This week, something momentous happened. Whether or not it made the textbooks, it most certainly made history. Join the HISTORY This Week podcast as we turn back the clock to meet the people, visit the places and witness the moments that led us to where we are today.
To get in touch with our show with any thoughts or comments, email us at HistoryThisWeek@History.com, or leave us a voicemail at 212-351-0410. Please note that we cannot accept unsolicited pitch material.
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Bonnie and Clyde’s Final Ride
May 23, 1934. On a muggy Louisiana morning, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow speed toward the Texas border. They’ve been on the run for over a year—wanted for robbery and murder—and the lurid news accounts of their exploits have made them famous. But today, Bonnie and Clyde’s legendary crime spree comes to an end … in a hail of bullets. Why did some come to view these Depression Era outlaws as agents of chaos the country needed? And what was the real motivation behind their crimes?
Special thanks to our guest, John Neal Phillips, author of Running With Bonnie and Clyde: The Ten Fast Years of Ralph Fults.
A Teenage Girl Saves France
May 16, 1920. Tens of thousands of people surround St. Peter’s Basilica to honor Joan of Arc, a French peasant girl who died nearly five hundred years before. Joan’s feats in battle—and her visions of God—have become legendary since her heyday during The Hundred Years War. And today, the Catholic Church is making her a saint. But Joan was a real person – and while many supported her during her lifetime, many others wanted her dead. Who was this curious figure? And how did her faith turn the tides of a seemingly endless age of violence?
Special thanks to our guests: Nancy Goldstone, author of The Maid and the Queen: The Secret History of Joan of Arc, and Charity Urbanski, associate history professor at the University of Washington.
The Spy Who Fooled the FBI
May 10, 2002. Former FBI agent Robert Hanssen is sentenced to life in prison without parole. His crime? Selling scads of top-secret information to the Soviets – and later, the Russians – over 22 years. How did Hanssen get away with his deception for so long, which led to the deaths of operatives working for the United States? Was he a criminal mastermind … or just a guy with incredible luck?
Special thanks to our guests: Elaine Shannon, author of The Spy Next Door: The Extraordinary Secret Life of Robert Philip Hanssen, the Most Damaging FBI Agent in U.S. History, and Eric O'Neill, author of Gray Day: My Undercover Mission to Expose America's First Cyber Spy.
The World’s First Budget Airline Takes Off
May 6, 1949. On the runway at Lindbergh Field in San Diego, a scrappy upstart called Pacific Southwest Airlines, PSA, is about to take its first flight. PSA is a budget airline—the world’s first. Other jet age carriers will offer luxury in the sky, but PSA does not. It’s exploiting a loophole in the American flight system to do things very differently. How did PSA manage to offer flying to ordinary people at prices they could afford? And how did it force an entire industry to reimagine itself?
Special thanks to our guests: Mary Boies, former fellow on the Senate Commerce Committee, White House staffer, and general counsel to the Civil Aeronautics Board; Jim Patterson, early PSA employee, and eventually its vice president of operations; and Michael Roach, former lawyer at the Civil Aeronautics Board.
A Concubine Rises to Rule China
April 27, 1856. In Beijing’s Forbidden City, one of the emperor’s consorts, a woman named Cixi, has given birth to a son – the emperor’s first heir. This landmark event is met with mass celebration. But in just five years time, the emperor will be dead and Cixi will be planning a coup to take power for herself. How will she ever succeed?
Special thanks to our guests: Jung Chang, author of Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China and Professor Ying-chen Peng, author of Artful Subversion: Empress Dowager Cixi's Image Making in Art.
