Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Guest Post by Chris Oakley: "Singing A Different Tune"

On January 17, 1899, Alphonse Gabriel Capone, widely considered by music aficionados to be one of the first bona fide great American opera tenors of the 20th century, was born in the New York borough of Brooklyn to Italian immigrant parents. Growing up in one of Brooklyn's roughest neighborhoods, he could easily have been drawn into a life of crime, but shortly after his eighth birthday his family had a chance meeting with a former soprano that would radically change his destiny; recognizing the young Alphonse's latent singing ability, the soprano made arrangements with his parents to sponsor him as a student at one of New York's best schools of music.

By the time he was thirteen years old, he was a regular performer at the Metropolitan Opera House, and at sixteen he had five original arias to his credit. His musical career would be briefly interrupted when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in June of 1917 and served with the American Expeditionary Force in France, but less than a year later he would return to the U.S. and pick up with his singing right where he had left off; he celebrated his 20th birthday by performing for then-Chicago mayor William Hale Thompson at the mayor's residence.

Capone had many admirers in the musical world, the most enthusiastic of them being noted Cleveland Plain Dealer music critic Eliot Ness, who declared him to be “untouchable” as the premier American opera singer of his generation. At the height of his popularity in the 1920s, Capone received an average of 10,000 fan letters per week, more than any other well-known American figure with the exception of baseball great Babe Ruth; one of the most frequent of his correspondents was fellow opera star Enrico Caruso, who would later introduce Capone when the then 27-year-old tenor gave his first performance at Milan's legendary La Scala in June of 1926. An admirer of Italian ruler Benito Mussolini in the early days of Mussolini's reign, Capone turned against the Duce after Mussolini's 1935 invasion of Ethiopia.

Perhaps the most famous--and certainly the most controversial--performance of Capone's career happened on Easter Sunday 1939 when he teamed up with African-American singer Marian Anderson for a concert at the Lincoln Memorial after Anderson's application to perform at Constitution Hall was denied by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Notorious radio personality and Catholic priest Father Charles Coughlin denounced Capone as a “traitor” to the Catholic Church for agreeing to participate in Anderson's concert; in response New York City mayor Fiorella LaGuardia issued a civic proclamation hailing Capone's role in the Lincoln Memorial concert and naming him honorary New York deputy mayor for arts and culture. In late 1940, just over a year before the United States formally entered the Second World War, Capone finally fulfilled a longtime dream by performing at the White House for another of his most famous fans, President Franklin Roosevelt.

While too old for military service by the time the U.S. declared war on the Axis in December of 1941, Capone still played a huge part in the American war effort, giving concerts at USO halls to boost soldiers' morale and donating thousands of dollars to the Red Cross. From the spring of 1942 until Mussolini's death in 1945, Capone gave weekly anti-Fascist radio speeches to the Italian people; when the war in Europe ended, he went to his ancestral homeland of Sicily to assist with the distribution of food and medical relief supplies.  At the invitation of Pope Pius XII, Capone came to the Vatican in Rome in July of 1946 to sing for the pontiff and the College of Cardinals in what would turn out to be Capone's last overseas appearance.

Shortly after his Vatican concert, Capone received devastating medical news when his doctor diagnosed him with inoperable lung cancer. Rather than endure costly radiation therapy that might damage his brain or his voice, Capone reluctantly chose to retire from opera and spend his final days at his seaside retreat in Florida; his farewell concert, held at New York's famous Carnegie Hall on September 27, 1946, and broadcast live throughout the world, attracted one  of the largest crowds in the hall's history and ended with the audience according him a fifteen-minute standing ovation. He died on January 25, 1947 at the age of 46; at the request of his widow, the former Mae Coughlin, he was buried in a cemetery plot directly adjactent to that of his old friend Fiorello LaGuardia.


