to today’s Military Sealift Command) took these ships. After all, they were pretty much free.

According to the National Interest, the Viet Cong managed to pull off the May 2 attack by sending a commando through the sewer system. A pair of limpet mines were stashed by the sewer’s exit, waiting for the commando as swam out toward the ship. He then planted the limpet mines on the side of the Card, set the timer, and made a clean getaway. At three in the morning, the mines went off. Severely damaged, the Card settled on the bottom of the harbor with five of her crew killed.

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts
USS Card (CVE 11) in World War II. While she wasn’t able to operate jets, she had a lot of space to transport materials, giving this escort carrier a second lease on life as a transport. (U.S. Navy photo)

But she didn’t stay there. It took the Navy 17 days to do the temporary repairs required to get the Card out of the harbor. By the end of the year, the former escort carrier was back in service, and she made other runs carrying materiel. She did so for five more years after returning to service. In 1971, the Card was scrapped. Any claims that the Communists in Vietnam sunk a carrier are nothing but propaganda.

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The insane way the first cosmonaut got back to Earth

The very first man to go to space was a Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, who rose to the top of his class thanks to his stunning memory, quick reactions, and poise during emergencies. That poise would come in handy since his spacecraft couldn’t survive re-entry, used compromised design components, and ultimately took the astronaut through an 8g spin cycle on his way back to Earth.


Vostok 1

The first manned space mission was launched with Vostok 1, and Yuri Gagarin at the helm. Gagarin had trained for years to be the first human to leave the atmosphere and had gotten the mission because his peers in cosmonaut training had voted that he was the best choice.

But it was a dangerous honor. After all, only animals had entered space before, and the U.S. and Soviet Union had less than stellar records of getting mammals back alive.

And the plan for getting Gagarin back wasn’t one to inspire confidence. First, while Gagarin had been selected partially based on his reflexes, he was locked out of the controls. And it wasn’t certain the spacecraft could slow itself down during re-entry. Instead, it relied on Gagarin ejecting at almost 4.5 miles above the Earth, right after he dealt with all the tumult of hitting the atmosphere.

As a bonus, there was a chance that the controls would simply fail in space, so Gagarin flew with 10 days worth of food in case he had to wait until his orbit decayed naturally.

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts
Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space and first man to orbit this beautiful blue orb. (NASA archives)

 

The actual launch on April 12, 1961, went well. The rocket made it into space, the launch vehicle broke away, and Gagarin rode through one orbit of the Earth. So far, so good. But then, the service module failed to separate from the spacecraft.

When the two-module spacecraft hit the atmosphere, the modules tumbled around each other and began to burn up.

“I was in a cloud of fire rushing toward Earth,” he later said.

After about 10 minutes, the cable burned up and Gagarin’s spacecraft re-oriented itself slowly. Freshly drained from a trip around the Earth and an 8g flaming tumble through the atmosphere, Gagarin had to pull himself together and get to work quickly or else he could die on impact like some animals in prior tests.

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts
Yuri Gagarin’s space capsule sits in a museum. (SiefkinDR, CC BY-SA 3.0)

 

Because, again, the capsule had little protection for the cosmonaut, and he couldn’t be certain he would survive the capsule’s impact with the Earth. So he had to activate his ejection seat almost 4.5 miles up. Gagarin and his capsule traveled separately from there. Gagarin landed near a farm and walked up, in full orange spacesuit and helmet, to the farmers for help.

He was quickly named a Hero of the Soviet Union and put on a high shelf where he couldn’t be broken. He was able to lobby for a potential return to space though, but a tragic training accident ended his life while he was still preparing for the mission.

On March 27, 1968, he was piloting a MiG-15, entered a steep dive, and crashed into a forest. An investigation in 2010 concluded that a vent was left partially open. This vent was supposed to be closed as the plane entered high-altitude flight so the pilots would have enough air in the cockpit. The investigator supposed that Gagarin and his co-pilot entered a steep dive to get back to a safe altitude to close the vent, but passed out and could never pull out of it.

(As a fun side note, Gagarin asked the bus to stop for him to piss while he was on the way to Vostok 1. Cosmonauts today remember him by taking a leak on their way to the launchpad.)

