Ask the Editors

By Harold Frost

This is Part Three of a Five-Part Article

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

“Ask the Editors” appeared in each issue of The History Channel Magazine from 2003 to 2007 with answers to reader’s questions about history. A predecessor of “Ask the Editors” called “Fact or Fiction” ran in Biography magazine during its life as a mass-circulation monthly, 1997 to 2003.


Q. I’ve often wondered about the effects in the Old West of tarring and feathering. Was it fatal?

A. Generally speaking it wasn’t fatal but it undoubtedly contributed to deaths. Mobs that applied tar sometimes ignited it to increase the pain, and occasionally beat or stoned victims. Such escalations surely led to fatalities.

But in many instances the trauma was less horrible. In the early 1930s in Louisiana, a man who had been tarred and feathered brought suit against his tormentors. According to his testimony, he was burned by the hot liquid tar, was in pain for more than a week, and endured the peeling and scabbing of skin. On the night of the event, he spent about an hour washing, attempting to remove the gunk as best he could.

History’s first mention of tarring and feathering was in 1189 CE when Richard I of England (Richard Lion-Heart) directed that robbers could be shorn of their hair, and boiling oil or tar could be poured over the bald pate. Feathers were then administered to add an element of ridicule.

Tarring and feathering reached its zenith in the New World. There’s a certain unsettling logic to this – early America was raw and free-wheeling, and this brand of punishment was often a means by which the public (or, more precisely, the mob) expressed its opinion. During the ramp-up to the American Revolution, mobs used the technique to intimidate and humiliate British tax collectors. The punishment was also meted out during the antebellum years and the Civil War, when America’s capacity for public rage reached historic heights because of the slavery issue.

Tarring and feathering appears in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, set in the 1830s. In Chapter 33 the punishment is administered to the con men, the King and the Duke. Huck is sickened by the sight of the tarred-and-feathered pair being carried off. We’re not told exactly why – did he assume they were about to be lynched? In the 1970 movie “Little Big Man,” a satire about the Old West based on the novel by Thomas Berger, Dustin Hoffman and Martin Balsam are tarred, feathered, and ridden out of town on a rail for selling tainted patent medicines; Martin Balsam indicates that the punishment is survivable, fairly routine, just another cost of doing business.

Q. The witchcraft scare of 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts – I’ve heard that food poisoning caused it. True?

A. Maybe. Nineteen men and women were hanged for witchcraft in 1692 in the town of Salem and environs. Another victim was pressed to death beneath stones. (Many or most of these deaths were drawn-out and agonizing for the victims; hanging in those days generally consisted of slow strangulation rather than a quick breaking of the neck.)

Scholars suggest several possible causes of the hysteria – stress from local Indian wars, fakery of symptoms, town factionalism, complex gender relations, or some combination of these. In 1976, behavioral psychologist Linnda R. Caporael (she spells her first name with two n’s) theorized that food poisoning sparked the madness. Crops in the region, she wrote in a scholarly journal, were infected by a fungus known as ergot, which carries naturally-occurring LSD. She believes it possible that ergot, ingested in rye bread, caused the hallucinations and convulsions experienced by several adolescent girls at the beginning of the affair. Her theory found its way into a televised documentary.

Caporael’s hypothesis has been attacked by some academics over the years and supported by others – a common phenomenon in scholarship. She stands firmly by her idea today, but notes that “no single factor” can fully explain the months-long crisis.

Q. How many copies of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” were sold when the book first came out?

Harriet Beecher Stowe

A. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s work was published in book form in 1852 (after being serialized in an anti-slavery journal) and sold 300,000 copies in the U.S. in its first year and 2 million copies over the next 10 years. The U.S. population at the time was about 23 million. The book is the best-selling novel in the nation’s history when sales are calculated in proportion to population.

The work was a significant factor in the tumult of the 1850s that led to the Civil War, with President Abraham Lincoln reportedly saying, upon meeting Stowe in 1862, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.” This was an exaggeration, as Lincoln knew – many factors cascaded into the torrent of war – but it’s an interesting observation, indicative of the book’s emotional impact.

“It is not possible to measure precisely the political influence of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’,” writes historian James M. McPherson. “One can quantify its sales but cannot point to votes that it changed or laws that it inspired.” Still, he notes, “few contemporaries doubted its power.”