In reality, Al Capone all too readily embraced the criminal life at an early age, becoming one of gangster Johnny Torrio's proteges when he was just fourteen and assuming the leadership of Torrio's syndicate in 1925 after a near-miss with assassins from a rival gang prompted Torrio to quit the underworld. Capone would eventually rise to become Chicago's undisputed top crime boss and rule the city's illegal liquor trade with an iron fist until he was arrested and convicted on tax evasion charges in 1932; he would be paroled in 1939 on medical grounds after being diagnosed by prison doctors as having serious neurological problems. Though Capone never had lung cancer, he did suffer from paresis and pneumonia in his later years and would in the end die of cardiac arrest. In the 1950s, FBI agents investigating organized crime activity in the Chicago area would discover that some of Capone's old associates had joined forces to start their own syndicate and used it to take over the post-World War II Chicago underworld.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

May 8, 1516 – Le Tuong Duc Wins the Loyalty of his Guard

A zealous peasant rebellion in Vietnam rose up under the popular Tran Cao in the spring of 1516. Believed by some to be a Taoist sorcerer clad in his crimson robes, Tran Cao began gathering his warriors at the Quynh Lam Pagoda. He declared that he was the avatar of the god Indra, master of weather and warfare, and that this body was meant to rule as it had been born with links to both the ruling Le family and the previous dynasty, the Tran. His following expanded to form an army of ten thousand warriors that marched on the capital, Thang Long (later to be known as Hanoi).

As the massive peasant-army approached, the young emperor Le Tuong Duc stood up to address his personal guard. Tuong Duc was the latest in a line of disappointing emperors since the golden age under his grandfather, Le Thanh Tong. Thanh Tong had come to power through invitation as a teenager in 1460 when a counter-coup knocked his half-brother from the throne. Through his thirty-seven year rule, Thanh Tong instituted Confucian ideals into government. He wrote the Hong-duc, a comprehensive and systematic law, ordered detailed maps and a census, and personally toured the empire to alleviate issues with corrupt local officials. While highly popular with the Vietnamese, Thanh Tong notoriously opposed to outsiders, instituting isolation against trade and repeatedly campaigning to conquer land to the south and west. Foreign sailors who washed ashore in storms were castrated and impressed into military service.

After Thanh Tong’s death, his son Le Hien Tong continued the Confucian kingship until 1504, but the cruel five-year rule of Le Uy Muc made the imperial family very unpopular with peasants and nobles alike. He pitted palace guards against one another like gladiators for his amusement while he studied martial arts. Uy Muc’s cousin Tuong Duc, just fourteen years old, organized the emperor’s assassination and seized power. He worked to bring back the golden days of his grandfather, chasing out Uy Muc’s violent favorites and filling the court with scholars. To emulate greatness, he began costly projects like artificial lakes, pleasure palaces, and building an enormous harem that included many of his father’s concubines (breaking both Confucian and Vietnamese law). Heavy taxes to fund the projects spawned rebellions, and Tran Cao was the latest in a series of disputes. Le Tuong Duc expected his soldiers to put them down. Anyone who tried to show their disapproval was whipped, including the captain of his guard, Trinh Duy San.

With only the river between the capital and the oncoming army of rebels, Le Tuong Duc was suddenly shown the obvious errors of his ways as his heavy taxes logically led to such rebellion. He broke down and confessed his failures as a Confucian and emptied his harem, granting the wives to his guard to make up for the pain he had caused them. If this infighting continued as people acted beyond their positions, he predicted a Vietnam of weakness on a national scale. If strength did not come from within, it would oppress them from without.

Trinh Duy San swore his loyalty, and he led the defense as a veteran of the 1511 rebellion, once fighting a battle down to the last thirty men. The defenders attacked wherever the peasants attempted to make a beachhead on the river, finally driving back their superior numbers with superior weapons. Tran Cao fell in the battle, and the leaderless rebels dispersed.

Le Tuong Duc made good on his word, adhering to the law of his grandfather and repealing taxes. As the economy recovered, he found resources to organize more campaigns into the south against the growing power of the Tai and maintain Vietnam’s independence from China. In Tuong Duc’s later reign, the great general Mac Dang Dung stormed the lands of the dying Khmer Empire, conquering huge swaths of which he was made governor. Children of major families were brought to court schools and imbued with Confucian ritual and teaching: most importantly, to uphold the emperor.