The Civil Rights Children’s Crusade
April 20, 1963. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. walks out of Alabama’s Birmingham Jail after being held for a week for peacefully protesting. He spent most of that time writing a letter that passionately defends the civil rights movements’s nonviolent tactics. But despite King’s passion, the movement’s progress has stalled. King needs a major victory in Birmingham, but he’s running out of people willing to risk their livelihoods and safety for this cause. So a new tactic starts taking shape: recruiting young people to protest. After all, kids have the least to lose and the most to gain from a more equal future. But King says the risk is too high. So what changes his mind about putting kids on the front lines? And how did the Children’s March shift Americans’ support of civil rights?
Special thanks to our guests: Children’s Crusade participants Jessie Shepherd, Janice Wesley Kelsey, and Charles Avery. And Ahmad Ward, former head of education at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and current Executive Director at Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park.
Ping Pong Diplomacy
April 10, 1971. A team of ping pong players leaves Hong Kong to step across a border and become the first group of Americans welcomed to China in over 20 years. These competitors find themselves becoming unlikely diplomats at the center of a media frenzy, and at the heart of one of the 20th century’s major geopolitical shifts. How did table tennis turn into a powerful tool of foreign policy? And how did these athletes leave an impact that went far beyond the ping pong table?
Special thanks to our guests: professional table tennis athletes Judy Hoarfrost, Olga Soltesz, and Connie Sweeris; Yafeng Xia, senior professor of social science at Long Island University Brooklyn, and author of Negotiating with the Enemy: U.S.-China Talks during the Cold War, 1949-1972; and Nicholas Griffin, author of Ping Pong Diplomacy: The Secret History Behind the Game That Changed the World.
148 Tornadoes in 18 Hours (Classic)
April 3, 1974. Across America, many people wake up this morning thinking it will be a normal day. But in the next 24 hours, almost 150 tornadoes will hit the United States. It will be then the largest tornado outbreak in the nation's history. Why did so many deadly tornadoes hit on this one day? And how did it spur life-saving changes that are still with us decades later?
This episode originally aired in 2021.
Thank you to our guests Greg Forbes, former severe weather expert with the Weather Channel, and Atmospheric Sciences professor, Jeff Trapp, from the University of Illinois.
Bunnies, Baseball, and Aliens on the Moon
April 1, 2023. In honor of April Fools’ Day, we give you three historical tales of the bluff and the bamboozle. An autumn day in 1726, when an English peasant gives birth to something mysterious … and furry. Mets spring training in 1985, as the world meets an otherworldly baseball player with a superhuman arm. Finally, the summer of 1835 in NYC, when a scrappy start-up of a newspaper starts a frenzy about its exclusive: there’s life on the moon! Along the way, we’ll learn what it takes to pull off a convincing hoax. And how we can avoid being duped ourselves!
Special thanks to our guests: Karen Harvey, professor of cultural history at the University of Birmingham and author of The Imposteress Rabbit Breeder: Mary Toft and Eighteenth-Century England; Jay Horwitz, former PR director and current VP of Alumni Relations for the New York Mets; and Matthew Goodman, author of The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York.
Fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory
March 25, 1911. It’s quarter to five on a Saturday—closing time at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Someone on the cutting room floor lights a cigarette… that ignites a pile of scraps. Over the next fifteen minutes, hundreds of workers scramble to escape the top floors of this ten-story building by smoke-filled stairwell, crammed elevators, and an overloaded fire escape. 146 of them don’t make it out. How was this tragedy set in motion years before the fire itself? And how did reforms passed in the wake of the fire change the workplace for all of us?
Special thanks to our guests: Kat Lloyd, vice president of programs and interpretation at New York's Tenement Museum, and David Von Drehle, author of Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.
The Tragic Life of London’s Favorite Clown
March 17, 1828. The celebrated clown, Joseph Grimaldi, rises from his sickbed. Once London’s most energetic performer, he’s gradually been crippled by decades of pratfalls and acrobatics. He can barely manage the short walk to Sadler’s Wells theater, where he’s about to star in a final show. Grimaldi dresses backstage as if he’s in a daze, burdened by a lifetime of personal sorrows. And yet, when the curtain rises, he’ll summon the old strength. He’ll entertain this last of his countless audiences and send them home happy – unlike the clown himself. Who was Joseph Grimaldi? And how did he blend humor, irreverence, and humanity to fundamentally change comedy?
