Nowadays, many look around and cannot help but wonder at how bonkers America seems to have gotten. Perhaps they should not be surprised: when seen through the lens of history, America has had a bonkers strain from the very beginning. From the Founding Father who was convinced that black people were white people with leprosy, to the literal bad blood behind America’s greatest family feud, the country has never had a shortage of the strange and the bizarre. Following are forty things about some of the more bonkers bits from American history during war and peacetime.
40. The Ever Changing Thomas Jefferson
When people think of Thomas Jefferson, what usually comes to mind are his major accomplishments, such as The Declaration of Independence, the Louisiana Purchase, and establishing the University of Virginia. When it comes to controversy, what usually comes to mind is the jarring contrast between his soaring rhetoric about freedom, the fact that he was a major slaveholder, and that he had an enslaved concubine, Sally Hemings.
Less known are his weird beliefs and other indicia that make Jefferson come across as a maniac. A genius, to be sure, but a maniacal genius. For example, he went from a huge dog lover at some point in his life, to a dog hater who had all his dogs – and all the dogs of his slaves – killed. He used to be best buddies with John Adams, before turning on and becoming his mortal enemy. He once got into the nineteenth century equivalent of a flame war with some Frenchmen who’d derided the size of American animals, and settled it by shipping a rotting moose carcass to Paris.
Thomas Jefferson’s view of dogs underwent a complete reversal during his lifetime. In 1789, at the end of his stint as America’s ambassador to France, Jefferson was a dog lover. He especially liked shepherd dogs, and went out of his way to get some. As he put it in a letter to a friend, Jefferson spent the eve of his departure:
“[R]oving thro the neighborhood of this place to try to get a pair of shepherd’s dogs. We walked 10 miles, clambering the cliffs in quest of the shepherds, during the most furious tempest of wind and rain I was ever in“. He came across a human corpse during his ramblings, but no shepherd dogs. He lucked out the next day, however, and managed to buy “a chienne bergere big with pup“. Years later, as seen below, Jefferson’s love of dogs turned to hatred, and he called for exterminating the entire species.
Thomas Jefferson was quite proud of his dogs when he got back home to Monticello, his plantation near Charlottesville, VA. He boasted of their herding skills, and before long, friends were writing Jefferson, asking for a pup from the next litter.
However, Jefferson was one of those types who demanded strict and complete obedience, and when one of his dogs proved obstinate, his views on dogs in general underwent a radical change. He killed all his dogs, and ordered his foreman to rid the plantation of dogs by killing all the slaves’ dogs as well. Eventually, he advocated for the complete eradication of all dogs everywhere. As he put it in a letter to a fellow dog hater in 1811: “I participate in all your hostility to dogs, and would readily join in any plan for exterminating the whole race“. Thus, he became the only president to wage war on dogs.
Count Georges-Louis Leclerc Buffon, a prominent eighteenth century French naturalist and author of Historie Naturelle, a science encyclopedia, rubbed Thomas Jefferson the wrong way. The Frenchman came up with the Theory of New World Degeneration, which held that North America was a marshy continent that had recently emerged from the sea. The excessive moisture supposedly made the continent’s plants and wildlife inferior to, smaller, and more delicate than those of Europe.
Moreover, if plants or animals were transported from Europe to America, Buffon argued, the poor environment would cause them to degenerate into a pitiable and less virile size. It was a dumb take by a man who had never been to the New World, and it should have elicited nor more than a scornful chuckle and a shrug. However, it ticked off Jefferson, and he set out to disprove Buffon’s theory. He went to great lengths – maniacal lengths, even – to win the argument.
36. Going to War to Defend the Honor of American Megafauna
Thomas Jefferson was extremely upset by Count Buffon’s Theory of New World Degeneration. Instead of dismissing it as silly gibberish, Jefferson saw Buffon’s take as an insult to America and its potential greatness. So he set out to challenge the Frenchman with evidence of American bigness. He wrote friends back home, asking them to measure the size of American animals.