In the seventeenth century, European ships began to appear on the coast. Portuguese and Dutch traders attempted to broker deals with emperors, but the boarders remained largely closed. Some technology had to be proven useful, such as the printing press that was installed to decrease dependence on China. Firearms were strictly regulated. Foreign luxuries and religions were banned, despite the efforts of French Catholic missionaries to make inroads.

It was not until the nineteenth century that the warships of the Kaiser opened Vietnam for trade with Germany, following the example of the United States Navy in Japan. A flood of western technology and cheap manufactured goods caused reprisals from locals suddenly being undersold. The German-Vietnam War briefly turned the empire into a colony, but Germany’s collapse in World War I liberated the country thanks to Woodrow Wilson’s vote of confidence at Versailles. Japan similarly seized and lost control in WWII. Vietnam transitioned to a constitutional monarchy supported by a vocal parliament with members such as the outspoken Nguyen Ai Quoc, who gained his attitudes of anti-socialism while being educated in Germany. 


In reality, Trinh Duy San and others in the imperial guard assassinated Le Tuong Duc for his wasteful hedonism. They seized his nephew Chieu Tong as a puppet and retreated as the country fell into anarchy. Generals acted as warlords, looting as they pleased. Tran Cao was eventually defeated by a confederation of the two major houses, the Trinh in the north and the Nguyen in the south. While Vietnam would be united from time to time through the years, it would suffer a constant north-south division of power, even to the twentieth century when it was again united by Ho Chi Minh.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Guest Post from Chris Oakley: O God! It's All Over!

On August 11th,  1779, the American Revolutionary War came to an end with the signing of a peace treaty in Madrid between the British government and the American colonists. The pact officially recognized the United States as an independent nation, made provisions for the two sides to exchange their remaining prisoners of war, and mandated a complete withdrawal of all British military forces from American soil within six months after the treaty's ratification by the British House of Commons and the U.S. Continental Congress. American political leader and future President of the United States John Adams applauded the treaty signing as “a day of magnificent triumph”, while soon-to-be deposed British prime minister Lord Frederick North moaned “O God! It is all over”, a reference to North's fear that the British army's defeat by the colonists would mark the beginning of the British Empire's final collapse.

The chain of events leading up to the signing of the Madrid treaty actually began in the late autumn of 1775, when American colonial soldiers marched into Canada in hopes of fostering a revolt against British authority there. Although British troops eventually succeed in driving the invasion force back, the casualties they sustained in doing this would be catastrophically high; when King George III learned of just how many men had died repulsing the invasion of Canada, the shock was so great that, within forty-eight hours after receiving the battle report, he would himself be dead from a stroke. George III's passing triggered a political crisis within the British monarchy whose effects would still be reverberating througout the world decades after the American Revolution ended. The British throne would remain vacant till 1782, when the late George III's eldest son was coronated as King George IV.

The near-simultaneous entry of France and Spain into the Revolutionary War on the American side shortly after the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 only served to further exacerbate an already very dire strategic situation for the British in North America. An attempt by the British Army to occupy New York City in the fall of 1776 ended in sheer disaster when a French naval flotilla off Long Island intercepted the Royal Navy ships carrying the occupation force and sank most of them in one of the most intense naval engagements fought to date in any war. By the spring of 1778, the question was less if the British would lose to the colonists than when and how; the failure of British forces to capture Savannah, Georgia in December of 1778 would mark the nadir of the conflict for Britain, and in January of 1779 final negotiations began for a peace treaty between Britain and the American rebels.

The Madrid pact was ratified by Parliament on August 23rd, 1779 and by the U.S. Continental Congress on September 10th of that year; by March of 1780 the last British Army regiment had withdrawn from American soil and was sailing home to London. The soldiers of that regiment found themselves returning to a Great Britain not only still reeling from King George III's death but teetering on the verge of its first internal conflict since the 1745-46 Jacobite Rebellion. It was only luck (and the political skills of future British prime minister William Pitt the Younger) that kept a fourth English Civil War from breaking out, yet even after the crisis was resolved hard feelings between Britain's rival factions would persist well into the 19th century. At least three British prime ministers would become the targets of assassination attempts during the seventy-plus years following the end of the American Revolution; the most infamous of these happened in May of1847 when a right-wing extremist tried to shoot Lord John Russell while Russell was leaving Buckingham Palace after a meeting with Queen Victoria. (The would-be assassin was himself shot by Russell's bodyguard and died two days later.)

