Category Archives: People

Red Summer, the forgotten nightmare

After the Union victory in the US Civil War, the next significant step in giving African-American people equal rights was when the Civil Rights Movement took on various states nearly a century later.

Often forgotten is a terrible period of less than 5 months during 1919, which became known as the Red Summer, a time when race riots took place from North to South, and East to West, leaving several dozen people dead, often by horrific means, and many more injured.

Today these events are included with the Red Scare of 1919-1920, when anti-Communist feelings ran very high, but a US Senate Committee identified at least 38 separate riots in which white communities attacked black communities during this short period.

While anti-Communism feelings did contribute in part, there were other contributing factors.  During WWI many industrial cities in the north found themselves short of labour, and it’s estimated that as many as 500,000 African-Americans emigrated from the south during this time, leading to a clash with returning soldiers, many of whom found themselves out of work and facing rising inflation.

Newspapers of the time did not help, with various headlines stoking tensions, such as this link to a headline from the New York Times.

One of the first riots was in Charleston, South Carolina, with white sailors and civilians fought against black civilians, and within hours 3 black were shot dead, with 18 more injured, with five white men injured as well.  The city imposed martial law, and a subsequent Naval investigation found 4 sailors and a civilian responsible for initiating the riots.

One of the worst was in Chicago, Illinois, which started when a white man started throwing stones at a number of black beach goers, killing Eugene Williams.  A nearby police officer refused to arrest the man, instead arresting another black man for protesting at this outrage.  Groups of white men then started looking for black people, and stoning those unfortunate to be caught, while many buildings were set ablaze.

A black man stoned to death during the riots

One of the men stoned to death during the riots

Before the Government called in 6,000 National Guard troops to restore order, 23 African-Americans and 15 white people were dead, with over 530 more people injured.  Hundreds of people were left homeless by the fires, with having been thrown on some roads to prevent fire trucks from reaching the fires.  It is not known how many black people were forced to flee Chicago, fearing for their lives.

Despite the coroner’s report of the responsibility of white people for the extensive rioting and damage, of the 17 men indicted, all were black.

Another brutal riot occurred in Omaha, Nebraska, after sensational reporting of the rape of Agnes Loebeck.  Local reports suggested this had been one of several attacks on white women by black men, so when Will Brown was arrested the next day, a mob gathered to demand his lynching, but they were turned away

Crowds outside the Court House

Crowds outside the Court House

The next day a large mob turned up at the court house after lunch, and faced up to a police force of 30 officers, but they were turned away.  Three hours later, 4,000 people turned up, charging at the officers in charge, and throwing bricks through the windows of the court house.

The officers tried turning a water hose on the crowd and even fired a number of shots to frighten off the crowds.  The chief of police arrived and tried to talk to the crowds, but he was ignored.  Any black person in the area was severely beaten, and anyone who tried to help them was also beaten.  Nearby hardware stores were broken into, and more than a thousand revolvers and shotguns were reported stolen.

As the officers barricaded themselves inside the courthouse, together with the mayor, trying to protect Will Brown, it was set alight by the rioters.  Mayor Smith came out at 11pm to appeal again to the crowd, but as the crowd started to quiet down, a shot rang out and a man screamed out that he’d been shot by Smith.  The crowd surged forward and Smith was hit on the head with a baseball bat, and a noose put around his neck.  Despite some people trying to protect Smith from the crowd, he was dragged to a traffic signal tower and hanged by the neck.  He was saved by four state agents who drove at the crowds, reached Smith and cut him down, before taking him away to Hospital.  Despite recovering, Smith died 2 years later.

A crowd poses for photgraphs with Will Brown's body

A crowd poses for photographs with Will Brown’s body

Fearing they would be burned alive inside the Court House, other prisoners inside eventually managed to grab Brown and handed him to the mob.  He was dragged out and hanged from a nearby telephone post.  Hundreds of shots were fired at his body as it dangled, and when they cut him down, they dragged his body through several streets before setting his body alight.

Members of the mob continued to haul Brown’s burned body through the streets for several hours more.

