Thursday, January 22, 2015

A Professor for the Community


First off, I apologize for the lengthy delay between posts. Starting back to school this week caused me to spend last week preparing and this week teaching. It always seems to happen. The genesis of this post came from conversations on Facebook and in person with my esteemed colleague and fellow blogger AJP. You can check out his (far more eloquent) take on the subject here. I have the utmost respect for Professor AJP as a teacher, scholar, and an all around human being. We are both in agreement on the importance of community colleges in general and teaching at them in particular. What follows is why I love community colleges and their students. In the interest of full disclosure, I must also state that I do not have a PhD and so some might dismiss what I say because I cannot be a university professor. I respectfully submit to you that even if I had a PhD from Harvard AND from Yale, I'd still be at a community college!

Like AJP, I was also a community college student once upon a time. In fact, I now teach at one of the schools I attended as a student alongside one of the greatest history professors in the country, who I was fortunate enough to have as a student! No doubt that makes him feel old. In fact, he threatens to retire every time he sees me. By attending a CC, I was able to save thousands of dollars and shave an entire semester off of my total college experience. Though I received an excellent education at Sam Houston State (Eat em up Kats!), the professors I had at my CC were equal to or in some cases superior. As were the classes.

There is a perception out there that students only go to community colleges because they are not smart enough to go to a university. Nothing can be further from the truth! Sure, freshmen college students are trying to figure out the world, but that is the same at any institution of higher education. With the skyrocketing tuition costs, community colleges have remained more affordable than their university counterparts and thus many students who might have gone to a four year school in decades past now go to a community college first. I would stack the kids I've taught against those at any university in the state with no hesitation.

Another cool thing about community colleges is the variety of students that you get. In a single class, I'll have 16 year old dual credit students, 18 year old college freshmen, 24 year old combat veterans, and a 45 year old who is returning to college. They all have something to contribute and this makes classes so much more engaging. I firmly believe that as a professor, I can learn from my students just as much as they can learn from me. They also learn from each other. It is my job to nurture a safe classroom environment where we respect each other's differences and our different opinions. You don't get quite the same variety at a university. They all bring life experiences that make for a more rich classroom dynamic. And I wouldn't trade it for the world.

Community colleges are teaching driven. Faculty members are not under pressure to publish articles, books, etc, though if they want to they certainly can. Excellence in teaching is what they strive for. After all, a college can only exist if it has students and students go there to learn. (And maybe go to a party or two!) I never cease to be amazed at the quality of many of my colleagues. By that, I mean good quality! To sit and listen to them talk about pedagogy and their classes, you can fully understand how much teaching means to them. I've learned so much from them that pushes me to be a better teacher myself. There is a true bond that exists, particularly among adjunct instructors.

And finally, we have the students. I love my kids. All of them. Even the ones that send emails that start off with "I know I didn't turn in the assignment, but...". Given my physical disability and my issues with PTSD, it would be easy for me to sit at home and feel sorry for myself. However, I have classes of students that need me. They can pick up on when I am having a tough day pain wise and they go out of their way to help. Going to class and spending three hours with each class per week gives me something to look forward to. It exercises my mind and body. That is important as it helps make everything more manageable. My students mean so much to me, more than they will ever know. I do not think I could make it without them. 

Once upon a time I took an oath to protect and defend. I no longer do that with a badge and gun, but my sense of duty and honor means that I am bound by that oath until the day that I die. These days, I look at my role as a community college professor as another way to fulfill that oath. Teaching grants me a certain measure of immortality. I could die tomorrow and there would be hundreds (actually it is probably well over a thousand by now) people running around out there who all have something in common. They had me as a teacher! So don't think of a community college as a place were dumb kids go or where professors go because they can't get jobs anywhere else. They are a viable part of our educational system and they will continue to be one in the future.

And speaking of community college students, please take a moment to check out a blog written by a community college student, future history professor, and distinguished student of Professor AJP. She is also a former Marine, a war widow, and an all around bada$$. Her only drawback is that she is a Houston Texans fan. You can find her blog here.

