Theodore Roosevelt


Theodore Roosevelt towers over the Progressive Era like nobody else – he rose to fame at its inception, became president at its height and died as it was spluttering out. Viewed from the 21st century he seems like a mass of contradictions – a strongman intellectual, a populist warmonger who won the Nobel Peace Prize. Reading about him, I am never sure whether to find him admirable or a monster – certainly he did plenty of good, but his decisive leadership also led the country into bloody colonial wars. In our mixes we will (eventually) hear his surprisingly reedy, intellectual voice, and hear songs about him, or the ‘teddy bears’ which bear his name.

The Ken Burns series on The Roosevelts is a good introduction to Teddy. Naturally the whole thing isn’t up on Youtube, but this clip is a nice starter.

The full DVD box set can be found here.

This from The Washington Post’s ‘Presidential’ podcast about how he created the modern concept of the presidency is also a good listen.

The Assassination of President McKinley

American anarchist Leon Czolgosz shoots U.S. President William McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. McKinley dies 8 days later.

President William McKinley was shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz on September 6th, 1901, during a visit to the Pan-American Exposition at the Temple of Music in Buffalo, New York. He died eight days later of gangrene caused by the gunshot wounds. He was the third American president to have been assassinated in forty years – an era in which the USA had turned away from the serious work of building the nation after the civil war to the excesses of the gilded age, the reversal of civil rights gains, and the nation’s first colonial wars. His successor would handle things in a very different fashion, though one no less fond of war.

Here is an episode of the Washington Post’s ‘Presidential’ podcast about McKinley

This is a section from the Ken Burns ‘The Roosevelts’ series about McKinley’s Assassination

And here is some original footage from his funeral

The Boxer Rebellion


The turmoil that would break into the horrors of the first half of the 20th century was already well underway around the world. In China, a nation due to spend most of those fifty years engaged in civil war, the crisis was already here. Neglected by the Qing Dynasty, humiliated by defeat to western nations in 19th century wars, and almost broken by the terms of their peace treaty with Japan, the Middle Kingdom was ready for one of the bloody uprisings that throw the country into chaos and bring about the end of a dynasty. This time, though, the anger was redirected towards the foreign forces and foreign culture seen to be taking over the country. The Yihequan (known as “Boxers” in English) were a secret martial arts society who believed their techniques made them invulnerable to bullets. 100,000 strong, they stormed across Northern China, killing foreigners and Chinese Christians until reaching Beijing, they received the support of the Empress Dowager and set about besieging the Legation Quarter where the foreign embassies were. In a unique show of unity, Japan, Russia, Britain, France, the United States, Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary joined together to invade Beijing, lift the siege, and set up reparations so massive that their repercussions are still being felt today.

For a history of the Boxer Rebellion, I would suggest the relevant episode of In Our Time, or this one from the China History Podcast, or this one from Stuff You Missed In History Class. This History Channel documentary is ok, as far as History Channel documentaries go:


Finally, the piece of Boxer Rebellion related material I’ve spent the most time with is Robert Coltman’s memoir ‘Beleaguered in Peking’ – an inside account of the siege of the Legations, an entertaining read and a fascinating insight into the mind of an American doctor caught up in historical events.

The Newsboys’ Strike


Conflict raged across the world in the closing years of the 19th century, from the Spanish-American war to colonial wars in Africa and the Boxer Rebellion in China. To focus on these big-picture events only would miss perhaps a more important fight – that of the newly awakened voice of labour against the ruling classes of the world. In New York even kids went on strike – that is, kids who had jobs, and rotten jobs at that.

There’s a decent enough missed in history podcast about the strike here (usual provisos about content / adverts ratio applies) but this from wikipedia sums it up nicely enough.

On July 21, 1899, a large number of New York City newsboys refused to distribute the papers of Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the World, and William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the Journal. The strikers demonstrated across the Brooklyn Bridge for several days, effectively bringing traffic to a standstill, along with the news distribution for most New England cities. They kept others from selling the papers by tearing up the distribution in the streets. The boys also requested from the public that they no longer buy either paper until the strike was settled. Pulitzer tried to hire older men to do the boys’ job, but the men understood their stance and wanted no part in defying the boys. Several rallies drew more than 5,000 newsboys, complete with charismatic speeches by strike leader Kid Blink.

So named because he was blind in one eye, Kid Blink (Louis Ballatt) was a popular subject among competing newspapers such as the New York Tribune, who often quoted Blink with his heavy Brooklyn accent depicted as an eye dialect, attributing to him such sayings as “Me men is nobul.” Blink and his strikers were the subject of violence, as well. Hearst and Pulitzer hired men to break up rallies and protect the newspaper deliveries still underway. During one rally Blink told strikers, “Friens and feller workers. This is a time which tries de hearts of men. Dis is de time when we’se got to stick together like glue…. We know wot we wants and we’ll git it even if we is blind.”

Although the World and the Journal did not lower their 60¢-a-bundle price, they did agree to buy back all unsold papers and the union disbanded, ending the strike on August 2.

Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness


The British Empire was never the positive, civilizing force that it was sold as, but the Victorians seemed, as a whole, to either sweep any misgivings under the carpet or consider them less important than their blossoming sense of national pride. It’s only in the dying years of the era that cracks start to appear in the jolly facade, and none so vivid as Heart of Darkness.

