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.


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Listen to Season 2

Best Stories of 2021

In this year-end episode, Sally interviews the rest of the HISTORY This Week team about their favorite stories of the year and the most interesting information that didn’t make it into the episodes. We’ll be bringing you some of our favorite classic History This Week episodes throughout the month of January and will be back with season three in February 2022.

Episode links:

Watergate from the Inside

More Than a Home Run

Pop Music Pirates

Twenty Thousand Hertz: The Gift

December 24, 1906. It’s Christmas Eve, but inventor Reginald Fessenden is working. Tonight, instead of sending a typical radio message in morse code, he broadcasts something new: music. It's the first in a series of breakthroughs in audio reproduction—a story that takes us from World War II home radios to the acoustics lab of another pioneer: Dr. Amar Bose. How did we get from tapped dots and dashes to the high-quality speakers we use today? This episode comes from the podcast Twenty Thousand Hertz. You can listen to more episodes of Twenty Thousand Hertz at https://apple.co/3pWdq29.

Pursuing Trivia with Ken Jennings

(EPISODE 100!) December 15, 1979. Two Canadian journalists are hanging out, drinking a beer, when they come up with an idea for a new game to test random knowledge – Trivial Pursuit. But this is far from the first time trivia has been gamified, and to explore the history behind these quizzing contests, we turned to the expert: Jeopardy! legend Ken Jennings. What are the origins of trivia? And what is it about recalling trivial facts that keeps people coming back for more?

Special thanks to Ken Jennings, author of Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs and the host of the podcast Omnibus. Thanks also to Professor Peter Burke, author of What is the History of Knowledge?

Thanks for listening to our 100th episode of HISTORY This Week. If you were listening carefully, visit the HISTORY This Week: 100th Episode page to see if you can answer these questions that Ken Jennings was asked on Jeopardy!

How Lincoln Almost Lost it All

December 11, 1862. Union Army engineers are urgently constructing a bridge, one that will carry soldiers into the town of Fredericksburg, Virginia, a Confederate stronghold. Union leaders are banking on the element of surprise and are desperate for a victory. But, by the time it’s over, more than a thousand Union soldiers will perish in one of the worst defeats of the Civil War. How does the failed Battle of Fredericksburg threaten the future of the Emancipation Proclamation and Abraham Lincoln’s very presidency? And how does Lincoln manage to save both?

Special thanks to our guest Professor John Matteson, author of "A Worse Place Than Hell: How the Civil War Battle of Fredericksburg Changed a Nation."

A Secret Mission to Cross the Pacific

December 1, 1564. Spanish vessels left a secret port in Mexico about two weeks ago. Their goal: to sail across the Pacific and back, charting a new route for international trade, and giving Spain an edge against its chief colonial rival, Portugal. But today, when a storm hits, the smallest ship is separated from the rest of the fleet. Now, that ship, the San Lucas, is on its own. The following year, when the San Lucas makes it back to Mexico, against all odds, its pilot—a Black mariner—is accused of treason. How did the San Lucas—the smallest ship in the fleet—complete a near-impossible journey that would connect the world? And how did the trailblazing mariner Lope Martín get erased from the story?

Special thanks to our guest, Andrés Reséndez, author of Conquering the Pacific: An Unknown Mariner and the Final Great Voyage of the Age of Discovery.

Thanksgiving Reconsidered

November 26, 1970. In Plymouth, Massachusetts, on the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival, protestors gather under a statue of Massasoit, the Wampanoag leader who had made peace with the Pilgrims, and partook in the legendary Thanksgiving meal. This protest was organized by Wamsutta Frank James, a Wampanoag activist who wanted to draw attention to the full story of Thanksgiving – a story of fear, violence, and oppression that spanned generations. America’s reckoning with the truth of Thanksgiving, James argued, would empower indigenous people to fight for their equal rights. This protest – a National Day of Mourning – continues to this day, now led by James’s granddaughter. So what is the true story of Thanksgiving? And why is it so important for us to remember?

Special thanks to Kisha James, Paula Peters, and David Silverman, author of This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving.