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian who is proud to be a community college professor and prouder still of my students. I'm better off for having known them all.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Novelist as Historian: Or What They Get Right and Historians Get Wrong


It is a sad, but true, fact that many professional historians cannot write worth a damn. They write boring monographs, not for the public, but for other historians to read and comment on. History repeats itself, but historians repeat each other! Always remember that. They scoff at "popular historians" who write books that are, well, popular, with the masses. Some professor do have the ability to write very well but others suffer from having written too many academic papers which read like yesterday's grocery list. Some of the best history books out there today are written by journalists for the simple reason that they know how to tell a story! The art of storytelling, part of which makes up the second half of the word "hiSTORY" is lost on a lot of historians in academia today. But there is another type of writer who can often offer insights into the past in a much more engaging and dare I say entertaining way! That would be, of course, the novelist.

Textbooks are almost worthless in a history course these days, especially at the survey course level. First of all, even the best ones are boring as hell. Second, the students don't read them. Why not assign them a mixture of readable nonfiction books and a novel or two? They'd probably be more likely to read them and they might learn something. I can already hear the objection. But novels are not real! Of course not. But a nonfiction writer has certain constraints that a novelist does not. They cannot relay conversations that there are no records of or write about the inner thoughts of characters. Novelists can and by doing so we get a better feel for the persons involved as people, not merely cardboard cutouts. But novels aren't always accurate! I agree, they are not. However, nonfiction history books and yes, even textbooks, frequently contain errors too. Furthermore, historians push agendas in their books just as novelists do. Anyone who says that a historian is free from any bias is full of crap. Everyone has them. 

This past fall I tried a new approach. I used The Killer Angels in my 1301 class and All Quiet on the Western Front in my 1302 classes at two of the colleges where I teach. By and large it went pretty well. The only hitch was one of the schools told me that I was not allowed to use anything other than the textbook because I was "just an adjunct". That is an example of full time vs. part time professor privilege I suppose. But it was after the semester had started and so I still got to use it. In the classroom, however, it went much better. The students actually read the books or at least enough of them to be able to talk about it. To work it into the class, I had two quizzes which the students took online and a writing assignment based on the novel. I also referenced it during the appropriate lectures. In other words, students read these novels and learned something from it. Some even loaned their copies to their parents to read as well. If teaching is about, well, teaching, then why not use something if it works? 

Not all novels and not all novelists are worth reading in a history class. Bodice ripping Harlequin romance novels, while they appeal to a broad audience, are not appropriate for history courses as they are really more about bodice ripping than they are about history. Other novelists play a little too fast and loose with history for their books to be used as a learning tool. However, we also have novelists like John Jakes who, I dare say, knows more about daily life in 19th Century American than many academic historians do. Why? Simple. Novelists have to research down to the last detail, or at least good ones do. For example, it matters not to Dr. Stuffy McJacka$$ what kind of underwear people wore in the late 19th Century as that does not have any bearing on his massive tome The Importance of William McKinnley's Flatulence on the Cotton Crop in Bumfudge, Georgia. Such things do matter to the novelist. It is true that people read books because of the story, but a large part of that story is the characters. Novelists research people's lives in past eras from how they warmed their houses to what they read and how they spoke. Not all historians do this since many of them are more concerned with "isms". As I have said many, many times, students care more about the people the story than they do about "isms". Novelists have the historians beat in that regard as they do a much better job than many but by no means all historians.

In the current college world, multidisciplinary approaches are very popular and as such, I think incorporating novels into history courses will perhaps become more common as time goes by. Maybe even adjuncts will be allowed to do it if they desire. As long as professors are sure to make their students aware of the difference between a novel and nonfiction (which many college students, surprisingly, do not know) than everyone can benefit. The professor will have students who actually read something. The students will learn a little bit, even if it is accidentally. And all will live happily ever after. Well, maybe not that last part. Sure, some students will complain. Students always complain though as is their right. Believe me, I complained when I was a student too! And as a former police officer, I did my fair share of complaining then as well. Police officers are notorious complainers, but I digress. 

I freely admit that I am no Jaime Escalante or Freedom Writer Lady, but I like to think I know a little bit about what I am doing. I have my faults which I have no problem recognizing (the ones I am not aware of are pointed out to me by The Redhead). However, I do think that when it comes to teaching I am at least a little bit above average. Since I got Cs in some courses in college, that is an appropriate place for me I think! 

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian who would like to thank Mr. Cartwright of Franklin, TN, someone whom I am fortunate enough to know and who is a great, no, wonderful, historian for reminding me that to be a good historian, one must be a good storyteller. I have never forgotten that. 

See below for a list of novels which I think are suitable for US History Survey courses. Keep in mind that these books reflect my own personal/professional interests and you could easily add other novels about other subjects. You could also include novels written during these time periods but, with the older novels in particular like Uncle Tom's Cabin, the modern student can find it tough to read.

