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The Appalling Way the British Tried to Recruit Americans Away from Revolt

January 31, 2020 in History

By Greg Daugherty

Patriots forced onto horrific British prison ships were presented with two options: turn traitor or die.

The British prison ships that dotted the Eastern seaboard during American Revolution have been gone for more than two centuries. But the horrors they left in their wake are unlikely to be forgotten: starvation, disease, cruelty and a death toll that may have exceeded 11,000 men and boys—far more than died fighting on land.

While that story is all too familiar to students of the war, there is also another, lesser-known one—the surprising heroism of the ragtag American captives.

Washington, a three-night miniseries event, premieres Feb 16 at 8/7c on HISTORY. Watch a preview now.

Barely three months after the American colonists had declared their independence, the British positioned their first prison ship, the Whitby, in a bay off Brooklyn. They’d soon add prison ships in Charleston, Savannah, Norfolk, off the coast of Florida and in Canada.

Brooklyn and New York City, which British forces occupied, became the most active hub, with a small fleet of ships and several thousand prisoners at any given time. Most of the existing survivor accounts come from men who were held aboard those ships, particularly the HMS Jersey, which would become the most notorious of them all.

READ MORE: The HMS Jersey


The HMS Jersey, a 60 gun Royal Navy ship of the line used by the British as a prison ship during the American Revolution.

The prisoners were a mix of soldiers, sailors and rebellious civilians. Many were crew members from privateers—privately owned ships authorized by the Continental Congress, which had little navy of its own, to harass and seize British vessels. To crew the privateers, their captains often relied on young men and teenagers from New England and elsewhere in the colonies. They typically had little sailing experience but were eager for more excitement than they’d find behind a plow.

When the British captured a privateer, members of its crew were frequently offered a choice: Sign on with a British vessel or take your chances on a prison ship.

Most of the young Americans knew what imprisonment would mean. Colonial newspapers had reported on the horrific conditions and brutal treatment aboard the prison ships from the beginning, historian Edwin G. Burrows writes in his 2008 book, Forgotten Patriots. Even so, the great majority of the captured sailors who …read more

Source: HISTORY

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SARS Pandemic: How the Virus Spread Around the World in 2003

January 30, 2020 in History

By Becky Little

Slow reporting in China and an outbreak in a Hong Kong hotel led to over 8,000 infections in more than 20 countries.

In November 2002, doctors in the Guangdong province of southeastern China began to see the first cases of what would become known as SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome. Over the next several months, 8,096 people in 26 countries contracted the new viral illness, leading to 774 deaths. Although the slow reporting of initial SARS cases helped the illness spread, globally-enforced medical practices eventually helped end the outbreak.

The reasons for the slow reporting of SARS are complicated. Doctors had never seen the viral illness before, and at first, those in Guangdong province thought the SARS cases they were seeing might be atypical pneumonia.

“Nobody was aware of it, including probably people in Beijing,” says Arnold S. Monto, a professor of epidemiology and global public health at the University of Michigan. Even after doctors began to realize that there was something new about the illnesses they were seeing, “it was kept locally for a while, which was one of the problems.”

There were also reports that officials may have encouraged doctors not to report new cases when SARS spread to Beijing. In April 2003, Time magazine obtained a letter from Jiang Yanyong, a physician at an army hospital in Beijing, alleging the actual number of SARS cases in the capital city was much higher than the official count. This turned out to be true, and Chinese officials released the real numbers that month (and also began to monitor Jiang).

READ MORE: Pandemics That Changed History

SARS Originates in China, Jumps to Hong Kong

People wearing masks to protect against the SARS virus in Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway on March 31, 2003. The death toll at the time of this photograph was 13 with 530 people infected.

