Monthly Archives: July 2014

Operation Drumbeat: The Nazis Attack on the East Coast

U534On December 7, 1941, the Japanese Empire launched a surprise attack on the US Navy stationed at Pearl Harbor, killing thousands of American sailors and dragging the United States into the Second World War. The attack has become infamous; unprovoked, it spurred a righteous anger and a lust for revenge that helped sustain the public’s morale during the darkest hours of the greatest war in history. In the popular consciousness, the attack on Pearl Harbor was the last time an enemy had struck such a blow against the United States on its home soil until 9/11. It’s a popular idea, but like many popular ideas it’s wrong.

In World War II alone, there was more than one instance where America’s enemies penetrated her borders. The Japanese, as a part of a grand offensive across the Pacific, took a lonely island on the tip of Alaska’s Aleutian Island chain (to be fair though, Alaska wasn’t a state at the time.) Again, the Japanese attacked the American homeland later in the war with a series of ingenious if ultimately ineffective balloon attacks.

Strangely enough though, the most deadly attacks in American territory were not executed by the Japanese, but by their allies, the Nazis. Nazi Germany had promised the Japanese that if America declared war on Japan, Germany would declare war on America. After FDR famously declared war on December 8, Hitler declared war on the US on December 11. Before that, the US had been supplying Britain with much needed war materiel under the Lend-Lease Act. This gave the US some experience dealing with the German U-boat Wolfpacks prowling the Atlantic. This experience, however, would not prepare them for what was to come. After the declaration of war, all restrictions on Nazi U-boats were lifted. Vizeadmiral Karl Donitze ordered his U-boats to execute an audacious attack on US shipping, taking the war right to the US east coast. The attacks–dubbed Operation Drumbeat–would account for a quarter of all shipping lost during the war and claim the lives of more than 5,000 American sailors.


“The Second Happy Time.”

A view from the deck of a British destroyer. Lack of these types of ships on the East Coast of the US made Operation Drumbeat lethal for American shipping.

A view from the deck of a British destroyer. Lack of these types of ships on the East Coast of the US made Operation Drumbeat lethal for American shipping.

The initial phases of Operation Drumbeat were executed using Type IX U-boats. Bigger and more cumbersome than their leaner counterparts who caused so much havoc among shipping convoys in the mid-Atlantic, the Type IX were nonetheless ideal for work along the US coast because they could easily be outfitted for long voyages. The Nazis only possessed a dozen of the big boats, and seven were engaged in other operations, so only five would  make the two week voyage across the Atlantic to perform the opening phases of the operation. Interestingly enough, while the operation was conducted in the utmost secrecy, British intelligence picked up routine transmissions the boats made when leaving the Bay of Biscay and were able to accurately follow the progress of the task force across the Atlantic. They were able to give a warning to Admiral Ernest J. King, Commander in Chief of the US Fleet, that the German subs were on the way, but little was done to counter the threat. Admiral King was occupied with the Japanese in the Pacific. Besides, the so-called “North Atlantic Coastal Frontier” wasn’t completely undefended; Rear Admiral Adolphus Andrews commanded a fleet in the area responsible for the security of coastal shipping. The only problem was that the fleet was made up of a motley assortment of Coast Guard cutters, converted yachts, and other assorted vintage boats that were more fit for a museum than modern naval combat. Also, what few planes available to Andrews were too small and short ranged to have much effect against what was coming.

As if all that weren’t bad enough, Andrews and other naval officials refused to listen to advice from the British, who had dealt with the Nazi menace for more than two years. The British advised Andrews that merchant ships ought to travel in convoys, even if they lacked an armed escort ship. Hard experience had shown the British that ships in convoys, even unarmed ones, were more likely to survive a U-boat attack. Also, ships should change up their routes. Coastal towns and cities should black out their lights, to make it more difficult for U-boats to spot ships backlit at night against city lights. Andrews and others ignored the advice, partially because Andrews was convinced that grouping ships into convoys would only provide more targets for enemy U-boats, and partially because a black out order would harm commerce and tourism on the East Coast.

What followed was dubbed by the German’s as “The Second Happy Time,” so named because from January to August of 1942, German U-boats managed to inflict devastating losses on American shipping with little to no risk to their own forces (the “First Happy Time” was from 1940 to 1941 during the first phase of the war in the Atlantic.) To use the old cliche, it was like shooting fish in a barrel.



“Loose Lips Sink Ships.”

Loose_lips_might_sink_shipsOnce again, American response to the devastation was inadequate at best. Despite east coast dockyards manufacturing destroyers capable of at least blunting the effects of the U-boat assault, they sat in harbor while off-shore merchant ships sank under German U-boat fire. More waves of Nazi boats came to US coastal waters after the initial assault; the remaining Type IX, and the smaller Type VII, specially outfitted for the trip by filling tanks normally reserved for drinking water with diesel fuel.

While the American leadership bungled the response to the threat, civilians no doubt began to notice all the ships blowing up off the coast. Propaganda and secrecy was the order of the day; rather than take practical steps to deter the threat, the US Navy was content to use propaganda to cover up the attacks in order to preserve public morale. The now famous phrase “Loose lips sink ships” originated during this propaganda effort, less to keep US naval secrets from leaking into the hands of German spies and more to keep US citizens quiet about what they were seeing out their windows. The cover up was so effective that Operation Drumbeat and its devastating effectiveness still remains largely unknown to this day.

Slowly, US forces got their act together. They adopted British recommendations piecemeal at first, implementing a limited convoy system in April 1942 and restricting shipping to daylight hours. By mid-May, full convoys were trawling the waters of the East Coast, and the British helpfully offered corvettes specially built for anti-submarine warfare, along with planes designed to combat the U-boat menace. Gradually, the Nazi wolfpacks began to move away from the East Coast as defenses grew tougher. Operation Drumbeat ended with only 7 German U-boats lost, but these minimal losses were enough to repel the aggressors and push the war away from American shores.



Helgason, Gudmundur. “Operation Drumbeat.” March 31, 1997. June 23, 2014

“Operation Drumbeat–the informalname for a phase in the Second Battle of the Atlantic during which Axis submarines attacked merchant shipping.” August 17, 2013. War History Online. June 23, 2014.