US History to 1877

The Killer Angels
The Black Flower
The March
Oliver Wiswell
April Morning
Rifles for Watie

US History Since 1877

All Quiet on the Western Front
The Alienist
A Time to Love and a Time to Die


John Jakes American Bicentennial Series, North and South Trilogy, etc.
Bomber by Len Deighton
And many, many others!

Friday, January 9, 2015

We Fired Our Guns and the British Kept A'Running: The Battle of New Orleans in Story and in Song


We learn about history in the strangest ways sometimes. As a child, my father had a Johnny Horton album that I loved listening to on Saturdays. (For my younger readers, an album or record is like a really big CD that you play on a turntable! Yes, I have been asked that question before in class.) It had all sorts of really good tunes like Sink the Bismark and North to Alaska. But my favorite song, hands down, was The Battle of New Orleans. It had such a catchy beat to it and great lyrics. As my sense of humor tends towards the juvenile side of things, I appreciate the following: "We fire our cannon till the barrel melted down then we grabbed an alligator and we fired another round. We filled his head with cannon balls and powdered his behind. And when we touched the powder off the gator lost his mind!" Though I am now 36, I still laugh every time I hear that line. At 6 or 7 years old, I was not yet a Half A$$ Historian and so the song was my first introduction to the Battle of New Orleans. That said, I never learned about it in a class until I took an Early American National Period course when I was an undergraduate student at Sam Houston State. I believe my professor was old enough to have fought in the battle too!

Here in the United States, we often tend to view the War of 1812 in a vacuum. It really was an extension of the Napoleonic Wars which had been ravaging Europe for nigh on twenty years by that point. The primary reason we declared war on the British was their practice of impressment, ie: stopping US flag vessels and removing sailors and forcing them to serve in the Royal Navy. Far be it from this American of Irish descent to defend John Bull here, but the British government had protested to the United States repeatedly that the US Navy was knowingly enlisting men who had deserted from the Royal Navy. Technically, British law forbade the impressment of neutrals. But in an age of no birth certificates, etc, proving nationality wasn't always an easy thing. We finally had enough and declared war on the British who really did not want a war with us as they were busy fighting Napoleon. We held our own on the naval side of things with ships such as Old Ironsides, the USS Constitution taking British warships in open combat on the high seas. On land, we struggled. The British landed a force on our east coast in 1814 and burned our capitol and the White House. (Note that this past August we did not commemorate the 200th anniversary of the British doing that!) The ultimate irony of the war was that we had agreed to a peace treaty a week or so prior to the Battle of New Orleans (though it was not ratified by Congress until a month after the battle).

The overall British plan was to take New Orleans in order to force the war to a conclusion. Given its strategic location along the Mississippi River, New Orleans was one of the most important cities in North America. Unfortunately for the British, the city was defended by Andrew Jackson, a man who took no crap from the British! Jackson's parents were Scots-Irish immigrants to the colonies who had been here around two years when Andrew was born. That may explain some of his dislike for the English. Jackson joined the colonial cause during the Revolution at the age of thirteen. One of his older brothers died in battle. Jackson and his remaining brother were captured by the British and imprisoned. The British mistreated American prisoners and the two suffered from numerous maladies. At one point, a British officer ordered young Jackson to clean the mud from his boots for him. When Jackson refused, the officer slashed him with a sword leaving Jackson with a sword leaving a scar on his hand and a hatred for the English. Jackson and his brother contracted smallpox and his brother died. Soon after, Jackson's mother secured his release but remained behind to nurse the wounded and ill. She too took sick and died. Jackson's father had passed away a few weeks before Jackson's birth, so he lost his entire remaining immediate family during the Revolution. 

By the time of the War of 1812, Jackson was the commander of the Tennessee Militia. Most of Jackson's experiences during the war involved battles with the Native American allies of the British. (Horseshoe Bend, for example.) Jackson was then placed in command of the defense of New Orleans. This was a handy choice as if you need to defend one of your most important cities, then who better to command them than a man with a deep hatred of the British Empire. And Jackson's personal bravery was beyond reproach as well. The man was a bada$$, no question about it.