Stage versions of the book were quickly mounted after its publication, spreading the work’s anti-slavery message. Meanwhile the novel also sold well in Europe. Lord Palmerston of England read it three times in the 1850s; some years later, as prime minister, he grappled with whether Britain should help the South, and decided against the idea.

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-96) was the daughter of Lyman Beecher, a leading religious figure of the day. “The whole Beecher family,” writes historian Page Smith, “starting with the redoubtable Lyman….occupied a position on the center stage of nineteenth-century America.” Harriet, with New England piety deep in her bones, resolved while young to write about theology and reform. In 1850 she was angered by the Fugitive Slave Law. “Hattie,” said her sister-in-law after passage of the act, “if I could use a pen as you can, I would write something that will make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is.” The reply: “I will if I live.” James M. McPherson notes that Stowe wrote her history-making book “by candlelight in the kitchen after putting her six children to bed and finishing the household chores.”

Q. Could you give a brief history of the Medal of Honor? I would also like to suggest that our country establish a “day of honor” to recognize recipients of the medal.

A. America’s highest military decoration was created in 1861 during the Civil War. March 25 of each year is an unofficial “Medal of Honor Day” but no official holiday has been established. Here are a few additional facts:

People often refer to the award as the Congressional Medal of Honor but its correct full name is simply Medal of Honor.

As of late 2004, 3,440 people have received the medal for conspicuous gallantry above and beyond the call of duty. Most of the decorations were granted for wartime actions against an enemy. A few Medals of Honor were given in time of peace to explorers, rescuers, and the like; this type of Medal of Honor is banned today.

Over the years, criteria for getting the medal has changed. In 1916-17, officials reviewed all Medal of Honor awardees since 1861 and nullified hundreds of the decorations. A few of those cancellations were later restored.

A total of 464 Medals of Honor were awarded for World War II actions, including one granted in 2003. Civil War: 1,522. World War I: 124. Korean War: 131. Vietnam War: 245. Persian Gulf War 1990-91: None. Iraq War: At least one is under consideration. Among other conflicts represented on the medal’s honor roll: the Spanish-American War, the Indian Campaigns, the Boxer Rebellion, etc.

“By recognizing the few,” writes one author, “(the Medal of Honor) also recognizes the courage and sacrifice of all good American soldiers.”

One of the best books on this topic is “Above and Beyond” by the editors of Boston Publishing Co. (1985). A good museum about the medal is located in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, aboard the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown.

Q. What songs did the Beatles perform during their first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show”?

A. They kicked off their first set on Sunday, February 9, 1964, with “All My Loving,” followed by “Till There Was You” and “She Loves You.” Later in the program came “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” a number one hit on the Billboard pop chart.

The Beatles also headlined for Ed Sullivan the following two weeks, playing a variety of numbers, including a very fine rendition of “This Boy.” What they communicated on these famous nights was multi-faceted. First, and most importantly, the songs were good – the best rock ‘n’ roll songs in at least five years. Second, the group was having fun. Third, building on the pioneering efforts of Elvis Presley, they demonstrated to American males that it was possible to eschew the crew-cut, iron-gut, heavily-armored personas of John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, and Vince Lombardi and still be loved by American females. (See here for an article about an aspect of the Beatles’ career.)

Q. My husband told me last night that sometime in the next few days I will breathe a few air molecules that were once breathed by Abraham Lincoln. He read this on the Internet. I’m thinking this must be an urban legend.

A. The truth is even stranger than what your husband said, according to David Bodanis, a historian who taught for many years at the University of Oxford, author of a number of well-received books including “The Secret House: The Extraordinary Science of an Ordinary Day” (1986).

Bodanis examines oxygen atoms in the last chapter of “The Secret House.” Lots of these atoms bounce around in a typical room – 300,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (give or take), making up about 20 percent of the air that surrounds us (other gases form the balance).

Oxygen atoms are in constant motion, moving in and out of our lungs, our rooms, and our houses, and traveling perhaps 1,000 miles in two weeks. The atoms can last a long time – many centuries. Bodanis offers an amazingly interesting observation, so odd and counter-intuitive that the mind says, “It can’t be true” – but it is: “A small sample of the oxygen molecules from any breath that anybody took within the past few thousand years is near certain to be in the next breath you take.” (With allowance for travel time.) Name a historical figure – Lincoln, Jesus, Moses, John Wilkes Boothe, Judas Iscariot, Hitler. Bodanis writes, “It’s worth pausing for a moment, then taking a deep breath and reflecting that samples of them all are in the air you have just drawn in.”