Cracks in the Monolith–The Border Crisis Between China and the USSR That Almost Led to a Nuclear War

The lands disputed during the Sino-Soviet Border Conflict.

The lands disputed during the Sino-Soviet Border Conflict.

The Cold War was a conflict defined by secrecy and propaganda. As such, it can be difficult to get an idea of what really happened during those tense years when the world stood on the brink of nuclear disaster. Perhaps a side effect of this is the perception among the American public that “Communism” was a vast, monolithic bloc that threatened to sweep the world. This thinking certainly informed American foreign policy at the time, leading the US to embroil troops in southeast Asian wars to contain the spread of Communism in those regions. However, despite the prevalence of this thinking, the reality was in fact far different. The Communist powers were not nearly as unified as Western powers would have believed. Perhaps the biggest and most potentially cracks in the monolith occurred between the Soviet Union and China in the late 1960’s. Known by the rather sterile moniker “The Sino-Soviet Border Conflict,” this clash between Communists put the world on the brink of a nuclear war.


A clash with deep roots

The spark that lit the smoldering tensions between the Communist powers occurred on March 2, 1969, when Chinese troops attacked a Soviet border guards on Zhenbao Island, located on the Ussuri River, the de facto border between the Soviet Union and China. Naturally, this attack did not come out of a vacuum. The boundary at the Ussuri River was established by the 1850 Treaty of Peking. This was only one of a series of treaties that, in the Chinese view, was a land grab by the Russians. By forcing China, who was weaker in the 19th century than many of the more technologically advanced European powers, to sign away its lands in a series of treaties, Tsarist Russia was able to bloodlessly conquer new territories. These lands were inherited by the Communists when they toppled the Tsarist regime. The Soviets, of course, wanted to keep these territories. They claimed that the Chinese had no legal claim to the river islands, that according to the Treaty of Peking, their side of the border was the riverbank on the Chinese side of the river.

Soviet tanks, similar to those used in Czechloslovakia.

Soviet tanks, similar to those used in Czechloslovakia.

China felt differently, but the river islands themselves were not the only issue (they were uninhabited and seen as pretty well useless of themselves). The Chinese saw the Soviets as becoming more and more aggressive. After all, they had invaded Czechloslovakia in 1968, and were massing troops along the Sino-Soviet border. The Soviets had embraced the Brezhnev Doctrine, which essentially stated that it was the duty of Communist powers to defend socialism against capitalist incursions (with some nice little clauses that gave the Soviet Union’s leadership the ability to define exactly what “socialism” and “capitalism” meant.) This was meant to justify the invasion of Czechloslovakia, but the Chinese saw it as meaning that the Soviets could intervene in the affairs of a Communist power whenever it so chose. The Chinese attacked the border post to show the Soviets that an attack on China would not end well for them.

For the Soviet’s part, they saw the border attack as an incursion into Soviet territory by a large, increasingly hostile neighbor. On March 15, the Communist nations clashed again at Zhenbao. It is not clear the size of the battle, but it was definitely a Soviet retaliation for the attack two weeks before. Little is known about the resulting battles in the months following, as both countries were very secretive and little archival evidence has been made available to the West on the matter.


On the brink

As battles raged on the border, the war of words escalated to terrifying levels. Moscow wanted peace, and tried to use strong arm tactics to get China to the negotiating table. Specifically, the Soviet Union threatened China with a nuclear attack, specifically aimed at its recently established nuclear facilities. China dismissed these threats as nothing but bluff and bluster, at least until August 27, when CIA Director Richard Helms went to the press. He reported that the Soviets had approached several foreign governments to see how they would respond to a Soviet nuclear strike on Chinese soil. America, for its part, basically decided to remain neutral in the conflict, fearing what a nuclear exchange or an all out war (or both) between China and the Soviet Union might mean for troops stationed in Vietnam.

However, the ruse worked out well for the Soviets. Chinese leadership began to take the Soviet threats seriously after the August 27 announcement. The next time the Soviets asked to negotiate, the Chinese agreed. Just in case the negotiations were some sort of a distraction that could cover up a nuclear sneak attack, Mao Zedong, dictator of Communist China, fled Beijing with his family. China’s nuclear forces, such as they were, went on full alert, the first and only time that has ever happened. Negotiations dragged on for years, but the military conflict between the countries ended.

The world came close to the brink during those tense months. While China did not have the nuclear capabilities of, say, the United States, even a relatively limited nuclear strike would have devastating effects on the environment and would have killed thousands of people. Furthermore, fallout knows no borders; there is no telling where the radiation would have landed. Worse, the conflict could have potentially dragged other powers into the fray, including the US, leading to a global war with unthinkable consequences. It would not have even taken an overt action on either side to trigger such a war. Everyone who had nukes had their fingers on the button in those years (which is, ironically enough, why the Soviets eventually built their doomsday device–to prevent itchy trigger fingers from ending the world), and it wouldn’t have taken a lot to force someone over the brink. A single misstep could have led to the extinction of the human race by its own hand, a species wide suicide.



Gerson, Michael S. “The Sino-Soviet Border Conflict: Deterrence, Escalation, and the Threat of Nuclear War in 1969.” CNA Strategic Studies. November 2010.

Mr. Guess Who–The Strange Story of Robert Henry Best

Treason is an ugly word. Few things are more unforgivable than turning your back on your own people. And yet, in every war there seems to be people willing to jump ship and happily work for the enemy. The US has had its fair share of traitors in its more than two hundred years of history, the most famous being Benedict Arnold. Perhaps the most infamous were the people who leaked nuclear secrets to the Soviets, leading directly to their first nuclear test in 1949.

A lesser known traitor was known as Mr. Guess Who, given name Robert Henry Best. A radio broadcaster, he worked for the Nazis, broadcasting their propaganda throughout the war.


