History Unplugged Podcast
Summary: For history lovers who listen to podcasts, History Unplugged is the most comprehensive show of its kind. It's the only show that dedicates episodes to both interviewing experts and answering questions from its audience. First, it features a call-in show where you can ask our resident historian (Scott Rank, PhD) absolutely anything (What was it like to be a Turkish sultan with four wives and twelve concubines? If you were sent back in time, how would you kill Hitler?). Second, it features long-form interviews with best-selling authors who have written about everything. Topics include gruff World War II generals who flew with airmen on bombing raids, a war horse who gained the rank of sergeant, and presidents who gave their best speeches while drunk.
The financing of the Civil War was as crucial to the shaping of American history as the Emancipation Proclamation and the defeat of the Confederacy. Not only did the Lincoln government establish a national banking system, they invented many things to deepen and broaden the government’s involvement in the lives of ordinary Americans—the transcontinental railroad, the Homestead Act, the Morrill Act (endowing land-grant colleges for the middle class), help for farmers, a government role in immigration, a new system of taxes including, for the first time, income taxes.Lincoln and his fellow Republicans created a new notion of what government could do—larger, more proactive, more responsible for the national welfare. Lincoln and his allies had been fighting for this agenda for years, and until the war had been on the losing side. In the case of Lincoln personally, and for many of the original GOP leaders, belief in government arose from personal experience. Lincoln wanted the government to promote opportunity for others like himself—that is, for pioneers, poor settlers, remote western farmers. So the party backed legislation to support transportation, education, credit facilities, and so forth.Today’s guest is Roger Lowenstein, author of Ways and Means: Lincoln, His Cabinet and the Financing of the Civil War. Lincoln and his cabinet created a new notion of what government could be—larger, more proactive, more responsible for the national welfare.
Following the German occupation of France in 1940, French women moved deftly into the jobs and roles left by their male compatriots—even the role of soldier. One of the more notable such female soldiers was Lt. Sonia Vagliano, who was part of a team of young French women attached to a US First Army unit that arrived in Normandy two weeks after D-Day. From 1943 to 1945, Vagliano followed her unit from Normandy to Paris, through Belgium, and finally into Germany, where they cared for 41,000 total displaced persons and prisoners of war.She published a memoir of her experiences under the title Les Demoiselles de Gaulle. Vagliano not only described her experiences in rich detail—from caring for thousands of refugees in the worst possible conditions to defusing landmines and being kidnapped, shot at, torpedoed, and bombed—she also recounted the major events of the war in Europe, including the liberation of Paris, the Battle of the Bulge, and finally, the liberation of the concentration camps. Spending five weeks at Buchenwald repatriating the 21,000 remaining prisoners, she is a unique witness to the transition period between the camp's liberation and its transferal to Russian oversight in July 1945. She saw firsthand "to what extremes the human imagination can go in its search for the most cruel methods of torture."Today’s guest, Martha Noel Evans, is translator of Vagliano’s memoir into English under the title Lieutenant Sonia Vagliano: A Memoir of the World War II Refugee Crisis. We discuss both the dare devil escapades and the sobering reality of a wartime account
Lone-wolf serial killers like Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and John Wayne Gacy live in infamy – it’s a familiar archetype in true crime. But a family of serial killers is much less common, and the killing spree committed by the Benders in 19th century Kansas is likely the most famous murder case in American history that you’ve never heard of. This family became known as the Bloody Benders—a mother, father and their daughter and son—and their exploits were called the “little slaughterhouse on the prairie.” Today’s guest is Susan Jonusas , author of the book Hell’s Half-Acre: The Untold Story of the Benders, a Serial Killer Family on the American Frontier. She discusses the dangers and lawlessness of the American West, and chroncles families of the victims, the hapless detectives who lost the trail, and the fugitives that helped the murderers escape. In 1873 the people of Labette County, Kansas made a grisly discovery. Buried by a trailside cabin beneath an orchard of young apple trees were the remains of countless bodies. Below the cabin itself was a cellar stained with blood . . . And the Benders were nowhere to be found. This discovery sent the local community and national newspapers into a frenzy that continued for decades, sparking an epic manhunt for the Benders. The idea that a family of seemingly respectable homesteaders—one among the thousands relocating farther west in search of land and opportunity after the Civil War—were capable of operating "a human slaughter pen" appalled and fascinated the nation. But who the Benders really were, why they committed such a vicious killing spree and whether justice ever caught up to them is a mystery that remains unsolved to this day. All of this takes place during a turbulent time in America, a place where modernity stalks across the landscape, violently displacing existing populations and building new ones. It is a world where folklore can quickly become fact and an entire family of criminals can slip through a community’s fingers, only to reappear in the most unexpected of places.