Joseph Conrad is one of the most extraordinary writers I can think of – not only for the jarring modernity (coupled with undiluted 19th century prejudice) of his work, but the fact that he learned English as an adult, working for the merchant navy, yet has one of the most assured voices in literature, able to slip in and out of character like nobody else.

Heart of Darkness isn’t a fun book. A slim novella, it took me the best part of a month to get through it, but the relentless grimness of the trek through the horrors of the Belgian Congo never amounted to being bored. The “horror” here implicates not only the protagonist and narrator in these crimes, but also the reader and the culture they belong to.

A fascinating discussion about the book on the BBC’s In Our Time can be found here, the full text is here, a free audiobook is here, and you can buy the book here.



It might not be the most reprinted newspaper editorial of all time, but the J’Accuse letter resonates all the way to the dark heart of the 20th Century like nothing else. Antisemitism, inter-European rivalries, the politics of industrial hate – it stands as both a grim foretelling of these forces and an example of the moral and intellectual forces that would stand against them.

Zola is one of my favourite authors (I’ve written quite a bit about why this is over here – and may even finish it someday) but by the late 1890s he was definitely past his best, his last truly great novel, Germinal, being published ten years earlier. His work was always political, both explicitly and in its smallest detail, but central to his politics was an empathy for individual people and the rotten things the world throws at them.

Alfred Dreyfus certainly had a harder time of it that almost anyone. Born into a Jewish family in the forever-contested region of Alsace, he worked his way up the French army ranks before being found to be a convenient scapegoat when military secrets were leaked to the Germans.

History has to judge Zola’s intervention as a success. Despite the havoc it caused initially, it was clear that Dreyfus was innocent, and in 1906, already out of jail, he received his pardon. Zola was less fortunate, though. After fleeing to England, he died from carbon monoxide poisioning from a blocked chimney, the blocking quite possibly done by a chimney sweep who had been paid to kill him.

There is a fairly good In Our Time podcast about the Dreyfus affair to be found here – – and the whole text can be found in English here –…!

The Lions of Tsavo


It’s one of those stories that barely seems credible; British-led construction workers building a railway across Kenya and Uganda are picked off and eaten by a pair of unusually cunning lions. Traps are laid, but the lions manage to outwit the hunters at every stage, until in a final showdown they are defeated by a lieutenant-Colonel with a moustache and a twinkle in his eye. Some facts about the case seem to have been embellished or exaggerated (the kill-count being more like 35 than 100 for example), but the basics of the tale are apparently legit.

This is a podcast from ‘Stuff You Missed In History Class’ which discusses the case. As with all of their shows, great information, wish they would tone it down a little with the chat, and reduce the ads to something less than 30% of the show

The Wikipedia article on the case is also unusually readable and comprehensive

S.A. Andrée and the 1897 North Pole Balloon Mission


People live only 500 miles from the North Pole, so why didn’t anyone reach it until 1908? Well, it turns out there are many reasons, and a number of innovative solutions to the problems, including freezing a huge ship in the ice and letting the currents pull you across the arctic over a couple of years. In that particular case most of the crew survived, but many were less lucky.

In 1897 Swedish explorer Salomon August Andrée had the truly original idea of piloting a hot air balloon across the arctic – an idea that’s so crazy that it just might be a work of genius. After every expert consulted had told him that he was an idiot he nevertheless managed to capture public excitement enough to raise the money to fund the trip. Would he manage to get his crew all the way to the North Pole and back alive?

This podcast over at Stuff You Missed In History Class goes into the details of the trip. I won’t spoil what happened, but I probably don’t need to.

Under the Austin Arcs


My metal pictures of the nighttime world of 1894 mainly involve darkness – with, of course, the occasional gas lamp or candle peering gingerly out of the gloom. In fact, many towns were investing in shockingly bright arc lighting, so bright in fact that it had to be lifted up onto a platform 150ft in the air, where they could illuminate a circle of 3000ft.

Over at the excellent 99% Invisible podcast there is an episode about the introduction of arc lighting to Austin, Texas in 1894:

“In 1885, Austin, Texas was terrorized by a serial killer known as the Servant Girl Annihilator. The murderer was never actually found, but he claimed eight victims, mostly black servant girls, all attacked in the dark of night.
Back then, once night fell, Austin had only moonlight. The city had no outdoor lighting until 1894, when Austin decided to buy more moonlight, in the form of towers. They were fifteen stories tall, each crowned with a circle of six lights, soaring way up above the city.”

Edvard Munch and The Scream

Edvard Munch - The Scream

First exhibited in 1893 in Berlin, The Scream was the culmination of Munch’s magnum opus, a series of paintings called The Frieze of Life. This depicted the course of human existence through burgeoning love and sexual passion to suffering, despair and death, in Munch’s highly original, proto-expressionist style. His titles, from Death in the Sickroom, through Madonna to The Vampire, suggest just how directly and unironically he sought to depict the anxieties of late-19th century Europe. But against all Munch’s images, it is The Scream which stands out as the work which has seared itself into the Western imagination. It remains widely celebrated for capturing the torment of existence in what appeared to many in Munch’s time to be a frightening, godless world.

BBC Radio 4 In Our Time – Munch and The Scream