Friday, September 11, 2020





During her heyday from the early 1850s to the 1870s, Eleanore Dumont was known as the best and most beautiful woman gambler in the West. Upon her arrival in San Francisco around 1849, she worked in the city’s countless gambling establishments, picking up the tricks of the trade by observing the moves of professional gamblers.

Eleanore Dumont wasn’t the first woman gambler in San Francisco, nor was she the only French woman to immigrate there. Shiploads of French women, mostly prostitutes, arrived from various countries, including France, much to the chagrin of the “decent” women who had come with their husbands to begin a new life.

It’s believed that Dumont was in her early 20s when she arrived. The dark-haired, shapely French beauty was something of a sensation in the growing town. Not only did she speak five languages, she was witty, knowledgeable, and an accomplished musician. She was always dressed to the nines, wearing expensive and fashionable clothes and jewels. Besides her attractiveness and charm, the young lady’s manners were impeccable, all of which made her even more appealing to the sex-starved men who had left their families and civilization behind to make their fortunes in the California gold rush. Men far outnumbered women by around ten to one, and even females with below-average looks were a sought-after prize.

            Gambling halls were extremely popular in San Francisco during its boom years of the 1850s. Poker was considered boring and slow-moving. Fast-paced French card games, like vingt-et-un (twenty-one) or lansquenet were preferred, as were craps and faro. Who better to deal a hand of cards than the soft-spoken, alluring Eleanore Dumont?

Opening her own gambling house in Nevada City in 1854, calling herself Madame Dumont, she sat at her gaming table each evening sipping champagne, as a steady flow of eager men waited to lose their hearts and gold to lovely French woman. Her specialty was high-stakes gambling, and bets of $20,000 weren’t uncommon at her table. The classy lady offered her “guests,” (i.e., whiskey drinking miners) free champagne. Before sitting down with the enchanting Madame Dumont, however, they were advised they couldn’t spit tobacco on the floor, cuss, or fight – all standard practices in most gambling saloons at that time. Most amazing was that the scroungy miners actually bathed and wore clean clothes before playing cards with her. They were beguiled by her and were happy to follow her rules. She wasn’t a card-cheat; at least, none of the men who lost bags of gold dust to the genteel French lady accused her of dealing from the bottom of the deck.

            Over the next nine years, Eleanor Dumont’s fame spread through the mining camps. By 1859 when Nevada City’s gold ore had been played out, she had accumulated a large nest egg. Many of her customers moved to Virginia City, Nevada, where a rich deposit of silver ore had been discovered. And the lady followed, making a substantial fortune in winnings.

Tired of the fast and furious life she had led for so many years, she was married in the 1860s to the young, handsome David Tobin. Retiring to a Nevada farm with her new husband, the French woman dropped out of sight. Locals said Tobin was a scoundrel; that he spent all of Eleanore’s money and ran off, leaving the once-famous woman gambler broke and alone.

            Forced to return to her old profession in the mining camps a few years later, her shapely figure had thickened, her face was wrinkled, and a layer of black downy hair had grown across her top lip. The men began to call her “Madame Mustache,” a moniker that dogged poor Eleanore the rest of her life...and well beyond the grave.

Women were no longer a scarcity in Northern California’s Sierra Nevada Mountain camps, and the aging French lady had to compete with the young, pretty girls who continued to flow into the mining towns from San Francisco. Likely depressed and struggling to make ends meet, she began to drink heavily.

            Until now, Eleanor hadn’t resorted to prostitution to make a living. Now bitter and hardened, the notorious Madame Mustache added prostitution to her repertoire. She learned to use a horsewhip to defend herself from the drunken miners who wanted a free roll in the hay. On at least one occasion, she killed a man who tried to rob her.

            Moving to the rough and tumble town of Bodie, California, in the 1870s, things continued to spiral downward. Madame Dumont gambled and drank away what little money she made. Unable to cope with what she had become, an aging, overweight alcoholic, she drank her last glass of champagne on September 8, 1879. It was laced with poison.

            The Sacramento Union ran a short blurb, which read, “A woman named Eleanore Dumont was found dead today about a mile out of town, having committed suicide.”

            Madame Moustache was buried in Bodie “outside the fence,” as only “decent, law-abiding folks” were allowed inside the main cemetery.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

