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Friday, January 09, 2015

THE ACOLYTE OF TERROR

I begin by introducing you to the second son of a pretentious prater-progenitor of the provenance of panic, Jean-Baptiste Hertel. Born in 1678 in the forest outpost of Trois-Rivières on the St. Laurence River, midway between the fortress of Quebec (above)  and the trading station of Montreal, Jean-Baptiste had little choice but to be a warrior. In his distant motherland, the self absorbed Sun King, Louis XIV, was dissipating the treasures of France on European wars . Meanwhile, in the new world, dwarfed by the rapacious and prolific Protestant New England settlers to their south, and surrounded by the more numerous and often hostile Iroquois Confederacy, the Catholic people of “Canady” were left isolated and vulnerable.

Jean-Baptiste's father, Joseph Francis Hertel, raised his seven sons to follow the military and political strategy he had blazed – seemingly random and ruthless joint French and Indian raids descending without warning from the dark forests to burn English settler homes and mills and murder or kidnap the farmers, their wives and children. The French -Canadian objective was convince English settlers the frontier was too dangerous to claim, and to keep the English and the local tribes “irreconcilable enemies”, as the new Governor General of New France, Philippe Vaudreuil, put it.. 
And it worked. By the winter of 1704, when 34 year old Jean-Baptiste (above) set out to lead his first and most infamous raid, he was the best and brightest that New France had to offer the world, “An officer of great courage, but per-eminently cruel and vindictive.” In other words he was an effective and unapologetic terrorist.
Lieutenant Jean-Baptiste launched his first raid from the new wooden stockade at Fort Chambly (above), 15 miles south of Montreal, at the base of the falls on the Iroquois (aka Richelieu) River. 
Early in the new year, Jean-Baptiste's forty-eight experienced local militia (including three of his brothers) along with 200 Abenaki, Iroquois, Wyandot, and Pocumtuc warriors paddled upstream, south, to Lake Champlain, then southward again along the eastern shore to the mouth of the Winooski River. 
From here they marched on snowshoes one hundred miles to the southeast,  up the Winooski Valley which cut through the Green Mountains. Their greatest obstacle would be the 30 mile leg over the final ridge separating them from the White River that ran east before joining the Connecticut River. Here they were joined by 40 Pennacook warriors, before making the 60 mile march, due south, toward the English settlement of Deerfield, 300 miles from Fort Chambly.
The community of Deerfield had been established forty years earlier by farmers seeking both the rich Connecticut Valley soil and the 100 miles distance from the Puritanical leadership of Cotton Mather's Massachusetts Bay Colony. 
But in September of 1665, when the wagons baring the harvest paused just south of Deerfield to cross “Muddy Creek”,  Indians attacked the stalled wagons, killing 90 men, stealing the horses, stealing or destroying the year's crop, and rechristening the stream as “Bloody Creek”.. Without food for the coming winter, the 200 residents were forced to abandon the town.
Back in 1704, 30 miles north of Deerfield, Lt. Hertel established a a cache of supplies for their return, just as his father, Joseph-Francis Hertel had done on that patriarch’s famous 1690 raid on Salmon Falls (above). In that predawn attack,  50 raiders (in old Cotton Mather's words, “Half Indianized Frenchmen, and half Frenchified Indians”) had dragged 35 English men, women and children from their beds and murdered them. And then burned the town to the ground.
 The “raiders” had then marched 54 mostly women and children away as prisoners. Any who could not keep up were killed. 
Once back in Canada the captives were divided up, and their fate depended on the whims of their new native masters. Prisoners that could later be ransomed from the Indians were the only bargaining chip New France had with New England. The terror attack which cost just two wounded men, made Joseph-Francis   Hertel an official “Hero” in Quebec, and the governor applied to the Louis XIV to raise the family into the nobility. The only dark note for the French was that “Hero” Hertel was one of the wounded, and this would be his last raid.
The New Englanders reoccupied Deerfield in the 1690's. They repaired abandoned homes and built new ones, and strengthened the palisade in the center of town. Individual residents were still occasionally being killed by marauding warriors, so when, during late January of 1704 the 300 residents received word of a large raiding party spotted on Lake Champlain, 30 militiamen from the fishing villages of coastal Massachusetts were brought west to bolster the town's own 70 man militia force. But over the next month, the isolation, the cold, the snow and the long dark nights, bred complacency in the village and its guardians.
From their “cold camp” two miles north, Lieutenant Hertel made his final scout of Deerfield, noting the lax guards and the snow drifts left piled up against the northern wall of the stockade. It appeared the stage was set for Jean-Baptiste to better his father's 1690 triumph. An hour before dawn, Friday, 29 February, 1704, a handful of raiders used the drifts to clamber over the wooden walls and open the front gates, admitting invaders into the village's inner sanctum. At the same time, the Indian intruders burst into the outlying homes of other residents and began killing and destoying.
The new village minister, John Williams, was awakened as the Indian's burst into his home,  “with axes and hatchets... to the number of twenty, with painted faces, and hideous acclamations. I reached...for my pistol...I...put it to the breast of the first Indian who came up, but my pistol missing fire, I was seized by 3 Indians who disarmed me, and bound me naked...(they then) fell to rifling the house...some were so cruel and barbarous as to...carry to the door two of my children (John Jr.,6, and an infant daughter, Jerushah) as also a Negro woman” ( his slave Parthena), and murder them.   Perhaps the “barbarous” enemy were members of the Pocumtuc tribe, an entire innocent village of whom had been butchered, man, woman and child, by the New Englanders a few winters earlier.
The noise of the assault on the William's home had awakened the seven guards sleeping in the house next door. When the raiders attempted to rush that building the militia shot down at least one of the attackers, forcing them into a costly firefight. 
The same confrontations were repeated inside the stockade, with the raiders suffering 2 Frenchmen and 9 Indians killed, and another 22 wounded, including Jean-Baptiste and one of his brothers. They had killed 39 villagers, and captured 112 prisoners. But the village remained, although almost half the  homes had been burned, and reinforcements were rushing to their relief. Fitting the adult captives with snow shoes and carrying the younger children on their shoulders through the 3 foot deep snow, Lt. Hertel's wounded force began to limp back to Canada.  Jean-Baptiste would now be forever known as “The Sacker of Deerfield”.
At least seven prisoners died within 48 hours – a male black slave murdered for sport by drunken Indians on the first night, two separate infants dashed against trees when the mothers could not keep up, two young girls and two adult women, including Reverend William's wife, all clubbed to death because they could not maintain the 12 miles a day demanded by the raiders. The raiders were forced to pause several times to bury their own, who had died from their wounds. In all, out of the 112 captives, 21 died and were murdered on the seven week long march back to Fort Chamby.  French and Indian losses must have at least equaled that number.
Governor General Vaudreuil would try to put the best face on “The Deerfield Masacure”,  but the raid proved to a political embarrassment  for New France. The French could no longer simply blame the Indians for the cruel murder of so many women and children. And because of their high causalities, the native peoples proved difficult to recruit for another raid for a few years. Worse, the Indians were beginning to realize how valuable the English hostages were for their French partners, and their prices began to go up, which meant their profitability to New France went down.
Two years later 60 of the hostages, including Reverend Williams and four of his children, were returned to New England.   William's youngest surviving child, Eunice, converted to Catholicism and was adopted into a Mohawk family. She, like many other of the younger children  chose to stay in Canada. She wrote to her father, but never visited her brothers and sisters until after their father had died, in 1721. Eunice married a Mohawk man and together they raised four children.
The Reverend William's book on his captivity, co-written with Cotton Mather, became one of the best selling books in colonial America. Most of “The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion” was an attack on Catholicism. Bu in post revolutionary America, those stories which dealt with William's Indian captors were borrowed by James Fenimore Cooper, and incorporated into that author's 1826 classic, “The Last of the Mohicans”
Jean-Baptiste Hertel never led another raid by himself, and within a few years was quietly assigned other duties. In 1713 he was finally promoted to Captain, but that was as far as he got. He died in 1721, just a month after his terrorist trainer, 80 year Joseph-Francois Hertel, also died.    The acolyte of terror, his father's son, “The Sacker of Deerfield”, was just 54 years old, and offers a troubling hero for modern day French Canadians.