Among the responses was one from James Madison, who sent precise measurements of a Virginian weasel, including the “distance between the anus and vulva“. Like an eighteenth century version of George Costanza from Seinfeld, Jefferson grew increasingly obsessed with proving Buffon wrong, and painstakingly compiled the measurements in a table. It included comparisons such as those between 12 pound American otters vs 8.9 European counterparts, and 410 pound American bears vs 153.7 pound European ones. Itching to confront the Frenchman, Jefferson accepted a dinner invitation at Buffon’s home, and headed there armed with his data for a showdown.
When Jefferson showed up at Buffon’s home, ready for a confrontation, the Frenchman diplomatically put him off, delaying the debate for another time. However, during the dinner, somebody mentioned the North American moose, and Buffon declared that an animal of such size could not possibly exist in the continent’s poor environment.
A seething Jefferson sent a flurry of letters to America, begging anybody to kill the biggest moose they could find, and ship it to him in Paris. Finally, New Hampshire’s governor sent out hunters in the dead of winter to shoot the biggest bull moose they could bag. They did, then dragged it back to civilization for two weeks through heavy snow. A taxidermist stuffed it, before it was shipped to France. The taxidermist was inept, however, and the moose arrived in Paris in 1787 a stinking, putrid mess. A triumphant Jefferson immediately sent the decomposing corpse to Buffon, with a letter telling him to picture it with more fur and antlers. However, Jefferson never got a retraction from Buffon: the Count died before he could publicly disavow his claims.
Benjamin Rush is not one of the more famous Founding Fathers. He was not even the most famous Benjamin in that bunch. However, in his day, Rush was famous enough. A signer of the Declaration of Independence, Rush was a politician, doctor, humanitarian, social reformer, educator, and the founder of Dickinson College. During the Revolutionary War, he served as Surgeon General of the Continental Army.
He was also an antislavery activist, and by the standards of his day, Rush was as liberal and progressive as it gets. However, his quest for racial justice took him down some weird paths. Among other things, his argument that blacks deserved freedom and equality rested on the belief that blacks were actually white people – just ones suffering from a weird form of leprosy.
Benjamin Rush reasoned that black people were simply whites afflicted with a form of leprosy that darkened their skins, enlarged their lips, and turned their hair woolly. He even coined a term for the illness: “negritude”.
Rush advocated for ending slavery and discrimination against blacks by curing them of their illness, and transforming them into whites. His remedy was to “burn away the black” with acids, to remove the dark skin and woolly hair, and reveal the wholesome and healthy whiteness beneath. Rush was trying to help – and it should not be forgotten that he was an implacable foe of slavery and an early advocate of abolition – but it is a good thing that his “cure” for blackness was not adopted- although, sadly, America’s war on race still burned on fierce.
32. Literal Bad Blood Fueled the Hatfield-McCoy Feud
The Hatfield and McCoy Feud, a protracted nineteenth century vendetta between neighboring clans along the Kentucky-West Virginia border, is America’s most infamous family feud. Fought largely in the 1880s, it pitted the McCoys, most of whom lived in Pike County, KY, against the Hatfields, who lived mostly in neighboring Logan County, WV. The bad blood between the rival clans led to significant violence, mayhem, and murder. As modern science and research have revealed, and as seen below, there was literal bad blood driving and amplifying the vendetta.
The McCoys were led by Randolph “Old Ran’l” McCoy, while the rival Hatfields were led by William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield. The earliest known violence dates to 1865, when Harmon McCoy, a Union Army veteran, was murdered by a band of Confederate guerrillas led by Devil Anse Hatfield. Bushwhacking was common during the Civil War, so the killing did not lead to an immediate feud. However, it stored hard feelings for down the road.
In 1878, a McCoy accused a Hatfield of stealing a hog. The Hatfield was acquitted, but one of the witnesses who took his side was murdered by the McCoys in retaliation soon thereafter. Tensions increased in 1880, when Devil Anse Hatfield’s son impregnated Old Ran’l McCoy’s daughter. Then in 1882, Devil Anse’s brother was mortally wounded in a brawl with three McCoys over a small debt owed on a fiddle. The Hatfields retaliated by capturing and executing three McCoys. That was when things exploded into a prolonged back forth vendetta, that at times threatened to turn into a war between the states of Kentucky and West Virginia.
