One of My Can’t-Skip Movies, Cry Freedom

I think most of us have movies that we simply cannot pass by when we see that they’re on TV. The Hunt for Red October and Remember the Titans can be just starting or in the last five minutes, and I will turn to that channel and watch them.

Another is Cry Freedom, based on the true story of South African journalist Donald Woods (1933-2001) and his friend Stephen Biko (1946-1977), a black leader in the fight against apartheid. The movie is based on two books written by Woods, and he and his wife were consultants on the film.

Steve Biko. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Starring Kevin Kline and Denzel Washington, Cry Freedom was released in 1987, four years before apartheid was abolished by legislation. At a time when most Americans relied on the daily 30-minute national news rather than emerging 24-hour news channels, Cry Freedom gave people outside of South Africa a glimpse into the realities of white-minority rule in South Africa.

But when I caught the last hour of the film this weekend, I was struck by something else. Woods was a journalist and there were increasing restrictions on the press. Not long after Biko’s murder in 1977, Woods was banned for five years for his anti-apartheid activities and writings.

South African exile Donald Woods presents his new book, Biko, in the Netherlands in 1978. Author Bert Verhoeff via Wikimedia Commons

This meant that he couldn’t work, speak publicly, write or travel. He most certainly couldn’t leave South Africa. To ensure that he followed all the restrictions of the ban, Woods and his family were increasingly monitored, to the point that Woods feared he would be killed by his government.

He and his wife made the decision to leave South Africa, to leave their home and family, with their five children. They were willing to do whatever was necessary to get out of the country, even though fleeing illegally endangered their lives. He had a book about Biko that he needed to get published so that he could do everything in his power to end apartheid.

As I watched, I wondered. What would I be willing to risk and to sacrifice to do the right thing? Which of my freedoms would have to be restricted before I reached the point where I felt I have no option but to act? Would I act in response to someone else’s oppression, or only my own?

I don’t know that anyone can answer those questions before action is required. But if you haven’t seen Cry Freedom, it’s worth your time and maybe it will get you thinking about risk and sacrifice.

P.S. For your amusement, the smarmy Soviet Political Officer killed at the beginning of The Hunt for Red October is named Putin.

Please follow and like us:

Always Learning: The Lych Gate

Historians specialize because that’s pretty much their only option. Thousands of years of history and a great big world of many cultures means that you can’t know everything about everything.

Even though my degree required that I choose two areas of specialization (18th and 19th century Great Britain and Latin America), I don’t actually work as a historian, so I can wander around and learn whatever I’m interested in right now. Just so you know, that very rarely includes classical history.

This week I learned something that I feel I should have already known. A little embarrassed, I did some research on lych gates.

This Lych-Gate is the entrance to High Beach Church. A simple wooden structure with carving. Photo: Lynda Poulter via Wikimedia Commons

  • A lych gate is the gate into a churchyard, the entry into consecrated ground.
  • The word lych comes from the Old English word for corpse.
  • Lych gates have a pitched roof made of wood, clay tiles or thatch.
  • The original purpose was to provide a resting place for the shroud-wrapped body or coffin until the priest was ready to begin the service.

Overbury Lych gate entrance to the churchyard of Overbury church. Note the resting place for the coffin. Photo: Philip Halling via Wikimedia Commons

  • Lych gates were used extensively in the medieval period, and their use declined in the 18th century.
  • Because they were almost always made of wood, the original medieval gates have mostly been destroyed by either time or by man.

Lychgate to St Mary’s parish churchyard, Old Leake, Lincolnshire. Photo: Jeff Tomlinson via Wikimedia Commons

  • Some of the lych gates have been rebuilt throughout the centuries, especially during the Victorian Era, and surprising, during the time leading up to the millennium in 2000.
  • Some lych gates were rebuilt as memorials to prominent locals or as war memorials.
  • Benches were often included inside the lych gate for mourners or for guarding against bodysnatchers.

An American version. Lych-gate at the Church of St. James the Less, a National Historic Landmark in Philadelphia. Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, PA-1725-A via Wikimedia Commons

  • There is a 13th-century lych gate at St. George’s in Beckenham, South London, which is said to be the oldest in England. It was restored in 1924, but the roof is essentially 700 years old.
  • The wooden posts were often decoratively carved.

