Jefferson’s extensive collection became the core of the Library of Congress

Current display of Thomas Jefferson’s library (Library of Congress)

Congress first funded what would become the Library of Congress in April 1800 as the U.S. government relocated to the District of Columbia. With the U.S. Capitol as its home, the library’s first books arrived the following year. But in August 1814, the library was destroyed when the British burned the Capitol during the War of 1812.

Thomas Jefferson, an acclaimed bibliophile, took a keen interest in the Library of Congress. During his presidency (1801–1809), he appointed the first two Librarians of Congress and personally recommended books for it. So, upon hearing of its destruction, Jefferson stepped up. Aware of…

Gestapo raid sought operation smuggling men and arms to and from Shetland

Buildings in Telavåg being blown up in reprisal for two Gestapo deaths (North Sea Traffic Museum)

When Nazi Germany invaded neutral Norway on April 9, 1940, it caught the Norwegian government by surprise. Both military forces and individuals fought back, but Norway formally surrendered on June 10. However, resistance forces would continue to plague the Nazis until World War II ended. Retaliation for that resistance led to the obliteration of a small island town.

Within a month after the invasion, 63-year-old fisherman Lauritz Telle and his son Lars began using their fishing boat for secret trips between Telavåg, Norway, and Scotland’s Shetland, also known as the Shetland Islands. Telavåg was a small fishing village on the…

Photo by Junior REIS on Unsplash

It never replaced trial by combat although intended to do so

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church regulated and defined individual’s lives. It was a unifying and centralized power while feudalism lasted. Everyone, regardless of rank or status, adhered to its beliefs and doctrines. So it’s no surprise that society might seek justice through judgments of God (iudicium Dei).

More commonly known as trials by ordeal, these physical tests sought to divine the truth. They usually applied when there was no “certain proof,” such as a lack of evidence, witnesses, or alternative means of establishing the truth. The ordeals allowed an omnipotent and just God to reveal the truth. …

For a century, juries protected those who killed the seducers of their wife, sister, or daughter

March 12, 1859, Harper’s Weekly illustration of murder of F. Barton Key (Library of Congress)

In mid-19th century America, newspaper accounts of men on trial for killing their wife’s lover drew national attention captivated readers. One of the most famous was the trial of Congressman Dan Sickles for killing Philip Barton Key Jr. in Lafayette Square, across from the White House, on February 27, 1859. Key, the son of Francis Scott Key and U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, was engaged in an affair with Sickles’ wife. Sickles admitted to killing Key, but the jury acquitted him.

This trial wasn’t the first time and was far from the last time, a jury disregarded criminal…

The “English sweat” killed thousands but remains a mystery today

An etching from a 1529 German book on the English Sweat (Wikimedia)

“This plague came to us in the year 1485, with the armies that brought us the first Henry Tudor. Now every few years it fills the graveyards. It kills in a day. Merry at breakfast, they say: dead by noon.”

— Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

Although this plague plays a role in Hilary Mantel’s historical fiction trilogy tracing Thomas Cromwell’s life, it’s not the Black Death. Instead, it’s a disease that disappeared after less than 70 years and remains mysterious today: sweating sickness, also known as sudor anglicus, “English sweat.”

England suffered five significant outbreaks of the disease, four during…

Eighteen century Highland piper (National Galleries of Scotland)

Eighteenth-century piper executed for carrying “an instrument of war”

To Scots, bagpipes aren’t just a musical instrument. They also have political symbolism. So political, in fact, they’ve been considered war weapons.

Such treatment stems back to the last and most famous of the Jacobite Risings, which sought to restore the House of Stuart to the throne of England. In 1745, Charles Edward Stuart (known to history as “Bonnie Prince Charlie”) launched a rebellion in the Scottish Highlands to regain the British throne for his father. Despite initial successes, the English crushed Charles’ forces at the Battle of Culloden on April 16, 1746, although Charles managed to escape.

Bagpiper James…

The state, particularly Sioux Falls, was a “divorce mill” more than a century ago

Postcard of the Minnehaha County Courthouse built in 1890 (South Dakota Digital Archives)

For decades, Reno, Nevada, proudly billed itself as the “divorce capitol of the word.” But as America transitioned from the 19th to the 20th century, the nation’s “divorce colony” was Sioux Falls, a town of 10,000–13,000 in southeastern South Dakota. “For nearly two decades, ‘going to Sioux Falls’ was popular shorthand for ending a marriage,” says author Susan White.

State government, not the federal, regulated marriage and divorce law. The grounds and process for divorce varied widely from state to state. In the 1890s, for example, South Carolina forbid divorce while New York permitted it only for adultery. …

One Italian family so controlled the papacy it got three laymen elected

Photo by Fabio Fistarol on Unsplash

Is the pope Catholic? The answer to that old saw, of course, is yes. Is the pope ordained before being elected? That answer could be no.

The Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law doesn’t specifically require ordination. “If the person elected [pope] lacks episcopal character, however, he is to be ordained a bishop immediately,” says Canon 332. As it suggests, “episcopal character” means being at least a bishop. There are no other requirements, meaning, in theory, that any Catholic could be elected pope.

As might be expected, theory flounders on reality. Until the early 11th century, church members or secular…

Photo by Jaroslav Devia on Unsplash

Witchcraft allegations were part of a fascination with the supernatural

What does the phrase “witchcraft trials” bring to mind? Most likely, Salem, Massachusetts, or the witch hysteria of early modern Europe. Yet West Germany saw at least 77 trials involving accusations of witchcraft between 1947 and 1956. And indications are that is a significant understatement.

What is now modern Germany has a long history of witch hunts. It’s “the heartland of the witch craze,” says Thomas Robisheaux, a professor of history at Duke University. It’s believed the area was responsible for one-third to half of Europe’s witchcraft prosecutions and half of the roughly 50,000 executed, according to Robisheaux. …

Portuguese bishop’s 16th-century library was war booty

Old Bodleian Library, University of Oxford (Source:

Oxford University’s Bodleian Library is one of Europe’s oldest libraries and one of the world’s eminent research libraries. Yet, some of its books carry a taint of unscrupulousness given the time of its founding. One of its founding collections is plunder from Portugal in 1596.

Between 1584 and 1604, Protestant England and Catholic Spain fought an intermittent undeclared war sparked by religion and privateering. Portugal, also Catholic, was ruled by and considered part of Spain beginning in 1580. In June 1596, troops led by the second Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux, sailed with a joint English-Dutch fleet. …

Tim Gebhart

Retired Lawyer. Book Addict. History Buff. Lifelong South Dakotan. Blog:

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