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Category Archives: Historical Figure

The Righteous Cyclist

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There was once a man in a large department store in America, balancing a canoe on his head as he passed the cashiers at the front of the shop, and the security guards; he smiled sheepishly and pointed to the canoe, saying, “They didn’t have a bag big enough.”  Only after he was long gone did they find out that he’d stolen the canoe – it was in plain sight, but because it was so bold, no one ever thought to ask to see a receipt.

Hiding things in plain sight is a frequently-used form of deception, from animals to thieves, and in this particular story, a cyclist whose racing bike was stuffed with forged documents; but the cause was much more important, and changed the lives of countless thousands through the generations.

Gino Bartali (July 1914 – May 2000) was a champion racing cyclist in Italy, who won races both before and after World War 2.  A devoutly religious man, he used his celebrity status, as well as the cover story of “training” to ensure that hundreds of Jews were rescued from the Nazi occupation in Italy.  Not only did he risk his and his family’s lives by hiding a Jewish family in his cellar, but he also used his fame to slip by undetected as he delivered forged documents and messages hidden within the frame and handlebars of his bike.  In 1943, he led a group of Jewish refugees toward the Swiss Alps; he cycled, pulling a wagon with a secret compartment; when he was stopped by a German patrol, he simply said that it was part of his training.  Working with the Assisi underground, his speed, fame and cover story enabled him to quickly travel 35-40 trips between Florence to Perugia, Assisi, Lucca and Terontola to deliver paperwork that saved the lives of over 800 Jews; if you look at those distances on a map, its mind boggling to think that he often made the trip out and back within the same day.

When he went to train stations, he would use the confusion of the crowds of fans to distract the German guards checking the identifications of passengers entering the train, thus slipping the Jews aboard in the chaos.  Once, when he was taken in for questioning, he asked that they not touch his bicycle, claiming that its parts were very carefully calibrated to achieve maximum speed.  He believed that talking about the good one does is taking advantage of others’ misfortunes for personal gain.  “Good is something you do, not something you talk about.  Some medals are pinned to your soul, not to your jacket.”  He refused to wear the label “hero”, wanting instead to be remembered for his sporting achievements; he said, “Real heroes are others, those who have suffered in their soul, in their heart, in their spirit, in their mind, for their loved ones. Those are the real heroes. I’m just a cyclist.”

He kept his actions hidden for over 50 years, and only after his death did the story begin to emerge; he was declared one of the “Righteous Among the Nations” in 2013.  Please click on the image to watch a short video about a cycling tribute along the routes he traveled.

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The First (& Slowest) American Car Race

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Frank and Charles Duryea, 1895

Taking nearly 10 hours to race 54 miles, it’s not exactly what we would think of today as a race; more like an amble.  But the Chicago-Times Herald race goes down in history as the first automobile race in America, and it took place on this day in 1895, which that year was Thanksgiving Day, from Chicago to Evanston and back.  The race had been delayed from an earlier date because at the time, it was forbidden for cars to drive on city streets (likely because they were loud and would frighten the numerous horses, causing traffic chaos).  Once the organizers convinced the city council to permit the cars on the roads, the race took off.

We think of cars as being four-wheeled; but aside from 4 four-wheeled cars in the race (3 of which were German Benz cars, the 4th being a motorized wagon driven by Frank Duryea and made by Charles Duryea, founder of the Duryea Motor Wagon Company, and inventor of the first working  gasoline-powered car in America), there were 2 two-wheeled “automobiles”, but these motorized cycles lacked the power to climb the steeper passages.  An electric car was also entered in the race, but because of the cold weather, its battery died before getting very far.

One Benz car struck a horse just after taking off, and was forced out of the race, leaving just three cars; Duryea’s car won the day, with a time of 7 hours and 53 minutes (making his average time 7 mph / 11 km/h). The second car made it in 1 & 1/2 hours later, and the third never made it.  The driver of the second car had fallen unconscious due to exposure in the open vehicle and the cold weather, and the car was driven across the finish line by one of the race’s umpires.

The race was widely publicized, and predicted the demise of horse-drawn transport; it sped up the production of motorized vehicles, and the rest, as they say, is history.

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Information source:  Wikipedia

The Tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin

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pied-piper-of-hamelinMost people in western cultures have heard the tale of the Pied Piper; but was it true, or simply a fable or an urban legend that grew into epic myth proportions, such as Robin Hood’s fame?

The earliest appearance of the story is connected with the stained glass window of the church of Hamelin, Germany, ca. 1300, which means that the events on which it is based happened some time before that – enough of an event to commemorate with a stained glass window.  Though it was destroyed in 1660, it had been described and recorded in numerous accounts.  Town records in 1384 state that it was “100 years since the event”.

There are several theories as to what could have actually happened:  Perhaps the piper represented Death, and the children were carried off by him through a plague; considering the prominence of rats in the story, it’s quite plausible.  It could have also been deaths caused by famine other disease, which might have arisen as a result of fewer adults to sow and harvest crops (if there had previously been a plague and killed off part of the adult population).  Another theory is to do with emigration – either forced (such as slavery or inscription to the military), or voluntary (such as might happen due to a shortage of land, and the eldest son inheriting the family properties).  For more information on this fascinating historical tale, click here.  The German text on the early 20th century postcard is as follows, with translation:

Wandern, ach wandern,  (Wandering, oh wandering,)

weit in die Fern’,  (far, far away,)

Wandern, ach wandern,  (Wandering, oh wandering,)

T(h)u ich so gern. (I do it gladly.)

Rastlos durcheilen T(h)äler und Höh’n,   (Restless rushing through valleys and heights,)

Welt, ach so weit,   (World, oh so wide,)

wie bist Du so schön.  (How beautiful you are.)

Mir ward keine Liebe,   (For me was no love,)

kein heimat(h)lich Land,   (No home land,)

Stets weiter nur eilen,   (Always only rushing farther,)

von Niemand gekannt.   (Known by no one.)

Sie Sorgen und Grillen,   (Their cares and moods)

die kannte ich nie,   (I did not know,)

Sang und Spiel scheuchten,    (Songs and games avoided,)

spät sie und früh.  (both early and late)

Ein fahrender Sänger,    (A travelling singer,)

von Niemand gekannt,    (Known by no one,)

Ein Rattenfänger,  (A rat-catcher,)

Das ist mein Stand. (That is my rank.)

Historical Tales of Cross-Dressers

Throughout history, men and women have sometimes found it expedient to take on the guise of the opposite sex.  For men, it was often a tool to avoid military duties or to escape punishment of some kind; for women, the reasons were often due to the fact that men’s lives were easier – they had access to higher education, could rule, could lead, could travel more safely than a lone woman, and had far more freedom in society; another frequent reason was to avoid being forced into a loveless marriage.  There are many, many documented histories of cross-dressers; I will therefore focus my selection on a few of those cases where expediency was the factor, and not a question of sexual preference.  Some were androgynous, while others were unattractive or neutral enough in features to pass as either gender.  To read each history, click on the links:

Deborah Sampson Gannett (December 17, 1760 – April 29, 1827):  Served in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War as Timothy Thayer.

Hannah Snell (1723-1792): Served as a Royal army foot soldier, and a marine.  She is one of the few cases who became famous within their own lifetime; she revealed her true identity in 1750, and used her tales of adventure to pecuniary advantage.

Catalina de Erauso (late 15oos):  She held many positions, some under the very noses of relatives searching for the missing woman.

Chevalier d’Éon (5 October 1728 – 21 May 1810):  French diplomat, spy, freemason and

chevalier-deon

Chevalier d’Eon

soldier who fought in the Seven Years’ War.

Frances Clayton (1830s):  Female Soldier in the Civil War.

Billy Tipton (December 29, 1914 – January 21, 1989):  Jazz musician.

Ulrika Eleonora Stålhammar (1683-1733): A Swedish Corporal under the name of Vilhelm Edstedt.

Shi Pei Pu (1938-2009): A Chinese opera singer and spy.

Margaret Ann Bulkley (ca. 1789-1865): An Irish military surgeon in the British Army, as James Barry.

Marina the Ascetic, Monk (Fifth Century):  She chose exile from her monastery and to raise the illegitimate child of a woman who wrongly accused “him” of raping her, rather than reveal her true gender.  Only after her death was the truth discovered.

Isabelle Eberhardt (1877 – 1904): Explorer in the Arabian region, under the assumed name of Si Mahmoud Essadi.  Also, spy during the Algerian revolt against France.  She died in a flash flood at the age of 27.

Anne Bonney and Mary Read (18th century):  Ruthless pirates, they started off as cross-dressers, but once their reputations were established they dropped the male guise.

 

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Celebrating Anne Sullivan

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Anne Sullivan & Helen KellerWhile many people know the name of Helen Keller, fewer are likely to be as familiar with the name of Anne Sullivan; she was the teacher, and lifelong companion of her famous student, and for 49 years she stayed by Helen’s side.  Born in 1866 to Irish immigrants, Anne went blind as a child after suffering from untreated trachoma.  She attended the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston; after a surgery her vision was partially restored, but she remained visually impaired.  She met Helen Keller, 14 years her junior, when she was recommended as teacher to the young girl in Tuscumbia, Alabama.  Because Helen had been left blind and deaf from a disease when a toddler, she had been trapped in her silent darkness until Anne taught her to break free.

The  first major breakthrough came when Anne was able to teach Helen the association between the sign word for “water”, made on one of Helen’s hands, while running water over her other hand.  When she realized the connection, and that every object had a unique sign, Helen became an avid student, hungry for the signs that would at last help her communicate to the outside world.

Through Anne’s help, Helen went on to become the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree, became a world famous writer and advocate for women’s suffrage, labour and disability rights.  The two women travelled to over forty countries as spokeswomen for the rights of the disabled.  Helen once said, “Once I knew only darkness and stillness… my life was without past or future… but a little word from the fingers of another fell into my hand that clutched at emptiness, and my heart leaped to the rapture of living.”  In this sense, Anne Sullivan is an unsung heroine who rescued Keller from the dark silence, and gave us a legacy of astounding courage, optimism and spirit through the writings of Helen Keller.

Here are ten more of my favourite quotes by Helen Keller:

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.”

“Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.”

“Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see a shadow.”

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”

“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.”

“The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.”

“People do not like to think. If one thinks, one must reach conclusions. Conclusions are not always pleasant.”

“Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn, whatever state I may be in, therein to be content.”

“Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.”

“I can see, and that is why I can be happy, in what you call the dark, but which to me is golden. I can see a God-made world, not a man-made world.”

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Business Histories

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If you’ve ever been curious as to when the first this-or-that happened, and perhaps led to an invention or an industry, then look no further than the gem of a site that I just came across!  Just click on the image below to go to the website, and enjoy!  There, you’ll find the following categories:

Accountancy; advertising; agribusiness; agricultural machinery; aircraft; airlines; arts; automotive (A-G) & (H-W); banking; beverages; biotechnology; broadcasting; business services; chemicals; computers; conglomerates; construction; consumer (non-cyclical); containers; defence; drugs;  electronics;  engineering;  entertainment; family business; fashion & beauty; financial services; food 1 & 2; food service; footwear; forest products; gaming; gas; healthcare; high technology; home furnishings; hospitality; household appliances; industrial equipment; information technology; insurance;  internet; jewellery; law; leisure; machine tools; manufacturing; media;  metals; mining; nonprofit; office equipment; oil; oil service; paper & packaging; publishing to 1900, from 1900, A-L & M-Z; railroads; real estate; regions (A-M) & (N-Z); retail; rubber; savings & loans; securities; shipbuilding; shipping; sports; steel and iron; telecommunications; textiles; tobacco; tourism; toys; transport; utilities; waste disposal; weapons; whaling; blacks in business; kids & business; women in business; and scandal & fraud.

 

Spiral Clock Face

This Day in History: Apollo 11 Landing

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Found on the official website of the Department of Homeland Security, in their history section, this customs declaration form of Apollo 11’s crew reentry to Earth is entertaining, when you read the details… like they might have disembarked somewhere between the moon and Earth, travelling at roughly 205 miles per second; or they might know what diseases they brought back to Earth from the moon (“to be determined”)…

To check out NASA’s history page, just click on the Apollo 11 crew’s photo below.

General Declaration of Customs, Apollo 11 Crew 24 July 1969

Apollo 11 Crew - Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin,  Michael Collins

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