The Swedish lych gate looks very, very Nordic. Garda (Garde) church is situated at Garde, Gotland, Sweden. Photo: Håkan Svensson (Xauxa) via Wikimedia Commons

  • Considering lych means corpse, there are a surprising number of business using lych gate in their business name. I found hotels and B&Bs, taverns, builders, a funeral home and a black metal band.
  • If you are on Pinterest, there are tons of photos of lych gates, including ones that you can create or buy as garden decor.

So tell me, have you ever walked through a lych gate? And did you know it was more than just a gate?


Please follow and like us:


For several days I’ve been researching lunatic asylums and the laws that governed them. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to discover the angle that I want to discuss in this blog.

So I will admit defeat, for the moment, and leave you with a couple of depictions of asylums instead.

The Madhouse by Francisco de Goya (1746-1828). Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Woodcut from Lee’s Pictorial Weekly Budget Police News – close up of “Horrors of Kew Asylum” 1876. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

French psychiatrist Philippe Pinel (1745-1826) releasing lunatics from their chains at the Salpêtrière asylum in Paris in 1795 by Tony Robert-Fleury (1837-1911). Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Please follow and like us:

95 Years of History

I listen to about a dozen different podcasts, mostly about politics and history. Two of those podcasts recently had Norman Lear as their guest, and those interviews were a vivid reminder that people who have been alive for a really long time have lived through a whole lot of history.

Most of you will remember Lear for writing and producing a string of successful TV sitcoms. Political and cultural changes led him to create Archie Bunker and All In The Family in the 1970s. I am torn about wanting to watch this show again now, fearing it will be too eerily similar to our current culture. I prefer to believe that we have made progress.

Cast photo from the television program All In the Family. Back: Rob Reiner (Mike Stivic). Front, from left: Jean Stapleton (Edith Bunker), Carroll O’Connor (Archie Bunker), Sally Struthers (Gloria Bunker Stivic). Photo: CBS Television via Wikimedia Commons

But let’s go back to the beginning. Lear was born in 1922, which makes him 95 years old. His father went to prison for three years when Lear was nine years old. In one of the podcasts, Lear referred to his father as a “rascal”.

After the December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Lear dropped out of college and enlisted at age 20 in the U.S. Army Air Forces. Based in Italy, he was a radio operator/gunner on a B-17 bomber. He flew on 52 missions and dropped bombs 35 times from 1942-1945. Lear and Roscoe Brown, one of the Tuskegee Airmen, were honored at the Veteran Day parade in New York in 2015.

After World War II and before he began earning his living solely from his writing and television work, he held several jobs. As a glimpse into history, I thought it was fascinating that he held jobs selling furniture door-to-door and selling family photos door-to-door. Life before the internet.

And then there is his personal life. Lear first married in 1943, and has been married three times. He has six children, five daughters and one son. What really caught my attention was this his oldest child was born in 1947, so is 70 years old, and his youngest twins were born in 1994 (via surrogate), so are 22 or 23. I would imagine this would keep you young!

Norman Lear at the 2014 Texas Book Festival, Austin, Texas, United States. Photo: Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 4.0. via Wikimedia Commons

The thing is, Lear isn’t just sitting around getting older. He has a website at He has a Facebook page. He has an active Twitter account at @TheNormanLear. His Twitter timeline is full of history and will also let you know about upcoming interviews so that you can hear stories directly from him. Another way to hear his stories, and the stories of others, is to check out his podcast, All of the Above. Oh yeah, and he wrote a book.

This is a reminder that most of us can use periodically. Everybody has a story and most people like to share them. Find someone who has lived longer than you and let them tell you their story. Go learn some history.

Please follow and like us:

Candy With A Soundtrack

It’s Halloween today, and that evening is best spent handing out candy with music playing in the background. Alas, my new home is not situated for a parade of creatively dressed children, but I can still have the music.

What is your number one Halloween tune? Although many people would choose Michael Jackson’s Thriller, or even Ray Parker Jr.’s Ghostbusters, I’m going to go old school. My go-to Halloween song is Monster Mash, by Bobby Pickett.