On April 6, 1917, Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany and its allies, collectively called the “Central Powers.” The president had flipped his anti-war promise on its proverbial head, facing the challenges of preparing the country for war like a bull charging a matador’s cape. Going to war had been a difficult decision, but Wilson was left no choice when Germany had become more aggressive towards the Unites States. Kaiser Wilhelm II had announced that all ships, including American passenger liners, would be sunk on sight. In addition, the British had intercepted a coded telegram sent by Germany’s Foreign Secretary to the German Ambassador in Mexico. The message proposed that Mexican troops invade the United States to start a war to reclaim New Mexico, Texas and Arizona. The Central Powers would supply weapons and money to support Mexican troops. That way, the U.S. military would be too busy fighting against Mexico to send troops overseas to join the Allied forces.
With only 127,151 men serving in the U. S. Army at that time, Wilson would have to implement the draft immediately. Make-shift training camps were set up, and steel mills and factories producing weapons would have to move at lightning speed. To keep up morale, Wilson’s representatives made sure that newspapers were censored so that nothing negative about the war was printed. People who spoke against the war were often brought to trial; some were even imprisoned.
In the military encampments, new recruits were squeezed into barracks and tents, their cots so close together that there was barely room to move between them. At Camp Funston on the massive grounds of Fort Riley, Kansas, an estimated 56,000 young men were being trained. Little did anyone know that a battle almost as terrible as the one they would face in the trenches abroad would soon come to call on the home front.
To this day, scientists battle about where or how the “Great Influenza Pandemic” began. One theory is that the virus had infected pigs on a farm near Camp Funston. It all started, they said, two days after the farmer burned piles of hog manure. The wind carried a storm of smoke laden with the virus into the camp. Men began to sicken by the scores. Within three weeks, 1,100 had died. Other researchers stated that it was impossible for this kind of virus to survive burning, let alone to be infectious after being swept along for miles before finding a human host.
A more popular theory was that the killer influenza had been created by German scientists and brought to America on a submarine. The newspapers picked up on this idea and people believed the story. After all, the Germans had created deadly gases which had killed thousands of soldiers in the trenches.
Yet another hypothesis was that the influenza outbreak during the winter of 1916-17 at a British encampment in France had symptoms eerily similar to the strange new strain of the killer flu. Some researchers believed that because of the weakened condition of the soldiers and the filth in the rat-infested trenches, the germs had mutated into an even stronger strain that was easily transmitted. The killer flu spread from stricken French soldiers in concentric circles to soldiers on both sides and into the cities. It hitched rides on unknowing hosts boarding ships bound for ports all over the world, eventually making its way to America…and possibly to the overcrowded military base in Kansas.
Ironically, the new flu was nicknamed “the Spanish influenza” even though it didn’t begin in Spain. Most likely, it reared its ugly head in France and Britain first and was likely carried to Spain by infected people spending time in Spain’s warm coastal resort towns. Because the war’s propaganda machine in the Allied countries had forbidden their newspapers from printing information about the outbreak of the flu and the toll it was taking on the troops, Spain, a neutral country with newspapers that included stories about the influenza outbreak in its country, was blamed for its beginnings.
The reality is that we may never know the influenza’s origin. The fact is that it moved through military bases in America and overseas like locusts ravaging a wheat field. Soldiers who had been exposed – and even those who were already showing symptoms – were deployed overseas. Shiploads of sick men arrived and spread the disease by the thousands. The strange virus preyed most often on the young and healthy. Symptoms began with headaches, violent coughing, body aches, sore throats and high fevers. Although some recovered, others weren’t so lucky. After a few days, their lips and even their faces turned blue when their lungs became congested with blood and fluids. Scientists worked madly to come up with a cure or, at least an inoculation. But in 1918 their microscopes weren’t advanced enough to view, let alone understand how to destroy, the viruses that were wreaking havoc on the world.
It’s ironic that the pandemic struck during a time when the world was at war. Military ships with soldiers carrying the flu stopped for fuel and supplies in ports all over the world. There are stories about sailors disembarking their ships in a port and infecting entire communities, such as in Western Samoa, where 8,000 people died after a vessel from Auckland docked there for refueling.
Meanwhile in America the flu continued to sweep across the country. People wore flimsy gauze masks hoping to protect themselves from the invisible enemy. Restaurants, churches and theaters closed, and people were advised to avoid crowds and stay home as much as possible. Mingling closely with other people was banned in many areas. For most Americans, however, that wasn’t an option. They had to work. Without them, who would build the much-needed military trucks and guns and cannons to ship to the troops? And of course, they caught and passed on the flu to their fellow workers.
One of the worst massive public exposures to the Spanish influenza occurred in Philadelphia when a Liberty Bond parade wasn’t canceled by the city’s leaders. With the war raging on overseas, money raised through the sale of Liberty Bonds was needed to support American troops. While numerous health officials warned against bringing that many people together during a world pandemic, Philadelphia’s leaders ignored their warnings and moved forward with their plans. The public wasn’t notified of the danger. Sadly, around three-hundred thousand residents lined the parade route. Within three days, an estimated hundred thousand Philadelphians had become infected. Thousands of men, women and children – often entire families – died. And the virus found even more hosts who would continue to infect other unsuspecting friends and family members.
Meanwhile on the battle front, the influenza had sickened and killed thousands of soldiers on both sides. By fall, battle-weary Bulgaria, Austria, Hungry and Turkey had asked the Allies for peace. Germany would soon do the same, signing an armistice on November 11. The war was over, and the flu had more than a little credit for its somewhat quick end.
Although the flu continued its killing spree in second and third waves for months, the epidemic seemed to be over by the early winter of 1919. The public was ecstatic, patronizing their favorite eateries, partying, attending social functions, and shopping. Slowly, things returned to normal.
The total number of people who died from the 1918 influenza is believed to have been more than the those who died in World War 1. Because many of the countries affected by the virus didn’t keep accurate records, the numbers of dead are only estimates and range somewhere between 40 million and 100 million worldwide. Added to the 20-plus million soldiers and civilians who had been killed in World War 1, the loss of life during this time is staggering.
For the scientists who couldn’t find a cure or what had caused this new variety of killer flu, their work continued. No one doubted that the day would come when another mutated disease would disrupt the world. It took over 100 years, but during the current outbreak of COVID 19, lessons learned from the 1918 flu were put into practice. Avoiding crowds, closing businesses, and asking people to stay home, helped then as it has helped now. And the good news is that our ancestors’ lives did, indeed, return to normal. Strangely, the 1918 influenza hasn’t been included in history classes, and few books have been written on the topic. Until the recent pandemic, the “Spanish” flu had been forgotten by most people…with the exception of the generations of scientists who have worked to understand exactly what caused the deadly flu of 1918. Their hope has always been to prevent another similar outbreak.
And the battle to find a vaccine goes on….

