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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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."
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?
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?
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.
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?
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?
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.
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).
Best Stories of 2020
December 28, 2020. In this year-end recap, Sally sits down with HISTORY This Week producers McCamey Lynn, Julie Magruder and Ben Dickstein to discuss their favorite episodes from 2020 and bonus info that didn’t make it into the episodes. Plus, we’ll hear researcher Emma Frederick’s favorite facts from a year’s worth of deep dives. We’re back next week to kick off Season 2 with a very special guest.
A Scrooge for the Ages
December 27, 1853. On a freezing, snowy night in Birmingham, England, 2,000 people have lined up outside the town hall. They’ve braved the temperatures for a landmark performance, Charles Dickens’ first reading of A Christmas Carol. The tale will become an international sensation and beloved Christmas tradition. In this special episode of HISTORY This Week, we bring you a classic 1949 rendition of the story starring Vincent Price, so you can decide for yourself: What is it about A Christmas Carol that’s endured for over 150 years?
A Drug Rushed to Market
December 18, 1970. Decades after the end of WWII a Nazi doctor is on trial. Today is judgment day in a long, difficult legal battle, but this case isn’t about war crimes. The German pharmaceutical company Grunenthal is charged with the worst medical disaster in history: the Thalidomide scandal. The shoddily tested and hastily approved drug made its way into medicine cabinets around the world, and a decade after its release, the reality is becoming clear: Thalidomide is killing babies. Who are the heroes that brought down Thalidomide? And how did this disaster change pharmaceutical regulations forever?
The Crown Steps Down
December 11, 1936. Just yesterday, King Edward VIII of England officially abdicated the throne. And tonight, some ten million people will hear the reason from the man himself. He tells the country in a radio address, “I have found it impossible to carry a heavy burden of responsibility, and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do, without the help and support of the woman I love”. This “woman” is a twice-divorced American. The country is shocked. Edward VIII has become the first monarch to voluntarily abdicate the throne in British history. How did Edward VIII cause trouble for England before, during, and after his reign? And how does his legacy continue to shape the fate of the royals to this day?
Wartime Weapon Turned Medical Miracle
December 2, 1943. World War II is raging throughout Europe, but in the Allied port city of Bari, Italy, things have remained relatively quiet. The Allies are offloading tanks, guns, and other equipment, when on this night, the Nazis attack. They bomb the port, killing 2,000 soldiers and civilians, and sinking 28 Allied ships. One of those ships holds a secret cargo, a chemical weapon that leaks into the harbor where soldiers are swimming for their lives. What happened when those soldiers were exposed to this deadly toxin? And how did the investigation of this incident revolutionize the way we treat cancer?
A Toxic Turkey Day
November 24, 1966. Millions of spectators flood Broadway in New York City to watch the Macy’s Day Parade on Thanksgiving morning. The iconic floats – Superman, Popeye, Smokey the Bear – are set against a sky that can only be described as noxious. A smog of pollutants is trapped over New York City, and it will ultimately kill nearly 200 people. How did the 1966 Thanksgiving Smog help usher in a new era of environmental protection? And how have we been thinking about environmental disasters all wrong?
The Inca’s Last Stand
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?
The Muppet Revolution
November 10, 1969. It’s a Monday. Across the US, parents and babysitters and grandparents and aunts and uncles are turning on the TV, because there's a new show out today for kids: Sesame Street. The show has now been on the air for more than 50 years. It’s been viewed by 80 million Americans, and it’s aired in 120 countries. Some people call it the most influential show in the history of TV. How was Sesame Street born? And how did it help change the way millions of children learn?
Stealing the Presidency
November 7, 1876. A little before midnight on election night, the Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes admits defeat and goes to bed. The Democrat Samuel J. Tilden has swept the electoral college and by morning, he will almost certainly have the votes he needs to win the presidency. But overnight, the Republicans manage to change their fate and go on to steal the election. How did a one-legged Civil War veteran, a handful of telegrams and some of the filthiest politics in American history flip an election? And how did Hayes’ fateful compromise with the Democrats set back suffrage for over a century?
Crisis in Cuba
October 27, 1962. 72,000 feet above Cuba, an American U2 spy plane flies over the island, capturing photo intelligence. It’s been 13 days since the CIA discovered Soviet nuclear missiles stationed in Cuba, pointed directly at the US. Soviet defense forces on the ground catch the spy plane on their radar. They name it Target Number 33. The lower-level Soviet officers are getting nervous that this spy is capturing critical intelligence. Unable to reach their general, they make the call: destroy Target Number 33. In that moment, the pilot becomes the first casualty of the Cuban Missile Crisis. How, at the peak of the Cold War, did a combination of political choices and bad luck push the world to the brink of nuclear war? And how did leadership, diplomacy and chance pull us back to safety?