American singer Bobby “Boris” Pickett of Monster Mash fame, selling copies of his autobiography at Chiller Theatre horror convention, New Jersey, October 2005. Photo Leslie Gottlieb from Little Ferry, NJ, USA via Wikimedia Commons

Another way to pick music, for all those days that aren’t holidays, is to choose artists born on that day.

Born on Halloween in 1941 was Otis Williams of The Temptations. So many great songs, but I’m going to go with Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.

Twenty years later on October 31, 1961, Larry Mullen Jr., the drummer for U2 was born. My personal favorite U2 song is the live version of Sunday Bloody Sunday from the live album Under a Blood Red Sky.

Halloween 1966 brought us Annabella Lwin, lead singer for Bow Wow Wow. I’m sure it’s a coincidence that probably their most famous song is I Want Candy.

Annabella Lwin & Bow Wow Wow at Kant-Kino, Berlin, 1982. Photo by Braunov via Wikimedia Commons

Happy Halloween to all! I hope you have much candy and even more music.

Please follow and like us:

When Nepotism Goes Bad

When Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), otherwise known as “Il Duce”, ruled Italy as a Fascist dictator in the years leading up to the second World War, one of the more benign privileges he enjoyed was being able to create government positions.  He was also able to appoint whoever he wanted to those positions.

Il Duce was already ruling Italy by utilizing fear and violence, when his daughter Edda (1910-1995) married lifelong fascist Galeazzo Ciano (1903-1944) in 1930. Like many dictators, Mussolini trusted the loyalty of family members over outsiders. In 1933, he appointed his son-in-law Ciano as Head of the Government Press Office. In 1934 Ciano was appointed as the newly created Undersecretary for Press and Propaganda, but only until 1935 when he was named as the newly created Minister of Press and Propaganda.

Prime Minister Kálmán Darányi and Foreign Minister Kálmán Kánya greets Italian Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano and his wife Edda Mussolini on 13 November 1936. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Ciano left that position later that same year to volunteer for military action when Italy invaded Ethiopia. He was the dictator’s son-in-law, so obviously he did not start his military “career” cleaning latrines as a Private. After receiving a couple of medals for valor, he returned to Italy in 1936 and was appointed to take over his father-in-law’s position as Minister of Foreign Affairs.

In the late 1930s, Mussolini allied with another authoritarian leader, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), in Germany. World War II began when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, causing Great Britain and France to declare war on Germany. It turns out that wasn’t an equal partnership and in January 1943 Ciano urged his father-in-law to break with Germany and seek terms with the Allies.

Ciano (far right) meeting with Neville Chamberlain, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and others. Photo via Wikimedia Commons, Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R69173 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Alas, with some people loyalty only works in one direction. In February 1943 Mussolini fired his entire cabinet, including Ciano, who became an envoy to the Vatican. In July 1943, Ciano voted against his father-in-law continuing as the head of government. With enough votes to oust Mussolini, Italian King Victor Emmanuel III dismissed Mussolini and had him arrested.

In August, Ciano and his immediate family fled to Germany, fearing they would be arrested in Italy. In September, Hitler had Mussolini rescued and set him up as the head of a new Fascist state in northern Italy, which was propped up by Germany. Germany sent Ciano back to work with his father-in-law, but when Ciano got there, he was arrested for treason for his July vote against Mussolini.

Count Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini’s foreign minster and son-in-law at his desk in Palazzo Chigi, Rome in 1937. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Although Edda begged her father to spare her husband’s life, Ciano was executed by a firing squad in January 1944. She had escaped to Switzerland a couple of days before her husband’s death, and never forgave her father. Mussolini died a little more than a year after Ciano.

One last thing. Ciano kept diaries, but not diaries about his personal life. He wrote about government meetings. He wrote about what was said and about his opinions. I haven’t read the published diaries, but apparently he shared some not-very-nice things about Hitler. Edda tried to use the threat of the contents of the diaries to save her husband, but like her pleas to her father, it didn’t work. She had those diaries published after the war, and they are are great primary source for historians.