An American journalist in Austria

Nothing in Best’s early life gave any sign of the traitorous tendencies that would define his adulthood. He was born in Sumter, South Carolina, the son of a Methodist minister, in 1896. He graduated from Wotford College in 1917, and joined the Army later that year, where he remained until 1920. After doing his stint in the Army, he attended the School of Journalism at Columbia. After graduating in 1922, he traveled throughout Europe, eventually winding up in Vienna, Austria in 1923, where he wrote as a freelance correspondent for the United Press and other institutions.

Evidently, Best took well to life in Vienna because he remained there for fifteen years. That is, until the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938. Best began to be influenced by the Nazi ideology, no doubt a school of thought growing in popularity in Austria at the time (probably out of necessity.) By July of 1941, he was seemingly so distracted by his new Nazi pals that he let his work slip, and was fired by the United Press. He tried to get a job with the German State Radio, but had no luck. Later that year, the US declared war on Nazi Germany, and Best’s fortunes changed forever.


Journalist gone rogue

Once war was declared, Best was rounded up with a group of US reporters and detained at an internment camp in Bad Nauheim, awaiting deportation. However, Best opted to withdraw from a group of his fellow Americans who were to be exchanged, in order to stay with his fiance. He later was able to get permission to travel to Berlin, where he was recruited to the German State Radio.

In 1942, Best started work as a commentator in the USA Zone. He broadcast under the name “Mr. Guess Who,” and criticized Roosevelt, Churchill, the Jews, and the Soviet Union (check out one of his broadcasts, where he rants against Jews and announces his candidacy as a write in candidate for Congress, here.) Eager to please his new employers, he often suggested ways they could make their propaganda more effective.

Back in his old homeland, a grand jury in the District of Columbia indicted him in absentia on charges of treason. He was captured in 1946 by British forces in Austria, and arrived back in the US later that year. He stood trial at the Boston Federal District Court on March 29, 1948. He represented himself. After a short trial, he was convicted of twelve counts of treason, after admitting that he was responsible for authoring his broadcasts. The judge gave him a life sentence and fined him $10,000. He died in prison of a brain hemorrhage on December 16, 1952.



“Robert Henry Best.” July 1, 2014. Wikipedia. June 20, 2014.




War Plan Red: The US Plan to Invade Canada

800px-Flag_of_Canada.svgHistory is littered with plans that, had they been executed, would have changed the world into something unrecognizable today. How different would the world have been if, say, a giant dam had been built across the Straits of Gibraltar? Or if Churchill’s plan to attack Stalin’s forces in Europe actually been executed?

One such plan was concocted here in the US, nine years before World War II. America was a rising industrial power. This burgeoning power put it at odds with the large, well established nations of the world, including the mighty British Empire. Americans had long harbored a sense of resentment toward their former colonial rulers, and the British weren’t always exactly fond of the upstarts who managed to successfully rebel against their control. This did not stop the two powers from cooperating against the Central powers in WWI, but in the wake of the bloodiest war in history up to that point, old resentments began to surface. Britain owed the US a substantial war debt, a fact that didn’t sit will with either side. Besides that, in the 1930s the Nazi influence in Europe was growing, and Nazi sympathizers were gaining traction in the US, causing even more tensions between the two world powers.

It was during this climate of tension when US officials drew up several war contingency plans, including one against their most dangerous enemy, dubbed the Red Empire: the British Empire. Dubbed Plan Red, it would have entailed nothing short of a global war that would have brought Britain to her knees and expanded US territory into Canada.


A devastating attack

US battleships in World War II. Similar ships would have been use against the British in the event of a war.

US battleships in World War II. Similar ships would have been use against the British in the event of a war.

The primary focus of War Plan Red was America’s northern neighbor. Part of the British Commonwealth, Canada would have been a springboard for British troops to invade the US heartland. So, taking Canada would have disabled any British land response, with the added bonus of disrupting English shipping. The war would have turned into a naval battle, which despite Britain’s much vaunted navy would have likely turned in the American’s favor due to the fact that England’s navy was spread thin over the world, trying to defend its trade routes. A strong blockade of the British Isles might have succeeded in bringing the empire to its knees.

Most of the plan, though, seemed to focus on destroying Canada. The attack would have been a multi-pronged offensive against several key targets. The plan called for occupying Halifax, Nova Scotia after a poison gas strike. Strikes on Montreal and Quebec, out of New York and Vermont, respectively, would cut off the rest of Canada from its eastern seaboard. Simultaneous attacks from Buffalo across the Niagra river, from Detroit into Ontario, and from Sault Ste. Marie into Sudbury would disable the area around the Great Lakes and grab control of the Canadian industrial heartland, while simultaneously protecting America’s industrial heartland from British air attacks. American forces striking out of Grand Forks, North Dakota would take Winnipeg, a key railroad nexus. Finally, a American forces moving out of Washington state could take Vancouver and cut off Canada from support from Britain’s Pacific Fleet.

There was enough enthusiasm for the plan among American officials, military and civilian alike, that early steps at implementation were made. Charles Lindbergh, famous pilot and Nazi sympathizer, was sent as a spy to the Hudson Bay region to investigate how feasible the possibility of using sea planes for the war effort would be. Four years later,  Congress earmarked $57 million to build three secret airfields on the US side of the Canadian border. The airfields were concealed by grassing over their landing strips.


British and Canadian response; the plan is abandoned

Despite the extreme secrecy surrounding War Plan Red, Lieutenant James “Buster” Sutherland Brown was appointed Director of Military Operations and Intelligence in Ottawa, and tasked with concocting a plan to counter US aggression. His plans were dubbed Defence Scheme No.1″ The plan involved lightning attacks into key targets in the northern sections of America, including New York and Seattle. These attacks were meant to be distractions to buy time for British forces to reinforce Canada. The plan was abandoned in 1930, soon after War Plan Red was officially adopted in the US, as Canadian officials believed that a war with America was unwinnable.

Despite the preparations for war, the US never came any closer to implementing War Plan Red. On June 15, 1939, US officials quietly stopped actively planning for war with Canada, but the plans were retained regardless. Events in Europe and elsewhere soon shifted the relationship between the two powers. Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, plunging Europe into war once again. Americans were initially unwilling to join another European conflict, but soon the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor thrusted the US into world events, bringing the Americans into the war on the side of Britain and her allies, beginning an alliance between the two nations that remains until today.



