The space race was one of the key battlegrounds during the Cold War. And as the space race became ever more important during the 1950s and 1960s, chimps became a key part of the US space program. Andrew Walls explains.

Ham the chimp, prior to his test flight in January 1961.

Ham the chimp, prior to his test flight in January 1961.

The era of the spacefaring chimp

The era of the rocket monkeys was a confusing one. Both for the chimps themselves and for those working towards the eventual moon landing. The Cold War was in full swing and the American and Soviet space programs were battling for ideological supremacy. The Soviets had just sent two dogs, Belka and Strelka, up into the Earth’s orbit and had touched them down safely.

The American public wanted a similar milestone for the American space program. So when Ham touched down in the Mercury capsule the public treated him not like a research animal and more like a “short, hairy astronaut”. Gifts and flowers began arriving for Ham. People wanted his autograph. He was one of those golden age American heroes that made people weep with pride.

This didn’t thrill Alan Shepard, who was to go up following Ham’s safe return to prove its safety for humans. Neither really piloted the craft. They both just sat there and let the guys on the ground prove the flights were safe. Alan Shepard in short wasn’t thrilled with this monkey stealing his thunder and reasonably chose not to attend the furry American hero’s funeral some years later.


Space Chimps Made In America

Albert was the first chimponaut to be launched into space. The term launched is right because they strapped him to a V-2 rocket and let him suffocate during the flight. Albert ll, his successor, was killed when the V-2 rocket he was strapped to had a parachute failure. During this suicidal flight Albert ll became the first monkey in space after passing the Karman line of 100km above sea level. In fact the first Albert to survive the landing was Albert Vl, who along with his 11 mouse crewmates touched down safely. However, once they touched down, the monkeys weren’t finished yet.

Next came the battery of medical tests which ascertained what impacts, if any, weightlessness and other phenomena of space travel had on them. They wisely stopped numbering the chimps and just started giving them nicknames. So “Baker” was the first chimp to survive both the flight and the post flight operations. At the age of 27, Baker was buried on the grounds of the United States Space & Rocket Center. Ham, our American hero and Enos, his successor, were the two most well-known astrochimps but there were many others who lived and died with little fanfare.

Ham the chimp is welcomed back with a 'handshake' after his January 1961 flight on the Mercury Redstone rocket.

Ham the chimp is welcomed back with a 'handshake' after his January 1961 flight on the Mercury Redstone rocket.

Furious George

Beyond the States, Russia, France, Argentina and Iran have all launched their own chimps - most of whom also perished during their flights. Astronauts dying mid-flight has always been horrendous for space programs. The Columbia and Challenger disasters crippled the American space program. So for riskier flights, especially during the initial testing phases, it made sense to send a chimp who will garner far less media attention in the event of a malfunction. Chimps are very similar to humans biologically and it is reasonable to assume that any effects they experience from space flight could also be experienced by a human.

What most people don’t realize is scientists of the time had no idea of what to expect from people in space. No person had ever been that far from the ground before. It just hadn’t been possible. We know now that people are fine in space with the appropriate precautions being taken. At the time, however, they were just guessing. Would lessened gravity distort people’s eyeballs and blind them? Maybe the change in weight of body parts would restrict movement, leaving the pilot unable to control the ship at altitude. Would the space radiation kill people before they could safely land? NASA, the Soviet space program and the rest of the world had absolutely no clue. So they sent up chimps and hoped for the best.


Monkey Business

The use of chimps in aerospace was an unfortunate necessity of the time. A space program that had as many astronauts die as chimps did would have been cancelled and condemned very quickly. Chimps were a necessary sacrifice in the vital quest for information. But I want to finish this story with a happy ending. One about what happened to the chimps after the space programs no longer needed them. This story reinforces where using chimps or any surrogates as research tools can go wrong when the agency using them doesn’t respect them as intelligent organisms.

In the 1970s the Air Force decided it no longer needed its chimp colony. The space race was finished; they had all the information launching chimps could give them. So they began leasing them to medical facilities in New York and New Mexico State. That lasted for a while.


Gorilla Warfare

Then in 1997 they decided to officially “retire” them forever. Luckily that didn’t mean putting them to sleep. The Air Force would instead sell the chimps on the open market. In a mock “bidding” process, they only considered one bid, which came from The Coulston Foundation. This foundation had a horrendous track record of animal cruelty and had once had 300 chimps seized because of negligent care. Important people asked that instead these chimps go to a sanctuary.

They still had memories of Ham and other chimp sacrifices in the Space Race and wanted these chimps to be treated with some respect and dignity. Here’s where Dr. Carole Noon comes in. With the backing of Dr. Jane Goodall and Dr. Roger Fouts, Noon fought hard for the chimps to be moved to a sanctuary. The Air Force, in what they must have thought was a “show of good faith”, awarded 30 chimps to Dr. Noon and the rest to The Coulston Foundation. Dr. Noon was less than pleased. She raised the funds herself and built a sanctuary in Florida. After a year-long court battle she finally won custody of the remaining 21 chimps and moved them to her sanctuary. Today she operates the Save the Chimp foundation which is where these chimps are living out their days peacefully and without testing.


Chimpy Meadows

A life of rest and peace is a fitting end for the descendants of the monkeys who helped us reach space. But the fact that the Air Force was going to condemn them to an abusive testing facility reaffirms the lack of respect they have for these animals’ intelligence and their contribution to the space program. Moving forward it would serve any agency using animals for testing to consider the following: Will this test give us information that could not be obtained otherwise? Can we use people instead without putting those people through some significant risk? And in the event they do decide animals are necessary: Are we treating these animals with respect and dignity both during the testing process and afterwards?

Thank you astro-chimps the world over for your sacrifices. You may not realize it, but you’ve helped to start something which could change humanity’s destiny forever.


For more of Andrew Walls’ writing visit his space and entrepreneurship blog: Landing Attempts.

Out of respect for the chimps discussed in this article, Landing Attempts has made a donation to the Save The Chimps Foundation founded by Dr. Noon. Save the Chimps works to reclaim and house chimps affected by biomedical testing facilities. They deserve our support and respect.


Roach, Mary. Packing for Mars.

Cassidy, David and Davy Kristin. Space Chimps.

Wall, Mike. Scientific American.

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

The varsity sports teams at the University of Notre Dame are called ‘The Fighting Irish’. Thousands of Irish pubs have sprung up across the world; the Irish are notorious for their drinking. Where did these stereotypes come from? Have the Irish always been thought of in this way?

Becky Clark considers these questions and explains what happened when many Irish people immigrated to England in the nineteenth century.

An American anti-Irish cartoon, The Usual Irish Way of Doing Things, by Thomas Nast from Harper's Weekly in 1871.

An American anti-Irish cartoon, The Usual Irish Way of Doing Things, by Thomas Nast from Harper's Weekly in 1871.

Today, the Irish are known for being friendly, fun, and the best drinking companions; in reality, the Irish stereotype has fluctuated throughout history.

The truth is, most people know very little about the history of Ireland. Most of us recognize St Patrick’s Day; some of us might know that there was a potato famine, and others probably have snippets of information to pull out about the IRA. What most of us don’t realize is that Britain was the source of a great deal of anti-Irish sentiment in the nineteenth century. It’s something that maybe isn’t taught about as much as it should be, but equally something that we should really be aware of.