So there you go. Nepotism practiced because of a belief in the trust and loyalty of family, which ultimately was shown not to exist on either side.

Please follow and like us:

Here’s Our Sandbar

A couple of months ago I wrote a post about sand. At the time, I didn’t have any good pictures of our sandbar in our lagoon. Now I do, so I thought I’d share before they bring in the special equipment to move all this sand to the beach on the other side of the road.

Sandbar in Carlsbad, showing the road that divides the lagoon from the beach. Photo: Cathy Hanson

Am I the only one who thinks of Gilligan’s Island every time I type lagoon?

Sandbar in Carlsbad, giving you a better idea of the size of the lagoon. Photo: Cathy Hanson

Please follow and like us:

Fantasy and History at the Movies

There are some movies from the late 1980s that have stood the test of time. They are watched by new generations and quotes from these movies are part of our culture. I mean, who doesn’t know Inigo Montoya’s grievance and proposed action? (If you don’t know, my apologies for my presumption. Please stop reading and go watch The Princess Bride.)

Willow, The Princess Bride, Ladyhawke. These are all fantasy movies with a historical vibe, they all revolve around a quest, their heroic success depends on friendship and teamwork, and (spoiler alert!) the villains are destroyed in the end.

Although these movies feel medieval, they were not, and never claimed to be, historically accurate. However, there are some aspects that are true.

In Willow, our eponymous hero comes to a crossroads in the course of his quest and finds Madmartigan in one of several hanging iron cages. He’d been left there to die for some crime.

Ortenburg ( Lower Bavaria ). Castle museum – Show room for historical justice: Hanging cage. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber via Wikimedia Commons

The hanging metal cage, otherwise known as a gibbet, was historically a device of punishment and/or torture. Because they were also meant as a warning to the living to avoid a life of crime, they were often found at crossroads or other places that would guarantee the widest viewing audience. Being public was the whole point.

Hanging of William Kidd from The Pirates Own Book, by Charles Ellms 1837. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes the punished were placed in the gibbets while alive so that they would die a slow death from thirst or exposure. Sometimes the dead bodies of executed criminals were placed in them to slowly rot away as a deterrent to crime. Some of these were left hanging long after there was nothing left but bones.

I’m not sure of the deterrent value, but there were often complaints from the law-abiding citizens. Besides the visual assault, the smell must have been horrific, and there were health concerns with decomposing bodies. Maybe that’s one of the reasons this particular punishment was not used all that often.

Sketch of John Breeds’s (or Breads’s) gibbet irons, preserved in Rye Town Hall, East Sussex. From the Gutenberg Project edition via Wikimedia Commons

The use of gibbets was not limited geographically. There are records of its use in Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas. And it was used for centuries, so it’s not necessarily associated with a particular era.

So now you probably want to check out Willow again, or for the first time. If so, my work here is done.

Please follow and like us:

Rerun: Peach Cemetery

I’m visiting family in Spokane, Washington, so today’s post is a rerun of a post from April 14, 2015, which was inspired by a previous visit to Spokane. Enjoy!


I just returned from spending a week with my family in Washington, and even though I previously lived there for thirty years, it’s nice to know that I can still discover new and interesting stuff.

My sister and her family moved about 65 miles from Spokane to Lincoln a couple of years ago. Since the sawmill in Lincoln closed in the 1980s, there isn’t much in the way of commercial enterprise. There is a boat launch to access Lake Roosevelt, and an RV park if you want to stay and play for a few days on the lake. There are none of the standard American community offerings, like restaurants, churches or bars.

But there is a fascinating bit of history in Lincoln at the Peach Cemetery. This is not like the cemeteries we see all the time, those with orderly rows of headstones. This area, enclosed by wire fencing, has headstones placed with no obvious organization and large sections that appear to have nothing at all.

Peach Cemetery. Photo Credit: Cathy Hanson

Peach Cemetery. Photo Credit: Cathy Hanson

It turns out that there was once a town called Peach at the confluence of the Columbia River and Hawk Creek, situated perfectly for growing fruit orchards. A U.S. post office was established in Peach in 1898 and by 1900 there were about forty families using their land for peach, plum, apricot, pear, apple and cherry orchards. By 1917, Peach was a community of about 300 people and had a school for grades one through ten, a hotel, a grocery, a feed store and a church. They used the railroad that stopped in nearby Creston to ship their fruit to other parts of the country. Everything seemed to be going well.