The British troops were commanded by General Edward Pakenham whom we last discussed here during the Peninsular War. He was 36 years old at the time of the events discussed herein, the same age as your humble writer. A brief but sharp naval engagement on Lake Bourgne paved the way for the British invasion force to land. The first troops disembarked on Dec. 23rd about 9 miles downriver from the city. When Jackson learned of the landing, he is reported to have said "By the Eternal, they shall not sleep on our soil!" He then launched a surprise night attack on the unsuspecting British troops. The British managed to hold their position and Jackson withdrew his troops further back to a more defensible position. Both sides continued to feel each other out over the next several days, with the main British force not arriving until New Year's Day. 

Jackson's troops were in a fairly strong position. But his army was a strange collection of individuals. It consisted of Tennessee frontiersmen, Irish dockworkers from New Orleans, Lafitte's pirates who helped man the artillery, Native Americans, and Free Persons of Color from New Orleans. Pakenham launched his main attack on January 8th. Nothing went according to plan for the British. The force sent across the river to attack Jackson's artillery were delayed. Jackson's men were dug in behind a canal which the British assault columns, often called The Forlon Hopes by the British soldiers, would have to cross. The soldiers crept forward under a heavy fog but right as they neared the American lines, the fog lifted. This exposed them to the full fury of Jackson's artillery and withering rifle fire.

Have you ever gone somewhere and forgotten something important that you need? So too did the British assault columns. They left their ladders behind! This proved to be a really big mistake. American riflemen picked off British officers throwing the British ranks into confusions. Facing rifle fire from the front and withering artillery fire from across the river, the British still bravely pressed forward. Reinforcements were sent in and were mowed down as well. General Pakenham bravely rode forward and attempted to rally his troops but was fatally struck by pieces of grapeshot. The same blast of grapeshot which killed General Pakenham also killed his second-in-command. With their command and control decimated, British soldiers were caught in the open and they had no orders to advance or retreat. Jackson's men mauled them with grapeshot and rifle fire. And speaking of Jackson, he observed the entire battle from the center of his lines, oblivious to the rain of shot and shell around him. Finally, and mercifully, an officer took command and ordered the British to withdraw.

They left behind a distressing scene. Around 300 soldiers were dead and a further 1300 wounded. Another 500 or so were either captured or missing. The Americans, given their strong position, suffered much less. 13 Americans were killed, 39 wounded, and 19 missing. The irony is that the war was technically over! But was it? Unbeknownst to the Americans, General Pakenham had received orders to keep fighting even if he learned of a Peace Treaty. If the British had captured New Orleans, I rather doubt they would have given it back. However, holding it would have been difficult. Napleon escaped from Elba in February and that commanded the full attention of the British. The Americans might have been able to take it back, perhaps. 

This battle catapulted Jackson into the national spotlight and would help him win the Presidency twenty-six years later. Jackson created the Democratic Party and the term Jacksonian Democracy and the Age of Jackson now defines a whole era. Like him or not, and yes, he had his faults, Jackson is an important figure in American History. This battle is important and should be remembered for this reason. Sadly, the 200th Anniversary yesterday passed largely unnoticed. Given the reenactment this weekend, maybe some of the media may pick up the story but I doubt it. 

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian who would like to salute the Fitzgerald brothers who fought in this engagement. (Two on the American side and one on the British side.)

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

O'er The Hills and Far Away: With The Devil's Own in the Peninsular War

Here's fourteen shillings on the drum
For those who'll volunteer to come
'List and fight the foe today
Over the hills and far away
O'er the hills and o'er the main
Through Flanders, Portugal, and Spain
King George commands and we obey
Over the hills and far away


In the interest of full disclosure, I must start by saying that my family has a combative streak. My ancestors have fought in wars the world over for freedom or for pay. As with many Irish families, it didn't necessarily matter in which army they were serving. I have a fifth great-grandfather who fought with Wellington at Waterloo and another in Napoleon's Grand Army. Yet another fifth great-grandfather is the subject of this tale. His father served in the 18th Regiment of Foot, aka: The Royal Irish Regiment during the American Revolution and as part of the grenadier company, made the long march to Lexington, Concord, and back on that April morning which started the American Revolution. A few months later he fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill. Sometime thereafter, he was discharged and made his way home to Ireland where he married and gave birth to a son. At the age of 17, said son enlisted in the 88th Regiment of Foot, better known as the Connaught Rangers. Or as The Devil's Own. The regiment came into existence in 1793 and had its recruiting base in the west of Ireland. From Buenos Aires to Salamanca, from India to The Crimea, and from The Transvaal to the Somme, the men who served in this gallant regiment sold their lives dearly in battle and earned the reputation as one of the crack regiments in the world during their day.

