October 28, 2011
To be a woman in the Victorian age was to be weak: the connection was that definite. To be female was also to be fragile, dependent, prone to nerves and—not least—possessed of a mind that was several degrees inferior to a man’s. For much of the 19th century, women were not expected to shine either academically or athletically, and those who attempted to do so were cautioned that they were taking an appalling risk. Mainstream medicine was clear on this point: to dream of studying at the university level was to chance madness or sterility, if not both.
It took generations to transform this received opinion; that, a long series of scientific studies, and the determination and hard work of many thousands of women. For all that, though, it is still possible to point to one single achievement, and one single day, and say: this is when everything began to change. That day was June 7, 1890, when—for the first and only time—a woman ranked first in the mathematical examinations held at the University of Cambridge. It was the day that Philippa Fawcett placed “above the Senior Wrangler.”
October 25, 2011
Like hundreds of thousands of young American men, Henry Johnson returned from World War I and tried to make a life for himself in spite of what he had experienced in a strange and distant land. With dozens of bullet and shrapnel wounds, he knew he was lucky to have survived. His discharge records erroneously made no mention of his injuries, and so Johnson was denied a disability allowance. Uneducated and in his early twenties, Henry Johnson had no expectations that he could correct the errors in his military record. He simply tried to carry on as well as a black man could in the country he had been willing to give his life for.
He made it back home to Albany, New York, and resumed his job as a Red Cap porter at the train station, but he never could overcome his injuries—his left foot had been shattered, and a metal plate held it together. Johnson’s inability to hold down a job led him to the bottle. It didn’t take long for his wife and three children to leave. He died, destitute, in 1929 at age 32. As far as anyone knew, he was buried in a pauper’s field in Albany. A man who had earned the nickname “Black Death” in combat was quickly forgotten.
The denial of a disability pension, erroneous discharge records that would have earned him a posthumous Purple Heart, the fleeting recognition—none of it surprised his son, Herman Johnson, who later served with the famed Tuskegee Airmen. The younger Johnson knew all about Jim Crow, second-class citizenship and the systematic denial of equal rights to black Americans. But in 2001, 72 years after Henry Johnson’s death, a great and unlikely mystery was revealed to the soldier’s estranged son: On July 5, 1929, Henry Johnson had been buried not in an anonymous grave in Albany, but with military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. Historians who located Johnson’s place of burial believed there could be no more appropriate honor for Herman’s father, who proved his valor on the night of May 14, 1918, in the Argonne Forest.
Just a year earlier, Henry Johnson, who stood 5-foot-4 and weighed 130 pounds, had enlisted in the all-black 15th New York National Guard Regiment, which was renamed the 369th Infantry Regiment when it shipped out to France. Poorly trained, the unit mostly performed menial labor—unloading ships and digging latrines—until it was lent to the French Fourth Army, which was short on troops. The French, less preoccupied by race than were the Americans, welcomed the men known as the Harlem Hellfighters. The Hellfighters were sent to Outpost 20 on the western edge of the Argonne Forest, in France’s Champagne region, and Privates Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, from Trenton, New Jersey, were given French helmets, French weapons and enough French words to understand commands from their superiors. The two American soldiers were posted on sentry duty on the midnight-to-four a.m. shift. Johnson thought it was “crazy” to send untrained men out at the risk of the rest of the troops, he later told a reporter, but he told the corporal he’d “tackle the job.” He and Roberts weren’t on duty long when German snipers began firing at them.
After the shots rang out, Johnson and Roberts lined up a box of grenades in their dugout to have ready if a German raiding party tried to make a move. Just after 2 a.m., Johnson heard the “snippin’ and clippin’ ” of wirecutters on the perimeter fence and told Roberts to run back to camp to let the French troops know there was trouble. Johnson then hurled a grenade toward the fence, which brought a volley of return gunfire from the Germans, as well as enemy grenades. Roberts didn’t get far before he decided to return to help Johnson fight, but he was hit with a grenade and wounded too badly in his arm and hip to do any fighting. Johnson had him lie in the trench and hand him grenades, which the Albany native threw at the Germans. But there were too many enemy soldiers, and they advanced from every direction; Johnson ran out of grenades. He took German bullets in the head and lip but fired his rifle into the darkness. He took more bullets in his side, then his hand, but kept shooting until he shoved an American cartridge clip into his French rifle and it jammed.
By now, the Germans were on top of him. Johnson swung his rifle like a club and kept them at bay until the stock of his rifle splintered; then he went down with a blow to his head. Overwhelmed, he saw that the Germans were trying to take Roberts prisoner. The only weapon Johnson had left was a bolo knife, so he climbed up from the ground and charged, hacking away at the Germans before they could get clean shot at him.
“Each slash meant something, believe me,” Johnson later said. “I wasn’t doing exercises, let me tell you.” He stabbed one German in the stomach, felled a lieutenant, and took a pistol shot to his arm before driving his knife between the ribs of a soldier who had climbed on his back. Johnson managed to drag Roberts away from the Germans, who retreated as they heard French and American forces advancing. When reinforcements arrived, Johnson passed out and was taken to a field hospital. By daylight, the carnage was evident: Johnson had killed four Germans and wounded an estimated 10 to 20 more. Even after suffering 21 wounds in hand-to-hand combat, Henry Johnson had prevented the Germans from busting through the French line.
“There wasn’t anything so fine about it,” he said later. “Just fought for my life. A rabbit would have done that.”
Later the entire French force in Champagne lined up to see the two Americans receive their decorations: the Croix du Guerre, France’s highest military honor. They were the first American privates to receive it. Johnson’s medal included the coveted Gold Palm, for extraordinary valor.
In February of 1919, the Harlem Hellfighters returned to New York for a parade up Fifth Avenue, where thousands lined up to cheer for a regiment that had amassed a record of bravery and achievement. Among the nearly 3,000 troops was a small man leading the procession from the convalescents’ section: Promoted to sergeant, Henry Johnson stood in the lead car, an open-top Cadillac, waving a handful of red lilies as the crowd shouted, “Oh, you Black Death!” along the seven-mile route. The Hellfighters’ arrival in Harlem “threw the population into hysterics,” the New York Times reported.
Upon his discharge, the Army used Johnson’s image to recruit new soldiers and to sell Victory War Stamps. (“Henry Johnson licked a dozen Germans. How many stamps have you licked?”) Former President Theodore Roosevelt called Johnson one of the “five bravest Americans” to serve in World War I. But by the mid-1920s, Johnson’s difficulties were catching up with him, and he declined until his death in 1929. Once they examined Johnson’s records and read press accounts of his return to the United States, historians from the New York Division of Military and Naval Affairs suspected that Johnson might have been buried at Arlington, but microfilm records indicated only that a William Henry Johnson was buried there. It wasn’t until administrators requested the paper files that they learned there was a data entry error: It was indeed Henry Johnson who was buried at Arlington. Though his son was surprised to learn that Johnson had not been buried in a pauper’s grave, the soldier’s family was even more surprised to learn that there had been a ceremony at Arlington with full honors. “Learning my father was buried in this place of national honor can be described in just one word—joyful,” Herman Johnson said as he stood at his father’s grave in 2002. “I am simply joyful.”
Historians did not forget what Johnson did in the Forest of Argonne back in 1918, however. In 1996, President Bill Clinton posthumously awarded Henry Johnson the Purple Heart. And once Johnson’s place of burial had been located at Arlington in 2001, the Army awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest military decoration.
In recent years, a chain-of-command endorsement in the form of a memo from Gen. John J. Pershing, commander-in-chief of the American Expeditionary Force in World War I, written just days after Johnson’s heroics in the Argonne, was discovered in an online database by an aide to Senator Charles Schumer of New York. Schumer believes that this endorsement, not known to exist for nearly a century, will be enough to bestow another posthumous award on the man known as Black Death. “There is no doubt,” Schumer said this past March, standing before a statue of Johnson in Albany, “he should receive the Medal of Honor”—the nation’s highest military honor.
Books: Ann Hagedorn, Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America 1919, Simon &Schuster, 2007. W. Allison Sweeney, History of the American Negro in the Great World War, Project Gutenberg Ebook, 2005. Chad L. Williams, Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soliders in the World War I Era, University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
Articles: “Beat Back Force of 25 Germans, Willing French War Cross” by Junius B. Wood, Chicago Defender, May 25, 1918. “Ceremony to Honor Memory of Johnson” by Jill Brice, Schenectady Gazette, January 10, 2002. “Honour At Last For War Hero Ignored for Being Black” by Olivery Burkeman, the Guardian, March 21, 2002. “Fifth Av. Cheers Negro Veterans,” New York Times, February 18, 1919. “Henry Johnson and an Honor Long Overdue” by Chad Williams, George Mason University’s History News Network, April 10, 2011. http://hnn.us/articles/138144.html “Support Grows for Medal of Honor” by Paul Grondahl, Albany Times Union, March 23, 2011. http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/Support-grows-for-Medal-of-Honor-1256102.php “Henry Lincoln Johnson, Sergeant, United States Army,” Arlington National Cemetary Website, http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/henry-johnson.htm “Dynamite Comes in Small Packages” by Lieutenant Colonel Gerald Torrence , WWW.ARMY.MIL, The Official Homepage of the United States Army, http://www.army.mil/article/8655/DYNAMITE_COMES_IN_SMALL_PACKAGES/
October 20, 2011
The war seemed a very long way away to the citizens of Broken Hill that January 1.
It was the height of the southern summer, and the Australian silver-mining town baked in the outback desert heat, 720 miles from Sydney and half a world away from the mud and blood of the Western Front. The First World War was less than five months old, and only a fool would have accused the hardened miners of Broken Hill of lacking patriotism, but on that first day of 1915 they wanted nothing more than to enjoy a rare holiday with their families and forget about their troubles—not just the war, which Australia had joined alongside Britain on the day it was declared, but also the grim economic times that were closing mines and putting miners out of work.
More than 1,200 men, women and children clambered aboard the makeshift train that would take them a few miles up the line to Silverton for the annual town picnic. But for Broken Hill that New Year’s Day, war was not 12,000 miles away; it was just over a ridge a mile or two along the track, where a couple of Afghans had raised the Turkish flag over an ice cream cart and were preparing to launch a two-man war.
October 18, 2011
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently signed legislation permitting Nik Wallenda—self-proclaimed “King of the High Wire” and descendant of the legendary Flying Wallendas—to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope. Wallenda plans to run a cable, two inches thick and 2200 feet long, between two cranes raised 13 feet from the ground. To train, he will take wire walks over water near his Florida home while a caravan of airboats swarm around him, blasting winds up to 78 miles per hour to approximate the winds and spray of the falls. For the real thing, a rescue helicopter will hover nearby. “Worse-case scenario,” Wallenda said, “I sit down on the wire, the helicopter swoops in, I hook on and they get me out of there. I look goofy, but nobody gets hurt.”
History’s most famous tightrope walker (or “ropedancer” or “funambulist,” in 19th century parlance) performed without the luxury of such assurances. During the winter of 1858, a 34-year-old French acrobat named Jean François Gravelet, better known as Monsieur Charles Blondin, traveled to Niagara Falls hoping to become the first person to cross the “boiling cataract.” Noting the masses of ice and snow on either bank and the violent whirls of wind circling the gorge, Blondin delayed the grand event until he would have better weather. He always worked without a net, believing that preparing for disaster only made one more likely to occur. A rope 1,300 feet long, two inches in diameter and made entirely of hemp would be the sole thing separating him from the roiling waters below.
Blondin, born in 1824, grew to be only five feet five and 140 pounds; he had bright blue eyes and golden hair (which gave him his nickname). He believed that a ropewalker was “like a poet, born and not made,” and discovered his calling at the age of four, mounting a rope strung between two chairs placed a few feet apart. The following year he enrolled at the École de Gymnase in Lyon. He first came to America in 1855 at the behest of theatrical agent William Niblo and was about to begin an engagement with Franconi’s Equestrian Troop when the idea struck to cross the falls. “He was more like a fantastic sprite than a human being,” wrote his manager, Harry Colcord. “Had he lived a century or two earlier he would have been treated as one possessed of a devil…. He could walk the rope as a bird cleaves to air.”
Blondin also understood the appeal of the morbid to the masses, and reveled when gamblers began to take bets on whether he would plunge to a watery death. (Most of the smart money said yes.) On the morning of June 30, 1859, about 25,000 thrill-seekers arrived by train and steamer and dispersed on the American or Canadian side of the falls, the latter said to have the better view. Both banks grew “fairly black” with swarms of spectators, among them statesmen, judges, clerics, generals, members of Congress, capitalists, artists, newspaper editors, professors, debutantes, salesmen and hucksters. Vendors hawked everything from lemonade to whiskey, and Colcord gave tours to the press, explaining the logistics of what the Great Blondin was about to attempt.
A light rope, not even an inch thick, had been attached to one end of his hempen cable so it could be conveyed across the Niagara River. On the American side the cable was wound around the trunk of an oak tree in White’s Pleasure Grounds, but securing it on the Canadian side presented a problem. Blondin’s assistants feared that the light rope wouldn’t bear the weight of the cable as it was drawn up the gorge for anchorage in Canada, but the rope dancer, to the delight of his audience, executed a daring solution.
After tying another rope around his waist, he rappelled 200 feet on the small rope, attached the second rope to the end of the cable, and then blithely climbed back to Canadian ground and secured the cable to a rock. To prevent swaying, guy ropes ran from the cable at 20-foot intervals to posts on both banks, creating the effect of a massive spider web. Blondin could do nothing, however, about the inevitable sag in its center, approximately 50 feet of cable to which it was impossible to fasten guy ropes. At that spot, in the middle of his crossing, he would be only 190 feet above the gorge. “There were hundreds of people examining the rope,” reported one witness, “and, with scarcely an exception, they all declared the inability of M. Blondin to perform the feat, the incapacity of the rope to sustain him, and that he deserved to be dashed to atoms for his desperate fool-hardiness.”
Shortly before 5 p.m., Blondin took his position on the American side, dressed in pink tights bedecked with spangles. The lowering sun made him appear as if clothed in light. He wore fine leather shoes with soft soles and brandished a balancing pole made of ash, 26 feet long and weighing nearly 50 pounds. Slowly, calmly, he started to walk. “His gait,” one man noted, “was very like the walk of some barnyard cock.” Children clung to their mothers’ legs; women peeked from behind their parasols. Several onlookers fainted. About a third of the way across, Blondin shocked the crowd by sitting down on his cable and calling for the Maid of the Mist, the famed tourist vessel, to anchor momentarily beneath him. He cast down a line and hauled up a bottle of wine. He drank and started off again, breaking into a run after he passed the sagging center. While the band played “Home, Sweet Home,” Blondin reached Canada. One man helped pull him ashore and exclaimed, “I wouldn’t look at anything like that again for a million dollars.”
After 20 minutes of rest Blondin began the journey to the other side, this time with a Daguerreotype camera strapped to his back. He advanced 200 feet, affixed his balancing pole to the cable, untied his load, adjusted it in front of him and snapped a likeness of the crowd along the American side. Then he hoisted the camera back into place and continued on his way. The entire walk from bank to bank to bank took 23 minutes, and Blondin immediately announced an encore performance to take place on the Fourth of July.
Not everyone admired Blondin’s feat. The New York Times condemned “such reckless and aimless exposure of life” and the “thoughtless people” who enjoyed “looking at a fellow creature in deadly peril.” Mark Twain later dismissed Blondin as “that adventurous ass.” One indignant resident of Niagara Falls insisted that he was a hoax, that there was “no such person in the world.” Nevertheless, on July 4, Blondin appeared at the American end of the cable, this time without his balancing pole. Halfway across, he lay down on the cable, flipped himself over, and began walking backward. He stopped again to take a swig from his flask, and then made it safely to the Canadian side. On the journey back he wore a sack over his body, depriving himself of sight. “One can scarcely believe that the feat was indeed real,” wrote one reporter, “and stands gazing upon the slender cord and the awful gulf in a state of utter bewilderment.… I look back upon it as upon a dream.”
Blondin announced subsequent crossings, promising that each would be more daring than the last. On July 15, with President Millard Fillmore in attendance, Blondin walked backward to Canada and returned to the U.S. pushing a wheelbarrow. Two weeks later, he somersaulted and backflipped his way across, occasionally pausing to dangle from the cable by one hand. Shortly after that he made another crossing, and, after a brief rest, appeared on the Canadian end of the cable with Harry Colcord clinging to his back. Blondin gave his manager the following instructions: “Look up, Harry.… you are no longer Colcord, you are Blondin. Until I clear this place be a part of me, mind, body, and soul. If I sway, sway with me. Do not attempt to do any balancing yourself. If you do we will both go to our death.”
A few of the guy ropes snapped along the way, but they made it.
He crossed at night, a locomotive headlight affixed to either each of the cable. He crossed with his body in shackles. He crossed carrying a table and chair, stopping in the middle to try to sit down and prop up his legs. The chair tumbled into the water. Blondin nearly followed but regained his composure. He sat down on the cable and ate a piece of cake, washed down with champagne. In his most famous exploit, he carried a stove and utensils on his back, walked to the center of the cable, started a fire and cooked an omelet. When it was ready, he lowered the breakfast to passengers on deck of the Maid of the Mist.
Blondin performed in China, Japan, Australia, India and throughout Europe. He soured on America in 1888 when he was forbidden to perform in Central Park and had to settle instead for St. George in Staten Island. Although he was then 65 years old, he carried his son and another man on his back and made another omelet for the crowd. By the time he gave his final performance, in 1896, it was estimated that Blondin had crossed Niagara Falls 300 times and walked more than 10,000 miles on his rope. He died of complications from diabetes the following year. In nearly 73 years on this earth, he never had life insurance. No one, he’d always joked, would take the risk.
Books: Blondin: His Life and Performances. Edited by G. Linnaeus Banks. London, New York: Routledge, Warne, and Routledge, 1862.
Articles: “Blondin, The Hero of Niagara,” by Lloyd Graham. American Heritage, August 1958; “High Above Niagara, a Funambulist Cooked a Well-balanced Breakfast,” by Martin Herbert Kaufman. Sports Illustrated, April 16, 1979; “A Daredevil’s Toughest Challenge,” by Charlie Gillis. Macleans.ca, August 5, 2011; “An Exciting Scene,” New York Times, July 4, 1859; “When Blondin Left America Gasping.” The Hartford Courant, August 1, 1959; “He Walked Across Niagara Falls,” by Bennett Cerf. Los Angeles Times, June 28, 1959; “Poised Between Life and Death.” Chicago Daily Tribune, February 28, 1897; “A Chat With Blondin.” New York Tribune, August 12, 1888; “Blondin, The Rope Walker.” New York Times, June 5, 1888; “The Experiences of a Rope-Walker.” Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, November 1888.
October 13, 2011
Port Louis, Mauritius, August 1782. The French Indian Ocean colony—highly vulnerable to British attack at the height of the American Revolutionary War—is in a state of alert. The governor, Viscomte François de Souillac, has been warned that a flotilla of 11 ships is approaching his island. Fearing that this is the long-awaited invasion fleet, De Souillac orders a sloop-of-war out to reconnoiter. But before the vessel can report, the panic ends. De Souillac is informed that the fleet has altered course and is now steering away from Mauritius. A few days later, when the sloop returns, the governor gets confirmation: the ships were actually East Indiamen, British merchant vessels making for Fort William in India.
All this is remarkable chiefly for the source of De Souillac’s intelligence. The governor had his information not from signals made by ships sailing far offshore, nor from land-based lookouts armed with high-powered telescopes, but from a minor member of the local engineering corps, one Étienne Bottineau. And Bottineau was chiefly renowned in Mauritius (or “Île de France,” to give it its contemporary French name) as a man who won a lot of bets in waterfront taverns thanks to his uncanny ability to foresee the arrival of ships that were anywhere from 350 to 700 miles from the island when he announced their approach.