The Gift That Killed General Grant

How Simple Politeness Caused His Demise

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Watch out for unintended consequences. They’ll get you every time.

Grant-cartoonIt happened 154 years ago when a simple act of courtesy set in motion a chain of events that wound up taking a famous American’s life.

Really.

When I say the name Ulysses S. Grant, what comes to mind? Big drunk and even bigger cigar smoker. (The more scholarly-minded among you probably answered, “Victor at Appomattox” or “18th President of the United States.” But salacious sells, so we’ll save the academic stuff for another time.) Continue reading

How Illness Created the Cowboy Hat

A Dying Wish Produced an American Icon

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There was no sugarcoating it: John was going to die. Sooner rather than later.

Cowboy hatTuberculosis, the doctor said. And in the 1850s that was a death sentence.

Difficult as that diagnosis was to hear, it was doubly hard for a young man. John was in his 20s, barely an adult. Now his life was about to end just as it was beginning.

With his lungs giving out and his strength weakening, John did some serious thinking. The seventh of 12 children, he was a hat maker in New Jersey, a trade he had learned at his father’s side. But with his days numbered, John didn’t want to waste them working in a hat shop. Continue reading

Dr. Sappington’s Strange Pills

How a Clerical Error Produced a Medical Breakthrough

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Quack. Charlatan. Crazy. Those insults and worse were hurled over the centuries at doctors who defied conventional medical wisdom. Any physician bold enough to buck the Medical Sappington-2Establishment could expect to feel its fury.

Yet sometimes those same “quacks” were responsible for major scientific advances. Doctor John Sappington was one of them. And because of a misunderstood order, he brought healing to thousands of ailing Americans, many of whom otherwise would have died.

Here’s how it happened. Continue reading

Custer’s Kid Brothers

For the Custers, Little Bighorn Was A Family Affair

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Americans were in shock exactly 140 years ago today. And it wasn’t supposed to have been that way.

1876_Frank_Leslies_Cover_OMJuly 1876 was, after all, the nation’s centennial. The little upstart country had beat the odds by bucking the greatest military power on earth, then beat them again by surviving 100 years. It was supposed to have been time for a national party.

Instead, stunning news came from the Black Hills in distant Montana Territory. George Armstrong Custer, dashing Civil War hero and flamboyant Indian fighter, plus all 267 of his men, had been wiped out in a ferocious battle with Native American braves.

The defeat cast a dark shadow over centennial celebrations and launched a legend that lingers nearly a century and a half later. Continue reading

“I Pledge Allegiance To …”

The secret reason why a minister wrote the Pledge of Allegiance

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Every morning, millions of American children put their hands over their hearts and begin the school day with a simple recitation. It’s been done for nearly 125 years and is as much a part of American culture as apple pie and the Fourth of July. 

Color - Kids saying PledgeBut did you know more than patriotism was behind the Pledge’s creation? A master wordsmith penned the famous words for an unlikely reason – it was a clever marketing gimmick with a hidden purpose. But the real shocker is the way kids originally saluted the flag while reciting it.

Get ready to learn the incredible story of how we got the Pledge of Allegiance. Continue reading

Mission: Rescue Napoleon!

The unlikely tale of pirates, a mayor, a French emperor … and a jazz legend

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Every so often, history offers a story where amazing characters interact with one another so unbelievably, you know it has to be true. This is one of them.

napoleonst-helena GoodNapoleon Bonaparte was in a serious funk in early 1821. For five long years, the man who once ruled Europe from the Spanish plains to the steppes of Russia had been a captive of the British. They kept him permanently exiled on St. Helena, a volcanic hunk of rock in the South Atlantic some 2,500 miles from Argentina. It was as close to the End of the Earth as you could get. Just to be on the safe side, British warships were anchored nearby.

Napoleon wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Until Nicolas Girod decided to step in. Continue reading

And the Bride Wore …

How a Queen Who Wore Black Gave Us White Wedding Gowns

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With June in full swing, you may find yourself in a church pew watching a lovely woman make her way down the aisle. Maybe a little girl will lean over and whisper that timeless ditty, “Here comes the bride, all dressed in white ….”

BrideBelieve it or not, if earlier customs were still followed today, she might wear a wedding dress of royal purple. Or midnight blue. Or bright crimson. (Though somehow, Billy Idol singing “It’s a nice day for a red wedding” wouldn’t have sounded the same.)

Instead it’s white. Always white. In a time when traditions are dropping like pins falling in a bowling alley, people cling to the white wedding gown. Continue reading

The Silver Dollar Girl

Was A Famous Coin Based On An 18 Year-old Teacher’s Face?

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They say Helen of Troy was the face that launched a thousand ships. A teenage teacher may have been the face that launched a million silver dollars. Or maybe she wasn’t. Listen to her story, and then decide for yourself.

Seated LibertyBy the mid-1870s, America’s coins had become, well, boring. The dime, quarter, half dollar and silver dollar all shared the exact same image of Lady Liberty sitting down. They’d shared them for 40 long years, too. (There was even a twenty-cent coin minted between 1875-78, and it featured the same image of Liberty resting her feet.)

So the U.S. Mint decided it was time to shake things up. In 1876, the Mint Director wrote to his counterpart in Britain, asking if he could recommend a good engraver and coin designer. Yes, the Brit replied, we’ve got a talented young guy here named George Morgan. You want to hire him? Continue reading

Home, Sweet Home!

WelcomeToMissouri

Dear Frequent Reader:

You may be surprised to find there’s no Holy Cow! History story this week. Let me explain why.

I just completed a 920 mile move from Columbia, South Carolina (where I worked for the past four years) to join my family in the Missouri Ozarks. It’s the first time I’ve lived in my native state for 32 years, and I’m delighted to be back among the people and places that mean the most to me. Continue reading

The Con Man’s Con Man

He Swindled Al Capone and Sold the Eiffel Tower – Twice!

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You’ve heard the old line about gullible suckers buying the Brooklyn Bridge, and smooth talkers selling swampland in Florida. Outlandish, right?

But in the 1920s and 30s, one con artist was so brazen, he actually sold Paris’ beloved Eiffel Tower … not once, but twice! He hustled money from the nastiest gangster of all time, Al Capone, and caused lawmen to pull out their hair in frustration.

That’s the remarkable legacy of “Count” Victor Lustig, the Con Man’s Con Man. Continue reading