Category Archives: American history

The Jewish Cowboy

A LIE MADE HIM THE FIRST WESTERN MOVIE STAR

You’ve heard of John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Tex Ritter and other cowboy movie stars. But decades earlier, one actor paved the way to fame in Westerns.

And a little lie made it possible. Here’s how it happened.

Like many ambitious young men, Max Aronson dreamed of hitting the big time in the Big Apple. He was from a Jewish family (both parents were European immigrants) and raised in the South. New York beckoned and in 1903, 23 year-old Max was working as a part-time model, part-time newspaper seller.

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Who Really Waved That Flag?

A FAMOUS POEM DIDN’T QUITE GET IT RIGHT

For decades, schoolchildren had to memorize a famous poem that begins with these words:

“Up from the meadows rich with corn,

 clear in the cool September morn;

The clustered spires of Frederick stand,

green-walled by the hills of Maryland.”

It’s John Greenleaf Whittier’s “Barbara Fritchie,” an American classic. The story of how as Confederate troops are passing through her town, elderly Barbara Fritchie bravely snatches a banner that was shot down by Rebel bullets and shouts the poem’s famous lines. Continue reading

America’s First Live Disaster

THE TRAGEDY THAT BROUGHT OUT THE WORST IN US

We’ve witnessed incredible heroism recently. When nature unleashed this summer’s seemingly endless string of natural disasters, Americans rolled into action: folks leaving jobs to fight wildfires, sportsmen using bass boats to rescue flood victims, even people opening their homes as havens for hurricane refugees. When nature is at its worst, Americans are at their very best.

Nearly 100 years ago, a tragedy captured the country’s attention like nothing before. For the first time, people could follow breaking news live as it unfolded. Yet opportunism also reared its ugly head amid a life-and-death struggle. This is the sad story of Floyd Collins. Continue reading

Francis Scott Key’s Lost Legacy

HIS REMARKABLE LIFE AFTER THE SONG

You heard the story so many times growing up, you can recite it by memory. How Francis Scott Key was detained on a boat by the British as they attacked Fort McHenry outside Baltimore. How he couldn’t tell during the dark night whether the Americans inside the fort had given up. How when dawn revealed the American flag still flying, he was so inspired he wrote a poem whose words became “The Star Spangled Banner,” our national anthem.

And it’s all true. But then, as soon as Key’s poem was published, he vanished from history as abruptly as he appeared. Which is a shame, according to Key scholar and filmmaker Philip Marshall. “Americans need to know that Key made a huge contribution to the American story, that he was also flawed and a real person just like anyone else.” Continue reading

An Inventor’s Icky Secret

COULD THE SECRET TO A LONG LIFE BE IN YOUR MEDICINE CABINET?   

You’ve used it for decades. It was probably rubbed on your bottom when you were a baby to treat diaper rash. Your mom may have applied it to cuts and burns. Perhaps you still use it to moisten dry skin.

Yet the inventor of this popular product had a different use that will blow you mind (or make your stomach churn).

Here’s how it happened. Continue reading

Pictures That Never Made It Home

The Dead Letter Office Photos

Frequent readers know I’ve been a certified Civil War nut since age 9. I’ve visited every major battlefield. In my younger (and thinner) days I was a Civil War reenactor. I even have a collection of 5,000 original War-era photos.

One image especially stands out. Not because of what it depicts, but because of what happened to it.

This is the story of the pictures that never made it home. Continue reading

Lincoln’s Leak

A SOURCE DANGEROUSLY CLOSE TO THE PRESIDENT

Unauthorized release of sensitive information is all the rage these days. Washington leaks like pipes in the “charming fixer upper” a smooth-talking real estate agent wants to unload.

This is hardly new. In fact, history’s most egregious leak involved the guy on the penny, a source dangerously close to the president, a sketchy character and a dying First Child.

Meet Lincoln’s leaker. Continue reading

The Drummer Boy Hero

HOW A 14-YEAR-OLD EARNED THE MEDAL OF HONOR  

There I was the day before Memorial Day, walking through Springfield National Cemetery in southwest Missouri, paying my respects the Civil War dead. It’s one of the few national cemeteries where men from both sides rest.

One marker caught my eye. Its inscription said, “Orion P. Howe, Medal of Honor.”

A Medal of Honor recipient in an obscure Ozarks cemetery? This merited investigation. And what I learned astonished me.

Meet the Drummer Boy Hero. Continue reading

The Hero Bureaucrat

An Obscure Clerk Saved Our History

Face it: bureaucrats, those unelected holders of colorless government jobs, are among the least popular Americans. They rate at the bottom of the list, right alongside used car salesmen and sewer cleaners.

Yet we owe a huge debt to one such drone who, when crisis came, acted calmly, cooly and saved the greatest documents in our history. This is his story.

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A.Y.’s Costly Mistake

A UNIFORM’S COLOR NEARLY LOST AN IMPORTANT TOOL

You’ve got one. I’ve got one. Everyone from professional plumbers to weekend do-it-yourselfers has one. But a common tool came within a whisker of becoming a casualty of the Civil War because of confusion caused by the color of a uniform. Really.

Here’s how it happened. Continue reading