Defying Gravity and Monarchy

November 21, 1783. The garden at the Chateau de la Muette is full of expectant Parisians, looking up at the sky. They’re waiting to watch the first two human beings ever take free, untethered flight. After a gust of wind nearly derails the entire operation, some volunteer seamstresses help repair the 75 foot tall hot air balloon. Finally, two Frenchmen step into their wicker baskets and take off. This first human balloon flight is more than just a landmark in aviation history. For the crowds of huddled French masses looking up from below, it's a revolution in and of itself. How did two sons of a papermaker create the first successful aviation device in history? And how did the balloon come to symbolize the French Revolution?

Special thanks to our guests, Tom Crouch, author of Lighter Than Air: An Illustrated History of Balloons and Airships, and Mi Gyung Kim, author of The Imagined Empire: Balloon Enlightenments in Revolutionary Europe.

The Last Battle of the First World War

November 11, 1918. At exactly 11 AM local time, the shooting stops. It’s eerily quiet for the first time in a long time. World War I has finally come to an end today after Germany and the Allied nations signed an armistice not long before. The final battle of the war, known today as the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, saw an unexpected turn of events and a surprising victory. Today: the battle that ended the first world war. How did an inexperienced American army help turn the tides? And how did the Meuse-Argonne Offensive change the way America would fight future wars?

Thank you to our guest, Professor Mitchel Yockelson, author of “Forty-Seven Days: How Pershing's Warriors Came of Age to Defeat the German Army in World War I.”

Primary source letter from army doctor Stanhope Bayne-Jones can be found on the website of the Historical Collections of the US National Library of Medicine.

Remember, Remember the 5th of November

November 4, 1605. The king's men are conducting a search. They're making their way through the storerooms and cellars and vaults that cluster around and beneath the Palace of Westminster. They've gotten a tip in the form of a mysterious, anonymous letter that something bad is going to happen at the House of Lords tomorrow. And shortly before midnight, they find a ton of firewood, a suspicious man, and 36 barrels of gunpowder. What brought a group of conspirators together in a plot to kill the king? And in the 400 years since, how has an annual celebration of the failed plot, and the story of one of the plotters—Guy Fawkes—come to stand for something else entirely?

Special thanks to our guests: James Sharpe, author of Remember Remember: A Cultural History of Guy Fawkes Day, and Mark Nicholls, author of Investigating Gunpowder Plot.

The Haunting Case of H.H. Holmes

October 28, 1895. It’s the first day of a murder trial in Philadelphia, and H.H. Holmes has been left to represent himself. His lawyers say they haven’t had time to prepare for his case, although they may just want to avoid defending the man some newspapers are already saying is “sure to grace a gallows.” Holmes has been accused of murdering his business associate, but rumors swirl that he may have killed dozens, even hundreds more. And even a century later, some still call him "America's first serial killer." But how did H.H. Holmes earn this reputation? And why is it so hard to learn the truth about this legendary fiend?

Special thanks to Adam Selzer, author of H.H. Holmes: The True Story of the White City Devil, and Harold Schechter, professor emeritus of literature at Queens College and author of Depraved: The Shocking True Story of America's First Serial Killer.

The Bowery Boys: Electric New York

October 21, 1879. It’s late in the evening and a 32-year-old inventor is in his New Jersey lab, tinkering with a carbon thread. When that young inventor—Thomas Edison—lights that thread that night, it isn’t quite a “eureka," lightbulb-over-the-head moment, but the lightbulb in his lab did stay lit long enough to convince him he was on the right track. How did New York City come to light? And how did the rest of the world follow suit? This episode comes from the podcast The Bowery Boys: New York City History. You can listen to more episodes of The Bowery Boys at https://apple.co/3mb4bJD.

The Sky Is Falling

October 11, 1995. Professor Mario Molina is at his desk at MIT when he gets a long-distance call from Sweden. It’s the Nobel Committee, telling him he’s won that year’s prize in chemistry, making this chemistry prize the first awarded to a Mexican-born scientist and the first recognizing environmental science work. The Nobel Committee thanks Molina and the other winners for having "contributed to our salvation from a global environmental problem that could have catastrophic consequences." How did two scientists with no background in atmospheric chemistry identify a dangerous, invisible reaction that was putting the planet in peril? And why was the whole world able to pull together to prevent the worst?

Special thanks to our guests, Don Blake, Richard Stolarski, and A.R. Ravishankara, and to the Science History Institute for sharing its oral history interview with Mario Molina.

