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ROTTEN HISTORY

Posted by Alexander Jerri

On This Day in Rotten History...

In 1915 – (102 years ago) – as World War I combatants faced off in the late afternoon near the hamlet of Gravenstafel in western Belgium, the German troops released more than 170 tons of chlorine gas that swept in a thick yellow cloud over the opposing front line of French and colonial Moroccan and Algerian soldiers. Being heavier than air, the gas quickly settled into the trenches, killing hundreds of French troops within minutes, and forcing thousands more to come staggering out into the open, gasping and choking in agony, as they were mowed down in a barrage of German gunfire. The Germans relied on prevailing winds to carry the gas away from themselves and toward their enemies, but many of them were also killed and injured by their own weapon. As fighting continued over the following weeks, the French troops tried to protect themselves by urinating into handkerchiefs which they tied over their faces, so that the ammonia in their urine could neutralize the chlorine poison. Months would go by before they were issued proper gas masks. More than 120,000 troops were killed or wounded or went missing in this bloodbath, known as the Second Battle of Ypres. The British, French, and Americans all expressed outrage at what they called the Germans’ cowardly form of warfare — but by the end of the war, they too had built up stockpiles of chemical weapons, and had used them.

In 1992 – (25 years ago) – residents in a central section of Guadalajara, Mexico, awoke to a heavy, nauseating stink that had risen from manholes in their streets for several days. The people also noticed that the water from their faucets smelled like gasoline, and caused stinging in the eyes and throat. Shortly after 10 a.m. that day came the first of a series of sewer explosions that continued for hours — blowing up streets, destroying buildings, throwing cars into the air, and starting fires that burned all day. Amid the panic and chaos of the emergency evacuation, firefighters warned people across the city not to strike matches or light their stoves. Residents in unaffected neighborhoods hurried to remove manhole covers, hoping that any gas in their sewers would escape without igniting. By the time the crisis was over, up to a thousand people were dead, hundreds more were injured or missing, and some fifteen thousand people were left homeless. Authorities later blamed the state-owned petroleum company Pemex for allowing gasoline to flow into the sewer system. Pemex executives, meanwhile, blamed a local manufacturer of cooking oil for dumping flammable hexane into the sewers.

Rotten History is written by Renaldo Migaldi


Posted by Alexander Jerri

On This Day in Rotten History...

In 1865 – (152 years ago) – President Abraham Lincoln died in a first-floor bedroom at a boarding house across the street from Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, where he had been shot in the head by the actor John Wilkes Booth the previous evening. Even before moving Lincoln out of the theater, doctors on the scene had already reached the conclusion that the bullet wound in his skull was mortal, and that he would surely die. The bed in the boarding house was too short to accommodate Lincoln’s tall frame, so they had to lay him on it diagonally. Lincoln died in a room full of people; he was surrounded by doctors and government officials. His twenty-six-year-old assassin, a Confederate sympathizer who had called slavery an important institution that should be preserved, had escaped the scene and was still at large.

In 1912 – (105 years ago) – more than 1,500 people died when the RMS Titanic, a great passenger liner making its maiden voyage, sank in the North Atlantic about two hours after hitting an iceberg. The Titanic had been hyped as the largest and most luxurious ship in the world, and though it boasted some of the most advanced safety features of its time, it only carried enough lifeboats for half the number of people on board. About 700 passengers survived, but experts agree that many more could have been saved if some of the lifeboats had not been launched half empty, and if the ship’s crew had been properly trained in their use. Of the rich people traveling in first class, near the top of the ship, 62 percent survived. Of the less affluent passengers down in third-class steerage, only 37 percent made it out alive.

