Jul 312014
The American Transcontinental Railroad

Victorious in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), the United States acquired California and New Mexico. A year later, gold was discovered in California, luring hundreds of thousands of people across the plains. However, the new territories resembled distant colonies rather than parts of the republic. It took six months of hard, dangerous travel to cross the plains. The other options were sailing around South America or sailing to Panama and crossing the fever-ridden isthmus. The government approved the construction of a transcontinental railroad in 1862, but construction was slow until the American Civil War (1861-1865) ended, when labor and materials became available. The Union Pacific, which started from the Missouri River, relied mainly on veterans, while the Central Pacific, which originated at Sacramento, turned to cheap Chinese labor. Paid in government bonds, both companies competed to lay more track and qualify for more bonds. When the two tracks met at Promontory Point in Utah on May 10, 1869, a six-month-long trek by wagon had been replaced by a week-long trip on a train, thus linking the two sides of the nation.
Read More…

Jan 302014
Public Enemies Era

When outlaws like the Barker-Karpis Gang, the Clyde Barrow Gang, John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd began to attract national attention in 1933, the FBI was an under-funded, amateurish organization. A series of celebrity kidnappings and the massacre of four law enforcement officials in Kansas City in June 1933 led to calls for a national police force, and the FBI would lead the war on crime. In 1934, the many bank robbers would be divided into five nice, clear groups: the family of kidnappers, the lovers on the run, the charming escape artist, the psychotic killer and the misunderstood country boy. A year later, almost none of them were still alive and the FBI was a national institution.
Read More…

Dec 052013
Pretty Boy Floyd

Charley “Pretty Boy” Floyd (February 3, 1904-October 22, 1934) grew up on a farm in Oklahoma. Tiring of the harsh existence and drudgery of farming, he left his wife and newborn son at home and looked for better employment opportunities outside the state. Robbing a bank, he was arrested after flashing around money, and spent three and a half years in prison, where he learned the science of robbing banks. After his release, he partnered with George Birdwell to rob numerous banks in Oklahoma until Birdwell died during a shootout in November 1932. Floyd had become notorious in Oklahoma, but was still able to make frequent visits to his family. However, he attracted national attention when it was learned that he had arrived in Kansas City the evening before the Kansas City Massacre, a failed attempt to rescue bank robber Frank Nash, which left four lawmen and Nash dead, on June 17, 1933. Hoping to wait out the attention, Floyd hid for a year in Buffalo, New York. When the FBI announced on October 11, 1934 that he was considered a major suspect, Floyd tried to reach the safety of his family in Oklahoma, but was fatally wounded trying to escape a group of FBI agents and local police officers in East Liverpool, Ohio on October 22, 1934.
Read More…

Jul 082013
The Mexican Revolution

The Mexican Revolution began when Francisco Madero ran for president against Porfiro Diaz, who had ruled Mexico for thirty-four years. Thrown in prison because he was too popular, a disillusioned Madero organized a revolution in November 1910, and the uprising unleashed powerful social forces. In the northern states of Chihuahua and Coahuila, Pascal Orozco and Pancho Villa led a revolt against a local oligarch. Rebellion had broken out in the southern states as well, and one of the more effective leaders was a village chief named Emiliano Zapata. Faced with rebellions in eighteen states, Diaz fled the country on May 25, 1911. Madero shocked his supporters by refusing to purge the government of Diaz loyalists, who launched a coup in February 1913. Madero mistakenly placed his trust in General Victoriano Huerta, who joined the plotters, deposed Madero and then made himself president.
Huerta remained unfazed by rebellions by Villa and Zapata, but the situation worsened when Venustio Carranza, governor of Coahuila, joined the revolution. Despite Huerta’s contempt, Villa had built up a professional army, while Zapata had become a skilled guerrilla. Even the American occupation of Vera Cruz to avenge a minor diplomatic insult failed to increase Huerta’s nationalist appeal. When Huerta fled to exile in Spain on July 15, 1914, Carranza thought that he was the natural choice for president, but Villa and Zapata had the two largest armies, and they both detested Carranza. Too independent to work together, their sole accomplishment was to deny Carranza the presidential chair. Fortunately for Carranza, Alvaro Obregon, a leading general in the revolution, still nursed a grudge from when Villa had tried to execute him. Since Zapata had little interest in events outside of Morelos, Villa was left to face Obregon alone. Several days of fighting at Celaya proved that Villa was simply a charismatic cavalry leader.
Angered by President Woodrow Wilson’s increasingly blatant support for Carranza, Villa raided Colombus, New Mexico in March 1916. Wilson felt obliged to send a punitive expedition into Mexico, but the expedition failed to find Villa, and it was a constant diplomatic struggle to avoid a war. Worn-down by the constant warfare, an increasing number of zapatista leaders simply refused to fight, and a desperate Zapata was assassinated in April 1919. Carranza made a fatal error when he opposed Obregon’s candidacy for president and ordered his arrest. Obregon won the support of most of the army and Carranza was killed trying to flee Mexico. A victorious Obregon allowed Villa to retire in exchange for peace, which ended the revolution after ten long, blood-soaked years. Read More…