Peach Cemetery. Photo Credit: Cathy Hanson

Peach Cemetery. Photo Credit: Cathy Hanson

Then came Grand Coulee Dam. This dam is the largest facility in the United States producing electric power, and was built on the Columbia River, creating a reservoir covering 150 miles. This reservoir was named Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake, but now everyone just calls it Lake Roosevelt.

Photo Credit: Cathy Hanson

Photo Credit: Cathy Hanson

Peach was one of ten towns large enough to have a post office that would be displaced by the reservoir. The federal government paid landowners to vacate, requiring that they vacate by January 1, 1939 and the residents of Peach dispersed rather than relocating. Homes were either moved to higher ground or were burned along with the orchards. Stumps were blasted out with dynamite. A sign at the boat launch states that nearly 5,000 structures were either moved or burned.

Photo Credit: Cathy Hanson

Photo Credit: Cathy Hanson

Clearing the land to prepare for the reservoir was the responsibility of the Works Projects Administration (WPA), who employed more than 2,000 people for that purpose. They were to clear everything that might later float to the surface, although my dad said that when the water level is really low you can still see tree stumps on the bottom that were not completely cleared. In April of 1939 the post office was officially decommissioned, and by July, everything was gone.

Photo Credit: Cathy Hanson

Photo Credit: Cathy Hanson

Along with the homes, businesses, orchards and road, there were also cemeteries. Peach had one cemetery on high ground, but the remains from two others, the W.L. Brannon Cemetery and the W.H. Balcom Cemetery, were moved in 1939. Relocation was the responsibility of the Ball & Dodd Funeral Home in Spokane. Not all graves were relocated to Peach Cemetery in Lincoln. Many were relocated, I’m assuming at the request of the families, to nearby Creston.

Photo Credit: Cathy Hanson

Photo Credit: Cathy Hanson

The early records are lacking in detail, but the relocated cemetery has been walked and had the headstones recorded several times over the years by interested people and associations. The headstones date from 1892 to 1953. Rosters of the graves were created in 1968 and 1974, but I couldn’t find any original records detailing the graves that were relocated. There are a number of unknown and unmarked graves, and several of the stones on the previous rosters are no longer there. A volunteer group of local residents clean the cemetery annually, mowing the weeds and removing any trash.


Photo Credit: Cathy Hanson

There was a documentary filmed that is available for viewing at museums in Davenport and Wenatchee, but I didn’t have the opportunity to see it, so I am not sure what information it provides or even when it was filmed.

An interesting thing about local history is that there are often connections to people you know. A lady who has been a family friend for almost thirty years knew some of her family had lived in Peach, but had no idea about the relocated graves, or that her family was represented in this cemetery.

Photo Credit: Cathy Hanson

Photo Credit: Cathy Hanson

There were more than fifty cemeteries in the flooded area, many of them Native American burial grounds, but that is another story for another day.

Please follow and like us:

News of the Battle of the Little Bighorn

Although I am happy that modern technology allows us access to news almost immediately, I enjoy looking at the first newspaper reports of historical events. I like to see how much we learned after the initial reports as well as how the public’s attitudes towards those people and events have evolved. I have previously blogged about newspaper reports of Lizzie Borden and the Titanic.

This time I’m checking out the first public reporting of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, also commonly known, as if it were a morality play, as Custer’s Last Stand. On June 25, 1876, George Armstrong Custer led a cavalry regiment of the U.S. Army against a coalition of Native American tribes. For a variety of reasons, including the simple fact that the U.S. forces were completely outnumbered, 286 soldiers died that day, including Custer.

Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer, wearing a custom-made blue velvet uniform, ca. 1864. Don’t judge – maybe all soldiers had custom-made blue velvet uniforms. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

For the past 141 years, this battle and the participants have been studied and debated thoroughly. I was always less interested in the strategies and errors of the battle than in how the opinions of the American public shifted throughout the years. Was he hero or villain? Master strategist or vain publicity hound? Does it even matter how we view him from 25 or 50 or 141 years on, when the facts of the battle don’t change?