Special thanks to our guests, Andrew McConnell Stott, author of The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi: Laughter, Madness and the Story of Britain’s Greatest Comedian, and Naomi Shafer, Executive Director of Clowns Without Borders USA.
Axis Sally’s Nazi Radio
March 10, 1949. Defendant Mildred Gillars arrives at a courthouse to hear her verdict. To trial-watchers, she’s known as Axis Sally—the American woman who broadcast Nazi propaganda from Berlin during World War II. In taunting tones, she spent years pushing anti-Semitic and anti-Allies messages aimed at weakening the morale of American soldiers. But Gillars insists that she’s misunderstood, even innocent. That she’s an artist, she loves her country, and was forced to do what she did… or die. How did a struggling actress from Maine become a potent weapon of the Nazis? And is there a way to understand the choices that she made?
Special thanks to our guests, Richard Lucas, author of Axis Sally: The American Voice of Nazi Germany, and Michael Flamm, professor of history at Ohio Wesleyan University. Thanks also to the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress.
The Flight of the Concorde
March 2, 1969. French pilot André Turcat takes to the skies above Toulouse-Blagnac airport. He’s flying an odd-looking plane: long and slender with triangular wings and a bent-down nose like a bird of prey. It’s called the Concorde – a jet designed to move supersonic flight from military to civilian use. If it works, paying passengers will be able to cross continents and oceans at fantastic speeds while sipping glasses of champagne. The crowd below watches, mesmerized, as Turcat puts the plane through its paces. Concorde aces the test and now, as they say, the sky’s the limit. How did this space age technology, born of the Cold War, usher in one of the most glamorous eras of commercial flight? And what caused it to come to an end?
Special thanks to our guest, Mike Bannister, author of Concorde: The Thrilling Account of History’s Most Extraordinary Airliner. Thanks also to the folks at the Brooklands Museum.
The Cold War Gets A Wall
February 22, 1962. The city of Berlin is cut in half by a concrete and barbed wire wall. On the west side, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy is giving a rousing speech when suddenly, what look like balloons explode above the crowd, revealing Soviet-red flags. “The Communists will let the balloons through,” Kennedy says. “But they won’t let their people through!” Meanwhile in the east, the streets are quiet. The people on both sides of the wall live in its shadow. They are family members and former neighbors, many of them wondering, “Is this really here to stay?” How did Berlin become the bitter borderland in the global propaganda war between the United States and the Soviet Union? And why did it take so long for the Berlin Wall to come down?
Special thanks to our guest, Hope Harrison, professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University and the author of Driving the Soviets up the Wall: Soviet-East German Relations, 1953-1961.
The Apollo Theater is Reborn
February 14, 1934. When Adelaide Hall steps onstage at the Apollo Theater, she’s greeted by an audience unlike those she’s experienced before. Hall is already famous—she’s been on Broadway and performed at Harlem’s Cotton Club. But those theaters are segregated. The Apollo has just recently opened its doors to Black audiences, and Hall’s performance there helps put the revamped theater on the map. It marks the beginning of the end of segregated shows. In this roundtable discussion with the Apollo’s resident historian and its executive producer, we explore how this 88-year-old theater with 1,500-seats helped catapult some of the nation's best-known performers to stardom, and how it forever changed American music.
Special thanks to our guests, Kamilah Forbes, the Apollo Theater’s executive producer, and Billy Mitchell, its historian and tour guide.
Correction: As of publication, The Apollo is 89 years old.
Anatomy of a Campus Heist
February 11, 2005. FBI agents bust down the door of a cinder block house near the University of Kentucky campus. Amid flash grenades and screaming teens, they arrest three students – plus a fourth student in a nearby dorm. The crime? Stealing almost $750,000 of rare books and manuscripts from the library at Transylvania University. Why did four freshmen decide to actually go through with their real life version of Ocean’s Eleven? And how did they plan to get away with it?
