Friday, April 27, 2012


On the Salita Santa Anna in Naples, not far from the Palazzo Reale, is nestled a modest restaurant called the Pizzeria Brandi, which has been serving various types of pizza in the same building for over 200 years.  It first opened in 1780 as the Pizzeria Pietro e Basta Cosi (meaning "the pizzeria of Peter, and that's enough"), but eventually its childless owner, called simply Peter the Pizzamaker, transferred its ownership to Enrico Brandi. 

Enrico's daughter was married to a pizzaiuolo (pizza-maker) named Raffaele Esposito, and it was he who was the running the restaurant in June of 1889 when the shop got a visit from royalty.  King Umberto I of Italy had been the monarch since the death of his father a little over ten years earlier; he and Queen Margherita had once lived in Naples and, as they were planning a trip back to the city, they decided to indulge themselves in the local cuisine.   

Mediterranean people had been enjoying rudimentary forms of pizza for centuries, if not millenia, beforehand, with various dishes comprised of flat bread with toppings.  However, it was not until tomatoes were added about 100 years prior that pizza began to take its modern form.  Pizza soon became a fad of central Europe; monarchs built outdoor pizza ovens at great expense, and Alexander Dumas mentioned it as a winter food in his work Le Corricolo in 1835.    

King Umberto I and Queen Margherita of Savoy
Esposito made three pies for the visities royals: the first was a traditional marinara, with olive oil, garlic, and oregano, and topped with anchovies; the second, a bianca, or white pizza, with basil, pork fat, and caciocavallo cheese.   Esposito believed garlic to be too gauche to serve to the King and Queen, so he created a patriotic third pizza, with tomato sauce, white mozzarella cheese, and basil standing in for the tri-colors of the Italian flag.  Raffaelle Esposito and his wife, Maria Giovanna Brandi, personally transported the pizzas to the royal palace aboard a donkey-drawn cart.

The royals tasted of all three pizzas, but Queen Margherita especially loved the third version.  Esposito immediately dubbed it the "Pizza Margherita" and wasted no time marketing his new flavor to any and all Neapolitan townspeople and visitors.  On June 11, 1889, the office of the Queen sent Esposito the following letter, the original of which still hangs in the Pizzeria Brandi:

Dear Mr. Raffaele Esposito (Brandi),
I confirm that the three qualities of Pizza You prepared for Her Majesty the Queen were found excellent.
Sincerely Yours,
Galli Camillo
Head of the Table of the Royal Household

The new flavor was a rousing success, and ever since then, mozzarella cheese has been a staple of pizza everywhere.  Tourists flocked to what was by then renamed the Pizzera Brandi to taste the original.  One such tourist was Gugliermo Marconi, inventor of wireless radio, who visited in 1896 but complained that the cheese was too stringy; "Perhaps," his quick-witted waiter replied, "Marchese Marconi should have invented wireless mozzarella."

Links and sources:
Stradley, Linda, "History and Legends of Pizza", on What's Cooking America, retrieved April 27, 2012.
Reinhart, Peter, American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza, Random House Digital, 2003.
Schwartz, Arthur, Naples at Table: Cooking in Campania, Harper Collins, 1998.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The White Ship

Henry Beauclerc, the youngest and last surviving son of William the Conqueror, served as King Henry I of England after the death of his older brother, William II, in 1100.  Nineteen years into his reign, he and his only legitimate son, William the Atheling, celebrated a successful military campaign against Louis VI of France, and the marriage of the teenaged William to Matilda of Anjou, the daughter of a powerful French Count.  They remained in Normandy for some time and, on November 25, 1020, Henry, William, and their respective entourages were prepared to return back to England.

Captain Thomas Fitz-Stephen, whose father personally piloted William the Conqueror across the English Channel during the invasion 54 years earlier, beseeched King Henry to allow him to ferry the royal retinue back to England upon his ship, called the Blanche Nef, or the White Ship, a fast, well-constructed, and recently refitted ship worthy of a monarch.  Henry himself declined, having already made other arrangements for his travel home, but he instead accepted on behalf of his son William; the ship carrying the King therefore departed from the port city of Barfleur, Normandy, just before twilight on November 25, 2012.  William, by then all of 17 years old, decided he wanted to stay in Barfleur and enjoy the festivities for a few hours longer and, in a bout of youthful indiscretion, further decided that he wanted the crew of the ship to enjoy the evening as well, and to that end he ordered that three barrels of wine be sent for them to drink as well.

The party continued as the ship departed.  The prince's entourage included about 300 passengers, including 140 knights, and they all proceded to become seriously drunk; William's cousin, Stephen of Blois, was among those intended to be on the ship, but he declined at the last minute owing to a case of diarrhea.  The crowd became increasingly rowdy as the ship departed for England in the dark of night.  The drunken Prince called for the ship to overtake his father's vessel, and to that end, the crew rowed with reckless abandon while the festivities raged on.  No one noticed the Catte-Raze, a submerged rock not far from the Norman coast, until the White Ship impaled itself upon it, punching a hole in the port side of the hull, and holding the ship fast.

Bedlam ensued.  Crewmen, still drunk, raced to the gaping hole and attempted through torrents of seawater to extract the ship from the rock.   Others rowed furiously backward, but still the vessel remained stuck.  Many fell into the water in the chaos.  A quick-thinking bodyguard rushed Prince William to a lifeboat, and put out to sea while the sea ultimately sundered the crippled ship and the White Ship began to break apart and sink.  William was safely out to sea when he heard his illegitimate half-sister, Matilda of Peche, calling out to him by name and begging him not to abandon her.  He commanded that his tiny skiff return to the wreckage to rescue her, and once it did, other passengers and crewmen, frantic and panicking as they floundered about in the water, swarmed and sank the Prince's craft. 

In the end, only three men remained bobbing in the water.  One was a butcher from Rouen named Berthould, who was only aboard in an attempt to collect a debt owed to him by some of the Prince's followers.  As Berthould clung to the White Ship's mast, he caught the attention of Thomas Fitz-Stephen, the Captain, who wearily called out to him and asked the Prince's fate.  Berthould, who had seen the events unfold, told Fitz-Stephen that the Prince had drowned, at which point the Captain lost all hope and let himself slip beneath the waves.  A boy, Gilbert de Craigle, lasted for a while in the water, but when his strength failed and he too drowned, Berthould was the only one remaining.  He climbed to the crow's nest and remained there, bobbing, until fishermen rescued him in the morning.