Jun 242013
Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie Parker (October 1, 1910-May 23, 1934) and Clyde Barrow (March 24, 1909-May 23, 1934) were poor, young people with little hope for the future when they met in Dallas, Texas in January 1930. Clyde was arrested shortly after, which would have ended most relationships but Bonnie’s love was true. Despite a brutal experience in prison, Clyde hated the drudgery of honest work, so he returned to a life of crime, bringing Bonnie with him. After a drunken encounter with police officers at a dance resulted in a dead deputy on August 5, 1932, surrender was no longer an option for Clyde because he would get the electric chair. Recently released from prison, his elder brother Buck met Clyde, Bonnie and new recruit, 16-year-old W.O. Jones, hoping to persuade Clyde to surrender, but the vacation ended on April 13, 1933 when two police officers died in a shootout, and Buck and his fiance Blanche found themselves part of the gang. The gang became national celebrities after pictures of them posing with guns were found in their abandoned apartment. Several months later, Buck was severely wounded in another shootout with police, and died of his wounds shortly after a posse discovered the gang’s campsite. Hoping to gain more members for the gang, Clyde helped several prisoners break out of Eastham Prison Farm on January 16, 1934. Angered by the attack, the warden persuaded the governor of Texas to hire former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer to hunt down the gang. Betrayed by gang member Henry Methvin in exchange for a pardon, Bonnie and Clyde were lured into an ambush where they were killed on May 23, 1934. Read More…

May 132013
The Korean War

The end of WWII had left the United States and the Soviet Union as the two global superpowers, and Korea, a Japanese protectorate, was far down their respective lists of priorities, so the 38th Parallel was selected as the dividing line between the Russian and American occupation forces. The active support of the American occupation forces ensured that American-educated Syngman Rhee was elected president of the Republic of Korea (ROK). Kim Sung-il, who had served with the Red Army during WWII, became the Soviets’ candidate in North Korea. Aware that Rhee would provoke a war if permitted, the United States had refused to provide the ROK army with planes, tanks and artillery. However, Stalin approved Kim’s invasion plan, supplying the North Koreans with generous quantities of planes, tanks and artillery.

When the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) crossed the border on June 25, 1950, its large, well-trained army steamrolled through the unprepared ROK forces. President Harry Truman won the support of the United Nations for the defense of South Korea, assigning the military response to General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the American occupation forces in Japan, but the NKPA had gained control of all of Korea by August except for a small perimeter around the port of Pusan. The NKPA had already burned itself out with repeated frontal attacks when an amphibious landing at Inchon caught the North Koreans completely by surprise. Seoul was recaptured on September 25, and the NKPA began to disintegrate.

Deciding to reunify Korea by force, an overconfident MacArthur dismissed China’s warning that it would not permit American troops near the Yalu River, the border between China and North Korea. The entry of hundreds of thousands of Chinese ‘volunteers’ into Korea in late November transformed the war. After a series of Chinese offensives and American counter-offensives, the lines had stabilized near the 38th Parallel by mid-summer 1951. The negotiations dragged on until mid-1953 because the Chinese and NKPA would not accept the right of Chinese and North Korean PoWs in UN custody to refuse repatriation to their home countries.
Read More…

Apr 292013
The James-Younger Gang

Frank and Jesse James and Cole Younger had ridden with Confederate guerrillas William Clarke Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson along the Kansas-Missouri border during the American Civil War (1861-1865). When the war ended, they tried to settle down, but Missouri had been a battleground and the legal restrictions on ex-Confederate soldiers made it difficult to obtain loans. Frustrated and missing the excitement of war, the men formed a gang composed of friends and relatives, and began robbing banks in February 1866. A disastrous raid in Northfield, Minnesota on September 7, 1876 destroyed most of the gang, and only the James brothers escaped. By this time, the outlaws, especially Jesse, were famous. Unable to retire to a normal life, Jesse raised a new gang and continued to rob trains until he was killed by recent recruits Bob and Charley Ford, who were seeking the large reward for his life, on April 3, 1882. Read More…

Apr 012013
Abraham Lincoln

Born in a log cabin, Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809-April 15, 1865) taught himself enough law to become a lawyer. An ambitious man, he was elected repeatedly to the Illinois state legislature, where he became a leader of the Whig party. After a single term in Congress (1846-1848), Lincoln’s political career seemed to have peaked. As the debate over slavery tore apart the nation in the 1850s, the Whigs appeared increasingly irrelevant, so Lincoln joined the newly formed Republican party. Although he lost a hard-fought campaign against Democrat candidate Stephen Douglas for a senate seat in 1858, a series of debates between the two men had attracted national attention, especially among the growing abolitionist movement. Chosen as a compromise candidate during the 1860 Republican convention, Lincoln won election as president, aided by the breakup of the Democrat party over slavery. Convinced that he intended to destroy their way of life, the southern states seceded, starting a long and bitter civil war (1861-1865). When Lincoln decided to emancipate the slaves, it seemed likely that he would lose the 1864 election, but several victories on the battlefield ensured that he was given a second term with a sizeable majority. Unfortunately, Lincoln was assassinated shortly after the war ended. Read More…

Mar 112013
John Chisum

John Chisum was an extremely successful cattleman in New Mexico during the period following the end of the American Civil War (1861-1865). As the size of his herd grew, Chisum clashed with the owners of smaller ranches, who resented his efforts to graze his cattle on land that they were accustomed to using. The violence escalated, culminating in a series of shootouts in 1877, which was called the Pecos County War. Suspecting that the House, a clique of businessmen led by James Dolan that dominated Lincoln County, were the primary buyers of beef rustled from his herd, Chisum was a principal backer of Alex McSween and John Tunstall when they competed against the House. However, he did not take part in the Lincoln County War, which erupted after Tunstall was killed by a sheriff’s posse loyal to Dolan in 1878. Afterwards, Chisum played a key role in the election of Pat Garrett as sheriff of Lincoln County, and Garrett killed or captured several of the most dangerous rustlers, including William Bonney (Billy the Kid). Once the plague of rustlers had been dealt with, Chisum’s ranch boomed for several years, but he died of cancer in 1884. Read More…

Dec 312012
T. E. Lawrence

Thomas Edward Lawrence (August 16, 1888-May 19, 1935) became famous for his role in the Arab Revolt during WWI. Having worked as an archeologist in Syria, his fluency in Arabic and familiarity with the Middle East ensured that he was assigned to the Intelligence Staff of the British Army in Egypt after the Ottoman Empire entered the war. Serving as a liaison between the British government and Arab tribes fighting a guerrilla war against the Ottoman Empire, he gained the trust of Prince Feisal, son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca. Unable to face the Ottoman army in open battle, the Arab guerrillas focused on derailing trains on the main railway line. A devoted believer in the cause of Arab independence, Lawrence served as interpreter for Prince Feisal during the Versailles Peace Conference where the Arab delegation failed to win full independence. However, Lawrence became famous when the book Lawrence of Arabia by American journalist Lowell Thomas became a best-seller. Furthermore, military historian Basil Liddell Hart greatly admired Lawrence and wrote that he had revolutionized guerrilla tactics. Uncomfortable with fame, Lawrence enlisted in the R. A. F. under an assumed name, and then transferred to the Tank Corps when he was discovered. Lawrence died in a motorcycle accident in 1935.
Read More…

