Ask the Editors

By Harold Frost

This is Part Five 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. Do any museums in Massachusetts display tea remaining from the Boston Tea Party?

A. The Old State House Museum in Boston exhibits a small glass bottle containing tea collected from the boots of Thomas Melvill shortly after he participated in the party on the night of December 16, 1773. (Thomas was a grandfather of author Herman Melville but spelled his name differently.) The tea is on permanent display in the museum’s “From Colony to Commonwealth” exhibit along with Melvill’s cocked hat and other materials. For further information on the museum, check out

The Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston is the proud custodian of a small glass bottle containing tea leaves collected on the shore of Dorchester Neck, Mass., on the morning of December 17, 1773. It was given to the society by Rev. Thaddeus Mason Harris, who was a member of the organization. The society is usually not geared toward displaying artifacts to the public. The Website is

The Boston Tea Party was the work of about 200 men who smashed open 342 chests of tea on three ships and dumped the contents into Boston Harbor, cheered on by a couple of thousand people ashore. The event, one of the pivotal public protests in the history of democracy, took issue with the British Parliament’s restrictions on tea, expressing “patriotic disgust at both violated principles and eroded profits,” writes historian Ron Chernow. It was spurred by new unity between Boston’s wealthy merchants, who were hurt economically by the tea measures, and the city’s fire-breathing political radicals.

Q. Did Emperor Maximilian of Mexico bury a huge treasure in Texas in the 1800s, which nobody has found?

A. In 1867, with Mexico in revolutionary tumult, the Emperor Maximilian was captured and executed. Before he was imprisoned, according to legend, he dispatched a fortune in gold, silver, and jewels for the seaport of Galveston, Texas, intending to transport it to Europe to finance his retirement years (he was Austrian by birth).

Robbers waylaid the loot en route to Galveston and ran off with it. To buy time while they figured out what to do next, they supposedly buried the cache somewhere near Castle Gap, a rugged mountain pass in west Texas, 40 miles south of Odessa. Legend says they never retrieved it.

Castle Gap was a well-traveled crossroads in the Old West and “gold certainly passed through there,” says author and historian Patrick Dearen of Midland, Texas – in fact, he says, no less than eight separate treasures are rumored to be buried thereabouts. Dearen adds, “There’s no definite concrete evidence for the existence of Maximilian’s fortune. Whether it’s there or not remains an open question. People are still looking.”

Q. Who was the first American woman to be executed, and what was she charged with?

A. The hanging of Jane Champion in Virginia in 1632 was the first recorded execution of a woman (or man) in colonial America, according to a scholarly article on this topic by historian David V. Baker published in 1999. Her crime is not known.

Several hundred women have been executed in America over the centuries, with a certain waxing and waning of frequency. Baker writes, “Historical analysis….suggests that female executions increase when women challenge the social, political, and economic interests of the male dominant group.”

The most common mode of death has been hanging. American women have also been burned at the stake, electrocuted, gassed, and injected.

Hanging in olden times was frequently a cruel public spectacle, with necks failing to break, and with condemned people expiring only after long minutes of torture, hearing the abuse of the howling mob. A convicted murderer named Roxalana Druse required 15 appalling minutes to strangle on the noose in New York State in 1887. Such barbarities continue today in some parts of the world.

Among American women who have been executed, the most common charge was murder, but a good many women on the list were charged with witchcraft or arson. Rebecca Nurse was hanged for witchcraft in Salem, Mass., in 1692, at age 71, the oldest woman ever executed in America. Hannah Ocuish, age 12, was the youngest, hanged in Connecticut for murder in 1786.

A few other cases:

Bathsheba Spooner, 32, was convicted in 1778 in Massachusetts of killing a sergeant. The man had stolen her virtue, she said (he possibly had raped her). She sought commutation of the death penalty on grounds of pregnancy, but the plea was refused and she went to the gallows. A post-mortem examination showed she was indeed pregnant.

Elizabeth Wilson, 27, was granted a reprieve from hanging in 1786 in Pennsylvania but the pardon arrived 23 minutes too late to save her. Was the vital document deliberately delayed at some point in transit? History does not say.

Many slaves were executed in early America, including Amy Spain, 17, hanged in South Carolina in 1865 at the end of the Civil War for treason and conduct unbecoming a slave. Her specific deed was exclaiming, “Bless the Lord, the Yankees have come!”

Mary Surratt

One of the most notable executions of a woman in 19th century America was that of Mary Surratt, who was caught up in a frenzied response to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and was hanged on July 7, 1865. According to one study, it is “almost certain” that Surratt didn’t know of the plot to kill Lincoln. (Surratt is portrayed by Robin Wright in “The Conspirator.”) In the 20th century, the most notorious execution of an American woman took place on June 19, 1953, with the death of Ethel Rosenberg for conspiracy to commit espionage. She was electrocuted on the same day as her husband Julius. As with Mary Surratt, large doubts have arisen about the extent of Ethel Rosenberg’s involvement in the case; the matter is examined here and in the book “The Rosenberg File” by Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton.