The Night Witches

October 4, 1938. Soviet pilot Marina Raskova beats a world record: the longest continuous flight ever recorded by a woman. She'll soon break another barrier-- she'll lead the first-ever female air force pilots to fly on the front lines of World War Two. One of her regiments in particular will wreak havoc on Nazi German soldiers and become the most notorious night bombers in the entire Soviet Union. Today: The Night Witches. Who were these barrier-breaking pilots? And how did they become some of the most feared forces on the Eastern front?

Thank you to our guests, Claudia Hagen, author of "Tonight We Fly!" The Soviet Night Witches of WWII, and to Christer Bergström, author of "Black Cross Red Star - Air War over the Eastern Front: Volume 1 Operation Barbarossa."

Monopoly Money

October 1, 1904. Show up at a newsstand this morning, and you'll see that the October issue of McClure's magazine has hit the shelves. Alongside it, newspapers advertise what’s inside: "Ida M. Tarbell renders her final judgment of Rockefeller's Trust." It’s the 19th and last installment in a series that has made people sit up and take notice of a powerful monopoly and the man behind it. How did a scrappy reporter take on the richest man in the country? And how, in the process, did she change corporate America and investigative journalism itself?

Special thanks to our guests, Stephanie Gorton, author of Citizen Reporters: S. S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, and the Magazine that Rewrote America; Kathleen Brady, author of Ida Tarbell: Portrait of a Muckraker; and Steve Weinberg, author of Taking on the Trust: How Ida Tarbell Brought Down John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil.

The Mother of Level Measurements

September 24, 1902. A new cooking school is set to open at Boston’s 30 Huntington Avenue. The rooms will soon be filled with trainee cooks, who will watch in awe as the school’s namesake and principal, Fannie Farmer, lectures on everything from boning meats to baking the perfect reception rolls. Farmer is an innovative cook, and a pioneer in a thriving women's culinary movement known as "domestic science." But her school stands at a crossroads of that very movement and begs the question, what is the purpose of food? Who was Fannie Farmer, “the mother of level measurements”? And how did she shape the way we cook and eat today?

Special thanks to our guests, Laura Shapiro, author of Perfection Salad; Danielle Dreilinger, author of The Secret History of Home Economics; and Anne Willan, author of Women in the Kitchen.

"The Strangest Gathering of Men"

September 15, 1893. About 4,000 people are intently listening to a monk on a stage in Chicago. They’re at an event called Parliament of the World’s Religions – an unprecedented gathering of leaders from many different faiths all over the world, held at the Chicago World's Fair. The monk is Hindu from Bombay India and is telling a mostly Protestant American audience a story that is not planned and certainly not what the Protestant organizers were expecting. What happened when tension among religious leaders unfolded in front of thousands of American spectators? And how did this Parliament help broaden the country’s understanding of religion?

Thank you to our guests, Scholar of Religion and Professor Eric Ziolkowski from Lafayette College and Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies Diana Eck from Harvard University. Thank you also to Richard Hughs Seager, author of "The World's Parliament of Religions; The East/West Encounter, Chicago 1892."

9/11: Rescue on the Water

September 11, 2001. On a clear and sunny day, Captain Richard Thornton is piloting his ferry boat back and forth between New Jersey and New York City. But when he hears an airplane flying too low to the ground, he knows something is wrong. After the World Trade Center’s North Tower is struck, Thornton instinctively drives his ship down towards Lower Manhattan. He will soon be joined by countless other marine craft: ferries, fishing boats, tugboats, and more. With the roads, bridges, and trains that connect the island of Manhattan to the rest of the world shut down, this collection of civilian, commercial, and military boats manages to carry more than 500,000 survivors to safety. How did this impromptu evacuation, which was larger than Dunkirk during WWII, come together? And how does one ferry boat captain reflect on the shared sense of duty he felt on that fateful day?

Shaving Russia

History repeats itself this week with an episode from the HISTORY This Week archives: Sept 5, 1698. Tsar Peter the Great of Russia returns home from a year-long European tour. When noblemen, religious figures and friends gather to welcome him home, Peter pulls out a straight razor, holds it to their throats, and…forcibly shaves their beards. This event will go down in history as a first step towards Russian geopolitical power. Before Peter’s reign, Russia was an isolated nation that was largely ignored by the rest of the world. How did Peter the Great almost single-handedly drag Russia onto the world stage? And how did his great beard-shaving endeavor lead to the Russia we know today?

Special thank you to our guest Lynne Hartnett, Ph.D., professor of History, Villanova University and Understanding Russia: A Cultural History.

