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ROTTEN HISTORY

Posted by Alexander Jerri

On This Day in Rotten History...

In 1716  – (301 years ago) – thirty-three thousand soldiers died and untold thousands more were wounded when forces of Austria’s Habsburg monarchy met an army of the Ottoman Empire at Petrovaradin, in what is now Serbia. The Ottomans had been driving toward the heart of Europe when they ran smack into a massive encampment ordered on the banks of the Danube by the Austrian military commander, Prince Eugene of Savoy. After three days of minor skirmishes, and in just a few hours of unspeakable carnage, the Ottoman troops were outmanuevered, overwhelmed, and wiped out. Barely one-third of them managed to escape with their lives after their leader, the Grand Vizier Damat Ali, was captured and killed. His tomb is in Belgrade.

In 1858  – (159 years ago) – having already failed in several attempts, oceangoing engineers from the United States and Great Britain finally completed laying the first-ever telegraph cable across the Atlantic Ocean. The 2,500-mile-long cable was made of five copper wires wrapped in a casing of gutta-percha, tar, and hemp. It lay on an undersea plateau two miles under the waves, and connected a station in Newfoundland with another one in Ireland. After a few days of testing, Britain’s Queen Victoria sent the ceremonial first message to US President James Buchanan. The technology was so crude that her ninety-eight-word message took sixteen hours to send. Within days the transmission quality grew even worse, and engineers argued about how to fix it. The English chief electrician, Wildman Whitehouse, finally chose to pump an extra charge of two thousand volts into the cable to get it working. But instead of fixing the problem, the shock burned the cable out, rendering the hugely expensive project worthless after only three weeks in service. Whitehouse’s reputation was ruined, though he would spend the rest of his life defending his decision. Many people suspected that the whole cable project had been a big hoax, and six years would pass before it was attempted again.

In 1962 – (55 years ago) — near the town of Howick in South Africa, police arrested Nelson Mandela, leader of an armed wing of the banned African National Congress that had been classified as a terrorist organization by South Africa’s white minority government. Mandela was arrested along with a group of associates who were charged with sabotage, treason, and violent conspiracy against the apartheid regime. After a trial in which he acknowledged his illegal activity, including several bombings, and stated his willingness to die for the cause of abolishing apartheid, Mandela would spend eighteen years in the notoriously brutal Robben Island prison near Cape Town, followed by nine years in another prison and under house arrest, during which time he would become world-famous and turn down a series of government compromise deals for his release. Not until 1990, at the age of seventy-one, would he finally be freed.

Rotten History is written by Renaldo Migaldi


Posted by Alexander Jerri

On This Day in Rotten History...

In the year 904 – (1,113 years ago) — the Byzantine city of Thessalonica in Greece was sacked by an army of Arab Saracen invaders. The Saracens had departed from Syria with the original intention of taking Constantinople, but they’d been repelled by that city’s defenders. So they took a spontaneous detour to Thessalonica, where they found a city totally unprepared for their onslaught. Not only were the crumbling city walls in urgent need of repair, but the city’s two army commanders, who could not communicate with each other, were issuing conflicting orders that threw the troops into disarray. After a brief siege, during which the combatants used catapaults to bombard each other with flying rocks, the Saracens essentially hurled themselves, through a rain of stones and arrows, over the walls and into the city. Once inside, they spent a week killing, burning, looting, and taking prisoners. They captured sixty Byzantine ships, released four thousand Muslims held captive in the city, and took more than twenty thousand Thessalonicans as captives, most of whom they would later sell into slavery.       

In 1967 – (50 years ago) — 250 people were killed and more than 1,500 were injured when a 6.5-magnitude earthquake struck near the Caribbean coast of Venezuela. In one fashionable neighborhood in Caracas, people and cars were buried under tons of debris when a quartet of ritzy highrise apartment buildings shook and staggered on their foundations, pounded into each other, and then collapsed like stacks of pancakes. The earthquake caused more than $100 million worth of property damage in Caracas alone, and left more than eighty thousand people homeless across northern Venezuela.

Rotten History is written by Renaldo Migaldi


Posted by Alexander Jerri

On This Day in Rotten History...

In 1916 – (101 years ago) — in San Francisco, business leaders and the local chamber of commerce sponsored a “Preparedness Day parade” to cheer the entry of US troops into World War I. Labor leaders, radicals, and anarchists who opposed US participation in the faraway European war planned to protest the parade, and had been warned of possible mischief by provocateurs. Shortly after the parade got underway, a pipe bomb exploded in the middle of the crowd, killing ten people and wounding forty. Two locally prominent left-wing labor leaders, Thomas Mooney and Warren Billings, were among those arrested by police, and were held for six days without being allowed to see a lawyer. In defiance of loud protests by labor and civil liberties activists, both men were soon found guilty — their death sentences later commuted to life imprisonment. More than twenty years later, a state commission found that their trial had been marred by false testimony and other irregularities, some of which were publicly admitted by the trial judge and jurors. Mooney and Billings were released from prison in 1939 and later pardoned. To this day, the real perpetrators of the San Francisco bombing remain unknown.    

In 1962 – (55 years ago) — at Cape Canaveral, Florida, a rocket was launched carrying the spacecraft Mariner 1, intended to be the first to fly near the planet Venus. Soon after launch, the rocket veered off course and stopped responding to guidance commands sent from the ground. Fearful that it might come down and hit a populated area, mission controllers sent a command for the rocket to self-destruct, which it did. Analysts later found that a computer programmer who transcribed guidance software for the rocket had unwittingly introduced a typo, which science writer Arthur C. Clarke later called “the most expensive hyphen in history.” Five weeks later, a second launch sent the Mariner 2 spacecraft to a successful Venus flyby, where it measured hellish temperatures on that planet’s surface of nine hundred degrees Fahrenheit — hot enough to melt lead.  



Posted by Alexander Jerri

On This Day in Rotten History...

In 1381 – (636 years ago) — John Ball, an itinerant English priest, was executed for helping provoke a peasant’s revolt against high taxes levied by the state to finance its endless warfare. As England struggled to recover from the plague years of the Black Death, Ball had traveled from town to town, using Bible passages to preach radical ideas of social equality. He achieved great popularity by voicing the grievances of the impoverished peasants in vernacular terms they could understand. After the Catholic Church, which owned a third of the land in England, excommunicated Ball, he took his preaching outdoors, where he drew large crowds. By the time of his final arrest he had already been in and out of prison several times for giving sermons in which he urged his listeners to seize and kill members of the nobility and their lawyers as well as high-ranking members of the clergy, including the archbishop of Canterbury. On the day of Ball’s execution, the fifteen-year-old King Richard II was on hand to watch him first hanged, and then drawn and quartered. The four bloodsoaked quarters of Ball’s body were then sent to four different villages to be displayed in public as a warning to those who might consider heeding his call or following in his footsteps.

In 1927 – (90 years ago) — in Vienna, demonstrators taking part in a general strike against Austria’s right-wing government stormed the National Palace of Justice and set it on fire. The blaze followed several months of earlier protests led by opposition Social Democrats against the regime, which was backed by rich businessmen and Catholic clergy. Those demonstrations had sometimes flared into violence — including one incident in which three right-wing paramilitaries had killed a World War I veteran and an eight-year-old boy and were later acquitted after pleading self-defense. At the Palace of Justice, after demonstrators attacked firefighters and cut their hoses, and after Vienna’s mayor appealed for calm and was ignored, police chief Johann Schober issued army rifles to his officers and ordered them to open fire on the crowd. Eighty-nine labor protesters were killed, along with five police; and some six hundred protesters were seriously injured. Two years later, Schober would go on to become Austria’s chancellor.

Rotten History is written by Renaldo Migaldi


Posted by Alexander Jerri

On This Day in Rotten History...

In 1523 – (494 years ago) — Johann Esch and Heinrich Voes, two monks from a monastery in Antwerp, were burned at the stake by the Roman Catholic Church for the crime of adopting religious positions of the German theologian Martin Luther, who had kickstarted the Protestant Reformation six years earlier. Luther had denounced the Catholic authorities for the practice of selling indulgences — basically, taking people’s money for the promise of getting them into heaven after their death. He maintained that the authority of the Bible took precedence over that of the Catholic pope, cardinals, and bishops. Those were dangerous beliefs in medieval Europe, and the Roman Church was so intent on stopping their spread that, contrary to usual practice, the charges against Esch and Voes were not read aloud before their public execution in the main marketplace of Brussels. As the flames rose around them, the two unfortunate monks sang Latin hymns until they fell unconscious. Their monastery was declared to have been defiled, and was demolished.

In 1766 – (251 years ago) — a twenty-year-old French nobleman named François-Jean de la Barre was awakened early in the morning and physically tortured by having his hands cut off and his tongue torn from his mouth. Later that day he was beheaded for crimes against Roman Catholicism, the state religion of France. La Barre been found guilty of failing to remove his hat when a religious procession passed, and also for mocking Catholic hymns by changing the words to include obscenities. Police had searched his bedroom and found prohibited books, including the works of the atheistic philosopher Voltaire. After le Barre was beheaded, his body was burned; his copy of Voltaire’s Philosphical Dictionary was also tossed into the flames. After the fire died, the ashes were swept up and unceremoniously dumped into the nearby Somme River.

In 1916 – (101 years ago) — eighteen British and French divisions attacked the German Second Army in positions along the Somme River, kicking off a major battle of World War I. In some areas, according to some accounts, the British and French soldiers simply marched shoulder-to-shoulder into a barrage of German machine gunfire that mowed them down, filling the battlefield with bloody corpses. In other areas, it was the British and French who had the upper hand, and the Germans who suffered the worst. The gruesome trench warfare continued all day, with occasional brief truces to allow troops on either side to retrieve and carry off their dead. As night fell, some twenty thousand men were dead and another thirty-eight thousand were wounded. It was just the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, which over the next few months would claim more than a million casualties, making it one of the bloodiest battles in recorded history.

Rotten History is written by Renaldo Migaldi


Posted by Alexander Jerri

On This Day in Rotten History...

In 1843 – (174 years ago) — a land dispute led to a violent clash between British settlers and indigenous Maori people on the South Island of New Zealand. Officials of the British New Zealand Company, claiming to have made a land purchase deal with the Maori, had sent surveyors into the Wairau Valley to mark out parcels. But the Maori, angry at not having been paid for the land, had chased the surveyors away and destroyed their equipment. When a party of armed British men returned to the valley, they were met by some ninety Maori warriors accompanied by women and children. Twenty-two British were killed, along with four Maori, including the wives of two chiefs. White settlers elsewhere in New Zealand were outraged. But an inquiry led by governor Robert FitzRoy later ruled that the settlers had been at fault for trying to settle on land they had no legal right to possess. 

In 1953 – (64 years ago) — Soviet tanks rolled into East Berlin to crush a day-old uprising and general strike against the Soviet-backed East German goverment, which had raised work quotas and threatened wage cuts. Sensing the government’s insecurity in the wake of Joseph Stalin’s recent death, workers had taken to the streets, calling for democracy and German reunification, and bringing the country to a standstill. The Soviet Union responded by sending in sixteen army divisions to assist eight thousand East German military police in quashing the revolt. Hundreds of East Germans either died in the ensuing violence or were executed afterward. Several thousand more were injured or arrested, and a dozen or more Soviet soldiers were executed for refusing to shoot protesters. The violence across East Germany continued for more than a week — a dark precursor to the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolt of 1956 and the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968.

In 1987 – (30 years ago) — an elderly sparrow was found dead in his food dish, inside a protected enclosure at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Florida. He was the last dusky seaside sparrow, and the last survivor of a failed attempt at breeding enough of the sparrows to repopulate their original habitat along Florida’s Atlantic Coast, in the swamps around Merritt Island just south of Cape Canaveral, and along the upper St. John’s River. In the early 1960s, when Merritt Island was chosen as the site for launching Apollo flights to the moon, the swamps had been flooded to lower the area’s mosquito population, thus devastating the birds’ food source and nesting grounds. Highway construction and pesticides finished the job, and the establishment of a nearby wildlife refuge came too late. In 1990 the dusky seaside sparrow was officially declared extinct.

Rotten History is written by Renaldo Migaldi


Posted by Alexander Jerri

On This Day in Rotten History...

In 1962 – (55 years ago) – in Centralia, Pennsylvania, a fire set deliberately to clear trash out of an underground landfill ignited an ancient coal seam in a nearby abandoned mine. The coal fire gradually spread underneath the town and became a threat to public health and safety. It created dangerous sinkholes, spewed sulfur smoke and carbon monoxide from openings in the ground, and defied all attempts to put it out. By 1984 a mass exodus from the town began, and in 1992, all real estate properties were officially condemned. Centralia, Pennsylvania, once home to a thousand people, is now a ghost town. Nothing remains there but a few derelict buildings and a crumbling network of empty streets covered with graffiti by curious visitors. In some places the ground is still hot to the touch, and cracks in the earth belch poisonous smoke from an underground fire that, experts say, could continue burning for another two hundred years.

In 1971 – (46 years ago) – in the district of Pabna in East Pakistan, units of Pakistan army troops and paramilitaries massacred more than two hundred unarmed members of the local Hindu minority. The killings were a part of Operation Searchlight, a military campaign meant to suppress a Bengali nationalist movement in what was then East Pakistan. Ever since the partition of India after independence in 1947, the new and predominantly Muslim nation of Pakistan had consisted of two sections or “wings” more than a thousand miles apart, with the massive territory of India in between. The two parts of the country had their religious, cultural, and political differences, and as an independence movement grew in East Pakistan, the national government in the West launched a systematic campaign of genocide that led to all-out war, in which India joined on the side of the separatist East. After nine months of air strikes, mass murder, rape, and other atrocities, the war ended with East Pakistan proclaiming itself the newly independent nation of Bangladesh. Body counts vary, but most researchers believe that the war killed about half a million people, and created some thirty million refugees.

Rotten History is written by Renaldo Migaldi


Posted by Alexander Jerri

On This Day in Rotten History...

In 1972 – (45 years ago) – in Osaka, Japan, a fire at the Sennichi Department Store killed 118 people. The fire started in the dress department and quickly spread to other areas in the building that were being remodeled, where burning construction materials filled the stairwells with poisonous fumes. The building had no fire sprinklers. In a nightclub on the seventh floor, patrons found the fire exits locked, and in desperation they began jumping from the windows. It took firefighters three days to put out the blaze. Ninety-six people were found dead inside the nightclub, twenty-two died from jumping, and another seventy-eight were injured, including twenty-seven firefighters. Three managers of the building later went to prison for criminal negligence and accidental homicide.    

In 1985 – (32 years ago) – Philadelphia police bombed the headquarters of MOVE, a radical commune that advocated black liberation and shunned modern technology. The group was well stocked with guns and ammo, and nine members had already gone to prison for third-degree murder in the death of a cop. The group occupied a row house in West Philadelphia, where neighbors complained to the police about their rooftop bullhorn political speeches. When police arrived and were denied entry, they resorted to fire hoses and tear gas, and were answered with bullets. The resulting shootout led to a two-day armed standoff, which ended when a state police helicopter dropped two one-pound bombs on the house, sparking a fire that quickly spread across the neighborhood. With orders to hold off, firefighters stood by and watched the police gun down commune members who came running out of the burning house. Eleven people, including five children, were killed; some sixty-five houses were destroyed; and more than 250 people were left homeless. Eleven years later, a federal jury found that the city had used excessive force and violated the Fourth Amendment. It ordered payment of $1.5 million to three commune survivors, and Philadelphia briefly became known as “The City That Bombed Itself.” Mayor Wilson Goode issued a formal apology, but nobody in the city government was ever criminally charged.

Rotten History is written by Renaldo Migaldi


Posted by Alexander Jerri

On This Day in Rotten History...

In 1527 – (490 years ago) –  mutinous troops of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V invaded and sacked the city of Rome, which at the time was part of the Papal States. Pope Clement VII had allied with the Kingdom of France to resist growing pressure from the northern empire and the Habsburg dynasty, so he was seen as an enemy by Charles’s troops, who numbered some twenty to thirty thousand and — to make matters worse — were angry because they weren’t getting paid on time. The unruly soldiers poured into Rome, killing everyone they encountered, and forcing almost two hundred of the Vatican’s Swiss Guards into desperate hand-to-hand combat on the very steps of Saint Peter’s Basilica. Before being massacred, the Swiss Guards managed to hold off the intruders long enough for the pope to escape to his bunker. But Rome was devastated, and some forty-five thousand people were killed, wounded, or exiled. The invaders remained for months as corpses lay rotting in the streets, until the city was finally overcome by the plague.

In 1757 – (260 years ago) – the English poet Christopher Smart, having been deemed insane, was committed to Saint Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics, in London, one of two asylums where he would be confined for the next six years. It was a time of great debate about the nature of mental illness, but methods of treatment were still primitive, and some doctors even advocated physical beating. For his part, Smart never considered himself insane, and some acquaintances felt he’d been sent to the asylum without due cause. During his years there he was given to intense religious fervor, and he wrote obsessively, producing what are seen today as his greatest works — including the long poem “Jubilate Agno,” which was not published until 1939.

In 1937 – (80 years ago) – the German airship Hindenburg was about to land at Lakehurst, New Jersey, when it mysteriously caught fire and went down in a hellish inferno, killing thirty-six of its ninety-seven passengers and crew. The Hindenburg used explosive hydrogen as its lifting gas, instead of the much safer helium, because the United States had a worldwide monopoly on helium and would not export it to Nazi Germany. Even so, the builders of the Hindenburg were so confident in its safety that the high-end amenities included not only a restaurant kitchen with an electric stove, but a pressurized smoking lounge where the wealthy passengers could purchase and enjoy Cuban cigars. Exactly what ignited the Hindenburg’s giant hydrogen envelope remains unknown to this day, but static electricity has long been suspected. Two earlier airship disasters — one British and one American, both military — had actually killed more people. But it was the sensational film and radio reports of the Hindenburg explosion that destroyed public trust in airships and brought the era of luxury zeppelin travel to an abrupt end.

Rotten History is written by Renaldo Migaldi