Besides William, numerous other members of the royal family perished aboard the White Ship: Matilda of Peche, the king's illegitimate daughter; Richard, his illegitimate son; Richard Earl of Chester, and his brother Outell, both nephews of the King; the countess of Chester, his niece; and most of the royal court.  William's new wife was left a widow at the age of 12.  For days, no one could bring themselves to tell him what became of his son and family, until Theobold de Blois conscripted a young, much-adored pageboy to break the news, at which point the King broke down, inconsolable.   The loss of the only legitimate male heir also cast the nation into a dynastic crisis.

King Henry broke tradition and named his only remaining legitimate child, his daughter Matilda of Blois, as the heir to his kingdom.  The English nobility, still chafing from dislike for the Norman dynasty, largely rejected the idea of being ruled by a woman.  Ironically, it was Stephen de Blois, the King's nephew who missed the doomed trip due to his bout with diarrhea, who contested her appointment.  When King Henry died in 1135, the forces of cousins Stephen and Matilda became embroiled in a civil war called the Anarchy, which lasted for 19 years.  After Stephen's death in 1154, the crown passed, through mutual agreement, to Matilda's son, who became known as Henry II.

Links and sources:
"TheWreck of the White Ship",, retrieved April 26, 2012.
Orderic Vitalis, Historia Ecclesiastica.
Strickland, Agnes, Lives of the Queens of England from the Norman Conquest, Lea and Blanchard, 1848.
William of Malmesbury, The History of the Kings of England, and Of His Own Times, Seeleys, 1854.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Ultimate Protest

In the morning of June 11, 1963, a beat-up light blue Austin Westminster sedan rolled into the busy Saigon intersection in front of the Cambodian embassy, only a few blocks away from the Presidential Palace. About 350 Buddhist nuns and monks followed the car on foot and, upon reaching the crossroads, spread out to form a circle and blocked off the intersection. The car's doors opened, and Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc stepped out, flanked by two acolytes. Quang Duc was 76 years old, tall, bald, and wizened, and dressed in the recognizable orange robes of the Buddhist monks. Slowly and purposefully he made his way to the center of the intersection, where one of the others placed a cushion upon which Quang Duc would sit. When the respected monk had assumed the traditional lotus position, the other of his supporters produced a five-gallon can of gasoline and soaked Quang Duc with its contents. As the other protestors protested loudly, and someone announced the spectacle through a megaphone, Thich Quang Duc lit a match in one hand, and, in full view of the city, the people, and the world press, set himself on fire.

The early 60's were the height of the Cold War between West and East. America were relying on South Vietnam to resist the draw of Communism spreading down from the north, but South Vietnames e president Ngo Dinh Diem, a Roman Catholic, was carrying out a policy of repression against the Buddhist majority of the state. As time went on, Buddhist protests were met with force by the Diem administration. American President John F. Kennedy was ready to pull the roughly 16,000 US soldiers out of South Vietnam and strike a treaty with the North, but Diem's soldiers continued to raid Buddhist pagodas and other strongholds, and soon Diem's own generals were plotting to overthrow him. Diem responded to this by declaring martial law.

Vietnam was new to the concept of instant global world opinion, and public self-immolation was without precedent in Vietnamese history. Quang Duc, however, had been a devout Buddhist since he began studying at age seven. He had become an ordained monk at 20, and had spent more than 50 years since teaching, studying, and building temples for his fellow adherents. He had been heavily involved in the struggle for religious and human rights through non-violent means, but his many letters written to the Diem government exhorting them to cease the persecution of Buddhists went unheeded. Crucially, his studies had led him to the enlightenment that his existence was not tied solely to his physical form, leaving him free to bereft himself of that form and still exist. Obviously, sacrificing his life for such a radical form of protest was not a decision he took lightly, but his ultimate insight into his spiritual self allowed him to do so without attachment, fear, or suffering.

Thich Quang Duc sat perfectly still as his body burned in the city street. Photographers, having been alerted beforehand to the protest, snapped away with their cameras, and onlookers alternate chanted protests and gasped in horror at the sight. The air was filled with oily black smoke and the smell of burning flesh. Quang Duc was beyond saving, and after burning for about ten minutes, he slumped forward and the fire burned itself out. His followers loaded his remains into a coffin and spirited them away.

Within minutes, the dramatic photos were on the front pages of newspapers all over the world. Diem had lost control of his people completely, and the Americans abandoned their support of his regime. On November 2 of that same year, Diem was overthrown and assassinated, and his successors halted the persecution of the Buddhists in Vietnam; 20 days later, President Kennedy was also killed in a separate attack. The struggle against Vietnamese Communism would escalate and evolve into the Vietnam War, which stretched for more than ten years. Protests ranging from Vietnam to American colleges were common, including several further instances of public self-immolation as forms of protest.

Quang Duc himself was re-cremated, and to this day his heart - which did not burn in either fire - is on display in the Xa Loi Pagoda in Ho Chih Minh City, a symbol representative of Quang Duc's extraordinary compassion and dedication to the freedom of his people.

Links and Sources:
Biography of Thich Quang Duc at the Quang Duc Buddhist Homepage (in Vietnamese), retrieved April 24, 2012. 
Bradley, Mark Philip, Vietnam at War, Oxford University Press, 2009. 
Nhat Hanh, Thich, Peaceful Action, Open Heart: Lessons from the Lotus Sutra, Parallax Press, 2009. 
Solheim, Bruce O., The Vietnam War Era: A Personal Journey, University of Nebraska Press, 2008.

Monday, April 23, 2012

A Rain of Pumice and Ash

In the summer of AD 79, the Roman Empire was at its height. A Roman fleet was stationed at a town called Misentum, on the western coast of Italy about 150 miles south of Rome. Misentum was on the western horn of the Bay of Naples, and in one of its lavish seaside villas, the commander of the naval detachment, a philosopher named Pliny, laid on a blanket in the yard, writing his latest work. Pliny was famous, fat, rich, and Roman, and was attended to by a sizeable staff who answered every command he instituted.

Pliny's sister Plinia, who shared the villa with him, appeared and drew his attention to an oddly shaped cloud coming from inland. Pliny called for his shoes and moved to a place where he could better see what was happening. From the earth sprouted a vertical column of gray and white, rising straight up toward the sky. Once it reached a certain height, the cloud spread out to the side, so it gave the impression of a pine tree's umbrella canopy. Pliny, being a prolific writer of nature, immediately recognized it as curious enough to warrant a closer inspection. He most likely recognized it as a volcanic eruption, although he could not tell at first from which specific hill it was rising. Later, it would be revealed to be Vesuvius, and what Pliny was observing was only the first stage of its colossal eruption.