In 1989 – (28 years ago) – a total of 96 people were killed and 776 injured in a human crush at the Hillsborough soccer stadium in Sheffield, England. It was the FA Cup semifinal between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, and as fans of the Liverpool side herded into a large standing-room-only pen to watch the action, they were unaware that the crowd inside had already reached the pen’s capacity. As fans inside the pen were crushed and became piled on top of each other, some tried desperately to crawl out of the pen, over the fence, and onto the soccer field. As the situation grew more dangerous, referees stopped the game after just five minutes of playing time. In the aftermath of the disaster, several traumatized survivors committed suicide. An initial coroner’s inquest later ruled that the deaths at the scene had been accidental, but in 2016 a second inquest concluded that the soccer fans had died due to unlawful gross negligence by crowd-control personnel, police, and ambulance services.

Rotten History is written by Renaldo Migaldi

 


Posted by Alexander Jerri

On This Day in Rotten History...

In 1911 – (106 years ago) – A total of 123 women and 23 men were killed in one of the deadliest industrial fires in US history. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which manufactured women’s blouses, occupied the top three floors of a building in Greenwich Village, New York. Though smoking was not allowed, some workers snuck cigarettes on the job, and it’s believed that someone may have tossed a smouldering match or butt into a waste bin full of cotton scrap. Either that, or one of the sewing machines caused an electric spark. In rooms full of flammable cloth, the fire spread fast, but the workers soon found that some exits were blocked by flames, while others had been locked shut to keep anyone from stealing fabric or taking unauthorized work breaks. Fire trucks arrived quickly, but their ladders could not reach the building’s upper floors. After the elevators failed and a poorly maintained external fire escape collapsed, the desperate workers began jumping from the windows, to die as they hit the concrete sidewalks below.  In age they ranged from fourteen to forty-three, and most were recent Jewish or Italian immigrants.

In 1947 – (70 years ago) – in Centralia, Illinois, one hundred eleven people died in a coal mine explosion, caused by combustion of heavy coal dust buildup in the underground tunnels. This danger and others had been cited repeatedly by inspectors, and miners’ union reps had taken their protests as high as the office of the Illinois governor — but the problem was not properly addressed by the mine company management or by state regulators. One hundred forty-two miners were in the mine when it blew up. Of the thirty-one who came out alive, many immediately went back down to help rescue their colleagues. During those rescue operations, state mining director Robert Medill almost caused a violent uprising by ordering that electric power be turned back on, to speed up the work and get the mine back on line. But state inspectors quickly shut him down, with evidence that doing so could have caused another explosion. The governor fired Medill a week later. The mine disaster inspired a song by Woody Guthrie.

Rotten History is written by Renaldo Migaldi


Posted by Alexander Jerri

On This Day in Rotten History...

In 1937 – (80 years ago) – in New London, Texas, a natural gas leak caused the deadliest school disaster in American history. To save money, the administration of New London School had canceled its regular heating gas contract, instead tapping into a line of residue gas from a nearby oilfield. This was a common cost-saving practice in that area, since the oil producers considered their residue gas to be a waste product and usually just burned it off. But natural gas has no odor of its own, and the oil field’s residue gas lacked the odor agents that natural gas providers are now required to add as a safety measure. So when the school’s wood-shop teacher turned on an electric sander in his classroom, he was unaware that the air in the room was saturated with gas. The building explosion could be heard four miles away, and some three hundred people, mostly young students, were killed.

In 1965 – (52 years ago) – Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov performed the world’s first space walk, floating in the void for twelve minutes. He then spent the next fifteen trying to get back into his spacecraft. Due to political pressure from the Kremlin to score another win over the Americans, his spacesuit and breathing unit had been designed and built in such a frantic hurry that they were almost unworkable. The suit overheated, and grew rigid like a balloon. Leonov could not move his arms and legs without reducing the air pressure to a dangerously low level. In the struggle to re-enter his spacecraft, he almost passed out, and nearly ran out of oxygen. Returning to earth the next day, Leonov and his crewmate, Pavel Belyayev, landed hundreds of miles off target and spent a freezing night in the deep Russian forest, shivering inside their spacecraft as hungry wolves and bears circled outside. The Kremlin trumpeted the news of another space first, but the truth about Leonov’s brush with death remained a state secret for decades.

