On an Influential Teacher

My mother was my first teacher. She instilled a love of telling history stories in a way that captured a young boy’s interest and attention. Mrs. McConatha, an English teacher of mine in Alabama, taught me to love words and how to best use them to tell the stories my mother inspired. And there are others. You probably have teachers who influenced you as well. This is the story of a physics teacher who taught over 150 years ago named Martin Sekulic.

Sekulic not only taught physics, but he also taught Math in several high schools across the Austria-Hungarian Empire. He himself was Croatian, and, like many people in Austria-Hungary, he was a polyglot out of necessity. He could speak and read German, Hungarian, and other languages as well as Croatian. He published scientific articles in several journals over the years, many of them demonstrating the successful testing of theories about light refraction and electromagnet oscillation.

Like many effective teachers, Sekulic brought demonstrations into the classroom. He wowed his students with hands-on experiments in a time when such lab-type work was fairly rare in high school. He paid for apparatuses to be constructed that would allow his students to see the direct application of his lectures for themselves. Imagine a student in the late 1800s not only seeing electromagnetic experiments but also being able to perform them for themselves. By the time he retired, Sekulic had managed to assemble a collection of almost 300 machines that demonstrated physics principles for his eager pupils.

One of Sekulic’s students wrote about him after his death, and the description of the pedagogic methods of the teacher shows how influential he truly was. “He made me want to know more about these wonderful forces,” the former student recalled. For this man, Sekulic’s demonstrations pulled back the curtain on physics and revealed the wonder behind what he called “these mysterious phenomena.”

In fact, this particular student decided to dedicate his life to pursing physics and electro-magnetic experiments and projects, and he invented and patented many important machines and concepts that are still in use today.

Yes, it’s not a stretch to say that, without the considerable influence of professor Martin Sekulic’s lessons, Nikola Tesla wouldn’t have help to create the modern world.

On a Weird Pair of Pants

Iceland is a weird place. First of all, many people don’t have last names–seriously. They take the first name of their fathers and add -son or -daughter (-son/-dottir). So, you’ll have a different last name than your dad (if his dad didn’t have his same first name). So, yeah. They eat strange things, get all their energy from the earth (not a bad thing!), and let’s not even begin to talk about the language and grammar. But the Icelandic folklore is perhaps the most odd thing about this interesting and odd nation of fewer than 375,000 people.

The isolation of the place helped to foster a rich if sometimes oddly twisted culture of strange practices and stories. The Christianity that the island nation practiced a few hundred years ago had not quite shed some of its Danish pre-Christian rituals, and even witchcraft was known to be practiced. For example, if prayer couldn’t heal you or your loved one from whatever ailment you or they had, you would turn to the local practitioner of folk medicine or traditional healing rituals for help. This practice also applied to such things as casting spells on ones enemies to seek revenge or asking for a spell or talisman to help you get lucky and/or fall into some money. And if you think that this is weird, remember that they were killing witches over in Salem, Massachusetts many years after this time period.

That’s where the pants come in. Icelandic folklore has a story that if you wore the pants of your enemy (or friend, even) after their death, you would get all the money that they would have gotten had they been alive. You’d put on the pants, and then you would have to place a coin in the crotch of the pants. The coin would have to have been somehow stolen or surreptitiously taken from the man’s widow without her knowledge. Having done this, the pants would then fill with money as long as you didn’t remove the first coin. And when you died, you would have to pass the pants on to your closest male relative so the endless supply of money would continue for the next generation. If you don’t believe me, it’s all chronicled in the Icelandic Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft–for real.

And when I say that you had to wear the pants of the person after they were dead, I mean exactly that. The pants, you see, had to be made from the actual person–the skin of the dead person–that you would flay from the waist down, take the skin, dry it, and then make the skin into pants. By wearing them, the folklore said you were, in effect, becoming that person, and that would therefore allow you to fall heir to all their money.

The Icelandic word for these “death pants” is Nabrok.

Told you it was a weird place.