By 1890 the Hatfields, who had seriously gone overboard in the brutalities during the course of the vendetta, had been reduced to homeless hunted fugitives. Finally, four of them, plus their accomplices, were arrested and indicted for one particularly heinous atrocity. The fighting came to an end in February, 1890, with the hanging in Pikesville of a Hatfield, Ellison “Cottontop” Mounts.
The Hatfield-McCoy Feud (or war) was remarkable for its intensity and longevity. That ability to keep a good hate going for a long time might have been due, at least on the McCoys’ part, to genetics. In 2007, an eleven year old McCoy girl prone to fits of rage underwent medical tests to find out what was wrong with her. It was discovered that she, and many members of the McCoy clan, had tumors on their adrenal glands. According to doctors, such tumors cause the release of massive amounts of mood-altering chemicals, such as adrenaline.
That could explain much about the infamous feud. As the McCoy girl’s physician put it, her family’s genetic defect: “does produce hypertension, headache and sweating intermittently depending on when the surge of these compounds occurs in the bloodstream. I suppose these compounds could possibly make somebody very angry and upset for no good reason“. Feuding was literally in the McCoys’ blood.
Although Thomas Jefferson usually gets the most credit for being the Founding Fathers’ main Enlightenment figure, Benjamin Franklin probably has him beat. Franklin was an accomplished writer, publisher, printer, postmaster, politician, political theorist, diplomat, statesman, and scientist. He was also an inventor who came up with the lightening rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove. To top it all off, Franklin’s face ended up on a higher denomination bill than that of Jefferson.
Less known about Franklin is that he was a babe magnet, who stormed French society and set its ladies’ heart aflutter. He took full advantage of that, and while his numerous affairs are tame by today’s standards, he was considered a libertine by the staid standards of the Founding Fathers. Franklin was particularly fond of old(er) women, and in a letter to a young man, he advised him to opt for an old woman if he was inclined to engage in adultery. Included in his reason were: “when Women cease to be handsome, they study to do be good“. They are more discrete, and: “Lastly They are so grateful!!”
28. That Time We Accidentally Destroyed Britain’s Pride and Joy Space Satellite
On April 26th, 1962, Britain launched the Ariel-1 into space, becoming the third country, after the Soviet Union and the United States, to have its own satellite. Understandably, it became a source of national pride, and a reminder that although Britain might have ceded global leadership to the US and USSR, the country was still a power to be reckoned with. A few weeks later, America nuked Ariel-1.
It came about as a result of Starfish Prime, a high altitude nuclear test conducted by the US on July 9th, 1962. A Thor rocket, carrying a thermonuclear warhead, was launched from Johnston Island in the Pacific, climbed to a height of 250 miles above earth, and produced a 1.4 megaton explosion. The result was an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) far greater than expected. It caused electric damage in Hawaii, nearly a thousand miles away, knocked out hundreds of street lights, set off burglar alarms, and wreaked havoc on the telephone system. It also produced debris and a radiation belt that destroyed or damaged a number of satellites, including Ariel-1.
Abraham Lincoln is well known for many things. As The Great Emancipator; as the president who successfully navigated the US through the Civil War; and as the author of the Gettysburg Address, recited by kids on school stages to this day. Less known is that in his youth, Lincoln was a lean, mean, wrestling machine, who performed feats of strength that became part of local legend and frontier lore.
His most famous fight took place shortly after Lincoln, in his early 20s, moved to Salem, Illinois, and was challenged by a local bully named Jack Armstrong. The bout was inconclusive for some time, but when Armstrong resorted to dirty tricks, an enraged Lincoln grabbed him by the neck, and extending his arms, “shook him like a rag doll“, before tossing him to the ground. Standing over his rival, Lincoln then challenged Armstrong’s followers: “I’m the big buck of this lick. If any of you want to try it, come and whet your horns!” Armstrong admitted he’d been fairly beaten, and proclaimed Lincoln “the best feller that ever broke into this settlement“. The duo shook hands, and became friends.
The USS Lexington (CV-2), or “Lady Lex”, was an early US Navy aircraft carrier that was commissioned in 1927, then joined the Pacific Fleet, with which she spent her entire career. Along with her sister ship, the USS Saratoga, the Lexington was used to develop and refine the Navy’s carrier doctrine and tactics before World War II. Luckily for the Lexington, she and the other Pacific Fleet carriers were at sea when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, and so escaped damage.
