The History of…The Hermit Kingdom of North Korea






Torture, famine, infanticide, thought control, isolation, gulags, lack of medicine, and trafficking in chemical and nuclear weapons are all things we associate with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, more commonly known as North Korea.  Currently, the United States is locked in escalating negotiations with North Korea that have evolved into threats of nuclear war.  Given the regime’s repressive nature and poor economy, how has the Kim family maintained its iron grip on North Korea for 72 years? Why have they not been overthrown?  Let’s look at the history.

The history of North Korea is aligned with the history of the Kim family.  Kim Il Sung, Kim Jung Il and now Kim Jung Un have been the only rulers of North Korea.  Kim Il Sung was ruler for the longest period of time, from 1945 to 1994.  His rise was unlikely as he grew up in China after his Christian family fled Japanese occupied Korea in 1920 when Kim was a boy.  He grew up in a largely Korean area of China and converted to communism as a teenager.  Eventually, he joined anti-Japanese guerrilla groups and participated in several skirmishes against the Japanese.  By the outbreak of World War II, Kim Il Sung had been successful enough as a guerrilla to be known to Japanese, Chinese and Russian party officials.  He found safe harbor during the war in the Soviet Union.

After WWII, at age 33, the Soviets returned Kim Il Sung to North Korea to put a Korean face on Soviet control of the country.  Once in power, Kim Il Sung cultivated relations with the Soviet Union, China and other communist countries while he also consolidated internal power by eliminating rivals, erasing religion and changing history books.  To this day North Koreans are taught that Kim Il Sung started the Korean Peoples Army, that he was not put into power by the Soviets, and that South Korea started the Korean War.

Kim Il Sung also kept power by instituting the policy of juche which means independence from the world.  North Koreans are told they are a pure race and therefore must rely on each other and keep themselves separate from the rest of the world.  It weaves in the strict hierarchy of Confucianism so that the leader is at the top with a strict structure going all the way down to “hostiles” at the bottom.  He directed the masses be taught that obedience of the people to this hierarchy is needed to ensure racial purity.

Kim Jung Il was born in 1942 while his family was in exile in the Soviet Union.  He returned with his family to North Korea when his father came to power. He spent the Korean War in China.  He did not possess the revolutionary background of his father. He tried to legitimize following his Dad to power by involving himself in limited terrorist activities of the north, being the most supportive proponent of Kim Il Sung’s cult of personality and going after anyone perceived as disloyal.  He built more statues of his father than any of his rivals for power and was rewarded by being names Kim Il Sung’s successor 20 years before his father’s death.

Despite personal excesses such as prostitutes, alcohol, drugs and gluttony, Kim Jung Il was able to hold on to power and pass control of North Korea on to his son.  He was able to do this by adding the idea of kimilsungism to juche.  Kimilsungism built on the ideas of the necessity of racial purity and independence enforced by a strong and loving leader to say that Kim Sung Il (and by extension members of his family) was the leader needed to look out for the Korean people.  Kim Jung Il also secured his power by keeping control of the military and maintaining good relations with the Soviets and the Chinese.

Kim Jung Il died at the young age of 70, probably due to his life style of excess.  He passed control of the country on to his son, Kim Jung Un.  Not much is known about Kim Jung Un.  He most likely spent several years at a school in Switzerland in his youth.  Most of his classmates found him to be shy and he hid who his parents were.  The youngest Kim is now in the process of solidifying his control of North Korea by cultivating relations with the military and the Chinese, building nuclear capabilities, keeping the North Korean people isolated and eliminating critics and possible rivals such as his uncle and half-brother.  So far he has succeeded.

So, despite the misery they have produced, how is the Kim family still in power in North Korea?  Juche and kimilsungism combined with tyranny maintain internal control.  Additionally, those around the Kim family are elites at the higher end of the social strata who know they will lose everything and may even be killed if the regime falls.  Therefore, the incentive or ability to overthrow the Kim family is low. Finally, support from the outside, first from the Soviets and currently from the Chinese, enables the Kim dynasty to continue.

The History of … Border Walls


Great Wall of China at Sunrise

Given the recent election, border walls are currently all the rage (or all the worry depending on where you stand).  I thought it would be interesting to look back at the history of some famous walls and see why they were built and if they were successful.

Perhaps the most famous wall in the world is the Great Wall of China.  It is commonly on lists of the Seven Wonders of the World and can be seen from Earth’s orbit.  It was built over thousands of years in sections.  In 221 BC the Chinese Emperor Shi Huangdi began the first national wall project in an attempt to join walls that had been built in localities around China to protect farmers and villagers from looting.  The emperor’s goal was to link the Chinese as a people (to keep non-Chinese out and Chinese in), as well as, to unify the new country under him.  This unity would come from the protection the wall would bring and from the process of building the wall, which would bring people together in their work.  It was finished in 214 BC and was considered a great success.  The wall was repaired and expanded during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD) and was considered vital to its defense.  After the Ming period the wall was no longer considered vital to defense because China expanded northward beyond the wall.  Eventually it became a tourist attraction with the most popular portion being near Beijing.  The main wall running, east to west, measures about 5,500 miles while the entire wall with all its branches is estimated at over 13,000 miles.

Hadrian’s Wall was built around 122 AD by the Roman Emperor Hadrian.  It was constructed to run east to west across Britannia from the North Sea to the Irish Sea.  It marked the northern boundary of the Roman Empire and was 73 miles long.  It is unclear exactly what its prime purpose was.  Perhaps it was built to protect the colony in the south from the northern tribes.  Or possibly to control flows of people and therefore taxation.  Or finally to be a visible manifestation of the power of the Roman Empire.  Maybe it was a combination of all three.  It was abandoned by the next emperor who tried to push north but failed to bring the northern tribes under his rule.  It was reoccupied then by the Roman Empire until the empire itself began to crumble and was left in the 4th century AD when military assistance was needed closer to home.