MIGHTY HISTORY

That time British husbands sold their wives at market

While getting divorced in modern times in most nations isn’t exactly a walk in the park, options at least do exist in much of the world, even in cases where one spouse would rather stay together. But this is a relatively modern phenomenon. Classically, getting divorced was almost impossible. So much so that at one point about the only way a woman could manage to get a legal divorce from her husband was to prove in court he couldn’t finish the deed in bed by, if necessary, even attempting to have sex with him with court representatives standing by to observe.

Perhaps not coincidentally around the same time these impotence trials were going on throughout parts of Europe, a rather different means of divorcing one’s spouse popped up in Britain — putting a halter around your wife, leading her like an animal to a local market, loudly extolling her virtues as you would a farm animal, including occasionally listing her weight, and then opening up bidding for anyone who wanted to buy her. On top of this, it wasn’t uncommon for children to be thrown in as a package deal…


While you might think surely something like this must have only occurred in the extremely distant past, this is actually a practice that continued into the early 20th century. So how did this all start and why was it seen as an perfectly legal way for a couple to divorce?

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts

Well, it turns out that nobody is exactly sure how the practice of auctioning a wife got started. There is a mention of it going back all the way to at least 1302 where an individual deeded his wife to another man, but the next known instances didn’t start popping up until the late 17th century, with one of the earliest occurring in 1692 when one John Whitehouse sold his wife to a “Mr. Bracegirdle”.

However, noteworthy here was that four years later, when a man by the name of George Fuller sold his wife to Thomas Heath Maultster, Thomas was nonetheless later fined and ordered to perform a penance for living with his purchased wife. This was despite that all parties involved were in agreement over the sale, seemingly indicating this practice was not yet widely accepted at this point as it would come to be.

On that note, the rise in popularity of this method of divorce came about after the passage of the Marriage Act of 1753 which, among other things, required a clergyman to perform a marriage to make it legally binding. Before that, while that certainly was a common option, in Britain two people could also just agree that they were married and then they were, without registering that fact officially. Thus, without an official registration anywhere, it was also easier to more or less undo the act and hitch up with someone else without officials being any the wiser if neither the husband nor wife complained about the separation to authorities.

As a fun brief aside, the fact that members of the clergy and other officials at this point were often unaware of things like the current marital status of two people is more or less how the whole “If anyone can show just cause why this couple cannot lawfully be joined together in matrimony, let them speak now or forever hold their peace,” thing started. Not at this point a meaningless part of the marriage ceremony, at the time the minister was really asking if anyone knew, for instance, if one or both of the couple he was marrying might already be married or there might be any other legal reason why he shouldn’t marry the couple.

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts

(Jozef Israëls)

In any event, after the passage of the Marriage Act of 1753 and up to about the mid-19th century, selling your wife at auction seems to have become more and more popular among commoners particularly, who otherwise had no practical means of legally separating. The funny thing about all this is, however, that it wasn’t actually a legal way to get a divorce. But as the commoners seemed to have widely believed it was, clergy and government officials for a time mostly turned a blind eye to the whole thing, with some exceptions.

Illustrating both sides of this, in 1818 an Ashbourne, Derby magistrate sent the police out to break up a wife auction. This was documented by one Rene Martin Pillett who witnessed the event and subsequently wrote about it in his book, Views of England. In it, he states:

In regard to the sale at Ashburn, I will remark that the magistrate, being informed that it would take place, wished to prevent it. Constables were dispatched to drive off the seller, purchaser, and the woman for sale, when they should make their appearance in the market place to perform the ceremony, but the populace covered the constables with mud, and dispersed them with stones. I was acquainted with the magistrate, and I desired to obtain some information in regard to the opposition he had endeavored to make to the performance of the ceremony, and the right which he assumed at that conjuncture. I could obtain no other than this: “Although the real object of my sending the constables, was to prevent the scandalous sale, the apparent motive was that of keeping the peace, which people coming to the market in a sort of tumult, would have a tendency to disturb. As to the act of selling itself, I do not think I have a right to prevent it, or even to oppose any obstacle to it, because it rests upon a custom preserved by the people, of which perhaps it would be dangerous to deprive them by any law for that purpose.”

Pillett goes on, “I shall not undertake to determine. I shall only observe that this infamous custom has been kept up without interruption, that it is continually practised; that if any county magistrates, being informed of a proposed sale, have tried to interrupt it, by sending constables, or other officers to the place of sale, the populace have always dispersed them, and maintained what they consider their right, in the same manner as I have seen it done at Ashburn.”

