People who are interested in history collect manuscripts because they want to know what somebody was really like. When you look at a letter, you’re looking at what was going on in a person’s life – what did this feel like to the person experiencing it at that time – and before you know it, you have a whole world coming alive.
Natural disasters do not discriminate. These letters about the impact of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake are recalled today on the 25th anniversary of the more recent Northridge earthquake, and following this exceptionally difficult year for Californians.
“We have the dreadful news that an earthquake has almost destroyed San Francisco. The wires are down, and it is difficult to get accurate information…. It is impossible, however, to hear anything, and we are in the dark.” – William Howard Taft, Secretary of War. April 18, 1906.
This shockingly inspirational letter from Alfred Dreyfus was written shortly after he was wrongly convicted of treason and degradated in a public military ceremony. Writing to his sister and brother-in-law, he tells them of his suffering; not of the conditions he is subjected to, but the suffering and pain in being so powerless to prove his innocence. Despite this weighing heavily on him, he tells them his “pure and clean conscience will give [him] superhuman strength,” and he will clean his name “from the stain that has been inflicted upon it unjustly.” He exhorts them to “not bow your head, but to keep it higher than ever” as he will also do.
Not losing faith, he is sure that “with all of our combined efforts, our wills focused into a single one, we will succeed” in revealing the truth and clearing his name. Read the full transcript of this stirring letter and view the original papers here.
It is to be supposed that the 2018 mid-term elections will be fraught with controversy, and
some anguish. The recent past will be raked over; accusations lobbed; the word
“unprecedented” exhaled as commonly as breath. None of this, however, is new to American
elections. In 2016, so much candidate verbiage was expelled and expounded
in so many primary and general election debates, that any reasonable person might well have
assumed “Debate” was a weekly television series. Now, with the advent of the Labor Day
holiday, traditionally marking the “official” start of the campaign season, that live program,
after a two year hiatus, is back. But how it came to be made, and become as much a part of
the American election cycle as ballots themselves, is the story told here. It began, humbly, with
It’s hard to keep up these days with who is shouting what. Not gone entirely unnoticed, however, is the disquieting rise of an old contagion thought, in the United States at least, long extinct. Whether chanted in torch-lit marches, argued on college campuses, or broadcast by fringe candidates in local political races, antisemitism is back in the news. That “It Could Happen Here”, and did, is the subject of this letter about the worst blemish in the life of the Union’s greatest commander. When, in an 1862 order, General Ulysses S. Grant ordered that all Jews living in Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi ,and parts of Southern Illinois, vacate, within 24-hours, their homes and businesses and leave, forever, the area of his command, he promulgated the most sweeping, and shocking, anti-Jewish regulation in American history. Here, writing six years later – and eagerly pursuing the presidency – Grant sought to explain his notorious “Jew Order” to the man, in fact, who inspired it: his father.
Lest anyone think that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address – delivered 150 years ago, today – came out of thin air, one has only to look at the wonderful, if weary, elegance of his 25 words written to General Robert Huston Milroy on October 19, 1863, just one month prior. Whether a warm-up to narrowing down his thoughts in a short, concise, and understandable manner, or merely a discrete example of the same, Lincoln was capable, we see here – be it in a national address, a debate, or on a simple card – of a literary brilliance unsurpassed by any other American president and barely, by any other American, period. This, then, is perhaps the best presidential short composition ever.
Famous people, as a general rule, do not become assassins. The man who shot Abraham Lincoln point-blank in the back of the head, however, was the most popular actor of his time. Yet John Wilkes Booth, for most of the Civil War, did not see himself in the role of assassin, but spy. At twenty-six, he was rich, handsome, adored – and a secret Confederate agent. Here, writing 150 years ago today, Booth works behind the scenes to appear in Washington, at Ford’s Theatre – an appearance which would prove but a rehearsal for the role in which he is still reviled: assassin.
The man who, for an entire generation, embodied youth and vigor, would have been 96 this year. At 43, he had been the youngest man elected President; at 46, the youngest to die in office, assassinated. But Jack Kennedy never expected, one way or the other, to live long. In chronic pain, suffering a myriad of illnesses, he had received the last rites of his Church three times before he was 40 – and that wasn’t counting the near-fatal sinking of the legendary PT-109 in World War II. Perhaps that was why he lived so fearlessly, intensely, joyously – and fast. He wanted to do everything, and he did – all of it, well. He could even fly. This war-time flight logbook, virtually unseen, is thought to be the only proof of this hitherto-unknown fact. Lieutenant Kennedy, USNR, it is noted, soloed once – on his 27th birthday. He is not known to having piloted an aircraft ever again.