Construction of the walls of Constantinople started in 324 AD when Constantine made it the capital of the Roman Empire.  A second layer of wall called the Theodosian Wall was added in 410 AD as the city of Byzantium, now known as Constantinople, grew.  The walls of Constantinople were predated by two sets of walls built before and just after the time of Christ which were destroyed when the wealthy city changed hands.  The walls of Constantinople (and the second layer, the Theodosian Wall, which turned into several layers) protected the great city of Constantinople for hundreds of years from siege and even a massive earthquake.  Constantinople was finally taken when the Turks acquired cannons and after the city’s population was lowered as a result of the Crusades.  Constantinople fell in 1453.  Today the city of Constantinople has been renamed Istanbul and is the capitol of Turkey.  Remnants of the inner and outer walls that protected the city for hundreds of years can still be seen.

In the 20th century the Berlin Wall was used by the Soviet Union to keep people from escaping communist rule.  It was built in 1961 across and around the city of West Berlin to separate East Germany from West Germany.  It was called the “Anti-Fascist Bulwark” by the communists.  Before its construction over 3 million people had escaped from east to west.  The wall consisted of over 85 miles of concrete topped with pipe and wire fencing.  A second fence was built behind the first fence and all buildings and houses in between the two were destroyed to make a “death strip” where there was no cover and wall guards would have a clear shot at anyone trying to escape.  Over the 28 years it was up, only 5000 people escaped and at least 200 were killed in the attempt.  It was effective at stemming the original tide of millions of defectors.  The wall was torn down in 1989 when the USSR fell.

The construction of the Israeli Wall or separation barrier started in 2000.  It runs along the Green Line which is the 1949 armistice line between Jordan and Israel.  It was set up to stop terrorist attacks from the west bank and is considered a success by that measure.  In some places, particularly urban areas where snipers have been an issue, it is a 30 foot concrete wall.  However, in less populated areas it takes the form of fencing, barbed wire, ditches and motion detectors.  About 250 miles of the wall have been completed with plans for another 130 miles.

The History of … Superheroes

Superhero in City: Superhero watching over the city.

The word superhero was first used generically in 1917 to refer to real people who had great ability and achievements.  In the 1940s, however, the word became forever associated with the “costumed characters” of comic books.

The first of these superhero comic book characters was Superman who made his debut in 1938 in Action Comics #1.  However, for historians, the question is was Superman the first real superhero or just the latest in a long line of the super powered?  After all, the Greek and Roman gods all had special powers, costumes and background stories.  Additionally, masked men with secret identities came before Superman.  Characters like Robin Hood, the Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, Gladiator, Doc Savage, the Spider, the Phantom, the Clock and the Shadow preceded him.  Additionally there was Nyctalope in France circa 1911 and Ogon Bat in Japan from 1931 who had special powers.

It really boils down to definition.  What is a Superhero?  The best definition I could find comes from Superhero:  The Secret Origin of a Genre by Peter Coogan which says a superhero is, “A heroic character with a selfless, pro-social mission; with superpowers—extraordinary abilities, advanced technology, or highly developed physical, mental, or mystical skills; who has a superhero identity embodied in a codename and iconic costume, which typically express his biography, character, powers or origin (transformation from ordinary person to superhero); and who is generally distinct, i.e. can be distinguished from characters of related genres (fantasy, science fiction, detective, etc.) by a preponderance of generic conventions.  Often superheroes have dual identities, the ordinary one of which is usually a closely guarded secret.”

This definition would eliminate Greek and Roman mythology because those gods were not trying to do good works for others.  It would also eliminate the “masked men” and crime fighters that came before Superman because they were just men or had not developed themselves into superheroes like Batman.

For historical purposes the definition gets pretty convoluted and sounds more like a way of eliminating heroes prior to Superman.  After all Superman wasn’t even called a superhero until the 1940s.  He was first a “mystery man” and a “costumed character.”

I think a better way to approach the history of superheroes is to acknowledge that a superhero is someone with special powers (either developed or gifted) who usually has a secret identity, costume and is trying to do good things in the world.  This would include heroes prior to Superman who hid their identity and tried to help people but would exclude the gods of Greek and Roman mythology.

This difference then between the superheroes that came before Superman and Superman comes from effect.  Through comics Superman became an international phenomenon that led to many more superheroes.  Therefore, while he may not have been the first superhero, Superman is rightly given the title of first superhero in importance because of his impact in bringing the idea of the superhero to prominence.

From the time of Superman superheroes spread through the Golden Age of comics with the invention of Wonder Woman, Batman, the Green Lantern, and Captain America who all fought the Axis powers.  There was a dip in interest in superheroes after World War II until the late 1950’s when the so called Silver Age of comics occurred.  It brought the Justice League, Fantastic Four and X-men to audiences everywhere.  Televisions shows about superheroes widened their appeal as well.  In the 1980s darker anti-heroes emerged in superheroes like the Watchmen but classics like Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman enjoyed repeated revivals on television and in movies until the present.

The History of … Horatio Alger

Have you ever noticed that when politicians are running for office they have a story to tell about how they grew up?  It usually involves how they came up from nothing, or if that is not true, it is about the hardships they conquered to get where they are.  The idea of mobility is part of the American ideal.  Stories that start with a hard scrabble childhood and lead to vast riches and success through perseverance and hard work are popular with the American people.  Politicians like to play into that as much as possible in an attempt to have us like them.  

These stories are found throughout American history.  Benjamin Franklin, Stephen Girard, Marshall Field, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Carnegie, James Garfield, John Rockefeller, Sam Walton, Oprah Winfrey, and R. A. Dickey are just a few examples of people who rose to great success from humble beginnings.

The man who popularized those stories of American rags to riches, Horatio Alger, is less well known today than the idea associated with his name.  Horatio Alger was a 19th century writer whose tales of hard luck youth rising up are often linked to the value of social and economic mobility that many associate with the United States American dream.

Horatio Alger was born on January 13th, 1832 to a Unitarian Minister in Chelsea, Massachusetts.  He grew up in genteel poverty, well-educated and of the right background but with financial concerns.  In 1845 his family moved from Chelsea to a new church in Marlborough, Massachusetts after a bankruptcy.  Things went a bit better in Marlborough and young Horatio was able to attend a local preparatory school, Gates Academy, so that he could try and pass college entrance exams.  Young Alger also began writing poems and stories during these years that he was able to publish in local papers.

Horatio Alger passed entrance exams for Harvard College in 1848.  He did well in his studies there and continued to write.  Several of his pieces were published in national magazines.  While at Harvard, he also determined that he wanted to be a poet or, secondarily, a literary writer.

As is often the case with college graduates, after his commencement in 1852, Horatio Alger’s desires met reality and they had to be revised.  While he was able to get pieces published, both poetry and stories, he was not able to earn a living as a writer.  Therefore, Alger broadened the magazines he applied to and worked on pieces that were less literary.  He also sought other means of employment.  

Alger briefly returned to Harvard to contemplate his next steps and wound up taking a job at a paper in Boston.  He lasted a couple months editing copy, but he did not think he was suited for newspaper work.  He finally took a job teaching at a boarding school and continued to write on the side.  He was successful at getting stories published in magazines and even had a book of poetry published that received good reviews but did lousy sales.

When the school where he was working closed, Alger took a summer position as principal of another school and then returned to Boston and worked as a private tutor.  He continued to be published in respected local and national magazines.  He put out another book of poetry.  Still, he was unable to earn a living as a writer.  He finally decided to follow his father into the ministry.

Alger went back to Harvard and graduated from the Theological School in 1860.  During the Civil War Alger was drafted and then rejected for service due to his nearsightedness and his short stature.  Instead, he wrote poems and articles in favor of the Union cause.  It was during the Civil War years that he also made an important decision.  Alger acknowledged to himself and others that his dream of literary success would not be realized and he decided to write children’s books in an attempt to achieve financial success as a writer. 

Horatio Alger took a job as a pastor at First Unitarian Church in Brewster, Massachusetts in 1864.  The job as a minister led to the most disturbing incident of his life and career.  Alger’s personal papers were destroyed at his request upon his death so his part of the tale will never be known.  Letters from the church to others indicate that he left his position in 1866 because of a scandal.  He was accused of some kind of sexual misconduct with one or more boys in his parish.  Alger left the post immediately and his Father stepped in to save his reputation.

The parish was at first uncertain how to handle the crisis.  A letter from Alger’s Father, which did not deny the charges, proposed that Alger would never again work as a minister if charges were not pressed against him.  Again, Alger’s papers were destroyed, but it does not appear that he denied the charges and he never served as a minister again, even though he took jobs later in life to supplement his writing income.

After the scandal, Horatio Alger moved to New York City and for the first time was able to eke out a living as a writer.  His decision during the Civil War to turn to children’s fiction had begun to pay off before the scandal in Brewster.  He was able to get his first children’s book, Frank’s Campaign, published in late 1864 and it was considered a financial success. 

Over the next three years he wrote three more children’s books which were well received but not big money makers.  In 1867 he wrote a story for Student and Schoolmate magazine titled Ragged Dick; or Street Life in New York. It was later developed into a book which became Alger’s greatest financial success and the basis for the bulk of the rest of his career.  Ragged Dick is the tale of a young boy who shines shoes for a living; he is a boot-black.  While the young boy, Dick, is homeless and lives a tough life, he maintains his moral compass and eventually that leads to his reaching the lowest rung on the ladder of success.  He becomes a respectable young man in a counting house. 

Ragged Dick was the peak of Alger’s writing career.  Alger struck while the iron was hot and churned out story after story following the successful formula of the first book.  This formula was simple; a young boy through hard work and morality gets a break (usually from a wealthy older gentleman) and is able to go from poverty to the first rung of respectability.  His stories were not, in fact, about moving to great riches, just to the first rung of the ladder.  It was only after Alger’s death that the connection to his name came to be associated with the idea of rags to riches.

The formula worked for the next several years, but never achieved the financial success of the original.  Sales fell off and tastes changed.  Alger tried writing with limited success in a more sensational style.   Eventually, he had to take employment as a tutor to supplement his writing.  His tutoring was successful and he was good at getting his pupils into elite schools. 

At various points Alger tried to publish adult writing, sometimes seeing positive reviews but never selling well.  Alger focused on quantity of writing to maximize his earnings.  As a result, his work was sometime accused of being sloppy.  He wrote a biography for children of President James Garfield immediately after Garfield’s death in 1881 that sold well, however, it was not researched and contained many errors.  After two hastily prepared biographies of Abraham Lincoln and Daniel Webster, Alger gave up the practice.

There were no more sexual scandals in Alger’s life or, it appears, accusations of misconduct.  Alger never married.  He became known for his charity work once he moved to New York City.  He raised money for boy’s houses and tried to help orphans.  This work is, of course, now colored by the information about his time at the Brewster church. 

Horatio Alger worked up until 1896, three years before his death.  His passing was not widely mourned.  However, his writing experienced resurgence at the turn of the century until the 1920s.  He sold more books during that period than he had sold during his lifetime.  The idea of the Horatio Alger hero surpassed the actual man in life.  A set of awards, the Horatio Alger Awards, is still given out annually in honor of people who, despite adversity, rise through the free market. 

The History of … Dieting for Weight Control

New Year, New Year’s resolutions, let the dieting begin!  But first, wouldn’t it be fun to look at The History of … Dieting for Weight Control (maybe while enjoying one last slightly stale Christmas cookie…).

The word diet comes from the Greek word diaita meaning manner of living.  Today a diet is a way of eating either for preference, for health or to lose weight. 

Dieting has occurred throughout history for various religious and health reasons.  Among the elite or rich there was always some interest and writing about diet as an overall way of living.  This included a desire to combat obesity.  However, dieting to specifically lose weight is, for the bulk of humanity, principally a modern phenomenon.

For most of human history the search for food occurred for survival and that was our primary relationship with food.  In fact, often being plump or overweight was a sign of great beauty because it meant a person was healthy.  However, in the 19th century industrialization produced a large middle class.  This had many consequences.  Among them was that as people moved from farms to cities they began eating different kinds of foods and could afford more.  They were no longer living at subsistence levels so weight gain was possible.

During the Victorian Era in the United States (1837-1901), some members of the growing middle class were wealthy enough to allow mothers to stay at home and care for children.  They could also afford mirrors in their homes which were finally being mass-produced at affordable rates and they had some free time for self-reflection.  Additionally, disposable income meant the ability to afford some non-essentials, like pretty clothes.

Outside forces contributed, during this general period, to a widespread ideal of what a person should look like.  With a bit more leisure time and money people could read newspapers which had pictures and women’s magazines with ads and articles promoting the best figure.

Dresses became mass-produced by the turn of the century as opposed to specifically made for one person’s body.  Eventually, by the 1920s, standard dress sizes were introduced.  This also happened with bras as they replaced corsets.  There was now a model of what a person should look like, the implements to evaluate yourself within your home and now standard clothes a person had to fit into that placed an evaluation on that person (i.e. you are a size 8).

Medical advancements contributed to a population more conscious of diet with the discovery of calories in the 1800s and more wide knowledge about the nutritional value of foods.  Additionally, by the early 1900s, weight charts showing average weights based on height were obtained from life insurance companies and published. Several years after that, tables of correct weights for height were created. In the 1870s weighing scale companies began producing machines for people as well as for foods.  Penny scales appeared in public.  Bathroom scales followed after the First World War.

Now being the right weight was medically, as well as visually, important and knowledge existed about how to achieve your appropriate size.  The only thing needed was the right guru to put together the desire to be the correct weight to look good and fit into clothes.

Many such gurus emerged and the modern diet industry was born in the 1800s.  Some of the early notables were Banting, Fletcher, Peters and Hay.

The Banting System was introduced to the world by William Banting in an 1863 book called Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public that he self-published.  It sold worldwide.  It was a precursor diet to the Salisbury Method and then the Atkins diet.  William Banting was an undertaker who needed to lose weight.  His idea, devised by a local ear, nose and throat Doctor, was to reduce the amount of carbohydrates in his diet.  The method was used well into the 1920s, even getting a mention in some of Agatha Christie’s mysteries.  The diet was so popular it became a verb.  Instead of saying you were dieting you would say you were ‘banting.’

Horace Fletcher (1849-1914) was a businessman whose idea for dieting was to chew each bite of your food until it liquefied.  Fletcherism became an activity as well as a diet and was very popular.  Notables such as John D. Rockefeller, Franz Kafka and Henry James were devotees.

In 1918 a Doctor named Lulu Hunt Peters published a best-selling book on dieting and calories.  She was among the first to popularize the use of calories in dieting in the US.  Later she wrote the first calorie counting book for kids.  She was a physician from California who had lost weight herself. 

The Hay Diet was named for Dr. William Hay who came up with a diet that was the precursor to the Beverly Hills Diet of the 1980s.  His 1930s diet involved aspects of Fletcherism, as well as, separating foods (eating protein, fruit, and starches at different meals).  It was practiced by Henry Ford.

Inevitably, backlash against this new emphasis on dieting for weight control emerged.  Many Doctors spoke out and continue to speak out against fad dieting.  By the 1920s, warnings about dangerous dieting were a part of the Progressive Era’s medical programs.  The American Medical Association’s (AMA) conference on adult weight met in 1926 to determine what healthy weights were and voiced concern about the ‘barber pole figure’ of the 1920s.  While the term anorexia nervosa was first used in the 1800s (and before that existed but was not categorized) it became widely known in the late 1970s and early 1980s, particularly after the singer Karen Carpenter’s death.

However, despite the warnings, dieting for weight control continued and expanded throughout the 1900s and to today.  Cigarettes were advertised in the 20th century as a way to make a person thin.  Cosmetic surgery by ‘beauty surgeons’  also grew in the 20th century.  The first diet foods were introduced in the 1950s.  Weight Watchers was started in 1963.  Today, a popular book website has over 100,000 books for sale on diet and dieting.

The History of … Popular Western Nursery Rhymes

Parents have always used song and rhyme to entertain and soothe their children.  Our modern nursery rhymes have their origins in the last couple hundred years from Western Europe.  I had fun discovering the sources of some of the ones my kids and I like.  While a few of the origins of our favorite rhymes are well accepted and documented, others veer more toward the legend category or have several explanations.  I tried to indicate how firm the ‘history of’ is for each rhyme.

The rhyme “Jack Sprat” is a purported reference to the younger brother of King Richard I of England, John.  Both Richard and John are well known today because they figure in the fictional tale of Robin Hood.  John was cast as the villain, trying to usurp the throne from Richard the Lionheart while he was away fighting in the Crusades.  While Robin Hood is a fictional story it did correctly portray that John was not a beloved figure.  He was widely disliked for his lack of military success and because he was believed to have tried to take the throne from Richard.  The rhyme therefore refers to John and his wife Isabella taking so much in taxes that they “licked the plate clean.”

Jack Spratt could eat no fat,
His wife could eat no lean,
And so between them both
They licked the platter clean.

The rhyme “Baa Baa Black Sheep” is commonly thought to celebrate England’s very important wool industry.  There are suggestions that it contains political statements.  The original rhyme, prior to its 1765 publishing in “Mother Goose’s Melody,” had the last two lines as “two thirds to the dame and none to the little boy who cries in the lane.”  These previous lines are believed to refer to the tax on wool that the English King Edward I, known as “Longshanks,” initiated in 1275.  The poem was a complaint that none of the money from shepherding went to the shepherd since one third went to the king and two thirds went to the dame (the church).

Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full,
One for the master, one for the dame,
And one for the little boy who lives down the lane.

There is some disagreement about the origins of  “Ring Around a Rosie.”  In the past it was understood to be about the Black Plague or the Great Mortality which killed a third of Europe in the 14th century (as well as a third of the Middle East and most likely China).  This claim has been more recently disputed because no record of it was made until the 19th century.  It is now starting to be understood as nothing more than a nonsensical children’s rhyme but there is disagreement.

Ring around a rosie
A pocket full of posies
Ashes, ashes
We all fall down.

If “Ring Around a Rosie” does indeed reference the Plague there are several different versions of its meaning.  One is that the rosie means rosary beads to pray to not get sick.  Posies are flowers to keep the smell of dead bodies at bay or (for some) to try and prevent contagion (for those who thought bad smells transmitted it).  Ashes refer to burning bodies when there were too many to bury and the last sentence is about dying.  Another interpretation has the ring around the rosie referencing bruise-like purple splotches which were a part of bubonic plague.

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey is famous in history for failing to secure Henry VIII of England a divorce from his first wife so he could marry his mistress.  Eventually Henry VIII broke from the Catholic church over the divorce and started his own church.  Wolsey’s failure with the divorce is documented in “Old Mother Hubbard” with the bone being the divorce.

Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard
To get her poor doggie a bone,
When she got there
The cupboard was bare
So the poor little doggie had none.

“Three Blind Mice” possibly comes from the reign of Queen Mary I.  She was a Catholic who wanted to restore the Catholic church in England and therefore persecuted Protestants.  Because of her vast farm estates she was referred to as the farmer’s wife.  The three blind mice were three men of noble birth who plotted against her.  She had them tortured and burned at the stake.

Three blind mice, three blind mice,
See how they run, see how they run,
They all ran after the farmer’s wife,
She cut off their tails with a carving knife,
Did you ever see such a sight in your life as three blind mice?

Queen Mary I is also featured in “Mary Mary Quite Contrary.”  Her detractors called her ‘Bloody Mary’ because of her persecution of Protestants.  The poem talks about torture and death.  Silver bells and cockleshells were torture devices while “maids in a row” refers to her use of one of the precursors to the guillotine, called a maiden.

Mary Mary quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row.

In “Rain Rain Go Away” the Spanish fleet is taunted by the English who, under Queen Elizabeth I, vanquished the Spanish armada in 1588 because they better understood the unpredictable weather in the English Channel.  Sir Francis Drake famously waited and waited to launch against the approaching Spanish because he saw the weather was worsening.  When he finally did launch, his ships were able to out maneuver the Spanish and won the day.  Johnny was a term used to describe Englishmen.

Rain, rain, go away,
Come back again another day;
Little Johnny wants to play.
Rain, rain go to Spain,
Never show your face again.

“Goosey Goosey Gander” dates to the 16th century.  It appears to refer to ‘priest holes’ which were secret rooms where Catholic priests could hide from persecution from Protestants during the reign of Elizabeth I.  They were threatened with death if they practiced their faith.  When the rhyme talks about an old man who would not say his prayers it means a priest who would not say prayers in the Protestant manner (English verses Latin) or swear allegiance to the Queen.

Goosey Goosey Gander where shall I wander,
Upstairs, downstairs and in my lady’s chamber
There I met an old man who wouldn’t say his prayers,
I took him by the left leg and threw him down the stairs.

Sometimes rhymes were used as a way of passing information.  In an age where news of battle wins and losses could take weeks and months to hear, an easily remembered rhyme was a reasonable way to get news out.  In the case of “Remember, Remember the Fifth of November” it was a way to get a punishment known as well.

In 1605 Englishman Robert Catesby and his band of terrorists, which included the infamous Guy Fawkes, tried and failed to blow up the Parliament building on the first day of its new session.  If successful, their plan would have resulted in the deaths of most of the governing elite, including King James I.  The plot was learned of when a member of the gang told a family member not to go to Parliament that day and that person tipped off the authorities.  Fawkes was discovered hiding in the Parliament cellar waiting for morning to light the fuses.  The rhyme was created as a way of commemorating the foiling of the plot and as a reminder of the dangers of high treason.

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot;
I see no reason why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot.

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, it was his intent
To blow up the King and the Parliament;
Three score barrels of powder below,
Poor old England to overthrow.

By God’s providence he was catch’d
With dark lantern and lighted match;
Holler boys, holler boys, make the bells ring,
Holler boys, holler boys, God save the King.

In the 17th Century George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham was a notorious scoundrel.  His affair with the queen of France was featured in the story “The Three Musketeers.”  He enjoyed the favor of the King of England, James I and was therefore mostly protected from his bad behavior.  His sexual conquests and fear of retribution “when the boys came out to play Georgie Porgie ran away” are referenced in the rhyme “Georgie Porgie.”

Georgie Porgie pudding and pie,
Kissed the girls and made them cry
When the boys came out to play,
Georgie Porgie ran away.

We all know the classic nursery rhyme “Humpty Dumpty.”  It is possible that Humpty Dumpty was a canon used during the English Civil War in the 17th century.  Calling someone Humpty Dumpty was a slang term for fat.  In the case of the rhyme it refers to a huge cannon used by the Royalists to defend the strategically key town of Colchester.  When the Roundheads (which refers to the close cropped hair of the Puritans) or Parliamentarians were able to damage the wall underneath the Royalists huge cannon Humpty Dumpty they were unable to move it to another wall and thus eventually lost the town.  Hence:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King’s horses, And all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again!

So why then do we know Humpty as an egg?  One of the first references seems to be in Lewis Carroll’s late 19th century story, “Through the Looking Glass” in which Alice has a deep conversation with Humpty Dumpty ‘through the looking glass’ as put back together in the form of an egg high up on a wall.

Oliver Cromwell was the leader of England from 1649-1660.  He was the last person to rule it as a republic.  There was much surprise when he appointed his rather unaccomplished son, Richard to succeed him.  Richard was not up to the job and only served a year before he was removed.  “Hickory, Dickory, Dock” may record his short duration in office.  The clock striking one marks the one year he served.  One of his nicknames was Hickory Dick.

Hickory, dickory dock,
The mouse ran up the clock.
The clock struck one,
The mouse ran down,
Hickory, dickory, dock.

In 17th century England “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John” was used to ward off evil spirits on Twelfth Night (the 12th day of Christmas, January 5th).  It was repeated three times.

There are four corners at my bed,
There are four angels there.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,
God bless the bed that I lay on.

The nursery rhyme “Boys and Girls Come Out to Play” was published in 1708.  It was written during a time when most children in England worked all day, usually for their parents on a farm and later in factories.  Only wealthy children were educated.  The rhyme is about kids going out to play when the work day was done.

Boys and girls come out to play,
The moon does shine as bright as day;
Come with a hoop, and come with a call,
Come with a good will or not at all
Lose your supper, and lose your sleep,
Come to your playfellows in the street;
Up the ladder and down the wall.
A halfpenny loaf will serve us all.
But when the loaf is gone, what will you do?
Those who would eat must work – ‘tis true.’

It is possible that the rhyme “There was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe” was made about the English King George II who reigned from 1683 to 1760.  He ruled at a time when Parliament was strong and the country’s economy was in a downturn.  Therefore, in the rhyme the King is the old woman and the Parliament are the children.  Giving them broth without bread refers to the King’s attempt at austerity and sending the children to bed refers to forcing them to attend Parliament sessions daily.

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe,
She had so many children she didn’t know what to do;
So she gave them some broth without any bread,
And she whipped them all soundly and sent them to bed.

The character Mother Goose was first mentioned in French writings in the 17th century, although not connected to the rhymes we associate with Mother Goose today.  In the 18th century in England Mother Goose started to be associated with many of the rhymes we now know.  Curiously she was depicted as an old lady flying on a Goose.  This indicates some association with witchcraft and magic.  During the time of her origination, natural disasters, disease, and life’s other hardships were sometimes explained by witchcraft.  The first Mother Goose had many of the characteristics of a witch; she was an old lady living alone, she had the ability to fly on her goose, and she was associated with an animal that worked for her.  Kids of the time would have been familiar with this connection.

Old Mother Goose
When she wanted to wander
Would fly through the air
On a very fine gander.

Mother Goose had a house;
It stood in the wood
Where an owl at the door
As sentinel stood.

“Rock-a-bye Baby” is a classic children’s lullaby, also sometimes recited as a nursery rhyme.  It originated in America and a version of it was first published in the 18th century.  It appears to have come from the practice of a few American Indians who would put their children in cradles made of tree bark and suspend them from tree branches to let the wind rock their babies to sleep.

Rock-a-bye Baby, on the tree top,
When the wind blows the cradle will rock;
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, cradle and all.

The poem Jack and Jill originates from the time of the French Revolution and possibly refers to the beheading of King Louis XVI and his wife who “tumbled after.”  The ending is cleaned up for kids with Jack caring for his hurt head in a manner common at that time.

Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water
Jack fell down and broke his crown
And Jill came tumbling after.

Up Jack got, and home did trot
As fast as he could caper
He went to bed and bound his head
With vinegar and brown paper.

The French rhyme “Frere Jacques,” meant to be sung in a round, translates to “Brother John” and is believed to be about a monk being told to ring the bells for morning prayers.  The French version is first and then the translation.

Frere Jacques, Frere Jacques
Dormez-vous, dormez-vous?
Sonnez les matines, sonnez les matines!
Din, din, don, din, din, don.

Brother John, Brother John,
Are you sleeping, are you sleeping?
Ring the morning bells, ring the morning bells!
Ding, dang dong, ding, dang dong.

Helping kids to eat healthy foods was the purpose of “An Apple a Day.”  Its authorship is unknown.  It was first mentioned in print in 1866.

An apple a day keeps the doctor away
Apple in the morning – Doctor’s warning
Roast apple at night – Starves the doctor outright
Eat an apple going to bed – Knock the doctor on the head
Three each day, seven days a week – Ruddy apple, ruddy cheek.

Our final rhyme, “Christmas is Coming,” reminds kids about the importance of generous giving during the Christmas season.  It also is a fun lesson about the penny.  Initially, the penny had a Christian cross on the back.  This allowed the coin to be cut appropriately, in half for a halfpenny and in quarters for a farthing.

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat
Please do put a penny in the old man’s hat;
If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do,
If you haven’t got a ha’penny then God bless you!

The History of … Nasty Presidential Elections

Remember this one from history class?  It is the late 1700s and the secret monarchist President John Adams is scheming to arrange a marriage between one of his sons and one of King George III of England’s daughters.  His maniacal plan is only stopped by the great George Washington, who comes out of retirement to ride to the White House and end Adams’ conniving at the point of a sword.

You do not remember it?  Well this tale did not actually occur.  However, it was a feature of the brutal Election of 1800 between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.  With the 2012 presidential election in full swing and accusations of campaign ugliness unparalleled in US history being thrown about, a look back at previous presidential elections helps to put things in perspective.

The election of 1800, John Adams verses Thomas Jefferson, was a particularly unpleasant election.  The formation of parties had only just occurred during the previous election and candidates still thought it was undignified to campaign.  However, this did not prevent electioneering from going on behind the scenes which allowed for more outrageous charges since it was anonymous.  Jefferson was labeled an atheist and Adams a monarchist.  There was concern that Jefferson’s perceived lack of faith would result in a move away from “the Christian system.”  From the other side there was concern that Adams “had expressed himself in favor of an hereditary President of the United States.”  Whichever side you were on there was genuine concern that the results of the election would destroy the fledgling republic.  Adams wrote that the result of “both the extreme parties which divide us, will be a dissolution of the union and civil war.”

The election of 1828, Andrew Jackson verses John Quincy Adams, featured accusations both true and false that made it one of the most sordid elections in US history.  The false accusations included that General Jackson had ordered soldiers put to death over a simple misunderstanding about terms of enlistment, the accusation that President Adams had provided the czar of Russia female companionship, and the accusation that President Adams had bought ‘gambling apparatus’ (a billiards table) on the public dime.  The true accusations included the revelation that Rachel Jackson cohabitated with Andrew Jackson while still married to her first husband and a rehashing of Jackson’s dueling history and hot temper.  Additionally, there was a nose pulling incident (considered a great insult at the time) by a Jackson supporter perpetrated on John Adams II, who worked for the president.  The tumult continued at the inauguration when President Jackson opened up the White House to his supporters and they trashed the place.  Stewards finally had to put drums of punch outside to get the throngs to leave the White House and then locked the doors behind them.

During the election of 1884, Grover Cleveland verses James G. Blaine, Blaine was accused, most likely accurately, of taking railroad bribes while a Congressman.  Cleveland was also accused, accurately, of fathering a child out of wedlock in 1874.  He admitted it and still won the election.  Republicans for Blaine taunted the Cleveland camp singing, “Ma ma, where’s my pa?” during the campaign.  The victorious Cleveland supporters eventually started chanting back, “Gone to the White House, ha ha ha.!”

The election of 1912, William Howard Taft verses Woodrow Wilson verses Teddy Roosevelt, got very complicated.  Roosevelt did not like the way his hand-picked successor governed and decided to run against him with the Progressive party (nicknamed the Bull Moose party because Roosevelt often said he was as “strong as a bull moose”).  This created a three way race and an avenue for the unlikely candidate, Wilson, to get to the White House.  Other than the nastiness of former friends running against each other, the largest drama came when Roosevelt was shot in the chest during a speech in Milwaukee, Wisconsin by John Schrank, who was later found to be insane.  Amazingly enough, Roosevelt finished the speech and then went to the hospital.  The bullet had been slowed by a 50 page speech and Roosevelt’s glasses case which were in his breast pocket.  Roosevelt said of the incident, “It takes more than that to kill a bull moose!”

In the election of 1928, Alfred E. Smith verses Herbert Hoover, Smith was the first Roman Catholic to be nominated by a major political party.  Flyers were sent out that declared if Smith were elected the United States would be ruled by the Pope in Rome.  This tactic worked and was tried again, unsuccessfully, when John F. Kennedy ran for President in 1960.

In the election of 1964, Lyndon Johnson verses Barry Goldwater, Johnson had a spy, who was possibly a CIA agent, working on the Goldwater campaign.  This person would feed the Johnson campaign information about scheduling and send advance copies of speeches so the Johnson campaign could out maneuver Goldwater.  The FBI was used, illegally, to perform security checks on members of Goldwater’s staff.  It is also alleged that President Johnson directed FBI head J. Edgar Hoover to bug the Goldwater campaign plane.

In the election of 1972, Richard Nixon verses George McGovern, Nixon’s campaign operatives famously broke into Democrat National Committee offices in the Watergate complex.  They were trying to get information on the opposition and bug their phones.  They were caught and while Nixon won the election in a landslide, the cover-up of the burglary eventually led to his resignation.

So is 2012 the nastiest presidential election ever?  I will let the reader be the judge.  What do you think the ugliest presidential election in US history was?

The History of … Prometheus in Books and Movies

I love the Aliens movies and was excited to go to see the prequel, Prometheus.  Watching it sparked my curiosity about the enduring use of the ancient Greek immortal Prometheus as a morality tale in film and literature.  I decided to refresh my memory of Prometheus and how and why he is repeatedly used as a cautionary reference.

In Greek mythology Zeus is the ruler of all the gods.  The Greek creation story has Zeus assigning the task of making mortal beings to two Titan brothers, Epimetheus and Prometheus.  Epimetheus means ‘afterthought’ and Prometheus means ‘forethought’.  True to their names, Epimetheus was not considered to be very bright and gave all the good gifts to the animals as they were created; swiftness, courage, strength, claws, wings, and shells.  When it came time to give gifts to man nothing was left.  Prometheus, who was considered to be the wisest of the Titans, realized that humans needed some gifts of their own so he gave them a unique form and allowed them to walk upright.

When he was done giving gifts to humans, Prometheus felt they needed one more thing to protect themselves, the gift of fire.  Fire belonged to the gods and was kept at the top of Mount Olympus.  Prometheus decided to steal some of that fire and took a stalk of fennel (a kind of hollowed out reed), concealed one of the embers from the sacred fire in the reed and gave it to man.

When Zeus discovered this he punished Prometheus by impaling him on a mountain.  When Prometheus defied Zeus further by refusing to give him information about the future, an eagle was added to the punishment that would come and eat Prometheus’ liver every day.  Since Prometheus was immortal, the liver would grow back at night and the horrific process would repeat itself daily.   In some tellings, like “Prometheus Bound” by Aeschylus, Prometheus is eventually rescued by Hercules.  However, the crux of the story is the stealing of fire, giving it to man and the punishment received for doing so.

How does this tale apply to Western culture after Prometheus?  The story is generally used as a way of showing the joys and sorrows of self-awareness.  The fire that Prometheus steals is not just fire to cook things and keep warm.  It is fire from the sacred fire of knowledge so it imparts wisdom on its recipients.  The story is a kind of Adam and Eve tale (in the Bible Adam and Eve eat from the forbidden tree of knowledge, gain self-awareness and are thrown out of the Garden of Eden).  In references to Prometheus in literature and movies there is usually suffering and punishment for exploring forbidden enlightenment or taking on God-like power.  Much like the story of Adam and Eve this kind of morality lesson is an enduring one and explains why the legend of Prometheus lives on in Western culture to this day.

In Prometheus the movie (spoiler alert!) the creators of humans are a superior race called the Engineers.  Clues about who they are have been found at archeological sites of different ancient societies.  A group of scientists interprets these findings as an invitation to find the Engineers.  They seek enlightenment and take a voyage of discovery on the aptly named ship Prometheus.  In the end they receive the pleasure of wisdom but also the pain.  Most of the crew dies by the conclusion of the movie.

In literature the most commonly known reference to Prometheus is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein whose full title is Frankenstein:  or, The Modern Prometheus.   As we all remember, in the novel Victor Frankenstein seeks God-like powers in making his Creature.  He produces life but is eventually destroyed by his creation.

More obscurely (and for far more of a stretch), there are also references to Prometheus in Moby Dick.  Ahab can be seen as Promethean because he makes a God-like decision that the white whale must die.  There are disastrous consequences to his choice.  In Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment the main character Raskolnikov can be viewed as Promethean in his choice to plan and kill the old pawn broker to test his belief that murder is legitimate in pursuit of greater purpose.  Once again, a protagonist electing to ‘play God’ has bad results.

Incidentally, while Zeus’ punishment of Prometheus was very severe, he also decided that the mortals who had accepted Prometheus’ gift had to be penalized.  With the help of the other gods, Zeus formed a creature of great charm and beauty but also with cunning and guile.  According to the Greek writer Hesiod this creature was “an evil to mortal men with a nature to do evil.”  He called her Pandora meaning ‘all gifts’ and sent her to the mortals as the first woman.

The History of … The North Face Four (Terrorism and Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan)

Tommy Caldwell

As I last blogged about two months ago, we traveled to the Kyrgyz Republic (a Central Asian country more widely known as Kyrgyzstan) during the last part of March and the beginning part of April 2012.  While we were there we heard a tale about several American mountain climbers who had been kidnapped by Islamic militants in the south of Kyrgyzstan.  Apparently they escaped by killing one of their captors.  I was fascinated by this story of abduction and daring escape and had to research the tale further.

The Kyrgyz people adopted Islam as a result of conquest and because of persuasion from merchants who came through their country on the Silk Road.  They personalized Islam to their culture.  To this day the Kyrgyz follow some of the traditions of Islam but do not always pray five times a day or go to a mosque on Fridays.  Some in the south are more observant, but on the whole it is not a ripe recruiting ground for Islamic terrorists.

Beth Rodden

However, there are groups in Uzbekistan who are extreme and occasionally this affects the Kyrgyz Republic.  This is what occurred in the 2000 case of four rock climbers from the United States who were kidnapped by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the southwest part of the country.

The four American alpinistas (as mountain climbers are called in Central Asia), three men and a woman, all in their early twenties decided to travel to the Kyrgyz Republic in the summer of 2000.  Jason Smith, John Dickey, Beth Rodden, and Tommy Caldwell were all expert climbers.  Three of them lived in California and Caldwell resided in Colorado.  The company The North Face sponsored their trip in order to get pictures they could use in advertising.  John Dickey was an up and coming rock climbing photographer.  The group was going to hike in the Karavshin region of southwest Kyrgyzstan, an area that is world renowned for its big-wall climbing.  Since the fall of the Soviet Union, a steady stream of international climbers had been to this region.

During the 1990s The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which had links to Al Qaeda, rose up with a desire to overthrow the Uzbek government and create an Islamist state.  The IMU declared war on Kyrgyzstan in the late 1990s because they said Kyrgyzstan was helping the Uzbek government stay in power.  There were State Department warnings about travel to southwest Kyrgyzstan as a result.  These warnings included notice that four Japanese geologists had been kidnapped and released a year before The North Face trip during an offensive by the IMU against the Kyrgyz army.  The probable motivation for their capture was ransom.  The four American climbers skimmed the warnings before their trip and were not told by their travel agency about any potential danger.

Jason Smith

The North Face Four arrived in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on July 27th, 2000 and traveled by helicopter to the Kara Su valley where they made their base camp.  On August 12, while sleeping 1000 feet off the ground in portaledges (portable cliff tents) on the Yellow Wall, the alpinistas were awakened by gun fire directed around them.  They were forced to climb down by IMU terrorists and were taken prisoner.

For six days the four Americans were forced to lie hidden under brush and rocks in bivouacs for up to 17 hours a day as the terrorists tried to elude the Kyrgyz army.  A Kyrgyz soldier who had been taken captive before the hikers was executed soon after the capture of the climbers.  They ate half a power bar a day.  At night they would be forced to move to a new hiding spot for the next day.  During their time in captivity they had several chances to escape.  The terrorists even gave them their guns a couple of times, but the climbers did not seize upon these chances.  Fear and complacency kept them captive.

Finally, with food running out and a possible life threatening storm approaching, the Americans decided they had to act.  They were divided as to what to do.  Smith and Dickey wanted to kill their captors but Rodden and Caldwell did not want to commit to killing anyone.

When one of their two remaining captors left and the other captor directed them to climb a steep cliff Smith and Dickey decided they would push their captor, who seemed to trust that they would do him no harm, off the mountain to escape.  Rodden and Caldwell stayed back a bit to let them act.  However, Smith and Dickey were unable to follow through on their plan.  It was left to Tommy Caldwell who finally seized an opportunity and pushed their last captor off a ledge.  He tumbled 30 feet down to another ledge and then slipped off that ledge beyond where they could see.

John Dickey

The climbers were sure he was dead but feared the return of the other captor, the one who scared them the most.  Therefore, they moved quickly through the night, covering 18 miles over difficult terrain until they came upon Kyrgyz soldiers who fired upon them at first and then helped the climbers once the soldiers figured out who they were.

In the end the American rock climbers made it to safety and out of Kyrgyzstan.  The captor who left was killed by the Kyrgyz army and the one Caldwell pushed unbelievably survived the fall and was eventually taken into custody.  Since the climbers returned home there has been some controversy about their story.  Some have questioned its truthfulness or whether they embellished it to sell books and a movie.  However, the preponderance of evidence suggests its accuracy.


The History of … The Circuitous Writing Path of Alex Haley

I guest blogged over at the other day (5/12/12) about how Alex Haley, author of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and “Roots:  The Saga of An American Family,” came to be a writer.  It all started for Haley with his writing of love letters to his shipmates’ girlfriends!

Alex Haley enlisted in the United States Coast Guard in 1939 at age 17 and served in the Pacific Theater during World War II.  Haley passed many of his long shipboard deployments writing letters back home to his family.  He also began helping friends write letters home and became known for his ability to craft love letters to waiting girlfriends.  He was so good at it that his shipmates began paying him to write their letters.  From this experience of being paid to write Haley thought he might be a good enough writer to make it his career.

Haley tried for many years to get published.  He attempted romance and adventure writing.  He amassed years and years of rejection letters.  During that time his writing ability within the Coast Guard was recognized when he was allowed to become a Coast Guard journalist.  He eventually edited and wrote for the Coast Guard Magazines “The Helmsman,” “The Outpost,” and “The United States Coast Guard Magazine.”  He was made the first Chief Journalist in the Coast Guard.

Haley was finally successful in 1950 about seven years after he began writing love letters for other sailors.  He sold a story about the Coast Guard to “This Week” magazine.  Haley worked nine more years in the Coast Guard until his retirement in 1959 and sold several more sea stories while he was still serving.

After leaving the Coast Guard Haley became a full time writer, barely eking out a living doing freelance work.  He was so poor during these years that at one point he looked at his kitchen cupboard and he only had a couple of cans of sardines to eat and 18 cents in his pocket.

Slowly, Haley began to build a career.  He wrote articles and did interviews for “Playboy,” “Readers Digest” and the “New York Times Magazine.”  His book, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” started out as a Playboy interview.  When it came time to write his autobiography Malcolm X asked Haley to work on the project.  Haley finally achieved fame and fortune with “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” in 1965 and again with “Roots:  The Saga of an American Family” in 1976.  Haley became a writer sideways through the Coast Guard and after many years of rejection and perseverance.