That said, the press, in general, seemed to have almost universally condemned the practice from the way they talked about it. For example, as noted in a July of 1797 edition of The Times: “On Friday a butcher exposed his wife to Sale in Smithfield Market, near the Ram Inn, with a halter about her neck, and one about her waist, which tied her to a railing, when a hog-driver was the happy purchaser, who gave the husband three guineas and a crown for his departed rib. Pity it is, there is no stop put to such depraved conduct in the lower order of people.”

Nevertheless, particularly in an age when marriage was often more about practical matters than actually putting together two people for the purposes of being happy with one another, there were a lot of unhappy couples around and if both people agreed they’d be better off splitting, a means was needed to do so. The British commoners, having almost no other feasible way to do this, simply got inventive about it.

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts

(Richard Redgrave)

This might all have you wondering what rationale was used to justify this exact method of divorcing and why people just didn’t split and forget about what authorities thought. As to the latter question, people did do that in droves, but there was legal risk to it to all involved.

You see, at this point a wife was in a lot of ways more or less considered property of her husband. As noted by judge Sir William Blackstonein in 1753, “the very being… of the woman, is suspended during the marriage, or at least is consolidated and incorporated into that of her husband…”

In turn, the husband was also expected to do his part to take care of his wife no matter what and was responsible for any debts she incurred, etc. Just as importantly, while a man having a mistress wasn’t really that uncommon, should a wife find her own action on the side, perhaps with someone she actually liked, this was by societal standards of the day completely unacceptable. This didn’t stop women from doing this, of course, even occasionally leaving their husbands completely and living with a new man. But this also opened up a problem for the new man in that he had, in effect, just stolen another man’s property.

Thus, the dual problem existed that the husband still was legally obligated to be responsible for any debts his wife incurred and to maintain her. He could also be prosecuted for neglecting his duty there, whether his wife had shacked up with another man or not. As for the new suitor, he could at any point also be subjected to criminal proceedings, including potentially having to pay a large fine to the husband for, in essence, stealing his property, as well as potential jail time and the like.

Thus, the commoners of England decided leading a wife as if she was cattle to the market and auctioning her off was a legal way to get around these problems. After all, if the wife was more or less property, why couldn’t a husband sell her and his obligations to her in the same way he sold a pig at market?

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts

While you might think no woman would ever agree to this, in most of the several hundred documented cases, the wife seemingly went along happily with the whole thing. You see, according to the tradition, while the wife technically had no choice about being auctioned off in this way, she did have the right to refuse to be sold should the winning bidder not be to her liking, at which point the auction seems to have continued until a suitable buyer was found. For example, in one case in Manchester in 1824, it was reported that, “after several biddings she [the wife] was knocked down for 5s; but not liking the purchaser, she was put up again for 3s and a quart of ale.”

Further, there are a few known instances of the wife buying herself, such as in 1822 in Plymouth where a woman paid £3 for herself, though in this instance apparently she had a man she’d been having an affair with that was supposed to purchase her, but he didn’t show up… Ouch…

On that note, it turns out in most of the documented instances, the buyer was also usually chosen long before the actual auction took place, generally the woman’s lover or otherwise the man she wanted to be with more than her former husband. And, as she had the right to refuse to be sold, there was little point in anyone else bidding. In fact, accounts exist of the after party sometimes seeing the husband who sold the wife taking the new couple out for drinks to celebrate.

Owing to many involved in such divorces being poor and the suitor often being chosen before hand, the price was usually quite low, generally under 5 shillings, even in some reported cases a mere penny — just a symbolic sum to make the whole thing seem more official. For example, as reported in February 18, 1814,

A postillion, named Samuel Wallis, led his wife to the market place, having tied a halter around her neck, and fastened her to the posts which are used for that purpose for cattle. She was then offered by him at public auction. Another postillion, according to a previous agreement between them, presented himself, and bought the wife thus exposed for sale, for a gallon of beer and a shilling, in presence of a large number of spectators. The seller had been married six months to this woman, who is only nineteen years old.

