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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


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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


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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


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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