Fist Of History

July, 2014Archive for

The 1915 Bomb Attack on the U.S. Capital Building

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014


Meet Eric Muenter, instructor in the German language at Harvard University and World War I independent saboteur for the German cause.  Muenter’s early history is not particularly well known, he was a German immigrant to the United States who found work as an educator, got married, and had a child on the way in 1915 when he became impassioned about the German cause and enraged at what he perceived as the United States meddling in the war, meddling he saw as prolonging the war and preventing Germany from bringing its war to a favorable ending.  As a German nationalist Muenter was unwilling to allow this to continue and he developed a plan to alert the United States public that they needed to end this “illegal and immoral” intervention in a European war.  Muenter decided that he would wage this necessary demonstration upon the United States and bring American intervention into the war to an end.


Muenter began by poisoning his pregnant wife with arsenic, it is unclear why he wanted to kill off his wife and unborn infant but once he had murdered them Muenter fled his hometown to avoid arrest and traveled to Washington D.C. to plant a bomb in the United States Capital building.  On 2 July 1915 Muenter was able to sneak into the Capital building with a timer detonator and three sticks of dynamite, he was not able to get into the actual Senate chamber itself, it was locked, but he was able to get into the Senate Reception chamber and hide his bomb within the room.  At twenty minutes before midnight on 2 July 1915 the bomb went off and badly damaged the room, including wrecking the telephone switchboard that served the Senates needs.  Muenter had hoped his action would spark a backlash in the United States against the war, he explained his actions in a letter to the Washington Evening Star, however prior to its publication he continued his plan of individual sabotage by planting a bomb aboard a munitions ship, the S.S. Minnehaha and then attempting an assassination.


His target was J.P. Morgan, American financier/banker and one of the most visibly influential financial leaders in the United States.  Muenter blamed American banks and financial institutions for prolonging the war, and violating the principle of United States neutrality, due to their heavy lending to the Triple Entee nations, Great Britain, France, Russia, and Italy.  Muenter planned to kill Morgan to put a fear of lending to the Western European nations into American bankers, he was able to get into the Morgan’s mansion and met Morgan himself in the front entrance, where Muenter opened fire.  Muenter’s aim wasn’t very good and ended up shooting Morgan in the “groin region” as a later article delicately alluded, apparently Muenter also merely upset Morgan who attempted to subdue him.  Muenter fled but was captured – either by the local police and/or Morgan’s servants.

Muenter was arrested but before his trial killed himself in his jail cell.  Apparently he initially attempted suicide by cutting his wrists using a small bit of metal he pried off of a pencil eraser, the effort though failed.  Afterwards he resorted to killing himself by falling, as a 1942 article on him colorfully states:  “he climbed a latticework of prison bars and dived head first to the concrete floor, dashing his skull to pieces.”

Muenter was not an official agent of the German government nor were his actions sanctioned, but he is just one example of World War I sabotage undertaken to undermine the American effort in World War I.  The German government was far more creative in its sanctioned efforts, like the time it destroyed an entire island off the coast of New York.

Sources:  Wikipedia on Eric Muenter, Senate history entry on Muenter, Harvard Crimson 1942 article on Muenter, and DC Crime Stories article on Muenter

The Dymaxion Car!

Monday, July 28th, 2014


Created in 1933 by Buckminster Fuller the Dymaxion Car was his attempt to explore the assumptions that underlay the nature of the idea of a “car” in 1930s society.  The Dymaxion Car was built around the engine and drive train of a contemporary Ford car for 1933, however Fuller completely changed the layout and design of the car.  The engine was pushed to the rear of the vehicle, which featured only one wheel, and the operator was centered over/near the front axle, to provide the car with greater stability in travel.  Fuller went with a design that included a considerable number of windows to increase visibility and its “teardrop” shape to take maximum advantage of aeronautical efficiency.  The Dymaxion Car was designed to seat a total of eleven people (including the driver) and was estimated by Fuller to be able to reach a theoretical top seed of 120 miles per hour.  (In actual performance it only reached 90 miles per hour in operation.)  It was also found to have an average fuel efficiency of thirty miles to the gallon, which for the 1930s was an unheard of level of fuel efficiency.  The Dymaxion Car also had an incredibly tight u-turn radius.


So the question one must ask – why didn’t this idea take off in the 1930s?  Was it too “radical for the times” or did it push the boundaries of “conventional thought” as some contest many of Fuller’s ideas were prone to do?  Perhaps, as one author has contended, it was a sinister cabal of bankers threatening the funding of Chrysler, which was interested in the concept car, due to the danger this miracle car represented to existing car models and used car lines!  This was the bleeding edge of 1930s automobile thinking to some people looking back, of course it would be crushed by big auto!

The reality though is a great deal more prosaic, the car had issues in cross-winds, specifically it got very wobbly and extremely hard to manage in even moderate winds.  Worse while driving around during the 1933 Worlds Fair, where it was being shown off, the Dymaxion Car rolled over and injured the individuals riding inside of it.  Despite several additional prototypes he tinkered with regularly for several years, Fuller simply could not get the car stable in cross-winds.  This problem is actually fairly common to three wheeled vehicles, a single wheel in the rear or the front makes for a wobbly car, often times in not unusual driving circumstances.


The Dymaxion Car, like so many other Fuller ideas, was eventually abandoned by its creator who moved on to new concepts to make the world a better place.  Overall as a car it was revolutionary but, like many amazing new technological ideas, when actually put into testing it failed to meet one of the basic requirements expected of it, mainly, not rolling over.

Sources:  Wikipedia entry on the Dymaxion Car, the Dymaxion Car by the Buckminster Fuller institute, and Times 50 Worst Cars of All Time entry on the Dymaxion Car

Comics and Ads Friday

Friday, July 25th, 2014


Source:  Life Magazine, 1900

Note:  Favorite Quote “Press a little lever – they hold like grim death – but don’t injure the fabric” – nothing like Death to sell your product


Source:  Life Magazine, 1891

Note:  Positive body responses even in the 19th century


Source:  Life Magazine, 1890

Note:  The more things change…


Source:  Life Magazine, 1893

Note:  The good old days were really terrifying in many ways


Source:  Life Magazine, 1901


Source:  Life Magazine, 1887

Note:  Favorite quote – “almost as palatable as milk” – qualifiers are most important


Source:  Life Magazine, 1893

Note – a cure so logical there is no madness in taking it

Sacred Sword of the Patriots League and Paradise Island

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014


During the Vietnam War one of the more interesting creations of the United States military was an unusual psychological warfare operation called the Sacred Swords of the Patriots League (SSPL).  This propaganda effort was started in 1963 and operated till 1968 and was focused primarily upon the idea of spreading propaganda to create the illusion that there was a powerful, domestic counter-government force in Northern Vietnam.  The SSPL was a creation primarily of cartoons, leaflets, and propaganda radio broadcasts aimed at North Vietnam, the radio broadcasts being particularly ingenious.  Careful efforts were made to design programming that sounded nearly identical to legitimate broadcasts from North Vietnam radio stations, including “piggy backing” on actual broadcasts – where a U.S. controlled radio station would use the call sign, formatting, and nearly identical voices to a legitimate North Vietnamese radio station after the first station signed off, to jamming North Vietnamese radio stations and having a U.S. controlled radio station at nearly the same frequency that listeners might stumble onto instead.


The SSPL was part of a broader psychological warfare effort carried out by Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Operations Group (MACV-SOG), which was basically the organization of spies and irregular warfare experts that the United States maintained in Vietnam for the duration of the conflict.  The MACV-SOG was responsible for a large number of unusual and deadly covert operations in the Vietnam War, the SSPL was just one of their many projects, but it was one that showcased a high degree of creative thinking.  A small example of this was MACV-SOG would distribute carefully constructed Japanese transistor radios to North Vietnamese civilians that were automatically tuned to SSPL radio stations and would also block access to North Vietnamese broadcasting.  MACV-SOG also through the SSPL ran a campaign to discredit top North Vietnamese officials and military leaders by sending them compromising fake mail from the SSPL from abroad and assuming the North Vietnamese government would open the mail and react to it with paranoia.  Some reports indicate these efforts had modest success.  Perhaps the most elaborate  MACV-SOG program was one that specialized in kidnapping Vietnamese fisherman from their ships and taking them to a fully constructed mockup of the SSPL central headquarters.


The facility, nicknamed “Paradise Island”, was designed to look like a large, functional military base on the coat of North Vietnam, an area supposedly liberated from North Vietnamese control, in reality a small island located in the waters of South Vietnam.  There the kidnapped fisherman were given high calorie foods, false histories of the glorious SSPL movement, new clothing and consumer goods, and sets of radios tuned to SSPL broadcasts.  They were usually given up to three weeks in “captivity” on the island before being taken back to North Vietnam, with a gift basket or two, to spread the “message” of the SSPL and recruit new individuals to the “movement.”  MACV-SOG felt they did an excellent job on their efforts however post-war interviews with North Vietnamese fisherman who reported being abducted showed the effort was less than stellar.  Many fisherman reported they knew they were on an island when they felt the sand of the landing beach under their feet and several arranged to be kidnapped multiple times so they could enjoy another “vacation” from their job as fisherman.

Oh and the name of the group was based on a historic Vietnamese story of resistance in the 15th century to Chinese rule – both a nice link to Vietnam’s past and another subtle message against North Vietnam and its perceived closeness to the Chinese government.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on the Sacred Sword of the Patriots League and MACV-SOG, CNN Tailwind Tails entry on the SSPL, entry in The Way of the Knife by Mark Mazzetti

Louisiana Purchase – the Congressional Opposition

Monday, July 21st, 2014


In 1803 the United States got an amazing offer on a land deal, originally planning to offer $10 million to Napoleon for control of New Orleans and Florida (if the negotiators could get it) – if not they were to settle for just control over New Orleans and its amazingly valuable port.  The negotiations began in 1802 and Napoleon’s representative to the negotiations offered a counter-deal, if the United States was willing to pony up $15 million they could have the entire Louisiana Territory now technically controlled by France, a land deal that would roughly double the size of the United States and at a rate of only $0.03 per acre of newly acquired land.  The American commissioners – trying not to poop themselves with excitement – had a brief discussion about the fact the purchase exceeded their original mandated purchasing limit of $10 million but, as notifying Washington and getting approval would take several weeks, and the deal might vanish, they went ahead on their own authority and agreed to the deal.  A treaty was inked and it was sent to the United States government, two levels of Congressional approval were needed, the Senate needed to approve the treaty itself and the House of Representatives had to approve the funds to pay for the newly acquired vast tract of land.  The Senate ended up ratifying the treaty with only token opposition, because the deal was simply seen as incredible.  The House however proved a bit more difficult.


The House was divided between the two major political parties of the early 1800s, the Democratic-Republicans (the party of Thomas Jefferson, United States President) and the Federalists.  The Democratic-Republicans generally supported the idea of the purchase, although some had concerns about the constitutionality of the purchase as the Constitution did not approve the government explicitly buying a huge tract of land.  (Thomas Jefferson had run on the idea of a strict adherence to the Constitution and some of his supporters, such as John Randolph of Roanoke, opposed the purchase potentially on these grounds.)  Randolph, pictured above, ended up a key leader of the opposition to the Louisiana Purchase, an opposition based mainly upon the Federalist party not wanting the country expanded because it was feared that this new territory would:

  • Undermine the power of the Atlantic seaboard and New England states, Federalist strongholds, in the newly expanded United States
  • Expand the “slave power” of the south further west, undermining another delicate regional balance of power
  • Make the Democratic-Republicans look really cool and make it extra hard for the Federalists to win future elections

These conditions inspired the House to divide on the issue sharply, a special bill was put forward denying the funds to purchase the land but that bill was defeated by two votes, 59-57, meaning that the funds would be released and the land purchased.  (Mainly due to the fact, it was argued, the treaty obligated the United States to pay for the land and therefore the House would have to actively refuse to pay for it.)

There was also the technical problem that Napoleon, by a strict reading of the treaty between him and Spain, the original holders of the Louisiana Territory prior to France gaining administrative oversight on the territory (don’t ask, you really don’t want to know), Napoleon technically sort-of couldn’t sell the land.  But he wanted to and the United States apparently wanted it.  (Later Spain protested the sale on these same grounds and was told by the United States that life is full of sadness.  Also no backsies.)

The United States government did eventually gain the land and began to properly divide it up and many of the issues the Federalists feared did come to pass.  However should you ever feel your particular government is being difficult on an issue just remember, the United States Congress came within two votes of not doubling the country peacefully at rock-bottom prices not out of a fear they couldn’t pay for it, not out of a fear they couldn’t hold it, but because it would make one political party loose position compared to the other.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on the Louisiana Purchase and John Randolph, the Monticello entry on the Louisiana Purchase, and two entries (here and here) from The Louisiana Purchase: A Historical and Geographical Encyclopedia


Old Cartoons and Ads

Friday, July 18th, 2014


Source:  Life Magazine, 1891


Source:  Life Magazine, 1901

Note – when I think of Extract of Beef I always think of Society Girls, it is a natural association


Source:  Life Magazine, 1893


Source:  Life Magazine, 1901

Note I like how they are using a pretty girl posing with a gun to sell an outdoors magazine, some things never change


Source:  Life Magazine, 1887

Note – “Galvano Electic” is a trendy brand-type name for galvanic electricity, i.e. electric current  (U.S. patent application 700783 as proof)


Source:  Life Magazine, 1883


Source:  Life Magazine, 1892

Note – I believe that is an engraving of President Garfield, assassinated in 1881 and a martyr for the nation.  It takes guts to use a martyred president to help hock your tea

Bonus Friday Entry – Panic of 1893 and note redemption

Friday, July 18th, 2014


One of the fascinating things about the Panic of 1893 is it was, in part, fueled by currency speculation, specifically individuals depositing silver with the United States Treasury, getting paper currency, and then demanding that paper currency be redeemed in gold.  (I talked about this in a previous Fist of History entry.)  What I discovered today though was that the currency notes issued by the Treasury (one example pictured above) allowed the Secretary of the Treasury to pay them in either gold or silver.  (These particular bills are known as the Treasury Notes of 1890.)  If you look closely at the larger image of the note you will see it says “in coin” on the bill – this was specifically because the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 allowed the Treasury that flexibility precisely to avoid these sorts of problems.  So the question this inspired in me was why did the federal government during the Panic of 1893 continue to issue gold when these notes were redeemed when it was obvious to anyone watching that the government was losing money on the proposition.


The answer, as it turns out, is unclear, the Secretary of the Treasury at the time was John G. Carlisle and by an account of the period he chose to continue honoring the notes in question in gold, despite rumors sweeping the financial world during the worst of the panic in March and April of 1893 that he might stop honoring the notes in gold.  A rumor also swept the street that millions of these notes had been redeemed in gold and that statutory limits on the minimum amount of gold on deposit in the Treasury might force Secretary Carlisle’s hand in this regard.  However in reviewing the actual Treasury reports I could find on the public debt and its redemption during this period you can see large numbers of the Treasury Notes of 1890 being redeemed by the Treasury, and no record of payments being ordered in silver, you also see a large number of a special earlier Gold Certificate of 1882 being redeemed as well during this period.  (In particular if you look at Secretary Carlisle’s end of year report to the Congress on the Treasury’s activities.)


The Gold Certificate of 1882 was the first issued to the public that entitled the bearer of the certificate to an amount of gold from the Treasury – prior to that a Gold Certificate was much closer to an actual certificate of deposit than a piece of currency, it listed the specific person who deposited the gold and the date, handwritten on the note, and only that person could present it to the Treasury in exchange for actual gold.  The Gold Certificate Series of 1888 and 1900 returned to this earlier model of “only the person who deposited the gold gets it back.”  After 1900 the Treasury went back to these bearer gold certificates, but my question then is – why?  It seems a reaction by the Treasury to some poorly documented aspect of the Panic of 1893 and there was a brisk trade in these certificates during the panic.

At this point we enter the realm of speculation but from a source I read during the Panic of 1893 one of the major issues was banks ceased to honor checks drawn on them – refusing to hand over currency for the check, and a brisk side business appeared of individual speculators who would give a business or wealthy individual cash for a check made payable to them, for an amount somewhat less in hard currency than the value of the check.  (For those curious that would be on par with today’s paycheck cashing services.)  So here is my theory – you are a wealthy individual in March or April 1893 and you are hearing wild rumors that your Treasury issued currency of 1890 might be paid in rapidly depreciating silver coins at any point.  You want to get your money out but if the timing is wrong you could lose a fortune.

But then some nice individual comes to you with those lovely bearer gold certificates you see above and offers to exchange them, at a slight premium of course, for your potentially less valuable Treasury Notes of 1890.  Yes you will lose some of the face value of those Treasury Notes but if the government suspends payment in gold you might lose a lot more.  The nice individual is willing to shoulder that risk because he thinks he’ll end up doing alright from the exchange.

Sadly I cannot find proof of such dealings but it does seem to fit the kind of sneaky opportunism that was a part of 19th century capitalism.

Source:  Wikipedia entries on the Treasury Notes of 1890, Sherman Silver Purchase Act, Gold Certificates, and John G. Carlisle, US Department of the Treasury history of Secretary John G. Carlisle, an article on the Panic of 1893 by Alexander Noyes written shortly after the event, Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury covering 1893, and Statements of the Public Debt from March, April, and November 1893.

Locarno Treaties and Rehabilitating Post World War I Gemany

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014


Gustav Stresemann (1878-1929) was probably one of the most influential German politicians shaping the new interwar face of Germany, Stresemann was almost solely responsible for transforming post-World War I Germany from an international pariah nation into one that was welcomed back into the “fold of nations” by the mid-1920s.  Stresemann for a brief period served as the Chancellor of Germany in 1923, but his real strength was working as Germany’s foreign minister from 1923 until his death in 1929.  Stresemann focused Germany’s post-war foreign policy on conditional acceptance of the Versailles Treaty of 1919, with an emphasis on lowering Germany’s level of payment on its war reparations to lower levels and normalizing Germany’s relationship with Western Europe in an effort to end the stigma Germany was operating under just after World War I.  This stigma, and second-class status, was best exemplified by the occupation of the German Ruhr by France between 1923 to 1925.  (For a failure by German to pay its war reparations on time, France occupied the Ruhr to forcibly seize payment in goods.)  After the same periods hyperinflation and economic dislocation in Germany Stresemann was focused mainly on getting Germany back to a position where it would be treated like any other European power and could focus on the more critical tasks ahead of it, rebuilding and stabilizing.

Locarno, Gustav Stresemann, Chamberlain, Briand

Negotiated in 1925 and signed in December of that year, the Locarno Treaties were a series of agreements between Germany, France, Belgium, Italy, and Great Britain in which Germany renounced any intention to modify its western border and renounced any claims to territories it formerly held in Western Europe that had been ceded under the Versailles Treaty of 1919.  This was considered a major breakthrough and paved the way for Germany to join the League of Nations in 1926, an organization originally founded in part to provide an international response to future aggression and war – basically although never stated an anti-German expansion international political body.  The Locarno Treaties also reaffirmed that in any border disputes with Czechoslovakia or Poland Germany would turn to an international tribunal to settle the issues rather than war.  France reaffirmed its defensive treaties with Czechoslovakia and Poland and a new era of peace in Europe was hailed, with Germany now being treaty as a partner in ensuring stability in Europe.


The dark side of the Locarno Treaties though was how Stresemann very carefully refused to include any mention of acceptance by Germany of its eastern borders as final – the shared borders with Czechoslovakia and Poland in particular, Stresemann was also careful to emphasize that there would be no “Eastern Locarno” while he was foreign minister.  The other signatories to the Locarno Treaties were, at least on the surface, understanding of Germany’s goal to adjust its eastern borders, as long as the adjustment was undertaken “properly.”  Until his death Stresemann focused his efforts upon maintaining good relations with Western Europe but also in working with the German government in anticipation of a re-alignment of Germany’s eastern borders.  This is particularly useful due to the fact that it shows the policies of Nazi Germany, although more extreme, were an extension of the framework of relations that had been laid by Stresemann, and Hitler’s plans to seize territory east of Germany and modify the terms of the Versailles Treaty in regards to Poland and Czechoslovakia have older ideological roots in German government.  (Probably Hitler’s most unique ambition in his initial foreign policy was his Anschluss with Austria in March 1938.

Many like to think that Hitler’s foreign policy ambitions sprang from his own odd mental process, however evidence indicates Hitler, with his ambitions to the east and his goals for renouncing the Versailles Treaty’s territorial shifts, has a foreign policy that is merely a faster implementation of plans already in place by his predecessors.

Sources:  Wikipedia articles on the Locarno Treaties, Gustav Stresemann, and the Occupation of the Ruhr.  Section from The Weimar Republic by Eberhard Kolb.

Vietnam War – River Patrol Boats and the Rung Sat

Monday, July 14th, 2014


During the Vietnam War one of the more challenging missions faced by the United States military was patrolling the vast interior river systems that dominated transportation and communication within Vietnam.  The United States Navy had a part in handling these patrols but along with the Navy the U.S. Coast Guard was heavily involved in such missions.  In some ways the river patrols were one of the most dangerous types of missions in Vietnam, most river patrols were conducted in a small craft the Navy referred to as a River Patrol Boat (pictured above.)  These lightly armed, unarmored, fast moving ships were designed to have a shallow draft and to be able to work in narrow rivers.  They had a pair of powerful high-speed engines and their goal, if they got in trouble, was to use their speed and maneuverability to get out of trouble.  Sometimes however that did not quite pan out as desired.


Meet Boatswain’s Mate First Class James E. Williams who was leading a two-boat river patrol in October 1966 in one of the most dangerous river systems in Vietnam, the Rung Sat.  The Rung Sat was a dense river system southeast of Saigon and a major center of Vietcong activity.  On his patrol Williams encountered a heavy patrol of regular North Vietnamese soldiers on boats, forty boats to be exact with a total of over 800 enemy soldiers.  Williams two ships had a total of two 50-caliber machine guns between them and a total of eight sailors, Williams decided the best plan was to launch an immediate attack on the surprised enemy and blazed through them firing wildly on all sides.  Both of his ships made it through the gauntlet and as he raced away Williams called for air support, attack helicopters followed up on his attack and further destroyed the disrupted enemy in his wake.  However Williams was not finished with his patrol of “Brown Pants Level Five” – even as he was escaping the first enemy force his two ships encountered a second enemy force, even larger this time, and still unaware of his approach.

Williams used the same tactic again to good effect and chopped through the second force relying upon speed and surprise to blast his way through the enemy forces massed against him, and once again he was successful, passing through a second major confrontation with no losses and minimal damage to his ship.  Williams trailed attack helicopters and, now, large numbers of U.S. aircraft as well.  After escaping this gauntlet, Williams was asked by one of the attacking pilots what his further intentions were in the combat.  Williams replied:  “I’m goin’ back through.”

That, by the way, is one way to win a Congressional Medal of Honor.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on James E. Williams, River Patrol Boats, and Rung Sat Special Zone; The Vietnam War, A Graphic History by Dwight Jon Zimmerman & Wayne Vansant

Old Ads and Cartoons Friday

Friday, July 11th, 2014


Source:  Life Magazine, 1901

Note – yes I find it insufferably cute as well


Source:  Life Magazine, 1900

Note – Yes Lowney’s Bonbons, meeting all your chocolate carried by fat winged baby needs


Source:  Life Magazine, 1890


Source:  Life Magazine, 1893

Note – I have no idea why either and my research did not turn up an easy answer to this view of Chicago girls having huge feet


Source:  Life Magazine, 1896


Source:  Life Magazine, 1896

Note – I just love how majestic this ad seems


Source:  Life Magazine, 1890

Note – I’m really unsure what this means precisely.