After a little visit to Argentina which saw them spend six months aboard ships before finally being sent into battle, they arrived in Portugal in 1809. This was in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars and as such, it involved numerous shifting alliances and much confusion at times. The British allied themselves with the Portuguese and anti-Napoleon Spanish troops whereas the French enjoyed the support of some Spanish allies. It was a nasty war as the Spanish waged a fierce partisan campaign against the French who often exacted a heavy retribution. The British troops were commanded by Arthur Wellesley, who thanks to his eventual defeat of the French in Spain, would be known as the Duke of Wellington when he met Napoleon at Waterloo and sent him packing. But it is doubtful that he would have received his title had it not been for the help of The Devil's Own!

The 88th took part in the advance into Spain from Portugal moving forward in absolutely miserable conditions. Mistakes were common on Napoleonic battlefields, often with serious results. The night before the the actual battle began, Rufane Donkin's brigade, which included the 88th, were detailed along with a cavalry brigade to cover Wellington's army as it moved into position. The cavalry brigade, mistaking the orders they received, pulled back and left Donkin's brigade exposed. They were attacked by the French and suffered 400 casualties before being forced to pull back. For many of the men in the 88th, this was their first action and they acquitted themselves gallantly. The following morning, the battle commenced in earnest. At a crucial point of the battle, The Guards Brigade drove off a French attack and charged headlong after them. They ran into a very strong French second line and suffered heavy casualties. As they streamed to the rear, General Wellesley personally placed the 48th Regiment of Foot in line to fill the gap in the lines. With the support of the 3rd Division, including the 88th, they broke the French lines and Wellesley had his victory. And he was also named Viscount Wellington of Talavera. Both sides suffered heavily in this contest with the British losing over 6,000 men killed, wounded, or missing. 

So fall in lads behind the drum
With colors blazing like the sun
Along the road to come what may
Over the hills and far away

The 88th had only begun to add luster to their name. The following year they repulsed a French attack at bayonet point, earning a reputation for hard fighting. (And also ill discipline!) In 1811, they 88th played a central role in the Battle of Fuentes de Onoro. At a crucial point in the battle, with the tide swinging towards the French, Wellington ordered a counterattack. The 88th led the attack and checked the French advance. But then the French launched their own counterattack with bayonets as they were short on ammunition. The 88th and her sister regiments held fast and broke the French effort, causing them to retreat. Thus the last French Army in Portugal met its demise. Napoleon was not pleased! Greater glory awaited them at the city of Badajoz.

The town had twice been unsuccessfully put under siege. It had strong defenses, very strong. So on this third attempt, the British soldiers dug approach trenches to protect themselves and also the artillery they planned to employ. World War One soldiers would have been familiar with what they were doing. Heavy artillery arrived and battered three breaches in the outer wall. Wellington now planned an assault. As the defenders knew the British would try for the breaches, they covered that area with artillery and plenty of riflemen. When the attack began, soldiers reaching the holes in the walls were slaughtered by French defenders. The bodies were piled so high in the breaches that soldiers had a difficult time trying to climb over them to get inside the city. In the meantime, the 3rd Division, including the 88th, launched a diversionary attack on the walls themselves. Armed with scaling ladders, the men of the 88th suffered heavy casualties themselves. But slowly they made their way into the city, drawing attention away from the breaches and allowing the assault regiments to enter the town. The scene the following day resembled more a massacre than a battle. Blood ran down into the trenches outside the city and filled it to ankle depth. As often happens during sieges throughout history, the soldiers vented their fury over the attack on the townspeople in an orgy of looting, murder, and rapine. Several officers were murdered as they tried to restore order, which took close to three days. But the 88th helped carry the day and by this time they were considered one of Wellington's crack units.And Spain was not finished with them yet.

If I should fall to rise no more
As many comrades did before
Ask the fife and drums to play
Over the hills and far away

At Salamanca, the 88th served in the Third Division commanded by General Pakenham who would later be killed at the Battle of New Orleans. They were one of the first divisions engaged that day, carrying home their attack on the advancing French troops with the bayonet. By blunting the French advance, the rest of the Army was able to attack a French force that was strung out along a ridge and not fully concentrated. It is said that Wellington won this battle in 40 minutes. With the gallant 88th Regiment of Foot as one of the pivotal regiments in this engagement, it is of little doubt why Wellington was so successful. This was the last major engagement of the Peninsular War that the 88th participated in, but as a regiment that came into being as the Napoleonic Wars began, they wasted no time in adding battle honors to their name. This tradition would continue until the regiment was formally decommissioned in 1922 as its recruiting grounds would be in the Irish Free State and now Republic of Ireland. 