When Benjamin Franklin died on April 12, 1790, he made a final bet on the future of the United States -- a gift of 2,000 pounds to Boston and Philadelphia, to be lent out to tradesmen over the next two centuries to jump start their careers. Each loan would be repaid with interest over ten years. If all went according to Franklin’s inventive scheme, the accrued final payout in 1991 would be a windfall.Today’s guest is Michael Meyer, author of Benjamin Franklin’s Last Bet. He traces the evolution of these twin funds as they age alongside America itself, bankrolling woodworkers and silversmiths, trade schools and space races. Over time, Franklin’s wager was misused, neglected, and contested—but never wholly extinguished. Franklin’s stake in the “leather-apron” class remains in play to this day, and offers an inspiring blueprint for prosperity in our modern era of growing wealth disparity and social divisions.
In 1970s America, no city was arguable under more mafia control than Chicago. Murderers operated without fear of retribution. Getting an “innocent” verdict took nothing more than one bribe. Everyone got a cut of the action: policemen, aldermen, lawyers, cops, and judges. But it all came crashing down when a lawyer and fixer went undercover with the FBI to try to bring down one of the most powerful criminal syndicates in the country.Today’s guest is Jake Halpern, host of the new podcast series Deep Cover: Mob Land, an investigative series that looks at Chicago’s criminal underworld and those involved This story culminates with the prosecution of prominent mob figures and politicians with the entire operation resulting in more than two dozen arrests including cops, lawyers, judges, and more – forever damaging the mob’s stranglehold on the windy city. The fallout is still playing out in Chicago courtrooms today.
The Kennedys are remembered the vanguard of wealth, power, and style. But their story begins in 1840s Boston, when a poor Irish refugee couple who were escaping famine created a life together in a city hostile to Irish, immigrants, and Catholics, and launched arguably the most powerful dynasty in America’s history.The working class background and Irish ancestry JFK leveraged to connect to blue-collar voters referred to Patrick and Bridget, who arrived as many thousands of others did following the Great Famine—penniless and hungry. Less than a decade after their marriage in Boston, Patrick’s sudden death left Bridget to raise their children single-handedly. Her rise from housemaid to shop owner in the face of rampant poverty and discrimination kept her family intact, allowing her only son P.J. to become a successful saloon owner and businessman. P.J. went on to become the first American Kennedy elected to public office—the first of many.To look at this story of survival and reinvention – and the powers and dangers of nepotism if left unchecked – is Neal Thompson, author of the book “The First Kennedys: The Humble Roots of an American Dynasty.” We look at what it took to rise from poverty to prosperity in antebellum America, the rough power politics of Irish Boston, and the seeds of empire planted by Joe Kennedy in Depression-era America.
The year was 1947, and the mother superior of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth had managed to keep her order safe from the perils of World War II, and focused on the work at home in Kentucky. But when the opportunity came for a mission in one of the poorest regions of India—an area scarred by corruption and Partition violence—she saw in some of the younger nuns a keen desire to “serve the world by being fully part of it,” and to take their faith and healing skills abroad. What followed was a pioneering mission that no one could have predicted. The development of the hospital and nursing school not only upended the lives of those six Kentucky nuns, it changed the shape of the surrounding region and gave opportunities to Indian nurses who were eager to forge new paths for themselves. Today’s guest is Jyoti Thottam, author of the new book “Sisters of Mokama: The Pioneering Women Who Brought Hope and Healing to India. Her mother travel to Mokama, in Bihar, one of the poorest states in India, and train as a nurse at Nazareth. Thottam was always fascinated by this story: How did these nuns end up in Mokama, a town so small it didn’t appear on most maps of India? Why did they fill their hospital with teenage nurses from the other side of the country? Did they have any idea how radical their work would be – creating an enterprise run almost entirely by women, and determined to care for anyone, regardless of caste or religion? With no knowledge of Hindi, and the awareness that they would likely never see their families again, the six founding nuns had traveled to the small town of Mokama determined to live up to the pioneer spirit of their order, founded in the rough hills of the Kentucky frontier. A year later, they opened the doors of the hospital; soon they began taking in young Indian women as nursing students, offering them an opportunity that would change their lives. Pain and loss were everywhere for the women of that time, but the collapse of the old orders provided the women of Nazareth Hospital with an opening—a chance to create for themselves lives that would never have been possible otherwise.
In 1719, a ship named La Mutine (the mutinous woman), sailed from the French port of Le Havre, bound for the Mississippi. It was loaded with urgently needed goods for the fledgling French colony, but its principal commodity was a new kind of export: women.Falsely accused of sex crimes, these women were prisoners, shackled in the ship’s hold. They came from all walks of life: a disgraced noblewoman, a street vendor falsely accused of murder, a seamstress who became New Orleans’s first fashionista, and an illiterate laundress who became an Indian captive and eventual world traveler. Of the 132 women who were sent this way, only 62 survived. But these women carved out a place for themselves in the colonies that would have been impossible in France, making advantageous marriages and accumulating property. Many were instrumental in the building of New Orleans and in the European settling of Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, and Mississippi.To discuss the incredible impact these women had on the French North American colony is today’s guest, historian Joan DeJean, author of the book Mutinous Women: How French Convicts Became Founding Mothers of the Gulf Coast. They were among the pioneering European settlers who built New Orleans, and the French trading outposts and permanent settlements that spanned the Mississippi River from the Gulf Islands to Illinois. Their legacy is present not only in those contemporaneous communities they shaped, but also in the descendants of these “first grandmothers” of the Gulf South now spread across the United States. From their convictions and subsequent trials to their use of marriage to regain status, to relationships with Indigenous peoples amid changes in colonial governance and their ascension to property owners, these women’s stories represent the struggles of.
Please enjoy this preview of the Eyewitness History Podcast, hosted by Josh Cohen. This show features first-hand testimonials of people who witnessed first-hand events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11, the Vietnam War, and much more. Learn more about the show and enter a giveaway contest for the first people to review the show by going to eyewitnesshistorypodcast.com
Naval warfare is an overlooked factor of the Civil War, but it was a vitally important part of overall strategy for North and South, especially from the perspective of the Union, which used naval blockages from the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi River to deny critical resources to the Confederacy, forcing them the ultimately surrender. But the naval war was about much more than blockages. One Confederate ship managed to harass Union supply lines around the globe and sink dozens of merchant vessels. Its fate was sealed on June 19, 1864, after a fourteen-month chase that culminated in one of the most dramatic naval battles in history. The dreaded Confederate raider Alabama faced the Union warship Kearsarge in an all-or-nothing fight to the death, and the outcome would effectively end the threat of the Confederacy on the high seas. To talk about this story is historian Tom Clavin, author of the new book To the Uttermost Ends of the Earth: The Epic Hunt for the South's Most Feared Ship―and the Greatest Sea Battle of the Civil War.We look at historically overlooked Civil War players, including John Winslow, captain of the USS Kearsarge, as well as Raphael Semmes, captain of the CSS Alabama. Readers will sail aboard the Kearsarge as Winslow embarks for Europe with a set of simple orders from the secretary of the navy: "Travel to the uttermost ends of the earth, if necessary, to find and destroy the Alabama." Winslow pursued Semmes in a spectacular fourteen-month chase over international waters, culminating in what would become the climactic sea battle of the Civil War.
Most historians think of Warren G. Harding as a jazz-age hedonist who was much more of an empty suit than a serious president. Once in the White House, they argue, the 29th president busied himself with golf, poker, and his mistress, while appointees and cronies plundered the U.S. government. His secretary of the interior allowed oilmen, in exchange for bribes, to access government oil reserves, including one in Teapot Dome, Wyoming, the namesake for the scandal that hangs over Harding’s legacy today.But one American history professor thinks that this narrative is hopelessly simplified andsimplistic. In fact, Walters, author of the book The Jazz Age President: Defending Warren G. Harding, that he belongs in the Top Ten list of U.S. chief executives.He credits Harding with the following: • Inheriting a postwar depression, Harding turned it into an economic boom. On his watch personal prosperity soared and unemployment fell to 1.6 percent• He reversed Wilson’s grandiose plans to hand over American sovereignty to ambitious internationalist organizations• He healed a nation in the throes of social disruption, releasing citizens imprisoned by the Wilson administration under the controversial Sedition Act of 1918 and using the bully pulpit to promote civil rights in the heyday of Jim Crow
After Johannes Gutenberg invented the moveable type printing press, Europe changed irrevocably. What happened was a shift in the generation, preservation and circulation of information, chiefly on newly available and affordable paper, which created an information revolution. But it wasn’t just the printing press that caused this. Today’s guest, historian and author Paul Dover, argues there would have been a revolution in information in early modern Europe even without Gutenberg’s invention. Most of the changes in institutions and mentalities were caused by a massive increase in manuscript writing, which injected massive amounts of information into society.Everything changed. Europe saw the rise of the state, the Print Revolution, the Scientific Revolution, and the Republic of Letters. Dover is author of the book “The Information Revolution in Early Modern Europe.” He interprets the historical significance of this 'information revolution' for the present day, and suggests thought-provoking parallels with the informational challenges of the digital age.
