Monthly Archives: November 2014

History, Context, and Changes Coming to Oddly Historical

Normally, I stay behind the scenes on this site. After all, I cover some pretty big personalities here, and there’s really no reason for me to interject myself into the situation. I’m a big believer in reducing authorial interference as much as possible. Unless, of course, it helps to do so. In the case of this blog, this is one instance where doing so is justified.

I’ve recently had cause to rethink my approach to the blog. Of all things, it began on Facebook. I saw a post paralleling the modern debate over gun rights here in the US to the actions of Hitler in Nazi Germany in the run up to World War II. This isn’t unusual, of course, especially where I live. However, that day I decided to do a bit of myth busting and wrote a fairly long Facebook post about actual Nazi German gun laws, as opposed to how they’re presented in today’s current political morass (this, by the way, will be the subject of a future post, but more on how posts will change later.)

Surprisingly, comments on my miniature Oddly Historical post I slapped together on my Facebook page where positive. One struck me though, because it mentioned how important context is. This made me think about how I approached this blog in the past. It began mostly to indulge my twin interests in weird stuff and history. Like peanut butter and chocolate, they went together pretty well. The concept was to highlight the bits of history that textbooks forgot. History has a bad reputation for being a dry, boring topic. I hoped to show, through some of the stranger bits of the past, how history could actually be very entertaining. However, something was missing, and that comment on what amounted to a Facebook rant put it into perspective: the site lacked any kind of context. It was just a bunch of stuff, all crammed together with no rhyme or reason.

The problem is that I’m not entirely sure how to tackle the problem. After all, with just over a hundred posts in a nine month span, the site has a fair bit of momentum. The solution I have landed on wraps into other changes I’ve been toying with for awhile. The first is to reduce the posting schedule from twice a week to once a week. I’d like to post more, of course, but I work blog around a day job, and sometimes there just is not time or energy to put toward writing. This will allow me to spend more time doing research on each post, hopefully leading to more in depth and better quality posts in the future. Regular posts will be on Saturdays from now on. I intend to give more context within the posts themselves, explaining how the events mesh into current events of the day and the impact they had on our world today. Some posts will, by the nature of the subject matter, be essentially one offs, because some things are just too weird not to share, but by and large I’ll try to demonstrate exactly why all these odd incidents have some relevance.

This scheduling change doesn’t preclude multiple posts during the week. I want to limit longer, research intensive articles to once a week, but I’ve been toying with the idea of editorial style articles (a bit like this one!) that require little or no research to produce. Basically, they’d synthesize the bits and pieces of subject matter into something halfway coherent. I’m also toying with the idea of doing some sort of mini post, but I haven’t decided how to go about that yet.  Also, I’m toying with the idea of building some sort of index page. There isn’t a whole lot of organization on the site at the moment. I’m trying to figure out a way to remedy that situation that doesn’t involve a complete overhaul.

Time will tell how things will turn out. But I’m having fun, and that’s what matters. I hope you are having fun too, and that you’ll join me in these changes. Let me know what you might want to see on the site, be it subject matter or features. I appreciate any input!

 

Rosalie Lombardo–The Sleeping Beauty of the Capuchin Tombs

640px-Palermo_Rosalia_LombardoThe Capuchin monastery in Palermo, Italy is home to a catacomb, famous for its well preserved mummies. Monks began to enshrine their hallowed dead in the cool, dry caves in the year 1599. They dried the bodies to preserve them, then clothed the mummies and stood them upright along the walls. Since the 16th century, the tombs have become home to people of all walks of life. Nearly 8000 mummies are housed in rooms divided according to the status and gender of the decedents. There are rooms dedicated to brother monks, adult men, women, children, government workers, and doctors, among other professions. Some lay in state in coffins, while others line the walls as described earlier. Families of the deceased come periodically to visit the dead and change their clothing.

Tourists also visit the tomb, many of them drawn by the catacomb’s most famous resident. In 1920, Rosalie Lombardo died of pneumonia at the tender age of two. Her father, grieved at the loss of his beautiful little girl, turned to Alfredo Salafia, a Sicilian taxidermist and embalmer, to preserve her body for all time. The embalmer used his secret concoction on her little body, and the results remain stunning to this day: Rosalie looks as if she is asleep, rather than dead. The only sign of decay is a slight yellowing of the skin.

 

The Blinking Mummy

Her uncanny appearance has led to the rumor that, if one watches closely enough, they could see her opening her eyes. Recently, a time lapse video circulated that seemed to clearly show this phenomena at work. Spooky as the visual evidence is, as is often the case in supposed paranormal phenomena the explanation is mundane. Rosalie’s eyes were never completely closed in the first place. The effect is more due to the angles of light as it filters through a side window. In addition, her body currently lay in a different position than it used to, because she was put in a new glass case designed to preserve her remains longer. The new position makes her eyelids more visible. The phenomena does reveal how well Salafia’s work has held up: her eyes remain a striking blue, even after 90 years.

