When John Wilkes Booth was crouching in Richard H. Garrett’s tobacco barn, listening to Lieutenant Colonel Everton Conger’s orders to surrender, he decided to go out with a bang. He refused the surrender, then once the barn was lit on fire he took a bullet to the neck, delivered by Sergeant Boston Corbett. He was dead by the break of dawn, less than two weeks after he had prematurely terminated the presidency of Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre.
Or was he?
Way out in the sprawling suburbs of historical perception there exists the notion that the man whose life was snuffed to a nub in that barn was actually a man named James William Boyd, a Confederate soldier who looked enough like Booth that his body passed through ten pairs of identifying eyes (not counting the pair that aimed the gun that took his life), as well as an official autopsy. The composers of this theory also posit that the government knew about the mix-up and let it happen. Because where is the fun in a murder without a deep and sinister government conspiracy?
As for the “real” John Wilkes Booth… well, on the off-chance that this is all true, we can say with a relative certainty that Booth was, in fact, this guy:
One day in 1873, some eight years after the furor over the Lincoln assassination had been pressed between the leaves of history, Memphis lawyer Finis L. Bates met and befriended a liquor and tobacco merchant named John St. Helen. It’s good to get to know the man who sells you booze and smokes, and Bates was particularly taken by John’s ability to spout Shakespeare from memory. The two became good friends outside the seller-consumer relationship.
Five years later, John St. Helen was on what he believed to be his deathbed, profoundly ill. He confided in Finis Bates that he was in fact John Wilkes Booth. He asked Finis to advise his brother, Edwin Booth, of his demise. Then he recovered. Read more…
Thankfully for us disciples of feckless fact and impractical information, the human body does not always cater to the limits of logic and science. We can always gawk upon the fortunate – or unfortunate – whose innards form their own rules, leaving their mark in the lore once mined by Ripley and Guinness and Barnum and other protectors of the peculiar. Immersing myself as I have in a mandated one thousand topics across the spectrum of mind-piquing knowledge, I was bound to run across a few of these folks.
Last December I wrote about Tarrare, an eighteenth-century Frenchman who ate his weight in food every day, and made his living on the proto-freak-show circuit, devouring live beasts before gaggles of open-jawed onlookers. The clinical term is polyphagia: an insatiable appetite, or a hunger that can’t be conquered. In Tarrare’s case, one can also account for a critical depravation of good taste, as anyone who eats a live snake before an audience is clearly disgusting as well as edacious.
Right around the time experts were prodding Tarrare with a stick, trying to figure out what made his insides work this way (and perhaps waiting to see if he’d eat the stick), another polyphagious man was making medical headlines. Charles Domery sold his patriotic soul and devoured everything he could find. He was a truly voracious eating machine.
Charles Domery was born in Benche, Poland (sorry – I couldn’t find a better picture of the place) around 1778. He was one of nine brothers, all of whom – according to Charles – shared the same unquashable appetite. Having lived through feeding one male teenager, I cannot fathom what sort of pre-industrial job the Domery patriarch must have held to afford to feed nine with such an appetite. But if the dinner table was a battleground in Charles’ youth, it showed no ill reflection upon his temperament. Those who knew him said he was a good egg. Read more…
There are souls who live lives of absolute anonymity, only to achieve the briefest flicker of fame through their final moments on the planet. For all the millions who have succumbed to heart disease, auto accidents and auto-erotic asphyxiation, somewhere there’s a story of a drunken teenager who died playing chicken in a Big Wheels trike against his buddy’s pickup truck. As readers of these tales we exert a tiny flex of our “Huh. Interesting” muscle – the same one that endures a passive workout as we blindly flip through a piece of Buzzfeed ‘journalism’. But we usually stop short of worrying about the same wonky demise happening to us.
In this sense, the modern case of the unusual death serves less as a cautionary tale and more as a temporal distraction akin to a cat video, or a six-second vine of a 13-year-old boy getting caught twerking against a cardboard stand-up Frankie Muniz in his bedroom. But while I wholly condone chuckling away at the ancient tales of strange offings, like how Draco the ancient Greek lawmaker was smothered to death by a showering of cloaks and hats as gifts by a grateful stadium of citizens (mostly because I don’t believe that really happened), I advise mustering up at least a smidgen of empathy for the more substantiated tales.
After all, it could be you next, you never know. One minute you might be walking home from the store, three packs of powdered mini-donuts and a week-old Hustler tucked under your arm, when suddenly your skull is cracked open by an airborne tortoise.
Our first is about a guy whose skull was totally cracked open by an airborne tortoise. His name was Aeschylus, and along with Sophocles and Euripides he is one of the three great tragedy-writers of Ancient Greece whose works are still performed today. His trademark was the trilogy, but his most famous works had a huge impact on theatre. His influence resonated over millennia, affecting dramatic expression, literature, and even music. Read more…
When Hiroo Onoda set off to receive his first assignment in the Imperial Japanese Army in December of 1944, his mother handed him a keepsake dagger and told him to do his family proud. World War II was still hugging the headlines, showing no signs of relinquishing its constricting embrace. This didn’t bother Hiroo; he was a soldier. He had an unflappable sense of honor. He was committed to his cause, a cause he would not abandon until specifically ordered to do so.
Unfortunately, nobody got around to doing that until about thirty years later.
Hiroo was one of the final Japanese holdouts, the stalwart warriors who clung to the noble tenets of Imperial Japan long after the nation had become an American buddy and fervent supplier of tape decks and video games.