The True Winnie-the-Pooh

August 24, 1914. A train pulls up to the lumber town of White River, Ontario, carrying a regiment of Canadian troops on board. On the tracks where they disembark is a small black bear cub. An army veterinarian decides to buy the bear and name her Winnipeg—Winnie for short—after the town where he's been living. When the soldiers are deployed to the European front, Winnie is left at the London Zoo, where a child named Christopher Robin Milne will meet her. He'll later rename his own teddy bear after her: Winnie the Pooh. How did a real-life boy and a real-life bear inspire some of the world's most famous literary characters? And what impact did these stories ultimately have on the people who helped bring them to life?

Special thanks to Ann Thwaite, whose most recent book about Milne and Winnie-the-Pooh is titled Goodbye Christopher Robin: A.A. Milne and the Making of Winnie-the-Pooh.

The Man Who Stole the Mona Lisa

August 21, 1911. On a Monday morning, a department store employee on a Paris street sees a man hurrying by. He carries a white-wrapped package and, as the employee watches, he throws something small and shiny over his shoulder...it’s a doorknob. Then the man disappears into the streets of Paris. That store employee has just witnessed a small part of what will soon become the world’s most famous crime. In that white-wrapped package was...the Mona Lisa. Why has the Mona Lisa enchanted so many people since the 1500s? And how did a struggling Italian handyman manage to steal it?

Pop Music Pirates

August 14, 1967. Off the coast of England, a group of pirate ships has been fighting to stay afloat. These are pirates of a particular kind—less sword fighting and treasure hunting, more spinning records and dancing late into the night. For the past few years, these boats have made it their mission to broadcast popular music from international waters. But at the stroke of midnight, a new law will make these pirate radio DJs criminals. Some of them, aboard Radio Caroline, are willing to risk it. How did a group of young rebels launch an offshore radio station that gave the BBC a run for its money? And how did they change the course of music history?

Special thanks to our guests, former Caroline pirates Nick Bailey, Gordon Cruse, Roger Gale, Patrick Hammerton, Keith Hampshire, Dermot Hoy, Colin Nichol, Paul Noble, Ian Ross, Chris Sandford, and Steve Young.

The Road Less Traveled

August 2, 1915. The poem appears in print for the first time this week, from Kentucky to Pennsylvania to Vermont. Every reader is transported to that same leafy path: “two roads diverged in a yellow wood.” The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost becomes an immediate hit and will go on to become one of the most popular and well-known poems in American history. For many, it's about a spirit of individualism -- forging one’s own path. And yet… Robert Frost may have had a completely different meaning in mind. What—or who—inspired Frost to write this iconic poem? And what is it really telling us about how to make a choice?

Thank you to our guests, Professor Jay Parini, author of "Robert Frost: A Life," and Professor David Orr, author of " The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong."

Thank you also to Middlebury College Special Collections, Middlebury, Vermont for their 1953 recording of Robert Frost reading "The Road Not Taken".

Jesse Owens Takes Germany

August 1, 1936. The opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. Adolf Hitler enters the stadium to a militaristic Wagner march. Swastikas flutter everywhere on the flag of the Nazi Party. When these moments are remembered later, one athlete’s name comes up more than any other: Jesse Owens. He’s a Black American sprinter, a legendary athlete, and one of 18 Black Americans who competed in Hitler’s Olympics. How, through these 1936 Games, does this one man become mythologized? And what is the forgotten context of his storied Olympic wins?

Special thanks to Damion Thomas, curator of sports for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture; Deborah Riley Draper, director and writer of Olympic Pride, American Prejudice; and Mark Dyreson, director of research and educational programs for the Penn State Center for the Study of Sports in Society.

Fiddling with the Truth

July 19, 64 AD. The Circus Maximus is the main arena in ancient Rome at this time, where tens of thousands watch chariot races and gladiator fights. The stadium is surrounded by shops and bars and restaurants, the whole area teeming with life. And tonight, it will all be destroyed. Nero, the emperor of Rome, will allegedly fiddle while he watches his city burn, and may have even set the fire himself. But if you look at the story a little closer, some of the details just don’t add up. So, what is really true about Nero? And how did a story that was essentially fake news last for 2,000 years?

Special thanks to Anthony Barrett, author of Rome Is Burning: Nero and the Fire That Ended a Dynasty.