Special thanks to our guests, BJ Gooch, retired special collections librarian; Eric Borsuk, whose memoir is called American Animals: A True Crime Memoir; and Tom Lecky, rare book and manuscript specialist.
Britain Axes the Monarchy
January 30, 1649 / 1661. London, 1649. King Charles I lays his head on a chopping block. The axe falls and, soon with it, the monarchy. What follows is Parliament’s grueling effort to set up a functioning republic – one of the first in history. It will be led by Oliver Cromwell, a brilliant military leader who becomes the country’s most powerful man. But on January 30, 1661 – exactly twelve years after the death of Charles I – royalist forces will use the same method to take their revenge: a beheading. Who was Oliver Cromwell, the man who led Britain’s brief experiment in life without a king? And how did it all go wrong?
Special thanks to our guests, Martyn Bennett, professor of early modern history at Nottingham Trent University and author of several books including Cromwell at War: The Lord General and His Military Revolution; and Peter Gaunt, professor of history at the University of Chester and author/editor of books including two Cromwell biographies, both entitled Oliver Cromwell.
The Dogs Who Saved Nome, Alaska
January 27, 1925. Musher “Wild Bill” Shannon and his team of sled dogs race off into the frigid Alaskan night. He’s carrying a package of life-saving serum, wrapped in fur to keep it from freezing. There’s no time to waste: nearly 700 miles away, in the snowed-in town of Nome, children are dying of diphtheria. Twenty mushers and hundreds of dogs are about to take part in an almost superhuman effort to ferry desperately needed medicine across the howling Alaskan wilderness. Who were they, and what did they endure to reach their goal? And as they pressed on, how did their efforts grip the nation?
Special thanks to our guests, Pam Flowers, author of Togo and Leonhard, and Bob Thomas, author of Leonhard Seppala: The Siberian Dog and The Golden Age of Sleddog Racing 1908-1941.
From Cautionary Tales: Martin Luther King Jr, the Jewelry Genius, and the Art of Public Speaking
Here’s a special episode of Cautionary Tales, a podcast from our friends at Pushkin Industries. On Cautionary Tales, bestselling author Tim Harford shares stories of human error, natural disasters, and tragic catastrophes from history that contain important lessons for today. In today’s episode, we’ll learn about civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr and jewelry store owner Gerald Ratner. The two offer starkly contrasting stories on when you should stick to the script and when you should take a risk. Hear more from Cautionary Tales at https://podcasts.pushkin.fm/CTHTW.
Tuskegee Top Gun
January 11, 2022. Lt. Col. James Harvey arrives at Nellis Air Force base in Nevada for the first time in 73 years. He’s there to accept a plaque celebrating the last time he was there—for the Air Force’s first ever weapons competition. Back then, Harvey and the other Tuskegee Airmen on his team had squared off against the best military pilots around. They tackled high-skill tests of simulated aerial warfare… and they won. But over the decades, the official record of their victory was lost or neglected. Who were these exceptional Black pilots? And what did it take to rescue their accomplishments from obscurity and bring them into the light?
Special thanks to our guests: Lt. Col. James Harvey III and Lt. Col. Harry Stewart Jr. Lt. Col. Stewart is the co-author of Soaring to Glory. Thanks also to Zellie Rainey Orr, author of Heroes in War, Heroes at Home, and to Daniel Haulman, retired historian at the Air Force Historical Research Agency and author of Misconceptions about the Tuskegee Airmen, to be published in February 2023.
January 3, 1924. Archeologists crowd into an ancient Egyptian tomb to uncover what awaits them in the unopened burial chamber. The world is waiting to find out. That’s because two years before, the discovery of the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamun revealed antiquities so dazzling that a media frenzy ensued – newspapers, newsreels, and Hollywood movies vied to show audiences these wonders of ancient Egypt. Now, lead archaeologist Howard Carter pushes open the door to find a majestic stone sarcophagus. Inside lies Tutankhamun, whose regal face of gold and azure blue has lain in darkness for millennia. He’s about to meet the new century … and dazzle the world anew. How did an unknown pharaoh become a sensation? And how did a modern revolution change the fate of Egypt's most precious artifacts?
Special thanks to our guests, Professor Christina Riggs, author of Treasured: How Tutankhamun Shaped a Century, and Heba Abd el Gawad, Heritage Specialist and Museum Researcher at the Institute of Archaeology, University College of London, and researcher with Egypt’s Dispersed Heritage project.
End of Year Pitch-A-Thon
December 26, 2022. For the first time, a behind-the-scenes look at a key part of the History This Week episode-making process. Today, we’re inviting our listeners to pull up a chair and join one of our pitch sessions. Usually, an editor consults with the team to choose which story we'll be telling in a given episode. But this time… you'll decide! So listen, vote, and maybe win some History This Week swag. Tune in to learn how we make history.
All voting should be sent to our email, HistoryThisWeek@history.com. Remember, your options are Julia (Henry Ward Beecher), Emma (Axis Sally), Corinne (Jane Fonda), and Ben (CD-ROM). Please only include the producer's name in the subject line. We do not accept any unsolicited ideas or pitch material. Thanks for a great year of listening!
The Surprising History of Christmas Gifts
Christmas Eve, 1913. For months, newspapers have been trumpeting an urgent message: Do your Christmas shopping early. It would be easy to assume this was the work of greedy department stores and slick ad companies. But it wasn’t – at least not at first. It started as the rallying cry of a labor reformer who was striving to improve the lives of retail workers. Ever since, Americans have been wrestling over the values at the heart of holiday shopping. But even the most earnest efforts at reform have backfired, time and again. How did Christmas gifts become a thing in the first place? And what were some of the spirited attempts to make the holiday shopping season merry for all?
Special thanks to our guests: Jennifer Le Zotte, professor of history and material culture at the University of North Carolina - Wilmington; Ellen Litwicki, professor emerita at the State University of New York at Fredonia; and Paul Ringel, professor of history at High Point University and author of Commercializing Childhood.
Samuel Adams Brews Rebellion
December 16th, 1773. Samuel Adams sits in a crowded meeting of American colonists at Boston’s Old North Church. He’s watching small groups of men slip quietly out the door. Once outside, the men don disguises and make their way toward three ships moored in the harbor – each weighted down with chests of valuable British East India tea. The men climb aboard, tear open the chests and dump the tea in the water. Cheers fill the winter night. Back at the meeting, Samuel Adams waits. There’s nothing directly tying him to this radical act of rebellion … but few doubt he’s behind it. How did a chronic underachiever help light the fuse of the American revolution? And why has this important Founding Father largely been forgotten?
Special thanks to our guest, Stacy Schiff, author of The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams.
Irving Berlin’s Musical Revolution
December 8, 1914. Crowds pour into the New Amsterdam Theater to see the opening night of a new show, “Watch Your Step.” It’s the first full-length revue written by the popular young songwriter, Irving Berlin. His songs show off Berlin’s signature wit and simplicity, but also his musical sophistication. As his fellow composer, Jerome Kern, would later put it: "Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music.” Who was Irving Berlin? And how did he utterly transform American songwriting?
Thanks to our guests: James Kaplan, author of Irving Berlin: New York Genius; Laurence Maslon, arts professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and host of the radio show "Broadway to Main Street" on WLIW; and Katherine Barrett Swett, English teacher, poet, and granddaughter of Irving Berlin and Ellin Mackay.
A Meteorite Hits Ann Hodges
November 30, 1954. At about 12:45 in the afternoon, a space rock comes plummeting through the roof of a house in Sylacauga, Alabama. It bounces off a standup radio, ricochets around the living room, and collides with the thigh of Mrs. Ann Hodges, who’s been napping on the couch. Newspapers declare: “experts agreed unanimously that Mrs. Hodges was the first person known to have been struck by a meteorite.” What happened to this space rock after it crashed to Earth and thrust itself into volatile human affairs? And what happened to the human beings whose lives were upended by this rarest of rare events?
Thanks to our guests: Dr. Julia Cartwright, planetary scientist at the University of Alabama; Billy Field, professor at the University of Alabama and screenwriter; and Julie Love Templeton, attorney in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Dr. Cartwright is involved in a number of art/science collaborations to engage and educate the public about meteorites and planetary science. You can find out more on her website, JACartwright.people.ua.edu. Keep an eye out for Billy Field’s latest project, TheStoryAcorn.com, which launches in January 2023. The website will feature history from the Civil Rights movement, told by those who lived it. The website teaches students to gather stories from their own communities and share them with the world. Thanks also to Mary Beth Prondzinski, and to the Alabama Museum of Natural History.
The Ballad of Blackbeard
November 22nd, 1718. Early morning, off the North Carolina coast. The pirate Blackbeard, peering over the rail of his ship, is startled to discover that a pair of British naval ships are after him. He rouses his hungover crew and gives the order to flee to the open sea. The pirating life is treacherous: filled with double-crosses, shifting alliances, and violence. The best pirates cultivate harsh reputations in order to scare their foes into surrendering without a fight. And no one is feared more than Blackbeard. But now the authorities have decided to hunt him down. How did Blackbeard become a legend, the one pirate we all remember? And where lies the truth within this treasure trove of stories?
Special thanks to our guest, Eric Jay Dolin, author of Black Flags, Blue Waters: The Epic History of America's Most Notorious Pirates. Dolin’s latest book is Rebels At Sea: Privateering in the American Revolution.
The Inca's Last Stand (Replay)
November 16, 1532. Atahualpa, the king of the Inca Empire, marches towards the city of Cajamarca in modern-day Peru, surrounded by 80,000 soldiers. Once he arrives, Atahualpa expects the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro to surrender in the town square. But Pizarro has a plan of his own. With just 168 men, he will unleash a trap that destroys the Inca Empire, and brings thousands of years of indigenous rule to a violent end. What was happening in the Andes before Pizarro arrived that allowed this to take place? And when history is written by the victors, how do we know what’s really true?
Two Shawnee Brothers Hold Their Ground
November 7, 1811. William Henry Harrison and his troops are camped near the Wabash river. They’ve been told to keep the peace—but Harrison wants land, and he’s come here to try and take it. Less than a mile away is a flourishing Native American settlement called Prophetstown. It’s led by Tecumseh, a skilled diplomat and warrior, and his brother Tenskwatawa, whose religious teachings have attracted indigenous people from across the newly-formed United States. Before dawn, these two sides will be in a battle that ends with one of their settlements burned to the ground. How did a future president exploit this conflict to catapult himself all the way to the White House? And how did Prophetstown become the most powerful alliance of Native American military, spiritual, and social forces to ever take on the US government?
Thanks to our guests, Chief Ben Barnes; Peter Cozzens, author of Tecumseh and the Prophet: The Heroic Struggle for America’s Heartland; and Stephen Warren, author of The Shawnees and Their Neighbors, 1795-1870. Chief Barnes and Stephen Warren are co-editors of the book, Replanting Cultures: Community-Engaged Scholarship in Indian Country. Look out for Cozzens’ forthcoming book, A Brutal Reckoning: Andrew Jackson, The Creek Indians, and the Epic War for the American South.
Thanks also to Douglas Winiarski, author of Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England; and to Adam Jortner, author of The Gods of Prophetstown: The Battle of Tippecanoe and the Holy War for the American Frontier.