Not always cheap, however, sometimes honor had to be served when the more affluent were involved. For example, in July of 1815 a whopping 50 guineas and a horse (one of the highest prices we could personally find any wife went for), was paid for a wife in Smithfield. In her case, she was not brought to market via a halter either, like the less affluent, instead arriving by coach. It was then reported that after the transaction was complete, “the lady, with her new lord and master, mounted a handsome curricle which was in waiting for them, and drove off, seemingly nothing loath to go.”

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts

Perhaps the most famous case of someone among the wealthy purchasing an eventual wife from another involved Henry Brydges, the Duke of Chandos. It is not clear how much he paid nor when exactly the transaction took place, but while traveling to London sometime in the 1730s, the Duke stopped at an Inn called the Pelican in Newbury. It was later reported in an August of 1870 edition of Notes and Queries,

After dinner there was a stir and a bustle in the Inn Yard. The explanation came that “A man is going to sell his wife and they are leading her up the yard with a halter round her neck”. “We will go and see the sale,” said the Duke.
On entering the yard, however, he was so smitten with the woman’s beauty and the patient way she waited to be set free from her ill‑conditioned husband, the Inn’s ostler, that he bought her himself.

He did not, however, initially take her as his wife, as his own wife was still alive at the time. However, he did have the woman, former chambermaid Anne Wells, educated and took her as his mistress. When both his own wife and Anne’s former husband died within a few years of each other not long after, he married Anne himself in 1744. Their marriage was apparently a happy one until her own death in 1759. An 1832 edition of the The Gentleman’s Magazine concludes the story:

On her death-bed, she had her whole household assembled, told them her history, and drew from it a touching moral of reliance on Providence; as from the most wretched situation, she had been suddenly raised to one of the greatest prosperity…

Not always a completely happy ordeal, however, there are known cases where the sale followed a husband finding out his wife was cheating on him, and then the man she was having an affair with simply offering to buy her to avoid the whole thing becoming extremely unpleasant for all involved or needing to involve the courts.

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts
Giphy

It has been suggested this may be why elements of the spectacle were rather humiliating to the women. Perhaps early on when the tradition was being set some husbands who had wives that had been cheating on them or otherwise just making their lives miserable took the opportunity to get a last jab at her before parting ways.

Not always just humiliating via being treated as an animal in front of the whole town, sometimes verbal insults were added. For example, consider the case of Joseph Tomson. It was reported his little sales pitch for her was as follows:

Gentlemen, I have to offer to your notice my wife, Mary Anne Thomson, otherwise Williams, whom I mean to sell to the highest and fairest bidder. Gentlemen it is her wish as well as mine to part for ever. She has been to me only a born serpent. I took her for my comfort, and the good of my home; but she became my tormentor, a domestic curse, a night invasion, and a fairly devil. Gentlemen, I speak truth from my heart when I say may God deliver us from troublesome wives and frolicsome women! Avoid them as you would a mad dog, a roaring lion, a loaded pistol, cholera morbus, Mount Etna or any other pestilential thing in nature. Now I have shewn you the dark side of my wife, and told you her faults and failings, I will introduce the bright and sunny side of her, and explain her qualifications and goodness. She can read novels and milk cows; she can laugh and weep with the same ease that you could take a glass of ale when thirsty. Indeed gentlemen she reminds me of what the poet says of women in general: “Heaven gave to women the peculiar grace, To laugh, to weep, to cheat the human race.” She can make butter and scold the maid; she can sing Moore’s melodies, and plait her frills and caps; she cannot make rum, gin, or whisky, but she is a good judge of the quality from long experience in tasting them. I therefore offer her with all her perfections and imperfections, for the sum of fifty shillings.

Not exactly an effective sales pitch, nobody bid for about an hour, which perhaps was further humiliating motivation for such a pitch. Whatever the case, he then dropped the price and eventually got 20 shillings and a dog from one Henry Mears. Apparently Mears and his new wife parted in, to quote, “perfect good temper” as did Thomson.

All this said, while many known accounts seem to be of people where both the husband and wife were in agreement about the separation and use of the auction as the method of divorce, this wasn’t always the case on both sides. For instance, we have the 1830 case in Wenlock Market where it was reported that the woman’s husband “turned shy, and tried to get out of the business, but Mattie mad’ un stick to it. ‘Er flipt her apern in ‘er gude man’s face, and said, ‘Let be yer rogue. I wull be sold. I wants a change’.” She was subsequently sold for 2 shillings and 2d.