For many Irishmen, like my family, who took the King's shilling, it was more a matter of economic survival than a desire to serve King and Country. In fact, the son and grandson of my fifth-great grandfather who served in all the aforementioned engagements were both active members of the Fenian Brotherhood. Surely they dreamed of a united Ireland, but those dreams wouldn't feed a family. I don't know if signing up was a difficult decision for them or not. Or indeed if they even went willingly. But what I do know is this. No matter what name they go by; the 88th Regiment of Foot, the Connaught Rangers, or The Devil's Own, these intrepid Irishman made their mark on battlefields the world over, fighting for every cause but their own.

O'er the hills and o'er the main
Through Flanders, Portugal, and Spain
King George commands and we obey
Over the hills and far away

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian. (Note: the song lyrics are from Over the Hills and Far Away. Source here.)

Friday, January 2, 2015

Beware the Axeman: A Diabolical Fiend Ushers in the Jazz Age


Americans are drawn to crime like moths to a flame. Whole societies obsess over serial killers and unsolved murders. We even have serial killer "groupies". (Yes, I've met a few.) As much as we are repulsed by seemingly random acts of violence, we are fascinated by it as well. I don't know why this is. Perhaps humans all have voyeuristic tendencies? Crime interests people. I learned early on in my law enforcement career to never tell strangers what I did for a living. They would immediately ask "What is the worst thing you've ever seen." This is akin to making me relive your worst nightmare. So never ask that question! 

If you look through newspapers and other means of popular culture from yesteryear, one thing you will notice is that crimes fascinated people 100 years ago just as they do today. Just as crimes like the O.J. Simpson case and little ole Casey Anthony draw huge media attention and consequently captivate American audiences, so too did the Mary Rodgers case from the 1840s, the Lindbergh Case from the 1930s, and the list goes on and on. We have a mistaken belief, it seems, that back in "the good old days" one needn't fear being murdered or assaulted. Everyone went to church all the time and did nothing but good deeds. That, my Dear Readers, is a load of bullsh!t. People were just as.......fudged.......up back in the day as they are now. Human nature hasn't changed. 

So let us now turn our attention to New Orleans, Louisiana. The year is 1918. The month is May. In France, thousands of US soldiers are pouring into the country every day to bolster British and French troops. Soon they will help thwart Germany's last attempt to win the war. Congress passes the Sedition Act which, among other things, makes it illegal to criticize the war effort. New influenza cases continue to pop up, the first of a deadly pandemic that will eventually kill millions. New Orleans is a city in transition. Once the home of Storyville, a thriving redlight district among the most notorious (and profitable) in the world, the city is now dealing with the after effects of its closure. The US Military considered it a bad influence on soldiers and thus pressured the city into shutting down what residents called "The District". The mayor of New Orleans, Martin Berhman, said "You can make it [prostitution] illegal. You can't make it unpopular." True enough. Now The District is home to restaurants and jazz clubs, more music than sex. And of course, it being Louisiana and all, The District was also home to numerous low gambling dives. 

On the night of May 22nd, 1918, a foul villain entered the home of a married couple, both Italian immigrants, named Joseph and Catherine Maggio. The two were attacked in their beds in the most horrendous of ways. The assailant slit their throats with a straight razor. The damage done to Mrs. Maggio was so severe that her head was almost completely severed. When finished with his heinous task, our killer then bashed them repeatedly in the head with an ax. Mercifully, Catherine expired quickly, as far as the police could tell but Joseph was still among the living when he was discovered by his brothers. One of the brothers, Andrew, quickly became the prime suspect as the razor blade was found to belong to him. He owned a nearby barber shop and an employee reported seeing him remove the blade. Plus, despite the killer smashing down a door, Andrew claimed to hear nothing of the attack itself and was only awakened by strange gurgling noises coming from the bedroom of our victims. Not a thing was found missing from the home, thus the motive had to be murder. Murder most foul! Young Andrew said he arrived home in a highly intoxicated state due to his imminent departure to join the Navy. Having once been a young college student myself, I can sympathize with his "state" on the night of the attacks!

