Quirky Founding Fathers and Bonkers Bits of American History and War
Quirky Founding Fathers and Other Bonkers Bits of American History

Quirky Founding Fathers and Other Bonkers Bits of American History

Khalid Elhassan - May 2, 2020

Quirky Founding Fathers and Other Bonkers Bits of American History
Catherine Marie Kerkow. The Oregonian

8. History’s Longest Hijacking

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.

Quirky Founding Fathers and Other Bonkers Bits of American History
Willie Roger Holder in Paris. Pintrest

7. Finding Fame, But No Fortune

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.

Quirky Founding Fathers and Other Bonkers Bits of American History
FBI agents escorting Willie Roger Holder off an Air France plane in New York’s JFK Airport after his voluntary return to America. Associated Press

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.

Quirky Founding Fathers and Other Bonkers Bits of American History
An anti electricity cartoon from 1900. Reddit

6. Thomas Edison’s War Against AC Electricity

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.

Quirky Founding Fathers and Other Bonkers Bits of American History
Thomas Edison’s electrocution of Topsy the elephant. YouTube

5. The Wizard of Menlo Park Went to Extremes

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.

Quirky Founding Fathers and Other Bonkers Bits of American History
Union child soldier and war hero John Lincoln Clem, with his sergeant’s stripes during Civil War. NCO Journal

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.

Quirky Founding Fathers and Other Bonkers Bits of American History
Confederate drummer boys during Civil War. Library of Congress

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.

Quirky Founding Fathers and Other Bonkers Bits of American History
Union child soldier Alexander H. Johnson. Massachusetts Historical Society

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.

Quirky Founding Fathers and Other Bonkers Bits of American History
A powder monkey aboard the USS New Hampshire. National Archives

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.

Quirky Founding Fathers and Other Bonkers Bits of American History
Headstone of Union child soldier and war fatality Charles King. Civil War Rx

2. Child Soldiers on the Firing Line

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.

Quirky Founding Fathers and Other Bonkers Bits of American History
Injured Union child soldier Edward Black, by Matthew Brady. Library of Congress

1. Shortcut to Instant Age Eligibility

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”.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

American Battlefield Trust – Children of the Civil War

Anthony, Dave, and Reynolds, Gareth – The United States of Absurdity: Untold Stories From American History (2017)

Baseball Almanac – Ten Cent Beer Night

Brodie, Fawn McKay – Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (1974)

Cracked – 5 Stories That Prove the Founding Fathers Were Total Maniacs

Dickinson College – Benjamin Rush, Race, Slavery, and Abolitionism

Dugatkin, Lee Alan – Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose: Natural History in Early America (2009)

KFOR, November 11th, 2013 – Great State: World War II Veteran Recalls Strange Incident During Coral Sea Battle

Koerner, Brendan I. – The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking (2013)

Listvrese – 10 of History’s Most Prolific Con Artists and Their Famous Cons

Listverse – 10 Stories That Show the Weird Side of Thomas Jefferson

New York Herald, July 8th, 1849 – Arrest of the Confidence Man

New York Times, June 13th, 2013 – Bonnie and Clyde, the Aerial Version

NPR – Thomas Jefferson Needs a Dead Moose Right Now to Defend America

Nuclear Regulatory Commission – Backgrounder on the Three Mile Island Accident

Smithsonian Magazine, October 11th, 2011 – Edison vs Westinghouse: A Shocking Rivalry

Swarthmore College, History 41 – Benjamin Franklin, Advice to a Young Man on the Choice of a Mistress

ThoughtCo. – Was Abraham Lincoln Really a Wrestler?

Vanderbilt Magazine, November 1st, 2007 – Tumors May Have Fueled Hatfield-McCoy Feud

West Virginia Encyclopedia – The Hatfield-McCoy Feud

Wikipedia – Ariel-1

Wikipedia – Child Soldiers in the American Civil War

Wikipedia – Electrocuting an Elephant

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