The death of Grigori Rasputin, the infamous “Mad Monk” of Russia is the stuff of weird history legend. The story passed down by his assassin (and mentioned in the less accurate account given by Boney M in the mid 1970s) is as follows
Yusupov began to panic as Rasputin appeared to consume enough cyanide to kill scores of men. As Rasputin started to have some difficulty swallowing his wine, Yusupov feigned concern and asked Rasputin if he was feeling ill…
…Soon, however, Rasputin appeared to recover and become more energetic. Fearing that the poison had failed, Yusupov stood up and paced the room to work up the nerve to shoot Rasputin… Yusupov pulled out the revolver and firing one shot, hitting Rasputin in the chest. Rasputin cried out and collapsed onto the floor, where he laid in a growing pool of blood but did not move… The doctor checked for Rasputin’s pulse and found none, confirming that Rasputin was dead, shot close enough to his heart to be immediately fatal…
Rasputin’s body laid motionless exactly where they had left it, but Yusupov wanted to be sure. He shook the body and didn’t see any signs of life — at first. Then, Rasputin’s eyelids started to twitch, just before Rasputin opened them. “I then saw both eyes,” Yusupov wrote, “the green eyes of a viper – staring at me with an expression of diabolical hatred.” Rasputin lunged at Yusupov, snarling like an animal and digging his fingers into Yusupov’s neck…
Purishkevich was the first out the door, and he immediately fired two shots at the fleeing Rasputin. He missed, but then Purishkevich chased down the wounded Rasputin and from just feet away, fired two more shots. One of the shots struck Rasputin in the head, inflicting a killing blow, and Rasputin collapsed to the ground. Yusupov had two loyal servants wrap Rasputin’s body in heavy carpets and tied with heavy chains. The conspirators then brought the body to a bridge over the Neva River and dumped it into an unfrozen patch of water below.
This documentary has the standard telling of his final hours
With the hundredth anniversary of his death, however, questions have inevitably arisen. First this BBC documentary, which alleges that the assassination was the work of rogue British secret service agents:
Yusupov’s account has also come under greater scrutiny, as in this article in The Smithsonian
Rasputin’s actual murder was probably far less dramatic. His daughter Maria, who fled Russia after the Revolution and became a circus lion tamer billed as “the daughter of the famous mad monk whose feats in Russia astonished the world,” wrote her own book in 1929 that condemned Yussupov’s actions and questioned the veracity of his account. She wrote that her father did not like sweets and never would have eaten a platter of cakes. The autopsy reports do not mention poison or drowning but instead conclude that he was shot in the head at close range. Yussupov transformed the murder into an epic struggle of good versus evil to sell books and bolster his own reputation.
This podcast from Stuff You Missed In History Class also has a decent summary of Rasputin’s life and death.
The 1964 BBC TV Series The Great War may sometimes feel a bit hokey and outdated in its narrative style, but with the centenary over and done with, it looks like its position is still unchallenged as the definitive documentary of the conflict. Beyond anything else, it’s priceless in its collection of original accounts from men who were then barely of pensionable age, and therefore still are able to vividly recount their experiences. You can’t help but wonder what they made of the rest of the 60s.
The whole thing is available now on Youtube. Here is the first episode.
The entire playlist of 26 episodes plus bonus features is here.
One of the most widely-known stories of the first world war is the Christmas truce. The British soldiers hear the Germans singing ‘Silent Night’, they venture out into no-man’s land, exchange gifts and have a game of football. Much of this story appears to be true, though it is important to remember that the front was long, and the truce only took place in certain sections. There is less in the record about games of football, but there is at least a little evidence for this too.
Here is an excellent video / podcast from Dr Iain Adams at the British National Archives, going into a fair amount of detail about the truce.
And here is an episode of Stuff You Missed In History Class on the truce, usual provisos about excessive advertising there.
Um, Merry Christmas everyone! It’s going to be 1920 this Christmas, so it probably couldn’t wait.
In my day job I sometimes take groups of kids to this place, the Scott Polar Museum in Cambridge.
Before we go on trips there we do an activity which involves making a list of what you would take with you on a trip to the Antarctic. This is an odd task to give them, because the big reveal (you wouldn’t take ponies instead of dogs or dress in tweed instead of furs, but guess who did!) is never made. Not a huge surprise as the Scott Polar Museum was founded in memoriam of Robert Falcon Scott, by one of his associates, using funds raised in response to his (heroically?) disastrous trip.
The “was Scott a tragic hero or a tragic idiot?” pendulum has swung forwards and backwards a few times in the last few decades, and it’s probably beyond the scope of this site to come down on one side or the other, except to say that flawed human beings are the kind interesting stories are written about, so we shouldn’t be surprised that more attention is paid to Scott’s doomed trip than to the success of Roald Amundsen, the supposedly cold, professional Norwegian polar explorer who soundly beat him to the South Pole and lived to tell the tale.
As with many old stories, the tale of the trip has acted as tea leaves, in which we see what we want to see. Was he a hero, showing the pluck and courage of boarding school and the army? Was he an egotist, refusing all intelligent input and taking his men to their doom? Was he a hero of science, losing his life to bring back 35lbs of geological specimens? Was he a typical man of the British Empire, brought up to believe that confidence in yourself and your country should be the be all and end all, with a legacy of encouraging the same type, these “heroes” whose blustering incompetence won short-term plaudits, but sowed the seeds of many of the problems of the modern world?
These debates are (IMO!) ultimately more interesting than the story of the expedition, but that’s what we’re here for anyway, so here are some resources on Robert Falcon Scott and the Terra Nova Expedition of 1910–1913
Today is the 107th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. The story of the “unsinkable” liner hitting the iceberg is so famous it hardly seems worth retelling for the umpteenth time, except perhaps for the producers of Entertainment Tonight, who reported on the sinking of the Costa Concordia with this headline
So, here’s a pack of materials suitable for immersing yourself in Titanic lore for a day or so, if such a mood has taken you.
Stuff You Missed In History – How The Titanic Worked
A good primer on the facts of the story, with the usual provisos about “why so many adverts?” etc.
National Archives – Titanic: the official story
A more comprehensive, if less flashy, recounting of the story, with some surprising twists in the days after the ship sunk.
Titanic – The New Evidence
A BBC documentary from a couple of years ago which puts forward a very different theory about the causes of the sinking.
National Archives – Titanic Lives
Another angle on the story (an often neglected one) is the stories of some of the people aboard.
The History Chicks – Molly Brown
A podcast about one of the most interesting Titanic survivors, Molly Brown’s life story is absolutely stranger than fiction.
Thomas Hardy – The Convergence of The Twain
A contemporary poem by Thomas Hardy, expressing the fairly original idea that the ship and the iceberg were destined to meet each-other and foolish humans could do nothing to prevent it.
If a certain war had not begun in 1914, the 1910s would likely be best remembered as a decade of progressive social unrest. Movements for workers rights and against racial segregation were now getting into full swing, and, in the UK especially, the period from 1910 to 1914 saw the most militant action of all from the suffragette movement. Women having the vote was thought at the turn of the century to perhaps be a frivolous idea, or at best a distant goal, but then the suffragettes had done everything they could to draw attention to their cause, including chaining themselves to railings, refusing to pay taxes and fines, setting fire to letterboxes, graffiti, smashing shop windows, and even bombing the house of the Chancellor, David Lloyd George. In 1909 Marion Wallace Dunlop had begun the first hunger strike, and though she was released, the government would soon resort to force-feeding those who followed her lead.
Then in 1911 along came the national census, carried out in the UK every ten years. This was an ideal opportunity to demonstrate anger at “taxation without representation” and naturally one that was seized with both hands.
The story is taken up here by Jill Liddington, who has written a book about it, no less.
Vanishing for the vote recounts what happened on one night, Sunday 2 April, 1911, when the Liberal government demanded every household comply with its census requirements. Suffragette organisations urged women, all still voteless, to boycott this census. Many did. Some wrote ‘Votes for Women’ boldly across their schedules. Others hid in darkened houses or, in the case of Emily Wilding Davison, in a cupboard within the Houses of Parliament. Yet many did not. Even some suffragettes who might be expected to boycott decided to comply – and completed a perfectly accurate schedule.
Here is the book
Here is Jill Liddington’s website
Here is the audio of a talk she gave at The National Archives
Civic disasters in the pre-regulation days of the early 20th century are on a scale I find hard to comprehend, but the thing that shocks the most isn’t the loss of human life, it’s the careless way it was thrown away.
The 145 lives lost in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York were largely caused by nobody having taken the time to think about them. The factory, located in the top three floors of the Asch Building, was a real sweatshop, the employees mostly young non-English-speaking immigrant girls, their workplace cramped lines of sewing machines. From four elevators, only one was in working order, and it was at the other end of a long, narrow corridor. There were no sprinklers, because the factory owners wanted to keep open the possibility of burning down their building for the insurance money, something they had done twice in the previous decade.
The fire started in a rag bin. An attempt was made to put it out, but the hose was rotted and the valve was rusted shut. As the fire rapidly spread employees were crushed in the stampede, the one elevator stopped working, and those lucky enough to find their way down a fire escape found a locked door at the other end. The fire brigade, when they arrived, could not help the workers trapped on the roof, their ladders only reaching to a floor below, and their nets breaking when multiple girls tried jumping into them.
These horrors turned out to be enough to turn public opinion firmly toward the regulation which would have saved the girls’ lives. You could perhaps say that it’s necessary for these things to happen for things to really change, but it would be better if we could find a way as a society to act before rather than after for once.
Two podcasts on the fire. This one from Stuff You Missed In History Class gives a great overview of the fire (and as always, too many ads) and this from 99% Invisible gives an insight into the ways that the risk of fire now informs building design.