The History of … the Catskills

Thinking about summer vacations and the Catskills came up in conversation.  It got me wondering how it became a popular northeast escape.

The Catskills were discovered by Henry Hudson, the explorer who sailed up the self-named Hudson Bay searching for the elusive Northwest Passage in the early 1600’s.  Along his journey he dubbed this area of present day New York State along the Hudson River the Catskills and claimed it for the Dutch.  The name most likely came from combining the Dutch word for creek which is “kill” with a reference to the local mountain lions.

The Catskills were immortalized by two great American writers, Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper who wrote in the early 1800’s.  Irving wrote about this area with “The Story of Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”  Cooper’s contribution was even more profound.  His took a romantic look at this region with his “Leatherstocking Tales” which include “The Last of the Mohicans.”  His writings made the area famous and are still known through popular movies and television shows based on his frontiersman Natty Bumppo.

The art movement dubbed the Hudson River School brought further fame and fortune to the Catskills.  Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand and Frederic Edwin Church were the leading artists.  They produced beautifully lit landscapes of the area which were seen in art exhibitions.  The movement considered nature to be like God so that if human beings were in their works they would be small comparatively to nature.  It was a great advertisement and led to the inevitable nature tourism that followed.

The idea of a vacation was controversial in 1800.  Idleness was considered a sin.  However, Americans found a way around that by taking vigorous vacations that involved lots of walking and exploring.  In that vein New York State commissioned and opened the Catskill Mountain House in 1824.  Getting to the hotel was an adventure requiring guests to hike the last leg of the trip when carriages could go no further.  Its success led to many other get away spots opening in the Catskills.  Steamboats and railroads made the area even more accessible.

Business came to the Catskills in the form of tanneries and quarries.  Inevitable conflict between those who wanted to keep the mountains the same for their beauty and those who wanted to develop ensued.  The Ashokan Reservoir project pitted locals against developers who wanted to dam a river in the Catskills for water for New York City.  Eventually six dams were built in the Catskills for city water.

Prohibition arrived in the 1920s.  The Catskills became a haven for bootleggers; to hide, to vacation and to produce and distribute alcohol.  Some say there is still bootlegger treasure in the Catskills.

Post prohibition the Catskills again became a tourist refuge.  Movies like “Dirty Dancing” show the summer camp type atmosphere of the Catskills in the 1950s and 60s.  The famous Woodstock Festival was held in the Catskills.  The current decline of the Catskills for tourism began in the early 70’s when travel habits changed (people wanted to go to more exotic places).  Also, more women in the workforce meant they couldn’t go away for summers anymore.  The smaller places went under first followed by the big fortress like hotels. Today camping, fishing, hiking and other outdoor activities are still enjoyed by tourists who come to the Catskills, just on a smaller scale. 

The History of … Afghanistan

The beautiful Kart-e-Sakhi shrine in Kabul

The drama of the Afghanistan exit is behind us but there seems to be so many competing tribes and government factions still there.  Perhaps this is because of the many empires that have ruled this land over the millennia and its location at the crossroads of east and west. 

The earliest civilization in Afghanistan consisted of the ancestors of the Pashtun people who today live in the south of Afghanistan.  The first empire to conquer and rule Afghanistan was the Persians from about the 6th century BC to the 4th century.  They brought the religion of Zoroastrianism which introduced the concept of one god to Afghanistan.

Alexander the Great of Greece came through next in the 4th century.  He built a city named after himself which is probably the current city of Kandahar.  He also built a fort at Bagram the site of the former US airbase.  The Greeks introduced their system of writing to the region.

After Alexander died at the young age of 32, his empire slowly broke up.  Eventually, a more Greek-like empire called Bactria ruled in the north while Indian rulers came to power in the south.  They introduced Buddhism to Afghanistan.

The Kushans from the north united the country by combining a Greek form of government with a type of Buddhism religion.  They ruled from about the 1st to the 3rd centuries during the height of wealth creation in Afghanistan through trade along the Silk Road. 

By the time that Arabs arrived in the 7th century the Persians and Huns had both gained ground.  Eventually the Arabic alphabet became favored over the Greek and Islam gained a stronghold as the most favored religion.  Control shifted back locally quickly, given how far away the caliphate capital was in Baghdad.  For a brief period the Turks took control but fell to the Mongols who tore through the country killing an estimated million people in a week.

The Mughals were the last Central Asian empire to rule Afghanistan before a tribal council, referred to as a Loya Jirga, was held by Pashtun elders in the mid-1700s.  They agreed to create a kingdom of Afghans which was another name for the Pashtuns.  They drove the last of the foreign rulers out of Afghanistan and fought against British invaders in the 1800s and early 1900s. 

During the rest of the 1900s, part of Afghanistan was given to the new country of Pakistan, the Soviets invaded and fought for control of Afghanistan for a decade and the Taliban took hold in the south and spread.  The rest most of us know.  The Taliban let in other terrorists which eventually led to 911 and the US invasion.

A long history of conflict, conquest and instability runs through Afghanistan.  If “the history of” holds true there will be more in their future. 

The History of … the Knights Templar

I was watching the third Indiana Jones movie with the kids and got curious about the knight at the end who is there to protect the cup of Christ.  You remember, “He chose, poorly.”  Were there really a group of knights who protected holy relics?  In fact there were, kind of.  The Knights Templar were founded to protect Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land.  Their role expanded by necessity to the defense of the Holy Land.  For 200 years they fulfilled their mission and were well respected in the west.  However, after Christians were expelled from the east they were brought down by a French king who wanted their wealth.

After the first crusade, which was launched to take Jerusalem back from its current Muslim rulers, the area around Jerusalem was still very dangerous.  Christian pilgrims were regularly set upon by Bedouins in their travels.  There were many instances, but one particularly where 200 pilgrims were slaughtered at Easter on their way to the River Jordan stuck in the public imagination. 

In response to this atrocity, Hugh of Payns, a French knight who fought in the first crusade, was asked by the king of Jerusalem to start “the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Jerusalem” in 1119.  They were given the al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount which had been turned into a temporary palace for the king of Jerusalem to live.  The Dome of the Rock, also on the Temple Mount, had been turned into a church called the “Temple of the Lord.”  This is why the knights were eventually called the Templars or the Knights Templar.  The idea behind the formation of the Templars was to combine knighthood with being a monk.  Their founding principles were chastity, obedience and poverty.

Once it was formed, the new order found quick support in the west.  Christian backing for control of the Holy Land was deep and spiritual.  The Templars also got support and recognition from the pope.  With this financial support and recognition, their mission soon expanded from protecting Christians to protecting the Holy Land itself.  They wore white robes with a red cross to symbolize their willingness to become martyrs for the Holy Land.  Over 200 years they helped fight Muslims in Spain and Portugal, as well as, participated in the eastern crusades.  They also became known as bankers to Europe because they were honest, meticulous and provided a form of money transfer for pilgrims and crusaders.

Eventually the tide turned.  While the Holy Land was important to the west, Europeans by and large did not want to settle there so the Islamic world slowly overwhelmed the crusaders.  When the last major Christian city, Acre, fell in 1291, the loss of the Holy Land was seen as disfavor from God.  Since the Templars mission was to protect the Holy Land some blame fell on them.

They made efforts to retake the holy land, however, this time Muslims had destroyed castles, infrastructure, crops and anything else that would be useful to regain.  There wasn’t much left to re-conquer.

Eventually, in 1307, a corrupt king, Philip IV of France, who wanted the Templars wealth, charged them with heresy.  He used a loophole in a papal edict to get around their papal protection, he used lawyers to figure this out.  The king’s charges were later found to be without merit, despite some odd induction rituals of the Templars.  However, it was too late.  The Knights Templar had already been tortured, some burned at the stake, and their wealth and power stolen.  Public opinion was against them already because of the fall of the east.  The order was suppressed and the few survivors fled, many living out their days in monasteries.