Q. I remember that the ukulele was a major fad in the U.S. in the 1950s. Why did this craze happen? Was it related to rock ’n’ roll?

A. The short answer to your question is “Arthur Godfrey,” one of the biggest TV stars of the ’50s, who regularly played a ukulele on his network variety show. Thousands of ukes flew off store shelves across the country.

Godfrey represents only one chapter of the ukulele’s story in America. This is a little pocket of social history that’s surprisingly interesting. With roots in Hawaii and Portugal, the instrument first hit the big-time in the U.S. in 1915, in San Francisco, at the Hawaiian Building of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Inspired by the exposition, American young people were seized by a Hawaiian craze that lasted through the 1920s, with uke music playing a prominent role. (Godfrey was born in 1903; the ukulele fad was at a peak during his teen years.) The passion for all things Hawaiian accelerated contact between the mainland and the islands, which, in turn, helped pave the way for Hawaiian statehood in 1959.

Ukeleles have appeared in many movies including “Steamboat Bill Jr.,” the 1928 silent classic by Buster Keaton, and “Some Like It Hot” (1959) where one is played by Marilyn Monroe (the film is set in the ’20s). In 1968-69, uke player Tiny Tim found a TV audience. Cliff Edwards was enormously popular as Ukulele Ike in the 1920s and ’30s. The great contemporary maestro of the instrument is Ohta-San, based in Hawaii.

Q. I know that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was a collector of postage stamps. What were the most valuable of his stamps?

A. “No spectacular or famed rarities were found” when FDR’s philatelic collection was cataloged in 1945-46 after his death, according to scholars William J. Stewart and Charyl C. Pollard, who note that Roosevelt “cared nothing for value” when it came to stamps – he liked the ones that said something interesting to him about geography and/or history. He developed a special passion for stamps from Central and South America, regarding stamps from Europe as “very dull” and feeling that “too many people” collected U.S. stamps.

Most of FDR’s 1.2 million stamps were deemed by experts to hold essentially no value. Roosevelt himself called this portion of his collection “scrap.” The remainder, more than 200,000 stamps, was sold in 1946 by the auction house Harmers, in two public sales, for a total of $228,000. The highest price, $3,250, was fetched by Lot 545 of the first sale, a collection of stamps from Costa Rica.

Roosevelt relished the time he spent with his collection, often poring over it during the last hour of the day, perhaps while listening to the radio and enjoying a nightcap. He wanted his stamps near him at all times – during World War II he took albums with him overseas, including to a Casablanca war council with Winston Churchill in 1943.

Q. I recently watched the film “The Alamo,” the 2004 version, and wonder why these men decided to fight to the death when logic would dictate that they leave. Did they believe reinforcements were still a possibility right up to the end?

A. The Battle of the Alamo is the most famous event of the Texas Revolution, a rebellion by settlers against Mexico that broke out in 1835. Mexico owned the Texas territory in those days.

The Mexican government attempted to crush the Texan revolt with an army led by Generalissimo Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. In early 1836 this force approached the Alamo, a fortress located in San Antonio de Bexar (present-day San Antonio).

The fort was garrisoned by about 150 volunteers, including William B. Travis (the commander), David Crockett (he wasn’t known as “Davy” during his life), and Jim Bowie. Travis sent couriers from the compound into the countryside, asking for assistance, but large-scale help never came, due to “confusion, indifference, and bickering among the insurgents throughout Texas,” according to “The Columbia Encyclopedia.”

The Mexican army began its seige of the Alamo in late February, 1836. In early March the garrison realized that reinforcements weren’t coming, and the defenders “knowingly committed to fight and die to the last man while selling their lives at the cost of as many attackers as possible,” writes Robert M. Benavides, chairman of the San Antonio Living History Association. The seige ended on March 6 with the Mexicans victorious. Benavides comments on the defenders: “Their brave individual commitments for Texas independence were made in the same spirit of sacrifice as those made at Masada and Thermopylae.”

Many books have been written about the battle, with historians and other interested parties arguing, interpreting, and re-interpreting events. The author and historian Marshall De Bruhl calls defense of the Alamo “military folly” and notes that, according to Mexican eyewitnesses, Crockett did not die fighting, but surrendered and was executed. Robert M. Benavides asserts that De Bruhl’s views do not reflect recent research. Benavides also disagrees with “The Columbia Encyclopedia’s” description of indifference among insurgents.

A solid introduction to the seige is “A Time to Stand” by Walter Lord (1978). A stirring folksong titled “Remember the Alamo,” written by Jane Bowers, was issued by the country performer Tex Ritter in 1955 and by the Kingston Trio in 1959.

Q. I’m interested in a Civil War figure named Clement Vallandigham. What’s the best book about him? And what was the name of his wife? No sources I’ve read mention her name.