Lady Lex’s luck ran out on May 7th, 1942, when she was crippled by Japanese carrier planes during the Battle of the Coral Sea, then caught fire. In the ship’s dying moments, a warrant officer broke the lock on a freezer, and started handing out ice cream. As an eyewitness recalled: “He didn’t think anything of it because we were abandoning ship. We just figured we might as well do it“. Sailors in the vicinity gorged on vanilla ice cream, polishing off entire containers, before heeding the order to abandon ship and lowering themselves into the water.
For the Cleveland Indians, 1974 was a bad year: the team sucked, and fans made their displeasure known by staying away. To boost attendance, management brainstormed, and came up with a promotion that would go down in infamy as one of Major League Baseball’s worst ideas: bargain basement priced beer.
The Indians informed their fans that the June 4th, 1974, game against the Texas Rangers would feature 12 ounce beers at the ballpark, sold for just a dime instead of the regular 65 cents price. In of itself, the cheap booze was not a problem: the Indians had offered a 5 cent beer night in 1971. However, cheap booze in a game against the Rangers was a bad mix: a bench-clearing brawl in the teams’ last meeting a week earlier in Texas, had left many Indians fans harboring a grudge against the Rangers.
The Indians’ cheap beer promotion worked far better than expected, and over 25,000 people showed up on the night of June 4th, 1974. However, most were not there for the game: the concession stands were jam packed with people buying up to half a dozen beers at a time. Everyone – the young, the old, the drunk, and the soon to be drunk – was chugging down the bargain priced brew, then staggering back for more.
It did not take long for fans to get wasted. In the second inning, after the Rangers hit a home run, a heavyset woman was thrown out after she stormed the field, flashed her big boobs at the crowd, then tried to kiss the umpire. The crowd went wild. Then fans began passing joints. Then firecrackers began going off all over the place, making the place seem like a war zone. It was still early innings, and things were about get way worse.
When the Rangers hit another home run, a naked man rushed the field and slid into second base. Whatever burns he got from sliding naked on the dirt are unknown, because security failed to catch him. To be fair, they probably did not try that hard: would you go out of your way to try and grapple with a drunk naked dude covered in dirt?
In the meantime, the beer lines grew longer at the concession stands, and the already drunk fans soon started getting grouchy. The Indians’ management noticed the increasing belligerence of the inebriated crowd, and hit upon another idea that must have seemed brilliant at the time: let the fans get their beer directly from the beer trucks outside the ballpark.
Letting fans get their brew straight from beer trucks turned out to be a mistake. The thirsty throngs threw aside a picnic table as they stampeded for the trucks. Unfortunately, the Indians’ management had failed to beef up staffing or security for the beer trucks: they were overseen by two teenaged girls, who quickly fled when things got ugly.
With no one to stop them, the fans treated the beer trucks like their private kegs, with some even drinking straight out of the trucks’ hoses as if they were straws. Things got even rowdier when a pair of drunk dudes got up on the wall, and started mooning the crowd. They loved it. And it was still just the fifth inning (for non-baseball fans, the game has nine innings). There was still a ways to go before the night was over.
Halfway through the game, with chaos engulfing the Indians’ ballpark, a Rangers player was hit by a ball. The inebriated and stoned crowd loved it. By now, having gone from the jolly drunk phase to mean drunk mode, they began shouting: “HIT HIM HARDER!” Against that backdrop, the Rangers’ manager Billy Martin, an alcoholic who had supposedly once taken a hit out on an umpire, came out to argue a call.
The home crowd did not like that one bit, and before long, plastic cups were raining down from the stands. They were followed soon thereafter by a hail of firecrackers so intense that the Rangers’ bullpen had to be evacuated for the players’ safety. Somebody made an announcement, asking the fans to stop throwing trash on the field, but that only emboldened them to redouble their efforts.
Before long, the fans in Cleveland were throwing not just plastic cups and firecrackers, but just about anything they could get their hands on, including hot dogs, rocks, batteries, trash cans, and ripped out seats. One Rangers players estimated that at least 20 pounds of hot dogs had been thrown at him. So many streakers were getting on the field that piles of clothes began to form up.
By then, it should have begun to dawn on the Indians that they might have skimped on security: they had hired only 50 personnel to secure the entire ballpark. However, there was a huge disconnect between what should have happened and what did. How did management actually handle the mounting crisis? By the 8th inning, just about anybody in charge, or who worked for the Indians’ administration, had left.
In the 9th inning, a seriously drunk fan jumped into the field, grabbed an outfielder’s cap, and began running around wildly. When he finally dropped the cap, the livid outfielder kicked him. At that point the Texas Rangers’ manager Billy Martin, who had never been known for cool headedness, grabbed a baseball bat. Turning to his players and rallying them like a Civil War colonel pumping up a regiment for a bayonet charge, Martin urged his team: “Boys! Let’s get em!”
Following their leader, the Rangers stormed the field with their bats, to do battle with the fans who by then had knives, chains, and other improvised weapons. In the ensuing battle between the Texans and the Indians fans, things started out well for the Rangers, but it did not take long before the locals’ numbers began to tell, and they got the upper hand in this bizarre war.
As Billy Martin’s routed men fled the field, pursued by hostile Indians fans, it was only good fortune that kept the Texans from getting killed that night. The Indians manager, realizing that the Texans were about to get slaughtered, got his own players to arm themselves with bats, and rushed them onto the field to protect the Rangers.
In the end, riot police and a SWAT team arrived to break it all up. By then the tally for the night was over 60,000 beers consumed, almost 20 streakers, about 10 trips to the emergency room, and 9 arrests. The game could not be resumed in a timely manner, so the Indians ended up forfeiting because of their fans’ drunken antics, and because of their management’s boneheaded role in causing the fiasco.
March 28th, 1979, began as any other humdrum day. It ended as one of the country’s more momentous days, when reactor number 2 of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, experienced an accident. First, the plant’s non-nuclear secondary systems experienced some problems, then a relief valve in the primary system got stuck open.
Between mechanical failures, poor personnel training, and human errors, there was a partial meltdown, leading to a radiation leak. However, it took two days before government officials informed nearby residents to stay indoors and keep their doors and windows tightly shut to avoid inhaling potentially contaminated air. As seen below, the accident effectively doomed the future of nuclear energy in the US.
The nuclear accident at Three Mile Island was alarming. Cleanup lasted until 1993, cost over a billion dollars, and residents nearby were worried about the exposure’s impact on their health. However, various studies in and around the area since the meltdown only found a statistically insignificant small increase in cancer rates, and no causal connection between the accident and those cancers.
The greatest impact was turning the American public against nuclear energy. In some Developed Countries, such as France, nuclear energy accounts for over 70% of electricity, and other European countries get 25% to 55% of their energy from nuclear plants. In the US, that figure today is about 19%. Before the Three Mile Island meltdown we were on track to get a steadily growing share of energy from nuclear, but the Three Mile Island meltdown halted that growth.
Conmen have been around since forever. However, the term conman itself, which is short for “confidence man”, can be traced back to William Thompson, a nineteenth century New York City small time criminal who talked strangers into simply handing him their goods.
Thompson’s standard operating procedure was to dress up like a well off high class gentleman, walk up to a high class mark, and strike up a conversation as if the two knew each other. We have all probably been in a similarly awkward situation, running into people who know us, but for the life of us, we cannot remember where we know them from. Not wanting to give offense, we often end up acting as if we know exactly who they are. Thompson took full advantage of that.
Conman William Thompson capitalized on people’s instinctive desire to avoid awkwardness and avert a faux pas. After a few minutes of shooting the breeze with somebody who did not know Thompson from Adam, while acting as if the two knew each other, the conman would make his move. He would ask his mark if he had the confidence to trust him with his watch or a small amount of money until the next day.
It was a simpler America back in the nineteenth century, and New Yorkers must have been quite different in those days: it worked. The mark, hesitant to give offense, often obliged. Unsurprisingly, the money or watch were never returned after Thompson walked away, leaving behind a bewildered mark wondering at what had just happened.
13. “Have You Confidence in Me To Trust Me With Your Watch?“
Conman William Thompson’smodus operandi served him well. As a contemporary newspaper described it: “For the last few months a man has been traveling about the city, known as the “Confidence Man,” that is, he would go up to a perfect stranger in the street, and being a man of genteel appearance, would easily command an interview. Upon this interview he would say after some little conversation, “have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until to-morrow;”
the stranger at this novel request, supposing him to be some old acquaintance not at that moment recollected, allows him to take the watch, thus placing “confidence” in the honesty of the stranger, who walks off laughing and the other supposing it to be a joke allows him so to do. In this way many have been duped“.
Conman William Thompson was finally arrested in July of 1849. One day that month a victim named Thomas McDonald, whom Thompson had conned months earlier out of a gold watch worth $110 – a pretty penny back then – spotted him on the street. McDonald alerted a policeman, who arrested Thompson despite his protestations and attempts to fight and flee.
Newspapers, recalling Thompson’s appeals to the victims’ “confidence” labeled him “The Confidence Man”. Thus was born the term that came to be applied to those who gain a mark’s trust as a prelude to a swindle. The term was given a further boost in 1857 when Herman Melville, inspired by William Thompson, released a novel titled The Confidence Man.
Vietnam War veteran Willie Roger Holder had served with distinction in the 68th Assault Helicopter Company. Despite his decorations, however, he was court-martialed, demoted, and imprisoned, for smoking a joint while off duty in Saigon. Between that and PTSD, he grew embittered and resentful.
Back in America, Willie met Catherine Marie Kerkow in San Diego when he knocked on her door looking for her roommate. Cathy opened the door, barely wrapped in a bathrobe and with soap in her eyes. He liked what he saw, she returned the soldier’s suggestive smile, and a romance was born then and there. It also led to one of America’s most bonkers hijackings.
Willie Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow really liked weed, and really liked counterculture politics. At some point while the duo were very high, Willie suggested that they hijack an airplane. The couple would take the passengers hostage, and swap them for Angela Davis, a UCLA professor and Black Panther then on trial for the murder of a judge (she was acquitted). Cathy was game.
On June 2nd, 1972, Willie, in his Army dress uniform with Cathy by his side, boarded Western Airlines Flight 701, a Boeing 727 headed to Seattle. Mid-flight, he handed a stewardess a note stating that “There are four of us and two bombs. Do as you’re told and No shooting will take place“. He also showed off a briefcase with wires ominously sticking out of it.
Whether it was Willie Roger Holder’s PTSD, or all the weed he and his girlfriend Cathy Kerkow had smoked, the hijacking duo had no clue what to do next after seizing control of Western Airlines Flight 701. Initially, their nebulous plans included taking Angela Davis to North Vietnam to expose the evil of the war there, then retiring to a farm in Australia. However, they changed their minds multiple times, before they finally ended up in Algeria.
Willie and Cathy released half the passengers in San Francisco, then crossed the country and released the other half in New York, before ordering the plane to take off again. To relax, they then lit up joints and got stoned in coach. Cathy pulled up the armrests along a row of seats, and removed her slacks while Willie dropped his Army dress pants to the floor. The couple then joined the Mile High Club.
From New York, the aerial Bonnie and Clyde, who had collected $500,000 in ransom, headed across the Atlantic on a prolonged international odyssey. Their misadventures en route took them, among other places, to Switzerland. There, the authorities refused to allow the plane to land in Geneva, out of fear of attracting copycats and turning their country into a “Cuba of the Alps” – a destination of choice for hijackers.
The duo eventually ended up in Algeria, where they were granted political asylum, and joined the international branch of the Black Panthers. In 1974, however, the political environment changed in Algeria, and the couple were forced to flee to Paris, using fake passports. Their cover in France was blown in 1975, however, and they were arrested. They were convicted for passport fraud, but were granted political asylum, on grounds that the hijacking had been political in nature.
Willie Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow became celebrities in France, where they were befriended by the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, and actress Maria Schneider, who had co-starred with Marlon Brando in The Last Tango in Paris. Eventually, however, Cathy dumped Willie in 1977, telling him she was going to Switzerland to get some new fake documents, and never came back.
Willie eventually agreed to face justice in America, returned in 1986, and did two years in a federal prison. Upon his release, he struggled to find his place in society, and made a living mostly as a day laborer, before dying in 2012 at age 62. As for Cathy, she never resurfaced after vanishing into Switzerland in the 1970s.
Alternating current (AC) lights up our homes and workplaces, and powers up our appliances through wall sockets. AC is relatively cheap, and its high voltage allows it to be transported long distances. The other main current, direct current (DC), is relegated mostly to batteries. However, there was a time in the nineteenth century when the issue was still undecided, and powerful interests competed fiercely to decide whether AC or DC would dominate the world.
AC had been invented by Nikola Tesla, and was supported by George Westinghouse, who pushed it as the best means to bring electricity to the masses. On DC’s side was Thomas Edison, who had developed it to power his light bulb. There was serious money at stake, so Edison launched a smear campaign against AC, on grounds that it was unsafe and deadly. He went to great lengths to make his point.
Compared to alternating current, direct current is crappy because it is weaker, and can only be transported short distances. However, Edison had already invested millions in DC, and he was not about to let the upstart AC flush that investment down the drain if he could help it. So when a dentist named Alfred Southwick sought his help to develop a humane method of execution by electrocution, Edison decided to turn AC’s strength into a liability, by highlighting its ability to kill.
He talked Southwick into using AC in what became the electric chair. Also, to cement in the public’s mind the link between AC’s risks and its promoter, George Westinghouse, Edison coined a catchy term for the new method of execution: “Westinghousing”. Edison then went on a whirlwind public tour to demonstrate AC’s deadliness, and used AC to publicly electrocute dozens of dogs, cows, horses, and a circus elephant named Topsy.
4. When America Had Hundreds of Thousands of Child Soldiers
Today, child soldiers are a tragic phenomenon associated mostly with domestic conflicts in the Developing World countries and failed states. However, there was a time when child soldiers did not even raise eyebrows in the US. The most extensive use of American child soldiers occurred in the country’s bloodiest dispute, the US Civil War.
It is estimated that a fifth of all military personnel in the Civil War were under eighteen. More than 100,000 soldiers in the Union Army alone were fifteen years old or less. There were even cases in which children as young as eight were put in uniform.
3. America’s Child Soldiers Were Often in Even More Danger than the Adults in Uniform
For the most part, child soldiers in the US Army were utilized as drummers, buglers, cooks’ assistants, nurses, orderlies, general gophers, or put to work in other non-combatant positions. However, during the storm of shot and shell as battles raged, Civil War child soldiers were frequently just as exposed to bullets and artillery as were the grown men on the firing line.
In the US Navy, children frequently served as “powder monkeys” in warships. Tasked during combat with rushing gunpowder from magazines to canons, they were just as exposed to danger during action as were all other sailors aboard ship, regardless of age. Indeed, considering that they were scurrying about carrying sacks of gunpowder liable to go off if it came into contact with any spark or shard of flaming timber or scorching shell fragment, the little powder monkeys might have been at greater risk than the rest of the crew.
During the Civil War, the military made some nominal effort to keep its child soldiers safe. They were prohibited from fighting on the front lines or being present in the firing line during combat. However, children are children, full of curiosity and frequently heedless of and insensate to danger and mortal risk to life and limb. They often ignored the restrictions.
During the war, there was no dearth of instances in which child soldiers snuck off to the firing lines in order to see for themselves the excitement of battle from up close. In the heat of battle, many picked up rifles and rushed into the maelstrom, fighting and dying alongside the adults.
During the Civil War, there were age restrictions on official enlistment in the military. In the Union, enlistees had to be over 16. However, such restrictions were usually honored more in the breach than in the observance.
Many an under-aged Northern boy, eager to enlist, had little trouble in finding a recruiter willing to sign him up so long as he was willing to put one hand on the Bible, raise the other, and swear that he was “over 16”. Some children ingeniously reconciled their consciences with the lie by writing the number “16” on a piece of paper, and sticking it to the bottom of a shoe, thus enabling them to honestly swear that they were “over 16”.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading