Fake Histories #17  John Wilkes Booth, who killed Abraham Lincoln, was a lone assassin?

 

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Today is the one hundred and fifty-fourth anniversary of the death of John Wilkes Booth. You may have heard of him, in the way that you might also be aware of Lee Harvey Oswald and have no clue whatever who Leon Czolgosz and Charles Guiteau were.

The problem is that if you want to be remembered as an assassin you have to kill someone whose fame will endure!

Booth, was the actor who, infamously, murdered President Abraham Lincoln on Good Friday, 14 April 1865, in Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.. Lee Harvey Oswald may have been the assassin who killed John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963, or a patsy framed for the murder to protect those responsible. As he himself was shot dead we aren’t in a position to ask him which is the truth.

The reason why you’ve never heard of Czolgosz and Guiteau is that they killed American Presidents few people, including most Americans, can probably even name. Although the claims of Czolgosz to immortality are undoubtedly hampered by the fact that no one, other than fluent Polish speakers, can pronounce his name properly. For the record, Guiteau assassinated President James A Garfield in 1881 and Czolgosz accounted for President William McKinley in 1901.

Czolgosz and Guiteau were lone killers. Czolgosz was an anarchist who didn’t like politicians, while Guiteau wanted a government job and didn’t get it. Lee Harvey Oswald was either a lone killer, completely innocent or at the heart of a conspiracy. And I have no intention of delving any further into that one. That way lies madness. Though I would recommend reading the account of Anthony Summers if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

Let’s get back to John Wilkes Booth. He was a member of a prominent theatrical family from Maryland. Which made him, technically a southerner, but only just. Maryland was actually a slave state that remained loyal to the Union in the American Civil War. Booth was an enthusiastic supporter of the Confederate cause. Before the war began he had, with immense satisfaction, attended the hanging of the great abolitionist John Brown, after his capture at Harper’s Ferry.

He did not stick around to see Brown’s body ‘a-mouldering in the grave’, in the words of the famous song. This was because he had an acting career to pursue. His love of the Confederacy did not, apparently, extend as far as joining up to fight for the cause. Throughout the Civil War, he continued to perform onstage, mainly in Shakespearean roles. Most of his performances took place in states loyal to the Union. In 1863 he was arrested in St. Louis after being overheard proclaiming that ‘he wished the President and the whole damn government would go to hell’. The great Confederate supporter then signed a pledge of loyalty to the Union, in order to be allowed to pursue his acting career.

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In 1864, with the Confederate cause faltering, Booth became involved in a plot to kidnap President Lincoln. Among his associates was one Michael O’Laughlen, a childhood friend from Baltimore. The plot came to nothing but was revived after the surrender of General Robert E. Lee’s army in April 1865. This time, however, the object was an assassination. When Booth heard that Lincoln was to attend a performance in Ford’s theatre, to which he had ready access, he arranged an escape route and secured a .41 calibre Deringer pistol. That night, at around 10.00 pm, he stole into the President’s box and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. He then jumped from the box onto the stage, apparently shouted the Latin phrase ‘Sic Semper Tyrannis’ (‘Thus always to tyrants’) and fled. His escape was assisted by other members of the conspiracy, but he got no further than eastern Virginia before being tracked down. The barn in which he was holed up was surrounded by Union troops and when Booth refused to surrender it was set alight. When Booth emerged he was shot by a Union soldier. Upon searching his body a diary was found. The entry for the day of Lincoln’s assassination read, ‘Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment.’

Subsequently, eight others were tried for their part in the conspiracy by a Military Tribunal, these included Michael O’Laughlen. Four were hanged, O’Laughlen was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Which contradicts the assumption that Booth, like other American Presidential assassins, was a lone killer. That’s fake history.

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FAKE HISTORIES #16   Eamon de Valera escaped execution in 1916 because he was an American citizen?

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Given that one of the highest ranking survivors of the 1916 Rising went on to dominate Irish politics for almost three decades, surely one of the great imponderables of Irish history must be, ‘What if Patrick Pearse had been granted his wish, and he alone was executed after the surrender of the Volunteers?’ How would the avowed Marxist, James  Connolly have fared in the Ireland of the 1920s, assuming he recovered from his wounds? What roles would Sean MacDermott and Thomas Clarke have played in the Anglo-Irish war? We would certainly have got some excellent poetry from Joseph Plunkett and Thomas McDonagh.

But only one of the pivotal military leaders managed to survive, Eamon de Valera, and if his subsequent political career is anything to go by, the 1920s and 30s would have been even more interesting with the input of other surviving signatories.

So much for ‘What if?’ you might say, and you’d probably be right. Except that there is a huge counterfactual element—as historians put it—to de Valera’s own narrative. As in, ‘what if’ he hadn’t been born in New York and the British military authorities were reluctant to execute him for fear of antagonising the US administration.

So, let’s clear up a few things about de Valera and his involvement in 1916. First, there’s the assumption that he was the highest ranking survivor. He wasn’t. He was actually outranked by an extraordinary 20-year-old Volunteer named Seán McLaughlin who was promoted to commandant-general around the time of the evacuation of the GPO.

Dev was in command of the Third Battalion of the Volunteers based in Boland’s Mills. A small unit, formally under his command, was responsible for causing the most serious damage to the British Army during the rebellion, when they inflicted over two hundred casualties, mainly on the Sherwood Foresters, at Mount Street Bridge. De Valera, however, played no active part in that famous engagement.

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After the surrender, De Valera and his unit were taken to the RDS where they were held prisoner. This was probably a crucial element in his survival. Had he, like most of the other leaders of the Rising, been brought to Richmond Barracks and quickly court-martialled, history could have been very different. But, he was not a signatory to the Proclamation and was only belatedly court-martialled, so he had to wait his turn to be executed or to have his death sentence commuted by the military governor, General Sir John Maxwell.

The first dozen firing squad victims fell quickly, within four days of each other. Then there was a pause, during which a hugely adverse reaction set in, not just in Dublin but in London. With the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, on his way to Dublin—with the clear intention of ending the executions—the priority for the military authorities was to dispose of the final two signatories of the Proclamation, Sean MacDermott and James Connolly before a wavering Asquith could step in and save them.

A Dublin barrister, William Wylie, who had been involved on the legal side in the Courts-Martial, was actually approached by General Maxwell and asked about de Valera. Maxwell wanted to know was he someone who might give trouble in the future. Wylie, by now thoroughly disillusioned with the entire process, might well have saved de Valera’s life when he responded in the negative. Had he not done so there might well have been a third victim of the firing squad on 12 May 1916. De Valera, of course, went on to prove Wylie spectacularly wrong. He managed to cause the British authorities quite a bit of bother, right up to and beyond, the Economic War of the 1930s, and the fateful decision to establish Ireland’s neutrality during World War Two.

So, de Valera’s survival was more to do with timing than with his American citizenship. If the British had been worried about that sort of thing they would not have executed Thomas Clarke either. He had become an American citizen in 1883.

Did de Valera escape execution in 1916 because he was born in New York? No, he didn’t. That’s fake history.

Fake Histories #15   12.4.2019 The Icelandic Eyjafjallakökull eruption of 2010 was the most disruptive volcanic event in modern history?

 

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Who can forget that week in April 2010 when a mountain in Iceland closed the airspace of 20 countries and left millions of travellers stranded.

Eyjafjallakökull   [eye-ah-flatla-yokill] hereinafter referred to, for obvious reasons, as the Icelandic volcano, or Eye-ah for short, blew its top and spewed tonnes of volcanic ash into the atmosphere.

The jet stream obligingly moved location until it was directly over the mountain so that the powerful volcano could just mainline straight into the planetary wind system of the northern hemisphere. The jet stream at the time also happened to be pointing in just the right direction for maximum havoc. It might have been facing north-west, towards Greenland? But no, it was contentedly pointing south-east, straight for mainland Europe. Nothing without feathers could fly for a week.

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Among those inconvenienced was actor and comedian John Cleese who forked out around €4000 for one of the longest taxi rides in history. When his flight from Norway was cancelled he got a cab driver to take him from Oslo to Brussels, passing through six countries en route. Thus Cleese proved himself just as capable of doing a silly drive as a silly walk. Then there was the international rugby match between Switzerland and Lithuania that had to be cancelled as well. Which was quite astonishing really as, prior to that, nobody even knew that Switzerland and Lithuania had the vaguest notion what the game of rugby was about.

The crisis came to an end, in part at least, when a thoroughly fed up Willie Walsh, CEO of British Airways and a former Aer Lingus pilot, decided the authorities were being over-zealous in grounding flights, so he went up in a BA 747 which flew into the remnants of the cloud to prove that it could be done without causing death and destruction. In doing so Walsh went some way towards atoning for the debacle of the opening Heathrow’s Terminal Five two years earlier.

But was that mid-Atlantic volcanic event the most disruptive in modern history? If you were one of the 20 million air passengers whose flights were dumped you would be tempted to think so. But spare a thought for the victims of the Mount Tambora eruption of 1815. The Icelandic volcano with the uncomfortably long name killed no one, although it ruined lots of sun holidays and business trips. The Tambora event directly killed 10,000 and was indirectly responsible for the deaths of thousands more all across the planet.