Pliny decided to ready a ship to allow him a view from the sea. He offered to bring Plinia's 17-year-old son with him, but the boy, unimpressed by the phenomenon, preferred to remain in the villa, and his mother refused to leave her child. As Pliny therefore headed toward a small, fast cutter he had chosen to take, he received an urgent letter from Rectina, the wife of one of his friends, pleading for assistance; their house was in a town at the foot of the erupting volcano, and they had no means of escape except by sea. Grasping the scope of the danger, Pliny changed his orders and commanded several larger galleys to accompany him into the the heart of the Bay of Naples to evacuate as many as possible from the coastal villages of Pompeii and Stabia. On his way in, Pliny noted that the cloud he had first seen owed its gray and white coloring to the fact that it was comprised of rocks, ash, and pumice projected violently into the air; now, with some time having passed, that cloud of debris was raining down on the Bay, the ships, and the coastal towns, pelting the inhabitants and making passage difficult, even by sea.

Pliny, all the while painstakingly noting the natural effects in his journal, commanded his ships into the heart of the bay, even as numerous other Pompeiian and Stabian ships were frantically fleeing the volcano. His helmsman, concerned about the danger, advised Pliny to flee, to which the commander replied, "Fortes fortuna iuvat" - "Fortune favors the brave" - and they made for the town of Stabia, where they met with another of Pliny's friends, Pomponianus. As they landed, both parties were being pelted with falling pieces of rock, which by this point covered the ground.

Pomponianus was visibly upset. Pliny, in an attempt to calm his friend by displaying his own composure, ordered his servants to carry him into the bathroom for some relaxation time. He was relaxed and happy and repeatedly told Pomponianus and his staff that there was nothing to fear; the fires on the side of the mountain were probably abandoned peasant bonfires, or burning houses left unattended. Even as the home continued to be pelted by the falling stones and ash, Pliny cheerfully ate, and then took a nap; the depth of his sleep was confirmed by the servants outside the room, who could hear the corpulent commander snoring heavily.

Eventually the rocks and debris gathering outside piled up so high that they threatened to seal the house in. Pomponianus awoke Pliny, informing him of this development and telling him they must make a decision soon. The group decided to abandon Pomponianus's villa and escape across the sea while they could; they all tied pillows to their heads to protect themselves from the falling objects and, although Pliny had slept through the night and the sun had risen, the volcanic cloud had blocked out the sun almost completely, so they needed to light torches to see as well. The party headed down to the water's edge, anxious to escape the disaster. Pliny saw the choppy, disturbed water and realized it was too difficult to navigate, so he called for his servants again to set down a blanket. The heavyset man then laid down on it for a rest, exhausted by the travel and exhibiting increasingly severe breathing difficulties, and called for some cold water to drink.

The initial, ash- and pumice-spewing phase of the eruption of Pompeii - known now to vulcanologists as the Plinian phase - was about to come to an end, and the parties of Pliny and his friend Pomponianus could sense it. Fires were drawing nearer to the town of Stabia, and the air reeked strongly of sulfur. Many of the people cried out to the gods for assistance, and others were convinced that the gods were all dead and the world was coming to a fiery end. They informed Pliny that it was time to go, and the big man struggled to get to his feet. Despite being supported by two of his slaves, he could barely stand, and almost immediately collapsed to the ground. The rest of the party, fearing for their own lives, fled.

Not long thereafter, Vesuvius exploded into two pyroclastic clouds, asphyxiating anyone left in the towns of Oplontis, Herculaneum, and Pompeii, burying the latter in over nine feet of ash, dust, pumice, rocks, and debris. There is no more mention of Pliny's friend Rectina, and it is likely that she was not rescued in time. Pomponianus and his party managed to escape the eruption, catching up with Plinia and her son - Gaius Plinius Cecilius Secundus, commonly called Pliny the Younger, and eventually reaching the esteemed position of Roman Consul, it was he who interviewed the survivors and chronicled the incident in a series of letters to the historian Tactitus. Pliny the Elder's body was discovered two days later, in the ash-buried ruins of Pomponianus's villa; it was reported that he choked on the volcanic fumes, but as no one else in his party was affected, it seems likely that he instead died of a heart attack or another weight or fitness-related malady exasperated by the choking atmosphere.

Vesuvius itself last erupted in 1948, and is today a national park. Any seismographic activity is vigilantly monitored by the Osservatorio Vesuvio, and there are numerous plans to evacuate the 600,000 or so people in its shadow.

Links and Sources:
Wikipedia articles on Pliny the Elder and the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD.

The letter from Pliny the Younger to Tactius is online here.

Painting of Pompeiians fleeing Vesuvius is by Peter Bianchi, from National Geographic.
Map is from NASA.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Reichstag Fire

In January of 1933, Adolf Hitler was elected to be Chancellor of Germany, and one of his first acts was to call for a second election for seats in the German Parliament, called the Reichstag. Hitler's intention was to fill the Reichstag with other Nazi party officials, allowing them to replace the Weimar Republic - the German system of Parliamentary democracy instituted after World War I - with their own government to control Germany's future. The Nazi party's main opposition to this bold plan was the Communist party.

At a few minutes after ten on the night of February 27, 1933, less than a month after Hitler became Chancellor, a call came in to the Berlin Fire Department claiming that the Reichstag building was on fire. Fire fighters raced to the scene to discover that the building was fully engulfed; fires had been started in at least 20 different places within the building. Hitler himself was having dinner at the Berlin apartment of his party campaign manager, Joseph Goebbels, but upon hearing of the fire, both men climbed into their waiting cars and rushed to the scene.

Police responding to the scene discovered Marinus van der Lubbe, a 24-year-old Dutch bricklayer and Communist propagandist, inside the burning building. Van der Lubbe was dressed only in shoes and pants, and had matches and a cigarette lighter in his pockets; he had arrived in Berlin only about a week earlier, railing against the Nazis and calling for a pro-Communist uprising to replace them. Van der Lubbe quickly claimed sole responsibility for the fire, and when Hitler and Goebbels met Hermann Göring at the site, they were notified of his capture.