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Wednesday, January 07, 2015

LESSON LEARNED

I was curious why the the tragedy of 17 July, 1944 happened. That it happened just five weeks after the D-Day invasion of Normandy, which in the first 24 hours left 19,000 dead and wounded on both sides, and two weeks after the United States Navy invaded Saipan in the central Pacific, which over the next month killed or wound another 66,000, was no coincidence. But even those horrors cannot detract from the anguish of 320 killed and 390 injured in a split second on an isolated pier in a Northern California backwater. The tragedy of Port Chicago was a mere drop of blood into a world wide abattoir, where on average 220 Americans were killed in combat each day. Still it is not enough to say it happened because during a war human life is cheap. The victims of Port Chicago and their families deserve the respect of an explanation. Why did what happened, happen?
It happened because of extraordinary geology. It took 3 million years for the the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers to carve a deep canyon to the sea. Then, just 10,000 years ago, the rising ocean filled the gorge creating 275 miles of nooks and crannies, lobes and outlets. For 400 years ocean going ships have sailed through the mile wide Golden Gate, slipping between the sentries of Angel and Alcatraz islands, then north beyond San Quentin Point, west through San Rafael Bay and passed the broad mouth of the Napa River, beyond San Pablo Bay and the Carquinez Strait, and passed Roe and Ryer Islands, thirty miles inland to a deep water port on the south shore of Suisin Bay, just nine miles from the mouth of the Sacramento - San Joaquin delta, that is the head of San Francisco Bay.
It happened because just after 5:00 p.m. on 10 July, 1926, a bolt of lightning set off fires in New Jersey that over the next three days set off 600,000 tons of World War One surplus explosives, destroying 200 buildings and killing 21 souls. Because of this multi-billion inflation adjusted dollar disaster, the U.S. Navy established a new west coast ammunition depot in the Nevada desert, forty miles south south-west of Lake Tahoe, far from most thunderstorms, in the isolated desert village of Hawthorne. After Pearl Harbor, the 5,000 employees at this facility assembled and shipped almost all of the explosives used in the Pacific, from Naval TNT (Trinitrotoluene) shells, Torpex (50% stronger than TNT) torpedoes and sea mines, and Marine Corps TNT mortar and artillery shells. The assembled mayhem was then shipped by rail 120 miles over the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Port Chicago, California..
It happened because in 1928 California was hit by a drought that would last until 1937. In response the state and federal governments approved large scale water projects, like the Shasta dam on the Sacramento River headwaters, and the Central Valley project on the upper San Joaquin River, and many smaller one, like the Contra Costa Canal, which diverted fresh water around the delta. In 1940 the canal reached the head of the San Francisco bay. This ensured potable water for the 1,700 residents of the little town of Port Chicago. Serviced by three railroad lines, it boasted 660 homes, three hotels, a small shopping district – even a movie theater. The canal also guaranteed water for the new naval base and dock on the water front a mile and a half to the north.
It happened because in 1922 Annapolis graduate Merrill Talmadge Kinne resigned from the United States Navy. In his seven years of service, he had risen to the rank of commander, and was being groomed as a staff officer.   But the Washington Naval treaty signed that year required the scrapping of 30 combat ships under construction or planned, and cutting the existing U.S. fleet from 774 to 365 ships. Seeing this contraction, the 28 year old Merrill traded in his uniform for a business suit. He remained in the Naval Reserve but did not go to sea again until he was called back in 1941. Now a 48 year old, Captain Merrill quietly commanded a supply transport for two years, until April of 1944,  when he was given the command of Port Chicago. He had no training in handling munitions, and at 50 had spent just nine years in uniform, but 19 years selling men's clothing
It happened because until 1932 African-Americans were not accepted into the Navy, because, as one report insisted “The enlistment of Negros...leads to disruptive and undermining conditions....” Pearl Harbor and a Presidential order broke through the racism, but African-Americans were still not allowed to serve on combat vessels because they had “poor eyesight”. 
So all 1,400 stevedores loading explosives at Port Chicago were black. Racism forced these men to walk half a mile to use a “colored” toilet. Because there was just one commissary building, blacks had to wait outside until all whites had finished their meals. They were provided no public transport off the base, and even if they walked the mile and a half,  they could not even enter the movie house at the town of Port Chicago.  No wonder they described the base as a “slave labor camp”. 
Institutional racism encouraged the white officers to discount enlisted men's  suggestions for safety or efficiency. Even when the supervising white U.S. Coast Guard Commander Paul Cronk warned that working conditions at Port Chicago were “ripe for disaster”,  he was ignored. As a protest, and to protect his own men, he withdrew his crew from the base. The stevedores had no such option.
It happened because sixteen at a time the rail cars packed with explosives from Hawthorne were pushed on three parallel rail spurs onto the 90 foot wide, 1, 200 foot long pier. Each “division” of 100 stevedores unloaded the cars by hand, transferred the ammunition to cargo nets, which a boom winch lowered down a hatch into one of the ship's 5 holds and re-packed them by hand.
Competition between divisions were encouraged, the goal being ten tons per hour, but the average speed being closer to seven. Running totals for each division were posted on chalk boards, with junior officers wagering on the results. Safety was not entirely ignored, just mostly. 
On the land side were 27 barricaded sidings where 203 rail cars could be safely “parked” until they were needed. The administrative buildings were a mile inland, including 4 navy enlisted (black) and one marine (white) barracks. During its first year of operation, 39 ships were loaded at Port Chicago with 115,000 tons of high explosives. Command was on target to more than double that amount for 1944.
It happened because on 17 July the SS E. A. Bryon was preparing to start her second voyage, which meant she had already earned the $1.5 million invested in building her.
Her keel, number 2761, had been laid down on 11 February, 1944 at the Kaiser Permanente Shipyard Number Two, in Richmond, California - less than 20 miles from Port Chicago. Eighteen 24 hour work days later she hit the water, and just eight days after that she went into service. 
Named after a popular president of Washington State University, she was one of 2,700 “Ugly Ducklings” built during the war. Each "Liberty Ship" was 441 feet long and 28 feet wide, with three holds forward of the central island and two toward the stern. Her best speed was barely 11 knots. And at 8:15 the morning of 17 July, 1944, she tied up on the land side of the Port Chicago pier, and at ten that morning started taking on cargo.
It happened because by night fall the number five (stern) hold of the Byron was stuffed with  40mm cannon shells. Her number four hold held  462 tons of fragmentation and cluster bombs. The Byron's number three hold (midships) contained 525 tons of 1,000 pound bombs. The  number two hold held 565 tons of Mark 47 Torpex air dropped sea mines. And the number one (bow) hold was still being loaded with “live” 660 pound incendiary bombs. 
Still less than half full, at 10:00 p.m. the Byron contained 3,600 tons of high explosives. There were another 1,000 tons waiting to be unloaded from the rail cars when, at eighteen minutes and forty-four seconds after ten, the S.S. Byron blew up.
Seismographs in Berkeley recorded the explosion at that moment, as a 3.4 on the Richter scale. The 25 million pound Byron, her cargo, her crew, most of the pier, the box cars sitting on it, the steam locomotives moving rail cars, and 320 human beings were all vaporized. A 66 foot deep, 300 feet wide and 700 foot long crater was carved into the sea bed beneath where the Byron had floated an instant before. 
A larger cargo ship, S.S. "Quinalt Victory", which was waiting to be loaded on the bay side of the wharf, was lifted out of the water by the explosion, torn in half, and its stern left floating 500 yards into Suisin Bay (above). A Coast Guard fire boat stationed at the end of the wharf was thrown 600 feet and destroyed.. 
 Three thousand feet from the center of the blast, the Roe Island lighthouse (above)  was shattered by the blast wave moments before a 30 foot tidal wave shoved the entire structure 40 feet up the beach.
Commercial pilots at 9,000 feet reported house sized hull fragments of the ships flying past their plane. A mile and a half south of the base every home in Port Chicago was damaged. 
The northern wall of the crowded movie theater (above)  buckled as if punched by a giant fist and the ceiling fell - but none of the 192 white patrons were injured. 
Debris fell two miles away. Forty miles away the fireball 3 miles in diameter clearly visable. People 200 miles away heard the blast. The explosion was comparable in size to that which would occur one year and three weeks later over Hiroshima, Japan.
Three weeks and one day later, on August 8, 1944. 328 African-American stevedore survivors at Port Chicago refused to load another Liberty Ship, the USS Sangay,  unless their officers were replaced and safety procedures were improved.  Eventually 208 men were reassigned to menial duties until finally issued a dishonorable discharge. Another 50 were convicted of mutiny and sentenced to hard labor. After the end of the war the fifty were released and given a “general discharge under honorable circumstances”.
The irrational disparity of punishments made no more sense than the reasons some lived while others died in the explosion. Within a few months, a Navy review board offered lessons learned, and last on their list of suggestions, was: “The inadvisability of employing 100% colored ordnance battalions to handle and load ammunition was amply demonstrated.”  It wasn't much as a lesson, and the language invited misunderstanding and false justification. But for the victims, each distanced now from the blast by space and time, the tragedy like Port Chicago without any understanding was pure farce. And surely we can do better than that, three quarters of a century later..
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Sunday, January 04, 2015

BELLE OF BEDLHAM

I wonder what was going through the mind of lawyer M.E. Leliter, on the afternoon 27 April, 1908, when he was told Mrs. Belle Gunness was in the anteroom of his Main Street office. I doubt he was pleased to see her. But you never think the worse, do you?  Belle was a genial and pleasant, 48 year old church-going woman, but substantial. And at 6 feet, even taller than "M.E.".  Community gossips said that Belle had been seen carrying two 100 pound hogs, one under each arm.. Still, "M.E." thought he could detect the aura of hidden pain behind Belle's sharp blue Nordic eyes.
In Chicago, the stout young Belle (above) had buried two of her children -  not an unusual tragedy in the nineteenth century.  But then,  in 1900,  her husband Anton Sorenson, had died of heart disease. With the proceeds from Anton’s two life insurance policies,  Belle and her three daughters had purchesed a farm on the northeast outskirts of La Porte Indiana, out on McClung Road past Pine and Fish Trap lakes. 
It was there a year later she had married widower Peter Gunness.  on 1 April, 1902.  But tragedy seemed to have followed Belle.  That very summer, Peter’s young daughter had died after a short illness. And then in December, Peter himself had been struck on the head by a falling sausage grinder, and killed. Well, life on a farm was hard, and dangerous.  And "M.E". forced a smile as he stepped out to greet the lumbering,  280 pound now middle aged woman.  But this day Belle was not interested in pleasantries. Someone, Belle announced,  wanted to murder her.
Her tale had a tinge of unreality to "M.E,"'s ears.  He was one of the most prominent of the 14,000 citizens of La Porte,  Indiana. Fifteen passenger trains a day passed through on their way to Chicago, 60 miles to the northwest.  Perched atop the prairie, the town was surrounded by farms, including the one owned by "M.E.", and, of course,  Belle's. But it was also home to the Meinaid Rumely Factory, whose 2,000 employees assembled steam powered thrashers,  and were rushing to manufacture one of the world’s first internal combustion farm tractors, the “Kerosene Annie”.
As befitted a prosperous middle class community, just down the street from "M.E."’s office stood the new red sandstone Romanesque Court House (above), with oak paneled court rooms and stained glass windows. The disturbed Belle and her accusations seemed more fitting to the lurid crime ridden alleys of Chicago than the small, quiet, proper, Victorian, La Porte, Indiana.
The potential assassin was Ray Lamphere (above), who until recently had been Belle’s hired hand. Six weeks ago, Belle said,  she had fired Ray, and he had threatened her and her two youngest daughters. “I'm afraid he's going to kill me and burn the house,” Belle told "M.E." . Thank goodness Belle’s eldest daughter, Jennie, was safely away at a finishing school in Los Angeles.  Yes, Belle had spoken with the police. Twice she had charged Ray with trespassing. But, explained the angry Belle,  the police had refused to grant her a protection order, and had dismissed her allegation that Ray was insane. Now, out of an excess of caution, Belle wanted to amend her will.  She wanted to be certain that her estate would to go to her children. And, if for some reason, they were deceased,  then Belle wanted all her property to go to a Norwegian orphanage back in Chicago.  "M.E." took down the information, and made an appointment for Belle to return in a few days to sign the completed document.