The Russian Revolution is thought to have everything to do with the writings of Karl Marx. He predicted in the 19th century that history was marching inevitably toward a proletarian revolution and workers would overthrow the capitalist system and replace it with a socialist one. To many observers in Moscow, that’s exactly what was happening. But one Russian scholar disagrees. He believes the Russian Revolution had nothing to do with Marx and everything to do with, paradoxically, the Russian Orthodox Church. Namely, Russia’s century-old history of Orthodox monasticism. Today’s guest is Jim Curtis, a Russian scholar, professor emeritus, and author of In Stalin’s Soviet Monastery. The story begins with the young Iosif Djugashvili, later known as Joseph Stalin, who was studying to be a priest in an Orthodox seminary. He took on the role that defined his political career, that of a sadistic elder who imposed fiendish vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience on hapless Soviet citizens. This led to Stalin’s policies essentially copying passion-suffering, a practice in which one takes on the sufferings of Christi to achieve sanctification, which he used to force gulag slave labor to work on useless infrastructure projects to purify them as a proper Soviet.Applying Russia’s heritage of Orthodox monasticism to Soviet history gives coherence and meaning to what is often portrayed as a chaotic and contradictory period. Thus, by ignoring Marxist rhetoric and emphasizing Russia’s monastic heritage, it arguably makes sense that Russians would perceive Lenin as a Christ figure with appropriate symbolism.
During World War II nearly one billion letters were sent to the front, but none struck more fear in the heart of the average soldier than the one that began with the following: “Dear John: I don’t know quite how to begin but I just want to say that Joe Doakes came to town on furlough the other night and he looked very handsome in his uniform, so when he asked me for a date…” Such is an example of the “Dear John” letters that World War II G.I.s received from sweethearts or wives at home who had decided to politely, but unceremoniously, end their relationship. Though the phrase “Dear John” was coined during World War II and the break-up letters have found their way into every American war since then, the exact origins of the term have always been shrouded in obscurity. In her new book Dear John: Love and Loyalty in Wartime America, historian and today’s guest Susan L. Carruthers details the history of the “Dear John” letter and explores wartime relationships and breakdowns from multiple perspectives—civilian and military, male and female, historical and contemporary. Using a diverse range of research, using personal letters, declassified documents, press reports, psychiatric literature, movies, and popular music, Carruthers also shows how the armed forces and civilian society have attempted to weaponize romantic love in pursuit of martial ends, from World War II to today. Though many U.S. officers, servicemen, veterans, and civilians would agree that “Dear John” letters are lethal weapons in the hands of men at war, Carruthers explains that efforts to discipline feelings have frequently failed. We discuss the interplay between letter-writing and storytelling, breakups and breakdowns, and between imploded intimacy and boosted camaraderie. Incorporating vivid personal experiences in lively and engaging prose—variously tragic, comic, and everything in between—this compelling study will change the way we think about wartime relationships.As Carruthers explains, “Making romantic intimacy serve the cause of victory has never been straightforward for the military. Nor has making love work in wartime been simple for individuals and couples. The reasons why can be discerned by reading the subtexts and contexts of ‘Dear John’ letters, and by listening attentively to what men and women have had to say about the fragility of love at war.”
Of all the self-made millionaires of the Gilded Age (and there were many, such as John Rockefeller, son of a literal snake oil salesman who became the world’s first billionaire), nobody can rival bootstrapping tenacity of Cassie Chadwick. She was a drifter from Canada who set herself up as wife of a rich doctor in Cleveland before moving on to a much bigger con involving the richest man in the world, Andrew Carnegie. With little education, no financial training, and at a time when women didn't even have the vote, Cassie Chadwick (Elizabeth Bigley) moved up the chain of bankers, getting each banker to loan her more than the one before telling each one a simple lie, she was none other than the illegitimate daughter of Carnegie and she was due to inherit his entire fortune. By the time the police caught up to her she had wrecked the banking system of Cleveland, sending one unfortunate banker to his grave and causing the collapse of a major bank. When the trial was held it was a media event that pushed the trial of Teddy Roosevelt off the front pages with a climactic moment when Andrew Carnegie appeared to face his accuser. Cassie was eventually convicted but not before taking others with her and leaving a legacy as the biggest con woman in the United States only to be eclipsed by Charles Ponzi.Today’s guest is William Hazelgrove, author of the book Greed in the Gilded Age: The Brilliant Con of Cassie Chadwick. We explore the excesses of this age, and the very thin line between radical reinvention and outright deception.