Q. Who were the crew members of the Enola Gay?

A. The Enola Gay, a modified U.S. Army Air Force B-29, dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, on the morning of August 6, 1945.

The plane’s pilot, Col. Paul Tibbets, named the craft in honor of his mother. His co-pilot was Capt. Robert Lewis. The weaponeer, the man who armed the bomb, was Capt. William (Deak) Parsons of the U.S. Navy; his assistant, the bomb electronics test officer, was Lt. Morris R. Jeppson. The bombardier was Maj. Thomas Ferebee. Capt. Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk was navigator, working with radar operator Sgt. Joseph Stiborik. Lt. Jacob Beser was the radar countermeasure officer; the tail gunner was Sgt. George R. (Bob) Caron. Pvt. Richard Nelson served as radio operator, Sgt. Wyatt Duzenbury was flight engineer, and Sgt. Robert Shumard was assistant engineer.

Enola Gay was flying almost six miles over Hiroshima (31,060 feet) on August 6, a bright, sunshiny day, when the crew released the five-ton bomb at 8:15:17 a.m. local time. It exploded between 43 and 57 seconds later (accounts vary), at 1,890 feet, achieving 50 million degrees centigrade for an instant and heating the ground below to more than 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. “A feeling of relief,” said Tibbetts of his sentiments at that moment, after a year of training and worry. “A peep into hell,” said Caron. The radius of “total destruction” on the ground was one mile. Eighty thousand people were instantly killed or seriously wounded, with the wounds consisting, in most cases, of skin-destroying third-degree burns.

See here for a profile of President Harry S. Truman and here for background on the man who built the bomb.

Q. Nagasaki, Japan, was the “back-up” or secondary target for the second atomic bomb dropped in August 1945. What was the first target?

A. The primary target was the Kokura Arsenal on the Japanese island of Kyushu. Inclement weather caused the American plane to head instead for Nagasaki.

A brief and solid overview of the atomic bombings of 1945 can be found at See here for a profile of President Harry S. Truman and here for background on the man who built the bomb, and the preceding item for information on the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the Hiroshima bomb. (The Nagasaki bomb was dropped by the Bockscar.)

Q. What did the American flag look like during the Revolution?

A. Flag design was a growth industry in the American colonies in the early 1770s as the storms of revolt gathered force. Some of the early banners featured rattlesnakes (a symbol of deadly force, vigilance, and wisdom) or pine trees (hardiness, steadfastness). Several authorities believe that a “Bunker Hill Flag” bearing a pine tree was carried by colonial troops at the famous battle in Boston on June 17, 1775; however, other authors insist Americans carried no flag that day.

In early 1776, Gen. George Washington’s new Continental Army used the “Grand Union Flag” which displayed 13 longitudinal red and white stripes and, in the corner, a British Union Jack. This banner nicely expressed several themes: loyalty to the king, anger at Parliament, and ambivalence about breaking free.

The Continental Congress declared independence on July 4, 1776. Almost a year later, in June of ’77, Congress found time to create the basic specifications for an official American flag – 13 stars and 13 stripes. However, the representatives didn’t issue a detailed design for the new banner. At some point during this period – exactly when is uncertain – Francis Hopkinson, a civil servant and artist, put together a U.S. flag that looked pretty much as we know it today: red and white alternating stripes, and horizontal white stars in a blue field. This flag was used on naval vessels during the Revolution.

The 2000 movie “The Patriot” raises the hackles of flag scholars because it shows the Stars and Stripes being used during a land battle. This never happened during the Revolution, according to Marilyn Zoidis, senior curator for the Star-Spangled Banner Project at the Smithsonian Institution. Americans fighting on land during the Revolutionary War carried regimental and local flags of various designs, if they carried any banners at all.

Most historians and authors seriously doubt that Betsy Ross of Philadelphia helped create the design of the American flag.

Q. The article about Franklin D. Roosevelt in your issue of March/April 2005 mentions that Ho Chi Minh, leader of the Communist movement in Vietnam, tried to contact FDR. Can you give some details on that? How, exactly, was this contact attempted? Was it during the war? Did Ho go to Washington? Did he try to contact other presidents?

A. During World War II, Ho Chi Minh regarded the U.S. as a potential ally in his quest to liberate Vietnam from outside rule. He probably knew that Franklin D. Roosevelt disliked colonialism. FDR was quoted saying of French colonialism in Southeast Asia, “France has milked it for one hundred years. The people of Indochina are entitled to something better than that.”

