General Butt Naked: the man who ate children

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Joshua Milton Blahyi is a Christian preacher in Liberia.  But he was once better known as General Butt Naked, one of the most brutal warlords in Liberia’s 14-year civil war. Every night for 14 years Blahyi talked with the devil. Every night the devil told him to do things… bad things… including sacrificing and eating children.

Blahyi’s creation as General Butt Naked started before he was even born. He was conceived on the orders of Krahn tribe elders and born on September 30, 1971.  From the time he was a child, Blahyi was told his destiny was to be a priest and a warrior.  When he was seven, his father handed him to the tribal elders, who schooled him in the rituals of the priesthood. His initiation as a priest was as senseless as it was brutal.

Against the beating of a drum, a man in a carved black mask led Blahyi to an altar. The elders brought him a little girl.  Her clothes were removed and her body smeared with clay.  The elders ordered Blahyi to kill her. Over the next three days, Blahyi ritualistically ate the little girl’s heart and other parts of her body.  He was officially declared a priest.  He was 11 years-old.

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Jeanne de Clisson — the Lioness of Brittany

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Noblewoman… mother… prostitute… widow… pirate.   In the 14th century, Jeanne de Clisson – the “Lioness of Brittany” — was all these, and more.

Actually, no one really seems sure about the prostitute part.  What is true beyond doubt is that the Lioness of Brittany was as vicious as any male pirate.  The reasons for her rage, however, are perhaps a bit more compelling.

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What you may not know about the U.S. Secret Service

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U.S. Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy after stopping an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan.

Most people know that the Secret Service protects the President of the United States and other politicians.

But the original purpose of the Secret Service was the suppression of counterfeit currency.  In the aftermath of the Civil War, an estimated one-third of U.S. currency in circulation was counterfeit.  So on July 5, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln – in his last official act – signed the Secret Service into law as a branch of the United States Department of the Treasury.

It wasn’t until almost 30 years after its founding, however, that the Secret Service began protecting President Grover Cleveland.  And even then it was only on an informal, part-time basis whenever the president traveled. Not until 1902, following the assassination of President William McKinley, did the agency assume the responsibility of protecting the president around the clock.

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The gall of it all

Hunkpapa warrior Chief Gall, c. 1880s

Hunkpapa warrior Chief Gall, c. 1880s

We often use the word “gall” in phrases such as “I can’t believe she has the gall to…” or “that really galls me.”  But what exactly does “gall” mean?

In its first sense, gall is a synonym for “bile.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, however, these days “gall” applies only to animals.  Either way, gall (or bile) is a bitter-tasting, yellowish substance that aids in the digestion of fat. Because of its taste, gall can also be used to refer to anything that is bitter or severe.

The word gall comes from Old English gealla (meaning bile), a cognate of Greek kholē.  It may also come from Old English geolo (yellow), a possible reference to bile’s color. The two roots may, in fact, be related.

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The “Cleveland Massacre”: how John D. Rockefeller created a monopoly and Ida Tarbell helped bust it

Ida in fur coat around 1925

 

John D. Rockeller, the founder of the Standard Oil Company, was one of the most powerful men of the Gilded Age.* Yet he was no match for journalist Ida Tarbell, the “muckraker“** who discovered and revealed Standard Oil’s unethical business practices.

The last 30 years of the 19th century in the United States (the “Gilded Age”) saw a huge growth of industry and wealth. But that growth was fueled by economic and political corruption.  No one represented both the highs and the lows of the Gilded Age better than Rockefeller and Standard Oil.  And not even Rockefeller could predict that his worse nemesis would turn out to be not his competitors, but a woman — and one born in a log home .

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Gertrude Bell: the “Uncrowned Queen of Iraq”

From left to right, beneath the face of the Sphinx: Winston Churchhill, Gertrude Bell, and T.E. Lawrence, Cairo, Egypt, 1921.

T.E. Lawrence — best known as Lawrence of Arabia — gets all the press.  But Gertrude Bell — who worked with Lawrence in Cairo – was, like Lawrence, an archaeologist, intelligence agent and author.  Like Lawrence, her sex life – or lack thereof – has been the subject of much debate.  And like Lawrence, Bell – who has been called the “Uncrowned Queen of Iraq — for better or worse helped define and shape the modern Middle East.

Bell was born in England on July 14, 1868 to a wealthy family.  After earning a degree in history from Oxford University, she began to travel.  She established a reputation as a skilled mountain climber, and is credited with 10 first ascents in the Bernese Alps. These include the Gertrudspitze, which was named for her.

Bell’s greatest fame as a climber, however, came from a failed attempt.  It was to have been a first ascent of the northeast face of 14,000-ft. Finsteraarhorn.  But an unexpected blizzard trapped Bell and two companions on the mountain.  Through freezing temperatures and lightning storms, they survived roped together for 53 hours.

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The T. rex and other bloodsucking leeches

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There are between 700 and 1,000 species of leeches throughout the world.  Most prey on insects, snails and other small creatures.  Some swallow their prey whole.  Others have an extendible proboscis, which they use to spear their prey and suck up their juices.

And then there are the “bloodsuckers.”  These sanguivorous (blood-feeding) leeches feed on fish, reptiles, waterfowl, small mammals, earthworms (their closest biological relatives) and, yes — humans.  Sanguivorous leeches generally have either two or three jaws, which contain small teeth or a sharp cutting edge.  A bite from a two-jawed leech leaves a V-shaped bite, while that of the three-jawed variety results in a Y-shaped one.

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Death and destiny: the Moirai a/k/a the Fates

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In Greek mythology, the Moirai – better known as the Fates – are the three goddesses who carry out a person’s destiny.  When someone is born, Clotho spins the thread of his or her life, while Lachesis measures the thread and Atropos it cuts with her shears when it is time for that person to die.

The Moirai acted more or less independently of the other Greek gods to ensure that everyone’s eternal fate proceeded without obstruction.  Even the gods had to submit to them — though some sources say that Zeus could interfere with someone’s fate when he really wanted to.

Ancient sources describe the Moirai as stern, old women who are ugly and, sometimes, lame, to boot.  Clotho is usually depicted with a spindle, while Lachesis holds a staff and Atropos a pair of shears. Continue reading

Cinco de Mayo and the Battle of Puebla

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Cinco de Mayo celebrates the 1862 victory of the Mexican army over a superior French army at the Battle of Puebla.  Although France eventually prevailed and installed Maximilian, Archduke of Austria, as Emperor of Mexico, the battle has become a symbol of Mexican unity and patriotism.

The Mexican-American War had devastated the Mexican treasury.  By 1861, Mexico was essentially bankrupt.  To remedy the situation, President Benito Juarez suspended the repayment of foreign debts for a period of two years.  At the end of this period, he promised, such payments would resume. Continue reading

General Order No. 11: when Ulysses Grant expelled the Jews

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Ulysses S. Grant , the 18th president of the United States, is generally acknowledged one of the greatest military commanders in U.S. history.  There is one huge negative on his career as a Civil War general, however.  Under General Order No. 11, Grant expelled all Jews from Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee.  And although he would spend much of his presidency promoting the rights of Jews (as well as blacks and Native Americans), General Order No. 11 remains a stain on Grant’s reputation.

The immediate cause for issuance of the order was the black market in Southern cotton during the Civil War.  Northern textile mills — as well as the Union Army itself — relied on cotton from the south.  Although President Lincoln allowed limited trade in Southern cotton, it was not enough to satisfy demand.  Cotton prices soared on the black market, and unlicensed traders openly bribed Union officers to allow them to buy cotton without a permit. Continue reading