From one perspective, Hiroo is a shining example of the tenacity and loyalty exhibited by Japan’s armed forces and permeative throughout Japanese culture. That said, one has to question the perseverance of the armed forces that allowed Hindoo to dangle in the perpetual political breeze for so long. Did they really try hard enough to bring him home?
Trained as an intelligence officer (which already kicks a sticky ball of irony down the rock-peppered slope of this tale), Hiroo Onoda was assigned to Lubang Island in the Philippines. His mission was to keep the enemy from taking the island by destroying the local airstrip and pier, but his superiors nixed those plans and ordered Hiroo to lay low. The US and Philippine Commonwealth forces swooped ashore in February, and the entire Japanese regiment was either killed or forced to surrender.
Everyone except for Hiroo and three others, who took to the hills. Read more…
You’ve probably never heard of Charles Davis Lucas.
Like most recipients of the Victoria Cross, the highest honor awardable to members of the British and Commonwealth military forces, his name is far from household. But that’s what today is about: slapping a virtual high-five with the ghosts of wars gone by, and lending a little praise and attention to the brave folks who stared potential death and/or dismemberment in the face and said, “Fuck it. I’m going after the bad guys.”
Charles Davis Lucas fought in the Crimean War, which was yet another conflict over religion and the Holy Land and all that. This time it was the Brits, French and Ottomans battling it out with the Russians back in 1853-56. Charles was aboard the Hecla, a ship in the Baltic Sea, where they were taking fire from a Finnish fort called Bumarsund. A shell landed on the ship’s deck with the fuse still hissing, and whomever was in charge ordered all hands to lay flat and prepare for the blast.
Not Charles. Charles ran up, grabbed the shell, and heaved it overboard where it exploded before it even hit the water. No one was killed, no one was injured, and it was all thanks to Charles disobeying orders and doing something that, by most objective standards was completely insane. His was the first act of bravery to earn the Victoria’s Cross.
Twenty-one years old. Another Brit, this time up against the Ottoman Army in the muck of World War I. The enemy was breathing down the neck of his gang of Royal Scots Fusiliers on a December day in 1917, when Stanley Henry Parry Boughey decided he’d had enough. He grabbed an armful of tossable bombs and ran at the bad guys, heaving blasts all over the place and somehow managing to not get knocked off his feet by a bullet. Read more…
If delightful, family-friendly romps are your thing, you could probably do a lot better than Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. On the other hand, if you’re looking for your dreams tonight to be peppered with gruesome imagery and psychotic thematic elements, this might be the perfect movie upon which you can slap your brain and sizzle ‘til it hurts.
Surrounding this ultra-violent film about two young lovers on a murderous spree (the satirical media plotline – what I feel to be the most interesting part of the film – was added by Stone at the last minute) is a whole lot of real-life murder and bloodshed. The list of copycat murders that emerged after Natural Born Killers’ 1994 release is staggering. But the blood flows in both directions – the film was based loosely on actual events.
Prepare to have your stomach turned, courtesy of young Charles Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate.
Charles Starkweather was your typical bullied kid who turned to bullying others once his physical prowess allowed him to do so. Having been born with a mild birth defect which rendered his legs to be slightly misshapen, and having lived through a speech impediment that earned him heaps of schoolyard teasing, Charles developed a streak so mean it would have made Charles Manson nauseous. After dropping out of high school at age 18, Charles fell wildly in love in 13-year-old Caril Ann Fugate, whose sister was dating one of Charles’s buddies. It was a match made in the dankest armpit of hell. Read more…
I enjoy a good creepy story, the kind that makes you want to crawl out of your skin and find something less goose-bumpy to slip into. Every so often I find one that’ll make you want to burn that skin you just wriggled free from, because the guts of the story have made you ashamed to be human.
This is one of those stories.
During times of war, a nation – in particular an underdog, up against most of the free world – can be driven to some grotesque and vile acts. And while most every combatant in World War II has their share of dark secrets and ugly acts, today I’m going to sink my claws into the horrors of Japan’s Unit 731.
First of all, if you have your SafeSearch turned off, do not do a Google Image search for Unit 731. Just… just take my word on this one.
The man pictured above is General Shiro Ishii, the chief medical officer of the Japanese Army in 1932. Around this time, Japan was taking deep breaths and flexing its muscle across the East China Sea at Chiang Kai-Shek’s China. Given Japan’s generally unpleasant relationship with much of the western world as well, General Ishii felt his side could use a tactical edge. He was placed in charge of the Army Epidemic Prevention Research Laboratory, which was not as graciously motivated as its name indicated. Read more…
It is perhaps the greatest failure of the American film production machine that no one has thought to put the story of Hugh Thompson Jr. on the big screen. I have read about some fascinating lives over the past 452 days, but Hugh’s is at the top of the list. Were I an American, Hugh would make me proud to salute the same flag.
To find the patriotism-inspired stories of military honor and bravery in the Vietnam War, you’d first have to wade through the confusion and vague discomfort that goes along with a war that was, in reality, little more than a dick-wagging proxy war between two superpowers, the leaders of which were not among the brave men and women suiting up in combat gear. But this article isn’t about politics, it’s about heroics.
It’s about Hugh Thompson Jr.
Hugh touched down in the guts of the Vietnam conflict in December, 1967. He had trained to become a helicopter pilot, and earned a reputation as a brilliant and ballsy chopper-master. Just a few months earlier, Hugh had been back at home in Georgia, running a funeral home. Now he was being sent into the thickest stew of crossfire in what was at the time the worst place on Earth to be. Read more…