The Hunt for Hieroglyphs

July 15, 1799 (approximately). In the town of Rashid on the Nile Delta, French soldiers and Egyptian laborers are rebuilding an old, falling-down fort, when someone spots something unusual. It’s a jagged black rock, inscribed with what looks like three different types of writing. This stone—the Rosetta Stone—will become the key to deciphering a language that had been lost for thousands of years. Today: the race to unlock the secrets of hieroglyphs. How did two scholars manage to decode a language that no one in the world spoke? And when modern people could finally read the messages left by a long-dead civilization, what were we able to learn?

Special thanks to our guest, Edward Dolnick, whose book, The Writing of the Gods, comes out in October 2021.

The Last Archive: Scopes Monkey Trial

July 10, 1925. A group of Tennessee jurors is selected to judge the case of John T. Scopes, a high school science teacher. His offense? Teaching his students about evolution. Across the country, Americans are tuning in to hear science face off against religion in the eyes of the law. But as the trial unfolds, Scopes and his crime become a backdrop for a much bigger culture war, one that divides believers and skeptics and sows doubts that still exist today. This episode comes from the podcast The Last Archive, from Pushkin Industries.

You can listen to more episodes of The Last Archive at https://podcasts.pushkin.fm/historythisweek.

A Mob Boss Starts a Movement

June 28, 1971. It’s the second annual “Unity Day” rally at Columbus Circle in New York City, organized by the Italian American Civil Rights League. Joe Colombo is the very public face of the League, a group that actively fights discrimination and ugly stereotypes against the Italian-American community, such as their association with organized crime and the Mafia. The problem? That same Joe Colombo is a leader of the Mafia, one of the heads of the “Five Families” in New York. It’s an open secret; many people across the city know who he really is, and the FBI is hot on his tail, trying to catch him in the act. On this day, Colombo’s dual life—as an media-facing advocate and as an underground criminal—will come crashing down in a violent display.

Special thanks to Don Capria, co-author of Colombo: The Unsolved Murder; Selwyn Raab, veteran Mafia reporter and author of Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America's Most Powerful Mafia Empires; and Geoff Schumacher, vice president of exhibits and programs for the Mob Museum in Las Vegas.

Two Fathers, One Fight

June 21, 1998. Father's Day. At the Church of the Atonement in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, Jon and Michael Galluccio are ready to tie the knot, in front of family, friends, reporters, and one lone picketer. The Galluccios are already public figures—a few months earlier, they had secured the right for gay and unmarried couples to jointly adopt children. And today, they pull up to their wedding in a minivan, with their son in tow: as a family. How did this family come together? And how did their son's adoption end up changing the lives of other families all across the country?

Thank you to our guest expert, Michael Dobbs, author of King Richard: An American Tragedy.

Thank you also to Ken Hughes and Michael Greco from The Miller Center at UVA for speaking with us for this episode.

Watergate from the Inside

June 17, 1972. In the early morning hours, five men are caught after breaking into the Watergate building in Washington, DC. The failed break-in that night will eventually lead to the unraveling of a major American scandal that reaches the highest levels of government. Why did President Nixon and the men around him believe that they could get away with something so obviously illegal? And how - for one of our producers - did this episode hit close to home?

Special thanks to our guests, Jon and Michael Galluccio. Their book is called An American Family.

Witches Among Us

June 10, 1692. Bridget Bishop is loaded into a two-wheeled cart and brought from her Salem jail cell to a pasture on a hill, where a rope is hanging from freshly-installed gallows. A crowd forms around her: law officers to read the death warrant, ministers to offer last rites, and onlookers, curious to see a witch in the flesh. Bishop’s execution raises doubts that could have stopped the Salem Witch Trials in their tracks. But instead, it became the first in a deluge of convictions, trials, and hangings that made the summer of 1692 go down in infamy. What happened that summer to cause a witch hunt? And what can we learn from the story of 19 supposed witches condemned to death?

The Rise and Fall of Black Wall Street

May 30, 1921. Dick Rowland, a Black teenager, works as a shoeshine in the predominantly white downtown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. On his break, he goes into a nearby office building to use the restroom, and gets on the elevator. Sarah Page, a white teenager, is the elevator operator. What happens next is just an innocent accident, but it sparks the deadliest episode of racial violence in American history. What was the story behind Greenwood, the Tulsa neighborhood known as “Black Wall Street?” And why was it decimated on one horrific night?