While Anglo-American relations throughout much of the early 19th century had their moments of tension, they tended to be largely cordial, and after 1840 Britain was America's chief trade and diplomatic partner. British negotiators played a small but critical part in bringing about the final Confederate surrender at the end of the American Civil War in 1865; when Britain took its first population census of India in 1881, U.S. State Department bookkeepers helped to tally up the figures. In the Great European War of 1913-17 the United States allied with Britain against Kaiser Wilhelm II's expansionist Second Reich, and in the Pacific War of 1941-1944 the Royal Navy provided vital firepower and logisitcal support for the U.S armed forces' island-hopping campaign against Japan.


In reality the British got off fairly lightly in repulsing the American colonial invasion of Canada; in fact the combined total number of British and American KIA's for the enitre Revolutionary War amounted to just 11,000, a paltry sum especially when compared to the number of troops killed in a single hour in some modern wars. The American War for Independence ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Cooperative Post: Ships of Fate

A story a bit ago, Cromwell boarding the Lyon, spurred a fascinating line of what-ifs on Today in Alternate History for a world where, in the absence of Cromwell’s devotion, the Commonwealth became a kleptocracy. Three instances of this world give hints at the twisted timeline of revolution against a system driven by profit.
13th February, 1755

Hannah Waterman King was the person most directly responsible for the Martian Colony ship HMS Benedict Arnold blasting off from the launch pad of Scapa Flow Space Centre to the sound of trumpets playing "Let Liberty Ring Out.”

She had stubbornly refused permission for her fifteen-year-old son to enlist in the provincial militia for service against the French. Young Arnold had yet been captivated by the sound of a drummer and with the undeniable echoes of glory ringing in his ears, and so he fled to Connecticut.

A month past his fifteenth birthday, Arnold boarded the HMS Canterbury and set sail for the majestic heart of Empire where his destiny awaited him. He was to be desperately disappointed by the absence of trail-blazing grandeur in the bustling city of London. Instead of streets paved with gold, he found that, beneath the trappings of crisp uniforms and military band music, it was little more than a counting house, and the small-minded xenophobic English were really just interested in business.

In the century since the Commonwealth had come to power in Great Britain, it had come under the ever-growing authority of the Company. Originally chartered as the East India Company in 1600 under the approval of Queen Elizabeth, the Company weathered the Civil War. Once the Commonwealth proved to be a council of manipulable men, the Company began exerting more control inward, taking London much as it had Madras and Bombay.

From there, the British Empire had spread its tentacles across the world. Benedict Arnold found nothing to admire at the centre, and certainly not the utopian visions that Company propaganda had spread. Rather, it was the insipid leadership of a toothless royal family, a moribund Parliament and a central government locked in the mind-set of accountants. Inside their sadistic mercantilism, they couldn't care less whether it was enslaved Irish or Africans harvesting sugar in the Caribbean or what suffering happened in Indian factories as long as it brought goods to British markets. Something was missing from this tableau of sadistic mercantilism, and that of course was Liberty. In some distant future, the Empire would cost more to upkeep, and the English would tire of their global ambitions. Arnold’s brilliant mind could perceive that from the outbreak of the French and Indian War.

Fortunately, Arnold had a great vision in which the British Empire was much more than a cash-cow. Of course he was still young and struggling to establish himself, but tales of Arnold’s naval heroics through the war brought him fame. When the war ended, Arnold entered Parliament and set the galleries afire with his grand dream of an Empire of Liberty: a great Imperium of Nations that god willing shall not perish from this earth.


15th February, 1819

The aptly-named mother ship HMS Hannah Waterman King might never have transported the British colonists to Mars if not for the great works of the liberator Abraham Lincoln.