Hitler's party toured the site of the fire, even as it continued to burn; at one point, they were denied entry to a room because the chandelier was in danger of an imminent fall. Göring stated repeatedly that the Communists were responsible, pointing out with precision where the first gasoline-soaked rags were placed and what tinder they first lit. Hitler, red-faced and excited, extolled to British journalist Sefton Delmer that "This be the work of the Communists. You are now witnessing the beginning of a great new epoch in German history, Herr Delmer. This fire is the beginning."

There is debate, even to this day, as to whether Van der Lubbe (left) acted alone, and what his motives may have been. The suspicion arose that the Nazi party, or elements thereof, aided Van der Lubbe in setting the fires; there certainly was an easily visible motivation for them to burn the Reichstag and blame the Communists for it. However, there has never been concrete proof one way or the other, but regardless of the ultimate culprit, the Nazi party was ready to take advantage of the occasion with full force.

Within hours, Hitler and his staff had orchestrated raids on the homes of 400 suspected Communist sympathizers. The next morning, Hitler forced the institution of the Reichstag Fire Decree, implementing of Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, which authorized the President (aging but respected Paul von Hindenburg, who by that time did whatever Hitler commanded) to completely suspend civil liberties in times of national emergency. Article 48 was a temporary measure, to be revoked once the emergency was over, but it was never revoked; overnight, German citizens lost the rights to free expression, assembly, form groups, due process of law, and left them subject to complete government control over their homes, property, companies, and all sorts of search and seizure options. Hitler was, from that point on, a totalitarian dictator.

The second election which Hitler had arranged took place only five days later. Nazi agents were unrestricted in the amount of pressure and outright violence they could inflict upon their political opponents, and as a result of that and anti-Communist fervor whipped up in the aftermath of the fire, the Nazis cruised to a major victory. Goebbels was installed as the Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, and Göring went on to create the infamous Gestapo in November of 1933. Van der Lubbe was tried, found guilty and, in 1934, beheaded.

Links and Sources:

Delmer, Sefton, Trail Sinister, Martin Secker and Warburg, London, 1961.
Holborn, Hajo, A History of Modern Germany 1840-1945, Volume 3, Princeton University Press, 1982.
Jeffers, H. Paul, History's Greatest Conspiracies, Globe Pequot, 2004.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Last Viking

On September 25, 1066, one mail-clad Viking stood along on a narrow wooden bridge, weapons drawn, and defied an army. From the west, thousands of Anglo-Saxon warriors closed in on the solitary form. On the eastern bank of the River Derwent, the Norse King and the remaining Vikings struggled to gather their army, but they needed time - time which this one lone Viking, his name unrecorded in history, intended to grant them. He drew his axe and stood his ground.

Nine months earlier, in January, the English King Edward the Confessor had died without designating an appointed heir. The Saxon Earl of Wessex Harold Godwinson laid claim to the throne, but the Norweigan King Harald Hardrada (meaning "Fairhair") also claimed that the title was his by right; a third claimant was far away, in northern France, but his challenge was more tenuous and his army much less of an immediate threat. Seizing the initiative, Hardrada made quick allies with the former Earl of Northumbria, Tostig, who had been removed from the position for mismanagement and declared an outlaw the previous year, at the urging of Godwinson, who also happened to be Tostig's older brother. Hardrada landed 300 ships in northern England and his army met up with Tostig, whose army had been causing havoc in the northlands for months; the two armies together, along with Flemish merceneries hired by Tostig, numbered between 9,000 and 11,000 men. Godwinson dispatched the Earl of Mercia and the (new) Earl of Northumbria to muster an army and drive the Norse back to the sea.

Hardrada and Tostig, however, dealt this Saxon force a punishing blow at the Battle of Fulford on September 20. Basking in victory, and - as Godwinson's army was on the southern coast, nearly 200 miles away - convinced that no more serious military threats were nearby, Hardrada and Tostig's forces relaxed. Five days later, Hardrada, Tostig, and about a third of their force were waiting on the banks of the Derwent awaiting a shipment of supplies when, to their surprise, they saw the approach of a new army. As they watched, and saw the ranks of the approaching army grow larger and larger, it slowly occurred to them that these were not to be friendly troops, and that they had made a terribly underestimation.

Godwinson, unbeknownst to the Vikings, had force-marched his entire army - 5,000 men clad in mail and carrying heavy axes and shields - 180 miles in the span of four days, an amazing feat of command and endurance. Norse scouts, if there were any, failed to report the approaching army, and so Hardrada and Tostig did not know that it was in the area until they personally saw it approach. The Vikings were not only totally disorganized, but - it being an unseasonably hot day for late September - most of their warriors had left their uncomfortable suits of armor on the ships, miles away. Tostig suggested that they retreat to the sea, but Hardrada, realizing that his army would probably be overtaken as they fled, instead ordered his men to make a stand. He had his swiftest riders send for Hardrada's lieutenant, Eystein, who had been left, along with about 1/3 of their forces, to guard the ships, miles away.

The River Derwent was spanned by a narrow wooden bridge dating back to Roman times. Hardrada ordered a small contingent of his men to protect this crossing, a mission from which he - and they - must have known that they would not return. Predictably, they did not appreciably slow down the approaching Anglo-Saxon juggernaut - except for this one lone Viking who refused to yield the bridge. Unlike his companions, he was wearing his coat of mail that day, and probably also was carrying a typically large round Viking shield and wielding an iron axe. He stood at the entrance to the bridge, having killed several of the English, and denied anyone access. Someone called for him to surrender, and assured him that a man of his courage would be treated fairly, but he "with stern countenance, reproached the set of cowards" - sadly, his exact words were not recorded. One English soldier launched a javelin at him, the effects of which he shrugged off.

Finally, someone climbed into a floating barrel - or possibly a small boat - and let himself drift beneath Stamford Bridge. He found a crack in the aging wood of the floorboards and thrust his spear up through the hole, where the Viking bridge defender continued to stand his ground. Suits of mail in those days were skirt-like, extending down to the thigh or knee, and so this peculiar strike bypassed the Viking's armor entirely. He was impaled in the groin by the surprise attack, and the English army continued across the bridge.

Hardrada and Tostig, along with thousands of their warriors, were killed in their desperate last stand action, on a small hill just past Stamford Bridge. Eystein and his reinforcements, though armored, were too little, too late, and he was killed along his men as well. Hardrada's son, Olaf, was spared and returned to Norway to report the defeat; only 24 of the 300 ships were needed to transport survivors back to Scandinavia. The massive Norse war machine had been smashed, and the Viking age was effectively over.