Sojourner's Truth

May 29, 1851. Akron, Ohio’s Old Stone Church is packed to the brim. It's the second day of a big convention on women's rights. Hundreds of activists are there, but when one of them, Sojourner Truth, takes the floor, she stands out. Truth is a formerly enslaved woman, and her speech reminds the crowd that women’s rights includes the rights of working women, of Black women, and of women who are now enslaved. But this speech would be manipulated throughout history, and Truth herself boiled down to a fictionalized slogan. How did this feminist and anti-slavery activist get turned into a symbol? And what parts of the person got lost in that process? Who was Truth, really?

Not My Fingerprint

May 20, 2004. A lawyer named Brandon Mayfield walks out of a Portland, Oregon courtroom a free man. About two weeks earlier, Mayfield was arrested by the FBI because they thought they had his fingerprint on a key piece of evidence in the investigation of a terrorist train bombing in Madrid, Spain earlier that year. But by this afternoon in May, that key evidence has completely fallen apart. Today: a case of mistaken identity. Why did the FBI arrest the wrong man? And how did this case change forensic science for good?

Thank you to our guests, Professor Simon Cole from UC Irvine, Steven Wax, author of Kafka Comes to America: Fighting for Justice in the War on Terror - A Public Defender's Inside Account, and Brandon Mayfield.

Thank you also to Judge Jones and former FBI agent Robert Jordan for speaking with us.

If you're interested in reading the Inspector General's Report, you can find it here.

The Chinese Immigrants Who Built America

May 10, 1869. On the dusty, barren plains of Promontory Summit, Utah, a crowd is gathered to celebrate an American milestone – the completion of the transcontinental railroad, the first piece of infrastructure to connect the two sides of the United States. But this achievement didn’t come without great sacrifice, especially from Chinese immigrants, who made up more than 90% of the Central Pacific Railroad company workforce. How did these workers come to build what might be the most important transportation project in US history? And how were these Chinese immigrants accepted by American society, before the tides turned to violence and hate?

Mother's Day

May 9, 1905. After weeks of illness and visits from ten different doctors, Anna Jarvis's mother dies. In the days that follow, Jarvis makes a promise to herself: to fulfill her mother's dream of creating a holiday devoted to celebrating mothers. Her campaign to create and define Mother's Day would become her life's work, and also her downfall. How did Anna Jarvis become a minor celebrity known for her fanatical devotion to this annual holiday? And why did she come to hate the holiday she created?

Special thanks to Katharine Antolini, author of Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Struggle for Control of Mother's Day.

Fighting for 504

April 30, 1977. Nearly a month after entering San Francisco’s Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, a group of 150 demonstrators is going home. They’re singing, drinking champagne, and hugging the friends they’ve slept alongside for weeks on a cold office floor. Many of these activists are people with disabilities, and they’ve been sitting in to push the government to sign regulations that have sat untouched for years. What happened when a group of activists with disabilities staged the longest peaceful occupation of a federal building in US history? And how did this protest change accessibility in America?

Special thanks to our guests, Judy Heumann, Corbett O’Toole, Dennis Billups, and Debby Kaplan. Lucy Muir audio tapes courtesy of Ken Stein. Daniel Smith and Queer Blue Light Videotapes courtesy of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society.

Click here for a transcript of this episode.

The Brink of World War III

April 19, 1951. General Douglas MacArthur's plane touches down just after midnight. He’s coming home from fighting the Korean War. Over twelve thousand people are there to greet this person who the American people consider to be a national war hero. It’s quite the welcome for a general who has just been fired by the President of the United States. How, after this triumphant return, does the general end up losing his own party's political support? And could MacArthur have led his country into a nuclear war?

Thank you to our guests: Professor H.W. Brands, author of The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War, and Professor David Kang, the director of the Korean Studies Institute at USC. Thank you also to Professor James Matray for speaking with us for this episode.

Killing the Gold Standard

April 18, 1933. It’s almost midnight in Washington, DC. Newly-elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt has gathered his economic advisors for a late-night meeting. He called this meeting to announce his plan to effectively take the US off the gold standard, the system by which every paper dollar is tied to a certain amount of literal gold. To his advisors, this is inconceivable. Money is gold. Without gold backing the dollar, what even is money in the first place? But the president is resolute. The gold standard has driven America into the Great Depression, and he plans to drag it back out. How did FDR’s decision change the way Americans conceived of money? And how did killing the gold standard save the country?