The New York Times has a great searchable archive available online, and this is their first report of the battle on July 6, 1876, which had been reported in Salt Lake on July 5 from a July 2 report from Montana.




SALT LAKE, July 5. – The special correspondent of the Helena (Montana) Herald writes from Stillwater, Montana, under date of July 2, as follows:

Muggins Taylor, a scout for Gen. Gibbon, arrived here last night direct from Little Horn River, and reports that Gen. Custer found the Indian camp of 2,000 lodges on the Little Horn, and immediately attached it. He charged the thickest portion of the camp with five companies. Nothing is known of the operations of this detachment, except their course as traced by the dead. Major Reno commanded the other seven companies, and attacked the lower portion of the camp. The Indians poured a murderous fire from all directions. Gen. Custer his two brothers, his nephew, and brother-in-law were all killed, and not one of his detachment escaped. Two hundred and seven men were buried in one place. The number of killed is estimated at 300, and the wounded at thirty-one.

The Indians surrounded Major Reno’s command and held them one day in the hills cut off from water, until Gibbon’s command came in sight, when they broke camp in the night and left. The Seventh fought like tigers, and were overcome by mere brute force.

The Indian loss cannot be estimated as they bore off and cached most of their killed. The remnant of the Seventh Cavalry and Gibbon’s command are returning to the mouth of the Little Horn, where a steam-boat lies. The Indians got all the arms of the killed soldiers. There were seventeen commissioned officers killed. The whole Custer family died at the head of their column.

The exact loss is not known as both Adjutants and the Sergeant-major were killed. The Indian camp was from three to four miles long, and was twenty miles up the Little Horn from its mouth.

The Indians actually pulled men off their horses, in some instances.

This report is given as Taylor told it, as he was over the field after the battle. The above is confirmed by other letters, which say Custer has met with a fearful disaster.


SALT LAKE CITY, July 5. – The Times publishes a dispatch from Boseman, Montana Territory, dated July 3, 7 P.M.

Mr. Taylor, bearer of dispatches from Little Horn to Fort Ellis, arrived this evening, and reports the following:

The battle was fought on the 25th of June, thirty or forty miles below the Little Horn. Gen. Custer attacked an Indian village of from 2,500 to 4,000 warriors on one side, and Col. Rneo was to attack it on the other side. Three companies were placed on a hill as a reserve.

Gen. Custer and fifteen officers and every man belonging to the five companies were killed. Reno retreated under the protection of the reserve. The whole number killed was 315. Gen. Gibbon joined Reno.

When the Indians left, the battle-field looked like a slaughter-pen, as it really was, being in a narrow ravine. The dead were much mutilated.

The situation now looks serious. Gen. Terry arrived at Gibbon’s Camp on a steam-boat, and crossed the command over and accompanied it to join Custer, who knew it was coming before the fight occurred. Lieut. Crittenden, son of Gen. Crittenden, was among the killed.

George Armstrong Custer. This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 558719. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

So that was the first report. That was what they knew, or at least reported, at the beginning.

The next day, July 7, 1876, they printed much more information, including a “sketch” of Custer with his school and Civil War history. They included more details of the battle, the “scene of the massacre”, the causes and consequences, and the views at the War Department.

What stuck me most about this second day of reporting was that it was less a linear report of facts and more editorial. No longer are they “Indians”, they are now called “red devils”. Oh, and there were “no less than ten thousand red devils”. Also on this second day it was reported that:

It is the opinion of Army officers in Chicago, Washington, and Philadelphia, including Gens. Sherman and Sheridan, that Gen. Custer was rashly imprudent to attack such a large number of Indians, Sitting Bull’s force being 4,000 strong. Gen. Sherman thinks that the accounts of the disaster are exaggerated.

And that’s how the news was back in the day when it wasn’t immediate. Should you be interested in seeing how this story progressed, check out The New York Times archives online. Go ahead, see what they reported the NEXT day.


Please follow and like us: