History As Stories

Spies, and Secrets, and Hair Bands…Oh My!

I love quest stories. Add in some spies and rock music and I’m all in.

I’ve mentioned before that I listen to podcasts a lot, whether they are continuous weekly or limited to telling one story in a limited number of episodes. At the moment I’m listening to one of the limited series, eight episodes, and wanted to share it with you all.

About a decade ago journalist Patrick Radden Keefe heard a story that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) wrote the German band Scorpions song “Wind of Change”. He recently decided to move that investigation to the top of his To Do list, which I prefer to think of as a Quest list.

I haven’t finished all eight episodes yet, but highly recommend you check this out. Spies, hair bands, secrets – what’s not to love? I grew up during the Cold War, so this seems like revisiting my youth. I even saw Scorpions live in the early 80s!

This podcast is a great way to get a new perspective on things that you thought you already understood. This song came out around the end of the Soviet Union, so it is interesting to hear how people in what used to be the Soviet Union think about the band and the song. Also fun to hear stories of how the CIA tried to influence culture in other regions.

You can binge all eight episodes on Spotify or have it drop weekly into your Apple podcast feed.

If you listen, I would love to know what you think about the series, so drop a note in the comments section. Happy listening and learning!

Science and Disease: Originally Titled “The 1854 London Cholera Epidemic, and My Brain on Research”

I originally wrote this post in 2016, but this is a good to time to put it out there again. I’ve made a couple of very minor changes that don’t effect the details of the story.

The stories I share with you on this blog are usually about more than the story, at least for me.  I often find alternate ways to look at the story I’m researching, completely different topics suggested by the research I’m doing, and also personal connections to a particular story.

Today I want to share a story that I first heard years ago, but also let you know what it meant to me.

Cholera is a bacterial infection of the small intestine, which can be fatal. In the first half of the 19th century, tens of thousands of people in Great Britain died during cholera outbreaks. Unfortunately, most people believed that the cause of cholera was airborne.

Consider for a moment how any 19th century city would have smelled. There were humans and animals living crowded together, and with no sewer system, human and animal waste ended up in the streets and in the waterways. That waste was dumped into the River Thames, making it both their toilet and their source of drinking water. It’s hardly surprising that in the years before germ theory was discovered people believed the horrible stench could cause illness and death.

In 1854, there was a new cholera outbreak in Soho in London. Dr. John Snow, a physician of some renown, had suggested five years earlier that cholera could be transmitted by water rather than air. He now had the opportunity to test his hypothesis.

Dr. John Snow (1813-1858), British physician. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Armed with a detailed map of Soho, he marked all the deaths, as well as all the public water pumps, on the map. It didn’t take long to notice that most of the fatalities were clustered around one particular water pump, on Broad Street (now called Broadwick Street). His data included some outliers, but through personal interviews (contact tracing) he was able to tie those cases to that same pump.

This was proof enough for Dr. Snow, and he was able to get the handle removed from the pump so it could not be used. That doesn’t mean that suddenly this particular public health issue was solved and cholera was eradicated. However, between the pump being shut down and the fact that the majority of residents had already fled the area, this particular outbreak was stopped. Unfortunately it was not stopped before more than 600 people had died.

A variant of the original map drawn by Dr. John Snow (1813-1858), a British physician who is one of the founders of medical epidemiology, showing cases of cholera in the London epidemics of 1854, clustered around the locations of water pumps. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

This is a simple story, but there was a lot more than that going on in my research and in my head.

  • I found a recommended book I really want to read that expands this story to include more than the very basic facts that are available all over the web. This is a story that lends itself to short-form storytelling, but there is also much more depth available if you’re interested. Check out The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic…and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson.
  • I’m a visual person, so I love it when maps are used to see patterns. While researching this story I’ve seen blog posts that focus on the map aspect of this story and about how Snow was a pioneer in plotting data points to solve a scientific problem. Apparently mathematicians and statisticians love his groundbreaking study.
  • This story happened 162 years ago, but the differences in living conditions between then and now are obvious. No flush toilets. No convenient water faucets in your home. No concept of germs or how to avoid or get rid of them in order to keep yourself safe and healthy.
  • This case is considered the foundation of epidemiology. Science has advanced so incredibly since that time. I hope that 162 years from now people will look back at our stories with the same sense of pride in how much they’ve learned. And possibly amazement at our disgusting standards of living.
  • “Gross” history is the best way to start teaching kids to like history.
  • There’s a personal aspect here, which always makes it easier for me to remember history stories. When my daughter and I were in London earlier this year, we stayed four nights about three blocks from the site of the Broad Street pump, which is near Carnaby Street. Even though I knew the story, I had no idea I was in the neighborhood where it happened, even though we wandered around for days. There used to be a replica pump in place for those of us interested in history, but it was removed recently to make way for new construction.
The view from our hostel in Soho. Still crazy crowded. Photo by Cathy Hanson
  • Even though we know the cause of something (like cholera) and even how to fix it (like cholera), that doesn’t necessarily mean that it gets fixed. People still die today from cholera. We’re not as advanced as we’d like to think.
  • And lastly, something that you’d think would be a no-brainer. DON’T FOUL YOUR WATER SUPPLY!


Mary Mallon, Typhoid Carrier

I hope you all are staying well. I read that in Iceland they are testing everybody for the coronavirus, not just those who present with symptoms. Although they haven’t tested the entire population yet, they have discovered that about half of those who tested positive were asymptomatic.

That’s right, lots of people who haven’t shown symptoms or been tested (don’t get me started on that) are carrying the virus. And can share the virus with others.

So this week I’m going to introduce you to Mary Mallon, otherwise known as Typhoid Mary. She’s known as the first asymptomatic carrier of typhoid.

First, typhoid fever is a bacterial infection. It can only spread where human feces come into contact with food or water. So people should wash their hands, be careful about where they prepare food, and know the source of their drinking water.

Starting around 1900, Mallon (1869-1938) worked as a cook in New York City, working for mostly wealthy families that could afford their own cook. She moved from household to household, never staying long, leaving a trail of sick people behind.

Mary Mallon in hospital bed, photo via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1906, one of the families who had suffered from typhoid hired a researcher to find the source of their outbreak. He found that the family had hired a new cook just before their outbreak and she had since moved on.

Once a possible carrier was identified, the researcher eventually located Mallon due to another outbreak in her latest place of employment. When she refused to be tested, he investigated her work history and found that almost all previous families claimed to have suffered from typhoid fever around the time she worked for them.

Even though Mallon refused to be tested, it was determined that she was a carrier of the disease. Because she refused to be tested and refused to give up her work as a cook, she was held in isolation at a hospital.

After three years in quarantine, she was allowed to leave if she agreed to practice better hygiene and to quit working as a cook.

After her release she worked as a laundress. But that simply did not pay as much as working as a cook.

So she changed her name and went back to cooking. She never stayed long in any one place, and she almost always left a typhoid outbreak in her wake. And this was the early 20th century and it was a lot harder to find someone who didn’t want to be found.

Until 1915, when she started an outbreak at a hospital in which two people died. The police finally found her after that one.

This time she was confined to a hospital from 1915 until her death in 1938. There is no way to know for sure how many people became ill and how many died due to Mallon, but she spent more than a third of her life locked up to prevent any more.

If you are a fan of Anthony Bourdain and enjoy his signature style of storytelling, check out his book Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical.

And remember, just because you’re not sick doesn’t mean you can’t get other people sick. Also, wash your hands.

Which Singer Has a Birthday Today?

Today has been a really long week, so it seems like a good time for some birthday music, featuring a musician who was born on this date.

Gabriele Susanne Kerner, better known as Nena, was born on this date in 1960. In 1983, during the early years of MTV when music videos were everything, Nena and her band released a song called “99 Luftballons”. This was sung in German, although they did release an English version.

The story is that this is an anti-war song about how acts to show strength can escalate. But if you didn’t speak German, this was just a really danceable song.

If you’re interested in what was happening in Germany before and during the time this song was released, check out my post about the Berlin Airlift and my post about the divided city of Berlin.

So here is the original video from 1983:

And here is a really fun live version from 2016:

Go ahead, you know you want to dance!

Are You Using Your Public Library?

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have, and utilize, a library card.

My local public library closed at 5:00 this evening. I am a huge fan of public libraries and have great respect for all who make libraries such a welcoming place for our entire community, so I have no issues with helping them stay safe and healthy. And before they closed, they extended all my due dates for a month, so I’m good with that.

Photo by Jouwen Wang on Unsplash

Since I figured it was going to close at some point, I checked some stuff out in advance. But I also know that even if I finish those books, modern public libraries won’t let me down. You see, at any hour of the day, whether the library is open or closed, I can check out digital books (if someone else didn’t get to them first) and download them immediately to my Kindle or other reader. Within minutes, I can begin something new.

I believe this also works for audio books, but since I can’t listen to fiction, I’m not sure about that.

I don’t know how your local public library’s website works, but on the search page, mine lets me limit my search to Downloadables, and then by type of book, like suspense or speculative fiction or romance or historical. Or, if you know exactly what you’re looking for, you can search by author or title. So many options.

Public libraries are just one of the places I learned to love history. Let me tell you, when I was a pre-teen I could spot a gothic book cover from anywhere in the library.

So here is a little history.

Between 1883 and 1929, philanthropist and businessman Andrew Carnegie donated money to build 1,687 public libraries in the United States. That’s an average of 35 public libraries for each of the 48 states. (Alaska and Hawaii weren’t states yet.)

Public libraries are supported by (mostly) local taxes and services are available freely to all community members. I said “mostly” about the taxes because many public libraries have private sources of funding from individuals or corporations in the form of endowments, gifts, and grants. Seriously, if you want to do something that will benefit your community, then support your library.

The first public library in the United States that was completely supported by taxes was in Peterborough, New Hampshire in 1833.

Now may be a great time to catch up on your reading or check out some new books for your kids. Use your public library so they know that you love them.

History Breaking News: Lost and Found

This video is a great way to see this breaking history news. And see some very excited historians!

Thanks to my friend Portia Webb for giving me a heads-up about this.


If you want more information than was included in the video, you can check out these newspaper articles.



Hope you enjoy!

1692 Around the World

I had so much fun last week looking at the global history of 1863 that I wanted to try a different year. So I moved from the 19th century to the 17th century, to a time before the United States was a country. I’m going to look at 1692, the year of the Salem witch trials.

General knowledge about the Salem witch trials is culturally pervasive in the United States. Because the basics of the story are so well known, most Americans recognize it. But there is a lot of information presented in television and movies about that time that is either exaggerated or false. If you want to know the whole story there are plenty of well-researched books and articles available by respected historians.

Here’s an example of something I didn’t know from my popular culture training about the trials. I had no idea that the time period from the first accusations to the final executions of 20 people spanned less than one year. The more you know…

Examination of a witch, 1853 by Tompkins Harrison Matteson (1813–1884) at the Peabody Essex Museum. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

So what else happened in 1692?

There is always fighting

  • Members of the Clan MacDonald in Scotland were killed in the Massacre of Glencoe by the rival Clan Campbell for delaying the signing of an oath of allegiance to the king of England, William III (William of Orange). This was 15 years before the 1707 Act of Union that merged Scotland and England into Great Britain, which is a whole other story.
  • In Barbados, a planned slave revolt is discovered. Severe reprisals are taken against the slaves believed to be part of the rebellion. A series of laws designed to stop future rebellions were passed immediately after the courts martial and the reprisals.
  • The year 1692 was about halfway through the Nine-Years’ War (1688-1697) between an expansionist France and a coalition of European countries known as the Grand Alliance.

After the Massacre of Glencoe , 1889 by Peter Graham (1836 – 18 October 1921) at the National Gallery of Victoria. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.


  • An earthquake and subsequent landslide and tsunami destroy the capital of Jamaica with thousands of deaths and injuries in the immediate aftermath. Thousands more died in the following months due to disease.
  • The strongest earthquake in the northern part of Western Europe happened in Belgium during this year. Estimates put the magnitude of the earthquake at about 6. The effects were also felt in eastern England, France, and in Germany.

Other stuff

  • At a riot in Mexico City an angry mob torches government buildings and loots nearby shops. The riot is blamed on grain shortages and rising grain prices, but riots like this are generally caused by multiple grievances, rather than just one. In this case, many believed that the government was hoarding the grain to increase the price, which is why they went after the government buildings.
  • Famine in France, partly due to the cost of fighting the Nine-Years’ War, killed up to 2 million people in 1692-1693.

I would love to hear why you think most of us don’t know about the other items listed here, but that the Salem witch trials are such a huge hit in popular culture.

1863 Around the World

I am always interested in what was happening around the world during any particular year. For this post I chose to look at 1863. In the United States, the Civil War was 1861-1865 and Americans tend to concentrate completely on that when looking at history for that period.

But there were other things happening around the world, and even other things happening in the U.S.

United States

  • The first homestead was claimed in Nebraska under 1862 Homestead Act.
  • The Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln.
  • Even during the Civil War, the Indian Wars were still taking place, including the Bear River Massacre in Idaho.
  • Samuel Clemens first used pen name “Mark Twain”.
  • The Arizona Territory and Idaho Territory were created/established.
  • The first wartime conscription law in the U.S. went into effect. Anti-draft mobs in New York City lynched blacks in response.
  • President Lincoln designated the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving.
  • President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg address.
  • West Virginia became the 35th state.

Other fighting around the world

Battle of Miechow during January Uprising 1863. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
  • The January Uprising, an unsuccessful Polish rebellion against Russian rule. The Russians had a significant numerical and technological advantage over the guerrilla insurgents, but the uprising, which also involved issues of class and wealth, into 1864. In the end, the Russians tightened their control and exacted cruel reprisals.
  • A series of conflicts known as the New Zealand Wars, between the Colonial British government and the Maori, stretched from 1845 through 1872.
  • The Franco-Mexican war took place in Mexico from 1861 to 1867. In 1863 Mexico City was captured by French troops.
  • In Japan, they were fighting for control of the Shimonoseki Straits against Great Britain, France, The Netherlands and the U.S.
  • The British were also fighting Japan in the Anglo-Satsuma War.


  • A storm ravages The Netherlands coastal regions.
  • An avalanche in southern Switzerland kills 29. In the same canton a few days later the weight of snow atop a church causes it to collapse, killing 47.
  • The HMS Orpheus sinks off the coast of New Zealand, killing 189.
  • A fire ravages the Jesuit Church of La Compana in Santiago, Chile, killing 2,000-3,000.

Other interesting stuff

Winged Victory of Samothrace (2nd Century, B.C.E) (Discovered in 1863) Paris, Louvre
Musée du Louvre, Paris. Photo by Rodney via Wikimedia Commons.
  • The Football Association starts in England, standardizing the rules of soccer.
  • Linoleum is patented in the United Kingdom.
  • Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria is born. His death by assassination in 1914 sparked the events that led to World War I.
  • Lots of railways either started construction or opened in the U.S. and Europe, including the opening of the first section of the London Underground.
  • The International Committee of the Red Cross, formed to improve medical conditions on battlefields, was created by a resolution signed by 16 countries. The meetings were held in Geneva, Switzerland.
  • A statue of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, was discovered and is now in the Musée du Louvre in Paris . Titled Winged Victory of Samothrace, the statue was 8 feet tall and was created c. 200-190 BCE.

I hope something (or several somethings) on this list sound interesting enough that you will dig a little deeper. Does anything on the list really surprise you or make you want to dig into some further research?

Breaking News: A Farmer’s Diary

This post combines two general ideas about history that I often write about in other posts.

First, there is “breaking news” in the study of history. Sometimes people find stuff that tells historians something completely new or changes perceptions about something we already knew.

Second, primary sources, sources from the time that you are studying, are important when doing historical research. It’s especially fun when you’re looking for one thing and find something else.

There was an article on the BBC News website yesterday titled “The 200-year old diary that’s rewriting gay history” by Sean Coughlan. I’ll tell you a little about it, but recommend that you check out the link.

A farmer in Yorkshire, Matthew Tomlinson, kept a diary, writing about his life and personal experiences. He also wrote his thoughts about things he read in books and newspapers. Some of his handwritten diaries found their way to the Wakefield Library in the 1950s and have been used by researchers as a primary source. Apparently it’s a good source for information about Luddites, in case you ever need that.

Lupset Golf Course, in the same area as Tomlinson’s farm (which no longer exists). Lupset Hall is now the clubhouse for the municipal golf course at Lupset. Photo attribution:
SMJ / Lupset Golf Course / CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

University of Oxford researcherEamonn O’Keeffe found something else in the 1810 diary while looking for something completely different.

Scandal always draws attention, and in this case a naval surgeon, 37-year old James Nehemiah Taylor, was court-martialed and executed for the crime of sodomy. As always happens with scandal, this case was widely reported and undoubtedly discussed by neighbors and friends.

In Britain, sodomy was a death penalty offense until 1861 and was not decriminalized until 1967, more than 150 years after Tomlinson’s diary entry.

Tomlinson’s views about the Taylor case are what make this breaking news. Tomlinson believed that if men chose to be homosexual, then castration was an acceptable punishment. But he also believed, as a religious person, that if the Creator made a person gay, then those acts were not unnatural and shouldn’t be punished with death. Tomlinson said it better than I did, so really, go read the article.

So why is this a big deal? This is exciting news for historians because it is evidence that people in Britain were more tolerant of homosexuality than previously believed. This is the belief of an ordinary man, a rural farmer who was not rich and powerful and did not own the land that he farmed. This is an indication of the thoughts of the general public.

Today, the thoughts of the general public are all around us, especially on social media. But back in 1810, the general public did not leave as many sources for historians as did intellectuals, and people of wealth and power.

My take on this? Historical evidence is important, so this is great news. But one of my core beliefs about history is that humans don’t change much. There have been and will always be, among other things, people that are tolerant of others and people that are not. When I first read this article, my first thought was that of course there were people in 1810 that didn’t believe that same-sex relationships should be punished by death. But it’s always good to know there is primary source evidence to back me up.

A City Divided

Last week I wrote about the division of defeated Germany and its capital city of Berlin by the Allied Powers after World War II.

You may recall from that post that the eastern part of Germany was taken over by the Soviet Union, while the United States, the United Kingdom, and France controlled western Germany. The capital city was about 100 miles into the Soviet territory and was also split between the four powers.

After the Berlin Airlift, the tension between east and west Germany, as well as east and west Berlin, continued to grow. In 1952 the full border between east and west Germany had been closed, but people from the east could still get to the west if they went through Berlin.

And lots of people in the east believed that life was better in the west and left East Germany, known as the German Democrat Republic (GDR). If you’re old enough to have watched the Olympics before 1988, you have heard the name GDR.

East German construction workers building the Berlin Wall. Photo from U.S. National Archives via Wikimedia Commons.

Massive numbers of people were leaving the GDR, and that number was steadily increasing. Many of those leaving were professionals, teachers, doctors, scientists. This amounted to a brain drain on the communist system in the east, as well as being a huge embarrassment. It’s hard to say your system of government is the best is nobody wants to live under that system. Since the divided Berlin was the biggest problem in this drain, that’s where the government placed their solution.

One night in August of 1961, workers in East Berlin started putting up barbed wire fences and creating a wall from concrete blocks. They also shut down the subways and trains that the people used to travel between the east and west areas of Berlin. In the end, they left three checkpoints, three places you could get from one side of the city to the other. Assuming, of course, that you had the correct papers.

Check out this 6-minute newsreel about that night in 1961.

And there wasn’t just a wall through the center of Berlin. All of West Berlin was surrounded by wall, like a little island in the center of Soviet territory.

And the reason they said they created a wall? They said they were trying to keep our western ways out of their communism. They weren’t trying to keep East Germans in, they were trying to keep the rest of us out. I’m not sure if anybody bought that bit of propaganda. This border was physical and political.

Berlin Wall Reinforced. Under The Watchful Eye of Communist Police, East German Workers Near The Brandenburg Gate Reinforce The Wall Dividing The City, October 1961. Photo from United States Information Service, Department of State via Wikimedia Commons.

Living under a system of surveillance and control in the east, people still wanted to get to freedom in the west. People escaped by jumping over the wall from windows and buildings that were along the wall, crawling through the sewers, climbing through the barbed wire, crashing cars through the weakest points of the wall, and hiding under seats of cars. There were a number of tunnels dug beneath the wall. And there was always the fear that if you got caught, you would be either killed or imprisoned.

All these escapes prompted the creation of better fortifications. The GDR replaced concrete blocks with full concrete walls, added watchtowers, electrical fencing, floodlights, tripwires, dogs, land mines, and lots and lots of armed guards. In many places there was a space before the final wall known as a “death strip”. Up to 160 yards wide, it was filled with deadly obstacles to keep any potential escapee from even making the attempt.

This image of the Berlin Wall was taken in 1986 by Thierry Noir at Bethaniendamm in Berlin-Kreuzberg, via Wikimedia Commons.

The border eventually opened in November 1989, due to factors both in Germany and the wider world. Once the border was open, people took hammers and other tools to the actual wall. But the wall not just physical, and that historical stain will remain.

And during those 28 years? People died trying to get to freedom in the west, although there is no consensus on the actual number. The amount of resources, in terms of time and money spent on building, monitoring, and maintaining this wall, is staggering. Just imagine if that determination and those resources had been used for good.

Now the Berlin Wall has been down longer than it was up.

When I heard about the wall coming down, I was in bed with a migraine, waiting for my parents or one of my sisters to come get my 2-year old before my head exploded. I had all the lights off except the TV screen, watching the news, wishing my daughter was old enough to understand that this was a really big deal.

Do you remember where you were when you learned about the end of the Berlin Wall?

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