More Than a Home Run

April 8, 1974 – On a humid night in Atlanta, Hank Aaron is poised to make history. On the all-time home run leaderboard, Aaron is tied with the legendary Babe Ruth. With one swing of the bat, he can break Ruth’s record. But not everyone in America wants to see this happen; the threats against Aaron’s life have warranted FBI protection. Yet in front of 54,000 people in Atlanta and millions more watching at home, Aaron steps up to bat. What was it like to be a Black baseball superstar twenty-five years after Jackie Robinson broke the sport's color barrier? And what is the real story—of threats, fear, and danger—behind Aaron’s record-breaking game?

Special thanks to Howard Bryant, senior writer for ESPN and author of The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron, and Bob Kendrick, President of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

148 Tornadoes in 18 Hours

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?

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.

Surrogacy on the Stand

March 27, 1986. Mary Beth Whitehead is in labor. She’s giving birth to a girl today, and her husband Richard is by her side. But the Whiteheads are not, contractually-speaking, this child’s parents. Surrogacy is a brand new advancement, and another couple, William and Elizabeth Stern, are contractually owed a baby. When the little girl is born, Mary Beth has a change of heart and runs. This begins a two-year legal battle that launches the complicated question of surrogacy onto the national stage. Who is Baby M’s mother? And how did this case change our understanding of parenthood forever?

Revenge of the Ronin

March 20, 1703. Today, almost fifty men, scattered around the city of Edo, Japan, are waiting to die. They’re all former samurai who had served the same lord – and they all carried out a deadly revenge attack in his name. Their story will go down in history as the legend of the 47 Ronin. Why did these men decide that to be loyal samurai, they had to die? And how did this moment live on for centuries and become part of the national story of Japan?

Thank you to our guest, Professor John Tucker, author of "The Forty-Seven Ronin: The Vendetta in History" and "Kumazawa Banzan: Governing the Realm and Bringing Peace to All below Heaven."

Smash, Smash, Smash!

March 9, 1901. From a jail cell in Topeka, Kansas, temperance vigilante Carry Nation is hard at work. After her latest arrest for smashing up a bar with her infamous hatchet, Nation decides to spread her message with paper and ink. The first issue of The Smasher’s Mail would be published on this day, with Nation arranging the entire endeavor from behind bars. The newsletter was only a small part of her crusade against “hell-broth,” which included everything from destroying saloons to starring in her own burlesque shows. But when considering how alcohol altered her life’s journey, were her methods really all that extreme?

Special thanks to Fran Grace, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Redlands and author of Carry A. Nation: Retelling the Life.

A War on Women

March 2, 1923. In Wichita, Kansas, Mary Irby and Euna Hollowell are being held at the county jail. The two women are charged with “lewdly abiding.” Translation: officials suspect them of carrying a sexually transmitted infection. Hallowell, Irby, and many women like them will go on to be forcibly examined and incarcerated under a public health program known as “The American Plan.” This initiative resulted in decades of mass incarceration of tens of thousands of American women. How was it possible for the U.S. government to publicly wage war on women? And how did those women fight back?

Jazz on the Record

February 26, 1917. At the Victor Talking Machine Company’s studio in Manhattan, five white men gathered to record the first jazz record in history. The Original Dixieland Jass Band’s release was a hit, introducing many listeners across America to this genre for the first time. These musicians even claimed that they invented jazz, but that was far from the truth. Why was jazz, an artform pioneered by Black musicians, introduced to the world by an all-white band? And who were the true pioneers who could have made the first jazz record?

Special thanks to Damon Philips, Columbia Business School professor and author of Shaping Jazz: Cities, Labels, and the Global Emergence of an Art Form, and Kevin Whitehead, jazz critic for NPR’s Fresh Air and author of Play the Way You Feel: The Essential Guide to Jazz Stories on Film.

Freedom Rides Down Under

February 15, 1965. Walgett, Australia. A group of about 30 Sydney students has traveled here on a fact-finding mission – a mission they’ll call a Freedom Ride, inspired by the efforts of Civil Rights activists in America. They’re here to document the unequal treatment of Aboriginal members in Walgett. But after being kicked out of town, their bus is run off the road, and the students brace themselves to face their attackers waiting in the night. How did the U.S. Civil Rights movement spark a wave of student activism on the other side of the world? And how did this dramatic confrontation help catapult this student protest to national importance, changing Australian society forever?