I didn’t really come across much Irish history until my fourth year of university, when I started to learn more about the great famine of Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century. I discovered that poverty was rife in Ireland in the nineteenth century; only a quarter of the population were literate, and life expectancy was a mere 40 years of age. A majority of the Irish peasants subsisted on a diet of mainly potatoes. When the leaves suddenly turned black and the crops began to die, peasants struggled to find an alternative to replace it. Calls for help to the British government only met a response of a ‘laissez-faire’ approach. The result was that an estimated one million people died from starvation. Hundreds of thousands more emigrated in the hope of a better life. 200,000 Irish immigrants a year between 1849 and 1852 travelled across the sea, causing cities like Manchester, Glasgow and London to be cast as ‘Little Irelands’.

However, their reception upon arrival was hostile and unwelcoming. Workplaces began to advertise jobs in their windows with the words: ‘Irish need not apply’. Newspapers began to publish stereotype images of ‘Paddy’, the Irish Frankenstein:  unhygienic, violent, ungrateful and inherently criminal. Where did this hostility come from? The ‘paddy’ of the early nineteenth century had been presented as somewhat of a lovable rogue. Several factors could be induced for causing this hostility – anti-Catholicism, the perceived contagious degrading nature of the Irish, and the accusation that they were taking English jobs – but these all aligned under one overarching aspect: the consequence of timing. These masses of Irish immigrants arrived into a country besieged by economic, religious and social problems, and one that was looking for a reason on which to pin these problems. The Irish immigrants provided a ready-made scapegoat.


‘They’re taking our jobs’

This one might be familiar to you. It’s one that comes out in any time of economic crisis, when financial stability is under threat. You might be interested to know that this one goes back centuries; working class English people lamented the arrival of the Irish for fear that they were a threat to the security of their own jobs and income. Due to the extent of their poverty, these Irish immigrants were often willing to work any kind of job; longer hours, for less pay, and in worse conditions than their British counterparts. One ballad outlines:

When work grew scarce, and bread was dear,

And wages lessened too,

The Irish hordes were bidders here,

Our half paid work to do.’


In effect, the Irish immigrants provided a ready-made target for the frustrations of a class suffering from the job insecurity and poor living conditions of a newly industrialized state.


Degrading influence’

Britain was still undergoing industrialization when the influx of Irish arrived, and the symptoms of any industrializing state are squalor and misery. Industrial Britain proved a troublesome and unsanitary place for the lower classes. Living standards were low; disease, overcrowding, poor sanitation and consequent crime made life difficult in the bigger cities. The arrival of the Irish provided an easy scapegoat for this poverty: they were blamed for bringing degrading characteristics with them to pollute England. Inflated rents, a lack of accommodation and the general hostility of the community forced the Irish to overcrowd in poorly conditioned houses far from the city, forming what the English perceived as ‘ghettos’.

These ghettos were usually associated with high levels of drinking (due to the Irish drinking culture), casual violence, vagrancy, diseases and high levels of unemployment. Social investigators were horrified at the extent of violence they found. Rather than addressing the problems of industrial Britain, however, they tended to blame the Irish for their ‘degrading influence’. Nowadays, we know that political prejudice resulted in the Irish being vastly over-represented in crimes. At the time, however, people feared not only the squalor of the Irish, but that their habits would be a contagion, spreading to the lower classes.

In reality, this was not the spread of the contagion of Irish character, but the spread of poverty. Once again, anti-Irish sentiment was whipped into a frenzy, concealing the true root of the problem. It is interesting to see this technique of scapegoating those in the worst position for the country’s problems, particularly because it is a debate that we may still find in societies today.


‘No Immigrants. No popery’

Protestantism was the dominant religion in England in the nineteenth century, and this type of Protestantism was predominantly anti-Catholic. Loyalty to Rome was believed to compromise loyalty to the state, and people feared that the Catholic Irish were doing just that.

With the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in 1850, ‘No Popery’ processions emerged throughout England and, on bonfire night, Catholic effigies were burned in numerous cities. The 1852 Stockport Riots are thought to have been prompted by anti-Catholicism, yet 111 of the 113 arrests were Irish – it became clear for many who the problem was. Religious conflict came to be associated with the perceived violent nature of the Irish. They had arrived into an environment already strongly anti-Catholic, at a time when people feared a revival of Catholicism. A good deal of the hostility towards these immigrants stemmed from a strong suspicion of their religion, which usually accompanied growing national sentiments.


An incomplete history?

It is surprising that the relationship between Ireland and England – from its early origins to the modern day – is so unknown in our historical and cultural imagination. Maybe it has something to do with the reason why British Imperial History is not a popular topic either. A friend had studied history for a year in Dublin; when she came back she told me that she was shocked by the long history between Ireland and Britain, of which she had hardly known about it. ‘It ought to be taught in schools,’ she told me. I agreed. We should study history as it happened – the good things and the bad. The moments that we can be proud of, and those that we cannot. 


What do you think of the article? Let us know below…


De Nie, Michael, The Eternal Paddy: Irish Identity and the British Press, 1798-1882, (Wisconsin, 2004)

Finnegan, Frances, Poverty and Prejudice: A Study of Irish Immigrants in York 1840-1875, (Cork, 1982)

MacRaild, Donald, Irish Migrants in Modern Britain 1750-1922, (London, 1999). [last accessed April 17, 2016]

Just who was Vladimir Lenin? While we know that he came to power after the Russian Revolution, much of his life is shrouded in myths and lies. Author Tanel Vahisalu explains all.

PS - you can find out about Tanel’s latest project on Russian history here.

A painting of Lenin by Isaak Brodsky - Lenin in front of Smolny.

A painting of Lenin by Isaak Brodsky - Lenin in front of Smolny.

Ninety-three years after his death, Vladimir Lenin continues to make headlines. During 2017’s commemoration of the Russian Revolution, a poll conducted by the independent Levada Center demonstrated that 56 per cent of Russians believe Lenin played a positive role in history. What’s more, many of the remaining 44 per cent of Russians fail to see that Lenin was actually a supreme master of using fake news and mass manipulation.


The question becomes: How much do we actually know about Vladimir Lenin?

Despite a massive collection of history books, we still know surprisingly little about the man lining the pages. Perhaps that is because each of the 653 million volumes of Lenin’s published works – dated through to 1990 – contain fake biographies.


According to Russian historian, Dmitry Volkogonov, during Soviet times, there were at least 3,725 documents that were carefully collected and sealed within the cellars of Party archives that nobody was permitted to see. Many of these documents were said to be classified because they reveal the actual cause of Lenin’s death. Furthermore, many of the documents contain information about the true Ulyanov family tree, which was kept secret within the Soviet Union.

Bearing that in mind, let’s now turn to the most prevalent “alternative facts” of Vladimir Lenin.


Contrary to his official biography, Lenin was neither a Russian by ethnicity nor was he a peasant by descent.

Lenin’s mother, Maria Alexandrovna, had Jewish-Swedish roots. His great-grandfather, Moshe Blank, was known as a “mad Jewish merchant,” who had once set fire to 23 houses in his home village. Lenin’s grandfather, Alexander Blank, was a highly respected doctor and wealthy landowner, who bought an entire village near Simbirsk (today’s Ulyanovsk, Russia), along with 39 peasants and their farms.

The Ulyanov family was relatively affluent in local Simbirsk. Lenin’s father, Ilya was a high state official in the field of education. When he unexpectedly died, while Vladimir was 16, the family had sufficient income to easily support themselves. In fact, they even had servants.


Lenin was neither a kind-hearted, modest child nor was he a devoted revolutionary from a young age.