On the Capture of a Radical

John Brown led a small insurrection against the United States in 1859 in what is now West Virginia. Brown’s intent was to raid a federal gun depository–the armory at Harper’s Ferry, in what was then Virginia–and arm slaves with guns so that they revolt against their masters. He and his fellow ultra-radical abolitionists thought that the slave population would rise to answer their call of armed insurrection against the evil of what many Americans referred to as The Peculiar Institution. Abolitionists like Brown felt that they were the hands and feet of God’s freedom and were put on earth to end slavery.

So, with a small “army” of about two dozen men, both black and white, Brown truly believed that he and his men would soon be joined by hundreds of armed newly-freed slaves. These slaves would then turn their guns on their masters, punishing the slaveowners for what Brown felt was a terrible sin in the eyes of God. But, after he and his men took the armory, he realize that he had no way to let the enslaved people know about his plan without raising an alarm that would bring state and federal militias against him and his cohorts. So, to make sure the outside world wouldn’t hear of the capture of the armory, Brown ordered the telegraph lines to be cut.

But he forgot about the train. Some of his men shot at a train that pulled through Harper’s Ferry, and the train managed to make its way down the tracks to a station that had a working telegraph. The train crew sent out word about the situation in Harper’s Ferry, and, soon, a detachment of marines were dispatched to recapture the armory and arrest the insurrectionists. Within seven hours, Brown and his men found themselves surrounded by the marines and other various militia groups who had come on their own accord.

The colonel in charge of the marines sent a message under a flag of truce into the armory, telling Brown and his fellow rebels that they would be protected if they surrendered and gave up all their arms. Brown refused the terms. That led the colonel to order a full assault on the armory. Inside the building, a short but bloody skirmish took place that saw the marines quickly regain control. Afterward, Brown lay seriously injured by a saber blow and several of his men, a few marines, and some civilians Brown had taken hostage were either hurt or killed.

Brown’s actions were first seen as being terrible and radical, especially in the south. Pro-slavery proponents pointed out that his actions were the natural result of uninhibited and dangerous abolitionist rhetoric. After the initial shock of the violence, people in the north began to speak of Brown in glowing terms, began to see him as a shining example of liberty and freedom as defined in the American founding documents. Many today see Brown’s attempted rebellion as the first shots of the American Civil War.

After Brown was finally executed by hanging for his insurrection, people began eulogizing him in literature and song. John Brown’s Body became a refrain sung by Union troops as the Civil War began two years later. In part, it said, “John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave, but his truth is marching on.” Julia Ward Howe changed those words to what we now know as the Battle Hymn of the Republic–leaving out references to Brown but keeping the ideas of the ware being a blow for freedom against slavery.

Oh, and remember that colonel who led the marines in the recapture of the armory at Harper’s Ferry? The one who penned the surrender terms to Brown?

He was offered the command of the Union Army by President Lincoln as the Civil War began.

But, as we know, Robert E. Lee turned down that offer.

On an Exoneration

We’re probably all familiar with pardons. A pardon says that you committed the offense, but you do not have to serve the punishment or pay the penalty for what you did. An exoneration on the other hand is different; it says you did nothing wrong in the first place. In this case, the person exonerated is named Elizabeth Johnson, and her story is quite phenomenal. You see, Elizabeth had been wrongly sentenced to death by a jury of her peers for crimes that we will look into in a moment.

It seems that a middle school class in Andover, Massachusetts, heard about Elizabeth’s case, and their teacher helped them research her situation. After looking at all aspects of Elizabeth’s evidence and the testimony both for and against her, the kids decided that she was completely innocent of the crimes she was convicted of. These amazing young people took the case of Elizabeth Johnson to heart and set out to learn as much as they could about her.

Elizabeth was born in North Andover, and she never married and never had children. Her family was fairly well-known; she was the granddaughter of a prominent minister in the area, and she was named after her mother (Elizabeth’s family referred to her as “Junior” because of this.). She was tried and convicted for her “crimes” when she was only 22 years old. While she had been sentenced to death, the death sentence had been commuted.