Federal troops from nearby Fort Omaha and Fort Crook arrived by 3am and took several positions in the city, some with machine guns, to stop any further mob violence.

Despite 120 people indicted on charges of murder, arson and other charges, few were successfully prosecuted, and none of them served any time in prison.

In the 30 years prior to 1919, it is estimated that some 2,500 black people had been lynched in the US, but in the summer of 1919 many more were injured and forced to flee their homes because of full scale riots that took place from as far north as New York, to as far south as Texas, and from as far west as Arizona, to as far east as Maryland and Washington DC.

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Posted by on Saturday 1st December 2012 in History, People


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Good boys and women’s suffrage

In the fight for women’s suffrage, there are many leading women who are remembered for their heroic efforts, but spare a thought for one Harry T Burn, who simply did what his mother asked because he was a good boy.

By 1920 most European countries had given women the vote, as did a few other countries (Canada gave them the vote in 1917), but the US still resisted the temptation.

In order to get the 19th amendment into law, it needed to be ratified by 36 states, but only 35 states did so, and it seemed the issue may drag for some time.  In August 1920, the state of Tennessee was to vote on the amendment, with both sides campaigning hard.  Those who supported women’s suffrage wore a yellow rose as a symbol of their vote, while those who opposed it wore a red rose.

Harry T Burn, he listened to his mother and changed history

The speaker of the house, Seth Walker, wore his red rose proudly and expected to win the No vote, but a couple of late defections left the house tied 48-48.  A second vote was taken, and once again it was tied at 48-48.  Supporters of the amendment were disappointed, and this turned to dismay when a local newspaper ran a cartoon depicting an old woman chasing the letters RAT with a broom, trying to united them with the letters IFICATION.

This cartoon spurred one woman to write to her son, who happened to be a young representative in the Tennessee house, asking him to help Mrs Catt (a prominent Suffragist) with her “Rats”.

As the house voted for a third time, Harry was still wearing the red rose which symbolised his previous votes against the amendment, but he now stood up and voted for women’s suffrage.  The vote was now 49-47 in support of the amendment, and the uproar was so high that the governor suggested Harry wait until state troopers could be brought to provide a bodyguard.

Harry managed to sneak out on his own by climbing out of the window of a clerk’s office, crawling along a very narrow ledge, and then climbing in through a window of another office which had access to the lobby, and freedom.

Harry would later explain his actions by saying that it was his mother who asked him to change his vote in her letter, and that a good boy always does what his mother asks him to do.

The speaker of the house, Seth Walker, also changed his vote so that he could introduce a motion to reconsider, but this motion was rejected and the 19th Amendment was ratified by one vote.

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Posted by on Monday 11th June 2012 in History, People


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Haydn a head of Beethoven

In 1827 the world of music mourned the death of Ludwig van Beethoven.  His funeral was attended by an estimated twenty thousand people and included many dignitaries and leading composers.

Despite this look, Beethoven kept his head

Among the throngs of people who came to pay their respects, one group came forward with a strange request.  These men believed in Phrenology, the study of the shape of the skull in the belief it could give clues to a person’s intelligence and various attributes.

While it was easy to get hold of the skulls of executed criminals and of the poor who died in hospitals, what these men really wanted was the skull of a genius to see where this gift came from.

It perhaps comes as no surprise that this request was refused, but it was certainly not the first time these phrenologists tried to get hold of a composer’s skull.

Joseph Haydn in his prime, his head still attached to his body.

In 1809, as Napoleon’s troops approached Vienna, Joseph Haydn died and a simple funeral was hastily arranged.  Haydn’s patron, Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy II, pledged to transfer his remains to the family seat when the wars ended.  However, unknown to the Prince, his former secretary Joseph Carl Rosenbaum had agreed to an arrangement with local prison governor Johann Nepomuk Peter (an amateur phrenologist) to dig up Haydn’s corpse and remove the head.

Having cleaned the skull, Peter declared that the “bump of music” in Haydn’s skull was fully developed and was so proud of his possession that he kept it in a custom made box.  It was not until 11 years later, in 1820, that Prince Nikolaus decided to dig up Haydn’s remains and transfer them to a specially built tomb, and that’s when they discovered the head was missing.

Prince Nikolaus II, a man desperately in need of a head.

It did not take long for the Prince to discover the culprits were Rosenbaum and Peter and sent his soldiers round to find the skull.  Peter had by then given the skull to Rosenbaum, and when the soldiers came round he hid it in the straw of the bed and his wife lay on it pretending to be menstruating.  The soldiers gave up and came back empty handed.  After a few threats Rosenbaum got hold of another skull and gave it to Prince, but tests revealed it to be that of a 20 year old man.  Rosenbaum found another skull, of a much older man, and this was accepted as genuine and was buried with Haydn’s body.

Haydn’s real skull was kept with Rosenbaum, who left it for Peter in his will.  Peter’s will stated that the skull should then be given to the Vienna Conservatory of Music, but his wife gave it as a gift to her doctor, who gave it to the Austrian Institute of Pathology and Anatomy.  There was a lot of arguments and court cases involved as to who should own the skull (no consulted the Esterhazy family), but it finally stayed with the Society of Music in Vienna where it was kept in a glass case on top of the piano.

In 1932 Prince Paul Esterhazy decided to build a new marble tomb for Haydn, and he petitioned for the skull to be returned so it could be buried with the rest of Haydn.  Unfortunately, WWII and the cold war that followed created further complications.

Haydn’s final resting place

It was not until 1954 that the skull was finally returned and in a grand ceremony full of music, Haydn’s body and skull were finally laid to rest in Eisenstadt, the seat of the Esterhazy family.  It was the first time in nearly a century and a half that the body and head of the great composer were together again.

However, no one knew what to do with the existing skull in Haydn’s grave, and it was allowed to stay.  His tomb now contains a body and two heads, at least one of which we know to be Haydn.

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Posted by on Tuesday 5th June 2012 in Crime, History, People


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The worst wedding ever

There are times when a story seems so fantastical as to be untrue, especially as no official records survive of the events, but because writers and biographers often repeat that story within a few years of the event, it’s hard to dismiss altogether.

One such story is the marriage of Prince Amadeo of Savoy to Maria Vittoria dal Pozzo on 30th May 1867.

King Victor Emmanuel, big fan of the handlebar moustache

To begin with, the prince’s father, King Victor Emmanuel II of Italy, was against the marriage as he deemed Maria to be from a low rank family, but he was finally persuaded to allow the wedding to go ahead (possibly because of the financial wealth the bride brought with her), and threw a lavish wedding day for the couple.

Trouble started before the wedding, when the Maria’s wardrobe mistress hanged herself instead of the wedding gown.  Feeling superstitious, the bride ordered a new gown for the wedding.

As the wedding procession travelled from the palace to the church, the Colonel who was to lead it fell from his horse, suffering from sunstroke.

A new officer was found and the procession got under way only to be stopped at the palace gates, which were shut.  A quick search yielded the body of the gatekeeper in a large pool of blood, some said he killed himself by slitting his own throat.

A picture of the happy couple

The show must go on though, the gate was finally opened and the procession proceeded to the church, where the ceremony was completed without further mishaps.  Perhaps the run of bad luck was over?

Not by a long shot, which is what happened to the best man as they all exited the church, when he started checking his ceremonial pistol, discharging it and wounding himself in the head.

By now the couple decided it might be a good idea to get away and the procession moved to the railway station, where a special train was to take them away on their honeymoon.

However, on the way the official who drew up the marriage contract collapsed from a stroke, and when the wedding party arrived at the station, the stationmaster slipped and fell under the train, yet another fatality of the wedding.

By now King Victor had enough and ordered the party to return to the safety of the palace, they all got in their carriages and made their way back, flanked by mounted officers.

The final incident happened when one of the officers, the Count of Castiglione, fell from his horse and under the wheel of one of the carriages.  He may have survived the accident were it not for a splendid medal on his uniform, which was crushed into his chest, killing him.

Perhaps this inauspicious start was a sign of things to come.  In 1870 Amadeo was made King of Spain and his wife queen, but in less than three years his court was in a mess and he abdicated, declaring that the Spanish people ungovernable.

The couple returned to Italy, where they lived as the Duke and Duchess of Aosta.  In 1873, aged 29, Maria died just days after giving birth to their third son.  Amadeo married his niece in 1888 and died two years later, the final casualty of a doomed wedding.

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Posted by on Thursday 17th May 2012 in History, People


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Do you exaggerate when you go online?

OK, so you’re sat in front of your computer and you switch it on and go online, but before you even type anything anywhere, do you realise you’ve just perpetuated a very old lie?

Baron Münchhausen

We have to go back a few years before the internet, and before modern computers, in fact all the way back to the 18th century and to Karl Friedrich Hieronymus Freiherr von Münchhausen, better know to us now simply as Baron Münchhausen.

The Baron became famous in his lifetime for telling fantastic stories about his life, many of which were just plainly impossible.  His tales inspired books and even Hollywood films and many of his exploits became classic examples of adynata.

His name became so famous that he even has a medical condition named after him, which affects people who attempt to draw attention to themselves through either making themselves or others ill.

In one of his tales Baron Münchhausen found himself and his horse stuck in quicksand and in an incredible feat of strength (and one which defies several laws of physics) he is able to pull both himself and his horse by pulling on his pigtails.

Münchhausen pulling at his pigtails

Münchhausen’s contribution to this story is now at an end and we move forward a few decades and travel all the way to the Wild West where the good folk were no slouches in creating their own version of this incredible feat, and if one was faced with an impossible task it was said to be akin to “pulling oneself over a fence by one’s bootstraps”.

This phrase, often simply shortened to “pulling himself by the bootstraps” was commonly used for what seemed an impossible task.

Roll forward several more decades, and in the 1950s, when computer technology was gathering pace, engineers realised they’d created a paradox whereby a computer cannot run without first loading software, but must be running before any software can be loaded.

What they needed was a hardwired program to read an operating program which would then allow the computer to read and execute other instructions.  This hardwired program became known as a “Bootstrap” which would be activated via a button, and this was soon shortened to “Boot”.

Ever since then we’ve called switching on a computer “Booting Up”, thus following in Baron Münchhausen’s example of seemingly doing the impossible.

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Posted by on Thursday 26th January 2012 in Computers, People, Sayings


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Nellie Bly, the woman who beat Phileas Fogg

Most people know the story of Phileas Fogg, the hero of the Jules Verne book “Around the World in Eighty Days”, but this fictional character was beaten in real life by an American woman who was to establish a standard of investigative journalism which forced many changes in the US during the late 19th century.

Elizabeth aged about 20 years old

Born in 1864, Elizabeth Jane Cochran was soon nicknamed Pinky because her mother had dressed her in that colour (pink was not as common for baby girls as it became a century later).  Her father died while she was still quite young, and her mother remarried to a man who turned out to be violent and abusive.  Elizabeth would later testify when her mother filed for divorce that her step father was very cross when drunk, and cross when sober.

She was helping her mother run their home when, at the age of 18, she read an article in a Pittsburgh newspaper denouncing working women as a “monstrosity” and demanding women concentrated on domestic tasks and raising children.  Incensed, Elizabeth wrote a letter to the paper as “Lonely Orphan Girl” which impressed the editor so much he wrote for the man who wrote the letter to come forward so he can offer him a job.  When Elizabeth turned up he initially refused to give her a job as female reporters were still not universally acceptable, but she talked him round and agreed to take a pen name.

The editor chose the name Nellie Bly, after a song by Stephen Foster (famous for writing songs such as “Oh Susanna”, “Camptown Races” and a number of American classics).

Nellie wrote a number of articles about the working conditions of poor women and issues such as divorce laws, and she started a new style of investigative journalism where she would go undercover as a sweatshop worker and other roles in order to report on the cruelty these women suffered.  The attention she brought to the practices of local businesses meant they threatened to stop advertising in the paper so she was sent to Mexico to write a travelogue until things quietened down.

What started as a feature about the customs and everyday lives of ordinary Mexicans became a scathing report on the corruption, repression and lack of freedoms under the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz.  Nellie was soon run out of the country and she returned to Pittsburgh, where the editor was unable to give her investigative work and she was relegated to reporting on theatre and arts.

It didn’t take long for Nellie to look for greater challenges, and she moved to New York.  Finding New York publishers unwilling to take on female reporters, she spent four months looking for work before turning up in the office of Colonel Cockerill and Joseph Pulitzer with ideas for undercover work.

Nellie Bly after her time in the madhouse

Nellie’s first expose was of the conditions in a women’s lunatic asylum.  She practiced pulling deranged expressions in front of a mirror before moving into a boarding house and starting to act in such an odd manner that the police were called and she was brought in front of a number of doctors, all of them declaring her insane.  The plight of this unknown girl was reported in a number of papers such as the New York Times (link to article).

Nellie spent ten days in a lunatic asylum before her employers came forward to have her released.  Her story of conditions became a sensation, and as a direct result a grand jury conducted an investigation, inviting Bly to assist, and implementing most of her proposed changes.  Bly wrote about her experiences in a book called “Ten Days in the Mad House”.

Over the next few years Bly became famous for a number of investigations into the plight of women, corruption of lobbyists, medical care given to the poor, and was the only reporter to report from the perspective of the strikers during the Pullman Railroad strike of 1894.

In 1888 Bly got the idea to travel around the world to try and beat the legendary record set by Phileas Fogg.  When she approached her editor she was told they would rather send a man, to which she challenged her editor that if they sent a man, she would travel on the same day for a rival paper.  Other projects soon distracted Nellie, but in November 1889 she was called into the editor’s office and asked if she could begin her adventure within two days, to which she replied “I can start this minute”.

Nellie's account of her trip around the world

With only the dress she was wearing, an overcoat, several changes of underwear and a small bag of toiletries, she boarded a steamer bound for Europe.  A rival paper sponsored another female reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, to travel in the opposite direction, creating a race for the public to enjoy.

During her travels Nellie met up with Jules Verne in France, visited a leper colony in China and bought a monkey in Singapore.  It was not until she reached Hong Kong and was trying to secure a voyage to Japan that Nellie discovered she was in a race, and that her competitor was carrying letters to steamship officials in every port to do everything they could to let her on, thus speeding her journey.

Ultimately, Bisland received the wrong information about the steamer she was due to take from England back the to the US, and was forced to board a much slower ship.  In the meantime, Bly had arrived in San Francisco and boarded a train chartered by her newspaper to bring her to New York directly.

Nellie completed her journey in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds.  She finished more than 4 days ahead of Bisland, and nearly 8 days ahead of Fogg’s target.

Despite her achievement, and the increase in the newspaper’s circulation, her employers did not offer her any bonus and she resigned.  Nellie was not short of opportunities and went on lecture tours, wrote a successful book about her adventures, and her image was used for various products.  Within 3 years The World begged her to return, and when she agreed they ran a front page headline which read “Nellie Bly Again”.

Nellie went on to marry a wealthy steel manufacturer, and when he died several years later she became president of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Co.  The company prospered under Nellie and among other products, they created the 55 gallon oil drum which became a standard design still used today.  She became one of the leading female industrialists in the US, but would later be made bankrupt because of embezzlement by employees.

On a trip to see a friend in Austria in 1914 she found herself in the middle of the outbreak of the first World War.  Nellie contacted her former editor, who now worked for The New York Evening Journal and spent the next five years reporting about the war from the front.  She became the first American female war correspondent.

One her return to New York in 1919 Nellie continued to write a popular column and became involved with various charities for poor families, widows and orphans.  She continued to write until her death in 1922, from pneumonia.  She was 57.


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Posted by on Sunday 15th January 2012 in People


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The Ten Lost Tribes, a Champagne bottle, and Taiwan?

In a way, this story starts at the end, with the death of our main character.

When George Psalmanazar died on 3rd May 1763, he left behind a manuscript which was published the next year and revealed his true nature – but not his name.  The book, “Memoirs of ****, Commonly Known by the Name of George Psalmanazar” gives many fact about his life and plenty of clues, but George will forever remain unknown.

An engraving of Psalmanazar late in his life

The exact year of his birth is not known, though most agree it may probably have been 1679.  George revealed that he was born into a Catholic family in the South of France (possibly Languedoc), educated at a Franciscan school and a Jesuit academy.  He claims he was soon celebrated as a linguistic genius, excelling in a number of languages.

George entered university to study theology, but soon grew disenchanted with academia, dropping out at the age of 15.  He took to tutoring and claims one of his students’ mothers tried to seduce him, but he soon failed at this profession and at age 16 he was wearing rags and begging for food.

He forged a passport and stole a pilgrim’s cloak and staff, thus providing him with his first alias “a young student in theology of Irish extract who had left the country for the sake of religion and was now on a pilgrimage to Rome”.  He soon realised that many people were familiar with Ireland and he was unable to keep pretense,  He decided then to seek his father in Germany.

Finding his father as impoverished as himself, George then decided on his next alias, “a Japanese converted to Christianity”, and despite the appearances of a typical Caucasian he was able to pull this trick off by eating raw meat spiced with cardamom and sleeping while sitting upright in a chair.

George soon enlisted in the army of the Duke of Mecklenburg, but had now changed his alias to that of an unconverted Japanese named Salmanazar.  He’d chosen the same Salmanazar from the Bible, after the Assyrian king, Shalmaneser, who deported the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.  The name is also used for 9 litre bottles of Champagne.

In 1702 he reached Amsterdam and met a Scottish priest named William Innes, who seems to have seen through his charade, but instead of uncovering this impostor, Innes persuaded him to take it to even greater heights.  Innes wrote to the Anglican Bishop of London, claiming that George had come from Formosa (which was lesser known than Japan) and that he had converted him to Protestant Christianity and named him George Psalmanazar, the name he stayed with for the next 60 years.  The bishop commanded that they come to London at once and so it was that the two of them arrived in 1703.

Members of Formosan society

For a few short years George was the toast of English society, meeting many academics, and publishing a book called “An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island subject to the Emperor of Japan” which sold out in English and was translated into other languages.

In it he claimed he was abducted by Jesuits and taken to France, which endeared him to the English because of their suspicion of Catholics and Jesuits.  When he was often challenged because of information brought back by Jesuits he was able to prevail because of this religious distrust.

In his book, it looks like George borrowed from stories he heard about the Inca and Aztec, and he made some basic mistakes like the fact Formosa belonged to China, not Japan, and when he claimed that 18,000 boys were sacrificed each year (which would have resulted in a population decrease).

His descriptions of society and customs enthralled people, from the fact that criminals were hanged upside down and killed by having arrows fired into them, to the polygamous society that allowed men to eat their wives for infidelity.

Yet more cool dudes from Formosa

George also included descriptions of the alphabet and language of Formosa, which he’d made up completely, but were so convincing that examples were still being used by grammarians many decades later.

However, it didn’t take too long for the hoax to be uncovered, and by 1706 George accepted that the whole thing was a hoax, yet refused to reveal his identity.

George did display a great intelligence and for the next few years he became part of the infamous “Grub Street”, editing several works and contributing articles to a number of publications.  One of the works he contributed to anonymously, “A Complete System of Geography”, allowed George to write about the real conditions of Formosa, pointedly refuting various claims he made in his earlier publication.

In later life George shunned fame, and seems to have gained a respect among his fellow writers and people who lived nearby.  Samuel Johnson wrote “Psalmanazar’s piety, penitence, and virtue exceeded almost what we read as wonderful in the lives of the saints” and noted that everyone, including children, showed him respect.

When he died, no one knew his real name, date of birth or even where he really came from.  He requested that he be buried in an obscure corner without ceremony, in the cheapest manner possible and without a lid or covering so that the earth can cover him all around.

For a while this man was one of the most famous men in the 18th century, yet we never really knew who he was.


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Posted by on Sunday 18th September 2011 in History, People


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