Already as a baby, Volodya – as he was called – stood out from his siblings. He began speaking at three and had trouble standing up on his weak feet. His head was larger than normal and he used to bang it against the floor in fits of rage. Lenin’s mother was sincerely worried about his cognitive development.

Lenin’s sister recalled - when their parents gave him a toy horse for his birthday – that he creeped away to a solitary space to tear its legs off, one by one. Volodya was a troublesome child, always fighting with his little brother, Dmitry, and purposely frightening his sister, Maria. It was documented that his parents found his behavior very disturbing.

Although Volodya grew up to be an extremely bright child, and was awarded a gold medal upon graduation, there is no evidence that he took any particular interest in revolutionary ideas prior to moving to Saint Petersburg in 1893.


In 1887, Lenin was neither expelled from university, nor was he detained in a Siberian prison camp.

A good example of “alternative facts” in Lenin’s official biography is the story about how the young revolutionary was expelled from Kazan University to a remote village of Kokushkino because of his revolutionary activity.

Truth be told, Volodya had only taken part in a peaceful student meeting and, when confronted about this, he wrote a voluntary resignation letter to the university. It is also worth mentioning that the village of Kokushkino was the same village that Lenin’s grandfather had bought. The Ulyanov family used it as their summer estate. So technically, he was “deported” to a nice vacation at his grandfather’s place.


While in Switzerland, Lenin was neither struggling to make ends meet nor did he have a happy marriage.

Lenin and his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya lived as refugees in Western Europe for seventeen years, though neither of them had to work. They had several bank accounts in Zürich, and Lenin’s family regularly sent them money and packages of goods.

“In Zürich I messed around quite a bit an ended up in a … Swiss health resort”, Lenin joked in a letter he had written.

History has also revealed that Lenin had many relationships prior to Krupskaya, and he continued to have them during their marriage. The most famous of which was his affair with Inessa Armand, a political activist and family friend.


The cause of Lenin’s death was not cerebral atherosclerosis.

During his final years, Lenin suffered from loss of consciousness, paralysis, hallucinations, and epileptic seizures. His official death certificate stated his cause of death was cerebral atherosclerosis, yet two of his closest personal doctors refused to sign it.

No doubt that is because he likely died of syphilis, contracted at an early age and left untreated. In 1922, a number of doctors prescribed him salvarsan, which is a medication used only for treating syphilis. Additionally, a German physician who specialized in syphilis was summoned and commented: “Everyone knows for which brain disorder I am called”.


Taken together, if we look at Lenin’s life story, there is not too much that can be viewed as factual. Many of these “alternative facts” were perpetuated by Lenin during his lifetime, and were bolstered, posthumously, by Joseph Stalin and his successors to create a god-like cult figure for the Soviet Union.

Quite simply, Vladimir Lenin is the sad embodiment of the very problems that we face today – “post-truth politics” and manipulation based on “alternative facts”.

Learning from history, we would do well to question what we are told, and hold our political leaders accountable by calling truth to power.


Find out more about Tanel’s book, History of Russia in 100 Minutes, here: Amazon US | Amazon UK


Volkogonov, Dmitry. Lenin: A New Biography. The Free Press, 1994.

Service, Robert. Lenin: A Biography. Harvard University Press, 2002.

Kolata, Gina. Lenin’s Stroke: Doctor Has a Theory (and a Suspect). The New York Times, 2012.

Roig-Franzia, Manuel. Medical Sleuths Discuss the Forensics of Death. The Washington Post, 2012.

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

Jack the Ripper is one of the most infamous murderers of all time. He killed five women in London in 1888 in gruesome fashion. But did Jack the Ripper ever murder people in other countries? Specifically, did he commit a terrible crime in New York City? Aaron Gratton explains.

The Nemesis of Neglect, an 1888 Punch magazine cartoon showing Jack the Ripper as a phantom in Whitechapel.

Anyone familiar with British crime history will know the name Jack the Ripper and the Canonical five, but did the killer’s onslaught cross the Atlantic?

In London, England, five women were found brutally murdered in 1888; all bearing similar injuries that suggested a surgical blade was used as the murder weapon. Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly would all be collectively known as the Canonical five, whose lives were brought to a devastating end at the hand of the serial killer simply known as Jack the Ripper.

Many experts believe those five murders, all of which occurred under the mask of the night in Whitechapel, a district in the English capital, to be the killer’s only victims. However, events that transpired three years later in New York question the legitimacy of those claims.


Timeline of Events

·       August 31, 1888: Mary Ann Nichols is found dead at 3.40am, she suffered two severe cuts to the throat and the lower part of her abdomen was ripped open by a jagged object

·       September 8, 1888: Annie Chapman’s body was discovered at 29 Hanbury Street, also with two cuts to the throat and her abdomen completely cut open – it would later be discovered that her uterus was ripped out

·       September 27: The first letter signed from Jack the Ripper, entitled ‘Dear Boss’, is received by the Central News Agency

·       September 30, 1888: Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes are killed just an hour apart from each other with the former’s body found in Berner Street and the latter’s in Mitre Square

·       October 16, 1888: George Lusk, who headed up the investigation, received the famous ‘From Hell’ letter signed by Jack the Ripper, containing half a kidney that is believed to have belonged to Catherine Eddowes

·       November 9, 1888: Mary Kelly, believed to be the killer’s last victim, is found dead in Dorset Street Spitalfields

Other bodies that were originally thought to have been linked to Jack the Ripper were found in the months and years after the five murders, but experts have since ruled out the possibility of the killer having any involvement.



Half-an-hour before the discovery of Annie Chapman’s body, a witness claimed to see the woman at 5.30am with a foreign, dark-haired man fractionally taller than the 5 feet tall Chapman. If accurate, the description would match that of Aaron Kosminski, a Polish barber who arrived in London in the early 1880s.

An investigation into the killings claims to have DNA evidence linking Kosminski to the murders, although the time between the events and the investigation have cast serious doubt on the results. In truth, no one will ever be able to definitely name the killer.

The nature of the murders would suggest a killer with a background in surgery, due to the precision of the cuts and removal of various organs and genitalia. On top of this, the letters penned with the name of Jack the Ripper also suggest that the killer, or at least whoever was behind the correspondences, to have poor literary skills owing to misspellings and bad handwriting.


Did The Ripper head to New York?

Almost three years after what was thought to be the killer’s final victim was killed, Carrie Brown was found strangled with clothing and mutilated with a blade in New York on April 24, 1891, sparking rumors that Jack the Ripper had crossed the Atlantic Ocean.

Chief Inspector of New York City, Thomas Byrnes, had boasted on more than one occasion if the killer had ever shown up in his jurisdiction that he would be caught in a matter of days. Three more murders took place in the following 11 days after Brown’s murder, and rumors of a letter from Jack the Ripper sent to Byrnes, taunting the Chief Inspector with a bloodied body part, were rife. This was officially denied, but several police and newspaper sources claimed the rumors to be true.


One last Letter

Nothing else was then heard of the killer for two years since the events in New York City, until October 1893 when a newspaper received a letter believed to be from the killer. The correspondence bore details of the murder of Carrie Brown and, when inspected by a police officer from Scotland Yard, the handwriting of the letter was said to match that as seen in letters received in London in 1888.

If the letter containing details of the murder is indeed from the killer, known as Jack the Ripper, it would be the last known correspondence of the murderer. This is, of course, far from concrete evidence that the same killer that roamed the streets of London in 1888 showed up in New York three years later.

In fact, London’s Metropolitan Police categorically ruled out any involvement of the killer in the death of Carrie Brown in 1891, suggesting this was the work of a copycat that may have been inspired by Jack the Ripper. The theories remain as to the identity of Jack the Ripper, and whether or not the killer did, in fact, turn up in New York, moved on to another city or remained in London without causing suspicion.


Aaron works for the Jack the Ripper Tour in London, UK. You can find out more about the walking tour here.



Funerals and burials are a hugely important part of modern British life. Although we thankfully now live longer and fuller lives than our ancestors, the loss of a loved one is no less heartbreaking. How we mourn and grieve in the immediate aftermath of a death remains a central part of how we move on with our lives, from one generation to the next.

We’ve come a long way in the UK in terms of funeral traditions. From the pre-Christian Celts who believed in reincarnation filling their graves with items needed for the next life, to our modern day scientific knowledge of the process of death. Yet some customs and traditions have remained through the ages.

Here, Laura Fulton explores some of the key aspects of modern UK funerals, where they come from and how they’ve changed over time.

A 15th-century funeral at Old St. Paul's Cathedral in London, UK.

A 15th-century funeral at Old St. Paul's Cathedral in London, UK.

Obituary notice

In the UK it is traditional for families to announce a death to the community by way of a death notice usually published in the local paper, and including details of the funeral.

Coming from the Latin obit meaning “death”, published death announcements date back as early as the 16th century in America. But it would be 300 years before the British made longer obituaries standard. There was even a time in the early 1800s when it was popular to write them in poetic verse. They were usually reserved for people of social prominence, such as soldiers or public servants. However the 20th century saw the rise of the “common man” obituary when the deaths and funeral details of everyone in the community would be regularly published, giving them equal status - in death at least - as members of the local aristocracy.

In modern Britain, we now see social media networks such as Facebook giving the option for a named person to take control of your profile after death, turning it into a public memorial place to list funeral details and accept messages from friends and well-wishers.


Black clothing

The tradition of wearing black in mourning dates back to Elizabethan times and it remains in the UK to this day, albeit in a more relaxed fashion. The ritual reached its peak in Victorian times during the Queen’s prolonged mourning for Prince Albert when widows became expected to wear full mourning attire for two years.

Funeral attendees now wear a mixture of dark colors from black, to navy and brown, but not exclusively. It is increasingly common for mourners to be asked to wear a specific color, such as a favorite sports theme or a young child’s favorite color, to celebrate their life at the ceremony.

Mourning rings were another important part of Shakespearean funeral dress but the tradition has largely died out. The rings were made to memorialize death, often featuring skulls, coffins, or crosses.


Funeral procession

Funeral processions led by the hearse (funeral car carrying the coffin) are still used in UK funerals, particularly in close-knit communities. There are actually no motoring laws surrounding this aspect of a funeral, but even though the days of horse and cart corteges have gone, modern passers-by still recognize the procession and will often be seen to stop and pay their respects before moving on.

Funeral processions date back to ancient times around the world. Though considered a distinctly Roman tradition in ancient Britain, the introduction of the word funeral itself into public discourse is credited to acclaimed ‘Father of English Poetry” Geoffrey Chaucer in the 1300s. The word appears in The Knight’s Tale (the first of The Canterbury Tales), where he talks about the sacred flames from a funeral pyre rising. It originates from the Medieval Latin funeralia meaning “funeral rites.”

Funeral processions in Roman times looked very different, and sounded different too. Professional mourners were paid to form part of the funeral procession, wailing loudly. The larger the procession, the more noise and music, the wealthier and more powerful the deceased person was regarded to be.



Wakes remain a modern day practice in UK funerals. The wake is often now held after the burial service, in either an immediate family member’s home or a local hospitality establishment. The sentiment behind it is to take time to share memories, to celebrate their life, and to grieve together.

The practice originates back to ancient Anglo-Saxon times when Christians held celebrations (wakes) which involved sports, feasts and dancing. Through the night there would be prayer and meditation in church, followed by a day of recognized holiday in the parish.

However the tradition of the wake dates back even further - long before Christianity. It referred to the period of time before burial, when family and friends would keep a constant vigil over the body as it lay in wait at the home. This gave time for mourners to travel from further away, but also had its roots in superstition. A vigil meant that the body had to be kept safe from ancient dangers such as body snatchers or evil spirits. The night-long activity was then known as “waking the corpse.”


Chapel of rest

The funeral director’s private viewing area or “chapel of rest” remains an option in UK burials for those who don’t want to or can’t permit the body to be brought to the home before the funeral. It was a late Victorian development as attitudes to hygiene and superstition changed and people began to feel more comfortable allowing mourners to visit the dead at a place separate from where they would continue to live.


Funeral flowers

Flowers were traditionally used alongside candles in the room during wakes to mask unpleasant smells which we have now avoided thanks to advances in mortuary care; however the deeper meanings behind the tradition have encouraged its continuation. White lilies remain the most popular flower choice, stemming from their symbolism of the innocence of the soul.

More commonly now, flowers from mourners are viewed as a poor use of money and so instead, the family and friends will ask for donations in lieu of flowers. Sometimes by a donation to a charity close to the deceased person’s heart, or often an organization or cause linked to their death, for example a palliative care or hospice service.

This is actually a long-standing tradition from Elizabethan times, when money would be given to the poor as part of the feast of mourning.



In most Christian cemeteries, the majority of traditional graves will be found facing west to east (head to feet). This old custom originates back to the sun worshippers of Pagan times, however early Christians adopted it because they believed this allowed the dead to be facing Christ on the day of Resurrection. In ancient Celtic times, the burning of loved ones was more common.

Nowadays, burial and cremation are equally an option, especially since the Church announced that ashes could be held on sacred ground. Mourners will still often throw soil, flowers or personal items on top of a lowered coffin, a tradition dating back centuries.

Gravestones as markers of burial are a UK tradition that dates right back to circa 2,000 BC in the UK, with Stonehenge being one of the most renowned ancient gravesites in the world. Through the plague decades burials were moved to designate sites outside towns, with the poor using wooden crosses instead of stone. But again, the tradition of carved headstones dates back to Victorian times.



Victorian burials in the UK included some now-considered macabre ways of remembering lost loved ones, from post-mortem photography to the weaving of their hair onto jewelry and ornaments.

However, the idea behind this old tradition is making somewhat of a comeback, with companies now offering the service of turning the ashes of a loved one into a diamond for example.


Forgotten Superstitions

Elements of UK funerals that have definitely gone out of favor are the once-important superstitious customs. These included stopping the clocks in the room the person died in to prevent bad luck, covering mirrors so their soul wouldn’t get trapped in the glass, and turning family photographs face-down so that the people in them would not be possessed by the spirit of the dead.


New trend: a celebration of life

In the 1800s it was customary to hold a celebratory feast in honor of the deceased person after their burial. This continued into the 1900s and only dipped in favor a little through the War periods. The celebratory post-funeral pub gathering remains popular in parts of the UK but increasingly, among younger generations, is a growing trend for “happy funerals” too.

Upbeat songs during services through to ashes being spread via fireworks are no longer unheard of.


The future: green goodbyes

The growing concerns about the environment and global warming have led to modern legislation around how and where we bury or cremate bodies. But increasingly people are being more proactive on this, planning for their own “green” burials.

Disposable coffins have emerged, alongside the growth of woodland burials and memorial trees planted in place of traditional headstones. There are even virtual memorial gardens online displaying people’s life stories.

So funerals are moving away from a focus on the processing of the body, with strict guidelines on behavior, dress and ritual to a more informal style of gathering and grieving among surviving relatives and friends. Instead of focusing on the sadness of death, we see society move towards funerals that are a celebration of life.

The growing trend to blend traditional customs with new and celebratory elements is resulting in a more personalized goodbye that our loved ones who have left us, can be proud of.


How do funeral traditions vary in your country? Let us know below…


Finally, Laura has asked us to mention 360 Protection Choices Life Insurance.

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
CategoriesBlog Post

Ulysses S. Grant, famous American Civil War General and the 18th president of the United States, led a very full life in many ways. But are the stories that he was an alcoholic true? Stephen Bitsoli separates the fact from the fiction…

Ulysses S. Grant on a cover of Grant's Tobacco.

Ulysses S. Grant on a cover of Grant's Tobacco.

In one of his classic phone call comedy skits, Bob Newhart imagines a conversation between President Abraham Lincoln and his press agent shortly before the Gettysburg Address. Among the many topics they discuss is General Ulysses S. Grant.

“You’re getting complaints about Grant’s drinking? Abe, I don’t see the problem. You knew he was a lush when you hired him.” Asked for a “squelch” for the press, Lincoln’s gag writers come up with: “Tell them you’re going to find out what brand he drinks, and then send a case to all your other generals.”

Supposedly Lincoln did say something like that. Even if he didn’t, he did think highly of Grant. Even after a near disaster at the Battle of Shiloh, when there were calls for Grant to be dismissed, Lincoln said, “I cannot spare this man; he fights.”


Grant’s Reputation

Ask most people what they “know” about Ulysses S. Grant today, and they’ll probably say three things: he was a great general, a lousy president, and a drunk.


A great general? Well, after being forced to resign his commission as captain (or else be court-martialed) in 1854, he rejoined the army in 1861 at the beginning of the U.S. Civil War. There he restored discipline to a problem regiment, won battle after battle, rising through the ranks to become commander of all Union forces. He succeeded – despite political and military enemies and a sometimes hostile press – on the strength and number of his military victories. So, by most conventional measures, he seems to have been a great general.

A lousy president? Well, I guess that depends on how you define lousy. He wasn’t thought of as one at the time, and neither do most of today’s historians. He was easily elected to two terms, and almost won nomination for a third. There was a lot of corruption during his administration, but none was traced back to him. And he was a strong advocate for protecting the rights of the former slaves, especially in the South. He even broke the Ku Klux Klan, and made human rights a national concern. Just before his death he published his wartime memoirs, considered one of the finest by any former president, and it was a best-seller. So, sure, his presidency wasn’t perfect, but lousy seems to be an overly harsh judgment.

What about a drunk? Well, he did resign his commission in 1854 after allegedly being drunk on duty. And there are numerous other anecdotes about his drinking. Even one of his defenders, Civil War biographer Edward G. Longacre, wrote that while “Grant did not fit the stereotype of the falling-down drunk” – he could refuse a drink or drink moderately – “he was, in the clinical sense of the term, an alcoholic.” There are also reports that he sometimes fell down or off his horse, and at least once he was reported to have vomited in public.


But while falling over or vomiting can be indicative of excessive drinking, they can also be caused by eating crappy army rations in unsanitary battlefield conditions. He also had crippling migraines which might have been mistaken for hangovers, especially since alcohol was prescribed for them. Grant did have throat cancer, which can be a physical sign of alcohol abuse, especially when paired with tobacco (and Grant did smoke a lot), but based on the more cosmetic consequences – prominent sores, spidery red veins on the skin, especially the nose and cheeks – there is little evidence that Grant abused alcohol.


Myth and Reality

Why anyone cares that Grant drank is an interesting question in itself. As has been said, he was a successful, even brilliant soldier. If he did that while drinking, or maybe because he was drinking, then Lincoln’s alleged anecdote might even be a sound strategy.

Actually, in those days everybody drank a lot more than we do today. “In 1825, Americans over the age of 15 consumed on average seven gallons of alcohol — generally whiskey or hard cider — each year (today that figure is about two gallons, mostly of beer and wine).”

More likely, according to most sources, is that he was (at least early in his career) a binge drinker who mostly drank when separated from his family or out of boredom. According to his friend Lt. Henry Hodges, “He would perhaps go on two or three sprees a year, but was always open to reason.” Reports that he drank to inebriation during or before his Civil War battles seem entirely fanciful.

So, where did the claims that Grant routinely drank to excess come from? According to Civil War historian and archivist Michael B. Ballard, “Almost all, if not all, the stories about various drunken states are apocryphal.”

Grant's purported drinking problems are largely the result of a smear campaign against him by his rivals and political enemies – both “Lost Cause” Southerners still smarting from their defeat in the Civil War and his political opposition – that began after his two terms as Commander in Chief. In part they were upset over his attempts to enforce Reconstruction and protect the freedmen’s rights. In particular, his use of federal troops to enforce the 14th and 15th amendments and confront the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists was seen as tyrannical and imposing “black domination.”

Then there are those who find it romantic to consider Grant (as one website article dubs him) “a drunken fighting machine from American History.” Even novelist Susan Cheever, the daughter of a famous alcoholic, falls into this fallacy in Drinking in America: Our Secret History, proclaiming that Grant “was known to have a serious drinking problem,” but that this was a time “when alcohol may have had a positive effect.” As if his victories were attributable to the physical signs of alcohol abuse!


And finally there are the journalists, who in those days were far more willing to invent things than journalists in the present. Sylvanus Cadwallader, a newspaper reporter, wrote down one such story (though not printed until after his death three decades after the war), claiming that Grant had a barrel of whiskey in his tent for his exclusive use. No one else ever mentioned it.

It would be foolish to state that Grant never drank, or never drank to excess, but the myth of his being either a pathetic drunk or a hard-drinking man of action isn’t borne out by the evidence.


If you found the article interesting, please leave a comment below…

Stephen Bitsoli blogs about addiction, recovery, mental health, and wellness. He has asked us to link to a rehabilitation center here.

There are only two known survivors of the April 1717 wreck of the ship the Whydah Galley, commanded by Sam Bellamy: Thomas Davis, a carpenter, and John Julian, a pilot. But were they the only two men to survive the wreck? Laura Nelson, author of The Whydah Pirates Speak (Amazon US | Amazon UK),  explains this American pirate story…

A model of the ship the Whydah Galley. Source: jjsala, available here.

A model of the ship the Whydah Galley. Source: jjsala, available here.

The location of the wreckage of the Whydah Galley in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, Cape Cod.

The location of the wreckage of the Whydah Galley in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, Cape Cod.

Bellamy and his crew were sailing north along the east coast of what is now the United States. Folklore says their intended destination was Eastham in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where Bellamy intended to pick up Maria Hallett, believed to be his lover, on their way to Rhode Island or Maine. He may also have been hoping to sell some of their booty…


The Storm

April 26, 1717, started out like any other day for the pirates. In the morning, they captured the Mary Anne, “a pink with more than 7,000 gallons of Madeira wine on board… and then the Fisher – a small sloop with a cargo of deer hides and tobacco” in the afternoon.[1] Per customary pirate procedure, smaller groups of pirates were sent over to these ships from the Whydah to act as the new crews of their “prizes.”

At the time of the wreck, the Whydah boasted a complement of about 150 men, all crammed into a ship that measured thirty feet wide and one hundred feet long. With the bulk of the pirates’ booty stored on the Whydah, the decks were probably starting to sag. Along with such items as “[e]lephant tusks, sugar, molasses, rum, cloth… indigo, and… dry goods…there was the precious metal, 180 sacks of coins, each… weighing fifty pounds.”[2] What this meant was the Whydah would have been very low in the water, a dangerous condition in a storm.

Throughout the afternoon a dense fog had rolled in, what should have been an early storm warning for the pirates. In the late afternoon the storm itself began. Instead of steering out to sea, Bellamy chose to stay close to the land, a move which leads many to believe he did indeed wish to try and make port somewhere in Cape Cod.

Sometime after 5pm Bellamy ordered all three ships to light lanterns on their sterns, a common navigational aid. But conditions continued to get worse.

“An arctic storm from Canada was driving into the warm air that had swept up the coast from the Caribbean. The last gasp of a frigid New England winter, the cold front was about to combine with the warm front in one of the worst storms ever to hit the Cape.”[3] “According to eyewitness accounts, gusts topped 70 miles [113 kilometers] an hour and the seas rose to 30 feet. [9 meters].”[4]

Square-rigged ships like the Whydah Galley did not handle so well in high winds, and since the winds were coming from the northeast, it was now pretty much out of the question for Bellamy to even try to attempt to head back out to sea. With each swell, the ship would have been pushed west by the winds, no matter how hard the pirates tried to keep heading north. One or more of them would have heard the sound of the waves hitting the shore and shouted, “Breakers, breakers!” But it was simply too late.

The accident was succinctly described by Thomas Davis in his deposition before his trial for piracy in Boston, Massachusetts, in October of 1717:

The Ship being at an Anchor, they cut their Cables and ran a shoar, in a quarter of an hour after the Ship struck, the Main-mast was carried by the board, and in the Morning She was beat to pieces. About Sixteen Prisoners drown’d, Crumpstey Master of the Pink being one, and One hundred and forty-four in all.[5]


“Although the beach was just 500 feet away, the bitter ocean temperatures were cold enough to kill the strongest swimmer within minutes. Other crew members were crushed by the weight of falling rigging, cannon, and cargo as the ship, her treasure, and the remaining men on board plunged to the ocean floor, swallowed up by the shifting sands of the cape.”[6] Anyone reaching the shore would then be faced with the challenge of climbing the seventy-foot cliffs (now called Marconi Beach).



When local residents arrived on the beach the next morning, “more than a hundred mutilated corpses lay at the wrack line with the ship’s timbers.”[7] Since the locals had no way of knowing how many men were on board the ship and obviously no knowledge of their names, individual corpses were not identified.


What Happened to the Others?

Around noon that same day nine men were arrested on suspicion of piracy. They had washed ashore off Wellfleet and were taken into the home of a local resident, where one of the original crew members of the Mary Anne, Andrew Mackonacky, exposed them as members of Bellamy’s crew.

First taken to Barnstable gaol in Wellfleet and then to Boston gaol the next day by horseback, Hendrick Quintor, Thomas South, Peter Cornelius Hoof, John Shuan, Thomas Baker, John Brown, Simon Van Vorst and Thomas Davis were tried in Boston, Massachusetts on 18 October 1717. South was the only one the court believed was a forced man and was acquitted. John Julian, also arrested that day, was sold into slavery. Davis was tried separately and also found not guilty.


Strange Tales Begin

Cape Cod folklore has many stories about a man who began to be seen not long after the wreck. The most famous reference to him is made by Henry David Thoreau, who wrote about the wreck of the Whydah and this stranger:

In the year 1717, a noted pirate named Bellamy was led on to the bar at Wellfleet by the captain of a snow which he had taken, to whom he had offered his vessel again if he would pilot him into Provincetown Harbor. Tradition says that the latter threw over a burning tar-barrel in the night, which drifted ashore; and the pirates followed it. A storm coming on, their whole fleet was wrecked, and more than hundred dead bodies lay along the shore. Six who escaped shipwreck were executed.


“At times to this day,” (1793) says the historian of Wellfleet, “there are King William and Queen Mary’s coppers picked up, and pieces of silver called cob-money. The violence of the seas moves the sands on the outer bar, so that at times the iron caboose of the ship [that is, Bellamy’s] at low ebbs has been seen.”

Another tells us that, “For many years after this shipwreck, a man of a very singular and frightful aspect used every spring and autumn to be seen traveling on the Cape, who was supposed to have been one of Bellamy’s crew. The presumption is that he went to some place where money had been secreted by the pirates, to get such a supply as his exigencies required. When he died, many pieces of gold were found in a girdle which he constantly wore.”[8]

Before the days of filing birth certificates with the county clerk and the Internet, it was not difficult for someone who wanted to escape the authorities to head a few towns away in any direction, make up a name, and start a new life.

The tales say that at night passers-by could hear screams and wails of torment and shouts of entreaty from within this man’s cabin. It as imagined that he was haunted by demons or the ghosts of his past crimes he had committed while pursuing a life of piracy.

Older tales told about how he frequently spent evenings in private houses, taking advantage of their hospitality to get free meals. If they had trouble getting him to leave, they simply started reading from the Bible or holding family devotions, causing him to leave.

Then, suddenly, they stopped seeing him. Some presumed he had traveled into Boston or another port and found work on a ship. Finally, someone was brave enough to enter his cabin, where he was found dead. Around his waist was a girdle filled with gold coins. He had claw marks around his neck.


A Last Tale

Amongst the many tales of this stranger is this one, which happened many years after the wreck:

One October [evening] in the year 1782, a resident of Eastham, after a great storm, decided to hike down along the beach toward the lower Cape, and reached the scene where the Whidaw had been wrecked… Far in the distance he saw a bonfire, and hastened toward it. Upon drawing closer, he discovered the same mysterious character known to almost every resident of that section.

This sinister individual, with a cocked pistol at his side, was three feet down, in a hole in the sand, and had just struck the top of a chest. The Eastham resident, in his excitement, dislodged a bit of material from the top of the cliff where he was walking, and the pirate, with an oath, sprang for his pistol.

The Cape Cod resident ran for the underbrush and escaped, but not before a close call from one of the pirate’s bullets. He returned several days later by daytime, but never found anything. The pirate was later found dead by the roadside with gold doubloons in his money belt.[9]


This last story is quite improbable, but the idea that someone could have survived the wreck is not impossible. Record-keeping in the early 1700s was rudimentary at best. And nearly all folklore has its basis in reality.


Let us know what you think of the article below.

Laura Nelson is the author of The Whydah Pirates Speak, available here: Amazon US | Amazon UK


[1] Clifford, Barry, Real Pirates, p. 130.

[2]The Trials of Eight Persons Indited for Piracy,” p. 319. Peter Cornelius Hoof said in his testimony: “The Money taken in the Whido, which was reported to amount to 20000 to 30000 Pounds, was counted over in the Cabin, and put up in bags, Fifty Pounds to every Man’s share, there being 180 Men on Board… but none was to take any without the Quarter Masters leave.”

[3] Clifford, Barry, Expedition Whydah, p. 260. “Technically known as an occluded front, the warm and moist tropical air is driven for miles upward where it cools and falls at a very high speed, producing high winds, heavy rain, and severe lightning.”

[4] Donovan, Webster. “Pirates of the Whydah.”

[5]The Trials of Eight Persons Indited for Piracy,” p. 318.

[6] Clifford, Barry, Real Pirates, p. 131.

[7] Donovan, Webster. “Pirates of the Whydah.”


[8] Thoreau, Henry David. Cape Cod. p. 186-187.


[9] Snow, Edward Rowe. Boston Sunday Post (28 September


AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
CategoriesBlog Post

If you ever feel like you’ve made a huge mistake, just remember: it’s probably not bigger than the Battle of Karansebes, during which the Austrian army broke into two and ended up mistakenly fighting itself. At least, that’s what supposedly happened. There actually isn’t much direct evidence to suggest that the Battle of Karansebes is anything more than a legend. Connor Martin of explains…

An image from the Austro-Turkish War (1788-1791). Here the Ottoman army is advancing towards Sofia, Bulgaria.

An image from the Austro-Turkish War (1788-1791). Here the Ottoman army is advancing towards Sofia, Bulgaria.

Here’s how the story goes: in 1788, Austria was at war with Turkey, fighting for control of the Danube River. About 100,000 Austrian troops had set up camp near Karansebes, a village that is now located in present-day Romania. Some scouts were sent ahead to see if they could find any Turks. Rather than find evidence of the opposing army, they found gypsies who had a lot of alcohol to sell, and they bought it.

The scouts brought the alcohol back to camp and started drinking - since the best thing to do the night before a big battle is get very, very drunk. As their little party became louder and more obnoxious, it attracted the attention of several foot soldiers who wanted to join in. The scouts were not open to sharing their find, and being drunk, they didn’t express this with a lot of tact.

An argument broke out, which soon escalated. The alcohol was confiscated, more people joined in, punches were thrown, and a shot rang out. Amidst the mayhem, someone shouted that the Turks had arrived.

Caught unawares and unprepared, most soldiers fled the scene immediately. Others got into formation and charged at the supposed enemy. Shots were fired, cavalry was assembled, and the defecting soldiers were killing every man they saw without thinking.

Needless to say, the Turkish army had not arrived. They wandered into Karansebes two days later and found 10,000 dead or wounded Austrian soldiers. A little confused by this turn of events, they were nonetheless delighted to take Karansebes without any effort at all.


The truth?

Believers in the battle claim that the army could very easily have become confused. At the time, the Austrian army was made up of people who spoke German, Hungarian, Polish, and Czechoslovakian, among other languages. This resulted in a lot of confusion and miscommunication as many troops and officers weren’t able to understand each other. One story claims that as the soldiers were running away, a colonel shouted, “Halt!” in German, but some of the troops who didn’t speak German thought he was saying “Allah!” which only solidified the idea that the Turks had arrived.

Okay, so the battle wasn’t impossible, but given that there is no known record of it until 1831, some 40 years after the event, it doesn’t seem likely. That source is the Austrian Military Magazine. Other sources include the well-titled The History of the 18th Century through the 19th till the overthrow of the French empire, with particular reference to mental cultivation and progress by F.C. Schlosser, which was published in 1843. The best source about the battle comes from the German Geschichte Josephs des Zweiten by A. J. Gross-Hoffinger, and while it’s often cited by people when referring to the battle, it was also written nearly 60 years after the fact. That means there was plenty of time for the facts to become skewed.

While the Battle of Karansebes makes for a good story, there just isn’t enough documented evidence for it to be entirely believable.


Now, what do you think? Tell us below...

Connor Martin is the founder and historian of

The Brain Trust was a small group who came together in 1932 to help Franklin D Roosevelt find ways out of the Great Depression. The group’s legacy was significant as they were closely involved with the New Deal as well as a very famous speech. Ted Harvey explains all.

Unemployed men outside a Chicago Depression-era soup kitchen.

Unemployed men outside a Chicago Depression-era soup kitchen.

They were mocked by some in the media, but the three men who were known as the “Brain Trust” were influential in helping Franklin Delano Roosevelt craft the policies that would become the New Deal. Technically it was a short-lived group, existing primarily during FDR’s run for the White House in 1932. While other advisors became lumped in with the “Brain Trust”, there were originally three who made up the group: Raymond Moley, Rexford Tugwell, and Adolf Berle. All were professors at Columbia University, Moley and Berle in law and Tugwell in economics.

The idea for the Trust was suggested by Samuel Rosenman, speechwriter and legal counsel of Roosevelt, whom he knew through his time on the New York State Assembly and as a Justice on the New York Supreme Court. Rosenman thought it would be beneficial for the candidate to have an academic team of advisers. The idea was supposedly based on the Woodrow Wilson’s “The Inquiry”, a large group of academics who advised President Wilson on peace negotiations following World War I. “The Inquiry” would eventually become the Council on Foreign Relations.


The Forgotten Man

The “Brain Trust” came together in 1932 led by Raymond Moley, a strong supporter and close ally of then Governor Roosevelt. The country remained trapped in the Great Depression with no obvious end in sight. Moley brought the Brain Trust together to help Roosevelt craft his message, focusing on how his administration would pull the country out of the worst economic depression the country had or would ever face. In some sense the “Brain Trust” was for show, allowing voters to see Roosevelt had a plan to get out of the Depression, and that he wouldn’t stand idly by to let the country work itself out of the depression.

The group’s influence was evident in Roosevelt’s first major campaign speech, now generally known as the “Forgotten Man” speech. In it Roosevelt laid out his plans for his initial 100 days and how he meant to address the continued Depression. The speech focused on the poor, the “forgotten men” who were not receiving the help they needed. It was Raymond Moley who helped write this speech and include the now-famous “forgotten man.” Moley also wrote much of Roosevelt’s first inaugural address. It is also thought that Moley came up with the term “New Deal,” which remains influential to this day. Adolf Berle was also heavily involved with Roosevelt’s speechwriting, helping to write the Commonwealth Club speech, focusing on the importance of government involvement in the economy.

Following the election, the original “Brain Trust” gave way to a more permanent group of advisors. These new Brain-Trusters, people like Frances Perkins, Harry Hopkins, and Harold Ickes, as advisors and Cabinet Secretaries, continued to push New Deal policies forward. As far as the original three, they each pursued a different path. Adolf Berle left the administration soon after Roosevelt’s inauguration, although he continued to be an informal advisor of the President. Later, from 1938 to 1944 Berle returned to work for the White House as Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs. Raymond Moley became disenchanted with the New Deal policies and with President Roosevelt. He continued writing speeches for the president until 1936, after which he left the White House becoming an ardent critic of the New Deal and liberalism, at least the kind promoted by FDR. Nothing exemplifies Moley’s shift in position than his awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1970 by President Richard Nixon.

Of the three, only Tugwell transitioned directly from the “Brain Trust” to a role in the administration, becoming Undersecretary of the Department of Agriculture. Tugwell would have continued influence as Roosevelt implemented the programs of the New Deal, including the Agricultural Adjustment Agency, the Soil Conservation Service, the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, and the Resettlement Administration. He left the administration in 1936 and became vice president of the American Molasses Company. Later he became the first Director of the New York City Planning Commission, where he frequently ran up against the (in)famous Robert Moses. He returned to the Roosevelt administration in 1941 as the last appointed Governor of Puerto Rico.


In perspective

Although the “Brain Trust” was a short-lived loose affiliation, the influence the small group had on Roosevelt and New Deal policies was enormous. While the members of the “Brain Trust” were dismissed by many as advocates of big government and elites, they approached the economic problems of their day through the lens of Progressivism. For example, their goal was not to rely solely on the government or to break-up the large corporations when it came to economic policy, but to have the government regulate businesses. These ideas, supported by President Roosevelt and his Brain Trust, became the backbone of the New Deal economic policies and in many regards remain in place today.


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Kennedy, David. Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Brands, H.W. Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt . New York: Anchor Books, 2008.

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

Ice is an essential for many of us during the long, hot summer. But just how did people in the 19th century enjoy cool drinks in an age before electricity and freezers? Here, Colette Lefebvre-Davis tells us about ice harvesting…


As winter creeps, the ponds begin to freeze. As they freeze winter sports enthusiasts begin to dust off their ice skates and ice fishing utensils. Suddenly, it is time to play and ice makes a great place for skating. In the past, it was time to harvest ponds and lakes. In the modern world ice harvesting is no longer practiced. Ice can be made now with electric refrigerators, food is easily preserved with the cold. But not so long ago it was a cash crop. Prominent men and women craved it in the summer months, and once a drink was enjoyed cool and not tepid, it was a necessity for those that could afford it. Of course it was only the wealthy who could afford to buy or keep the ice. 

Images of the ice trade around New York City. From an 1884 edition of Harper's Weekly.

Images of the ice trade around New York City. From an 1884 edition of Harper's Weekly.

American Forefathers had to have Cold Butter!

Thomas Jefferson had a problem with his self-designed ice house around 1806, namely keeping his ice house dry and filled. ”About a third is lost to melting.”[1] Thereafter, it was imperative to catch the water that was in the ice house. Jefferson filled the ice house with snow to insulate the ice and keep it from melting, and still men were employed to empty it.  Jefferson wrote to his overseer, to harvest from the nearby Rivanna River.  Being who he was, a philanthropist, and knowledge seeker Jefferson no doubt waited patiently for his experiment to unfold. He wasn’t around when the first ice house on his property was built; rather he monitored the progress from Philadelphia in 1803. Yet letters were constant between himself and the people at his estate, because he knew that the harvest of ice would allow him to have cold drinks in the summer as well as cool desserts. Cold, heavy, backbreaking work - ice was worth it not only for the famous American President and creator of the Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson also built an ice house at the President’s house in Philadelphia. It has been excavated in recent years and is on display. For Jefferson there was no other method to nicely preserve his butter and meat. Ice was for those with money at that time. During heat waves, while others sipped tepid water, those who were able to drank cool drinks.

Even, Benjamin Franklin is credited with cooling off the palates of the delegates of the constitutional convention while idle one evening. He secured cream from a neighbor’s cow, and used his ice from the storehouse. There were satisfied palates, and certainly cooler tempers.


The Hazards of Ice Harvests

Harvesting ice was a cash crop, a winter crop. In New England, just as the ice grew thicker during plunging temperatures, a harvest was pending. Men of the early twentieth century and before slipped on their shoes, tightened their belts and prepared their horses for a harvest at a local pond.  In their inventory were the necessary utensils for harvesting which included an ice gaff, ice pick, ice tongs and ice saw. It was hard, laborious, cold, dangerous and rewarding. People were excited to go to work, to come together as a community of workers, despite the dangers that harvesting presented. Despite cold conditions, accidents and frostbite the harvest was a much looked forward to event.

Now, ice harvest festivals remain, as a fun reminder of the past. Communities gather over ice-covered ponds and snow banks to watch local historians as they demonstrate 19th and 18th century harvesting techniques. Some audience members are invited to participate, carrying large chunks of ice to a sled where it is pulled by a horse to an ice house - if one is available.

But it was made into a lucrative business when Fredric Tudor decided to make money from old fashioned New England winters. Tudor, born in 1783 in Boston, Massachusetts would be known as the “Ice King”. Now, Boston in 1783 was just recovering from the American Revolution. For most it was a depressed and poor place. The population that had once thrived was small; most had left during the revolution to escape the ravages of war and military takeovers. The population was 10,000 in 1780 and many were struggling to make money. Tudor was by no means poor himself though; in fact he had the opportunity to go to Harvard. It wasn’t his destiny; instead he and his brother hunted, fished, practiced courting rituals, and learned the life of the privileged. It was a passing comment at a summer picnic that drove him to think of their pond as a possibility to make money. It not only would change the Caribbean, with ice being shipped from Boston to Martinique, but it would also change the United States. 

Tudor decided that hot climates like Martinique were the best place to start. So he sent his brother out to forge the path for their soon to be booming ice trade. Yes, he was crazy, and if anybody had asked people in Boston, they would have said that it was preposterous to send ice to the warmer climates safely and then once there store it away. 

But ice harvesting became popular, and with a few tweaks in shipping it and preserving it, people began to ask for it. Competition began to sprout up in Maine along the rivers, and other ice companies emerged as the demand grew.


How to Harvest Ice

Step 1: First scrape the snow off the ice, it should be six to thirty inches (however to transport it needs to be at least eight inches).

Step 2: Measure grids on the ice and bring horses along to help with the measurements.

Step 3: The next step was to cut through the grooves on the grid, until the blocks break off and float down the cleared channel to the chute where they were hauled up and into the ice house.

Step 4:  Men used breaking off bars and one-handed crosscuts on the ice which they gloated or poled down like a raft to the ice house.

Step 5: Each block was moved up the chute with hooks to various levels as the ice house filled with layers of ice separated and surrounded by layers of sawdust supplied by lumber mills as an insulator.


Ice created American Cuisine

Ice harvesting changed the way in which Americans ate. Soon after Mr. Tudor suggested ice in drinks, it became more and more necessary to have it. Newspapers of the time would report that ice harvests were either plentiful or hardly there at all. In the latter case, men would be commissioned to take a voyage to the Arctic, to chip pieces of ice from huge icebergs to satisfy the need back home.

It was an easier way to keep meat and dairy products longer. It sure beat the time it took to preserve with canning or salting. The flavors were reportedly fresher, and that was all the public needed to know. While the ice business boomed, so too did inventors who strove to create ice.

In the 1920s, ice consumers purchased ice boxes lined with zinc or lead to preserve their foods. There were magical, icy cold drinks, ice box cookies, cakes, and pies. The iceman was soon a staple person in most American cities and towns. He would drive in on a horse drawn ice wagon, and simply unload a nicely squared piece with ice hooks, haul it into a person's home and lift it into the ice box. The ice boxes or cold closets as they were also known were created as pieces of furniture, admired and handsome. They were made with trays to catch the water at the bottom, and once they melted the ice man soon came again.

Leftovers were preserved longer, most likely to the chagrin of the children in a home, and around the same time inventors were working on creating American frozen food meals. Refrigeration techniques had been utilized by breweries and then spread to Chicago’s meat packing industry. They were using refrigerants like sulfur dioxide and methyl chloride which were harmfully impacting people who were exposed to it. That type of refrigeration was not going to be placed in homes. In 1884 it was reported that almost every home but the poorest had ice boxes. It became normal for homes to post a sign in the window whenever they needed more ice. However up until the 1930s these meals were mushy, frozen with ice shards, and not very appetizing. Regardless of the early pitfalls of frozen foods, there was still a lot to benefit from in having a home ice box.



For now, the last remnants of ice harvesting are exhibits produced in museums, and small sects of those who are bent on living off-grid sustainable lives. The rest of the world relies on refrigeration for ice. Americans, who scoffed at the initial idea of an ice trade, instantly became hooked when they were shown the advantages of using it. Fredric Tudor, the “Ice King”, went bankrupt many times, but leaves an enduring legacy.


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[1] Boyd, Julian P., Charles T. Cullen, John Catanzariti, Barbara B. Oberg, et al, eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950-), 11:439.