Dear Readers, if I may impart a bit of wisdom to you, it is generally not a good idea for married people to have affairs. If you have ever watched a Lifetime Movie, you will know what I speak is true. One month after the murder of the Maggios, our fiend struck again. A "gentleman" named Louis Besumer was attacked whilst in bed with his mistress, a woman named Harriet Lowe. They were discovered the following morning when a grocer arrived with a delivery. Both were unconscious but still alive, bleeding from wounds to the head. The police managed to revive them long enough to get statements. According to Besumer, they were "asleep" when they were attacked. Perhaps. Or perhaps they were caught in, shall we say, the act. Lowe stated that a mulatto man attacked them but given the injuries that she had suffered and the fact that the attack took place in the dark, her statement is questionable. However, our esteemed NOPD considered it good enough to arrest the first available black man, who happened to have been previously in the employ of Besumer. And now things take a turn for the strange. Ms. Lowe at first claimed to be the wife of Mr. Besumer but this fact did not stand up to careful scrutiny. Though she slipped in and out of consciousness over the next few months, the police were able to speak with her numerous times. Before she died, she declared that Besumer himself was the killer! Given the fact that the murder weapon did belong to him, the police charged him with the deed. He was found not guilty after a jury deliberated for ten minutes! Her veracity was no doubt challenged due to the fact that she also accused Besumer of being a German spy. This was also not proven, of course. Chiefly because it probably wasn't true. Hopefully none of you have ever had a jealous partner accuse you of being a serial killer!

Our fiend then took a break. But only for a short while. On August 5th, Mrs. Schneider opened her eyes and found a man hovering over her in the dark. As she no doubt adjusted to the shock, he began to smash her in the face. The victim was discovered when her husband arrived home from work after midnight. The police surmised that a lamp was the weapon here, not an axe, which may be the reason why Mrs. Schneider survived. In a shocking twist, our victim was eight months pregnant at the time! She gave birth two days later to a healthy child. Mrs. Schneider was not able to tell the police anything of use regarding the attack. So the police arrested another handy subject only to have to release him a short time later!

Naturally by this point the media was having a field day with their coverage of the series of baffling and seemingly random attacks. And our villain was about to escalate his behavior. Five days after Mrs. Schneider met the Axeman, he struck again. This time his victim was an elderly man named Joseph Romano. Hearing a commotion, his two nieces entered the room and saw our fiend as he made his escape. They described him as a dark-skinned, heavy man, wearing a dark suit and a slouch hat. (At least he had style!) Sadly, Mr. Romano left this world a few days later due to the severe head trauma he sustained in this latest bloodbath. And now, Dear Readers, panic gripped the city. People called the police to report shadowy men hiding behind every lamppost. Some reported finding axes left in their backyards! A retired detective stated that he felt these murders were connected to others which had happened in 1911. That did nothing to quell public fears. He hypothesized that our fiendish killer may have be a Jeckyl and Hyde wherein he would appear outwardly normal until moved to kill. This, of course, caused people to look very carefully at their neighbors. Is your neighbor just odd or are they a killer?

After the murder of Mr. Romano, the Axeman took a break. Or did he? It is possible that he moved on to other areas for a while to help avoid detection. Perhaps Baton Rouge or Mobile appealed to him and he visited for a while. With his axe. The city breathed a sigh of relief as it looked as though our fiend was finished with the Big Easy. But no. He had other plans for New Orleans. On the night of March 10th, Across the river from New Orleans lies the town of Gretna. That dark night neighbors awoke to screams coming from a house. They ran over to investigate and found a tragic scene. A husband and wife had been attacked while in their beds. The mother held a two year old girl in her arms who was sadly deceased, killed by a blow to the neck. The parents would survive. Mrs. Cortmiglia accused a local man and his son of attacking her family. Her husband denied this most strongly. The accused man was in too poor a physical condition to have done it. His son was too big to have crawled through the missing door panel whereby the killer gained access. None of this concerned the police. Both were arrested and convicted. The 18 year old son was sentenced to swing from the gallows while his father received a life term. After the trial, Mr. Cortmiglia divorced his wife, no doubt angry that she falsely accused two men of murder. A year later, she recounted her story and the two men were released. But an innocent man very nearly went to the gallows for a crime he did not commit.