Monday, November 11, 2019


Did you know that Veterans Day was originally called Armistice Day? On November 11, 1918, after more than four bloody years of fighting, World War 1 ended. German officials surrendered and the Armistice agreement took effect at 11:00 a.m. on 11-11-1918. That date – called Remembrance Day in many countries – was observed in the United States until 1954, when the name was changed to Veterans Day so that veterans of all wars would be honored. 

When the First World War began overseas in August 1914, President Wilson refused to involve America in a conflict that didn’t directly involve the United States. Many people in America and, indeed, Great Britain, believed that Wilson should have declared war on the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and their allies) after a German submarine sank the RMS Lusitania, a British-owned luxury liner, on May 7, 1915, killing 1,200 men, women and children, including 128 American citizens. Wilson refused to budge. However, he began to change his mind when German U-boats (submarines) attacked American ships, and German spy networks detonated numerous bombs and incendiary devices on American soil. The final blow came when a letter to the Mexican president was intercepted and taken to the White House. The letter’s contents were shocking: the German government offered to assist Mexico with invading America to take back the border states of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. They also proposed that Mexico convince the Japanese to switch sides and join the Central Powers.

Within days, Wilson declared war on the Central Powers in April of 1917, more than 2-1/2 years after the war had begun. By the time the Germans surrendered, the war had claimed over 18 million lives, with an additional 23 million wounded (including civilians).
The official peace agreement, The Treaty of Versailles, wasn’t signed until June 1919, after months of meetings, arguments, and negotiations between the representatives of the conquering nations regarding how the countries that made up the Central Powers should be punished. An interesting fact is that representatives from the Central Powers – most importantly, the Germans – weren’t included in the actual peace negotiations in France. When the dust settled, the Germans were fined a half-trillion dollars (in today’s currency), a monumental debt that wasn’t paid off until 2010. The war devastated Germany economically. The people were impoverished, starving, and humiliated. Germany was seriously in debt, not to mention that they had lost millions of young men. In addition, they had lost face and a great deal of territory.

Forced to sign the Armistice agreement, Germany was humiliated, their economy ruined, and millions of their young men were dead.  Kaiser Wilhelm, grandson of Queen Victoria, had been at the helm during the war. He resigned his position as leader of the German Empire and spent the rest of his life exiled in the Netherlands.

These factors contributed directly to Adolph Hitler’s rise to power. He used the devastating reparations the Germans would have to pay to ignite the fuse of hatred that would lead to World War II less than twenty years later.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019


Mata Hari. The very name conjures images of a beautiful temptress; a double agent who betrayed the Allied forces during World War 1 costing the French countless lives. But who was the real Mata Hari? Was she actually the evil seductress remembered as a counter agent during the Great War? And did she really change her allegiance to the Allies (Russia, France, Britain, Serbia, Japan and Italy) to spy for Germany?
During the early 1900s, Mata Hari was a famous exotic dancer. She advertised herself as a princess from Indonesia, and world audiences bought into her ruse. Her scanty costumes left little to the imagination, and her gyrations shocked, and yet titillated her audiences…which included the era’s most rich and famous, as well as royalty.
Mata Hari’s real name was Margaretha Zelle, and she wasn’t a princess, nor was she from an exotic country. Actually, she was born in the Netherlands, and her father owned a hat shop.
After a tumultuous childhood, Margaretha moved to Indonesia and married a well-to-do widower, who was 20 years her senior. He was well-off financially and was a high-ranking officer in the British military. But he was an alcoholic, and he often beat her.
Margaretha’s life was made even worse when both of their children died of what was believed to be syphilis. She found solace in learning Indonesian dances. So, when she found herself divorced and on her own, she changed her name to Mata Hari, which means “eye of the day” in Indonesian. Fabricating a fake past, she performed her sensational dances.
When the war broke out in 1914, she was on tour in Europe and fell madly in love with a Russian pilot who flew for the French. When he was shot down during a dog fight, he was badly injured. Margaretha tried to visit him in a military hospital in France. But the French would only allow it if she agreed to spy on Germany, or more exactly, seduce the eldest son of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who had been infatuated with her when she performed in Germany. The French military wanted her to get information out of the young German prince and pass it on to them.
Did she become a counterspy during her few years of working undercover for France? Or was she set up by a German officer with whom she had a relationship? A rejected lover, perhaps? All we know is that he sent a coded message indicating that Mata Hari was spying for Germany – and he sent it in a code that he knew could be easily deciphered by the French.  Mata Hari was arrested and executed in France in 1917. She swore she was innocent until the end.
Most scholars who have reviewed the trial documents believe she was simply made a scape goat by the French government. After all, it was convenient to blame her for the fact that the French had lost a major battle, rather acknowledging that poor tactics had been used by the French commanders.