Tambora was a volcanic mountain on the island of Sumbawa in what is now Indonesia. It had been dormant for several centuries before it erupted in April 1815, with such force that the noise could be heard on Sumatra, more than 2000 kilometres away. The explosion was four times the magnitude of the famous Krakatoa eruption seven decades later. The ash that was hurled into the atmosphere was carried across the entire globe and the strange yellow skies of the summer of 1815 were recorded in England by the great British landscape artist J.M.W.Turner.

But it didn’t stop there. With the particles of ash remaining in the atmosphere, summer of the following year simply never materialised. In the northern hemisphere, average temperatures fell by half a degree Celsius. 1816 became the infamous ‘Year Without a Summer’. Snow fell in June, frost was reported in August. In Hungary brown snow fell, in Italy it was red. Europe was especially badly afflicted as it was attempting to recover from the effects of the Napoleonic Wars. Almost 100,000 are believed to have died as an indirect result of the consequential disruption of crops. Many of those were in Ireland, where the plummeting summer temperatures resulted in one of the many famines of the 19thcentury as the wheat, oats and potato harvests all failed.

So cold was the weather in the summer of 1816 that a small group of English travellers in Switzerland spent most of their walking holiday indoors. They devised a method of staving off boredom by writing ghost stories. One of the tourists was a certain Mary Shelley. Her story went on to achieve some notoriety as Frankenstein.

So, was the eruption of Eyjafjallakökull [eye-ah-flatla-yokill] the most disruptive volcanic event in modern history? Not by a lava flow. That’s fake history.

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Fake Histories #14 –  The song ‘Dixie’ originated in the American South?​   

 

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I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten

Look away, look away, look away, Dixieland

In Dixieland where I was born in, early on a frosty mornin’

Look away, look away, Look away, Dixieland

Thus begins a song that was premiered this week in 1859, two years before the vicious conflict that made it famous. Dixie, a sentimental ballad about the joys of life below the Mason-Dixon line, resonated with southerners then and still does today. Which makes it doubly ironic—given its often dubious modern association with white supremacists—that is was written not only by a northern supporter of Abraham Lincoln, but an Irish-American at that, and one who worked for a music hall act led by two Irish brothers.

Dixie could hardly be less ‘southern’ than if it had been born in Hawaii to a Kenyan father and a Kansan mother. It emerged from the American tradition of the ‘blackface’ minstrel. These were white performers, who like the thoroughly modern Ali G, liked to pretend they were black. Among their number was an Irish-American singer/performer from Ohio named Daniel Decatur Emmett. He was a member of a troupe of music hall singers led by a pair of New York Irish brothers named O’Neill. The song quickly became a rousing closer for their touring show. It became a popular favourite all over the USA. A presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln, used it at his rallies to get the crowds going. By the time Dan Emmet died more than thirty people were claiming they had written the song.

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Many years later Emmet ruefully observed that ‘If I had known to what use they were going to put my song I’ll be damned if I had written it’. ‘They’ were the soldiers of the Confederacy. In the case of the song Dixie it would appear that origins were of no consequence, context was paramount, and melody conquered all. Of course, context is relative. If taken literally, the song is a nostalgic celebration of southern culture. Except that it was intended by Emmet as a satirical take on slavery. The song is sung in the voice of a freedman who misses the plantation on which he was enslaved. Southerners didn’t get the joke. Or maybe they did, and the joke was on Dan Emmet.

Despite the subversive connotations, after it was quickly conscripted as an anthem of the Confederacy, Lincoln never quite lost his love for the song – it was just so damn catchy. He ordered it to be played when he was informed that General Robert E. Lee had surrendered his army at Appomattox. Or maybe that was just his way of rubbing Southern noses in their defeat. The speech he made at the time was typical of his wry sense of humour.

I thought “Dixie” one of the best tunes I ever heard …  our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it. I insisted yesterday that we had fairly captured it … I       presented the question to the Attorney-General, and he gave his opinion that it is our lawful prize … I ask the Band to give us a good turn upon it

Which the band duly did. Certainly, Lincoln’s troops had no great affection or reverence for the piece. Union troops sang the song frequently, but with amended lyrics. These went …

Away down South in the land of traitors,
Rattlesnakes and alligators
Right away, come away, right away, come away.
Where cotton’s king and men are chattels

Union boys will win the battles,
Right away, come away, right away, come away

Emmet died in 1904. His gravestone bears the legend ‘his song Dixieland inspired the courage and devotion of the southern people and now thrills the hearts of a reunited nation.’ Which today comes across as someone optimistically ‘whistling Dixie’.

So, was that great anthem of the Confederacy written in the Old South? No, it wasn’t, it was written by a Yankee Irish-American. That’s fake history.