After their fall, the Templars lived on in folklore.  Perhaps because of the quickness of their downfall, mystery shrouded who was left and what artifacts they might possess.  It was rumored they might have the shroud of Turin or even the Holy Grail.  To this day popular movies, like the Indiana Jones one I as watching and books like “The Da Vinci Code” keep their legend alive.

The History of … the Illuminati

                “You’re a conspiracy nut!  No you are!”  The charge of conspiracy is getting thrown around quite a bit these days.  However, it’s nothing new.  When conspiracy talk goes on long enough names like Trilateral Commission, Council on Foreign Relations, Bilderberg Group, Freemasons and the Illuminati inevitably come up.

                The history of the Illuminati begins during the time of the Revolutionary War in the United States but in the Bavarian region of Germany.  Adam Weishaupt was a professor of law at the University of Ingolstadt.  He became interested in the ideas of the enlightenment that were against hierarchy and the power of the Catholic Church.  The Catholic Church’s power in Bavaria was particularly strong.  Weishaupt knew his beliefs would not be well received so he came up with the idea of a secret society.  In his society reason would be the greatest virtue.   Members took Greek names to disguise themselves and used ciphers to correspond.

                The society grew slowly until Weishaupt got the idea to become a freemason.  He figured that freemasons were already secretive and some members hungered for more intellectualism than the partying lodges had a reputation for.  Weishaupt also recruited several aristocrats who in turn were able to recruit people Weishaupt saw as being worthwhile members.  These aristocrats helped him develop rituals and grading within the Illuminati.

                The Illuminati grew from 1776 until 1784.  However, members were not as secretive as intended and the Bavarian government became aware of their activities.   They were banned by the Bavarian government with the support of the Catholic Church.  The banning and internal squabbles about religious philosophy drove it apart.  The aristocratic members thought the Illuminati could get more members if it was less anti-religious.

                However, even as its practical life ended the legend of the Illuminati was just starting to grow.  Secrecy made the society mysterious and led many to ascribe more power to it than it held.  For example, two books were written after the French Revolution that made the case the Illuminati were behind the French Revolution.  These accusations got more wild and ridiculous as time went on.  Illuminati were falsely implicated in conspiracies about Waterloo and Napoleon’s final defeat, infiltration of Hollywood and even the Kennedy assassination.  There has never been any evidence of Illuminati activity beyond Germany in the late 1700s but their myth lives on.

The History of … Halloween

It was a very exciting holiday this year at our house because so many people made such an effort to come up with clever ways to get candy to the kids.  With COVID raging it was wonderful to have something normalish to lift spirits.  It did get me thinking about the history of Halloween.

It appears that Halloween comes from a combination of Celtic and Roman holidays updated by the Catholic Church.  The Celts who lived in present day Europe over 2500 years ago believed in a god of the dead called Samhain.  It was believed that every year Samhain fought with the sun and the sun lost which meant there was less light during the winter.  The Celts had a rite in the fall to help the sun.  They built huge fires which they thought would free the sun.  Since they also believed that Samhain sent the dead to pick out who would die in the coming year they would wear costumes and masks so they would not be recognized and picked to die.

When the Romans’ conquered the Celts about 2000 years ago they brought their own traditions.  They had a harvest festival called Pomona where they gave each other apples and another fall celebration to honor the dead called Parentalia.  Over time, all three events combined to form one large holiday.

In the 800s the Catholic Church wanted to change this holiday and make it more focused on Christianity.  They wanted to make it about the saints.  It was called All Saints Day or All Hallows Day.  Therefore, the day before was known as All Hallows Eve.  This day that came from the ancient ideas of dead walking the earth, costumes and even apples became Halloween.

The History of … “The Sting”

Image result for picture of movie the sting"

The movie The Sting came out in the 1970’s.  It is a story about fun loving con artists who successfully fool gangster Doyle Lonnegan with a trick called “the wire.”  What some may not know is that the con in the movie was probably invented by a real person, Joseph Weil. 

Joseph Weil died at the age of 100 in 1976.  He estimated that, over the course of his life, he made about 8 million dollars conning people mostly in and around Chicago, Illinois.  He justified his actions saying that he never conned anyone who was not greedy.  He said about his victims, “Every victim of one of my schemes had larceny in his heart.  An honest man would have had no part of any of my schemes.  They all wanted something for nothing.”

Weil started his career in his early 20s selling Merriweather’s Elixir as a cure-all.  Its chief ingredient was water.  He acted as person in the crowd who would attest falsely to the curative powers of “Doc” Merriweather’s tonic.  Soon after the turn of the century he got his nickname, the Yellow Kid, after a comic that his partner at the time liked.  The Yellow Kid was a goofy sidekick to one of the main characters.   Weil got better and better at swindling people and was able to mostly skirt the law because, at the time, Chicago law was that a swindle could only be done on an innocent person.  He, therefore did a lot of his work in and around racetracks.

His con “the wire” which was the big take down used in The Sting involved setting up a fake gambling house with pretend employees and gamblers.  His mark was convinced it was a real setting and that Joseph had bribed a Western Union operator to slow transmissions of race winners so that Weil could get the results of a race beforehand and place successful bets.

Some of his other big “achievements” allegedly were to take Italian dictator Benito Mussolini for 2 million dollars, sell a talking dog, and convincing people to buy oil-rich land that he did not own.  Over his life time Weil served about six years in jail but kept all of his swindled money.  He died a free man.

The History of … Polygraphs

Recent news has brought polygraphs into the spotlight.  What is their history?  How effective are they?  Let’s find out.

Throughout time people have tried to come up with ways to determine if someone is telling the truth.  For example, the Hindus used a rice test.  A person suspected of lying had to chew dried rice and spit it out onto a leaf from a sacred tree.  If they were able to do this they were telling the truth.  The idea was that you would have less saliva in your mouth if you were nervous about a lie.  In medieval Europe trial by combat was a way of figuring out who was telling the truth.  Parties in a dispute would fight out their differences.  The person who won was considered to be in the right.

Starting in the late 1800’s criminologists, scientists and psychologists began working on the ideas of first measuring blood pressure to determine if someone was being truthful and then of measuring breathing.  If blood pressure went up significantly or if breathing was more erratic a person was probably stressed out because they were lying.  William Marston, a scientist and psychologist, worked on one of these early versions of a lie detector but he had greater success creating Wonder Woman who coincidentally had a lasso of truth.

In 1921 John Larson, a medical student who worked on the side as a Berkeley, California policeman, invented what he called a polygraph (from Greek meaning “many writings” because of the lines produced).  His machine measured blood pressure, heart rate and respiration and recorded them as different lines on a piece of paper.

The modern polygraph was invented in 1926 by another Berkeley police officer named Leonard Keeler who improved on Larson’s design.  He added a component that measured how well an interviewee’s skin conducts electricity, i.e. are they sweating because they are uneasy about lying.

Like rice and combat the modern polygraph is controversial because of differing views of its effectiveness.  One of the most successful ways it is used is to prompt a confession before the actual test is even administered.  If a person believes the polygraph will work they are convinced they will be caught and confess.

Polygraph results from testing are not 100% accurate.  Estimates of their effectiveness are anywhere from 70% to 90%.  Their precision heavily depends on how good the administrator of the test is.  As a result, early on in their use, in a case called Frye v. United States, polygraph tests were prohibited from being used in court.  Polygraphs are currently used to test certain government employees such as those in intelligence and federal law enforcement.  However, people can “beat” a polygraph by causing themselves pain during the pre-test when the tester asks questions to get a baseline for what a lie looks like on the test paper for that individual.  Another way to pass a polygraph is by daydreaming to calm your nerves.  Soviet spy Aldrich Ames was able to pass repeated polygraphs when he worked for the Central Intelligence Agency.

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.