Land of the Free?
October 19, 1814. An eager audience files into the Holliday Street Theater in Baltimore, about to see a debut performance, described as a “much-admired new song.” The composer of this song, Francis Scott Key, had written the lyrics during a recent battle in Baltimore, trapped on a British ship as he watched the rockets red glare from afar. Key wasn’t a professional songwriter – a prominent lawyer in Washington D.C., he specialized in cases related to slavery, both defending enslaved people and slave catchers. But his real legacy became this song, entitled “The Star-Spangled Banner.” How did Key come to watch the Battle of Baltimore play out from the deck of an enemy ship? And how did his relationship with race and slavery shape the song we now call our national anthem.
October 15, 2001. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle receives an innocuous-looking letter. It has childlike handwriting and an elementary school return address. When an intern opens the envelope, white powder spills all over her clothes and wafts into the air. Soon after, the confirmation comes: Anthrax. This attack is one in a series of letters that arrive at media offices all over the country, just weeks after 9/11. The letters prove to be untraceable, and the investigation becomes one of the hardest and most complex in FBI history. How did investigators close this impossible case? And what remains unsolved to this day?
Becoming the Dalai Lama
October 8, 1939. In the Tibetan city of Lhasa, thousands of people have flooded into the streets to welcome the next Dalai Lama, a young boy of 4 years old. He doesn’t know it yet, but he’ll become the spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people at the age of 15, right in the middle of a war. How does someone so young prepare for something so big? And what can the Dalai Lama’s very unusual life teach the rest of us about what it means to be a leader?
No Representation, No Peace
September 30, 1765. Almost a decade before the American Revolution, delegates from four colonies gather in the first unofficial meeting of the Stamp Act Congress. The congress has been called to respond to a new British tax on the colonies, the Stamp Act. It’s essentially a tax on paper, and Congress’ response will be the first official act of distention by the colonies against the British. Unofficially though, the people are rioting in the streets. And it’s this popular protest, more than Congress’ tempered response, that will bring the Stamp Act down. How did the Stamp Act riots become a spark that would ignite the American Revolution? And what does it mean that we’ve been protesting for change since before America’s founding?
The Diet Wars
September 24, 1955. President Eisenhower is asleep in his bed at his in-laws’ house in Denver. At around 2 AM in the morning, he’s jolted awake by chest pains. No one realizes it until the morning, but Eisenhower has had a heart attack. His cardiologist calms the public and tells them that their President will be alright – with some lifestyle changes partially inspired by new, cutting-edge research from a little-known scientist: Ancel Keys. And that very research will change the way Americans, and the world, will eat forever. How did Keys, an oceanographer-turned-nutrition-scientist, end up changing the world’s relationship with fats? And was this a change for the better?
Grapes for Change
September 16, 1965. Cesar Chavez and the National Farmworkers Association have been plotting a Mexican-American labor strike for years, concentrating their efforts in the farming community of Delano, California. But just one week earlier, Filipino farmworkers decided to strike on their own, disrupting these carefully organized plans. So Mexican-American farmworkers and their families gather at a local church in Delano to hear whether Chavez has made a decision: will they join the Filipinos and strike, even if they might not be ready? The answer is a resounding yes. What happened when the Filipinos and Mexicans joined forces? And how did a labor movement started by farmworkers in a small California town take the nation by storm?
Global Seed Vault
September 10, 2002. Thieves have broken into basements in two cities in Afghanistan to steal plastic containers. Those containers were holding seeds – extremely vital seeds. But the thieves didn’t want the seeds and dump them. With that, a critical natural resource, one of the most important on Earth, is lost forever. Today, we are in a race to save the world’s seeds. How has an international coalition of scientists worked to conserve the world’s seeds? And why might they be the key to protecting the future of humanity?
Thank you to our guest, Cary Fowler, former executive director for the Global Crop Trust and one of the founders of the Global Seed Vault.
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?
The First American Sex Scandal
August 25, 1797. Alexander Hamilton, the former Secretary of the Treasury, has published a new pamphlet. At first, readers assume this is going to be another one of Hamilton’s pro-Federalist, ideological screeds. But soon, the whole country will realize that this is something very different: an admission of guilt. This wasn’t about a crime, but an affair – the first sex scandal in the history of American politics. Why did Alexander Hamilton openly confess to his extramarital activities? And if he hadn’t, how might American History have unfolded differently?
Suffrage isn’t Simple
August 18, 1920. In the third row of the legislative chamber in Nashville, Tennessee, 24 year-old Harry Burn sits with a red rose pinned to his lapel. He's there to vote on the 19th Amendment, which will determine if women nationwide will be able to vote. Burn’s shocking, unexpected vote, “yes,” will turn the tides of history, even though women had already been voting for decades before 1920, and many women still won't be able to vote for decades to come. So, what did the 19th Amendment actually do for women in America? And what, on this 100th anniversary, does it show us about our own right to vote today?
The Birth of Hip Hop
August 11, 1973. At 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, 18-year-old DJ Kool Herc plays his first New York City party. The dance floor is packed, the energy is wild, and Herc gives the performance of a lifetime featuring one very specific innovation on the turntables. Herc and the partygoers don’t know it yet, but this event will go down in history as the birth of one of the most popular musical genres to date—hip hop. How did this party give way to a multi-billion dollar industry? And how has hip hop become so much more than the music?
August 4, 1987. The Federal Communication Commission’s leadership has come together in Washington D.C. to decide the fate of a vital issue: fairness. For the previous 40 years, the FCC has attempted to ensure that TV and radio broadcasters present both sides of the political issues discussed on their airwaves. But by the 1980s, the political landscape has changed, and the Fairness Doctrine will soon be no more. Today, we talk to two of the major players who fought on both sides of this great debate to explain what the Fairness Doctrine actually did, why it died, and where exactly that leaves us today.
Convert or Leave
July 31, 1492. In cities, towns and villages across late medieval Spain, whole districts have emptied out. Houses abandoned, stores closed, and synagogues—which until recently had been alive with singing and prayer—now sit quiet. Exactly four months earlier, the King and Queen of Spain issued an edict: by royal decree, all Jewish people in Spain must convert to Catholicism or leave the country, for good. Why were the Jews expelled from Spain? How did Spaniards, and then the world, start to think of religion as something inherited, not just by tradition, but by blood? And how does this moment help us understand the challenge of assimilation today?
Public Enemy #1
July 22, 1934. John Dillinger, America's most famous outlaw, is gunned down by federal agents outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago. Dillinger's death is the final act in a crime spree that involved multiple prison breaks, dozens of bank robberies, and more than one violent shootout. But despite all the money Dillinger stole and the deaths he caused along the way, the public still adored him. How did a man named “Public Enemy #1” become a national darling? And how did the pursuit of John Dillinger make way for the modern FBI?
Destroyer of Worlds
July 15, 1945. It happened within a millionth of a second. In the New Mexico desert at 5:30 in the morning, a group of scientists watched in anticipation as the countdown began. It was silent at first, yet hot and unbelievably bright. Then came the sound. The first-ever atomic bomb explosion... was a success. How did scientists working on the Manhattan Project create what was then the most powerful weapon in history? And how did the bomb’s existence forever change our sense of what human beings are capable of?
July 10, 1943. 150,000 British and American soldiers storm the beaches of Sicily in the first Allied invasion of Nazi-controlled Europe. But the Nazis…aren’t really there to put up a fight. Hitler thought the invasion was coming for Greece. The Nazis have been tricked by two British Intelligence officers and a covert deception plan. How did their operation— which involved a corpse, false identity, and a single eyelash—change the course of WWII?
The Big Stink
July 30th, 1858. London is a world city, a global center of trade and commerce. But there’s something less glamorous going on in this bustling metropolis: the smell. Every inch of the city smells like rotting, human waste. And this smell is actually killing people. But no one is doing anything about it. Until today. How did short-term thinking lead to a deadly problem? And how did an unlikely leader finally get London out of this very literal mess?
Pride & Protest
June 28, 1970. Hundreds of people start to gather on Christopher Street in Manhattan’s West Village for an anniversary celebration. One year earlier, in that very same spot, the Stonewall Inn was raided by police, sparking a revolution. Now, LGBTQ+ people have come here again, not to riot but to march in celebration of who they are and just how far they have come – something that might have been unthinkable if Stonewall hadn’t taken place. How did the Stonewall riot have such a huge impact on queer activism, and how did the community go from raid to parade in just a year?