As for Godwinson, his army - still exhausted from the march and the day's fighting in the hot sun - had barely any time to surrender. The third pretender to the throne was moving against southern England, and so he once again called on his Saxon army to march at a dangerously rapid pace. A little less than three weeks later, Godwinson met his own end at a place called Hastings, as he was defeated by William, the Duke of Normandy, who would on that day earn the title 'The Conqueror'.

Links and Sources:

Baker, Derek, England in the Early Middle Ages, Boydell and Brewer, 1995.
DeVries, Kelly, The Norweigan Invasion of England in 1066, Boydell and Brewer, 2003.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Part 5: AD 1052-1069, available online here.
William of Malmesbury's Chronicle of the Kings of England, as translated by J.A. Giles, Oxford College, 1847.

Painting of the Battle of Stamford Bridge is by Peter Nicolai Arbo, and is available through Wikimedia Commons.
Image of the Viking warrior is from an unknown artist, but appeared in the Osprey Publishing book Warrior 3: Viking Hersir 793-1066.

Monday, April 9, 2012

End of a Rampage

During the month of October, 2002, the Washington DC area was menaced by two snipers, shooting at random and causing widespread panic throughout the region. The assassins were John Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, travelling throughout the area in a blue Chevrolet Caprice; they had customized the vehicle by removing part of the back seat and boring a hole in the trunk, so that one of them may lie down and fire out the rear of the car without being spotted. Their plan, as it was later learned, was to terrorize the area, extort ten million dollars, and kidnap children to raise as a guerilla army.

The investigation was led by Montgomery County (Md.) Police Chief Charles Moose, and he was assisted by elements of the ATF, the FBI, the US Marshals service, and just about every local police force from adjoining states or counties. The search was hampered by administrative bungles, press leaks, mistaken reports, and even deliberate misinformation spread by "witnesses" with still-unexplained motives. Eventually, however, ballistics tests on recovered ammunition linked the shootings to a series of crimes in Alabama and Louisiana, and then - after one of Muhammad's friends recognized the weapon - to the gun shop in Tacoma, Washington, where Muhammad purchased the .223 caliber Bushmaster XM15 E2S three years earlier. Police put out an arrest warrant for Muhammad, and issued broadcasts asking civilians to report any sightings of Muhammad's car, the 1990 Chevrolet Caprice.

Three hours later, at 12:30 in the morning early on Thursday, October 24, refrigerator repairman Whitney Donahue was on his way from Manassas, Virginia, to his home in Greencastle, Pennsylvania, where he lived. Donahue stopped at a rest stop along Interstate Route 70 between Frederick and Hagerstown, in western Maryland, when he spotted Muhammad's Caprice parked in the lot. He could just make out two forms inside, and the New Jersey license plates matched those which he had heard about on the radio just minutes before. Donahue pretended not to look directly at the car for fear of raising suspicions, moved out of sight, and then called 911 to report the sighting.

After a local police cruiser verified the sighting, law enforcement descended on the parking lot with haste. The rest stops on both sides of the highway were evacuated, and I-70 itself was closed in both directions. Police cars stealthily blocked both exits from the parking lot, and commandeered two tractor-trailers to park sideways to prevent any chance of the Caprice making it out. Lt. David Reichenbaugh of the Maryland State Police, the highest ranking officer on the scene at first, deployed canine units on the highway's median strip, telling the handlers, "If you see anyone on foot, let the dogs eat them."

A 19-man SWAT team was organized at about 3:30 a.m., with 5 men each from the Maryland State and Frederick County police forces, and 9 men from the FBI's Hostage Rescue Unit. Commanders from Montgomery County were flown up 90 miles from Montgomery County in helicopters, all the while evading press corps camped out in search of any kind of breaking news. A six-man "assault element" of SWAT members was organized as two teams of three men each, and plans to pull the inhabitants out of the car were developed and practiced in the parking lot of a nearby McDonald's. Finally, the SWAT team headed over to the rest stop, and the six SWAT members - dressed in black, wearing helmets, and carrying automatic weapons - huddled in the trees about 20 yards from Muhammad's parked car.

The officers had estimated that a person inside the car, if awake, would take four seconds to realize, react, start the car, and get moving, but that the assault squad could cover the area and extract the men in three and a half. That left very little room for error, and their worst case scenario was if the Caprice became mobile, so timing was crucial. Finally, FBI Hostage Rescue Team Supervisor Charles Pierce held up three fingers and counted down - three, two, one. The six men stormed the car.

Muhammad was fast asleep in the back seat of the car. Malvo - who was supposed to be awake and on watch - was asleep in the front. Both men were yanked out of the car in less than thirty seconds; they were sweating, dirty, sleepy and utterly defeated without offering any resistance. They were placed in cars and removed to Montgomery County; Muhammad stayed alert for the trip, but Malvo fell asleep. Muhammad's car remained untouched until a search warrant was obtained, which came at about 5:30; it was searched at the site, and then moved into a van to be thoroughly scoured in an enclosed facility.

Finally, after 19 days of panic and fear across the region, and after ten deaths and three serious injuries, the DC area sniper rampage was over. A laptop found in the car showed their detailed plans, including a map with different areas highlighted, and observations noted about how feasible each site would be for future sniper attacks. The snipers, while captured in Maryland, were tried in Virginia for one of the murders committed there, because Virginia was more likely to return a death sentence. Lee Boyd Malvo, being a minor at the time of the shootings, was sentenced to six consecutive life sentences with no possibility of parole. John Muhammad was executed in Virginia in 2009.

A monument to the victims stands today at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, Maryland, near where most of the attacks took place.

Links and Sources:

Horwitz, Sara, and Michael E. Ruane, Sniper: Inside the Hunt for the Killers Who Terrorized the Nation, Random House, 2003.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Hollister Gypsy Tour

During World War II, Harley-Davidson produced nearly 100,000 motorcycles for the militaries of the United States and other Allied forces. Riding a post-war wave of popularity and prosperity, Harley advertised its powerful, V-twin models with images of smiling, clean-cut couples touring the American countryside. This would not last.

For the July Fourth weekend of 1947, the American Motorcycle Association chose Hollister, California, a largely agricultural town of about 4,500 in the center of the state, as the destination site of one of their "Gypsy Tours", in which many established motorcycle clubs from across the country would stage a long-distance ride, culminating in a rally with their fellow enthusiasts. Hollister had hosted Gypsy Tours, races, hill climbs, and other events before, to the local merchants' great delight, and was in fact very accomodating to the biker lifestyle. The town had 27 bars and 21 gas stations, but only six police officers, and had no reason to believe that any trouble would arise.

In the years following the end of World War II, many of the war's veterans struggled to readapt to the pre-war ideals of daily life. The accepted routines of a steady job and a domestic home life were not meeting the needs of the returning warriors. Instead, many of them turned to motorcycle clubs, their days being instead spent on the road, with wind in their hair and the feeling of outdoor freedom. Many returning soldiers also ended up drinking quite a bit, often in an attempt to mentally cope with having been at war.

Several thousand of these bikers all ended up in Hollister over that weekend, and many of them had been drinking for days before their arrival. The town was soon immersed in a fairly wild party of drunken motorcyclists, including one who rode his motorcycle up the stairs of a local watering hole, burst through the door, and parked right at the bar to order a drink. About 60 people were admitted to the hospital, mostly for the repercussions of their own drunken stunts. The jail quickly filled up with drunks, one of whom - called Wino Willie, from the Boozefighters cycling club - was mistaken by police for trying to incite a riot. Hollister's modest police force was soon overwhelmed, and they called for help from the California Highway Patrol, which responded by sending 40 CHP officers to control the festivities. Most of the bikers, being combat veterans, took well to being given orders by the police and cooperated by moving the party to the edge of town. One quick-thinking Lieutenant enlisted a local band to set up on a flatbed truck and play music to get the bikers dancing (and therefore distracted); meanwhile the Hollister Chief of Police had the bars close two hours early. The party wound down, and everyone went home to sleep it off.

The Hollister Gypsy Tour would have faded into memory, were it not for a San Francisco Chronicle photographer named Barney Peterson. Peterson wanted an attention-grabbing photo, but had arrived late, and missed most of the festivities; to get his photo, Peterson - although surrounded by hordes of stumbling drunks and roaring motorcycles - decided to stage his own shot. He and an associate kicked a pile of discarded and broken beer bottles out of a nearby alley and distributed them around a Harley-Davidson EL Knucklehead parked in front of Johnny's Bar and Grill on San Benito Street. He then grabbed a drunken biker named Eddie Davenport - apparently at random - and convinced him sit on the motorcycle for a picture. While the resulting image was not doctored or manufactured, it was certainly deceptive in its portrayal of the bikers - Davenport was told where and how to sit, on a motorcycle that wasn't his, and his jacket was strategically placed on him; the photograph was clearly staged. Peterson snapped several frames - one of which shows the bottles arranged neatly in a row on the curb - and, satisfied, went on his way.

The Chronicle passed on the photo, but it did run a short story about the affair, using words like "terrorism" and "pandemonium" in its description of the weekend. Life Magazine, however, put Peterson's photo on the cover of its July 21, 1947 issue, and ran a story entitled "Cyclist's Holiday: He and Friends Terrorize Town", highlighting and exaggerating the lawlessness of the Hollister Gypsy Tour. Soon, the Gypsy Tour became known, somewhat hyperbolically, as the "Hollister Riot", and the term "outlaw biker" (which originally meant a club not registered with the AMA) was appropriated to describe a new breed of lawless, feral madmen, roaming the wilds of the US heartland.

Motorcyclists protested the depiction of their sport, but to little avail - "Cyclist's Holiday" was followed in 1951 by the fictional account "The Cyclist's Raid" in Harper's magazine, and that in turn led to the 1953 movie The Wild One, in which Marlon Brando's rebellious protagonist and Lee Marvin's bestial villain solidified the concept of the dangerous Harley rider in the minds of the public. Even now, the image of the classic Harley rider is often associated with criminal violence, roguery, and a sort of lawless abandon, the ultimate result of an opportunistic photographer's misrepresentation of a California party weekend as a vicious, anarchic siege.

Links and Sources:

Dulaney, William L., "A Brief History of 'Outlaw' Motorcycle Clubs", in the International Journal of Motorcycle Studies, November 2005, accessed April 5, 2012.

Barker, Thomas, Biker Gangs and Organized Crime, Elsevier, 2007.
Hayes, Bill, Jim Quattlebaum, and Dave Nichols, The Original Wild Ones: Tales of the Boozefighter Motorcycle Club, MotorBooks International, 2009.
Nichols, Dave, and Kim Peterson, One Percenter: The Legend of the Outlaw Biker, MotorBooks International, 2010.
Osgerby, Bill, Biker: Truth and Myth, Globe Pequot, 2005.
Yates, Brock, Outlaw Machine: Harley-Davidson and the Search for the American Soul, Broadway Books, 2000.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The LeMat

Jean Alexander Francois LeMat was born in 1824 in Bordeaux, France, and after receiving his Ph.D. in medicine, he emigrated to New Orleans in 1844. He achieved some renown as a physician, inventing an instrument for opening the trachea during an operation, but his main claim to fame was for his favorite hobby. In 1849, LeMat married Justine Sophie LePretre, whose cousin was the flamboyant US Army Cavalry General P.G.T. Beauregard. Besides being a surgeon, it seems Dr. LeMat also, somewhat ironically, designed firearms.

In October of 1856, LeMat received a patent for the LeMat Revolver, which was unusual in that its barrel, instead of rotating around a central pin, instead rotated around a second barrel, this one smooth-bored to fire a single 16-gauge shotgun shell. Which barrel was fired was determined by a small lever in the hammer; in the up position, it would strike the primer to fire the revolver, and when flicked down, it would discharge the shotgun barrel. The LeMat Revolver was 13.25 inches long and weighed a hefty 3.5 pounds; its revolver barrel was single action, and while early models were hexagonal, most were either octagonal or half-octagonal in shape.

The concept behind the LeMat Revolver would greatly improve the firepower of cavalry soldiers, or navy shipmen during boarding actions. Financed by Gen. Beauregard, LeMat commissioned about 25 prototypes in 1859 created by gunsmith Jon Krider in Philadelphia. Military trials were held later that year in both New Orleans and Washington, to great acclaim; the Governor of Louisiana was so impressed that he invested LeMat as a Colonel. In 1860, Louisiana ordered 400 LeMats for its state militia, but that order climbed to 8,000 once the state joined the Confederacy the next year. As Louisiana didn't have the production capabilities for an order of that size, production was moved to France, where they were overseen by former Assistant Secretary to the Smithsonian Institution Charles Frederic Girard, a partner of LeMat's who had quietly slipped back to his native France in 1862 to build the weapons. Union blockades made it difficult to import the revolvers; many freighters loaded with LeMats were seized or sunk, but many also made it through during daring night excursions. About 2,900 LeMats were created overall, with about 1,500 intended for the Confederacy; Beauregard, of course, used a LeMat, as did famed Confederate officers Braxton Bragg, J.E.B. Stuart, and possibly Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson.

The LeMat had problems which limited its popularity. They were heavy, clumsy, and poorly balanced. Manipulating the tiny hammer was difficult even under controlled conditions, much less while wearing heavy gloves in the midst of a raging combat. The revolved ammunition was an unusual .42 gauge, requiring its users to often have to create their own shot during a campaign. The weapon constantly struggled with material integrity; the first batch of French LeMats were flawed to the point of being worthless and refused by the Confederacy. Also, vicious recoil from the shotgun shell, by one account, "would almost tear the arm off a man."

The rise and fall of the LeMat Revolver has a lot to say about the arc of the Confederacy. Its brilliant innovation and wicked potential was limited by the meager industrial capabilities of the South, and its import was hampered by the Union blockade of southern ports. Ultimately, this blockade solidifying would strangle the Confederacy, and no more foreign-made commodities , including the LeMats, could reach the South at all. On April 9, 1865, the South surrendered; LeMat later relocated to Paris and continued to evolve his firearm, producing new versions of the weapon until the 1880's.

LeMat's design, incidentally, was not limited to the pistol: LeMat also released a carbine during the war, which was essentially the pistol with the barrel stretched out to rifle length. It and a smaller "Baby" version had rifled lower barrels, while the Revolver was smooth-bored. Both of these versions were produced only in limited numbers and quickly faded into obscurity.

Links and Sources:

"Civil War Revolvers of the North and South", by Robert Nieport, on, retrieved April 4, 2012.

Adams, Doug, et. al., The Confederate LeMat Revolver, Andrew Mowbray Publishers, 2005.
Adler, Dennis, Guns of the Civil War, Zenith, 2011.
Holmes, Richard, Weapon: A Visual History of Arms and Armor, DK Publishing, 2006.
Kennedy, David, and Bruce Curtis, Guns of the Wild West, Running Press, 2005.

Photos of Revolver from "LeMat" on Horst Held Antique Handguns, retrieved April 4, 2012.
Photo of Carbine from the collection of Edward N. Simmons.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Montgomery Ward vs. the President

In 1944, World War II was in full swing, and American President Franklin D. Roosevelt was full aware that America's greatest advantage in the conflict was its capability for production. The President, asserted his use of the War Labor Disputes Act which allowed the federal government to seize production businesses and industries which were under the threat of a strike, despite the fact that the law had passed a year earlier over his veto. One of the main companies on his radar was the retail distribution giant Montgomery Ward.

Montgomery Ward's value was heavily invested in 1920, and as a result the company had lost a fortune during the Great Depression. In the years following, it continued to expand , opening hundreds of stores nationwide, but no longer turning a profit. In the meantime, U.S. Gypsum, headed by notoriously conservative Sewell Avery, had saved its money and laid off half of its staff during the Depression,and therefore watched its fortunes grow over the course of the 20's. J.P. Morgan, one of Montgomery Ward's prime investors, asked Avery to take over Montgomery Ward, and he agreed. By the time the U.S. became involved in World War II, Montgomery Ward was a crucial business to the war effort, supplying the Allies with a wide variety of necessary items. Sewell was, however, a rabid capitalist. He opposed Roosevelt at every opportunity, and was dead set against any kind of unionization, which would eat into his profits; he would, on occasion, call an opponent a "New Dealer", which he intended as an insult. He once said that "If anyone ventures to differ with me, of course, I throw them out of the window."

President Roosevelt ordered the War Labor Board to require that Montgomery Ward to be opened to unionization, and Sewell said no; 12,000 company workers then went on strike. President Roosevelt then ordered Under-Secretary of State Wayne Taylor to assume control of the company. Both participants were widely criticized for their roles; Roosevelt's interpretation of the War Labor Disputes Act stretched its intentions and limits, and Sewell was placing his own company's profit margin over the need for wartime production and supply. US District Court Judge Philip L. Sullivan was chief among the detractors, informing the President that his action was not supported by either the War Labor Disputes Act or previously established war power of the Presidency, but he also levelled charges of "selfishness, arrogance, [and] intolerance" at Avery, adding that "[t]he peacetime privilege of engaging in prolonged labor disputes should be voluntarily suspended for the duration" of the war.

When, on April 27, 1944, in the Montgomery Ward corporate offices in Chicago, an official from the US Department of Commerce handed Avery the Presidential order to step down, Avery refused to accept it. Two US Army soldiers, sent to enforce the order, then lifted Avery bodily and carried him to the elevator. Avery refused to step aboard, so they picked him up again and carried him inside. On the main floor, Avery once more refused to budge, and the two Army soldiers - who have never been positively identified - lifted him for a third time and carried him out to his waiting car. AP photographer Harry Hall was waiting, and captured a memorable photo of Avery, comfortable and serene, arms folded on his chest, as he was being carried out of his building. The soldiers set him down, Avery smiled, got in his limousine, and sped away.

Eight months later, President Roosevelt expanded the action against Montgomery Ward, and ordered that all of their properties across the nation be seized; the issue was taken to court, but was dismissed as moot when President Truman ended the action after Roosevelt's death in April of 1945. Sewell Avery remained Chairman of the Board of Directors for Montgomery Ward until 1954, spanning the majority of the post-war boom years. He remained convinced of a second coming Depression, and so the company was out-invested by other retail giants such as Sears Roebuck. Having never been able to recover from its lost potential income, Montgomery Ward declared bankruptcy and closed for good in 2001. Three years later, its name was purchased by another investor and it now exists as an online retailer.

U.S. Gypsum, on the other hand, is a Fortune 500 company with over 10,000 employees worldwide, and more than three billion dollars worth of sales in 2009.

Links and Sources:

"A Judge and the Law", in Life Magazine, February 12, 1945.

Faber, John, Great News Photos and the Stories Behind Them, Courier Dover Publications, 1978.
Farrell, Chris, The New Frugality: More to Consume Less, Save More, and Live Better, Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2009.
Gordon, John Steele, The Business of America: Tales from the Marketplace, Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2002.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Leopard of Rudraprayag

For eight years in the early 20th century, the northen Indian village of Rudraprayag, at the base of the Himalayas, was haunted by a particularly powerful and elusive man-eating leopard. It developed a taste for humans after eating corpses after the 1918 flu outbreak in the area prevented, by sheer volume, the tradition of cremation; once the disease subsided and the animal could no longer find dead bodies, it took to live humans instead. In a period of almost eight years - from its first attack on June 9, 1918 until its last on April 14, 1926 - it officially killed roughly 125 people (though the actual number was probably much higher) in an area not only populated by about 50,000 people, but also on a major pilgrimage route through the mountains. The ensuing panic was reported on from as far away as London.

This leopard, although being past its prime years for hunting, was unusually strong; it carried - not dragged, but lifted and carried - one woman uphill for about 100 yards, and at another time was able to pull its leg free from a steel spring trap at another. It ate a serving of poisoned meat with no apparent effects, and dug its way out of a falling-box trap to escape. It was also amazingly stealthy; when it came upon two men sitting inside smoking a hookah, it quietly killed and dragged away one man when his friend - who was sitting within arm's reach - looked away only long enough to pick something up off of the floor. In addition to both of those, it was skilled and bold, enabling it to escape being trapped on a rope bridge over a ravine while armed riflemen waited on both sides. Another time it was trapped inside a cave where it waited motionless for five days, until intrepid hunters removed the blockade at the cave mouth - the Leopard sprang out, charged into the group of 500 observers, panicked every one of them, and made good its escape. Over the years, it evaded all sorts of methods used to kill it, up to and including snares, firearms, and grenades planted inside its victims; it not only ignored various types of poisons used against it, but according to one village official, it thrived on it.

Many people, both villagers and hunters from distant lands, attempted to catch the Leopard - at one time, an estimate 20,000 villagers, hunters, and soldiers were all trying to collect the 10,000 rupee reward on the beast, to no avail. In 1925, big game hunter and conservationist Jim Corbett, who had been capturing or killing man-eating animals for nearly twenty years, arrived to put an end to the Leopard's menace. He studied the predator's habits, and made several attempts on the animal's life without success; once, another leopard chased it away, and another time the one he shot turned out to not be the culprit. Local superstition interfered as well, with many natives believing the killings to be the work of a were-leopard, even capturing one local holy man with the intentions of lynching him until the Deputy Commissioner of the area intervened.

Corbett's relationship with the Leopard was not strictly one-sided, either; one night, Corbett laid a trap for the beast, but had no luck with it. Finally, he gave up and returned to his bungalow. In the morning, he saw his own footprints in the mud - with leopard tracks set perfectly within each of his own boot impressions. Corbett, tracking back to the source of the prints, realized with a chill that the Leopard of Rudraprayag had followed him every step of the way from where the trap was laid, all the way back to his own front door.

Eventually, Corbett determined that the Leopard frequented a particular stretch of road between Rudraprayag and the neighboring village of Golobrai. He constructed a tree stand in a mango tree, and tied a goat with a bell necklace to a stake near the road within sight. After ten days of sitting in the tree, the leopard finally took the bait; Corbett fired, hit the animal, and in the morning tracked it to where it finally expired. The leopard was measured to be about 7'6" long.

The Leopard of Rudraprayag was not the first, nor the last, man-eating predatory cat from India. Facing a shrinking habitat and scarcer-by-the-day food sources, leopards and tigers resort to eating humans, most often children. The problem does not seem to be abating, neither: one village in the West Bengal area reportedly lost 14 people to tiger attacks in 2010 alone.

Links and Sources:

"Man-Eating Elephants in India?" by Jeremy Hubbard, Natasha Singh, and Lauren Effron, on ABC News, February 16, 2011, retrieved April 2, 2012.

Capstick, Peter, Death in the Silent Places, Macmillan, 1989.

Bright, Michael, Man-Eaters, Macmillan, 2002.

Sunday, April 1, 2012


Visitors to the Eiffel Tower on the morning of February 4, 1912, were greeted by an unusual sight. A crowd at the base was looking up at someone standing on the edge of the first platform; he was wearing a wide black cloak with a sort of large silk cowl that reached over his head. He turned from side to side, hesitated for a moment, then leaned forward and lept into the void. The crowd gasped.

The man who jumped from the tower that day was Franz Reichelt, originally from Austria. He was 33 years old, unmarried, and was a tailor for both men and women in Paris. He was also an inventor, and he had invented something he called a 'parachute'. His design was comprised of two parts: a body suit, which fit much like regular clothing, and a large silk bag-like device which folded over his back and gave him a look somewhat like a cobra. Inside the parachute was a rudimentary steering system of belts and small rods, which he could control via his body movements.

The Prefecture of Police had granted Reichelt permission to test his parachute using mannequins, but not for Reichelt to jump himself. Reichelt nominally agreed, but he was so confident in his invention that he defied the police orders and arrived dressed for the jump himself. After some convincing, and a public announcement by the Police Prefect denying that a live jump had been allowed, Reichelt, dressed in his billowing parachute coat, stepped out onto the ledge of the first platform of the Tower, about 187 feet in the air. It was a few minutes after 8 on a February morning, and the wind blowing in off the Seine River made the cold morning even chillier. Reichelt stood for a few moments, presumably building up the courage to take the jump; for a moment he looked as if he were going to step down, until finally he spread his arms wide in a cruciform pose, leaned forward, and lept.

The parachute did absolutely nothing and he dropped like a stone. The fabric of the cloak, whipped about by the winds, completely enshrouded him, and Reichelt hit the frozen ground face-first. Onlookers raced up to him, but by the time they reached him, he was already dead. After the police carried away his body, other onlookers casually walked around the landing zone; some stopped to measure the depth of the impact crater. Apparently, Reichelt made an impression a little over 15 centimeters in depth.

It is easy to dismiss Reichelt as a foolhardy stooge, but within two years, parachutes were being demonstrated across the world, whether hand-held, strapped to the user's back, or being deployed behind a car as a drogue. They were used sparingly in World War One, but in the years since, parachutes have saved countless lives, and Reichelt deserves mention as one of its early experimenters.

Links and Sources:

"L'Inventeur Reichelt S'est Tue Hier" ("The Inventor Reichelt Was Killed Yesterday"), from Le Petit Journal, Paris, France, February 5, 1912.

Lesbros, Dominique, Paris mystérieux et insolite, Boreas, 2005.