SARS jumped from mainland China to Hong Kong in February 2003 when Liu Jianlun, a medical professor from Guangdong who unknowingly had SARS, checked into Room 911 at Hong Kong’s Metropole Hotel. The 64-year-old professor soon became sick from the illness and went to the hospital, where he died within two weeks. But during his short stay at the hotel, he unwittingly infected several other guests. Those people then took SARS with them to Singapore, Toronto and Hanoi. (The hotel has since been <a target=_blank …read more

Source: HISTORY

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10 Things You Should Know About the Donner Party

January 30, 2020 in History

By Evan Andrews

Explore 10 key facts about one of the most gruesome episodes from the era of westward expansion.


James F. and Margaret (Keyes) Reed, who were members of the Donner Party.

The Donner Party started its trip dangerously late in the pioneer season.

Travel on the California Trail followed a tight schedule. Emigrants needed to head west late enough in the spring for there to be grass available for their pack animals, but also early enough so they could cross the treacherous western mountain passes before winter. The sweet spot for a departure was usually sometime in mid to late-April, yet for unknown reasons, the core of what became the Donner Party didn’t leave their jumping-off point at Independence, Missouri until May 12. They were the last major pioneer train of 1846, and their late start left them with very little margin for error. “I am beginning to feel alarmed at the tardiness of our movements,” one of the emigrants wrote, “and fearful that winter will find us in the snowy mountains of California.”

They fell behind schedule after taking an untested shortcut.

After reaching Wyoming, most California-bound pioneers followed a route that swooped north through Idaho before turning south and moving across Nevada. In 1846, however, a dishonest guidebook author named Lansford Hastings was promoting a straighter and supposedly quicker path that cut through the Wasatch Mountains and across the Salt Lake Desert. There was just one problem: no one had ever traveled this “Hastings Cutoff” with wagons, not even Hastings himself. Despite the obvious risks—and against the warnings of James Clyman, an experienced mountain man—the 20 Donner Party wagons elected to break off from the usual route and gamble on Hastings’ back road. The decision proved disastrous. The emigrants were forced to blaze much of the trail themselves by cutting down trees, and they nearly died of thirst during a five-day crossing of the salt desert. Rather than saving them time, Hasting’s “shortcut” ended up adding nearly a month to the Donner Party’s journey.

The emigrants lost a race against the weather by just a few days.

Despite the Hastings Cutoff debacle, most of the Donner Party still managed to reach the slopes of the Sierra Nevada by early November 1846. Only a scant hundred miles remained in their trek, but before the pioneers had a chance to drive their wagons through the mountains, an early blizzard blanketed the Sierras in several …read more

Source: HISTORY

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How Medgar Evers’ Widow Fought 30 Years for His Killer’s Conviction

January 30, 2020 in History

By Erin Blakemore

Long after the Mississippi justice system gave up on the murder prosecution, Myrlie Evers kept the case alive.

When Myrlie Evers was told in 1989 that new information in her late husband’s decades-old murder case was unlikely to move the gears of justice, she did not react in anger.

Instead, the widow of slain civil rights movement hero Medgar Evers listened carefully as Mississippi prosecutor Bobby DeLaughter explained that the state couldn’t find any of the evidence from a past prosecution. Then, she calmly asked that his team “Just try.”

Faced with the overwhelming odds of a case with few surviving jurors, a defiant defendant who had always maintained his innocence, and a public that had long since seemed to move on from the tragedy, others might have backed down. Instead, Myrlie Evers fought to have the murder case reopened—a battle she had waged for nearly 30 years.

Medgar Evers Faced Constant Threats

Myrlie Evers and her children view the body of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers during his funeral in Jackson, Mississippi.

Even before her husband’s 1963 assassination, Myrlie Evers had struggled with the consequences of her husband’s attempts to overturn Jim Crow segregation. As he agitated on behalf of voting rights and against laws and attitudes that pushed black Southerners out of public schools, universities, beaches and fairgrounds, he had sustained multiple death threats and an attempt to bomb his home with a Molotov cocktail. The danger was so serious that Medgar was under FBI protection, and the Evers family had drilled their children on how to respond if shooters ever threatened him at home.

On the night of June 12, 1963, the dreaded happened. Shots rang out in front of the Evers home. As the kids crawled on the floor to a bedroom, Myrlie went to the front door. Medgar was lying there in a pool of blood, dying from a gunshot wound.

A suspect immediately emerged. A sniper rifle left on the scene of the crime was traced to Byron de La Beckwith, a rabid segregationist who belonged to the White Citizens Council and was known to hate black people. The FBI also traced the sight that the killer had used to Beckwith.

Flawed Prosecution Fails to Convict Evers’ Killer


The all-white male jury that decided the fate of Byron De La Beckwith, who was charged with the murder of Medgar Evers.

Beckwith was<a target=_blank …read more

Source: HISTORY

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How George Washington Used Spies to Win the American Revolution

January 30, 2020 in History

By A.J. Baime

Secret agents, invisible ink, ciphers and codes—the gritty and dangerous underworld of the colonial insurgency

How important was George Washington’s network of spies to winning the American Revolution?

It’s hard to imagine that the fate of the American cause would rest so heavily in the hands of a tailor, an enslaved African-American—or a judge’s wife who sent surreptitious signals on her laundry line. But as General Washington struggled to win a war with an army that was perpetually undermanned, undertrained and undersupplied, he relied increasingly on his unseen weapon: a secret intelligence network. Throughout the war, Washington’s spies helped him make bold, canny decisions that would turn the tide of the conflict—and in some instances, even save his life.

The story of Washington’s underground spy network, and how it helped Americans win their revolution, is replete with intrigue: letters written in invisible ink; a rare female agent who went by the mysterious moniker Agent 355; the gruesome execution of the spy Nathan Hale. Indeed, according to the Central Intelligence Agency, “General Washington was more deeply involved in intelligence operations than any American general-in-chief until Dwight Eisenhower during World War II.”

READ MORE: 5 Patriot Spies of the American Revolution

Learning the power of intel

Thomas Knowlton, illustrated standing left in white, during the Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775. Painted by John Trumbull.

From the beginning of Washington’s meteoric rise, intelligence gathering helped shape his military career. He first learned to use on-the-ground information from Native Americans and deserting French soldiers during the French and Indian War. Intelligence, he learned, could make the difference between victory or death.

So in 1775, when the Second Continental Congress chose Washington as commander in chief of the Continental armies, Washington appointed a soldier named Thomas Knowlton to organize the war’s first spy unit. The roughly 130-man group, known as “Knowlton’s Rangers,” played a key role in the 1776 battle of Harlem Heights in New York, scouting out the British advance guard. In the blazing musket fire of the skirmish that followed, Knowlton was killed, his place in history cemented. Even today, the seal of the U.S. Army intelligence service bears a “1776” stamp, in honor of his unit.

READ MORE: The Culper Spy Ring


Washington, a three-night miniseries event, premieres Feb 16 at 8/7c on HISTORY. Watch a preview …read more

Source: HISTORY

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When Did African Americans Actually Get the Right to Vote?

January 29, 2020 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

The 15th Amendment granted black men the right to vote under the law, but exercising that right became another challenge.

In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the United States found itself in uncharted territory. With the Confederacy’s defeat, some 4 million enslaved black men, women and children had been granted their freedom, an emancipation that would be formalized with passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

For black Americans, gaining the full rights of citizenship—and especially the right to vote—was central to securing true freedom and self-determination. “Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot,” Frederick Douglass famously said in May 1865, a month after the Union victory at Appomattox.

Presidential Reconstruction & Black Codes

A 1867 political cartoon depicting an African American man casting his ballot during the Georgetown elections as Andrew Johnson and others look on angrily.

After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, the task of reconstructing the Union fell to his successor, Andrew Johnson. A Tennessee-born Unionist, Johnson believed strongly in state’s rights, and showed great leniency toward white Southerners in his Reconstruction policy. He required the former Confederate states to ratify the 13th Amendment and pledge loyalty to the Union, but otherwise granted them free rein in reestablishing their post-war governments.

As a result, in 1865-66, most Southern state legislatures enacted restrictive laws known as black codes, which strictly governed black citizens’ behaviors and denied them suffrage and other rights.

Radical Republicans in Congress were outraged, arguing that the black codes went a long way toward reestablishing slavery in all but name. Early in 1866, Congress passed the Civil Rights Bill, which aimed to build on the 13th Amendment and give black Americans the rights of citizens. When Johnson vetoed the bill, on the basis of opposing federal action on behalf of former slaves, Congress overrode his veto, marking the first time in the nation’s history that major legislation became law over a presidential veto.

The 14th & 15th Amendments

With passage of a new Reconstruction Act (again over Johnson’s veto) in March 1867, the era of Radical, or Congressional, Reconstruction, began. Over the next decade, black Americans voted in huge numbers across the South, electing a total of 22 black men to serve in the U.S. Congress (two in the Senate) and helping to elect Johnson’s Republican …read more

Source: HISTORY

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Who Were the Six Wives of Henry VIII?

January 28, 2020 in History

By Crystal Ponti

The monarch’s chaotic love life led to an unstable succession, foreign policy changes and a break with Rome.

King Henry VIII ruled England for 36 years (1509-1547), presiding over the beginnings of the English Renaissance and Protestant Reformation. But it’s the monarch’s tumultuous romantic life, rather than his politics, that have kept him in the spotlight.

Henry VIII is best known for his six wives, and several mistresses he kept on the side. The monarch’s desperate quest for political unification and a healthy male heir drove him to annul two marriages and have two wives beheaded. His chaotic love life caused an unstable succession, foreign policy implications and even led to the break with Rome.

Here’s a look at the lives and, in several instances, the untimely demise of Henry VIII’s wives along with the impact this real-life melodrama had on England.

Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536): Demoted for Bearing No Son

Catherine of Aragon

Henry took the throne in 1509, at age 17. Six weeks later, he married Catherine of Aragon, daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain and the widow of his elder brother, Arthur. From the moment young Henry took his nuptials, he obsessed over continuing the Tudor line. Of multiple pregnancies and several births, the only child to survive was Henry and Catherine’s daughter, Mary, born in February 1516.

Catherine remained at Henry’s side for 23 years and is even thought to be the only woman the king ever truly loved. “Henry viewed her as a model wife in every respect bar one… her failure to give him a son,” says Tudor historian Tracy Borman. Frustrated at the lack of a male heir, Henry’s eyes wandered.

He had a brief extra-marital affair with Elizabeth “Bessie” Blount, one of Catherine’s ladies-in-waiting. In 1519, Bessie was taken in secret to the Essex countryside where she gave birth to Henry Fitzroy, Henry’s only acknowledged illegitimate child.

By the 1520s, Henry had developed a fondness for Anne Boleyn, another lady-in-waiting to the queen, and eventually sought the Pope’s approval for an annulment. “He argued that his marriage to Catherine was invalid because her marriage to his brother Arthur had been consummated, but she always contested this,” Borman explains. When the Pope refused Henry’s request, the king divorced Catherine against the will of the Roman Catholic Church and established the Church of England—ushering in the …read more

Source: HISTORY

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Federalist Papers

January 28, 2020 in History

By History.com Editors

In October 1787, the first in a series of 85 essays arguing for ratification of the proposed (Penguin, 2004)

Pauline Maier, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 (Simon & Schuster, 2010)

“If Men Were Angels: Teaching the Constitution with the Federalist Papers.” Constitutional Rights Foundation.

Dan T. Coenen, “Fifteen Curious Facts About the Federalist Papers.” University of Georgia School of Law, April 1, 2007.

…read more

Source: HISTORY

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Did George Washington Believe in God?

January 27, 2020 in History

By Natasha Frost

Religion was a topic America’s first president remained extremely cagey about.

George Washington’s writings have long served as a guide to America’s first president—what he thought, how he made his decisions, even how he felt about his wife.

But when it comes to his personal religious beliefs, Washington seems to have been a closed book—or, at least, unwilling to commit many of his own views to the page. Unlike many of his peers, including Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, Washington never explicitly laid out his own beliefs—even as he alluded to them in passing on many occasions.

With so few actual accounts to draw from, historians are mostly limited to analyzing what Washington did, to try to understand what he may have believed. The trouble is, even his most straightforward actions can be hard to read and, at times, appear contradictory. The first president encouraged his fellow Americans to show up for worship, for instance, but sometimes struggled to make it to church himself for weeks at a time. For many years, he served as a dedicated vestryman and church warden, but left services instead of taking communion. And while he peppered his writings with references to Providence, there’s comparatively little mention of God or of Jesus Christ.

READ MORE: 5 Myths About George Washington, Debunked

The prayer at Valley Forge.

Did he believe in God?

Scholars and biographers have long puzzled over how to reconcile these inconsistencies. Some argue that he appears to have followed Deism, an 18th-century movement that placed human experience and rationality over religious dogma. Others have suggested he may even have been an atheist, drawing on accounts from Jefferson, who described him as not believing “of that system” of Christianity. Stories of Washington’s prayers, even as they exist, are often unreliable. Original sources for the famous tale of the first president “kneeling” in prayer at Valley Forge have been called into question; several historians have noted that Washington, when he prayed, always remained standing.

What is known is that Washington grew up in the Church of England, then Virginia’s state religion. The great-great grandson of an Anglican pastor, he was baptized as an infant and remained somewhat active in the Anglican church for the rest of his life. But it’s not clear whether he did so out of belief or out of necessity, since religious affiliation was a virtual requirement across many …read more

Source: HISTORY

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How the Gilded Age's Top 1 Percent Thrived on Corruption

January 27, 2020 in History

By Christopher Klein

Vast corporate wealth and a fee-based governance structure fueled widespread corruption during America’s Gilded Age.

As the United States grew into the world’s leading industrial power during the late 19th century, those atop the economic ladder in America’s Gilded Age accumulated spectacular fortunes. By 1890, the country’s 4,000 millionaires held 20 percent of the country’s wealth, and with that enormous affluence came colossal political corruption.

Corporate titans could buy anything they wanted—including politicians. Richard White, professor emeritus of history at Stanford University and author of The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896, says the Gilded Age was among the most corrupt eras in American history primarily because of “the rise of corporations and the growth of modern means of communication that intensified the way corruption can work.”

“This is a government of the people, by the people and for the people no longer,” former president Rutherford B. Hayes wrote in his diary in 1886. “It is a government by the corporations, of the corporations and for the corporations.” Politicians took spectacularly handsome bribes from corporations and demanded kickbacks as the helping hand they extended often came with an open palm.

Editorial cartoon on railroad influence depicting a man with a steam train head making business deals in Congress, by Thomas Nast, 1880s.

Railroads Were at the Forefront of Political Corruption

Railroads propelled the expansion of the American economy as tracks expanded nearly fourfold between 1871 and 1900. The federal government helped finance these huge infrastructure projects by granting more than 150 million acres of land to railroad companies, which sold them to raise revenue. “Railroads need monopoly franchises and subsidies, and to get them, they are more than willing to bribe public officials,” White says. The Central Pacific Railroad, for example, spent $500,000 annually in thinly disguised bribes between 1875 and 1885.

In the most notorious instance of corruption connected to the railroads, Union Pacific Railroad executives formed a sham construction company, Crédit Mobilier, that submitted bills for nearly double the construction cost of the eastern portion of the Transcontinental Railroad and pocketed the overcharges. To avert any investigation and ensure votes to benefit the company, railroad officials bribed approximately one dozen influential congressmen with Crédit Mobilier shares at below-market prices. Swept up in the Crédit Mobilier scandal was not just Ulysses S. Grant’s …read more

Source: HISTORY