In another case, one drunk individual in 1766 in Southwark decided to sell his wife, only to regret the decision later and when his wife wouldn’t come back to him, he killed himself… In a bit more of a happy ending type story, in 1790 a man from Ninfield was at an inn when he decided to sell his wife for a half a pint of gin. However, he would later regret the loss, so paid some undisclosed price to reacquire her, an arrangement she would have had to agree to for it to be completed.

On the other side, there do seem to be some cases where the woman was seemingly auctioned against her will. However, for whatever it’s worth, again, in these cases by tradition she did always have the option to refuse a sale, though of course not exactly a great option in some cases if it meant going back to a husband who was eager to be rid of her. Nonetheless, this may in part explain why there are so few known accounts of women not seeming to be happy about the whole thing. While it might be going to an uncertain future if a man hadn’t already been prearranged, at least it was going to someone who actually wanted her, and willing to outbid other bachelor’s around town (in these cases being a legitimate auction).

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts

Going back to the legality of it all, at least in the minds of the general public, it would seem people considered it important that the whole thing needed to be extremely public, sometimes even announcing it in a local paper and/or having a town crier employed to walk through town announcing the auction and later sale. This made sure everyone around knew that the husband in question was no longer responsible for his wife, nor her debts or other obligations, and announced that the husband had also agreed to dissolve any former rights he had to his wife, ensuring, again at least in the minds of the general public, that the new suitor could not be criminal prosecuted for taking the wife of another man.

For further legal protection, at least in their minds, some would even go so far as to have a contract drawn up, such as this one from Oct. 24, 1766:

It is this day agreed on between John Parsons, of the parish of Midsummer Norton, in the county of Somerset, clothworker, and John Tooker, of the same place, gentleman, that the said John Parsons, for and in consideration of the sum of six pounds and six shillings in hand paid to the said John Parsons, doth sell, assign, and set over unto the said John Tooker, Ann Parsons, wife of the said John Parsons; with all right, property, claim, services, and demands whatsoever, that he, the said John Parsons, shall have in or to the said Ann Parsons, for and during the term of the natural life of her, the said Ann Parsons. In witness whereof I, the said John Parsons, have set my hand the day and year first above written.
JOHN PARSONS.
‘Witness: WILLIAM CHIVERS.’

While none of this was legally binding in the slightest, for whatever it’s worth, there is at least one case where a representative of the state, a Poor Law Commissioner, actually forced a sale of a wife. In this case, they forced one Henry Cook to sell his wife and child to avoid the Effingham workhouse having to also take in his family. The woman was ultimately sold for a shilling. The parish did, at the least, pay for a wedding dinner after the fact… So only 99.9% heartless in kicking a man while he was down.

In any event, there were also known court cases where the courts upheld such a divorce, though seemingly always jury trials. For example, in 1784 a husband tried to claim his former wife as his own again, only to have a jury side with the new couple, despite that there was literally no law on the books that supported this position.

On the flipside there were many more cases where the courts went the other way, such as the case of an 1835 woman who was auctioned off by her husband and sold for fifteen pounds, with the amount of the transaction indicating this person was likely reasonably well off. However, upon the death of her former husband, she went ahead and claimed a portion of his estate as his wife. The courts agreed, despite the objections of his family who pointed out the previous auction and that she had taken up a new husband.

Now, as you can imagine, literally leading your wife by a halter around her neck, waist, or arm to market and putting her up on an auction block, even if seemingly generally a mutually desired thing, from the outside looking in seemed incredibly uncivilized and brutish. As such, foreign entities, particularly in France, frequently mocked their hated neighbors in England for this practice.