Dec 172012
Douglas MacArthur

Douglas MacArthur (January 26, 1880-April 5, 1964) was a controversial American general. The son of a famous general, MacArthur was driven by a limitless ambition. Displaying suicidal bravery and remarkable leadership ability, he became a brigadier general during WWI. Continuing to rise, MacArthur became chief of staff in 1930, but was publicly criticized following the brutal eviction of the Bonus Marchers, WWI veterans camped out in Washington. Denied a second term as chief of staff, it seemed that his career was over and he retired from the U.S. Army in 1937. When war with Japan seemed inevitable, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt recalled MacArthur to active duty in July 1941 and gave him command of the Philippines. Taken by surprise by the speed of the Japanese invasion in late December 1941, MacArthur was evacuated to Australia where he oversaw the island-hopping campaign and eventual recapture of the Philippines. Following the Japanese surrender, MacArthur was appointed American viceroy, and implemented sweeping changes in Japanese society, economy and politics. Taking command of the American response when North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, an amphibious landing at Inchon ensured victory, but he permitted American forces to approach the border with China, which provoked a massive Chinese intervention. After repeatedly defying President Harry Truman, he was relieved of command in 1951. Failing to win the Republican nomination for president, MacArthur suffered the humiliation of seeing his former aide, Dwight Eisenhower, become president. Retreating from public life, MacArthur died on April 5, 1964 due to kidney and liver failure. Read More…

Nov 242012
William Quantrill

Born in Ohio, William Clarke Quantrill (July 31, 1837-June 6, 1865) failed as a school teacher, and drifted into Lawrence, Kansas, a pro-abolitionist center. Since he rode with both the abolitionist Jayhawkers and the pro-slavery Border Ruffians, while claiming to be spying on the other side, neither side fully trusted him. After betraying five idealistic abolitionists on a raid to liberate slaves in Missouri he became a hero but barely escaped a lynching in Lawrence. The American Civil War (1865-1865) started soon after and Missouri came under Union control, so Quantrill became a guerrilla, and was leading his own guerrilla band by late December 1861, attracting numerous recruits including Cole Younger and Frank and Jesse James. Although he was the alpha guerrilla in Missouri during 1862, the men had divided into smaller bands led by his former lieutenants George Todd, Dave Pool, Bill Anderson and Younger by the spring of 1863. The accidental death of several female relatives of guerrillas while in Union custody was used to persuade all of the guerrilla leaders to combine for a raid against Lawrence on August 21, 1863. The massacre of 185 unarmed men and boys triggered a massive manhunt by Union forces, so Quantrill led his remaining followers to Kentucky in search of easier pickings. However, Quantrill was captured on May 10, and he died in a Union hospital on June 6, 1865.
Read More…

Nov 192012
J. Edgar Hoover

J. Edgar Hoover (January 1, 1895-May 2, 1972) was the long-serving and controversial director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. John Edgar Hoover joined the Justice Department shortly after the United States entered WWI. Possessing superb organizational skills, Hoover was promoted to head of the Radical Division within the Bureau of Investigation. Rising to Acting Director of the Bureau in 1924, Hoover switched the Bureau’s focus from investigating political organizations to criminals. Faced with a wave of violent bank robberies in 1933, Hoover was placed in charge of an expanded bureau, which captured or killed a number of Public Enemies. Believing that he and he alone should symbolize the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), magazine articles, books and movies portrayed Hoover as having trained the agents.

A national symbol by the end of WWII, Hoover was a lifelong anti-communist, and the outbreak of the Korean War (1950-1953) seemed to confirm the global Communist conspiracy. When Dwight Eisenhower became president in 1952, he supported Hoover’s belief that domestic security trumped civil liberties. John F. Kennedy symbolized the shift in cultural values that would take place during the 1960s, and Hoover disliked both the president and the social changes. In fact, Hoover used the FBI to attack any group that threatened the status quo, including Martin Luther King Jr., the anti-war movement, and the Black Panthers, employing wiretapping techniques of dubious legality. Despite a lengthy relationship with Richard Nixon, Hoover’s continued career was uncertain when he died of a heart attack on May 2, 1972. Read More…

Nov 122012
Mickey Cohen

Born in New York City, Micky Cohen (September 4, 1912-July 29, 1976) grew up in Los Angeles, where he drifted into crime at an early age. Despite his small size, he proved to be good with his fists, and briefly returned to New York City to pursue a boxing career. Realizing that he lacked the skill to succeed as a boxer, seventeen-year-old Cohen embraced the life of crime. Satisfying his love of fashion through robbery, Cohen’s indiscriminate preying angered numerous powerful gangsters, first in Cleveland and then Chicago. When Bugsy Siegel advertised for muscle to help him take control of organized crime in Los Angeles, Cohen returned home in 1937. Awed by Siegel’s style and wealth, Cohen gradually calmed down and became Siegel’s right-hand man. When Siegel was killed in 1947 because his investors in the Flamingo Casino thought that he was skimming money, Cohen succeeded him as kingpin of Los Angeles. Although he survived several assassination attempts by Jack Dragna, a rival gangster, Cohen’s flamboyant nature and failure to conceal his wealth attracted the attention of the IRS, and he was sentenced to prison for five years. Following his release, Cohen continued his criminal career. Unlike most leading gangsters, Cohen embraced media attention, becoming a national celebrity. Having failed to learn his lesson, Cohen was convicted a second time. Released in 1972, he developed stomach cancer and died four years later. Read More…