Thank you to our guests: Ann Curthoys, student Freedom Rider and Professor Emeritus at ANU; and ANU School of History Professor, Peter Read, author of “Charles Perkins: A Biography”.

The Capitol Attack of 1861

February 13, 1861. The city of Washington DC is waiting. Bracing itself. For weeks, there have been threats that this day is going to get violent because pro-slavery voters feel the recently elected president, Abraham Lincoln, is a threat to their way of life. Today, Lincoln is supposed to be affirmed when the electoral votes are counted in the US Capitol building, but on the morning of the count, hundreds of anti-Lincoln rioters storm the building. Their goal: to stop the electoral count. What happened when a mob of anti-Lincoln rioters tried to take over the US Capitol? And how did American democracy handle the test?

Sitting In for Civil Rights

February 1, 1960. Four young Black men, David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Jibreel Khazan and Joseph McNeil gather outside the Woolworth department store in Greensboro, North Carolina. All four are college freshman, and they have come downtown with a single purpose: to desegregate the department store, one of the most visible embodiments of racism and segregation in America. These teenagers stage a sit in that sparks a youth movement across the nation and reignites the sputtering Civil Rights Movement. How exactly did the Greensboro sit-ins come together? And why did this particular protest spread like wildfire?

Houdini Defies Death

January 25, 1908. Harry Houdini is the most famous magician in America. He’s known for his escapes—from handcuffs, boxes, jail cells, even a giant football. But the escape act is getting old, and ticket sales aren’t what they used to be. And on this day, an under-capacity audience at the Columbia Theater in St. Louis is about to witness Houdini’s most dangerous escape yet… from death itself. How did a Hungarian immigrant named Erik Weisz become Harry Houdini? And when his career was fading, how did Houdini embrace death to bring it back to life?

Special thanks to our guest, Joe Posnanski (author of The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini). Additional thanks to San Diego magician Tom Interval for providing archival audio of Houdini.

The Capitol Riots in Context

January 6, 2021. As Congress voted to affirm Joe Biden as the incoming president, rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to thwart the election certification. This insurrection shook the nation to its core, forcing many to question the steadfastness of nearly 250 years of democratic rule. In this special episode, we asked historians to join a discussion about where this moment stands in American history, and what we can learn from the past to show us a path forward.

This episode features Sharron Conrad (postdoctoral fellow at SMU’s Center for Presidential History), Beverly Gage (professor of American history and director of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy at Yale University), and Steve Gillon (scholar-in-residence at The History Channel and professor of history at the University of Oklahoma).

The First VP of Color

January 23, 1907. The Kansas legislature has convened to decide who will be the next US Senator from their state. The vote shakes out as everyone expected: front-runner Charles Curtis wins the seat. Curtis – a member of the Kaw Nation – has just become the first person of color elected to the Senate and will go on to rise even further as Vice President of the United States. This week, Kamala Harris follows Curtis as the second person of color to fill that seat. However, his legacy is a complicated one. How did Charles Curtis rise so high during an era that was arguably the height of American white supremacy? And what does his flawed political legacy tell us about the complexities of representation?

Off With Her Head

January 15, 1535. King Henry VIII has a decree. As of today, he is “the only supreme head on earth of the Church of England.” Which means: the Pope is no longer head of the Church in England for the first time in history. And why? All because of a woman named Anne Boleyn. King Henry VIII moves heaven and earth to marry the woman he loves, but just a thousand days later he will have her executed. Why did he do it? And how is the story we always tell about Anne Boleyn all wrong?

Declaring War on Poverty

SEASON TWO PREMIERE – January 8, 1964. In his State of the Union address, Lyndon Johnson unveils his War on Poverty, an effort to tackle subpar living conditions and create jobs across the United States. Johnson discovers that declaring war—even one on an idea—always comes with great costs. Why did LBJ pick poverty as one of his major initiatives? And what issues did he face in waging this war?

For our Season 2 premiere, this episode features Doris Kearns Goodwin (presidential historian and executive producer of The HISTORY Channel’s forthcoming documentary series, Lincoln and Roosevelt) and Guian McKee (associate professor in Presidential Studies at UVA’s Miller Center).

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