While nothing paranormal can be associated with Rosalie’s remains, the real mystery around the mummy has recently been solved. Salafia never revealed the formula used to preserve the girl’s body, and when he died in 1933 he took the secret with him.

 

A long standing mystery, solved

However, in 2009 Dario Piombino-Mascali, a biological anthropologist of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano, managed to discover the formula. He tracked down living relatives of Salafia, and found among the deceased embalmer’s papers a memoir where he recorded the chemicals used to preserve little Rosalie. They included formalin (a mix of formaldehyde and water), zinc salts, alcohol, salicylic acid, and glycerin.

The unique components of the mixture worked together to achieve Rosalie Lombardo’s uncanny state of preservation. Formalin would have killed any bacteria, while alcohol conspired with the catacomb air to dry out her body. Glycerin would have kept the drying from going too far and making her skin brittle. The salicylic acid prevented the growth of fungi. Zinc petrified her body, making her body rigid.

This concoction amazed modern embalmers for its sophistication, especially the use of zinc, which is largely responsible for her remarkable appearance. Salafia was a genius, and his work has stood the test of time. Rosalie Lombardo will be with us for decades to come thanks to his secret method, continuing to draw crowds of the living to the crypts of the dead.

 

 

Sources:

 

Lange, Karen. “Lost ‘Sleeping Beauty’ Mummy Formula Found.” News.NationalGeographic.com. January 26, 2009. National Geographic. October 22, 2014. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/01/090126-sicily-mummy.html

 

 

Lorenzi, Rossela. “Optical Illusion: Child Mummy Opens and Closes Eyes.” News.Discovery.com. June 20, 2014. Discovery.com. October 22, 2014. http://news.discovery.com/history/archaeology/optical-illusion-child-mummy-opens-and-closes-her-eyes-140620.htm

 

 

Quigley, Christine. Modern Mummies: the Preservation of the Human Body in the Twentieth Century. McFarland. April 1998. pg 52-54

 

Lange, Karen. “Lost ‘Sleeping Beauty’ Mummy Formula Found.” News.NationalGeographic.com. January 26, 2009. National Geographic. October 22, 2014. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/01/090126-sicily-mummy.html

Lorenzi, Rossela. “Optical Illusion: Child Mummy Opens and Closes Eyes.” News.Discovery.com. June 20, 2014. Discovery.com. October 22, 2014. http://news.discovery.com/history/archaeology/optical-illusion-child-mummy-opens-and-closes-her-eyes-140620.htm

Quigley, Christine. Modern Mummies: the Preservation of the Human Body in the Twentieth Century. McFarland. April 1998. pg 52-54

The Joint Chief’s Plan to Attack America–Operation Northwood

Scan of the Joint Chief's Operation Northwoods memo.

Scan of the Joint Chief’s Operation Northwoods memo.

The Cold War was, at its heart, a conflict between ideologies both economic and political. On one hand was the Western powers, with their liberal democracies and capitalist economies. On the other was the states of the Soviet Bloc, who favored communism, which in theory meant giving to each as they needed but in practice meant the concentration of all economic and political power under the authority of one party.

It is relatively easy to separate these two ideologies geographically between the Eastern and Western hemispheres. Both sides jockeyed for influence in the others respective sphere of control, resulting in the flash points of the Cold War like Korea and Vietnam.

So when a Communist power established itself 90 miles from US shores in 1959, when Castro and the Communists took over Cuba, it left the US in a bind. This was the first encroachment of Communism into the Western Hemisphere. Worse, it could potentially give the Soviets a platform from which to launch nuclear missiles and bombers right into the heart of the USA. This fear would be realized during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world came very close to a nuclear apocalypse.

The Kennedy Administration wanted Castro’s Cuba gone. An earlier attempt to do this was made in 1960. Dubbed the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the mission was conducted by the CIA. It failed miserably, due in part to a lack of military support.

While many attempts to kill Castro were laughable at best–from poisoned scuba gear to exploding cigars–the plan drawn up by the Joint Chiefs of Staff after the Bay of Pigs were nothing to chuckle at. They involved nothing short of committing terrorist actions against the American people, and blaming them on Cuba as a pretext for war. The sinister idea was dubbed Operation Northwood.

 

The Illusion of Cuban Aggression

Operation Northwood hinged on creating an illusion of Cuban aggression against the peace of the Western Hemisphere. The “projects” undertaken under the auspices of the operation would have to give the impression of a large scale attempt by Cuba to attack or otherwise destabilize its neighbors under the banner of poking at latent Communist sympathies in the populace.

This would be achieved by orchestrating a series of incidents that would build up on one another in the public consciousness and tip favor of public opinion toward war with Cuba. Also, it would give the US a list of grievances which could be used to justify a full scale invasion of the tiny island.

All of this would preferably be achieved before Cuba came under the sphere of Soviet influence. In 1962, the Cubans had not yet fallen under the aegis of the Soviet Bloc. They were not yet part of the Warsaw Pact, nor were they host to Soviet bases. Thus, if the war could be conducted quickly enough, it could be done without fear of Soviet intervention, which would effectively park World War III.

The Joint Chiefs considered several options to pull off the nefarious deeds. Several ideas in no particular order focused on the now infamous Guantanamo Bay. Rumors of attack would be spread by clandestine radio. Friendly Cubans in military uniforms would be hired to stage an attack. Sympathetic Cubans could be set up as saboteurs and “caught” in the base. A riot could be instigated at the base gates. Ammunition could be destroy by supposed saboteurs. Mortar shells could be fired from outside the base.

 

A map of Guantanamo Bay, which factored heavily in Operation Northwoods.

A map of Guantanamo Bay, which factored heavily in Operation Northwoods.

The Joint Chiefs seemed particularly interested in orchestrating a “Remember the Maine!” type incident, hearkening back to the popular rallying cry during the Spanish-American War. The Maine was a US war ship supposedly sunk by the Spanish. Its sinking was used to justify the Spanish-American War, which led to the US controlling Cuba for several years.

As the Joint Chiefs saw it, a “Remember the Maine” incident could be orchestrated in several ways. one of the more dramatic involved blowing up an unmanned ship near Havana or Santiago and passing it off as a Cuban air or sea attack. Cuban ships and planes who turned out to investigate the explosion would only serve to fuel the impression that the explosion resulted from an attack. Blowing up a ship near large cities would not doubt attract the attention of locals, who could act as witnesses and lend credibility to the story. the US would then launch rescue operations covered by fighter planes to rescue “survivors.” Casualty lists of the supposed crew would be published in American papers, hopefully causing anger and hatred toward Cuba.

Another, somehow even more despicable version of the plan involved orchestrating terror attacks against Cuban refugees in the US. Part of the plan involved sinking Cuban refugee ships en route to the US. Whether the ships were fake or populated by real, live people seemed to be a detail. the Us government could also foster attempts on the lives of Cuban refugees already on American soil, publicizing the ones that resulted in people being wounded. Finally, plastic bombs would be detonated in “carefully chosen spots.” Cuban agents would then be duly arrested and documents produced that substantiated that this was the result of a terrorist act by a rogue government.

Wreckage of the USS Maine, whose sinking sparked a war with the Spanish Empire. Operation Northwoods wished to replicate this with an orchestrated incident to justify war with Cuba.

Wreckage of the USS Maine, whose sinking sparked a war with the Spanish Empire. Operation Northwoods wished to replicate this with an orchestrated incident to justify war with Cuba.

Another potential avenue the Joint Chiefs saw that America could exploit to provoke war with Cuba involved other countries in the region. Tensions existed between Cuba and other Caribbean countries. The US was well aware of Castro’s support of subversive elements in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua. the Joint Chiefs suggested exaggerating the importance of these efforts, not to mention contriving to add a few of their own. One scheme involved simulating an air raid on Dominican Republic cane fields, leaving evidence of Soviet made incendiaries behind. This would be done in tandem with intercepted messages from the Dominican republic Communist underground from the Cubans, and the convenient interception of Cuban arms shipments on a Dominican Beach. This would give the US a chance to come in playing hero, attacking Cuba and defending a smaller country from the big bad Communists.

 

Dummy planes and faux attacks

The final two scenarios outlined in one of the original memos relating to Operation Northwoods involved planes. the first was an elaborate plan to make it look lie the Cubans shot down a chartered civilian airliner en route from the US to Jamaica, Guatemala, or Panama. these countries were selected because a flight plan to them would pass over Cuban airspace. It was suggested that the passengers could be college students on holiday.

An aircraft at Eglin Air Force Base would be painted to appear as an exact duplicate of the plane to be used in the chartered flight. This duplicate would be swapped for the real thing and boarded with passengers, all flying under aliases. the registered aircraft would be converted into an unmarked drone. Both planes would take off and rendezvous south of Florida. the Passenger craft would drop its altitude and land at Eglin Air Force Base, where the passengers would be offloaded and the dummy plane scrubbed of any identifiers.

A Cuban MIG from the 1970s, likely similar to the crafts used during the 1960s.

A Cuban MIG from the 1970s, likely similar to the crafts used during the 1960s.

The drone, meanwhile, would fly on and begin transmitted a May day message over Cuba, stating that it was under attack by a Cuban MIG fighter. The plane would be destroyed by explosives triggered remotely by American handlers. Radio stations picking up the distress signal would inform the US of the attack. Since the entire operation would be clandestine, no doubt many in the government would have been genuinely shocked. the fact that the Us would be informed by outsiders would save the government having to,

The second aircraft related plot involved fooling the world with a supposedly unprovoked attack by Cuban MIGS on American aircraft. A flight of four or five F101 jets would be sent on regular exercises near the coast of Cuba. They would carry live weapons and be told to watch for MIGS. They would be told to fly no closer to Cuba than 12 miles form the coast. On one flight, a briefed pilot would fly at the tail of the formation. Near Cuba, he would broadcast that he had been attacked by a MIG and was going down. He would then immediately drop to a lower altitude and fly west to a secure base. The plane’s numbers would be switched, the the pilot would drop the identity he’d assumed for the mission and resume his own.

While the pilot was broadcasting, the attack, and bugging out toward the safe airfield, a submarine would surface and spread F101 parts across the surface of the ocean. The pilots flying back over the are would see the debris, and rescue ships could recover the parts

 

Out of control

The Operation Northwood came out of a time when the military was driven to distraction by both Cuba and what they saw as an administration that was too young, inexperienced, and liberal to deal with the Communist threat.

The Joint chiefs were headed by Eisenhower appointee Army General Lyman L. Lemnitzer. General Lemnitzer told the Secretary of State Robert McNamara about Northwood on march 13, 1962. Three days later, Kennedy responded by saying the US would never use overt force to solve the Cuba problem. Lemnitzer was later replaced as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and moved to another job. The Joint Chiefs would continue to plan Northwood scenarios into 1963, even after Lemnitzer was effectively sacked. These involved paying a member of the Castro government to attack Guantanamo Bay, low altitude flights over Cuba with the hope that the Cubans would shoot the spy planes down, or provoking a war between Cuba and another Latin American country in which the US could intervene.

Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed and none of the scenarios in Northwoods were ever played out. The civilian leadership never wanted to provoke a war with Cuba, and the American public never wanted to fight one. Still, it is terrifying to think that a cabal of top military officials tried their hardest to lead American into a war in neither wanted nor needed, all in the service of what they saw as the national good.

 

Sources:

The Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Memorandum for the Secretary of Defense. Subject: Justification for US Military Intervention in Cuba.” United States Department of Defense. March 13, 1962.

Ruppe, David. “US Military Wanted to Provoke War With Cuba.” ABC News. May 1, 2001. http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=92662

 

A Furry Listening Device: Project Acoustic Kitty

The author's old cat. He wasn't a spy, but he epitomized exactly why cats made horrible listening devices.

The author’s old cat. He wasn’t a spy, but he epitomized exactly why cats made horrible listening devices.

Humans have utilized animals for warfare for almost as long as we have dreamed up new and inventive ways to kill each other. Horses are the most well known example, but a veritable zoo of animal warriors, from elephants to camels to dogs, have taken to the battlefield. War animals typically had a few common features that made them useful on the battlefield. They were relatively large, had a lot of muscle power, and were relatively easy to train. While there have been exceptions to these broad generalizations, they often held true.

These reasons were part of why cats never featured prominently on the battlefield, with one notable exception. Cat’s aren’t particularly large and, as any cat owner can attest, not very trainable. That didn’t stop the CIA from trying to utilize cats in the war on Communism. Rather than perform on the battlefield, America’s premier spy agency sought to use cats as listening devices in a plan dubbed Project Acoustic Kitty.

The logic behind using a cat as a listening device was sound–after all, no one pays much attention to a house cat. Point of fact, unless it wants something, most people aren’t even aware if a cat is even in the room. And only the most paranoid person would think a cat was bugged with a listening device.

The problem then was designing a bug that could be mounted on a cat without being seen or damaged when the animal groomed itself. These necessities made the project take a ghoulish turn. The components would have to be implanted into the cat, providing unique technical challenges to engineers. These components would have to be invisible, not inhibit the cat’s natural movements, and be able to withstand conditions under the animal’s skin.

It took about five years worth of work to rig up the system a 3/4 inch long transmitter was embedded at the base of the cat’s skull. The microphone was embedded in the cat’s ear. An antenna made of fine wire was woven through the cat’s fur, from the base of the skull to the tip of the tail. The apparatus was powered by a small set of batteries, giving it a relatively short run time. The system was first tested on dummies before being implanted into live animals.

The first prototype acoustic kitty to be tested in the field was a grey and white adult female. The apparatus was installed with no problems, but issues with the concept itself soon arose. These would be obvious to any cat owner–cats are fickle, independent creatures who do as they please. Lab tests had shown that cats could be directed in controlled environments to target specific objects, but outside all bets were off. The test subject wandered off when she got bored or hungry. The hunger issue was solved with an implant, but that would not likely curb the cat’s basic nature. Still, once the hunger issue was addressed, the cat was taken for its first field test. A van was parked across the street from a park, where two marks sat on a bench.

Acoustic kitty was deployed and began making her way across the street. Seconds later, a taxi flattened her, effectively ending the $20 million project. Agents quickly recovered the body, not wanting Soviet spies to get a hold of the recording equipment. Acoustic Kitty ended in 1967, when someone finally realized that trying to herd cats is a bad idea.

Sources:

Edwardes, Charlotte. “CIA recruited cat to bug Russians.” Telegraph.co.uk. November 4, 2001. The Telegraph. May 20, 2014. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/1361462/CIA-recruited-cat-to-bug-Russians.html

Soniak, Matt. “The CIA Plan to Use Cats as Spies (and the Taxi that Ruined it.)” MentalFloss.com. May 20, 2011. Mental Floss. May 20, 2014. http://mentalfloss.com/article/27790/cia-plan-use-cats-spies-and-taxi-ruined-it

Viegas, Jennifer. “The Cat Who Couldn’t Spy: A CIA Fail.” News.Discovery.com. May 10, 2013. Discovery.com. May 20, 2014. http://news.discovery.com/animals/pets/cat-spies-fail-130510.htm

The Invasion of Rockall

Hoisting the Union Jack over Rockall.

Hoisting the Union Jack over Rockall.

At its height, the British Empire owned a large chunk of Earth’s habitable land. The saying went that “the sun never set on the British Empire.” However, by the 1950s much of the venerable old empire’s territory was gone, either lost during World War II or abandoned in light of the anti-colonial feelings that dominated the day.

While the empire crumbled, the UK did engage in one last territorial expansion. The Queen herself ordered the expansion, and troops were duly dispatched to secure the coveted island. However, in stark contrast to the grand conquests of the imperial hey day, this bit of land lay only 300 miles west of Scotland. The 100ft wide and 70ft tall rock, aptly named Rockall, jutted out of the ocean, the only visible piece of a vast, extinct volcano that lay deep beneath the waves.

The “invasion” took place on September 21, 1955. Sailors from HMS Vidal were duly dispatched after the Queen’s order. Royal Marine Sergeant Brian Peel became the first person to set foot on the rock since 1862. The sergeant attempted to gather samples for naturalist James Fischer from the rock’s water line, but was soon overwhelmed by the waves of the tumultuous north Atlantic. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Desmond Scott raised the British flag over the rocky redoubt, previously only claimed by sea birds.

Why would the UK expend so much energy claiming a barren rock? As with most bits of strange behavior from the middle part of the last century, the answer lay with Cold War paranoia. The UK had secured a tactical nuclear missile, the Corporal, from the United States. The device would form the linch-pin of the NATO strategy in Europe should the Soviets decide to invade. The British decided the best place to test the missile would be in the far northern ocean. However, Rockall Island lay within radio range of the testing site. They worried that Soviet agents could set up an outpost on the island and monitor their testing activities. So, they annexed the island to prevent that from happening.

It is not clear that the Soviets even knew the island existed. As was said, no one had set foot on the lonely rock for nearly a hundred years before the invasion. The annexation was lambasted in the media, and satirists naturally had a field day. To this day, Britain claims the rock, although other nations contest the claim because there is evidence to suggest mineral resources might be available on the continental shelf beneath it.

 

Sources:

Danek, Ondrej. Rockall. Brno, 2009. http://dokufunk.org/upload/rockall_en.pdf

 

Gavaghan, Julian. “On This Day: Britain invades uninhabited Island in bizarre Cold War drama.” uk.news.yahoo.com. September 27, 2013. Yahoo News. November 8, 2014. https://uk.news.yahoo.com/on-this-day–britain-invades-uninhabited-island-in-bizarre-cold-war-drama-140941246.html#RD8b12a

 

MacDonald, Fraser. The last outpost of Empire: Rockall and the Cold War. School of Anthropology, Geography & Environmental Studies, The University of Melbourne. Journal of Historical Geography 32 (2006) 627-647. http://www.andywightman.com/docs/macdonald_Rockall.pdf

 

 

The German Corpse Factories of World War I

Propaganda cartoon depicting the Kaiser, saying to a new recruit: "And don't forget that your Kaiser will find a use for you—alive or dead."

Propaganda cartoon depicting the Kaiser, saying to a new recruit: “And don’t forget that your Kaiser will find a use for you—alive or dead.”

Propaganda and warfare has always gone hand in hand. Dehumanizing the enemy makes the taboo act of taking another human life much more palatable to a soldier in the field, and it makes the general population feel more threatened by a foe and more apt to put up with the rigors of a wartime economy. How plausible these stories were never seemed to matter. For example, Communist governments in East Europe during the Cold War spread the rumor that US forces had infested farmland with a devastating pest.

But perhaps the strangest and most gruesome bit of propaganda came out of World War I. Hatred of the Germans, who were to most on the side of the Allies seen as the main villain and cause of the war, ran deep. It seemed that the hated Huns were capable of anything, that they were monsters rather than human. Near the end of the war, a story began to circulate about the lengths to which the Germans would go to support their aggression; namely, they were willing to use their own dead to fuel their war machine.

 

Gruesome factories

The story first broke in two English papers, the Times and the Daily Mail, on April 17, 1917. The lurid tale was a translation from a French-language Belgian newspaper revealing in gruesome detail an eye witness report of what was called a Corpse Utilization Plant.

According to the witness, the facility lay near a rail-line south-west of Coblentz, deep in the forest. It was surrounded by an electric fence, and encircled by the rail line. Trains would arrive from the front, stuffed to the brim with the stripped bodies of the dead, who were bundled in threes or fours with iron wire. Workers, who lived on site, would unload the bundles and then push them to an overhead chain, which had large hooks hanging from it. The hooks would catch the bundles and transported them into a disinfecting bath, through a drying chamber, and then are dropped into a big cauldron to be treated with steam and stirred by machinery for eight hours. The resulting stew would be used for a variety of products including the production of tallow, oils, and soap.

 

Deliberate mistranslation. Lasting consequences.

Dead bodies were indeed used during the Great War, but they were not human corpses. The story seems to have been based on a real account by Karl Rosner of smelling a “carcass utilization establishment” (Kadaververwertungsanstalt) from a distance near Reims, France. English papers mistranslated the German word as “Corpse Exploitation Establishment.”

The mistranslation, likely deliberate, confused the German word Kadaver for the English word cadaver. While the two words read alike, they mean two entirely different things. Kadaver refers to animal carcasses, not human corpses. The German word referring to human corpses is “Leiche.”

Rosner was likely reporting on a glue plant near the front. Horses were often boiled down to produce glue.

This deliberate mistranslation was par for the course when it came to propaganda of the day. Both sides portrayed each other as monstrous and portrayed themselves as the valiant defenders of humanity. However, few stories had the lasting impact of the Corpse Factory Story. The story lingered for another ten years after the war, before being finally officially debunked by the British Parliament in 1925.

The deceptions of the first World War were remembered when the second roared to life in 1939. The people who had been tricked by the story resolved not to be tricked again. So when stories of death camps and the mass killing of Jews began to circulate, many scoffed, believing them to be just another example of propaganda at work. This skepticism lead Allied powers to take the stories less seriously, until the true horror of the Holocaust was revealed in the closing days of the war.

 

Sources:

“Cadavers Not Human.” The New York Times. April 20, 1917. Retrieved from: http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9A0CE3DA153AE433A25753C2A9629C946696D6CF

“Huns and Their Dead.” Evening Post, Volume XCIII, Issue 128, Page 2. Retrieved from: http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast?a=d&cl=search&d=EP19170530.2.13&srpos=3&e=——-10–1—-0Kadaververwertungsanstalt+–

Neander, Joachim. Marlin, Randal. “Media and Propaganda: The Northcliffe Press and the Corpse Factory Story of World War I.” Global Media Journal–Canadian Edition. 2010. Volume 3, Issue 2, pp. 67-82. Retrieved from: http://www.gmj.uottawa.ca/1002/v3i2_neander%20and%20marlin.pdf

The Flying Crowbar–America’s Doomsday Weapon

Artist's impression of the Flying Crowbar's general outline.

Artist’s impression of the Flying Crowbar’s general outline.

Humans are really, really good at coming up with ways to kill one another. From the first cave man who made the intellectual leap that tying a stick to a rock would make a nasty stabbing weapon to the current crop of high tech weapons designers, people have long put a premium on finding more efficient means to kill. One might think this homicidal tendency might have been curbed when we figured out how to split the atom and opened up the very real possibility of self-induced extinction, but it turned out the opposite was true. The nukes got bigger and badder, and the systems to deliver them became more powerful and accurate.

During the race to build stronger and stronger nuclear weapons, one project even gave the staunchest ally of nuclear power pause. It was a weapon so nasty that it could not even be properly tested for fear it would fly out of control and devastate friend and foe alike. This potential doomsday machine was dubbed Project Pluto, although it came to be known by its more ungainly nickname, the Flying Crowbar.

 

A post Sputnik world

Sputnik I, the basketball sized satellite that changed the world.

Sputnik I, the basketball sized satellite that changed the world.

The launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, sparked a frenzy in America. Not only was Sputnik itself a defeat for America, showing just how far behind it was in the Space Race, it showed that the Soviets could produce powerful rockets that could potentially reach the US. At the time, no missile in the inventory could match the Soviet capability. It also pointed to the disturbing possibility that the Soviets might have a better anti-missile defense system than the US. Such a system could upset the delicate balance between the US and Soviet Union. If the Soviets knew they had a reasonable chance of surviving a nuclear exchange, they would be more likely to pull the trigger on an apocalyptic confrontation.

That was when someone within the Pentagon conceived of a simple but nasty idea. Dubbed SLAM (Supersonic Low-Altitude Missile), the weapon would be a cruise missile powered by nuclear ramjet power. The project to build the reactor was dubbed “Pluto”, a moniker that came to be used to describe the entire weapon system. The name Flying Crowbar came later, used to illustrate the durability of the system.

At the core of this ultra-durable doomsday weapon was a simple concept: the ramjet. It has been the working concept behind jet engines sine the first prototypes in the 1930s. Air is sucked into a nozzle, where it is then heated. the air expands, and blows out the rear nozzle of the craft, thus providing propulsion. In most jets, the heating is achieved by burning hydrocarbon fuels. In The Flying Crowbar, an unshielded nuclear reactor would provide the heat. This gave the advantage of an almost limitless operational lifespan. As long as the nuclear core could undergo fission, the Flying Crowbar could sow death and destruction.

One distinct disadvantage of the system was the very thing that gave it its advantage–the nuclear reactor. Most nuclear reactors are quite sanely tucked behind layers and layers of concrete, because they have  a tendency to spew a lot of radiation. The Flying Crowbar’s reactor would be housed in a missile the size of a locomotive, flying at a low altitude over friend and enemy alike. Planners predicted that the shockwave from the weapon passing overhead might be enough to kill people on the ground. If that didn’t do it, radiation spewing out of the reactor would finish the job.

If the weapon were to be used in anger, it would first be launched into the air by rockets, where it would start to circle high in the air before being given the final order to drop in for its attack run. The death machine would be loaded with a dozen hydrogen bombs, which would be lobbed at targeted Soviet cities once it reached Soviet airspace. When the nuclear payload was exhausted, the Flying Crowbar could then be flown back and forth across Soviet territory, flattening and irradiating anything in its path. Since it would be flying at a low-altitude at speeds in excess of Mach 3, the had nothing that could stop it.

But neither did the US. The Flying Crowbar would become an autonomous weapon with a nigh limitless fuel supply that could continue to wreak destruction long after its handlers perished. A doomsday weapon of the highest order.

 

Early enthusiasm gives way to doubt

Work on Project Pluto began January 1, 1957, at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The scientists there had their hands full, as every aspect of the Flying Crowbar tested the limits of material science known at the time. The whole point of using a nuclear reactor was that it burnt hotter and longer than any other known fuel source. The heat would give the craft the speed it needed to evade Soviet defenses. The heat created a problem though, mostly because no material used in aircraft engines could stand up to it. That, and the sheer pressure of the air shooting out the nozzle could be enough to rip open the rear of the craft. Those issues aside, a nuclear reactor small and light enough to go airborne would have to be built.

The prototype reactor that would form the core of Project Pluto was dubbed “Tory.” A static version of the engine system was tested on May 14, 1961 at a specially made test site in the Nevada desert. The test site was suitably massive for such an ambitious project. Site 401 occupied eight square miles of Jackass Flats. A fully automated two mile long railroad was constructed to transport the “hot” reactor from the test site to a secure building where it could be disassembled via remote control. Scientists were going to watch the tests via a TV feed from a secure site. A fully stocked fallout shelter was located on site, just in case.

Tory II, one of the nuclear ramjet engines tested at the Nevada Test Site.

Tory II, one of the nuclear ramjet engines tested at the Nevada Test Site.

The disassembly building was built with six to eight foot thick concrete walls. The government bought an aggregate mine to provide the material. Twenty-five miles of oil well casing were used to store a million pounds of pressurized air used in the test. A five minute test would require forcing a ton of air through huge steel tanks heated to 1350F.

The day of the test, the engine fired perfectly, although it ran for only a few seconds at partial power. But it didn’t explode, catch fire, or otherwise spew radiation all over the test site. So the test was considered a success.

As the team continued to develop reactors out in the desert, the once eager Pentagon planners began to have doubts. For one, they wondered if the Flying Crowbar could perform the mission as designed. it was supposed to be what amounted to a stealth weapon, but given how hot and loud the thing was, the Soviets could probably see it coming a long ways away (whether they could stop it once they spotted it was another matter.)  Plus, the weapon would inevitably pass over allied territory on its way to destroy the Soviet Union. Spewing radiation over friendly territory would not be great for diplomatic relations, should anyone survive an incident that required deploying the Flying Crowbar, that is.

The biggest problem was that there was no way to safely test the Flying Crowbar. Testing it over the Nevada desert was a non-starter. It would be too easy for the system to slip its proverbial leash and devastate an American city. One solution proposed to this problem was to fly the missile in figure eights near Wake Island, then bury it in 20,000 feet of water once the test was done. Even in the heyday of the nuclear craze, this was not an attractive option.

Those issues aside, it quickly became apparent that Project Pluto was obsolete before it was even finished. The Air Force began to deploy Titan and Atlas missiles, ICBMs that could hit harder and faster than the Flying Crowbar, with less risk of collateral damage. On July 1, 964, Project Pluto was cancelled. the advances in material science gained during the ill fated project were boons to the space program and rocketry alike. Other than those contribution, Project Pluto is dead and buried, a weapon too terrible to contemplate. A real life, honest to god, Doomsday Device.

 

Sources:

Herken, Gregg. “The Flying Crowbar.” Air & Space Magazine. April/May 1990. Volume 5, no. 1. pg 28. http://www.merkle.com/pluto/pluto.html

Nevada National Security Site. “Project Pluto.” August 2013. http://www.nv.doe.gov/library/factsheets/DOENV_763.pdf

The Pedro Mountains Mummy

The_San_Pedro_Mountain_MummyCecil Main and a fellow prospector were prospecting for gold in the Pedro Mountains, 60 miles southwest of Casper, Wyoming in June of 1934, when they used explosives to break into a sealed cave. What they found inside was not the valuable mineral they sought, but something infinitely stranger. There, on a small rock shelf, sat a bizarre set of mummified remains that have captured the imagination and stirred debate in the 80 years its discovery. The human mummy was frozen in a seated position, preserved in the dry air of the cave. It stood only 7 inches tall, and weighted about three-quarters of a pound.

 

Muddled origins

Casper Main swore to the discovery two years later in a signed affidavit dated November 13, 1936. However, there is confusion as to who exactly discovered the remains and when. Some newspaper articles place the discovery in 1932, a full two years earlier than when Main claimed to have found the mummy. Others claimed that Main was not the discoverer at all; rather, the mummy was found by an unnamed shepherd.

What is certain is that the tiny mummy was found, and that it traveled a long, strange path before its disappearance some 20 years after its discovery in 1950. When Main swore to his affidavit, he claimed that the mummy was owned by a man named Homer F. Sherrill, and was being kept in the Field Museum in Chicago. However, the Field Museum has no existing record of the mummy ever being in its possession.

More likely is that the mummy made the rounds in Casper, where Main and his fellow prospector showed off the remains in Casper as a curiosity. The remains reportedly were bought and displayed in a drugstore for some time, reminiscent of how Elmer McCurdy’s remains were put on display by the embalmer who mummified him.

What is more certain is that, around 1950, a Casper businessman named Ivan Goodman acquired the remains. He took the mummy to Dr. Harry Shapiro, curator of biological anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The scientist examined and x-rayed the mummy. He sent the x-rays to George Gill, a professor of biological anthropology at the University of Wyoming. The scientists found that the remains were likely those of a child, stillborn or dead soon after birth, who suffered from anencephaly, a congenital defect characterized by the absence of most of the brain.

Shortly after the examination, Goodman made a second trip to New York, where he gave the mummy to a man named as Leonard Wadler, who claimed to want the mummy for study. Goodman died later in 1950, and Wadler hung on to the remains. They have not been seen again for 60 years. Some believe Wadler was a con man, who sought to use the mummy to make money. They believe he took the remains to Florida, where they remain to this day. However, in the absence of a paper trail or any evidence, it is hard to tell for sure.

 

Little People in the mountains

While the Pedro Mountain Mummy is no longer with us, the photographs and x-rays remain. These photos have sparked the imagination for decades, leading people down strange rabbit holes. Native American legends from the Pedro Mountains region claim that a race of tiny humans live there. These Little People could be friends to humans or foes, depending on their mood and how people behaved toward them. To believers, the mummified remains confirm that the Little People exist. Still others believe that a race of pygmies lived in the Pedro Mountains, but that they were of a less supernatural origin. They seek the Pedro Mountain Mummy to examine it in hopes of overturning conventional evolutionary explanations for human origins. They believe the mummy was millions of years old, far older than the current understanding of evolution can account for.

Others seek the little mummy for less psuedo-scientific reasons. Dr. Gill remains intrigued by the remains, wanting to rediscover the mummy whose x-rays he examined so long ago. The doctor did an interview with Unsolved Mysteries in 1994, hoping to stir up interest in the matter. A Wyoming rancher saw the episode and brought another mummy found in the Pedro Mountains. The remains were of a little girl, in a similar state as the Pedro Mountains Mummy. Gill examined the mummy and found evidence that the child suffered anencephaly. The remains were carbon-dated, revealing that they were 300 years old, not the million plus that advocates of the human pygmy hypothesis believe.

These tiny remains point to a little known part of history. Whose remains are they? Likely they are Native American. Was the practice widespread, and what sorts of rituals and religious meanings were attached to the act of mummification. Sometimes mummification is accidental, but most often there is a religious component to the practice. For example, Europe’s bog mummies were likely a mix of the two; many were likely ritual sacrifices to the spirits and gods in the bogs, while their sacrificial location incidentally preserved them. However, the two known mummies from the Pedro Mountains appear to have been deliberately placed in the caves, and both were ancephalitic. If others were found, it could point to a little known ritual practice performed by Native Americans in the area that today has been lost to history.

But that is all speculation. The Pedro Mountains Mummy remains lost. Only its photos remain to tell the sad story of a child born with a hideous genetic disease that stole it from its parents far too soon. Barring future discoveries, or the discovery of Pedro itself, how and why it was mummified will remain a mystery.

 

Sources:

Burke, Brendan. “Man offers $10,000 for Pedro Mountain Mummy.” Trib.com. February 3, 2005. Casper Star Tribune. November 3, 2014. http://trib.com/news/state-and-regional/article_c77f7c03-6169-5f9f-b3a8-4350c70b8966.html

 

Hein, Rebecca. “The Pedro Mountain Mummy.” WyoHistory.org. Accessed November 3, 2014. http://www.wyohistory.org/encyclopedia/pedro-mountain-mummy

 

Peterson, Christine. “Did a mummy prove the legend?” Trib.com. October 31, 2010. Casper Star Tribune. November 3, 2014. http://trib.com/lifestyles/weekender/did-a-mummy-prove-the-legend/article_89ec3ff7-852a-52b1-a235-78fe97cd4b1a.html