Ho and his colleagues spent much of World War II building a revolutionary movement and struggling against French colonial officials and Japanese occupation forces, recognizing that in time of war, situations become fluid and amenable to change. Ho cultivated contacts with American operatives in Southeast Asia, and attempted, in 1944, to arrange a visit to the U.S. to try to “influence the situation….perhaps through a direct appeal to the White House,” writes historian William J. Duiker in his definitive book “Ho Chi Minh: A Life.” The State Department’s Far Eastern Division supported Ho’s travel proposal, but European specialists in the department opposed it because such a visit might cause tension with the French. The travel request was denied.

Ho tried again in early 1945, giving his American contacts a report on the war situation, attempting to “persuade the Roosevelt administration to attack Japan in Indochina,” writes Duiker. Nothing came of this effort. Roosevelt died in April, 1945. Duiker, interviewed on this topic recently, said it’s “very unlikely” that FDR was aware of Ho’s attempts to reach him – “Roosevelt was preoccupied with major affairs of state, and resistance groups in Indochina were, to some degree, a minor detail.”

In the post-war period, Ho Chi Minh tried several times to contact President Truman. In one letter to the White House, Ho noted that the U.S. was granting independence to the Philippines, and, writes Duiker, “appealed for U.S. support in his own country’s struggle for national liberation.” This effort came to naught, Duiker notes, as the U.S. became “increasingly mesmerized by the rising danger of world communism.” (Whether Ho was fundamentally motivated more by nationalism or Communism remains a topic for debate.)

Ho’s first effort to contact a U.S. president came in 1919, after World War I, in the wake of President Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” declaration about the right of the world’s peoples to self-determination. Wilson’s plan thrilled colonized subjects in Asia and Africa, and Ho drew up a petition about Indochina, delivering it to various governmental delegations gathered at the Paris Peace Conference. The U.S. acknowledged receipt of the note, but no action resulted. Ultimately, Wilson ran into a brick wall with his Fourteen Points and grudgingly compromised on the plan, a decision, writes Duiker, that “aroused anger and disappointment throughout the colonial world.”

See here for a list of this Website’s articles on the Cold War.

Q. George S. Patton was a great tank commander in World War II, but wasn’t he involved in World War I as well? What was his role, and how efficient was he? Also, wasn’t he a great reader of history?

A. Patton saw combat in 1918, at the tail end of the First World War, as a colonel with the U.S. Army Tank Corps. He distinguished himself. Tanks were a brand-new weapon then, and Patton was a pioneer in figuring out how to use them on the battlefield.

As to his reading – yes, he devoured history, among other subjects. Indeed, he was a disciplined scholar all his adult life. Soon after completing his military education in 1909 he began a lifelong program of systematic reading, “understanding,” writes historian Victor Davis Hanson, “that education began, rather than ended, upon graduation from West Point.” His bookshelf included studies of battle tactics and logistics, and it also featured a healthy serving of history and biography, which created for Patton a reassuring feeling of context, guidance, and courage. Hanson chronicles Patton’s reading in “The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny” (1999), suggesting that history fed Patton’s emotional life as oxygen sustained his body:

Military historian Carlo D’Este (“Patton: A Genius for War”: 1995) contributes these thoughts to the picture of warrior-as-reader:

(In the 1920s Patton’s) evenings were generally reserved for reading and study….He studied wars of the past such as the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 and the little-known Franco-German War of 1866-67….During the interwar years Patton consulted an eclectic list of the famous and the lesser known, ranging from Napoleon and Clausewitz to du Picq, Jomini, Cromwell, Xenophon, and Frederick the Great. No writer or war was too obscure for Patton….The men and the campaigns of the Civil War were examined as a labor of love….Everything that interested him was painstakingly typed on note cards and suitably annotated with additional ideas and comments.

Only Patton, writes Victor Davis Hanson, was “truly educated” among America’s top generals in Europe during the Second World War, “far more intellectually curious than his peers….the best-educated, most-experienced, and most widely read general in the American army.” His study of the past helped him grasp, and prepare for, the full import of the task he faced from June, 1944, to the spring of ’45, and if he had not been hemmed in during his dash across Europe by the “bureaucrats” Eisenhower and Bradley, writes Hanson, “millions” of lives would have been saved. Hanson delineates, in no uncertain terms, a link between Patton’s passion for cracking the history books and his capacity to achieve greatness. ●