The Town That Got Away With Murder and Other Largely Forgotten Historic Events
The Town That Got Away With Murder and Other Largely Forgotten Historic Events

The Town That Got Away With Murder and Other Largely Forgotten Historic Events

Khalid Elhassan - November 23, 2019

The Town That Got Away With Murder and Other Largely Forgotten Historic Events
19th century illustration of a Lincoln wrestling match. Putnam’s

12. You Did Not Want to Mess With Honest Abe

Abraham Lincoln’s most famous fight took place when he was in his 20s. Shortly after he moved to Salem, Illinois, the newly arrived Lincoln 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 Town That Got Away With Murder and Other Largely Forgotten Historic Events
The flash from Starfish Prime’s 1.4 megaton detonation as seen from Honolulu, almost a thousand miles away. Wikimedia

11. The US Nuked the UK’s First Satellite

On April 26th, 1962, Britain launched the Ariel-1 into space, and became the third country, after the USSR and US, with its own satellite. It was a source of national pride, and a reminder that despite the end of its empire, Britain was still a major power. A few weeks later, America nuked the Ariel-1 during a high altitude nuclear test codenamed Starfish Prime.

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 resultant electromagnetic pulse (EMP) was greater than expected. It caused electric damage in Hawaii, nearly a thousand miles away, knocking out hundreds of street lights, setting 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.

The Town That Got Away With Murder and Other Largely Forgotten Historic Events
Salt Lake City, circa 1880. Deseret News Archives

10. Why Are the Streets So Wide in Salt Lake City?

Walking a block in Salt Lake City probably takes longer than in any other American city. First time visitors to SLC’s downtown often ask for directions, are told their destination is “four or five blocks away“, and discover that means a fifteen or twenty minute hike. While similar sized cities such as Austin or Little Rock have downtown blocks measuring 300 x 300 feet, or 200 x 200 feet in the case of Portland, SLC’s downtown blocks are a whopping 660 x 660 feet.

Downtown SLC’s streets are similarly wide: at 130 feet, they are double the width of Manhattan’s. That is because the Mormon faith’s founder, Joseph Smith, thought cities should have large blocks, to allow for small farming plots. When the Mormons reached Utah in 1847, church president Brigham Young added wide streets to the plan, in order to allow ample room for farmers to turn their cattle around, without “resorting to profanity“.

The Town That Got Away With Murder and Other Largely Forgotten Historic Events
USS Lexington (CV-2) leaving San Diego, California, 14 October 1941. National Archives.

9. Ship on Fire and Sinking? Grab Some Ice Cream Before Leaving

The USS Lexington (CV-2), nicknamed “Lady Lex”, was an early US Navy aircraft carrier. Commissioned in 1927, she joined the Pacific Fleet, with which she spent her entire career. 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.

However, 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.

The Town That Got Away With Murder and Other Largely Forgotten Historic Events
Achilles dragging the corpse of the slain Hektor around the walls of Troy. Wikimedia

8. There Really Was a Homeric Troy

As told by Homer, a Mycenaean Greek coalition led by the High King Agamemnon besieged Troy for ten years. Their goal was to recover Helen, wife of Sparta’s king and Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus, after she had been seduced by Paris, the son of Troy’s king Priam. The epic poem features plenty of rollicking adventures, a surfeit of graphic and gory combat, and numerous plot twists and turns from humans and gods.

In the end, the city falls when the wily Odysseus tricks the Trojans into letting in a huge wooden horse, packed with Greek warriors. As a story, the Iliad was awesome, but as history, Troy and the Trojan War were dismissed for centuries as pure myth. However, German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann was convinced that there was actual truth in the Iliad, and set out to prove it.

The Town That Got Away With Murder and Other Largely Forgotten Historic Events
Heinrich Schliemann. Masculine Epic

7. Schliemann’s Quest

Heinrich Schliemann excavated from 1870 to 1890, and found some gold and silver artifacts that convinced him that he had found Homer’s Troy. As it turned out, Schliemann had excavated the right city, but the wrong period: his initial finds dated from about 1000 years before the Trojan War. The site actually held the remains of nine different Troys, built atop each other. Excavations continued after Schliemann’s death in 1890, and today his finds are labeled Troy I through IX, with Troy VI being the likeliest candidate for Homer’s Troy.

Few archaeologists have ever been as lucky as Heinrich Schliemann. After his accomplishment of excavating and proving the existence of ancient Troy, he captured lightning in a bottle once more, this time in mainland Greece, where he found what came to be known as the Mask of Agamemnon – the king who led the Greeks against Troy.

The Town That Got Away With Murder and Other Largely Forgotten Historic Events
The Mask of Agamemnon. Ancient Origins

6. The Mask of Agamemnon

In 1876, Heinrich Schliemann went digging in the royal cemetery near the Lion Gate, the entrance to the citadel of Mycenae in southern Greece. In one of the graves, he found a funeral mask covered in gold, which he attributed to the legendary king from the Iliad. As Schliemann put it in a telegraph announcing the discovery: “I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon“. However, as with his finds in Troy, Schliemann got the broad outlines right, but jumped the gun when it came to the details.

As later dating demonstrated, the mask did, indeed, belong to a Mycenaean king, but to one who had died circa 1580 to 1550 BC – two and a half to three centuries before the events of the Trojan War. The name stuck, however, and the artifact is still commonly referred to as the Mask of Agamemnon.

The Town That Got Away With Murder and Other Largely Forgotten Historic Events
Marie Antoinette. All That Is Interesting

5. French Royals Had Sex In Public

During France’s Ancien Regime, royal sex was often a public and political affair. Indeed, across Europe, royals’ sex lives were matters of state. Since the future of the dynasty and the realm depended on lineage, providing as much information as possible about how that lineage came about and was perpetuated for future generations was a political necessity. Thus, several attendants were usually present in the royal bedroom on wedding nights, to witness that things had gone the way they should.

If and when the royal coitus produced the desired result and the queen got pregnant, she could wave goodbye to whatever little privacy she had for the next nine months. When queen Marie Antoinette got pregnant, her chambers were shared not only by the king and a medical staff, but also by just about every court favorite. When she gave birth, the room was packed with so many spectators, that she passed out from the heat.

The Town That Got Away With Murder and Other Largely Forgotten Historic Events
Charles Carpenter and his L-4 Grasshopper, ‘Rosie the Rocketer’, with bazookas strapped beneath a wing. Wikimedia

4. Strapping Bazookas Under a Plane to Blow Up Tanks

US Army Major Charles Carpenter, AKA “The Mad Major”and “Bazooka Charlie”, was a 4th Armored Division artillery observer during WWII. Flying a military variant of the Piper Cub, the L-4H Grasshopper, Carpenter’s job was to spot German artillery positions in France, then fly back to base – his plane had no radio – and report the position. He wanted more excitement, however, so he decided to take out the enemy himself.

The L-4H carried no weapons, and had a combined pilot and cargo capacity of only 232 pounds. That was enough for Carpenter, who strapped six bazookas to his airplane, three beneath each wing, and went Nazi hunting. Within a few weeks, Bazooka Charlie, flying his modified plane, now nicknamed Rosie the Rocketer, took out four German tanks and an armored car. By war’s end, Carpenter’s toll had risen to six tanks, several more armored cars, and assorted other vehicles.

The Town That Got Away With Murder and Other Largely Forgotten Historic Events
‘The Last Day of Pompeii’, by Karl Brullov. Google Art Project

3. The Debt Archaeology Owes to a Disaster

In August of 79 AD, people living in the vicinity of Mount Vesuvius, a few miles east of Naples, Italy, felt some tremors, but they were not unusual. Then, on August 24th, the mountain blew its top with a force 100,000 times greater than that of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs. The eruption tossed deadly debris, mixed with a cloud of poisonous gasses, over twenty miles up into the air.

As Vesuvius spewed into the air, lava and hot pumice poured out of the volcano’s mouth at a rate of 1.5 million tons per second. The mixture raced down Vesuvius’ side to devastate the surrounding region and destroy nearby towns, of which Pompeii and Herculaneum are the best known. The towns’ fates were tragic, but archaeology and our knowledge of Ancient Rome owes much to that tragedy.

The Town That Got Away With Murder and Other Largely Forgotten Historic Events
‘The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum’ by John Martin, 1821. Wikimedia

2. A Dramatic Eruption

Around noon on August 24th, 79 AD, a cloud appeared atop Vesuvius, and about an hour later, the volcano erupted and ash began to fall on Pompeii, six miles away. By 2PM, volcanic debris, begin to fall with the ash, and by 5PM sunlight had been completely blocked and roofs in Pompeii began collapsing under the accumulating weight of pumice and ash. Panicked townspeople rushed to the harbor seeking any ship that would take them away.

Vesuvius’ lava did not reach Pompeii or Herculaneum, but it sent heat waves of more than 550 degrees Fahrenheit into those towns, turning them into ovens and killing any who had not already suffocated from the fine ash.

The Town That Got Away With Murder and Other Largely Forgotten Historic Events
Modern tourists wandering the ruins of Pompeii. Reuters

1. Tragedy Serves Archaeology

About 1500 bodies were found in Pompeii and Herculaneum when they were unearthed centuries later, from just a small area impacted by the volcano’s eruption. Extrapolating to the surrounding regions, total casualties are estimated to have been in the tens of thousands. The towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, whose populations at the time numbered about 20,000, were buried beneath up to 20 feet of volcanic ash and pumice.

Tragic and terrifying as that was, the ash deposits did a remarkably effective job of preserving those towns. In 1738, laborers digging foundations for a palace rediscovered Herculaneum, and further excavations unearthed Pompeii in 1748. The archaeological finds afforded historians an unrivaled snapshot of 1st century AD Roman architecture, city planning, urban infrastructure, and town life in general.


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

Ancient History Encyclopedia – Varangian Guard

BBC Future, September 11th, 2015 – The Cold War Nuke That Fried Satellites

Conversation, The, February 1st, 2017 – Fornication, Fluids, and Faeces: The Intimate Life of the French Court

Daily Beast, October 23rd, 2016 – The Rhino Who Won an Election by a Landslide

Encyclopedia Britannica – Heinrich Schliemann

First Battalion, 24th Marines – The Case For Thomas Underwood

Governing – Why Are Salt Lake City’s Blocks So Long?

Jacobin, August 28th, 2012 – Lincoln and Marx

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

Live Science – Mount Vesuvius & Pompeii: Facts & History

Livius – Pyrrhus of Epirus

Morbidology – The Town That Got Away With Murder

National Security Archive – Pentagon Estimated 18,500 US Casualties in Cuba Invasion 1962, But if Nukes Launched, “Heavy Losses” Expected

NY Daily News, December 15th, 2015 – Paul Castellano Hit, 30 Years Later

Patch – Who Killed Ken Rex McElroy: Town Keeps Its Secret For 38 Years

Smithsonian Magazine, October 10th, 2018 – Mount Vesuvius Boiled its Victims’ Blood and Caused Their Skulls to Explode

Soldiers of Misfortune – The Varangian Guard: The Vikings in Byzantium

ThoughtCo – Was Abraham Lincoln Really a Wrestler?

War History Online – Once the Greatest Army in Europe: The Black Army of Hungary

Wikipedia – Charles Carpenter (Lieutenant Colonel)

Wikipedia – Flight of the Wild Geese