In 1967 – (50 years ago) – the BP-chartered supertanker Torrey Canyon hit a rock off the coast of Cornwall, Great Britain. Over the next few days, it dumped its whole cargo into the North Atlantic: 120,000 tons of crude oil from Kuwait. It was the worst such accident up to that time, and as the oil slick threatened the beaches of Cornwall and northern France, various attempts to clean it up failed miserably. Long strings of containment booms blew apart in the heavy waves. Navy vessels and helicopters dropped toxic dispersants — euphemistically called “detergents,” and manufactured by BP — but they were ineffective, and would prove more even toxic to marine life than the crude oil was. The British air force finally resorted to dropping bombs, jet fuel, and napalm on the shipwreck to set the oil on fire and burn it off. Still, enough oil remained to contaminate 120 miles of British coastline, killing tens of thousands of birds, seals, and other innocent creatures. Another huge oil slick reached the island of Guernsey, and the locals hastily shoveled it up and dumped it into an open quarry — where it remains to this day as a death trap for unsuspecting birds. Later efforts to clean up the quarry have been complicated by the presence underneath of a storage dump of unexploded German ordnance from World War II. 

Rotten History is written by Renaldo Migaldi


Posted by Alexander Jerri

On This Day in Rotten History...

In the year 222 – (1,795 years ago) – the eighteen-year-old Roman emperor Elagabalus was ambushed and beheaded in a plot instigated by his own grandmother. Some historians portray him as an eccentric who alienated Romans by appointing unqualified people to high positions, forcing changes to public religion and rituals, and violating sexual taboos. For example, he married a Vestal Virgin while keeping a stable of male lovers. In some accounts, Elagabalus was not only fond of cross-dressing, but actually turned tricks as a prostitute, selling himself in taverns and in the imperial palace. The ancient Roman historian Cassius Dio claims that the emperor also offered huge sums of money, in vain, to any surgeon who could give him a sex change — and some recent authors have theorized that he may well have been transsexual or transgender. But other modern writers suspect that Elagabalus’s reputation was mostly fabricated after his death by the political rivals who killed him. After his headless body was dragged around Rome and dumped into the Tiber River, his name was removed from the official public record, and many of his political allies were also killed.

In 1864 – (153 years ago) – a tiny crack was noticed in a newly constructed earthen dam at Bradfield Reservoir in central England. In late afternoon, the crack was barely wide enough to accomodate a knife blade. But throughout the evening it steadily grew, provoking alarm among workers who finally resorted to using gunpowder in a desperate attempt to open an emergency spillway and relieve the water pressure. Their efforts failed, and just before midnight the dam collapsed, dumping almost seven hundred million gallons of water in a raging torrent that surged into the nearby industrial town of Sheffield. The flood killed some 250 people, and destroyed more than 400 houses, 20 bridges, and 100 factories and shops. The dam was one of only two designed by the civil engineer Sir Robert Rawlinson. His other dam lasted just twenty-nine years, requiring constant expensive repairs the whole time. In contrast, nine other dams built by Rawlinson’s rivals around the same time, and in the same area, are still in service today.

In 1918 – (99 years ago) – at Fort Riley, Kansas, Private Albert Gitchell, a US Army mess cook, was diagnosed with a new and unknown strain of the flu. He was the first confirmed victim of what soon became a worldwide influenza pandemic that killed from fifty to a hundred million people, mostly young adults, over the next three years. Though Gitchell’s was the first confirmed case, experts believe that the flu virus may have claimed other victims up to two years earlier — especially in Europe, where it flourished in the unsanitary conditions of the First World War. The virus eventually spread across the globe. The Brazilian island of Marajó, at the mouth of the Amazon, was the only populated area on earth to avoid infection.

Rotten History is written by Renaldo Migaldi


Posted by Alexander Jerri

On This Day in Rotten History...