Oct 152012
Al Capone

Al Capone was brought to Chicago from New York in late 1919 to help Johnny Torrio, his mentor, operate a network of brothels and gambling establishments. Torrio negotiated an agreement among the various gangs to cooperate, rather than fight over territory, but it fell apart in late 1924. The resulting Beer Wars drove Torrio to hand over the business to Capone. By late 1926, Capone’s syndicate had become the alpha gang, and he became the symbol of the lawlessness in Chicago. Convicted of tax evasion in 1931, Capone received a sentence of eleven years. His health had been badly damaged by syphilis, so he was released on November 16, 1939. Unable to take care of himself, Capone lived with his family in Miami Beach, Florida until he died from a heart attack on January 21, 1947. Read More…

Sep 242012
Billy the Kid

Born William Henry McCarty on November 23, 1859 in New York City, the boy who would become Billy the Kid was living in Silver City, New Mexico when his mother died of tuberculosis in September 1874. Since his step-father was busy searching for gold, McCarty drifted into petty crime. After shooting a local bully during a bar fight at Fort Grant, Arizona in 1877, he changed his last name to Bonney, and ended up in Lincoln County, New Mexico, working for an English rancher named John Tunstall. Tunstall and his partner Alex McSween, supported by powerful rancher John Chisum, had challenged businessman James Dolan, who dominated Lincoln County. When legal pressure failed to scare off Tunstall, he was killed by a sheriff’s posse loyal to Dolan on February 18, 1878.
Both Tunstall’s supporters and Dolan’s faction claimed legal authority, and the death toll mounted on both sides until a five-day-long battle in Lincoln Town in mid-July ended both the Lincoln County War and McSween’s life. Settling at Fort Sumner, just outside of Lincoln County, Bonney joined a group of rustlers but was captured by Sheriff Pat Garrett on December 20, 1880. Sentenced to be hung, Bonney killed two deputies and escaped. Returning to Fort Sumner, Bonney hid with friends until Garrett found him by chance and killed him on July 14, 1881. Billy the Kid was only twenty-one-years-old. Read More…

Sep 102012
War of 1812

The British Navy was permitted to press any British citizen anywhere in the world for service on a warship. This irritating procedure became a serious problem during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), and thousands of men were pressed from American ships. Both Britain and France were trying to prevent neutral America from trading with the other, but the Royal Navy’s dominant position meant that American ships were much more likely to be boarded by the British. Motivated by the need to satisfy the hawks in his party, who wanted to expand the United States and end British support for the Indian tribes that resisted American expansion, President James Madison won Congress’ permission to go to war with Britain, and the United States declared war on June 18, 1812.
Despite the United States’ much larger population, the war did not go according to plan. Aside from several naval victories, the first few American armies that entered Canada were either captured or forced to retreat back across the border. Control of border forts shifted back and forth until Napoleon’s abdication on March 31, 1814 freed thousands of British troops for a seaborne invasion of the east coast, which resulted in the burning of Washington. Since recently annexed Louisiana was considered ripe for the plucking, a fleet was dispatched to capture New Orleans, and thus improve the British hand at the negotiating table. However, a badly-executed campaign enabled General Andrew Jackson to win an overwhelming victory. Read More…

Aug 122011
The French Intervention in Mexico

When Mexican President Benito Juarez refused to honor the foreign debts accumulated by his predecessor. Emperor Napoleon III of France used this refusal as an excuse to invade Mexico in 1862 and install Archduke Maximilian, younger brother of the Habsburg Emperor of Austria, as Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico in 1864. Napoleon hoped to exploit Mexico’s rich mineral resources and counterbalance the American republic with a Catholic Mexican monarchy. Maximilian proved to be more fixated on court etiquette than ruling the country, so when American pressure forced Napoleon to recall his army, forces loyal to Juarez restored the Mexican Republic in 1867. Read More…