But the schoolkids wanted to prove that Elizabeth was completely innocent of the crimes and weren’t happy with a mere commutation of her death penalty. The kids were shocked to learn that not a small number people on death row today have been falsely convicted of their capital crimes. They researched the Massachusetts justice and legislative systems to determine exactly how to assemble the proper evidence, fill in the right forms, follow the correct procedure, and send all of that to the appropriate people to expedite Elizabeth’s exoneration. Their teacher noted that they become so obsessed with the case that almost all other schoolwork went by the wayside, but she could not help but admire their determination to make right what they saw to be a serious miscarriage of justice.

And it worked. In 2022, the Massachusetts State Legislature passed legislation that completely exonerated Elizabeth Johnson, Jr.

You’d think that Elizabeth would be grateful for the tireless work of these young people. You’d think that she would go to the school and thank these wonderful children in person. Of course, she didn’t, but that wasn’t because she was indifferent or ungrateful.

It’s because Elizabeth’s conviction for witchcraft in Salem happened 329 years ago.

On a Loyal Soldier

Major Yoshimi Taniguchi of the Japanese Imperial Army distinguished himself for bravery during World War 2. He and his command fought in the Philippines, occupying the nation for over 2 years before the Americans under General Douglas MacArthur retook much of the Philippines before the war ended in the summer of 1945. His tenacity and bravery in the face of overwhelming American firepower and personnel during the recapture endeared him to his men who said that they would follow Taniguchi to the ends of the earth if he so commanded. Stationed on an island off the northwest coast of the Philippines, Taniguchi told his men to hold out as long as they could as the Americans made their way across the island. He and his men were some of the last Japanese soldiers to surrender when the war ended.

Taniguchi returned home to a country not only devastated by the bombings (both conventional and atomic), but Japan also faced economic shortages of food and basic living necessities, and the embarrassment of having lost the war. Yet, he was praised by his men and his family for his war service to the Emperor and the nation. He took pride in this fact. Like the overwhelming majority of his fellow citizens, he set about the task of rebuilding Japanese society. By the early 1970s, the former army officer had been working as bookseller in his hometown. It was by no means glamorous, but it was good, honest work befitting a man of his character.

As the 30th anniversary of the end of the war approached, the Japanese government contacted Taniguchi and asked him if he would be willing to return to the Philippines to reunite with some of his former soldiers. The government promised to take care of all expenses. Now, Taniguchi hadn’t thought much about such reunions. He never really kept in contact with his fellow servicemen in the ensuing years. Yet, there was one soldier, a Lt. Onoda, whom he had often thought about in the previous 30 years and wondered what had happened to him. Onoda was as loyal a soldier as you could find, Taniguchi thought. The reunion promised to reunite him with this man. Taniguchi realized that it would be a good thing to see Onoda after such a long time, and so he agreed to the trip.

While so much had changed on the island since Taniguchi had left in 1945, the jungle and the heat and the mosquitoes had not changed, he noticed. And, on March 9, 1974, on a trail in the jungle, he was reunited with his former fellow soldier, Lt. Onoda. Interestingly, Onoda wore his old uniform to the meeting. As Major Taniguchi approached his old comrade, Onoda snapped to attention more out of habit than anything else. Taniguchi returned Onoda’s sharp salute, and told the man to stand at ease.

“Lieutenant,” Taniguchi began, “I honor your service to your Emperor, your nation, and your fellow soldiers.” And, surprisingly, Taniguchi bowed low before the man who had been his subordinate. Then he straightened and and continued, his eyes moist with tears.

“The war ended 30 years ago, Lieutenant. You have to face the facts about that. I order you to stand down.”

And, because his commanding officer ordered him to do so, after living in hiding in the jungles of the Philippines, Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda officially and ceremonially surrendered and turned over his gun to the Philippine army–almost 30 years after the war ended.

On a Circumnavigation

Your history books will tell you that Ferdinand Magellan captained the first expedition that sailed around the world in the early 1500s. If you remember your high school class, you’ll recognize that Magellan actually was killed by the inhabitants of what is now the Philippines, and it fell to one of his officers named Elcano to complete the voyage and, thus, become the person to get credited with the first around the world trip.

That period of history in Europe was filled with firsts, of course. Since Columbus made his trip only thirty years before, voyage after voyage left Portugal and Spain and went to the Americas. Those ships returned to Europe with the treasures of the newly recognized lands–gold, silver, other raw materials–and humans as well. The slave trade is a direct result of the Age of Exploration. In fact, Magellan took a slave with him on his ill-fated voyage, a man who had been given the name Enrique. No one, including Enrique, seemed to know his origin, but he was bought by Magellan as his personal slave for the journey.

Magellan’s trip had issues from the start. He himself was Portuguese, but he sailed for the King of Spain. Magellan’s Spanish crew resented him for this. By the time the first leg of the journey was completed in what is now Argentina, much of the crew mutinied. Magellan swiftly put down the mutiny and regained control by beheading the mutiny leaders and offloading others on the unfriendly coastline. That was followed by the harrowing journey through what is now the Strait or Straits of Magellan at the toe end of South America. The crew then didn’t see land for over 100 days. Scurvy, other sicknesses, and more talk of mutiny ensued. Finally, the voyage reached what was probably Guam, where the grateful crew spent some time enjoying land under their feet (and several local inhabitants were killed as well, sadly).

Finally, the voyage reached the Philippines. Without going into the details, the Europeans and the locals clashed, and the result was Magellan’s death at the hands of the locals. Despite the firepower of the Spanish men’s muskets, Magellan was felled by a poison arrow fired at him during a skirmish with one of the tribes there. That was when the expedition’s leadership fell to Elcano. With only one ship remaining and over 80% of the original crew that left Spain the previous year dead from one cause or another, the survivors of Magellan’s trip limped back to their home port in September of 1522 after a journey of over 50,000 sea miles.

Interestingly, it turned out that one of the members of Magellan’s crew had been able to understand and speak the language of the people in the Philippines. That person was Magellan’s slave, Enrique.

Now, if you think about it, Enrique had to have gotten from the Philippines to Spain one way or another. And that makes him–not Magellan or even Elcano–the first person to circumnavigate the globe.

On a Reformed Criminal

The age-old argument about incarceration centers around the reason for putting a criminal in jail. Is the primary purpose of imprisonment meant to be more punishment, or should it be more about rehabilitation? In the case of Eugene, it was both, really. He had been a career or life-long criminal. At almost the age of 40 and during a rare period he was not in jail, Eugene heard that a man with whom he had committed several crimes was executed by the state for murder. The news of his former partner’s death changed him.

So, Eugene decided to go straight. He still had some time inside that he owed to the state, but he told his captors as he went to prison that he wished to provide them with insider information in exchange for an early release. The chief of police of the national capital city agreed, and Eugene became a snitch. Except that no one really knew his identity because he gave his reports directly to the chief through codes sent through several channels. And Eugene’s information was amazing. His long history in crime had given him credibility in prison, and the other crooks trusted him and looked up to him. So, they told him all their plans, all their past misdeeds, and all their nefarious connections in the major cities of the country. And it all went to the ear of the chief of police through Eugene.

Having kept his part of the bargain (incredibly, so, given the amount and veracity of his information), and the chief kept his part, too. Eugene was released, but the authorities made it look like an escape so that his reputation both in and out of prison would remain intact in case his snitching skills were ever needed again. In fact, Eugene became an undercover police officer. He used his connections and reputation to gain entry to some of the most notorious criminal gangs in the nation. He would slide easily into and out of costumes, personalities, and personas to infiltrate into the core of gangs, cutthroats, drug rings, and illegal gambling operations. Crime decreased dramatically nationwide because of Eugene’s efforts as an undercover cop.

It was at this point that Eugene had a brainstorm. If he could be this effective as a plainclothes policeman, surely an entire division of the police department, all made up of former (now trusted and reformed) criminals could be super efficient at stopping crime. The police chief agreed, and he gave Eugene the authority to establish an undercover squad for this purpose. Eventually, 28 former criminals and former jailbirds made up Eugene’s secret, undercover police squad. They soon led the nation in major crimes arrests and convictions. The group uncovered assassination plots against politicians, they foiled bank robberies, and they broke up counterfeiting rings.

But there was one problem. Eugene was still on the books as a wanted, escaped criminal. His arrangement had been with the chief of police and not with the magistrates and the court system. A pardon was requested, and, because of his great service to the nation over the years through the work of the undercover squad, Eugene received his pardon. For the first time in his life, he was truly a free, unwanted man. But his collaborator, the chief of police, was replaced by a man who didn’t like the idea of a group of policemen in his department being made up of former criminals, and he began putting pressure on Eugene to get rid of the squad and replace them with “straight” policemen. Eugene saw the handwriting on the wall, and, after over a decade of solid and valuable police work, he tendered his resignation.

Eventually, Eugene put his years of work on both sides of the law to work as a private investigator. And, as he did when he worked for the police, he hired both male and female convicts as his agency’s operatives. The business thrived–perhaps too well. Soon, the police themselves began to complain that Eugene’s company was taking cases and solving them to the point that they had little work to do. His inventive and creative processes of documenting and analyzing such things as crime scenes and of identifying criminals have become standard stuff in not only private investigating firms but also in most police forces worldwide. If you’ve seen a line-up, a photo array of potential perpetrators, a systematic cataloging and documenting of a crime scene, plaster casts of shoeprints, bullet ballistics, and so on, then you’ve seen something pioneered by Eugene. When he died in 1857 in Paris in his 80s, he was lauded as a great pioneer of police work.

You don’t know his name–Eugene Vidocq–but you know the word that describes him: Detective. And, since Eugene, every private and police detective, both in real life and in fiction, are modeled after him and his methods.

Not bad for a career criminal, eh?

On the Queen’s Death

It’s been some time now since Queen Elizabeth died peacefully in her sleep at her residence. She deserves a moment of reflection by us on a life well lived. While her death was not from an accident or some other misfortune, it was still somewhat of a shock to the nation. When any monarch rules as long as she did, to think that she no longer sat on the throne stunned most of her loyal and loving subjects.

Elizabeth had spoken of death many times. “I know I am mortal,” she said once in a speech to Parliament, “and have prepared myself for death, whenever it shall please God to send it.” Her measured words, delivered in a calm, matter of fact manner, reminded all of her nation that death is no respecter of persons, that it visits both rube and royal, both commoner and king.

She was literally born to rule if anyone ever was. Her father, a ruler who saw the nation through perilous times and through terrible struggles, who led the nation for much of the middle part of the previous century, had not produced a son. It had therefore fallen to Elizabeth to assume the throne at a young age when the crown was vacated. At the time, some questioned whether such a young girl could rule, could wield power, and hold the nation together, but Elizabeth more than proved her detractors wrong.

When she passed, a simple notice was made on the gates of the residence. A crowd had gathered after hearing of her being unwell, expecting the worst but praying for the best. The murmured prayers and lit candles on behalf of the beloved monarch stretched up and down the street in front of the gates. After the announcement, the assembled crowd fell into hushed reverence, as the prayers became silent ones for both Queen and country.

As you know, Elizabeth’s funeral was attended by hundreds of dignitaries. The amount of sorrow over her death and the respect for her years of service affected all who saw the event. People began to wonder what would happen to the nation now that Elizabeth was gone. What would the new King be like as a monarch? Even if the incoming monarch were to prove capable and a good ruler, the consensus was that there would never be another like her.

And Elizabeth also had a way of engaging her people with her life. She set trends for the modern monarchy but also in the areas of the arts and fashion as well. Historians will continue to look to her time as monarch as sort of a golden age in the nation that may well never come again.

In fact, Queen Elizabeth I, who died in March, 1603, is known today as the greatest queen in England’s storied history.

On an Administrative Conference

The United States is a nation of laws. In other posts, we have talked about how the courthouse is at the center of the county administration in the various towns and cities in the US. This is different from some of Europe where the church is often the center of town. Not that laws are not important to Europe, because they are. The point is that Americans believe strongly in the rule of law, and that concept lies at the center of American democracy. All American law springs from the US Constitution. So it is imperative that if some administrative action is to be enacted in the United States that it be codified into a law.