Heart-broken by his mother's recent death and refusing to give his new step-mother a chance, ten-year-old Abraham Lincoln ran away from home. Wielding a forged letter of introduction, he boarded the HMS Fisgard and set sail for London to retrace the transatlantic voyage of his famous countryman, Benedict Arnold.

His was a hard life in London as an immigrant from the colonies, but Abe Lincoln was used to hardship on the frontier. His grandfather had been killed in an Indian raid witnessed by the family, and his father Thomas worked odd jobs for years as land disputes wrenched one farm after another away from him. Abe was famously labeled “lazy” among those who knew him, always wanting to write and read and bemoaning hard labor, but the mental dedication paid off as he became a lawyer.

Even though the slave trade, indeed the whole institution of slavery, had been abolished through the heroic political efforts of Benedict Arnold, Abe discovered that liberty was still very much a work-in-progress. His experiences of hard work among immigrants from all over the world had taught him the struggles of race and class. Dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal,” he took up the burden of a great task which he saw before him - to usher in a new birth of freedom across the whole British Empire.

In time, Lincoln would become the greatest ever Prime Minister, and his work under God would ensure that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.


23rd February, 1943

One of the main components of the mother ship HMS Hannah Waterman King was the lander HMS Abraham Lincoln, the first ship to transport children to the red planet. This expedition, and of course the first manned craft to travel to Mars, the HMS Benedict Arnold, were the lasting legacy of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Despite a bad back that would require spinal surgeries the rest of his life, twenty-five-year-old Lieutenant John F. Kennedy stepped aboard PT-109 as his first command. He had been born to a wealthy Irish family that had built itself up through the British Empire’s transatlantic trade.

The Empire had become the pillar of the world, delicately balancing law and order with fairness and progress. Yet it had its rivals in other nations grown out of wanton imperialism. Although Britain survived the collapse of the German, Austrian, Ottoman, and Russian Empires, a new generation of empires had grown up to challenge British Authority. Most notorious was the Japanese invasion of British-protected China, which finally sparked all-out war.

JFK used his family’s connections to override his medical release from service and join officer training. He refused a desk job and volunteered for service in the Pacific Theater. After the death of his older brother Joe in Europe, John took up his position as patriarch and soon joined politics. His popularity and service record made him a potent leader in the years of Cold War between Britain and powerful Soviet Union. He would become Britain’s first Catholic Prime Minister since the establishment of the Anglican Church.

Much of his political career was dedicated to the Space Race. In a speech to young scientists graduating from Cambridge, he said, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Among his “other things” included the groundwork for colonization of other planets, spreading the British Empire beyond even the earth.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

May 7, 1763 – Pontiac Seizes Fort Detroit

Britain’s victory in the Seven Years War allowed it to strip France of its colonial claims. The huge swath of North America known as New France was broken up with Canada going to Britain while Spain received control of Louisiana in exchange for losing Florida. The local theater of conflict had been dubbed the “French and Indian War” by the British colonists who eagerly moved west from the Eastern seaboard. While the French colonization had largely been economic with trading posts and working alongside natives, British colonists were more interested in building permanent settlements that exploited the land, already pushing tribes like the Delaware across the Appalachians. Many Native Americans preferred an alliance with France but now found themselves under British authority as French troops left fortifications at Detroit and Niagara to their former enemies.

Relations between the British and the Native Americans quickly soured. The French had followed Native American customs by bearing gifts of firearms, tools, and tobacco in goodwill. Commander-in-Chief in North America General Jeffrey Amherst opposed the custom as a form of bribery. Beyond his ethical sense, Amherst was in a budget crunch following a very expensive war. Discontinuing gifts saved a few pounds, and he determined that he could prevent a Native American uprising by suppressing the trade of gunpowder and putting quotas that checked the amount of ammunition traders could disperse. Native Americans took his actions as an insult and a display of distrust. Already scathed by British encroachment, tribes began to consider war. Even the mighty Iroquois Confederacy was beginning to break down with the Senecas in the west calling for uprising while the other tribes respected the Covenant Chain treaties with Britain. Amherst remained confident and, out of the 8,000 men under his command, sent only 500 to the western forts.

Chief Obwandiyag of the Ottawa, known to the British as Pontiac, was the first to act. Pontiac had held numerous councils through the years to form a federation of tribes that would counter any colonial aspirations. At the beginning of May, Pontiac and fifty warriors called on the nearby Fort Detroit, appearing friendly but in fact testing the defenses. Major Henry Gladwin, who had about 120 men under his command, welcomed them. Upon seeing the fort undermanned, Pontiac held a council of tribes including the Potawatomi and Ojibwas, telling them, “My brothers, we must all swear their destruction and wait no longer. Nothing prevents us; they are few in numbers, and we can accomplish it.”

As the warriors assembled, a young woman who had fallen in love with Gladwin stole away to warn him. She arrived at the fort as Gladwin was having dinner, reading aloud a letter from his wife, Frances Beridge Gladwin, whom he had married the year before. Seeing a love unrequited and impossible, the young woman told him that she wished he would be happy the rest of his life, knowing how short it would be.

Pontiac led a force of three hundred men to Fort Detroit, hiding their weapons under blankets. Gladwin again welcomed the visitors, who erupted at Pontiac’s call and massacred the unprepared soldiers. The arsenal was captured nearly intact, giving Pontiac’s army ample weapons. A few British escaped, warning settlers to flee. Those that stayed were massacred, except for children, who were adopted into native tribes. Following local ritual, one the fallen soldiers was cannibalized.

Word spread of the uprising in the Great Lakes more quickly to the tribes than the British military. Through May and into June, other tribes seized Fort St. Joseph, Fort Sandusky, and more through the Ohio. By the end of June, Delawares attacked Fort Pitt in western Pennsylvania. While they did not have the numbers to take the fort, which had been packed with more than five hundred people fleeing the onslaught, the Delawares laid a siege that opened up the whole countryside to extensive raids by the Shawnee and themselves. In early July, Pontiac arrived with an army of over 1,000 warriors and assisted the Delaware in destroying the fort. Taking upon a mantle as chief of chiefs, Pontiac continued to march eastward on Fort Ligonier and Fort Bedford.

Amherst panicked, hoping to use biological warfare through smallpox-infected blankets, but he was recalled that August. Major General Thomas Gage, Governor of Montreal, replaced him that October. By then the tribes were beginning to retreat and consolidate in the west for winter. Settlers had all retreated east, well past the line set forth by the unrelated Royal Proclamation of 1763, which determined to restrict settlement to the Appalachians to prevent encroachment that London feared would cause such altercations with the Native Americans. It seemed to be a suitable line now as all settlers had been chased out of the area, but Gage refused to leave Pontiac and his confederation as victors.

That winter, Gage had no problem raising up volunteers from local militias. Groups of men formed up gangs, such as the Paxton Boys that were ready to fight any Indian, including those who had been Christianized and lived as British citizens. The Paxtonians had marched on Philadelphia in pursuit of eastern Native Americans who fled there seeking asylum from their scourge. Benjamin Franklin, leader of one of the local militias, was able to stop them from completing their raid. Gage absorbed the Paxtonians into his own forces and promoted Franklin to a general of militia.

In the spring, Gage launched two expeditions: one in the north to quell the Seneca besieging Fort Niagara and one in the south marching from Pennsylvania to alleviate the assaults there and in Virginia. Western New York was soon settled with the Treaty of Fort Niagara, which turned the rest of the Iroquois against the warring Seneca and made them fast allies with the British. The Ohio Campaign dragged on for another five years. By the end, Pontiac had grown despotic, leading increasingly desperate raids from Illinois where he scrounged munitions from French settlers. Gage and Franklin were able to use Pontiac’s extremism against the federation, breaking off tribes willing to sign independent treaties. After Pontiac’s assassination in 1769, the broken warriors fled across the Mississippi rather than accede to British authority.

The war had been a costly one, but North American colonials seemed willing to accept taxes on stamps and tea to pay for their safety. With the Ohio Valley seized by military action and largely depopulated except for narrow reserves for defeated tribes, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 was overturned. Instead, colonists were encouraged to head west, and land sales helped pay much of the massive war debt. Speculation led to the Panic of 1776 and an uprising of disenfranchised, which was settled by Gage's harsh crackdown. Upon his recall and extensions of dominion status for peaceful colonies like Virginia, North Americans quietly returned to the Empire.


In reality, although the story of the Indian woman may be legend, Major Gladwin did receive word of Pontiac’s sneak attack and had his men prepped and armed. Pontiac retreated and soon returned to besiege the fort. Other forts fell to Native Americans, but their progress was stopped at the Battle of Bushy Run. After the war, Gage turned his unsympathetic policies on the colonists, who were outraged by the Proclamation of 1769 and increased taxes, leading to the Declaration of Independence.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Guest Post: Jane Austen recovers in Winchester

What if Northanger Abbey, Persuasion and Sanditon had been finished? (first published on Today in Alternate History)

 Just after beginning to write Sanditon at forty-two years old, "at the height of her powers" and "just as she was beginning to feel confidence in her own success" Jane Austen was struck down by a reoccurrence of typhus, which she had suffered as a child. She was taken to lodgings in Winchester for medical treatment spending many long months recuperating in the house on College Street. Fortunately she recovered and in the second half of her life redefined herself as a forerunner of Henry James and Marcel Proust.
"I doubt," wrote Mr. Austen Leigh, "whether it would be possible to mention any other author of note whose personal obscurity was so complete". However notwithstanding this observation during this extended period of her writing career she began to embark upon some very significant changes to her lifestyle, actually coming out of herself to become something of a minor celebrity, almost a figure from one of her own novels. Virginia Woolf writing in 1924 said that "She1 stayed in London, dined out, lunched out, met famous people, made new friends, read, travelled, and carried back to the quiet country cottage a hoard of observations to feast upon at leisure".

And so she had survived to finish Sanditon then Persuasion, "the most beautiful of her works", also Northanger Abbey, fine novels that would otherwise have been unfinished. What a tremendous loss that would have been, indeed it was said that "She openeth her mouth with wisdom and in her tongue is the law of kindness". And so perhaps more importantly she would get to work collaboratively with a young English novelist and poet called Charlotte Brontë. Of course she was only one year old when Austen's life was in danger and it would have been a travesty if these contemporary figures had been cruelly robbed of the opportunity to energize each other's writing. Certainly Austen was something of a mentor, encouraging Brontë to develop her poetry which she was sorely tempted to abandon in favour of novel writing after the critical success of Jane Eyre and her sister Emily's novel Wuthering Heights. After all, Austen had decades of life yet to come, her brother the Admiral lived to the ripe old age of ninety-one.

Also of future significance the Austen-Brontë collaboration later inspired Charles Dickens to work in a similar vein with Wilkie Collins and in so doing abandon his plans to write a number of turgid large tomes of social criticism. Instead of bemoaning Victorian Society he would be greatly uplifted in spirit, ultimately he re-emerged as a celebrated romantic figure of that golden era of literature.


1] Woolf inserted the words "would have" because she was imagining a life Austen never got to live.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

May 6, 1937 – Hindenburg Makes Spectacular Landing

The grandest airship in the world, the LZ 129 Hindenburg, arrived over the United States as a rainstorm was broiling over its intended destination, the Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey. It was the latest struggle in a journey that had suffered powerful headwinds across the Atlantic. The day before arriving, a fuel pump had broken, prompting intensive repairs. Now facing storms, Captain Max Pruss delayed the landing with an airborne tour of Manhattan (wowing New Yorkers and passengers alike) and once more with a view of the coast until the storm slackened.

By the 1930s, travel by airship became the premier method of travel. Within only a few years of their success, propellers were applied to hot air balloons, leading to Jean-Pierre Blanchard’s 1785 crossing of the English Channel. As engines became more efficient through the nineteenth century, chemically produced hydrogen provided effective lift, and the cost of aluminum dropped to make it usable for construction, airships became more practical. Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin became the premier designer of airships through his use of a girder-frame covered in fabric. Germany soon led the world with a fleet of “zeppelins,” which were put to the war effort as bombers and spotters, although they soon outpaced by airplanes. After the war, the zeppelin found its role as a commercial passenger carrier.

The pinnacle of airships was the Hindenburg, launched in 1936. Its guest accommodations were as luxurious as ocean liners without noise or seasickness; in fact, advertisements bragged how a pencil could be balanced on its tip while in flight. This luxury came at a cost: a one-way ticket on its first season of seventeen transatlantic voyages cost as much as $400 ($2,600 in 2014). Yet the cost proved to be another awe-inspiring factor as only the crème de la crème of society were aboard, such as politicians, businessmen, and boxer Max Schmeling upon becoming world heavyweight champion. The Nazi government seized on the propaganda appeal of the airship. They used it to distribute fliers and appear at Olympic Games in Berlin as well as a mobile monument to German prowess.

To start its second season of service, the Hindenburg flew to New Jersey with a half-filled cabin. Its return voyage was fully booked as a stream of wealthy notables planned to attend the coronation of George VI. Despite delays that caused them to cancel plans for public tours, Captain Pruss was hopeful that the cabins would be cleaned and engines checked for their return on schedule. At last he received radio word from Lakehurst that the storm had passed. When the Hindenburg arrived a few minutes after 7 o'clock, though, ground crews were still not ready. Pruss ordered a sharp turn to circle the field. A sudden change in the wind forced another sharp turn as the airship made a final approach. It was a race against time as a new storm approached.

The Hindenburg came toward the mooring mast stern-heavy. Pruss and his command thought nothing of it; the airship had been designed to collect rainwater as ballast, which often collected in the rear due to aerodynamic pressure. As he prepared to order the ballast dumped, a quick thought about the sudden turns made him wonder why the water had not shifted to port or starboard. Instead, he ordered crewmen to investigate, which led to the discovery of a broken bracing wire that had burst one of the balloons. Explosive hydrogen gas was venting out of a flap just in front of the top fin.

Pruss ordered all external vents opened, which caused a sudden drop as the free hydrogen escaped. The gas exploded as a pillar of fire above the airship. Eyewitnesses among the crew on the field and press that had gathered said that the Hindenburg glowed beforehand. Later investigations showed that the glow was most likely St. Elmo's fire, an static-electrical build-up due to the rapidly shifting weather, the discharge of which produced sparks necessary to set off the hydrogen. At the time, others took it as divine intervention protecting the passengers. Despite the bumpy landing, no one was harmed.

It was a turning point for a long history of airship crashes. Development in other countries had been stunted by tragedies, such as the 1930 crash of the British R101 over France on its way to India, killing nearly all of the leaders of airship development for the country. In 1933, the USS Akron broke up in a storm, and its sistership, the Macon, crashed in high winds in 1935. The landing of the Hindenburg was seen as heroic and instilled faith in the public as an airship could land slowly in a crash whereas airplanes simply fell.

Flammable hydrogen was still a major issue, especially as the United States had passed the Helium Control Act in 1927 that limited its export as a potential weapon to protect American interests as the singular helium-producer. Pressure from upper classes who admired German airships encouraged loosening of the law. As trade ended with Germany with World War II approaching, American airships became militarized, proving unfit for combat but crucial for submarine-hunting, using instruments and depth charges to render Wolfpacks useless against convoys. Blimps, twice as fast as naval ships, served as aircraft carriers for planes making forward patrol.

The war provided a generation of new development that translated to civilian uses as the Cold War progressed. Designers combined the best of heavier-than-air planes, and later helicopters, with the efficient lift of blimps for hybrid airships. Comfortable, if slower, long-range cruisers supply worldwide travel, in addition to cargo carriers that transport goods in a cycle following jet streams that has been nicknamed the “orbit of atmospheric satellites.” The demand for helium, typically obtainable only in spent uranium fields, has many economists worried about the earth running out, spurring interest to harvest on the moon.


In reality, the crash of the Hindenburg remains one of the most famous disasters of the twentieth century. In just over thirty seconds, the airship collapsed as newsreels rolled. Thirty-five of the ninety-six people aboard perished, and the public turned toward air travel by plane. Airships today are largely used for entertainment or research purposes.

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