A. “No figure of the Civil War era was more controversial,” writes historian Frank L. Klement in his definitive biography of the man, “The Limits of Dissent: Clement L. Vallandigham and the Civil War” (1970).

Vallandigham (1820-71), an Ohio Congressman, editor, and lawyer, favored state’s rights, opposed black emancipation, defended agriculture against industrialization, and was a rabble rouser against the Union (he was a Copperhead). Some people felt he was a traitor; others adored his every pronouncement, including his wife, Louisa McMahon Vallandigham.

Vallandigham’s career speaks to the issue of dissent in a democracy during wartime. Arrested in Dayton, Ohio, in 1863 for giving sympathy to the Confederacy, he was convicted, and banished from the Union to the South by President Lincoln, who believed that his speeches hampered the war effort. Did Lincoln over-react? Did Vallandigham’s fulminations put lives at stake? How do we balance freedom of expression with the requirements of national security? The scholar Harry V. Jaffa comments, “I deny that Lincoln acted unconstitutionally at any time during the Civil War. It was a civil war. There were traitors in the midst of all the free states.”

Returning to Ohio after the war, Vallandigham died there in 1871. His death was odd. He was serving as attorney for a man charged with murder. He told the court that the murder victim could, conceivably, have shot himself, and demonstrated how this might have happened, using a gun he thought was unloaded. Wrong. The gun went off and killed him. The accused man was acquitted.

A parenthetical note. In April of 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was engaged in a nasty verbal fight with aviation hero Charles Lindbergh about the war in Europe, which did not, at that point, involve America. Roosevelt was sympathetic to the interventionist cause; Lindbergh was an isolationist. At a press conference, FDR was asked about Lindbergh, and suddenly plucked Clement Vallandigham from the pages of history: “Well, Vallandigham, as you know, was an appeaser. He wanted to make peace from 1863 on because the North ‘couldn’t win.’” A reporter asked if the president was actually talking about Lindbergh. “Yes,” was the reply.

Q. I remember listening in the 1960s to a radio show that staged “bouts” between the greatest heavyweight champions of history, with a computer determining the progress of each fight and picking the winners, based on their records and various factors. These bouts occurred weekly in an elimination tournament. As I recall it, the final fight was between Rocky Marciano and Jack Dempsey, but a friend of mine swears it was between Marciano and Muhammad Ali. Who’s right?

A. The radio version of this popular event, airing on hundreds of stations in December of 1967, featured Marciano vs. Dempsey, with Marciano “winning.” But that’s not the whole story. The promoter who put the package together decided to film a final bout for a one-time closed-circuit showing in theaters. Dempsey at that point was in his 70s. The promoter, Murry Woroner (some sources inaccurately spell his first name as Murray) chose Marciano and Ali and paid them to film a fake bout with various outcomes, withholding knowledge of how the event would turn out. Ali probably needed the cash, having been denied the right to make a living at his trade. Marciano died in a plane crash before the film was shown and never learned the result.

The event sold tons of tickets and was shown in January, 1970; Marciano “won.” It’s worth noting that Woroner and his team relied on computerized assessments of the five best years of the boxers; in 1970, Ali’s best was still to come (the three Frazier fights and the Foreman bout). It’s also worth mentioning that the event took place at a time when considerable faith was placed in the ability of computers, and technology, to solve every issue imaginable. (A belief in technology as be-all and end-all runs deep in humankind and reached new heights in the ’60s.) A DVD is available called “The Superfight: Marciano vs. Ali”.

Q. How did the United States acquire Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in southern Cuba? Are American personnel there allowed to shop and tour Cuba, despite travel restrictions and the U.S. embargo?

A. The Stars and Stripes first flew over Guantanamo Bay in June, 1898, during the Spanish-American War, the three-month conflict wherein the U.S. defeated Spain and gained control over Cuba and the Philippines. The American base was formally established on February 23, 1903, with a lease agreement signed by President Theodore Roosevelt and Cuban officials. The Spanish-American War, and creation of the base, were culminations of a profound shift in American life.

In early 1959, the government of Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba (later aligning itself with the Soviet bloc). The U.S. base at Guantanamo, Castro said, “is a dagger plunged into the Cuban soil….a base we are not going to take away by force, but a piece of land we will never give up.” On January 4, 1961, the U.S. formally broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba; President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared that the action would have “no effect” on the status of the naval station.

So, for more than a century, the base has held forth as an American outpost in a strategically important part of the Caribbean Sea, with access to vital sea lanes. It’s the only U.S. military base operating in a Communist country and is heavily fenced and guarded. U.S. personnel are not allowed off the 45-square-mile facility. Gitmo plays a key role in the 1992 fictional film “A Few Good Men,” with the immortal line bellowed by Jack Nicholson, “You can’t handle the truth!” Also, of course, the site has been the locus of activity in the war against terror. ●

“You can’t handle the truth!”