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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Man’s best friend wins in court

It all began in the autumn of 1869, in the farmlands of Missouri.  Leonidas Hornsby was fed up with finding several of his sheep killed and warned his neighbours that the next dog he saw on his land would be shot.

Horsnby’s brother in law, Charles Burden, owned a black and tan foxhound called “Old Drum” which was found shot dead on 28th October 1869.  It was a clear cut case and Burden filed a suit against Hornsby for the loss of the dog.  The matter may have been forgotten by history were it not for Burden’s sense of loss resulting in him asking for $100 damages, which was more than the $50 maximum allowed for such a case.  This resulted in three separate jury trials and an appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court.

In the first trial the jury could not decide for either man.  In the second trial the jury awarded Burden $25 and costs.  Horsnby decided to appeal and hired new lawyers who would surely win the case.  The appeal was successful and a third trial was to be held in September at the Old Courthouse in Warrensburg, Hornsby employed future senator Francis Cockrell and future Governor Thomas Theodore Crittenden (later to become famous for offering a reward for the capture of Jesse James).

George Graham Vest didn't always need to listen to the evidence

Burden’s lawyers managed to convince George Graham Vest (another future senator) and John Finis Philips (future US Representative) to help with their arguments and closing remarks.

On 23rd September 1870 Vest made his closing speech.  He made no reference to the evidence or to Old Drum, but instead delivered a powerful tribute to all dogs and their masters which Crittenden later claimed reduced some of the jury to tears.

Following his summation, the jury spent little time in returning a unanimous verdict in favour of Burden, awarding him $50 and costs.  This would later be appealed again by Horsnby, but it was this closing speech by Vest which would go down in history as the birth of “Man’s best friend”.

Unfortunately, this speech was not written down during the trial, and only the opening remarks have been preserved, but they still give an indication of the speech which moved a whole court:

“Gentlemen of the jury, the best friend a man has in this world may turn against him and become his enemy. His son or daughter whom he has reared with loving care may prove ungrateful. Those who are nearest and dearest to us those whom we trust with our happiness and good name–may become traitors in their faith. The money that a man has he may lose. It flies away from him, perhaps when he needs it most. A man’s reputation may be sacrificed in a moment of ill-considered action. The people who are prone to fall on their knees to do us honor when success is with us may be the 1st to throw the stone of malice when failure settles its cloud upon our heads. The one absolute, unselfish friend that man can have in this selfish world–the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous–is his dog.

Gentlemen of the jury, a man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and poverty, in health and sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground, where the wintry winds blow, and the snow drives fiercely, if only he can be near his master’s side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer; he will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounter with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince. When all other friends desert, he remains. When riches take wings and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens.

“If fortune drives the master forth an outcast in the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of accompanying him to guard against danger, to fight against his enemies. And when the last scene of all comes, and death takes the master in its embrace, and his body is laid away in the cold ground, no matter if all other friends pursue their way, there by his graveside will the noble dog be found, his head between his paws, his eyes sad but open in alert watchfulness, faithful and true even unto death.”

Years later, a statue was erected outside the very courthouse where this speech was made, in memory of Old Drum, the first dog to be called “Man’s best friend”.

Old Drum and the Eulogy of the Dog

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Posted by on Sunday 23rd October 2011 in Animals, History


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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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The Durable Mike Malloy

Real life sometimes rivals fiction, and the story of Michael Malloy (1873-1933) rivals most.

The story starts in early 1932 in New York, at the height of prohibition, when four men formed what was to be called The Murder Trust.  The men were Anthony Marino, owner of a local speakeasy, his bartender Joseph Murphy, local undertaker Francis Pasqua, and fruit vendor Daniel Kreisberg.  They would later recruit taxi driver Harry Green.

At a time when many people were looking for some easy money, they decided to murder Marino’s girlfriend, Betty Carlsen, after insuring her life for $800 (about $13k in 2011).  It was a very simple idea.  They got her drunk, took her to her room, stripped her naked, laid her out in her bed and poured cold water over her.  They then left her windows open and returned the next morning to find her dead from what the coroner declared was pneumonia compounded by alcoholism.  Their plan seemed to work perfectly.

During this time Malloy was a local homeless man who had originally come from Ireland and had been a firefighter at one time.  He was 60 and well past his prime and had become an alcoholic.  For a while he’d earned some money by occasionally sweeping floors, and this was enough to pay for some lodgings and drinks at Marino’s speakeasy, but as money dwindled he would hang around trying to cadge drinks from one of the other regulars.

So it was that when the Murder Trust looked to make some more money they saw Michael Malloy as an easy target.

Marino told Malloy that because of a price war with other bars, he would let him have free credit, allowing him to drink throughout the day and night. Malloy was so happy to get free drinks (and a free lunch) that he didn’t suspect a thing and even signed what he thought was a petition for Marino to be elected for local office, but turned out to be life insurance forms for $3,576 (a little over $60k in 2011).  He was even allowed to sleep at the back of the bar to let him stay as long as he needs.

They figured this broken old man will drink himself to death very soon, but he returned each night and it started costing them too much.

It was then that Murphy, having previously practiced chemistry, suggested lacing Malloy’s drinks with antifreeze.  After a few shots of whiskey Malloy didn’t notice when his drinks were substituted with antifreeze and soon passed out.  Pasqua the undertaker felt for his heart beat and declared it was so weak he was bound to be dead by morning.  Three hours later Malloy woke up, dusted himself off and apologised for passing out, then asked for another drink!  For the next few nights they plied him with ever greater amounts of antifreeze, but Malloy came back each day.

Not only were they losing a lot of money on the alcohol they plied him with, now they’d also spent a small fortune on antifreeze.

They changed the drinks to turpentine, and then horse liniment which was laced with rat poison.  Each night Malloy would pass out and return the next day thirsty for more.  He seemed to like these new cocktails.

Pasqua then remembered burying a man who ate some raw oysters with some whiskey.  To make sure it worked they left some oysters out to go off, then soaked them in antifreeze and gave this free lunch to Malloy.  Not only didn’t it kill Malloy, but he came back the next day hoping for some more delicious free lunch.

Murphy decided to attack this problem from two ends.  He left a can of sardines out until they smelled really foul and spoiled, spread them on a sandwich, added rat poison, sprinkled on carpet tacks and even shavings from the sardine can itself, and this was all washed down with antifreeze.  They figured if poison couldn’t kill Malloy, he’d get a stomach hemorrhage.

Sure enough, Malloy turned up the next day for more drinks and perhaps some more free lunch.

By now it was winter, and New York was gripped by freezing weather several degrees below zero.  To save money on more poison and the various ingredients they’d been feeding Malloy, the squad plied him with enough alcohol until he passed out, they then recruited Harry Green to help take him to Claremont Park, where they laid him down in the snow, stripped his shirt off, then poured five gallons of water on him and left him to freeze to death.

The next day Pasqua turned up with a heavy head cold from the previous night’s exposure, but Malloy turned up looking none the worse and wearing a new suit.  It turned out the police found him and turned him over to a welfare charity who gave him some new clothes.

By now they’d spent a small fortune on antifreeze, turpentine, horse liniment, rat poison, oysters, sardines, carpet tacks, and not forgetting enough whiskey to fill a swimming pool.  They needed professional advice.

They asked a professional killer, “Tough Tony” Bastone, for advice and he told to stop wasting time with poisons and just murder him physically.

And so, having gotten Malloy drunk (and presumably wondering where his delicious lunch was), they took him in Green’s taxi to Pelham Parkway, stood him up in the middle of the road and backed the taxi up.  As they launched the car at Malloy he inadvertently stumbled out of the way, so they bundled him in and took him to Gun Hill Road.  Green backed the taxi up and launched it at Malloy, reaching 45mph and WHAM!  Malloy was sent flying by the impact and seemed out for the count.  To make sure they even ran him over (better be sure…)

The guys returned to the bar and waited for the news that Malloy had been found dead.  As the days passed there was no news, nothing in the obituaries, none of the local morgues and hospitals had heard of him and it seemed he disappeared altogether.

As they needed a body they picked another bum, Joe Murray, got him drunk, stuffed his pockets with IDs identifying him as Malloy, and ran him down in the taxi.  It seems that even adopting the name of Malloy gives you super strength because Murray survived and spent two months in hospital.

Then, three weeks after leaving Malloy’s broken body on the road he turned up in the bar apologising for being away.  It seems he got knocked down and sustained a fractured skull, concussion and a broken shoulder, so he’d been unable to give his name when he was taken to hospital.  He was fine now though, and guess what?  He was thirsty.

At Bastone’s advice they decided not to play any more games.  They got him drunk, took him to the back and placed a hose in his mouth, with the other end connected to the gas.  Perhaps Malloy felt sorry for them, who knows, but this time he finally succumbed and was declared dead the next morning.  The gang paid a local doctor, Frank Manzella, to pronounce death from pneumonia and it seemed they finally achieved their result.

However, the ghost of Mike Malloy could not rest.  Murphy was in jail for a separate charge when one of the insurance companies tried to contact him to hand over the payout, they got suspicious and contacted the police.  Then there was a hitman who told his friends the gang had tried to hire him to snuff Malloy out, but his fee was too high.  It didn’t help that Green hadn’t been paid and was complaining about to anyone who’d listen and as police started to investigate they found out about Betty Carlsen.  Malloy’s body was exhumed and the true nature of his death came out, the gang, including Green and Manzella, were arrested and charged with murder.

During the trial the men claimed the whole scheme had been Bastone’s idea, and that he’d forced them to carry out the deed, and as Bastone had been killed not long after Malloy he couldn’t testify against them.  This didn’t wash with the jury and all six were found guilty.

For their parts Green and Manzella were sent to prison.  In June 1934, at the infamous Sing Sing prison, Marino, Pasqua and Kreisberg were electrocuted, with Murphy sharing their fate a month later.

As for Malloy, he was reburied and rumour has it his body is still as indestructible as ever.

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Posted by on Tuesday 13th September 2011 in Crime, People


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How the French maintained Patton’s latrine

General George S Patton is today remembered as a somewhat brash commander from WWII who was so feared by Germany that the Allies were able to successfully use him to dupe their enemy into believing their forces were massing to attack Calais instead of Normandy.  He courted controversy with many of his comments and was widely criticised when he slapped a soldier who was suffering from battle fatigue (a second similar incident was not as widely reported)

However, there was more to Patton than this image.

Patton fencing in the 1912 Olympics

A little known fact about Patton is that he was the first American to compete in the Modern Pentathlon when it was introduced in 1912.  He eventually finished 5th from a field of 32, and was the only non Swede in the top seven places.

Patton may well have medalled if not for a controversy in the pistol shooting event, when he placed 20th after the judges decided he must have missed the target completely with one of his shots, despite his claim that it went through the hole of his previous shot.

After the Olympics Patton trained at the French Cavalry School and became the US Army’s youngest ever Master of the Sword at Fort Riley and went on to design the Model 1913 Cavalry Saber, the last saber issued to the US cavalry.

During WWI Patton was asked to establish the Light Tank Training School after gaining experience using French tanks.  He soon found a small village called Bourg (near Langres) where he decided to set up his school and as the war was soon to end this episode in his life might be forgotten if not for an encounter 24 years later.

As the US army drove through Bourg in 1944, with Patton leading from the front, he spotted a man in the street and asked him if he was there during the last war.  “Oh, yes, General Patton” replied the man, “and you were here then as a Colonel.”  He then formed a triumphal procession of all the village armed with pitchforks, scythes, and rakes, and proceeded to rediscover Patton’s old haunts, including his office and his billet in the Chateau of Madame de Vaux.

They also visited the grave of “Abandoned Rear”, which Patton described thus:

The grave of that national hero, “Abandoned Rear,” was still maintained by the natives. It originated in this manner. In 1917, the mayor, who lived in the “new house” at Bourg, bearing the date 1700, came to me, weeping copiously, to say that we had failed to tell him of the death of one of our soldiers. Being unaware of this sad fact, and not liking to admit it to a stranger, I stalled until I found out that no one was dead. However, he insisted that we visit the “grave,” so we went together and found a newly closed latrine pit with the earth properly banked and a stick at one end to which was affixed crosswise a sign saying, “Abandoned Rear.” This the French had taken for a cross. I never told them the truth.

Patton WWI/WWII Tank Monument at Bourg, Haute-Marne, France

I couldn’t find a photo of the grave of “Abandoned Rear”, but there is still a monument to Patton at Bourg to remind us of his exploits.

After the war ended Patton returned to Germany and while on a day trip to hunt pheasants in the country, the truck in front made a sharp turn which caused his driver to hit the back of the truck at a low speed.

Though neither vehicle were hardly damaged, and everyone else escaped with minor injuries, Patton had been thrown forward from his seat at the back and struck his head on the partition between the front and back seats. The accident caused a cervical spine cord injury and he was rushed to hospital, but a few days later Patton died from a pulmonary embolism.

General Patton is buried with his men in Hamm, Luxembourg.


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Posted by on Monday 29th August 2011 in History, People, Places


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The man who stood up to Hitler

When East and West Germany were reunified, the Berlin Lawyers Association needed to come up with a new name, and chose for itself the Hans Litten Bar Association.  Some time earlier, in 1988, the German and European Democratic Lawyers Association created the Hans Litten Prize, awarded every two years to recognise lawyers who try to improve human rights.

But who was Hans Litten, and why did it take so long for him to be recognised?

Hans Litten feeling the cold weather

Born in 1903 to a wealthy family, his father converted from Judaism to Lutheranism to help his career as a Law Professor (and later an adviser to the Prussian Government) and his mother came from a well established Lutheran family.

Although he remained a Christian, Hans showed an early streak of rebellion by insisting on taking Hebrew as one of his subjects at school, and joined a Jewish Socialist youth group.  He was interested in politics from a very early age.

Although he was pushed into studying law by his father, he took his studies seriously and passed his exams in 1927 with such excellent grades that he was offered two lucrative positions, both of which he turned down to open a law office with his friend.

Despite being politically left wing, Hans was as critical of socialist and communist parties as he was of right wing parties like the Nazis, he once said “two people would be one too many for my party.”.  Hans established himself as a lawyer who could fight the corner of workers, and became involved with the Rote Hilfe, an organisation that fought for workers’ rights until it was disbanded by the Nazis.

In 1929 the May Day rally in Berlin turned violent and th police fired into the crowds, killing 33 and injuring hundreds.  When Hans went to the aid of the injured in order to take names and statements he himself was beaten by the police.  Rather than pursue individual policemen for their actions, he filed lawsuits against the police and their commanders, trying to highlight the growing fascism in his country.

The trial that would shape his future came in 1931, for an incident a few months before in which an SA Rollkommando unit attacked the Eden Dance Palace, popular with left wing workers, killing 3 people and injuring many others.

Hitler and comrades under pressure from Hans Litten

During the trial Hans wanted to show that the Nazi party was using terror and violence, and summoned Hitler as a witness at a time when Hitler was trying to appeal to middle class voters.

When Hitler denied knowledge of the unit involved Litten interrogated him about his claim that his party was peaceful, using Goebbels’s book as evidence to show how the Nazis were not democratic or legitimate.

As Litten continued to question him for 3 hours, Hitler began to lose control and would jump to his feet and scream at Litten, unable to contradict his claims.  However, just as it seemed as if Litten was proving in court that the Nazis were violent and undemocratic, the judge decided to throw the evidence out.

From then on Litten needed bodyguards when out in public because of the threats he received from the SA, but he continued to attack them in the courts.  As the Nazis extended their power, Litten found himself being removed from trials and the high court, causing uproar among Berlin’s lawyers (even those who didn’t like him), and causing them to demand a change in the law to ensure defence lawyers are not impeded in their efforts.

Hitler never forgot, or forgave Litten, and on the night of the Reichstag fire in 1933 he was one of the first four people rounded up and taken to the concentration camps.  For the next few years he was moved from one camp to another, often picked for cruel treatment by guards as they knew of Hitler’s personal hatred for this man.

Hans Litten, a brave hero

Litten’s mother appealed to many people to have her son released, including Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia, but when the Prince approached Hitler about Litten his reply was “Anyone who advocates for Litten comes in the concentration camp, even you.”.

Hans was never released, and in 1938 he was found hanged in the Dachau concentration camp.

After the war his legacy was mostly ignored by the West because of his left wing politics, while at the same time he was also ignored by the Soviet Union because he had criticised Stalin’s communist regime.

Finally, over three quarters of a century later Hans Litten is finally getting the recognition he deserved, with books and dramas based on his life.

A bust of Hans Litten at the Berlin District Court


Posted by on Saturday 20th August 2011 in History, People


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