Chossudovsky, Michel. “Reflecting on Canada’s National Sovereignty: America’s Plan to Annex and Invade Canada.” June 30, 2013. Global Research. June 20, 2014.



Ghost Ship of the Arctic–The SS Baychimo

SS Baychimo, 1931

SS Baychimo, 1931

Thousands of ships ply our oceans and waterways every day. It might seem strange these days, but ocean shipping is still a primary means of trade and transport. Inevitably, with so many ships floating around, some are bound to go missing. Often they wreck and slip beneath the waves, never to be seen again. Others are abandoned, and wind up adrift or beached. Some few become ghost ships, entering the popular imagination by seeming to appear and disappear. One such ghost ship, the Ghost Ship of the Arctic, was the SS Baychimo.


An ill-fated voyage

The SS Baychimo was originally launched in 1915. The 1300 ton steamship was dubbed the Angermanalfven, and its first job was to go between the ports of northern Germany and Sweden. She wound up coming into British hands after World War I as a part of the crippling reparations the Allies imposed on Germany. The Hudson Bay company purchased the ship in 1921 and dubbed it the Baychimo.

Baychimo wintered in Ardrossan, and would sail every spring for north Alaska. She made this expedition nine times. For what would be her tenth and final voyage in 1931, she left port as usual. She reached the trading area on the north coast of Alaska by the end of July 1931. Winter came early that year, and by early October the Baychimo and her crew were trapped in pack-ice about a mile and a half from the shore, west of Point Barrow.

The crew recognized that they were in very real danger. The ice all around them could easily crush their ship;. They abandoned ship and crossed the ice. They sent out an SOS and twenty-two of them were rescued by ski-plane. Captain Cornwell and fifteen crewmen remained nearby, not willing to abandon the ship’s valuable cargo of furs. Crewmen constructed a makeshift cabin out of bits of the Baychimo and kept a frosty watch on the trapped ship, hoping that the ice would break up enough to let them steer her home.

Then on November 24th, a huge storm hit that trapped the men in their abode for three days. When they managed to dig themselves out, they found that the Baychimo had disappeared. By February 1932, the men were rescued. The Baychimo, however, remained missing.


An elusive hulk

The first sighting of the ghost ship came on 1932, when she was seen by a man traveling from Herschel to Nome saw her embedded in ice. She was boarded twice by members of a schooner called Trader–first in 1935 and again in 1939–who found an untouched snippet of sea-going life, from charts and navigational instruments to books to an intact kitchen.

Eskimos continued to report seeing her for years. She was also seen by naval personnel during World War Two. Stories of these sightings led the Baychimo to be dubbed the “Ghost Ship of the Arctic.” The last time she was sighted was in 1969, near where her last ill-fated voyage ended.

Some may wonder if she may still be floating up there around the lonely seas of the Arctic. That is not likely. It was amazing that she could survive more than thirty years with no maintenance in one of the most hostile environments on the planet. The odds that she survived another forty are pretty long. Odds are she slipped under the icy waves when her hull finally gave out. But then no one saw it happen, so who can say?



Bolton, Alan. “My Grandfather’s Life: S.S. Bayeskimo & S.S. Baychimo.” 2014. A. Bolton’s Website. July 2014.


Harper, Kenn. “Taissumani: A day in Arctic History Nov. 24 1931—Ghost Ship: The Disappearance of the Baychimo.” November 24, 2006. Nunatsiaq Online. July 2014.


The 1958 Ford Nucleon: A Nuclear-Powered Car

Ford Nucleon concept car. Image Credit: Ford Motor Company

“Ford Nucleon” by Ford Motor Company. Licensed under Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of Ford Nucleon via Wikipedia –

There was a time in the 20th century when slapping nuclear devices into just about any machine seemed like a good plan, no matter how ill-advised the idea might turn out to be. And why not? During the 1950s, it seemed like the atom could do anything. Revelations about how nasty radiation was (and the lengths to which the government would go to find that out) would come later, but for a time that unbridled optimism led people to see a rosy future on the horizon.

This optimism infected the Ford Motor Company. No stranger to outlandish ideas, Ford tried to top itself in the era of the atom. Their engineers designed a car that could go 5,000 miles without refueling. The only hitch? It was powered by a miniature nuclear reactor. The 1958 Ford Nucleon was built to be the car of the future, one where people whizzed across the American landscape in vehicles powered by nuclear fuel.


Powering your drive with the atom

The Nucleon looked suitably futuristic, in the now retro way of the 1950s: all fins and rounded edges, looking a bit like a jet on four wheels. The rear section of the vehicle was where the nuclear reactor and its shielding would be housed, between twin booms. The miniature reactor, or a so-called “power capsule,” would need to be replaced at specialized service stations that would no doubt be staffed by someone more qualified than a bored high school kid, since they’d have to be handling radioactive material.

Drivers and passengers would be seated in a cab-over configuration similar to a van. Air intakes on the roof would draw in air to ventilate the cab (nothing on how the reactor itself would be cooled. Something more substantial than airflow would be needed.) The atomic engine would power the car by heating water which would boil into steam and spin a turbine, producing electricity. The electricity would drive the wheels using electronic torque converters.


An ambitious idea never makes it to production

The Nucleon concept was more ambitious than practical. A nuclear reactor compact enough to put into a car simply did not exist. Even if one did, the shielding needed to protect the drivers would make the car way to heavy to produce economically. Also the concept of nuclear powered cars hurtling down the interstate is pretty terrifying. An accident with gas powered vehicles is horrifying enough as it is, but a nuclear powered car would turn an accident site into a mini Chernobyl. The Nucleon was never more than a 3/8 scale model.

However, the project was not a complete bust. The electronic torque converters have since found use in hybrid cars, and could be used to help power electric cars that run on fuel sources far safer than a mobile fission reactor.



Bumbeck, Mike. “1958 Ford Nucleon.” February 2011. Hemmings. June 8, 2014.

The Radium Girls

Radium girls at work.

Radium girls at work.