The new International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. has an exhibit about Mata Hari which includes some of her personal possessions, such as the metal bra top she wore as part of her dance costume.

Images from Wiki Commons Public Domain

Monday, April 22, 2019

In the Shadow of War: Spies, Love and the Lusitania 

Chapter 2

St. Patrick's Cathedral

March 2, 1915

IT WAS HARD for Josette to believe her childhood friend, Julian Laurent, was dead. Sitting in St. Patrick’s Cathedral where Julian would be eulogized during the morning Mass, his death finally seemed real. His parents received the devastating news in February. Thousands of Allied soldiers had died that day. There was no way to send their bodies home or to bury them individually. Instead, a deep trench – a common grave – had been dug near the battlefield. Mr. and Mrs. Laurent brought a portrait of their son to the service – it had been painted after his graduation from Harvard. It rested on an easel near the stairs that led to the altar.
The morning air was heavy with an icy chill that crept clear to her bones. Shivering, Josette buttoned the top button of her coat. The fact that St. Patrick’s Cathedral was a cavernous edifice of stone and marble and stained-glass windows didn’t help, either. This was the first Mass of the day, and at seven a.m., the heating system, such as it was, hadn’t yet warmed the interior of the massive structure.
Josette, her twin sister, Yvette, and their mother sat in a pew located at the far-left side of the crowded cathedral. They wore their warmest black mourning attire. Mother, always dressed as if she was off to the opera, had selected her black ensemble trimmed with white rabbit fur. Her hat had an over-sized brim and was covered with fake flowers and netting that hung to the level of her brows. Mother always dressed to impress. But then, that was Mother.
Speaking in monotone Latin, Bishop Hayes, wearing a beautiful long purple robe, struck a commanding figure. “Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus,” he said, interrupting Josette’s thoughts. He stood beneath the large golden cross, his back to the parishioners. After making the sign of the cross, he steepled his hands at chest height.
Looking around the massive interior, Josette noticed that the early morning light beamed a rainbow of colors through the stained-glass windows, scattering a diffused glow over the nave and rows of pews. This was one of the holiest times of the year in the Catholic faith. The weeks of Lent were underway and, as such, the edifice was made even more beautiful by the addition of silky, royal purple fabric draped across the statues and crucifixes.
Wearing a serene smile, the Bishop began to speak the special eulogy prayer in English. “Many of us have gathered here in the light of God, the Holy Mother, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, to pay homage to one of our parishioners, Julian James Laurent. He was baptized in this church and served the Lord as one of our very special altar boys. We are honored to have Mr. and Mrs. John Laurent, his parents, here worshipping with us today.” He paused, nodding to Julian’s family seated in the front center row.
Bishop Hayes continued. “Let me open with a passage from Ecclesiastics 44, Verse 9. ‘And some there be, which have no memorial, who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born.’” He paused, his gentle gaze clearly locked on Mr. and Mrs. Laurent. “Though Julian’s earthly remains rest with his fellow soldiers in a field in France, you can be sure he is with God. Lo, they are all with God.” He raised his arms, looking to heaven. “‘And their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth evermore.’ They may be gone, these young brave men, but they will never be forgotten. And now, let us pray.”
Josette hadn’t seen much of Julian since he was sent away to boarding school as a teenager. And then, he had gone on to Harvard University. Glancing at his portrait again, Josette’s eyes welled with tears. She opened her purse, retrieved a handkerchief, and dabbed away the moisture from her cheeks. Julian’s parents had begged him not to sign up as a soldier with the British army. Mrs. Laurent said that when Julian read the newspaper accounts of how the German army had marched across Belgium, a neutral country, and laid waste to its capital, murdering innocent citizens and poisoning wells in the process, it had been the last straw for the conscientious young man.
Heavy footsteps echoed on the cold, marble floor, snapping her out of her reverie. She turned as a man wearing a long, brown coat walked by. Without so much as a glance at her, he stopped at the end of the next pew. Balding, with a thin fringe of very dark hair around the bottom of his head, he carried a huge cigar with a glowing end in his right hand. No one dared to smoke inside the cathedral. Everyone knew that. Josette was shocked.
The odd man stood there silently without genuflecting – obviously not a Catholic – and then settled in the empty spot in front of her. Surprised at his strange behavior, at the fact he was smoking a cigar, Josette stuffed her handkerchief back into her purse, snapped it closed and tapped him on the shoulder. He half-turned to look at her.
“Excuse me, sir,” she whispered. “You need to snuff out your cigar.”
With that, he twisted completely around and shot a foul glower at her, his eyes filled with hatred. A tingle crawled up her spine, and she drew back. She was sorry she had said anything. Those eyes. Dark. Cold. So angry. Then he turned forward again.
“How dreadful!” The words slipped out of her mouth. Josette scooted to the right, as far away from him as she could, so that her body was close to her sister’s. Yvette’s head was lowered in prayer. Josette tapped her on the arm, glancing at the ill-mannered lout. “Can you believe it?” she whispered to Yvette from the corner of her mouth, her gaze still locked on the back of the man’s hatless head.
Yvette looked puzzled. “What in the world is going on?” she said in such a low tone, her words were barely audible.
Widening her eyes, Josette said, “He’s smoking!”
Yvette drew back. “What? Oh, my heavens!” she said softly.
“Shhh,” Their mother mouthed with an angry expression.
Josette and her sister pressed back in their seats. A thought ran through Josette’s mind. If the man wasn’t a Catholic, then he must have been a friend of Julian’s. That seemed highly unlikely to her, since he was rude, disrespectful of being inside a church. And looked at least forty. Julian was in his late twenties, for heaven’s sake.
She heard more footsteps approaching. Another man passed, pausing in the aisle beside the pew where the first man sat. Italians, she surmised, noting their coloring and features. This one, likely in his late twenties, had a full head of curly, coal-black hair and long sideburns. And then she noticed that he, too, carried a lighted cigar.
Josette let out a gasp. She and Yvette exchanged confused glances. Before Josette could say anything to the newly arrived Italian about the matter of smoking, the bell sounded signaling the worshippers to kneel again. Both Mother and Yvette went back to the kneeler. But not Josette. Instead, she watched as the seated man motioned to the younger man, indicating he should continue walking towards the front of the cathedral. With that, he ambled forward slowly, stopped, crossed himself and kneeled to pray near one of the enormous stone pillars at the front of the sanctuary. But why there? In the walkway? Why didn’t he slide into one of the empty pews?
Josette scooted left, back to the end of the seat, stretching her upper body into the aisle to see what he did next.
The Italian who knelt in prayer wore a long, black, split-back woolen coat. It had frayed elbows and looked as if it had faded several shades. Something, a large lump, seemed to make his coat pocket jut out.
The scrub woman, who had been cleaning the vestibule area when they entered the cathedral earlier, moved in Josette’s direction. She dusted a window sill, the gate across the aisle, a pillar base, and then strolled over to wipe the carved end of Josette’s pew. The woman smiled.
Josette forced a smile in return. The poor young dear was certainly homely—a large nose, rutted skin covered by a thick layer of caked powder, and bright red lipstick. And then a second cleaning woman appeared. Even more unattractive, she wore baggy clothes and had her faded red hair plaited into a long braid that hung down her back. The two scrub women exchanged knowing glances.
It was all so strange. Why were they cleaning while a Mass was underway?
Still holding his cigar, the unpleasant man in front of Josette rose, stepped into the aisle, pushed past the cleaning ladies, and bolted up the aisle. The shorter of the two cleaning ladies lifted her skirt, exposing a man’s laced shoes, and scurried after him.
Flabbergasted, Josette watched as the red-haired woman dashed down the aisle. In an abrupt move, the kneeling man reached inside his coat and pulled out a good-sized, strange-looking object bound with what looked like copper wire. Placing it on the floor against the marble pillar, he touched the glowing tip of his cigar to a thick cord protruding from the object. It only took a few seconds for the cord to ignite. He got to his feet just as the cleaning lady arrived and grabbed his shoulders. The pair struggled. The Italian pulled himself free and sprinted for the aisle. It was obvious the cleaning lady wasn’t a woman, but a man dressed in woman’s attire. He dove for the fleeing man, wrestling him to the floor.
The shock of what was happening swept through Josette’s body like a lightning bolt. “It’s a bomb!” she said in a near shout, as she got to her feet.
Yvette and Mother looked up with terrified expressions.
“Quick! Run!” Josette said.
Without responding, Yvette and their mother were beside Josette, pushing their way up the aisle with the other parishioners from nearby pews who had seen the commotion. The elderly, bespectacled usher who had guided them to their seats that morning, bolted past, sprinting in the direction of the explosives.
Josette glanced back just in time to see the usher’s gray wig fall to the floor as he leaped on the lighted explosives.

STANDING OUTSIDE the cathedral’s front entrance with dozens of parishioners who had escaped during the turmoil, it seemed quite strange to Josette that there were still hundreds of worshippers inside and that the Mass had continued.
Nearby, a rotund woman sat on the top step sobbing loudly, face buried in her hands. Her husband stood over her, trying to calm his wife. No one in the crowd seemed to know what to do next. Their faces reflected confusion, fear.
Yvette was visibly shaken. “Why? Why did they want to blow up the cathedral?” she asked Josette. “They could have killed all of us.”
Josette shook her head and exhaled a breath. “I don’t know, Yvette. I just don’t know.”
Mother looked dazed. Yvette slid her arm around their mother’s shoulders. “It’s all over now. Everything is fine.”
“As Father would say, ‘the plot was foiled,’” Josette said, attempting to lighten the moment. Yet, she knew if the bomb had exploded, the big support column would have been seriously damaged. It probably would have toppled over, bringing down part of the roof onto the worshippers below – hundreds of innocent men, women and children could have been killed.
Who were these terrible men, and why were they so calloused, so angry…such cold-blooded killers? Josette wondered. Where could anyone go these days to stay out of harm’s way? Even churches were no longer safe. A sense of anger, of sudden determination rose from deep inside her. “You stay here with Mother,” Josette instructed her sister. “I’ll be right back.”
Josette approached a nearby police officer who was speaking to a small group of people. “Pardon me, sir.”
He excused himself and turned to face her. The clean-shaven young officer looked quite dashing in his crisp, dark-blue uniform. “Yes, miss? Are you and your family doing all right?”
“We’re well, thank you. I have a question, however. Those cleaning ladies. And the usher. They were men, weren’t they?” She already knew the answer.
“They was all New York Police Officers at their finest.”
“And those men? The ones who attempted to blow up the church. Who were they?”
“The Department has been tracking them two Italians for quite a while. They’re part of a group of anarchists based right here in the City.”
“That’s a chilling thought, sir,” she said, drawing in a deep breath. “I read in the newspaper that they’ve been setting off bombs all over the country.”
“I’m afraid it’s true, miss. But we got the ones here in Manhattan dead to rights!”
“Well, then. Thank heavens for all of you brave men who risk your lives to keep us safe, and most especially the officers who kept those men from carrying out their deplorable plan.”
The officer puffed out his chest like a rooster about to crow. “I’ll pass that along to the men, miss. And don’t you worry. Them Italians won’t be planting no more bombs around here. They’re handcuffed and on their way to Police Headquarters. You’re safe and sound. You have the personal guarantee of Willie Crabtree, at your service.”
“Pleased to meet you, Officer Crabtree,” she said, politely bowing her chin. “I’m Josette Rogers, daughter of Henry Rogers. Would you please ask Captain Tunney to telephone my father at his office to tell him his family is doing well? It’s my understanding that the captain and my father are acquaintances.”
“Of course, Miss Rogers.”
“One more question, if you don’t mind, Officer Crabtree. Why do you think so many of the parishioners didn’t evacuate the cathedral when we did?”
He shrugged. “I suppose since the ruckus was all the way over on the far west side of the cathedral where all of you was sitting, the folks all the way across on the other side just didn’t hear nothing. St. Paddy’s is like a gigantic cavern, isn’t it now?”
“Yes, but—”
“If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get going. I’ll be sure to give your message to Captain Tunney.” With a tug on the cap’s brim, he descended the stairs to a waiting police vehicle.
Josette stepped back to where Yvette and their mother waited.
Mon Dieu, Mon Dieu! Mother muttered. We forgot communion.” She blinked several times, looking like a confused child. “We should go back inside, n’cest-ce pas? To finish.”
“Let’s go home,” Yvette said, taking their mother’s hand. “Come with me.”
“I’ll hail a taxi. Mr. Herrmann wouldn’t be here with the car to pick us up for quite a while,” Josette said.
The threesome made their way to the curb in front of the grand cathedral. The police cars were gone. The sidewalk that had been roped off to the public was now open. The ever-present throngs of pedestrians pushed their way along Fifth Avenue at a hurried pace, late for this or that, as if nothing had happened. Life, it seemed, had already returned to normal.
And yet, as she and her sister helped their mother into the back seat of the taxi, Josette knew it might be a long time before life in New York City would truly be normal again. Too many men were unemployed. People, and especially the immigrants, were starving. According to the New York Times, Italian anarchists had turned their anger towards Catholic churches; a gruesome way to express their bitterness against the wealth of the Catholic hierarchy. The church’s wealth, the anarchists believed, should be used to feed the poor. Josette could sympathize with their argument, but not the violence that had followed their protests.
On top of that, the war overseas had already claimed the lives of a generation of young men not only from England, France and Russia. The Germans and their allied countries were suffering greatly as well. Rumors of German spies swirled everywhere. The United States, the world, everything was in turmoil.
At that moment, Josette set her mind to help with efforts to keep America from becoming involved in what was now being called, “The Great War.” But what could she, a woman who hadn’t quite yet reached the age of majority, hope to do?

Sunday, January 20, 2019

By Colleen Adair Fliedner

Griffith Park’s history is something straight out of a Hollywood movie, complete with tragedies, murders, a ghost, and a curse.  The story began when the land, which would later include Griffith Park, was granted to Jose Vicente Feliz, one of the Spanish soldiers who escorted the 44 original settlers from Mexico to establish the pueblo of Los Angeles in 1781. 

Years later, Jose Vicente Feliz’ descendent, Antonio, lived in the Rancho’s hacienda with his sister, housekeeper, and niece, Petranilla.  Life was good for the Feliz family:  the cattle had grown fat on the wild grasses that grew in the pastures, and the fertile land had produced abundant crops.  Everything changed in 1863.  A smallpox epidemic swept through Los Angeles, and Antonio Feliz contracted the disease.  He was near death when his lawyer and a friend came to see him at the Rancho.  The legitimate heirs to the Feliz land later claimed that the pair tied a stick on the back of Antonio’s neck, using it to make the barely conscientious man nod his agreement to the terms of a new will.  Not surprising was that the two beneficiaries named in the revised will were the lawyer and the friend, and that the Feliz family was excluded.  Petranilla, Feliz’s beloved 19-year-old niece, placed a curse on the two men, their descendants, and the land. Some accounts say that the lovely Petranilla committed suicide as a result of the fiasco.

Curse or coincidence, from that point on bad luck followed everyone who subsequently owned Rancho Los Feliz.  There were deaths, murders, fires, droughts, floods, and crop failures. To make matters worse, the ghost of Antonio Feliz was spotted at various places on the grounds for years.

Finally, in 1882 a newcomer named Griffith J. Griffith purchased the Rancho.  At first, Griffith seems to have escaped Petranilla’s curse.  He made a fortune by selling off pieces of the land for development, especially during 1886 and 1887, when Southern California real estate boomed.

It was around this time that Griffith set his sights on Christina Mesmer, daughter of a rich and socially prominent local family.  According to his contemporaries, Griffith was a pompous man, who carried a gold-topped cane and had an annoying, patronizing snicker.  On the other hand, he was handsome, wealthy, and charismatic.  Christina agreed to marry Griffith and moved to the Rancho. 

Although the marriage lasted 16 years, it was an unhappy union.  There were numerous failed business ventures, and Griffith soon became as notorious for his alcoholism as he was for his arrogance.

In 1896 Griffith gifted 3,015 acres to the city for use as a park.  People speculated why the “fat little millionaire” would make such a generous donation.  Some said it to get out of paying taxes, while others believed it was because Griffith had been a victim of Petranilla’s curse and hoped to placate the angry Feliz spirits.

According to Horace Bell, a famous newspaper reporter who covered the story, the ghost made frequent appearances at the old Rancho, including the night when city officials gathered to accept the land from Griffith.  Bell wrote that the ghost materialized at the head of the banquet table and invited the men to dine with him “in Hell.”  (Not surprising was that Bell was noted for sensationalizing his articles to sell more newspapers!)

If Griffith had made this generous bequest to the people of Los Angeles to appease the old Spanish don and end the famous curse, his efforts failed.  Not only did his drinking worsen, Griffith became delusional, ranting that his wife was in collusion with the Pope to kill him for his money.  Suspicious that she had poisoned his food, he switched their plates and glasses when she turned her back.  Pacing nervously, biting his fingernails to their quicks, Griffith’s hallucinations   had become frightening. Of course, there was no poison, but the sad story didn’t end there.

In 1903, the situation went from bad to disastrous.  Desperate to help her husband, Christina rented the Presidential Suite at a fancy hotel in Santa Monica.  Perhaps the cool ocean breezes and soothing sound of the waves would help his deteriorating mental state. Obviously, it didn’t work.  Entering the room one day, he carried two items:  a revolver and a prayer book.  Handing his wife the prayer book, he ordered her to her knees and told her to prepare to meet her maker. She begged for her life, but he had no pity. As he took aim between her eyes, she jerked to one side.  The bullet missed its mark, going through her eye. Griffith was about to take another shot when Christina managed to scramble to her feet and jump out the open window.  Luckily, she landed on an awning.  Though she was badly injured, Christina survived.

The resulting trial was beyond sensational.  In spite of the fact that Griffith was guilty, he only received a two-year sentence in San Quentin, because his attorney came up with a new defense, which he called “alcoholic insanity.”

When he left prison, Griffith moved back to Rancho Los Feliz.  If the odd man was disliked before he shot his wife, he was now hated by local residents.  Alone and penitent, Griffith decided to give the city fathers $100,000 to build an observatory atop Mt. Hollywood (the name was changed from Mt. Griffith when he was imprisoned).  They turned down the offer.  In 1913, Griffith offered $50,000 to build a Greek-themed theater on his land.  And, again, his money was refused.  No one wanted to have anything to do with Griffith J. Griffith.  Still, he was determined to find a way to bequeath a portion of his fortune to Los Angeles so that the observatory and Greek Theater could be built.  Upon his death in 1919, Griffith’s wish came true. 

Thanks to Griffith, we now have beautiful Griffith Park, which includes the L. A. Zoo, Greek Theater and the fabulous observatory overlooking the sprawling city.  Griffith certainly succeeded in clearing his name with future generations of Angelinos.  Few people know the park’s curious past or the strange story of the man who made it possible.  The ghost of Antonio Feliz seems to have found peace, and Petranilla’s wrath has been apparently been appeased.

Built in 1830, the Feliz adobe house still stands and is currently used as the Park’s headquarters.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

In 1915 while the First World War raged in Europe, Americans, and especially New Yorkers, faced their own “silent war” at home.  Angry with America’s so-called promise of “neutrality” and overt trade deals with England and France, the German government set up a spy ring headquartered in Manhattan.  Their espionage and terrorist networks had tentacles reaching all the way to the German Ambassador in Washington D.C.  German operatives planted explosives on American and British ships enroute from New York to England, France, and Russia successfully sinking hundreds of cargo vessels.  They plotted to blow up trains, bridges, factories, and even the U.S. Capitol Building.  There were attempted assassinations of powerful Americans, including J.P. Morgan, Jr.  They even used germ warfare to kill much-needed horses and mules waiting to be shipped to the warfront in France.
Based on these and other true events, my novel, IN THE SHADOW OF WAR, tells the story of how Americans, and especially residents of New York City, faced the constant threat of terrorism.  Through my characters’ eyes, the story shows the human toll experienced by people on both sides of the war.  In their heads and hearts, the
characters wrestle with their own feelings about whether the United States should join its Allies and send American men to fight in what was considered a European war.  Ironically, the majority of Americans were of German descent at that time! 
Although America was supposedly a neutral country, J. P. Morgan facilitated a $500 million loan (approximately $ 625 billion in today’s dollars) to bail out the nearly bankrupt British and French governments.  American businesses also benefited from selling materials and products to the Allied nations who were need of supplies and weapons.  The German government protested that the United States had clearly sided with England, France, Italy, Russia and Japan, and that they and their affiliated nations (Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire) had been rebuked.  Blatant evidence of this was the growing number of German ships, including passenger liners, that had been seized by the American military.  By 1915, an estimated 80 German-owned vessels were moored along the Hudson River. Although their German crews and passengers weren’t arrested, they weren’t allowed to return to the Fatherland.  Imperial Germany protested that this favoritism shown by the U. S. was tantamount to an act of war; that they should be receiving the same treatment as were England, France, and Russia. Kaiser Wilhelm and his generals felt justified doing anything necessary to level the playing field.   
The German espionage network was efficient and effective. Bombs, chemical warfare, spy networks, the attempted assassination of J. P. Morgan, the bombing of the U.S. Capitol; and sinking the palatial passenger ocean liner, the RMS Lusitania, all woven into the book’s plot, weren’t enough for President Wilson to declare war on Germany.  That didn’t happen until 1917 following the Kaiser’s policy change which had allowed passenger liners to travel safely through the English Channel.  All ships, regardless of whether they were cargo ships, military vessels, or ocean liners, could and would be sunk.
Meanwhile, the Germans continued their undercover spying throughout the war.  Many were captured and jailed.  Most surprising was that they were simply released after the war was over, including Lothar Witzke, who set off a huge explosion on a military base on California’s Mare Island, killing an entire family whose home was completely destroyed.  He was also involved in the huge explosion at Black Tom island in New Jersey killing 7 and destroying much more, including damage to the Statue of Liberty.
 Photo citation: ( ca. 1916 )  Broadway from Bowling Green, New York City. Photograph from the Library of Congress, ..

Thursday, November 16, 2017

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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Did you know that November 11th was originally called Armistice Day?  After the end of World War 1 in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson chose that date because it was when the Germans finally surrendered. 
President Wilson had been reluctant to involve the nation in a war that didn’t directly involve America.  That all changed, however, when German U-boats (submarines) attacked American ships and had spy networks that detonated bombs and incendiary devices on American soil.  The final blow came when a letter to the Mexican president was intercepted and taken to President Wilson.  The letter’s contents were shocking: the German government offered to assist Mexico invade America to take back the border states of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.
Within days, Wilson declared war on the “Central Powers” (Germany, Austria-Hungary and their allies) in April of 1917, four years after the war had begun.  By the time the Germans surrendered on November 11, 1918, the war had claimed over 18 million lives, with an additional 23 million wounded (including civilians). 
Versailles ~Image courtesy of

The official peace agreement, The Treaty of Versailles, wasn’t signed until June, 1919, after months of meetings, arguments, and negotiations between the representatives of the conquering nations regarding how Germany and the Central Powers should be punished. 
An interesting fact is that representatives from the Central Powers – most importantly, the Germans – weren’t included in the actual peace negotiations in France. When the dust settled, the Germans were fined what amounted to a half-trillion dollars (in today’s currency), a monumental debt that wasn’t paid off until 2010.  The war devastated Germany economically.  The people were mpoverished,  starving, and humiliated. Germany was seriously in debt, not to mention that they had lost millions of young men.  In addition, they had lost face by their defeat. 
The Germans were forced to sign the Armicist agreement.  Germany was humiliated, their economy ruined, and millions of their young men were dead.  Kaiser Wilhelm, grandson of Queen Victoria, had been at the helm during the war and had been forced to resign his position as unquestioned leader of the German Empire. 

All of these factors contributed directly to Adolph Hitler’s rise to power.  He had been a foot soldier who had been injured in a mustard gas attack by the British.  His anger at the countries which had defeated Germany grew. He used the devastating reparations the Germans would pay for generations to ignite the fuse of hatred that would lead to World War II less than twenty years later.