In 1238 – (779 years ago) – a hastily mustered Russian army led by Grand Prince Yuri II of Vladimir-Suzdal was attacked by an army of the Mongol Hordes led by the general Burundai at the Sit River, near what is now Sonokovo, Russia — some three hundred miles southeast of modern-day St. Petersburg. The Mongols had already sacked Prince Yuri’s capital, after which he and his brothers pursued a counterattack, only to find that they were surrounded. Yuri and his army tried to flee, but made it only as far as the Sit River, where the entire force was taken out in a bloody battle in which the Mongols also suffered heavy losses. This key event inaugurated two centuries of Mongol domination of modern-day Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.

In 1519 – (498 years ago) – the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés made his first landing on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, accompanied by some eleven ships, five hundred men, thirteen horses, and plenty of cannon, guns, and other weapons. Here, after claiming the land for the Spanish crown, Cortés began his campaign of conquest, forming key alliances with certain locals in order to vanquish the natives more generally. Cortés’s campaign would lead him up through Veracruz and then west to the great Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. Arriving in that city with a large army, he met with the imperial ruler Moctezuma and established friendly relations with him in order to learn his weaknesses — the better to wipe him out two years later, destroy his city, and take possession of the empire, which he personally ruled for three years.

In 1986 – (31 years ago) – after playing a gig in Winter Park, Florida, with his bandmates in The Band, the singer and multi-instrumentalist Richard Manuel returned to his hotel room at a nearby Quality Inn, drank a bottle of Grand Marnier, entered the bathroom, and used a belt to hang himself from the shower curtain rod. An autopsy would later reveal cocaine in his bloodstream. In the Seventies, Manuel had suffered from depression and struggled with drug addiction and alcoholism, which had curbed his songwriting and damaged his singing voice. But in the Eighties, spending time in rehab had seemed to help. He died at the age of forty-two.

Rotten History is written by Renaldo Migaldi


Posted by Alexander Jerri

On This Day in Rotten History...

In 1336  – (681 years ago) – four thousand village defenders of a fortess in Pilėnai, Lithuania, operating under the command of a prince named Margiris, were attacked by a force of the crusading Teutonic Knights, who sought to take their fortress and convert them to Christianity. Realizing they could not mount an effective defense, but unwilling to convert or otherwise allow the invaders a victory, the Lithuanian villagers burned down their own fortress and embarked on a mass suicide of the community, killing each other and themselves. Prince Margiris cut down his wife with a sword, killed his own guards and close advisors, and threw all their bodies into the flames before taking the fatal blade to himself. Villagers, following his lead, began burning their possessions and killing the people around them. According to one account, an old woman killed a hundred other people with an ax before using it on herself. A very few villagers did manage to escape the insanity on horseback, but the rest were found dead by the Teutonic invaders when they finally entered the blood-soaked fortress. For centuries, the mass suicide at Pilėnai has been celebrated by Lithuanians as an example of mass heroism, and it has inspired works of poetry, fiction, and music. But historians and archeologists still pursue contradictory theories as to where exactly the event took place.

In 1970 – (47 years ago) – one of the great American artists of the twentieth century, Mark Rothko, who used huge, vibrant fields of color in transcendent canvases full of tension and sensuality, was found dead in the kitchen of his studio, having sliced his arms open with a razor. An autopsy revealed that he had also overdosed on antidepressants. Rothko had suffered from depression, but had also developed an aortic aneurysm that was making it physically hard for him to paint. At the time of his suicide, he had just finished fourteen large canvases for the Rothko Chapel, under construction in Houston. Due to his illness, he needed two assistants to help him apply the paint, and he never lived to see the finished chapel. His suicide triggered an ugly legal battle between his heirs and his executors. And in recent years, some of his paintings have fetched eight-figure sums on the international art market.

Rotten History is written by Renaldo Migaldi


Posted by Alexander Jerri

On This Day in Rotten History...


In 1873  – (144 years ago) – a thirty-five-year-old former monk named Vasil Levsky, who had led a movement to liberate Bulgaria from rule by the Ottoman Empire, was executed by hanging. Inspired by the French Revolution and by European efforts toward liberal democracy and human rights, Levsky had worked for several years to create a network of secret committees across Bulgaria to prepare for a coordinated armed uprising. But when a few of his rebel colleagues pulled a robbery without his approval and were arrested, they betrayed him to the Ottoman police. Learning of this, Levsky tried to escape to Romania, but he never made it to the border. Today he’s regarded as one of Bulgaria’s national heroes.   

In 1930 – (87 years ago) – at the International Air Exposition in Saint Louis, Nellie Jay, a two-year-old Guernsey cow from Bismarck, Missouri, became the first cow to fly in an airplane. As part of the stunt, she was milked during the flight, producing twenty-four quarts of milk that were sealed into cardboard cartons and parachuted to spectators on the ground below. To maintain their milk production, dairy cows are kept continuously pregnant and their calves are taken away from them soon after birth, often to be slaughtered for veal. When Nellie Jay reached middle age and her milk days were over, she, too, was sent to the slaughterhouse.        

In 1943 – (74 years ago) – two students at the University of Munich, the siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl, were arrested by the Gestapo for advocating resistance to Germany’s Nazi regime. They were founding members of the White Rose, a mostly student group that passed pamphlets and other materials hand-to-hand throughout southern Germany. Other White Rose activists were also arrested that day, and more were caught in the days thereafter. Hans and Sophie were among those found guilty of treason and executed by guillotine. Others went to prison until the end of World War II. Hans and Sophie Scholl had hoped that the Nazis’ recent defeat at Stalingrad would turn German public sentiment against the war. But on the very day of their arrest, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels made a live radio speech in which he cited the Stalingrad debacle to argue for an escalation into what he called “total war.” He made the speech at the Berlin Sportpalast — which, in the years after Nazi Germany’s defeat, would go on to host concerts by the Beach Boys, Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, and Pink Floyd before finally being demolished in 1973.

Rotten History is written by Renaldo Migaldi


Posted by Alexander Jerri

On This Day in Rotten History...

In 244 – (1,773 years ago) – the nineteen-year-old Roman emperor Gordian III was killed by his own troops after being defeated by the Persians at the ancient city of Circesium in what is now Syria. The Roman Empire was in a period of bloody civil war, border insecurity, and economic collapse. Young Gordian had been made emperor six years earlier, in what is known as the Year of the Six Emperors. In that year (238), a revolt against the tyrant Maximius had resulted in a frail, elderly provincial governor being proclaimed Emperor Gordian I, and the old man had insisted that his son share power with him as Gordian II. The father-and-son co-emperors were popular with the Senate, but only lasted a month before being attacked at Carthage by an army led by a rival governor loyal to Maximius. When Gordian II was killed in the battle, his father, Gordian I, promptly committed suicide. The Senate quickly responded by installing two new co-emperors, Pupienus and Balbius, who not only mistrusted and feared each other but were hated by the Praetorian Guard. After just three months in power, they too, were killed. So it was in desperation that the Senate then turned to the terrified thirteen-year-old grandson of the first Gordian and nephew of the second, declaring him Emperor Gordian III. The young man struggled to grow into his role, but he died at Circesium, probably in a mutiny led by the general known as Philip the Arab. Philip then succeeded Gordian III as Roman emperor — and he, too, would be killed a few years later.

In 1823 – (194 years ago) – in Valletta, the capital of Malta, it was the last day of the public celebration of Carnival before the Catholic religious period of Lent. A church convent was observing its annual tradition of handing out free bread and fruit to poor children from the area, partly in order to keep them away from the bawdy confusion of the outdoor festival. Since Malta was experiencing a famine that year, the crowd of children was especially large, with some adults sneaking in as well. In a corridor of the old convent, the crowd got out of control and began pushing and shoving against a locked door. Soon a lamp went out, leaving the corridor in darkness, and the shoving got worse. Screams were heard as children were trampled, crushed, and suffocated. By the time people outside managed to pry the door open, more than a hundred children were dead.

Rotten History is written by Renaldo Migaldi