The twentieth century was the century of the atom. The discovery of atomic power launched many of the technological leaps–directly or indirectly–that defined the most tumultuous century in human history. Atomic power led to the development of weapons that could destroy an entire city in one fell swoop. It defined the course of the Cold War and powered the biggest man-made explosion in history.

These days radioactive materials are viewed as toxic substances that should be handled with extreme caution in controlled environments. This was not always the case. In the early days of the twentieth century, radioactive elements were seen as quasi-magical wonder materials that could perform amazing feats, including provide miracle cures to daily ailments. Another quality of radioactive materials, in this case radium, was that they could glow in the dark. This provided obvious benefits to watch-makers, whose product became rather harder to use at night. Radioactive glow in the dark watches were used by American soldiers in the trenches of World War I. After the war, America fell in love with the high tech time pieces, which glowed with a bluish light thanks to the radium laden paint used to outline the time piece. This fad led to an important but often forgotten chapter in the history of atomic power and labor alike–the Radium Girls.


A great job for girls

Outlining the faces of the glow in the dark watches required keen eyesight and precise hand work. Women and girls were seen as perfect candidates for the job for that reason. When the fad hit America full force, watch companies around the country employed about 4000 women and girls–some as young as fifteen–in their factories for the task. They were paid a cent and a half for each dial they painted, and they worked five and a half days a week. An average dial painter would paint 250 a day, while the really skillful ones would double that. They worked in studios where they mixed the paint from various powders containing radium.

Until the 1920s, the girls were encouraged to put their paint brushes in their mouth to shape the tip into a fine point. Creatively called lip pointing, the technique allowed them to paint the tiny digits onto the watch dials more precisely and quickly. it also coated their mouths and lips with radioactive radium. Some of the women found their mouths would glow blue after a shift at the factory. Many saw the glow as a novelty, and had no problem painting their lips, shirt buttons, eyelids, and fingernails with the deadly solution.

While this is horrifying to modern readers, steeped in decades of knowledge of just how nasty radiation can be (nasty enough that our own government became body snatchers to study its effects), it should be born in mind that the effects of radiation were not as well understood back then. Well, among the general public. Scientists were starting to understand the health effects of radiation, and the higher ups at the watch making companies almost certainly knew. The public would begin to get an inkling in the twenties, when mysterious illnesses began to plague the Radium Girls.


Terrible deaths

The first signs that something was terribly wrong came when some of the women began to suffer from anemia, fatigue, and tooth troubles. Dentists who tried to extract the problem teeth found that whole chunks of the jawbone would come along with them. Infection would set into the extraction site. Without modern antibiotics, those afflicted with “radium jaw”, as it came to be known, would soon die. By 1923, five young women in New Jersey were dead, and more were starting to show similar symptoms in other states. Meanwhile, other painters developed bone cancer.

While the epidemic of disease left doctors at the time baffled, we now know how radium works its deadly magic in the body. It turns out that radium has some chemical properties similar to calcium, enough that the body can mistake the radioactive element for the necessary mineral and incorporate it into bones. When the radium is fixed into bones, it continues to release radiation, killing or mutating nearby cells. It turned out that this property of the element was the cause of the illnesses among the Radium Girls. Many of the girls’ bodies became radioactive enough that the government would later disinter the remains and study them (along with their still living counterparts) to figure out how much radiation a person could safely absorb before it started to have negative effects.

It has been tough to figure out just how many women were injured or killed by radium ingested on the factory floor. At least 30 died in Connecticut, while 35 died in Illinois and 41 in New Jersey. Incidences of breast cancer and other cancers among the population of Radium Girls could not be directly linked to the radium exposure.

The deadly practice of lip pointing was abolished and painters were given protective gear. Incidences of cancers among painters dropped dramatically by the late 1920s. It was too little too late for those who had died or had their health ruined by radium, though. Several families pursued legal action against the watch companies, but results were a mixed bag. Some received settlements, including payments for damages and ongoing financial support for health issues stemming from exposure, while others received a fat lot of nothing. All of this, to produce $1 novelty watches.

Nowadays the Radium Girls are largely forgotten. Most have passed on, whether due to illness or simply the ravages of time. But their impact on the world of work and health will remain. theirs was the first instance where radioactive elements were linked to severe health impacts. Their suffering changed how industry, medicine, and government viewed the supposed miracle substances and helped pave the way toward the health and safety policies of the modern world.



Grady, Denise. “A Glow in the Dark, and a Lesson in Scientific Peril.” October 6, 1998. The New York Times. May 24, 2014.

Quigley, Ann. “After Glow–90 Years Ago Workers at the Waterbury Clock Company Began Dying after Painting Radium on Clock Dials.” October 30, 2011. The Waterbury Observer. May 24, 2014.


The Third Wave: The Experiment that Turned High Schoolers into proto-Nazis

American troops guarding the gates of the infamous concentration camp, Dachau

American troops guarding the gates of the infamous concentration camp, Dachau

The crimes of the Nazi regime baffle the ability for the human mind to comprehend them. The Nazis were not only responsible for plunging the world into a war that would kill 60 to 100 million people in six years, but they perpetrated the Holocaust, the most infamous genocide in history where more than 6 million people, mostly Jewish people but also homosexuals, the infirm, the mentally ill, Gypsies, and other groups the Nazis dubbed inferior.

Ever since the collapse of the Nazi empire and the revelations concerning their evil deeds, science has tried to understand how things could go so wrong. Many psychological and sociological experiments were performed in the wake of the atrocities to try and understand how such a thing could happen. The most infamous of these was the Milgram experiment, where participants administered deadly shocks to people on the order of men dressed as doctors.

The most unorthodox and frightening of these journeys into the human psyche was not performed by a scientist at all. His name was Ron Jones, and he was a high school history teacher. In April of 1967, at Cubberly High School in Northern California, he was teaching his students about Nazi Germany when one of them asked how the German citizens could ignore the slaughter of the Jews in their midst? How could they claim ignorance, or, worse, that they were just doing their jobs? It’s a question many have asked in the decades since World War II. Jones found himself without an answer, so he formulated an on the fly experiment to delve into the German mindset. What followed was five days when a teacher’s demonstration flew out of control and founded a proto-fascist movement called the Third Wave.


Five days in the Nazi brain

The exercise started innocuously enough. Jones began by introducing to a key quality that allowed the Nazis to turn otherwise normal people into monsters: discipline. He lectured on how discipline was a powerful force that allowed a person to control their destiny and triumph over their more basic urges. It was the force that drove athletes, artists, and scientists alike to succeed in their fields. He then gave a simple exercise in discipline: he ordered his students to adopt a strict, upright seating posture. He drilled them to take this posture immediately upon entering the classroom by having them stand and then sit at attention as quickly as possible. What surprised Jones was how fast the students took to the strict discipline; in fact, many of them seemed to enjoy it. What surprised him even more was that on the second day he walked into the classroom and found them all sitting at attention.

Continuing the experiment. Jones wrote two messages on the blackboard: “Strength through discipline” and “Strength through community.” He lectured on the value of community, and then had the class recite the two phrases in unison. Jones himself became sucked into the building sense of unity, feeling less like an instructor or even an experimenter, but rather a leader of a group that he’d created himself. By the end of the class, he spontaneously created a distinct salute to only be used among the group. He called it the Third Wave salute because the hand position resembled an ocean wave. The name itself, Third Wave, came to define the group. Surfer lore holds that waves come in three, with the third being the biggest.

A funny thing happened then. The students began to greet each other using the salute. Other students saw this, and soon students from other classes began to ask if they could join the group. On day three, thirteen students cut class to join Jones’ class. That day he issued membership cards to identify members. He then lectured on the importance of taking action as the community and for the community. He gave students assignments to do on behalf of the group, from designing banners to guarding the classroom door. Perhaps most disturbing was the three students he assigned to police the others, telling them to report when other students criticized the movement or broke classroom rules. He also set up a mechanism by which other students at the high school could join the group.

Things began to get out of control by this point. Many students clamored to join the group. Even teachers and administrators started to adopt the Third Wave salute. The three students assigned to police the group were soon joined by about half the Third Wave members, who kept wary eyes on one another in search of even the smallest infraction. Jones began to agonize over what he had started. He found himself the accidental dictator of a proto-fascist group.


The demise of the Third Wave

"Bundesarchiv Bild 102-04062A, Nürnberg, Reichsparteitag, SA- und SS-Appell" by Unknown - This image was provided to Wikimedia Commons by the German Federal Archive (Deutsches Bundesarchiv) as part of a cooperation project. The German Federal Archive guarantees an authentic representation only using the originals (negative and/or positive), resp. the digitalization of the originals as provided by the Digital Image Archive.. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0-de via Wikimedia Commons -,_N%C3%BCrnberg,_Reichsparteitag,_SA-_und_SS-Appell.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_102-04062A,_N%C3%BCrnberg,_Reichsparteitag,_SA-_und_SS-Appell.jpg

Photo from the Nuremburg Rally of 1934. Source: Wikipedia/German Federal Archive

By Thursday of that week, Jones began to try and bring the experiment to a close. Many students were becoming far too engrossed in the Third Wave; it was becoming the main thing in their lives. Students were cutting class to join the group. School counselors were beginning to investigate the Third Wave. Eighty students crammed themselves into Jones’ classroom that day, eagerly awaiting the next lecture. Jones confided to the group that they were a part of a nationwide movement aimed at spurring young people to change the way society is run. It was not an experiment: It was a revolution. Their leader would reveal himself the next day at a noon rally for Third Wave members.

The students were thrilled. The next day some 200 students gathered in the gym. Jones had set up a television set that would supposedly broadcast the leader’s message. The students were confused when the television played nothing but static. Jones revealed that there was no leader, that the whole experiment was just that, an experiment. He then turned on a projector showing clips from the Nuremberg rallies. He said that they had fallen into the German mindset, giving up their individuality to the group, based on the idea that they were somehow superior to others by being part of the group. The students were horrified. Many started to cry, while others sat in shock.

Once the “rally” ended, the Third Wave was over. Jones was fired two years later, although not explicitly for the Third Wave experiment. Jones feels remorse for the experiment, wishing that he had ended it long before he accidentally formed a teenage fascist party.



Jones, Ron. “The third wave, 1967: an account – Ron Jones.” October 14, 2008. July 13, 2014


Not Exactly Pocket Change: The Giant Stone Currency of the Yap

Stone money on bamboo pools.

Stone money on bamboo pools.

Mysterious stone structures dot this world, inspiring awe in anyone who happens to stumble across them. Today, the people who built them are often long since gone, leaving archeologists to piece together their purpose from what remains. For example, in Costa Rica, workers on banana plantations began to discover strange stone balls as they cut back the jungle to clear land for planting. First studied in 1930, the stone balls are as mysterious today as when they were first uncovered. Several hundred have been found, but even now their purpose for being built is unclear.

Older and more famous than the stone balls are the moai of Easter Island. These mute stone monoliths, most likely carved in the likeness of great chiefs, stand in lonely vigil over a ruined island. It is widely believed that the construction of the moai was what brought about the ecological devastation that ended the once thriving civilization of Easter Island.

Of course, not all mystery structures bring about the end of the civilization that builds them. A more modern megalith, built right here in the United States, was designed to survive the end of the world. The Georgia Guidestones are massive concrete slabs that are covered with instructions, written in several languages, for restarting  civilization. Very little is known about who constructed them or why, proving that mysteries don’t have to be ancient to be puzzling and nearly unsolvable.

The stone wheels of the Yap, a people who live on a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean, would on the surface seem to be a mystery on par with the moai or the stone balls. Flat disks carved out of limestone, measuring anywhere from a foot to twelve feet in diameter and weighing up to as much as a car, these structures litter the island. However, there is no mystery to their usage, in part because the people of Yap still remain to tell us what they were used for. Strange as it sounds, the Yap used the giant stones for a startlingly mundane use: money.


Presentation of Yapese stone money for FSM inagauration.

Presentation of Yapese stone money for FSM inagauration.

Hard currency

Hundreds of years ago, Yap explorers ventured out across hundreds of miles of ocean in their bamboo canoes. It isn’t clear what they were seeking, although Polynesian cultures have a long history of exploration (which explains how they ended up living in some of the most remote places on earth.) What they found was the island of Palau, and a beautiful substance they had never seen before: limestone. The Yap secured rights to a limestone quarry from the people of Palau, and began to quarry the limestone with sea shell tools. The stone disks they produced–called “rai”–featured a large hole in the center, allowing bamboo poles to be inserted for transportation to their canoes.

The giant disks caused quite a stir back on their home island. The Yap decided the beautiful new objects would be a form of currency, a sign of wealth and status. They began to be “exchanged,” mostly for large deals like wedding dowries or as parts of political deals between villages. They rarely traded hands in reality though–the owners would agree that the rai had changed hands, and everyone would accept that the stone sitting in the village square (or wherever it happened to be) now belonged to a new owner.

A rai didn’t have to be in the village to be traded on the market. The Yap tell of one rai, of extraordinary size and quality, that was lost during transport. A storm kicked up while the disk was being moved from the quarry at Palau to Yap, and the men moving it were forced to cut it loose to survive. When they returned home, they told the story and everyone accepted it as true. So, a family could own this rai that was now under hundreds of feet of water. In fact, it was more valuable because of the story behind it. The value of a rai was determined not only by its size and beauty, but by the story behind it. If the disk was particularly difficult to move, or if people died while it was being quarried or transported, it was worth more.


Basically the same as stone money, just a lot more portable.

Basically the same as stone money, just a lot more portable.

Not as strange as it sounds

It’d be pretty easy for a modern American to mock the Yap for their strange form of currency. After all, why would you want to use giant rocks for currency? After all, they’d be pretty difficult to carry with you to, say, the grocery store when it was time to restock the cupboards. Cashiers would have to either use a forklift or be power lifters in a world where rai were money!

But that is because we are used to using dollars and change as our unit of exchange (also add to that the fact that moderns tend to look down on more “primitive” cultures.) But, really, our system of currency isn’t all that much different. When you store your money in a bank, it isn’t sitting in a safe with your name on it waiting for you to return. Banks use that money to lend to other people; your bank account is just an agreement between you and the bank that “x” amount of money is yours. You take it on faith that the bank will have that money. It’s the same with stocks–you buy a share in a company, but it isn’t as if you can go up to, say, Google Headquarters, and lay claim to a corner of the building as “yours.” It’s just an agreement between you and the company that you own “x” amount. It’s the same with bonds and other financial instruments.

But everyone knows that, right? What about supposedly more tangible assets, like gold? Gold is rare, shiny, and doesn’t corrode. People have drooled over it for thousand of years, coveting it as an incredibly valuable substance. It has been the basis of currency for many cultures for thousands of years. But why is it valuable? Again, it’s rare, people like how it looks, and it stays looking good for a long time. The same could be said for limestone among the Yap–many of the stones have been passed down from family to family for generations. It “holds its value,” making it like gold to the Yap. Limestone can’t be found on Yap, but can only be transported from Palau with a great amount of effort, so it is definitely rare. Basically, the rai are the Yap’s version of gold.

So, the rai system is not as strange as it looks on the surface. The Yap developed an economic system similar in a lot of ways to our own, just with an emphasis on a different type of material. These days, though, the Yap mainly use the American dollar for their monetary needs. The rai are only exchanged as part of traditional ceremonies. And yes, someone still owns that rai sitting there on the bottom of the ocean.



Atlas Obscura, “Cash, Card, or Car-Sized Stone: Payment Options on the Island of Yap.” Slate, June 25, 2014.

Friedman, Milton. “The Island of Stone Money.” Working Papers in Economics E-91-2 (1991).

Goldstein, Jacob. “The Island of Stone Money.” December 10, 2010. NPR. June 25, 2014.





Elizabeth Bathory–Queen of the Serial Killers

A portrait of the Blood Countess, Elizabeth Bathory.

A portrait of the Blood Countess, Elizabeth Bathory.

Serial killers are the monsters of the modern world. They haunt the cities and countryside of America, preying upon the most vulnerable among us to fulfill their sick and twisted needs. Most often, serial killers are men who kill to derive pleasure of some sort be it sexual, psychological, or both.

Many believe the man who began this trend, the first serial killer in history, was Jack the Ripper, that mysterious madman who terrorized Whitechapel in 1888. However, as often turns out to be the case, popular opinion is wrong on this count. The first recorded serial killer in history (although I’m certain there have been serial killers as long as there have been people) lived about three hundred years before Jack the Ripper stalked his first victim that chilly London night. Her name was Elizabeth Bathory, and she stands as the queen of serial killers with a body count that is said to dwarf that of even the most vicious modern madman.


Royal. Beautiful. Deadly.

Elizabeth was born August of 1560 to a powerful branch of the royal family in Hungary. She was brought up in the rarefied atmosphere of 16th century elites – her every whim was satisfied, and people from all walks of life fawned over the beautiful aristocrat. And she was a beauty by the standards of the day, with her porcelain white skin and hair the color of raven’s feathers. In addition to beauty, she had brains too–she could speak four languages, ran her husband’s estate while he was off fighting the Ottoman Empire, and even defended said estates when the Ottomans invaded Hungary and struck out toward Vienna.

Beauty and brains could not compensate for the ugliness that lay deep inside her, though. Elizabeth was a narcissist who changed her clothes six times a day and was known to spend hours admiring her own beauty in the mirror. She was impulsive and had a violent temper, and was known to lash out at her servants in a fit of rage, beating them senseless for the most minor of offenses. She was not the good, faithful wife her husband (who was a brutal, unsavory fellow himself) would have liked and expected her to be–she was rumored to participate in sadomasochistic orgies, often forcing her victims to participate on the threat of severe beatings and other torture. Beside that, she took many lovers both male and female.

Rumors spoke of even darker habits. She allegedly participated in satanic rituals and other dark rites, which often involved the torture or death of her hapless servant girls.

Like any serial killer, Elizabeth Bathory had a modus operandi, or a distinct way of going about her crimes. Often in this sort of case the MO involves some kind of ritual, and victims with similar attributes are targeted each time. Most of the time the victims are vulnerable people who won’t be missed by the larger society–the homeless, runaways, and people in poverty stricken areas.

Bathory acted in a similar manner, but with one fundamental difference–in her world, she ruled. Her primary home was Cseltje Castle, which lay in the Little Carpathians. It was a fairly isolated area, and she had complete control over the lives of the peasants living in the seventeen villages on her estates. There literally was no risk of punishment–in that time, the nobles could basically do as they pleased and mistreatment of their social inferiors was commonplace and even accepted. However, the horrors to come would be appalling even for their day.

The killer aristocrat targeted lovely peasant girls and women, who she lured to the castle with promises of jobs and decent pay. Sometimes though she eschewed this formality and simply had the girls abducted and brought back to her chambers of death. When they were brought back to the castle, Bathory and four of her collaborators subjected the girls to terrible torture. She would beat them senseless then cut them with razors. She also enjoyed sticking them with pins and scissors, and burning with candles and hot pokers were two other favorites.

In addition to the torture and humiliation, she sexually assaulted her victims, often by forcing them to take part in the aforementioned orgies, and at least once by performing genital mutilation with a hot poker.


Was Bathory a vampire?

Many of her victims were found covered in bite marks, some having even been bitten to death. This, coupled with the tremendous vanity that marked her personality, leads many to believe that Bathory was a vampire. The story goes that once a servant girl was braiding Bathory’s hair when she pulled too hard. The enraged aristocrat walloped her unfortunate servant upside the head, so hard the girl’s nose gushed blood that spattered spots on Bathory’s face. One of her later collaborators noted that the skin where the blood had been seemed whiter and more fair than the surrounding skin. From this incident, so it goes, Bathory became convinced that bathing in the blood of slaughtered servant girls would keep her young forever.

It’s also widely believed that hearing this story, along with the story of that other alleged blood sucker, Vlad Dracula, inspired Bram Stoker to write his iconic vampire story. These stories, both of them, are nothing more than stories. There is no evidence from the earliest sources documenting the Bathory case that she bathed in or drank the blood of her victims, or that she believed doing so would make her younger. These stories are embellishments added by later authors.

Could she have done either one? It’s possible. She was allegedly involved in black magic rituals, so it could be possible she used the blood for ritual purposes. It seems more likely that she had a fetish for violence and blood, and the sadistic cruelty she subjected her poor victims to fulfilled that need, rather than any need for eternal youth. And as for Bram Stoker being inspired by her story, it’s likely he was aware of it but just because he was doesn’t mean it was the one causative idea that lead to “Dracula”. He was well versed in the folklore of East Europe, and it seems most of the attributes of Dracula were taken from the nosferatu legends endemic to that area. And on a side note, Dracula was only loosely based on Vlad Dracula…basically, Stoker liked the name Dracula and lifted it for his own use.


The downfall of Elizabeth Bathory

Eventually, Elizabeth Bathory began to believe she was untouchable. Who could blame her, since she was an aristocrat and royalty? But eventually she committed a crime whose consequences even her position among Hungarian royalty couldn’t protect her from.

Killing commoners got to be a bit boring, so Bathory decided it would be entertaining to go after a bit tougher prey. She decided she would open a school for the children of nobility, where they could come to her castle and learn etiquette. Once the first of her students arrived, Bathory almost immediately began to abuse them. However, when a daughter of a lesser noble died, the jig was up. There was a half baked attempt at a coverup, but soon the evidence mounted against the Blood Countess and her collaborators and they were outed for what they were – cold blooded killers.

The crime was horrendous, even by the standards of the day (remember, this a time when a plague could come through and wipe out half a city in a matter of weeks, when torture was an accepted part of the legal system and when nobles still had the power of life and death over their serfs). Two of Bathory’s collaborators were brutally executed, tortured then burned alive, while another was beheaded and the fourth jailed for fifteen years. The Blood Countess herself, being royalty,w as immune from execution. Instead, she was walled into her apartments in her own castle, where she lived out the last four years of her life. The legend goes that she couldn’t live without the blood of servant girls to sustain her youth.

That of course is only a legend, but maybe in her own way Bathory WAS a vampire. Her Ego fed off of the praise and the suffering of others. Maybe being walled away, cut off from all the praise and power she’d grown accustomed to, unable to indulge her sick fantasies, was too much for her. Maybe she just gave up living. No matter how it happened, we do know she died in 1614.

At the end of the day, Bathory stands alone amongst the ranks of the most depraved people in history. Her body count is the highest of all the known serial killers. The tallies vary wildly, and there is a lot of debate over what the right number is, but she and her collaborators were indicted on 80 counts of murder. The records from the time though put the count at upwards of 650, a number so huge as to be mind boggling. Some reject the number as too large, accepting the smaller (but still mind bogglingly huge) count of 300 victims. One source at the time counted “only” 37, but with the caveat that those where only the ones he was aware of.

It should be mentioned that some scholars believe that the entire case was fabricated to destroy Bathory. She was a powerful woman who ran her own estates, in a time when women were supposed to be meek and mild and let men run things. Perhaps the accusations were politically motivated, and allowed Bathory’s relatives to lay claim to the land that had once belonged to her husband and became hers upon his death. The lurid tales of torture and murder could have been meant to shock the public and turn opinion against Bathory.

But perhaps not. Maybe events really did transpire as laid out in court accounts. If so, that would rank Bathory as among the most deadly women in history. Whether or not the story is true, it has become the way that history remembers Elizabeth Bathory. After 400 years, it isn’t likely the truth behind the case will come to light. Only the legend remains.



“Elizabeth Bathory–Wikipedia.” February 25, 2015. Wikipedia. February 28, 2015.

Malathronas, John. “On the trail of the ‘Blood Countess’ in Slovakia.” October 30, 2014. CNN. February 28, 2015.

Pallardy, Richard. “Elizabeth Bathory.” February 24, 2014. Encyclopedia Britannica. February 28, 2015.