Then shocking news came with the morning light. There had been a terrible fire at the Gunness farm in the early morning hours of 28 April, 1908.  Despite the noble efforts of Belle’s new hired hand, and two passing men, no one had made it out of the house alive.  Eventually the beams and the furniture had crashed into the basement.
By noon the heat had retreated enough for workers to shift the ashes. There they found the pitiful bodies of Belle’s three children, Myrtle and Lucy Sorensen, and Philip Gunness, aged 5,  as well as the blackened, headless corpse of a woman presumed to be Belle. And when the cops arrested Ray Lamphere, he blurted out, “Did widow Gunness and the kids get out all right?”  It seemed an open and shut case. Except... when told of the bodies, and of the charges Belle had made against him the day before,  Ray was heard to ruefully say, “After all,  she wanted me killed because I knew too much..”  Was this the foundation for an insanity plea, or even self defense - from a woman?  But it did cause the police to think.
And then there was the mystery of the woman’s body. When doctors examined the corpse they described it as belonging to a woman weighing no more than 150 pounds.  Neighbors who had sewn clothing for Belle were adamant that the corpse could not be Belle's   So back to the ashes went the searchers. And what they found raised even more questions; they found men’s pocket watches, rings and wallets. A lot of watches, rings and wallets.
While the police were still mulling over this perplexing development, a man named Ray Helgelien arrived in town,  looking for his brother.  Andrew Helgelien (above) had responded to a notice in a South Dakota lonely hearts column. “Wanted — a woman who owns a beautifully located and valuable farm in first class condition, wants a good and reliable man as partner in the same”.  The lady needed help paying off the farm's mortgage, and offered matrimony and love in return. After exchanging several letters, Andrew had left home with $300 cash in his pocket.  Ray had not heard from his brother for several weeks, and finally opened the last last letter, post marked from La Porte. It read,  “My heart beats in wild rapture for you, My Andrew. I love you. Come prepared to stay forever.”  Having seen newspaper stories about the grisly finds in the La Porte burned out farm house, Ray suspected that Andrew may have done just  that.   Had Belle placed that notice?  The local post office confirmed that Belle had mailed and received 8 to 10 letters a day, for years. The searchers spread out across the farm and started digging.
First they found and disinterred the body of daughter Jennie,  who was supposed to have been away at school in Los Angeles.   Then, under the pig pen the searchers found the bodies of ten to fourteen men and women, many of whom had been last seen visiting Belle’s farm, or working  there as maids and cooks.
Included among these remains was a body identified as being that of Andrew (above). In his corpse, as is in many of the others, the medical examiner found cyanide. The police were now more than willing to think the worst. 
How many victims had been fed to Belle’s hogs, or buried in undiscovered graves elsewhere on the farm? When finally added up the list of known and suspected victims reached forty.  Belle Gunness could well have been the most prolific, and one of the most hard working serial murderess in American history.
The jury at Ray Lamphere’s trail found him not guilty of murder, but guilty of arson. The jury also issued a statement asserting that Belle’s body had been found in the ashes. That did not match what the medical examiner had to say about the body. And Ray insisted to the day he died that Belle had escaped.
For the next decade, sightings of Belle (above) were reported from all over America and Scandinavia. But the most intriguing story was that of Esther Carlson, who in 1931 was arrested in Los Angeles,  the location of Jennie's supposed finishing school.  Esther was charged with the murder of a Norwegian immigrant, which matched Belle's preferred victims.  Like Belle, Esther's motive was alleged to be theft of the victim's money.  Also like Belle, Esther's weapon of choice had been cyanide. But nothing was ever proved, and Esther died in jail  while awaiting trial.
But two expatriates from La Porte identified photos of Esther Carlson (above) as Belle Gunness. The ages were a close, Belle would have been 71 years old in 1931, and if Belle had lost weight,... Could they have been the same person?  Did Belle slaughter every human being close to her,  pin it on a simpleton fall guy, and escape to California, where she went on making a living by killing?   If that seems far fetched a tale, remember that it is the nature of most people, that when they hear of a tragedy,  their first thought is sympathy,  and almost never of evil - even though sometimes that is exactly what a tragedy is.
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