From this, and the general distaste for the whole thing among the more affluent even in Britain, the practice of auctioning wives off began to be something the authorities did start to crack down on starting around the mid-19th century. As noted by a Justice of the Peace in 1869, “publicly selling or buying a wife is clearly an indictable offence … And many prosecutions against husbands for selling, and others for buying, have recently been sustained, and imprisonment for six months inflicted…”

How 87 paratroopers captured one of the world’s strongest forts
Giphy

In another example, in 1844 a man who had auctioned off his former wife was being tried for getting married again as he was, in the eyes of the state, still considered to be married to his original wife. The seemingly extremely sympathetic judge, Sir William Henry Maule, admonished him for this fact, while also very clearly outlining why many of the less affluent were forced to use this method for divorce, even in cases where the wife had left and taken up with another man:

I will tell you what you ought to have done; … You ought to have instructed your attorney to bring an action against the seducer of your wife for criminal conversation. That would have cost you about a hundred pounds. When you had obtained judgment for (though not necessarily actually recovered) substantial damages against him, you should have instructed your proctor to sue in the Ecclesiastical courts for a divorce a mensa et thoro. That would have cost you two hundred or three hundred pounds more. When you had obtained a divorce a mensa et thoro, you should have appeared by counsel before the House of Lords in order to obtain a private Act of Parliament for a divorce a vinculo matrimonii which would have rendered you free and legally competent to marry the person whom you have taken on yourself to marry with no such sanction. The Bill might possibly have been opposed in all its stages in both Houses of Parliament, and together you would have had to spend about a thousand or twelve hundred pounds. You will probably tell me that you have never had a thousand farthings of your own in the world; but, prisoner, that makes no difference. Sitting here as an English Judge, it is my duty to tell you that this is not a country in which there is one law for the rich and one for the poor. You will be imprisoned for one day. Since you have been in custody since the commencement of the Assizes you are free to leave.

In the end, thanks to the masses having to resort to such extreme measures as simply abandoning a spouse and never legally separating, auctioning the wife off as if she was an animal, and the aforementioned impotence trials, divorce law was eventually revamped in Britain with the passage of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857, finally allowing at least some affordable means of divorce for commoners, particularly in cases of abandonment or adultery. This, combined with the courts cracking down on wife auctions, saw the practice more or less completely die off by the end of the 19th century, though there were a few more known cases that continued in Britain all the way up to 1926 where one Horace Clayton bought a woman he then called his wife for £10 from her previous husband.

Bonus Facts:

In case anyone’s wondering, while there are only a handful of known cases of it happening, there were a few husbands sold as well, though as part of the point of the whole thing was for the husband to publicly declare he was no longer obligated to his wife and for the woman in question to agree to be wed to another man, with rights to her transferring to him, the auction of a husband didn’t really make a lot of sense from a practical standpoint. Nevertheless, it did happen. For example, consider this case reported a March 18, 1814 edition of the Statesmen:

On Saturday evening an affair of rather an extraordinary nature was brought before his Lordship the Mayor of Drogheda. One Margaret Collins presented a complaint against her husband, who had left her to live with another woman. In his defense, the husband declared that his wife was of a very violent disposition, which her conduct before the magistrate fully proved; that in her anger she had offered to sell him for two pence to her in whose keeping he then was; that she had sold and delivered him for three halfpence; that on payment of the sum, he had been led off by the purchaser; that several times, his wife, the seller, in her fits of anger had cruelly bitten him; that he still bore terrible marks of it (which he showed) although it was several months since he belonged to her. The woman who purchased, having been sent for to give her evidence, corroborated every fact, confirmed the bargain, and declared that she every day grew more and more satisfied with the acquisition; that she did not believe there was any law which could command him to separate from her, because the right of a wife to sell a husband with whom she was dissatisfied, to another woman who was willing to take up with him ought to be equal to the husband’s right, whose power of selling was acknowledged, especially when there was a mutual agreement, as in the present instance. This plea, full of good sense and justice, so exasperated the plaintiff, that, without paying any regard to his lordship, she flew at the faces of her antagonists, and would have mangled them with her teeth and nails, if they had not been separated…

It’s also worth noting that at least some English settlers to America carried on the tradition there, such as this account reported in the Boston Evening-Post on March 15, 1736:

The beginning of last Week a pretty odd and uncommon Adventure happened in this Town, between 2 Men about a certain woman, each one claiming her as his Wife, but so it was, that one of them had actually disposed of his Right in her to the other for Fifteen Shillings this Currency, who had only paid ten of it in part, and refus’d to pay the other Five, inclining rather to quit the Woman and lose his Earnest; but two Gentlemen happening to be present, who were Friends to Peace, charitably gave him half a Crown a piece, to enable him to fulfill his Agreement, which the Creditor readily took, and gave the Woman a modest Salute, wishing her well, and his Brother Sterling much Joy of his Bargain.

This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.

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