Our Axeman had a sense of humor. Three nights after the attack on the Cortmiglia family, he sent a letter to the newspapers. "From Hell" it said, no doubt a tip of the slouch hat to Jack the Ripper! I will now give you a brief quote:
Undoubtedly, you Orleanians think of me as a most horrible murderer, which I am, but I could be much worse if I wanted to. If I wished, I could pay a visit to your city every night. At will I could slay thousands of your best citizens, for I am in close relationship with the Angel of Death.
Now, to be exact, at 12:15 (earthly time) on next Tuesday night, I am going to pass over New Orleans. In my infinite mercy, I am going to make a little proposition to you people. Here it is:
I am very fond of jazz music, and I swear by all the devils in the nether regions that every person shall be spared in whose home a jazz band is in full swing at the time I have just mentioned. If everyone has a jazz band going, well, then, so much the better for you people. One thing is certain and that is that some of your people who do not jazz it on Tuesday night (if there be any) will get the axe.
Our fiend signed his letter "The Axeman". Needless to say, Dear Readers, the good citizens of New Orleans certainly "jazzed it up" that night. And nary a murder was committed. No one got the axe. He took another brief break from axing the citizens of New Orleans, only to strike again on August 10th. Our victim survived but was unable to give any details of his attacker. Six weeks later, a 19 year old woman who lived alone was brutally attacked whilst in her bed. Neighbors found her unconscious in a pool of her own blood sans several teeth and with a nasty head wound. Alas, an axe was found in the front yard. Thankfully, young Miss Laumann did not succumb to her injuries but the police received no additional tips as she was unable to recall the dastardly attack. After another long pause, our killer struck for the last time (that we know of) on Oct. 27th when he murdered Mr. Pepitone in his usual brutal fashion. Sadly, our victim's wife who interrupted the killer in the middle of his foul deed could not give a good description to the police.
And so the Axeman of New Orleans faded into history and memory. The police never had all that much to go on and today, this serial killer is little known outside of New Orleans. The city did not bow down to him even when he was in the midst of his brutal spree. Instead, a musician penned a song entitled "The Axeman's Jazz (Don't Scare Me Poppa) which was published during the months in which this most evil villain held sway over the city which gave birth to Jazz. Did he die? Did he take his horror show to some other town? Was he arrested for a different crime? We'll never know.
My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian. And, I must say, that had I been alive back then, I'm sure I would have caught him.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

You Are Now Entering the Twilight Zone!


First off let me wish you a Happy New Year. I trust that 2015 will bring you good things. I apologize for this week’s absence as I have been busy finishing up the last week of the mini course I am teaching. Plus I got a new computer game. Blame Napoleon: Total War if you must. It has become a New Year’s Eve/Day tradition for me to watch the Twilight Zone marathon on the ScyFy Channel. And that brings me to the subject of today’s post.

Growing up I enjoyed watching Twilight Zone reruns. Not the stupid 1980s version of the series, but the more popular run from 1959-1964. As a child, I just enjoyed them because they were fun to watch. I didn’t catch any of the deeper meanings or the historical significance of the show. Today, I enjoy them for a different reason. In fact, I show a few episodes in my US History Since 1877 course to illustrate some of the things that I teach about. I am not a film critic, nor do I pretend to be one in bars. Typically when I watch a television show or a movie I do so simply so I can get a good story and maybe an explosion or two. (If there is a redheaded actress in it, then that is even better!) However, with the Twilight Zone I pick up certain themes that I can use as an educational point. The only downside is that with the Twilight Zone being in black and white, I cannot tell if the actresses had red hair or not. Much to my dismay.

Given the fact that the Twilight Zone aired during the height of the Cold War, it is not surprising that many of the shows revolve around Cold War themes. For example, I use The Shelter in class to illustrate the mindset of many people in Cold War America. Also, it gives us a good example of how even friends can turn on one another in times of great distress. Another good example of this one which I also show in class is The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street which involves the same idea. Once the power fails, the neighbors turn on one another. They target the newcomers to the street and eventually chaos reigns. One can also draw a connection between this and McCarthyism. Another thing to keep in mind is this: what would we do if suddenly all of our electronics and gadgets stopped working? We too would be in the Twilight Zone.

Rod Serling, a decorated combat veteran, was not afraid to tackle tough issues from nuclear war to racism. He very wisely did this through a science fiction format to avoid censorship. The man was a true genius and with his death at age 50, the world lost a true pioneer.

So I’ll enjoy my day of Twilight Zone episodes while the rest of the country is watching football. No matter how many times I’ve seen them (and I’ve seen them all), it never gets old.

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian!