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Archive for December, 2011

50th Anniversary of Navy SEAL Teams

January 1st, 1962 Commissioning  of SEAL Teams ONE and TWO         January 1st, 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the commissioning of the first Navy SEAL teams.  At the same time of the SEAL commissionings, the Navy also recommissioned Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) 22.  The Navy’s renewed committment to these amphibious forces was commemorated in the [...]

Donor gives €1 million to restore a pyramid in Rome

Pyramid of Gaius CestiusJapanese businessman Yuzo Yagi will donate €1 million ($1.3 million) to restore the tomb of Gaius Cestius, a marble-clad pyramid built in Rome between 18 and 12 B.C. Egyptian style had become a fad in Rome following Octavian’s conquest of Egypt in 30 B.C., and the wealthy Gaius Cestius, who in life had been praetor, tribune of the plebs and a member of the Septemviri Epulonum, a religious college responsible for throwing banquets for the gods, left instructions in his will that a pyramid be built in 330 days to house his remains.

Built out of brick-faced concrete on a foundation of travertine, Cestius’ pyramid is 100 Roman feet (about 97 imperial ones) square at the base and 125 Roman feet (about 120 imperial ones) high, making it an extremely acute pyramid with a very pointy top. White Carrara marble slabs face the exterior which was entirely sealed with no entrance point after Gaius Cestius’ burial. Inside is a frescoed burial chamber that held Cestius’ ashes; it was looted in antiquity and tunneled into by disappointed thieves during the Middle Ages.

Pyramid of Cestius in the Aurelian wall, Porta San Paolo on the rightThe pyramid was built at the intersection of two Roman roads outside of the city, but as the city expanded the entire structure was incorporated into the Aurelian walls during their construction between 271 and 275 A.D. It’s still embedded in a particularly well-preserved area of the wall next to the Porta San Paolo gate. Getting absorbed by the wall might have been the best thing that ever happened to the pyramid. None of the other crazy vanity pyramids ancient sources mention having been built in Rome have survived.

The other side of the pyramid abuts the Cimitero Acattolico (the non-Catholic cemetery, also known as the Protestant Cemetery though people of many faiths are buried there) where the Romantic poets Shelley and Keats slumber eternally. It’s one of the most beautiful and fantastical spots in Rome, a favorite of my childhood thanks to the huge colony of semi-feral cats who live at the pyramid’s base. Whenever we were in the area for the San Paolo market, I’d insist we stop so I could look over the railing at the cats.

Pyramid burial chamber, tunnels from the Middle AgesLike many of the most beautiful spots in Rome, the pyramid of Gaius Cestius is in dire need of maintenance. The marble exterior is pollution-blackened, cracked and bristling with vegetation. Water is seeping through the walls and damaging the frescoes, already faded and degraded from millennia of looters/hostile elements, in the burial chamber. Past restorations haven’t been kind to it either. The acid used to clean the exterior in the 1970s left the marble vulnerable to attacks from microorganisms and particulate matter.

Restoration work was last done in 2002. Advances in technology since then will allow restorers to use new organic products to clean the surface and protect it from future damage. They also plan to use steel beams 23 feet long to stabilize the marble blocks. While they’re at it, researchers will follow up on some ultrasound data from a few years ago which turned up anomalous blank spots on the inside. They will use endoscopes to explore the anomalies. They’re probably not secret chambers but everyone’s hoping for them anyway.

Yugo Yazi is the owner of Tsusho Limited, an Osaka-based chain of 400 clothing outlets. He has been doing business in Italy, importing Italian clothes for his stores, for 40 years. All he asks in return for the donation is that a plaque with his name on it be placed near the pyramid. No advertising heinousness. He will sign the official agreement in January and work is slated to begin in April.

Keats' grave in the Protestant Cemetery, Pyramid of Cestius visible in the right backgroundAnd now, let’s usher in the new year with two wonderfully on-topic verses from Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Go thou to Rome–at once the Paradise,
The grave, the city, and the wilderness;
And where its wrecks like shatter’d mountains rise,
And flowering weeds, and fragrant copses dress
The bones of Desolation’s nakedness
Pass, till the spirit of the spot shall lead
Thy footsteps to a slope of green access
Where, like an infant’s smile, over the dead
A light of laughing flowers along the grass is spread;

And gray walls moulder round, on which dull Time
Feeds, like slow fire upon a hoary brand;
And one keen pyramid with wedge sublime,
Pavilioning the dust of him who plann’d
This refuge for his memory, doth stand
Like flame transform’d to marble ….


Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln created a Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction that applied to all Confederate lands. Its goal was to look forward to the end of the war and how the rebelling states and individuals would be allowed back into the union. Learn about this document with this article that looks at its key provisions and impact.

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Presidential Assassinations and Assassination Attempts

Since the founding of the United States, four Presidents have been assassinated while in office. An additional six presidents were subject to assassination attempts. President Gerald Ford was actually subject to not just one but two assassination attempts, both by women. Learn more about each assassination and attempt on President of the United States.

“Hail now the joyful day!”

It’s a Boston 1775 tradition each New Year’s season to quote one of the verses that printers’ apprentices carried around and distributed at that time of year, soliciting tips.

This year’s verse comes from the shop of the Pennsylvania Evening Post, which Benjamin Towne (c. 1740-1793) launched in January 1775—a most newsworthy year, as it turned out. Philadelphia was the largest and most dynamic city in British North America, so Towne had a lot of competition. His strategy was to publish three times a week instead of just once or twice, and to support the radical Whigs.

The year of 1776 brought for American Whigs the best of times (British forces leaving Boston and Charleston, the Congress declaring independence, new state governments being established) and the worst of times (British forces coming back to New York, driving the Continental troops through New Jersey, and threatening Philadelphia). But the American victory at Trenton took some of the pressure off, so the newspaper boys could feel optimistic.

This is what they came up with for New Year’s 1777.

New-Year’s Verses
Addressed to the CUSTOMERS of
By the PRINTER’s LADS who carry it.

Hail! O America!
Hail now the joyful day!
Exalt your voice,
Shout, George is King no more,
Over this western shore;
Let him his loss deplore,
While we rejoice.

You know, I think this is written to the tune of “God Save the King.” Kind of ironic.

The Latin tag in the next verse was translated as “He who transplanted us hither will support us” by a helpful footnote on the broadside.

Now in thy banner set,
Transtulet sustinet;
God is our King,
Who does in mercy deign,
Over us for to reign,
And our just rights maintain,
His praises sing.

O may he deign to bless,
The great and each Congress,
Of this our land,
With wisdom from on high,
And unanimity,
To save our liberty,
Nobly to stand.

And on the virt’ous head,
Abundant blessings shed,
Of Washington;
Give him to know thy will,
Fill him with martial skill,
His station to fill,
’Till glory’s won.

And may our Gen’rals all,
Officers great and small,
Be Heaven’s care:
Within the hostile field,
Guard them with thine own shield,
While they the sword do wield,
In this great war.

O may our men be spar’d,
If not for death prepar’d;
Lord hear our cry,
Let us behold thy face,
And taste of thy rich grace,
While we this earth do trace,
Before we die.

And to thee th’ Lord of host,
Father, Son and Holy Ghost,
We’ll give all praise,
And ever magnify,
Honor and glorify,
To all eternity,
And never cease.

Of course, in September 1777 the British army whupped the Americans at Brandywine and occupied Philadelphia for that winter.

TOMORROW: What did that mean for Benjamin Towne?

Happy New Year!

Triumph of Bacchus
Bacchus sees in the new year. Poussin’s Triumph of Bacchus, Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas, c. 1636-7.


AHT wishes all its readers a happy and prosperous 2012!

Ten Key Facts About George Washington

George Washington is a fascinating and heroic figure in America’s past. Born on February 22, 1732, he was the Commander of the Continental Army, president of the Constitutional Congress, and of course the first president of the United States. Learn more with these 10 Key Facts to Know About George Washington.

The Year in History Blog History

Mr. Murphy dropped a note through the contact form last week suggesting that I write a Year in Review entry, a summary of the most popular posts both in views and comments, favorite stories, favorite referrals, all that good stuff. I thought that was a brilliant notion, especially since the Christmas-to-New Year’s interregnum can be something of a news desert. Strangely, I haven’t had much trouble finding stories to blog about this holiday season, but I’m still doing the review because it’s a great idea that I hope to make a year-end tradition.

Pedant note: I’m going to refer to the blog as “we” in this entry. This is because it looks weird saying “I” when I mean “the blog” and it looks weird when I say “the blog” over and over again instead of using a handy pronoun. Also I like sounding like the Pope.

Beggar Boy with a Piece of PieIt’s been a busy year here at Ye Olde Blogge of Histories. Starting in September of 2010, viewership doubled from an average of about 20,000 views a month to between 40,000 and 50,000. The major bump can be traced directly to the Master of Blue Jeans entry which was linked to by two bloggers with huge audiences: Jason Kottke and Andrew Sullivan.

In March of 2011, we crossed the 60,000 views a month line and hovered around it until September when we were just 462 views shy of 70,000. November was our biggest month to date with 88,943 views and December will almost match it (we’re at 84,262 at print time) despite the usual holiday decline in readership. The total number of views for 2010 was 386,069. The total for 2011 two days before the end of it is 803,854.

Many of those views seem to be the result of Google searches, often image searches. Sometimes search terms you’d never expect just explode out of nowhere and send us crazy traffic for a day or two. Our busiest day was May 1, 2011. We got 11,541 views (it used to be over 12,000 but the number dropped after an update to the stats plugin), 8,597 of them on an entry from two days before, Roman Ship Found at Ostia.

For some reason that is beyond me, on May 1, 2011, 8,482 people typed “roman ship found” into a search engine and ended up here. They actually started the night before, because that entry got 4,672 views on April 30, 2011, from 4,606 “roman ship found” keyword searches, all of them after 8:00 PM. You can imagine my surprise when I woke up and checked the dailies. I thought my counter had broken.

That freak search event didn’t quite put the Roman ships entry on top for the year, though. It has the third most pageviews with 14,850. The most viewed entry in 2011 was Michelangelo’s David on the Duomo roof, with 32,965 pageviews. That’s also mainly from search engine traffic, only instead of a huge crazy spike it’s from a hundred or so searches for “Michelangelo’s David” every day. Same goes for the second most viewed entry in 2011, Virtually raising the Titanic with 32,192 pageviews. In shocking news, people dig the David and Titanic.

It’s number four in pageviews that is probably my favorite entry of the year, and it’s without question the longest and most varied comment thread we’ve ever had. Library of Congress gets unique flat earth map featured an absolute superstar work of art that appeals to map lovers, scientists, theologians, historians and pretty much everyone else. All kinds of different blogs linked to it. The best part for me was that in the comments several people who had their own copy of the map but had no idea of how rare it was made themselves known. Because of that we even got a link in a local news story about the map.

That was a sweet referral, but my favorite has to be the one from The Atlantic newswire/Yahoo! News. In May I posted a story about an original piece of Frank Miller Batman art breaking sales records. Many moons later, in mid-November Frank Miller ranted incoherently against Occupy Wall Street. Ted Mann wrote an article for The Atlantic Wire about Frank Miller’s anti-Jihadist OWS screed which was picked up and distributed far and wide by Yahoo! News. In the last paragraph it linked to my article about the art sale earlier in the year. Hello 4,499 pageviews.

As far as favorite posts on their own merits, my favorite to research was the one that almost gave me an aneurysm when I lost the first version in an unfortunate log out incident: the entry about Seneca Village, the African-American (later also German and Irish) community that was destroyed in the building of Central Park. I had already spent the day engrossed in researching the details, but the rewrite gave me another day to go even further afield finding sources and maps to flesh out the context.

My sentimental favorite is the Valentine Day’s post about the Art of Kissing, a booklet from my mother’s childhood that I found in my childhood copy of The Whispering Statue, Nancy Drew adventure number 14. The discovery was thrilling to me and the history of the Little Blue Books series turned out to be nothing short of fascinating.

My favorite update is the one about the 2500-year-old brain found in York. The original story was from 2008, but this year we got a big juicy picture of glistening 2500-year-old brains and you just can’t put a price on that.

I also loved following the story of Shackleton’s deep frozen whisky. When I saw the National Geographic Channel special about the discovery and the recreation of the thawed whisky, I felt like I was with old friends. Seriously I was smug as hell about knowing everyone involved. I still haven’t gotten my hands on a bottle of the replica, unfortunately. Pity. It would have made an ideal New Year’s toast.

We passed a million pageviews this year (counting from September of 2009 when I installed the stats plugin). The uptick in traffic means that we’re already at 1,261,577 all-time pageviews now, so maybe we’ll cross the second million by next year’s review.

If you have any favorite or particularly memorable entries, please do comment. Also if you have any questions about this year that I didn’t cover in the review, please do ask them. Also welcome are rows of smilies, generic thanks attached to a website selling prescription meds/gold/Russian brides/shoes, aspersions on my parentage and justifiable outrage at any number of crimes I’ve committed against God and man.

My thanks to everyone who reads, even the Google Image searchers who only look, with much love to everyone who comments and emails me. I’ve received some of the most lovely compliments from total strangers via email. It means a great deal to me and is not an insignificant part of how I’ve managed to scrounge up the motivation to post daily for almost four years. :thanks:

Happy New Year!


Fake Titles 3.0

Randall Stephens

You can never come up with enough fake titles. Someone has even created a fake title generator. (Here’s what I got from the site: Oppressing, Representing, Protesting: Sexuality in George Orwell and the Cultural Ego of Relic in Animal Farm.) So, once again, here are a few fake titles in religious studies and American religious history. (I like to get some ideas from journal titles found on Project Muse.)

White Elephant Gifts of the Spirit: TV Preachers in the 1990s

The Prevangelicals: Pietists, Preachers, and Divinity Pedlars in the Early Modern West

Local Weathermen and the Pornotropics of Doppler Iconography in Cleveland, Ohio, 1997-1999

“Broadminded is spelled s-i-n”: The Theology of the Louvin Brothers

Stand Up and Shout It: Bible Quizzing, Performativity, the Politics of Affective Agency, and {Em}bodiment

Whorehouse Faith: The Lived Religion of the Painted Ladies of Chicago’s Little Hell, 1880-1906

On the Road Again: Hobo Graphotheologies from Bangor, Maine, to Cave Creek, Arizona, 1929-1950

Raise Your Paws and Praise Him: Dogs at Worship and in Community

The Legend of the Great Salt Lake Mormon Merman, 1890-1902

Planet of the Apes, the Twilight of Scientism, and Dystopian Premillennial Predilections

Tinseltown Preacher Cowboys, Shirtless Suburban Gurus, and Hippie Pretindians of the Southwest: Baby Boomers working off Script during their Religious Quests, 1966-1973

“Heroic pieces found in his pocket”

One of my doorways into eighteenth-century history was Christopher Seider, the young boy fatally shot in a riot in Boston on 22 Feb 1770.

After Christopher’s death, the Boston Evening-Post reported the event in unusual detail and concluded:

…all the friends of Liberty may have an opportunity of paying their last respects to the remains of this little hero and first martyr to the noble cause, whose manly spirit (after the accident happened) appeared in his discreet answers to his Doctor, his thanks to the clergyman who prayed with him, and the firmness of mind he showed when he first saw his parents, and while he underwent the great distress of bodily pain, and with which he met the king of terrors. These things, together with several heroic pieces found in his pocket, particularly Wolfe’s Summit of human glory, give reason to think he had a martial genius and would have made a clever man.

For years I hunted for “Wolfe’s Summit of human glory.” Given the context, it was almost certainly a publication about Gen. James Wolfe (shown above), killed during the British conquest of Québec City in 1759. But none of the many poems and articles written about the man included the phrase “summit of human glory.”

I checked Readex’s Archive of Americana database in many ways; it’s based on microtext collections of what was supposed to be basically every newspaper published in colonial America, and every “imprint”—i.e., book, broadside, pamphlet, handbill, lottery ticket, &c. The latter part is often called the “digital Evans” after the American Bibliography catalogue of all that material by Charles Evans and his successors. But even within that vase amount of scanned stuff, there was no “summit of human glory.”

Evans and his team didn’t find every broadside, however. Some entered archives, or came to light, after the last volume of that series in 1959. But many items printed in colonial America simply didn’t survive.

This fall I tried my keyphrase on a catalogue I know well—that of the Massachusetts Historical Society. And up popped a broadside with this title:

Major-General James Wolfe, who reach’d the summit of human glory, September 13th, 1759: with a particular account of that gloriously dangerous work, the taking the city of Quebec, the capital of the French settlements in North-America.

So of course I asked to look at that.

This broadside is a 17″ by 24″ sheet with four columns of tiny type around a 9″ x 12″ engraving of Wolfe surrounded by clouds, a booming cannon, and a frame decorated with leaves, swords, and banners. There’s no indication of who published it or for how much, but a broadside of this size was expensive. The copy at the M.H.S. is stamped and perhaps painted in blue and red—an embellishment that cost extra.

The text is a detailed, sometimes technical, description of the taking of Quebec, written by Vice Admiral Charles Saunders and Gen. George Townshend, who took over after Wolfe’s death. Not the sort of thing one would expect a ten-year-old to be carrying around, even with the big colored picture.

But that’s what was reportedly in Christopher Seider’s pocket on the day he died, along with other “heroic pieces.” That’s one of my favorite discoveries of the past year.

The Famous Daily Launches

Last weekend, the Famous Daily (http://famousdaily.com/) launched.  The Famous Daily shows us what makes today special through highlighting important events that occurred on this date in history.
The information featured in the famous daily includes:
-Today’s Famous Birthdays showing which famous person celebrates a birthday today
-Today’s History which shows 5 key events from history that occurred on this date
-A Famous Quote that was said on this day in history
-Today’s holiday and the location in the world it is celebrated
-Today’s famous event in sports, entertainment, and geography
The Famous Daily is published on the web each morning.  Users can also sign up to get the Famous Daily via email each morning (http://famousdaily.com/subscribe/ushistorysite.html). It is free to receive the Famous Daily through email each morning.
Each day – it is exciting to get an email showing what happened on this date in history.  And Famous Daily is here to make it easy for anyone to be informed either through email or on the web.

The Famous Daily Launches

Last weekend, the Famous Daily (http://famousdaily.com/) launched.  The Famous Daily shows us what makes today special through highlighting important events that occurred on this date in history.
The information featured in the famous daily includes:
-Today’s Famous Birthdays showing which famous person celebrates a birthday today
-Today’s History which shows 5 key events from history that occurred on this date
-A Famous Quote that was said on this day in history
-Today’s holiday and the location in the world it is celebrated
-Today’s famous event in sports, entertainment, and geography
The Famous Daily is published on the web each morning.  Users can also sign up to get the Famous Daily via email each morning (http://famousdaily.com/subscribe/ushistorysite.html). It is free to receive the Famous Daily through email each morning.
Each day – it is exciting to get an email showing what happened on this date in history.  And Famous Daily is here to make it easy for anyone to be informed either through email or on the web.

Origins of some Stonehenge Rocks Confirmed

A study by Leicester University and the National Museum of Wales has been able to confirm a link between stones at Stonehenge and Craig Rhos-y-felin in Pembrokeshire. It had long been suspected that the ‘rhyolites’ had come from the region, but a yearlong study of rock samples has pinpointed the location to a small radius.

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Library Staff Find Stash of Ancient Coins

I love stories like this: a custodian called Tanja Hols was working at the Passau Historic State Library in Germany when she found a wooden box which had been left for many years. When she opened it, she found a collection of 172 gold and silver coins, many dating back to the ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine eras. The coins’ value is easily in six figures, and staff believe the box was deposited in the library c. 1803, in order to avoid handing church assets over to the state. The personal side of this story is that Hols is going to be promoted for finding and handing over the items. The Daily Mail has pictures

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Google Donates to Bletchley Park

Bletchley Park was the centre of the Allied code-breaking effort during the Second World War, and its widely believed to have shortened the war by a couple of years (thanks to giving insight into what Hitler was doing, an especially valuable set of information because Hitler’s strange decisions were hard to predict).

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Yeti finger turns out to be human after all

In 1958 mountain climber and explorer Peter Byrne was in Nepal on the second year of a three year Yeti-seeking expedition funded by adventurer, philanthropist and oil millionaire Tom Slick Jr. In a Buddhist monastery in Pangboche, a small village in the Sola Khumbu region of the central Himalaya, Byrne learned from a temple lama that the monastery just happened to have the hand and skullcap of a Yeti. The custodian showed him a large, crusty, oily, blackened hand with curled fingers and long fingernails.

Byrne asked if he could have it but the lamas refused because its loss would lead to great misfortune for the monastery. Eventually he negotiated a bargain: he could take one of the fingers as long as he replaced with a reasonable facsimile and made a donation towards the upkeep of the temple.

Byrne cabled the information to Tom Slick Jr. and Slick had Byrne return to London to consult with primatologist Dr. Osman Hill. Slick, Byrne and Dr. Hill met for luncheon at the Regents Park Zoo. During a discussion of how they would secure an appropriate replacement finger, Hill upended his bag and dumped a dried human hand onto the table. Problem solved.

Byrne returned to Pangboche with his replacement hand and ten thousand rupees (about $160.00 at today’s exchange rate) to donate to the temple. He cut off the index finger from the Yeti hand and wired the human finger in its place. The next obstacle to overcome was the illegality of smuggling a historical artifact out of the country. So Byrne gave the Yeti finger to Jimmy Stewart to smuggle out of India in his wife’s lingerie case.

Yes that Jimmy Stewart. Jimmy Stewart was a personal friend of Tom Slick’s and just happened to be in India in December of 1958 on a tiger hunt. When Byrne got word to Slick that he had secured the Yeti finger, he cabled Byrne telling him to take it to the Grand Hotel in Calcutta where a Mr. and Mrs. Stewart would take custody of the article and smuggle it to Dr. Hill in London. They hid it in Gloria’s lingerie suitcase (rich ladies had dedicated suitcases for their unmentionables in those days). When they arrived, guess which bag was lost? Two days later a customs agent showed up at their hotel with the lingerie case in hand. Gloria asked if they had opened it and the customs agent assured her they would never paw through a lady’s delicates.

Thus the finger made its adventurous way to Dr. Osman Hill. He examined it and declared it the finger of a hominid of some kind, he couldn’t be sure of which kind. When Hill died in 1975, he bequeathed his collection of research specimens to the Royal College of Surgeons’ Hunterian Museum (the same museum where the Irish Giant’s bones are on display).

Hill’s collection wasn’t well catalogued and didn’t have immediate research value so it was stored and pretty much forgotten about until 2008 when curators going through the Hill collection found a box containing a plaster cast of a large footprint, some hair, scat samples and a large, blackened finger. Hill’s notes identified it as a Yeti finger from Pangboche Temple in Nepal.

Scientists have more tools than Hill did to determine just what creature once pointed that index finger, namely DNA analysis. The Royal College of Surgeons allowed a small sample to be taken to find out once and for all if it is a Yeti’s digit.

The finger is of human origin, according to Dr Rob Jones, senior scientist at the Zoological Society of Scotland.

“We have got a very, very strong match to a number of existing reference sequences on human DNA databases.

“It’s very similar to existing human sequences from China and that region of Asia but we don’t have enough resolution to be confident of a racial identification.”

BBC radio followed the story, interviewing Peter Byrne, now 85 years old and living in the United States. You can listen to the program here. There’s some discussion at the end of the broadcast about sending the finger back to Pangboche. The original hand was stolen in 1999 after a 1991 episode of Unsolved Mysteries analyzed a sample from the finger (results were inconclusive) and made the Pangboche monastery a newly popular location for cryptozoological tourism.

The income from tourism plummeted after the theft. Mike Allsop, an Air New Zealand pilot and Everest mountaineer, created a replica of the hand and skullcap to donate to the monastery in the hope that it would give them something to show tourists and perhaps inspire the return of the purloined Yeti parts. Getting the original finger back would mean a lot to the monastery.


Recollections of Full Years

You can read Nellie Taft’s autobiography online, full text, for free if you like. I’m not thrilled with the readability (and I personally actually own this book), but for reference it is great and hey, free is good!

Here is an excerpt on meeting William Howard Taft:
I didn’t meet my husband until I was eighteen years old. We had been bom and brought up in the same town; our fathers were warm friends and had practised law at the same bar for more than forty years ; during that time our mothers had exchanged visits, and my sister Maria and Fanny Taft were schoolmates and close companions at Miss Nourse’s, but the Taf ts lived at Mt. Auburn, a hill suburb of Cincin- nati, and after Will finished Woodward High School he went for four years to Yale, so it is not at all surprising that we did not meet.

Judge Alphonso Taft was Secretary of War, and later Attorney-General, in Grant’s Cabinet while his son Will was at college, but before the latter graduated, the family had returned to Cincinnati, so he came straight home and entered at once upon a law course in the Cincinnati Law School. It was at that time, when he was still a student and working as a law reporter on the Cincinnati Commercial^ that I met him. It was at a coasting party one winter’s night, I re- member very well, when I went with a party of young people, including the Charles Tafts, to coast down a fine steep hill in Mt- Aubum. Will Taft was there, and after being introduced to me he took me down the hill on his big bobsled. After that we met very frequently.

A small circle of us went in for amateur theatricals with much enthusiasm and great earnestness. We launched ourselves in our histrionic careers in “She Stoops to Conquer” which we gave at the ^ house of one of the company. Then came “A Scrap of Paper” in Mrs. Charles Taft’s drawing-room, in which both Will and I took part. We had become very ambidous by this time and sent all the way to New York for a professional stage-manager to help us with the production. But it turned out a most nervous occasion. We were all overtrained, I suppose. One thing after another went wrong until at the crisis of the play, where the hero is supposed to find in the barrel of a gun the scrap of paper upon which the whole plot hinges, the ama- teur hero looked pretty foolish when he discovered there wasn’t any gun. Another one of the company, in a fit of absentmindedness, no doubt due to overwrought nerves, had carried it off the stage, and just when the situation was get- ting tragic for the hero the culprit came creeping back with it and carefully put it where it belonged, for all the world as if he thought he were making himself invisible to the au- dience.

But our ardour was not dampened. I remember Mr. Taf t especially in a burlesque of “The Sleeping Beauty,” which, in its legitimate form, had been produced for charity at Pike’s Opera House. The Unity Club, a most respectable organization of the young men of the Unitarian Church, decided to give their version of the same story, and it was a huge success. Mr. Taf t played the title role and his brother Horace, who is six feet four in his stocking feet, shared with the Beauty the honours of the evening as a most enchanting Puck.

Literature and Secularization: At MLA and in Print

by Everett Hamner

For any of you blog readers who might be at MLA (program is linked here) rather than AHA in a few days(gasp!), there’s a session you won’t want to miss. Several of the mostprovocative, insightful scholars at the intersection of religion and literaturewill be participating on a panel entitled “Literature andSecularization” (Friday, 3:30-4:45, WSCC 617). Facilitated by SusannahBrietz Monta (Notre Dame, and editor of Religionand Literature), this roundtable will feature Lori Branch (Iowa, author of Rituals of Spontaneity); John Cox (HopeCollege, Seeming Knowledge: Shakespeareand Skeptical Faith); Tracy Fessenden (Arizona State, Culture and Redemption); William Franke (Vanderbilt, Poetry and Apocalypse); Colin Lovell Jager(Rutgers, New Brunswick, The Book of God);and Michael W. Kaufmann (Temple, coordinator of recent Religion and Literature forum, “Locating thePostsecular”).

While I’m in advertising mode, many of you–religious studies and history typesincluded–might well enjoy Amy Hungerford’s PostmodernBelief: American Literature and Religion Since 1960 (Princeton, 2010). Ireviewed this for Religion and Literaturerecently (43.1, Spring 2011), and here’s the opening paragraph:

Atfirst glance, Amy Hungerford’s second book might seem literary criticism’sanswer to Robert Wuthnow’s After Heaven:Spirituality in America Since the 1950s, which shows how Americans havedrifted away from institutional religious commitments and toward more informal,syncretistic spiritualities. However, Hungerford reveals not just a looseningand recombination of doctrines and practices, but the return of a “belief inmeaninglessness” (xiii) rooted in transcendentalism and Romanticism. Postmodern Belief is an examination offaith without content, trust in the nonsemantic, belief as itself a form ofritual, all as discerned primarily through the work of writers rarelyidentified as religious themselves, but who still “live in oblique relation tothe structures and discourses of institutional religion” (xvi). Rather thanconcerning herself with these authors’ theologies, Hungerford investigatestheir convictions about literature. In fact, “their literary beliefs areultimately best understood as a species of religious thought, and theirliterary practice as a species of religious practice” (xvi).

A Restoration Too Far

Leonardo da Vinci, Virgin, Child and St Anne, Louvre, c. 1510.


Well, things have come to a pretty pass when eminent French curators refuse to associate themselves with the procedures of the Louvre. The Guardian reports that Ségolène Bergeon and Jean-Pierre Cuzin no longer agree with the cleaning treatment of one of the Louvre’s treasures- Leonardo’s Virgin and St Anne. Bergeon, an eminent expert on the cleaning of pictures said: "I can confirm that I have resigned from the international consultative committee, but my reasons I am reserving for a meeting with the president-director of the Louvre, Henri Loyrette."

Nobody can get a comment out of Cuzin, one of France’s greatest experts on paintings, but the Guardian says:

“Cuzin, the Louvre’s former head of paintings, declined to comment beyond confirming his resignation. But a senior museum source said the experts believed the restoration had gone too far, and that steps had gone ahead without adequate tests. The restoration has divided the committee between those who believe the painting is now too bright and those who regard the cleaning as moderate. There were also disputes over whether an area dismissed as removable repaint was in fact a glaze applied by Leonardo."

The committee from which Bergeon and Cuzin have resigned include Luke Syson (curator of the current Leonardo exhibition) and Larry Keith, a restorer at the NG. It is emerging that the English, not the French wanted this restoration. "The English were very pushing, saying they know Leonardo is extremely delicate but ‘we can move without any danger to the work.” Even the Louvre had doubts about undergoing this restoration since in the words of the Guardian:

“Seventeen years ago, the Louvre abandoned an earlier attempt to clean the painting amid fears over how the solvents were affecting the sfumato, Leonardo’s trademark painterly effect for blurring contours. Since then, the British influence on restoration has helped to sway the Louvre.” And all this time I had doubts about the Louvre and cleaning!

Naturally, and understandably, this has roused the ire of the pressure group ArtWatch. It’s leader Michael Daly said  "Implicitly, this is a vote of no confidence in the National Gallery cleaning policy because the most pro-active members of the [Louvre] committee have been the advisers from the National Gallery."

The final verdict is that Leonardo’s St Anne has been “overcleaned” and there will be another inspection on the 3rd January. As for Syson and co, I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes. Why on earth were they so overzealous for pressing for this restoration which experts tell me has irrevocably damaged the work?  Hardly an auspicious way to ring in the art history new year. Leonardo done in by committee.


Once Again with the Presidential Oath

In an attempt to argue that George Washington added the phrase “So help me God” to his presidential oath in 1789, David Barton wrote at Wallbuilders about the fact that some states included that phrase as part of their oaths for office-holders at the time. In particular:

At that time, New York law required that “the usual mode of administering oaths” be followed (i.e., “So help me God”) and that the person taking the oath place his hand upon the Gospels and then kiss the Gospels at the conclusion of the oath.33 (Like the other states, these provisions remained the legal standard long after the inauguration.34)

The quoted phrase “the usual mode of administering oaths” comes from the first work cited in Barton’s first footnote, the Laws of the State of New-York. (The second work is a 1788 manual for New York justices of the peace. The following footnote points to an 1836 equivalent, based on 1821 law; it has nothing to do with the swearing-in of a federal official thirty years before that law, and seems to have been included just to make the presentation appear more weighty.)

As Ray Soller noted at American Creation, the 1778 law that Barton cites on “the usual mode” is actually about dispensing with that mode for people with conscientious objections to it. So the “usual mode” was not a legal requirement after April.

For the full context, on 5 Mar 1778, the New York state legislature passed laws to govern the swearing-in of state officials; that’s chapter 7, though chapter 3 had already included an oath. Those oaths mention God twice, the second time in closing those oaths with “So help me God.”

However, by 27 March, the legislature had to acknowledge that Quakers don’t swear (chapter 16 and later). And on 1 April it agreed to “dispense with the usual mode” of having all men kiss the Bible because, chapter 25 stated, “many of the inhabitants” had objected.

Those revisions to the 5 March law don’t specify that New York office-holders could decline to say “So help me God.” Barton might argue that that means that provision of the law remained in effect. But the clear pattern is that the legislature moved away from requiring the “usual mode.” There were just too many religious beliefs to demand the same ritual from every office-holder.

Furthermore, whatever New York laws said, they did not govern the swearing-in of a federal official like President Washington. The presidential oath is specified in the Constitution, just as these New York laws stated the oaths for New York officials, word for word. The New York laws included “So help me God”; the Constitution does not. Barton doesn’t see that difference as significant; Soller does, as do I. Washington was, of course, involved in the creation of the Constitution and valued it highly.

Detailed contemporaneous descriptions of Washington’s first inaugural describe him kissing a Bible supplied at the last minute by the local Freemasons and reciting the Constitutional oath as written—without “So help me God.” One might think the use of that Bible would be enough to satisfy Barton’s argument that early American society was infused with religious belief. Claiming that Washington added words that no one heard only weakens that position, turning it into a statement of faith rather than fact.

Thomas Jefferson and his Hair: Can Jefferson’s Hair Unlock Some of History’s Mysteries?

Thomas Jefferson died in 1826, yet it’s possible that some of his hair survives to the present day. Those who claim to own hair from Thomas Jefferson include the Library of Congress, the Academy of Natural Sciences, and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. If the hair owned by these organizations is indeed Jefferson’s, then we have access to the actual DNA of Thomas Jefferson himself. Could that mean we may unravel some of history’s mysteries surrounding our nation’s third President, including solving the paternal question of Eston Hemings (Sally Hemings’s son) once and for all?

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation claims to have “15 samples of hair purported to be Thomas Jefferson’s, from various family provenances.” The Foundation, however, cautions that “it is impossible for us to know if these are what they purport to be.” Likewise, the Jefferson hair at the Academy of Natural Sciences comes from 19th century lawyer and hair collector Peter Arvell Browne. Some question whether it’s really Jefferson’s hair, but Browne apparently collected samples from the first 12 Presidents (all of which are now held by the Academy. Perhaps the strongest claim lies with the Library of Congress, which has three cuttings. These cuttings were received in the early 19th century from none other than Martha Randolph, who wrote on the envelope: “My dear father Thomas Jefferson.”

Even if the Jefferson hair samples are authentic and even if the owners give them over for scientific research, genealogy expert Dick Eastman says we shouldn’t get our hopes up. Says Eastman: “If we assume the hair is really that of former president Thomas Jefferson, any Y-chromosome DNA extracted would be identical to the DNA samples already obtained from Jefferson’s other close male relatives.” In other words, says Eastman, the hair samples give us “absolutely no new information.” (See “Could Jefferson Hair Sample Provide New DNA Information?” by Dick Eastman)

Regardless of whether the DNA information can bring us new, groundbreaking information, it’s still cool (at least to this history buff) that we have ready and literal access to a piece of our third President, a man who helped fashion and shape the United States of America.

Tower of Babel floor plan and elevation

The Tower of Babel steleA stele from the collection of Norwegian businessman Martin Schoyen includes the clearest image of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II extant and the earliest images of the Great Ziggurat of Babylon, aka Etemenanki, the leading candidate for the Biblical Tower of Babel. This is one of only four known images of Nebuchadnezzar, and the other three are carved on cliff-faces in Lebanon and have been hard used by the elements. The stele shows the king in profile, wearing the conical hat of royalty, holding a staff in his left hand and an unknown object that might be a foundation nail or a scroll with plans for the tower in his right hand.

Nebuchadnezzar reigned over the Neo-Babylonian Empire between 605 B.C. and 562 B.C. During that time he restored and completed the great ziggurat which was first built by an earlier king at an indeterminate time (the Schoyen scholars say 1792-1750 B.C.) in honor of the god Marduk but had been damaged by the Assyrian King Sennacherib when he destroyed Babylon in 689 B.C. Restoration began under the reign of Nebuchadnezzar’s father Nabopolassar and was completed during the son’s reign 43 years later. Nebuchadnezzar boasts of his construction prowess on the stele, describing himself as the “great restorer and builder of holy places.”

“I mobilized (all) countries everywhere, (each and) every ruler (who) had been raised to prominence over all the people of the world (as one) loved by Marduk…” he wrote on the stele.

“I built their structures with bitumen and (baked brick throughout). I completed them, making (them gleam) bright as the (sun)…” (Translations by Professor Andrew George)

Line drawing of the Tower of Babel steleHe illustrates his great accomplishment with carved images of the gloriously rebuilt Tower: one is a ground plan of the temple showing the outer walls and inner rooms, the other an elevation showing the front of the ziggurat with the relative proportions of each of the seven steps and the temple on top. Unambiguously labeled as “The house, the foundation of heaven and earth, the ziggurat in Babylon,” these are the only contemporary images of the tower known to exist.

The ziggurat was ill-used by subsequent conquerors. Cyrus the Great of Persia took Babylon in 538 B.C. and pulled down the three stair ramps so the tower couldn’t be used as a fortress. By the time Alexander the Great took over in 331 B.C., water damage penetrating through the torn down stair ramps had caused severe structural damage. Alexander planned to restore the foundation of heaven and earth, but when he returned the next year no work had been done so he ordered the ziggurat torn down and rebuilt. It was torn down, but he died before it could be rebuilt.

All we’ve got left now is the square base of the Great Ziggurat just south of Baghdad. It can still be seen from satellites.


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