That concept is not unique to the United States, of course. I am thinking on this day of the codification of certain concepts in Germany 81 years ago. On January 20, 1942, a collection of administrators, including several licensed attorneys, eight of them holding doctorates, met in a villa in a suburb of Berlin to discuss the changing of citizenship laws in the country and how to deal with the movement of displaced persons in areas under their control.

From a purely superficial, administrative perspective, this meeting was necessary. The organizers argued that the war had created increasingly large areas of Europe to administer and had produced a large number of refugees going in all directions. By 1942, the military gains by Germany required a reshuffling of German citizenship law. And, being mostly attorneys and administrators, they all recognized the need to have these changes codified.

These reclassification proposals targeted 11 million people in Europe.  Again, you can begin to see that the administrative tasks were overwhelming in the minds of these administrators. You had to deal with transportation issues, food, clothing, healthcare, as well as housing. Not to mention the fact you were dealing with several different languages all across German occupied Europe. And the people were from several other nations and ethnicities.

And, again, these same types of questions are facing the United States today. Should we in the US grant these people any kind of civil rights that are normally reserved for citizens only? What obligations do we have for their welfare if they are not, to put it not politically correctly, of our kind? Maybe we don’t grant these refugees any rights at all, some people argue. Sadly, there are politicians in the United States who are treating the refugees as less than human.

And it may not surprise you that every one of those administrators at this conference in the outskirts of Berlin in 1942 felt exactly the same in dealing with the influx of what they considered “others.”

In fact, the codification of laws that the Nazis discussed at this meeting held in Wannsee on January 20, 1942, ultimately decided that the best and most efficient way to deal with the Jews was simply to kill them all.

On Discovering a Body

Erika and Helmut loved climbing in the mountains. Germans have long been mountain climbers even before the pastime became a middle-class sporting activity. In mid-September, 1991, the couple were on a climbing vacation and hiking near a glacier along the Austrian/Italian border when they came upon the body.

The man was clearly dead, and, being in the Alps, the pair assumed that the man died of injuries sustained in pursing mountain climbing. After all, the hobby is not without its inherent dangers; rock and snowslides, sudden storms, altitude sickness, and more can overtake even the most experienced climbers. So, accidental death seemed to be obvious thing for Erika and Helmut to assume when they contacted the authorities and reported finding the body.

Their assumptions were wrong. First of all, the man had no ID on him. Forensic scientists believed he was around 45 years old, and he was fairly short (about 5’5″ or 1.7 meters tall) and thin. His clothes were simple and the things scattered near his body told of someone who was in the mountains for something other than sport. Moreover, the scientists could tell that this man had been healthy when he died. And then the mystery deepened. They found the wounds. The man had been shot through his shoulder, and the projectile had hit a major artery. They had found the cause of death, at least.

As to who shot him, well, there was no way to tell. The ice from the glacier had preserved him, luckily, but that did not help the doctors with what led him to be in that place at that time and receive the fatal wound he received. They were confident at the time that where he was found by Erika and Helmut was where the man had died; in other words, the body had not been moved there by the killer. However, it was later proven that the man had been killed elsewhere and the body was moved to the place where the German hiking tourists found him.

But who–or what–moved him?

We know that, most likely, the man’s body was moved not by a human but rather by the ice that had preserved his body. In fact, the body may have been moved a considerable distance by the ice. And that wound, that shot, still perplexed the scientists. After some full body scans, they discovered that the projectile was still in the body. But this information brought them no closer to determining who killed this mystery man.

On the other hand, the finding of the projectile did help them date the killing of the man, at least generally. You see, the projectile lodged in the man’s shoulder was an arrowhead. And the man found by Erika and Helmut, so well preserved by the ice that he looked like someone who had died recently and discovered in the Otztal Alps, probably died of his wound some 5,400 years ago.

He’s known today as Otzi, the Iceman.