Killer Clown: The John Wayne Gacy Murders – Terry Sullivan and Peter T. Maiken

SullivanOn December 11, 1978, Robert Jerome Piest (1963-1978) was finishing up his shift at Nisson Pharmacy when an older man approached him with the offer of a job in his contracting company. Piest told his mother Elizabeth that he would only be a few minutes. That was last time anyone saw Robert Piest alive.  Police would soon learn that the older gentlemen observed conversing with Piest was a local named John Wayne Gacy (1942-1994), a well-respected but peculiar figure who owned a company named PDM Contractors. Gacy initially denied any knowledge of Piest or his whereabouts that night but detectives felt that he was certainly hiding something.  Although he was only a person of interest at that time, none of the detectives could have known then that in only two years, the worst serial killer in American history would be convicted of multiple counts of murder.  Terry Sullivan was Supervisor of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Third District office and here he teamed up with Peter Maiken (1934-2006) to bring us the inside story of the effort to bring John Wayne Gacy to justice.

I believe that it goes without saying but I will say here that readers should use discretion when deciding whether to read this book. The subject is sensitive and anyone who knows even slightest bit of information regarding John Wayne Gacy, knows that the story does not have a happy ending.  In fact, it is dark, disturbing and one of the most extreme true crime stories that you will ever read.  But that is also what makes it so appealing.  However, if you are not able to read descriptions of violent acts that result in death and post-mortem examinations, then you may want to give this book a pass.  But if you prefer true crime and have questions about Gacy’s story, then you have essentially hit pay dirt.  The book is a good as it gets and from start to finish, and is a roller coaster ride that will leave readers speechless.

Similar to most serial killers, Gacy was described as successful, charming and sociable.  His charm is on full display as he engages with a cat and mouse game with the police officers assigned to tail him as a person of interest.  Undoubtedly, much of what she says and does if overly flattering but the seductiveness of his charm when turned on is apparent and gives the book an even darker chill as the descriptions of his crimes come to light.  In an almost Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde routine, John would be friendly, overly helpful and a town role model but the darker John, cruised the streets at night, turning his city into his hunting grounds in which young men were fair game.  And between 1972 and 1978, he engaged in a reign of terror that took the lives of at thirty young men.

The book certainly reads like a true crime story and Sullivan moves us along in chronological order.  But it is interesting to see how the officers on the case and the district attorney’s office worked together to develop their file on Gacy, whom they all suspected of being in involved with the disappearance of Robert Piest.  However, as we see in the book, authorities had no idea at that time, that Gacy was hiding far darker deeds.  As their file grew, detectives began to learn more about Gacy and his criminal past which included a sodomy conviction and prison time at Anamosa State Penitentiary. Detectives began to take note of odd things at Gacy’s house, most importantly personal  items that did not belong to him and a rancid odor emanating from the kitchen and bathroom area.  After obtaining a second search warrant to search Gacy’s house,  detectives and forensic personnel made a grisly discovery that changed American history.  Coincidentally, Gacy had paid a visit to his attorneys’ office and what he would tell them left both men shaking.  The walls were closing in on Gacy and after he was in custody, the true nature of the horror detectives had uncovered became strikingly real.

It was clear to all involved that Gacy had in fact murdered a staggering amount of people, but detectives were also faced with the task of identifying the remains found and finally solving disappearances that had authorities baffled.   And although the crimes are horrific, what is really spine chilling is the casual manner in which Gacy discusses his actions.  He recalls each crime as if it was part of his regular routine and no big deal.  This alone should remove all doubt as to just how cold and calculating Gacy truly was. At some parts of the book, I found myself staring in disbelief at what I was reading.  While I knew of Gacy’s actions, there is a wealth of information that might be new information for some readers.   The story is simply mind-blowing and far better than any documentary I have seen.

After Gacy was firmly in custody, prosecutors then had to come up with a strategy to secure a conviction in a court of law.  Their case was built around Robert Piest but Gacy faced multiple charges of homicide.  And while no one doubted that he had killed, including his own lawyers, the defense’s case rested upon the insanity defense.  This is the crux of the legal action and Sullivan shows the opposing points of view between the prosecution’s experts and the defense’s experts.  As someone who works in the legal field, I am keenly aware of the important of expert witness testimony and how it can make or break a case.  And reading their testimony here, sometimes made the hair on my neck stand up not because of any graphic descriptions but because their words would decide whether Gacy would go to a mental hospital and possibly be released or whether he would meet his maker on death row.  Today we have the hindsight of 20/20 vision and know Gacy’s fate.  But at that time, there was a good possibility that an insanity defense just might work and Sullivan expresses his concern as he discusses the expert testimony.  It is a good analysis of trial procedure in what was unquestionably a high profile case.

Sullivan and his squad of prosecutors eventually prevailed and the final moments in their crusade for justice are captured in the book and show just how much effort went into preparing the case against Gacy.  And for prosecutors, securing a sentence of death was the “icing on the cake”.  On May 10, 1994, John Gacy was executed at the Stateville Correctional Center, near Joliet, Illinois.  But surprisingly, the story was not yet over.  In fact, Sullivan provides a discussion on DNA evidence examined in 2011 that brought even more closure to the families of Gacy’s victims.  Perhaps we may never know the full number of victims and their locations. Gacy took many secrets with him to the grave but he was wrong about one thing, clowns do not always get away with murder.

ASIN: B00BPVV2T6

The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat – Ryszard Kapuscinski

HaileOn August 27, 1975, news reports began to emerge that Tafari Makonnen, known to the world as Haile Selassie I (1892-1975), had died at the Jubliee Palace in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  The man who ruled Ethiopia for forty-four years and who had served as the icon of the Rastafarian movement was eighty-three years old. Selaisse had lived his final years in exile after being deposed in a coup that took place in September, 1974.   The world-renown leader was a larger than life figure although he only stood 5’2″.  He was recognized on the world stage and helped Ethiopia modernize itself as the wave of independence swept over the African continent in the 1960s.  However, his reign was not free of controversy and Selassie was viewed by some as a greedy tyrant who used his position of power to enrich himself and those closest to him.   Ryszard Kapuściński (1932-2007) was a Polish journalist who traveled to Ethiopia and interviewed former members of Selassie’s administration. This book is a collection of what they remember from their time in office with regards to the emperor’s daily routine, his achievements and also his downfall.

The book is quite short but it does pack a powerful punch.  Observations by those who were closest to him paint an interesting picture of the diminutive giant.  But his size provided no indication of his shrewdness and ability to orchestrate an entire government.  Selassie controlled the entire country and this quote by a former subordinate drives home the point:

“not only did the Emperor decide on all promotions, but he also communicated each one personally. He alone. He filled the posts at the summit of the hierarchy, and also its lower and middle levels. He appointed the postmasters, headmasters of schools, police constables, all the most ordinary office employees, estate managers, brewery directors, managers of hospitals and hotels—and, let me say it again, he chose them personally.”

Quite frankly, at this time in history, Haile Selassie was Ethiopia.  And like the man behind the curtain the Wizard of Oz, there is much to his personal side that reveals how unconventional and unpredictable he truly was.  I caution readers that the book is not an autobiography.  The author does provide background information when needed but overall, the story focuses on the interviews he conducted with Selassie’s former confederates.

By far, nearly all who are interviewed hold Selassie in high regard and none really have a harsh word to say about him.  I found myself wondering if Selassie was a messiah that truly did perform wonders without fail or if it was a case of blind allegiance. They are quick to point the positive changes in Ethiopian society but the narrative changes with the premier of Jonathan Dimbleby’s Ethiopia: The Unknown Famine on British television. I decided to take a look at it myself and was aghast at what I saw.  The footage is raw and shocking, and I warn potential viewers that it will also be upsetting.  What is seen in the video stands in stark contrast to the image of Selassie that we have come to know over time. But voices within Ethiopia at the time were also sounding the alarm about the famine and they came from an ironic source.

One speakers whose name remains unknown like the others, discusses his son who has studied abroad like many other Ethiopian students who traveled abroad as representatives of their country.  These same students who had been sent to foreign countries to become better educated would later play a decisive role in the future of Ethiopia and in Selassie’s reign as ruler.  His son has returned to Ethiopia and what he sees, has led him down the path of no return. He tells his father:

“Father,” says Hailu, “this is the beginning of the end for all of you. We cannot live like this any longer. This death up north and the lies of the court have covered us with shame. The country is drowning in corruption, people are dying of hunger, ignorance, and barbarity everywhere. We feel ashamed of this country. And yet we have no other country, we have to dig it out of the mud ourselves. Your Palace has compromised us before the world, and such a Palace can no longer exist. We know that there is unrest in the army and unrest in the city, and now we cannot back down.”

Selassie did not yet know it, but this was the beginning of the end. He had survived one coup previously, but this non-violent coup would seal his fate.  Its development and execution are discussed by speaker, one of whom in particular is quite frank about how the contrasting images of two separate Ethiopias was allowed ot exist for so long.  No stone is left unturned and in the end, Selassie’s image and legacy would receive staggering blows as the world learn of Ethiopia’s horrible secrets.  However, in spite of what was seen and revealed, Selassie has retained his place in world history as the champion of Ethiopia who stood up to Italy and inspired hope within the people.  However, his administration also neglected basic facets of a health and progressive society, leading to widespread poverty, famine and senseless deaths.   In the end, they would contribute to the downfall of an autocrat.

ASIN: B00B3M3T6Q

The Only Living Witness – Stephen G. Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth

20200726_120134On January 24, 1989, the executioner on Florida State Prison’s stepped forward to exercise his duty in carrying out orders of the state.  But this was no ordinary execution. In fact, it was one that no one would ever forget. At 7:16 a.m., Dr. Frank Kilgo declared the prisoner deceased and his announcement provided the conclusion to the final chapter in the life of American serial killer Theodore Robert “Ted” Bundy (1946-1989).  During his incarceration, Stephen G. Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth conducted a series of interviews with Bundy in an attempt to understand thoughts and motives, and to clear up mysteries surrounding his crimes. The result is this intimate look at Bundy through the eyes of the authors who came face to face with a killer who is firmly entrenched in the annals of American criminal history.

It should be noted that the book is not a biography of Bundy.  And although the authors do discuss Bundy’s early life first in Vermont and then later in Tacoma, Washington, the story focuses mainly on his crimes and movements between the 1974 of teenager Lynda Healy and his arrest in Pensacola, Florida on February 15, 1978.  I believe that it goes without saying that the book is not for everyone. Those sensitive to descriptions of violence and the subject matter presented should use discretion.  To be expected, the authors provide details of each crime but at no point is the story reduced to a gore fest. In fact, the graphic details serve mainly as a supplement to the main story and are used when needed to emphasize the true scale of Bundy’s horrific actions.  The purpose of the authors here was not simply to tell what Bundy did but to really explore the man behind the atrocities.  Society has always been fascinated in learning the driving factors behind serial killers.  Bundy is firmly at the top of list and in the future, I am sure that his life will be revisited by law enforcement, forensic psychologists and those who simply have a strong interest in true crime.

The book was originally published in 1983 and updated in 2012.  This explains the Kindle version having comments about his execution which did not occur until 1989, six years after the first version was published. Putting that aside, the story is essentially the same and true crime lovers will be hooked instantly once the book starts.  Michaud begins the by giving a recap of how he and Aynesworth became acquainted with Bundy and the similarities between the lives of Bundy and himself.  The dark part of the story begins with the disappearance of Lynda Healy on January 31, 1974.  Over the next few months, several more women disappeared without a trace and police were left scrambling to understand what happened and why.  The northwestern part of America did not yet know it, but it was the starting place for the cross-country murder spree by the man witnesses said was called “Ted” and who drove a Volkswagen Beetle.

To say that Bundy was a loose cannon is a severe understatement. However, like most serial killers, he was extremely charming and even those closest to him could not imagine him being the monster authorities said he was.  In fact, this quote by former associate Larry Diamond, sums up how most of the people who knew Bundy felt about him:

One who remembered Ted cutting a handsome figure that summer is Larry Diamond. “Frankly,” Diamond told me, “he represented what it was that all young males anywhere ever wanted to be. He held that image. I wanted that image, and because of that I was jealous of him. I think half the people in the office were jealous of him. The males — and all of the women — were taken by him, down to the crease in his trousers. If there was any flaw in him it was that he was almost too perfect.”

This description reaffirms that serial killers cannot be identified simply by sight.  They often blend in with society are extremely charming and well-liked.  But under the surface lies a raging monster that preys on the innocent and finds satisfaction through acts of violence and murder.  Bundy fit the profile of the All-American male and very well could have been elected to a high position of power anywhere in the United States.  And that is part of what makes this story so chilling.  In spite of what has been said about him, his IQ was fairly average but he did possess sharp intellect and the gift of persuasion which is on full display in the relationships with several girlfriends and in particular Carole Boone who married Bundy while he was on death row. The detachment Bundy displays from the crimes he committed in his discussions with Michaud and Aynesworth is both chilling and revealing.  His ability to compartmentalize and then rationalize what could be describe as normal human acts as opposed to the dark rages within, highlight the mental dysfunction within his mind.  And his insistence on discussing the crimes in the third person adds another layer of bizarre behavior to the long list of his quirks.

In August, 1975, Bundy’s luck began to run out when he was arrested in Utah.  Soon, it was learned that the mysterious figure from out of state had tried to kidnap Carol DaRonch, the only living witness to Bundy’s insanity.  However, before facing justice in Utah, a series of events in Colorado took place that convinced authorities that the prosecution of Ted Bundy was priority number one.  The section about Colorado will have some readers staring in disbelief. Today, the thought of Bundy pulling the escapades that he did seems unthinkable, but in the 1970s, America was a very different place and the man called Ted was still largely unknown in the days before social media and the internet.  From Colorado, he stopped in Chicago before heading to Florida where he would reach the end of the road.

On January 15, 1978, several women were attacked at Florida State University’s Chi Omega Sorority house. Two were killed and the survivors were left with devastating mental and physical injuries.  The description of the attacks relayed here is nothing short of barbaric.  The events of that night became known as the Chi Omega Murders and in time, the world would learn that Ted was nothing short of a nightmare.  But before he was finished, Tallahassee, Florida would also suffer the Ted Bundy experience and the case of Kimberly Leach should leave readers with no doubt that Bundy needed to be taken off the streets.  After his arrest in Pensacola, authorities had no idea who they were dealing with.  Bundy had refused to reveal his name, undoubtedly due to the charges in several states.  But he finally caves and as authorities in others states learn that America’s most wanted killer is in custody, the walls began to close in on Bundy.  But ironically, it is at this part of the book that the story becomes even more bizarre with turns and twists that are simply surreal.  Between arguing with his own lawyers, acting pro se and making unsolicited outburst during proceedings, it seemed as if he did not truly understand the gravity of his situation.  And even at various points in the book, he makes several decisions that even the most common criminal would know not to make. And considering that he was a law student, it is even more bewildering that he commits the blunders that he does. But I believe that they show just how unhinged and detached from reality Bundy truly was.

There is a good discussion of the trial in Florida but it is quite condensed. I think it was a good decision by editors as it would have resulted in the book draggin out for too long.  The authors do provide just enough for readers to get an idea of what was taking place between as Bundy’s defense began to crumble.  Readers who are interested in the trial and in Bundy’s own words may find the Netflix docuseries Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, highly enjoyable.  Although it is not the end all source for information on Bundy, there is a wealth of information on Bundy’s thoughts and crimes.  However, this account by Michaud and Aynesworth is  a good starting point for understand the life and crimes of Ted Bundy.

ISBN-10: 0451127528
ISBN-13: 978-0451127525

On Desperate Ground: The Marines at The Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle – Hampton Sides

slidesOn June 8, 2020, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korean Government) cut all lines of communications with the Republic of Korea (South Korean Government). Eight days later, an explosion destroyed the joint liaison building which had been used to host meetings between the two governments. The bombing was instantly seen as an act of aggression by North Korea and prompted a sharp response from its South Korean counterpart. Fears of an armed conflict gripped neighborhood countries as tensions continued to rise. Many eyes in both China and the United States were watching for the events very well could have led to the re-ignition of the Korean War (1950-1953), a conflict that never officially ended. I am constantly amazed at the expressions of surprise people display upon learning this fact. It seems surreal but the fact is that the Korean is still an “open” conflict that is only contained by the 39th Parallel and the watchful eyes of several foreign countries over North and South Korea. The war itself is often reserved for military buffs and overshadowed by both World War II and the Vietnam War. However, the reality is that the conflict in Korea nearly evolved in World War III. Author Hampton Sides is here to tell us about the role of the United States Marines and their experience in the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir.

When the North Korean army under the command of Kim Il-Sung (1912-1994) invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, the United States came to the aid of its ally and engaged the North Korean army in fierce combat. As the conflict intensified, President Harry S. Truman (1884-1982) turned to the legendary Gen. Douglas McArthur (1880-1964) to assess the situation in Korea. Assured that the North Koreans could not win and would beaten back shortly, Truman breathed a sigh of relief. McArthur in turn, looked to the military to handle the growing need for combat troops. And the time had come for the United States Marine Corps to show what it was made of.  Under the direction of Gen. Oliver Prince Smith (1893-1977), the First Marine Division was dispatched to aid South Korea and push the North Koreans back to Pyongyang. The landing by the First Marine Division and steady advance of infantry soldiers had nearly everyone convinced that Korea would be a short campaign that would barely last several months. But America soon learned that there was more to meet the eye and the People’s Republic of China under Chairman Mao Zedong (1893-1976) would leave its mark on Korean soil and the minds of the Marines who survived hell on earth.

Several individuals in the Marines’ chain of command were confident that the Marines would face little resistance as they marched across Korea. General Edward Mallory “Ned” Almond (1892-1979) as among them and pressed his subordinate Gen. Smith to advance and continue pushing the North Koreans back all the way to their capital city.  Almond makes several appearances in the story and on occasion proves to be nearly as dangerous as the Koreans the Marines were fighting.  The mission starts off well until the Marines make a shocking discovery and learn that the Chinese military has come to the aid of the North Koreans.   The realization that China had now entered the conflict sent shockwaves through Washington. It was seen as the biggest intelligence failure in recent memory. But was it really a failure? Hampton Sides explores the issue and what he explains just might cause some readers to shake their heads in disbelief.

The conflict that had started out as a fast moving campaign had now turned into a diplomatic and military nightmare on both sides. Marines found themselves embroiled in fierce combat and began to realize that their mission was by no means “simple”. The tide had now turned and Korea became a hotbed of savage combat. The battles scenes come back to life in the book and we are provided with a ring-side seat as the Marines are forced to fight opposing troops and a winter climate that nearly renders them completely immobile. The words of the veterans who lived through the war are included here and it can easily be seen that many years later, they are still the proud Marines they were in the early 1950s.

General Smith knew that the conflict would rage longer than Washington wanted and decided that the base of operations would be located in Hagaru, the only space in the Reservoir that could accommodate an airstrip which would desperately needed to bring in supplies, troops and evacuate casualties. The Marines had been given their orders to push forward into the Chosin Reservoir and destroy the enemy.  And in the process, hundreds of young Marines were sent to a place of no return.  Waiting in the distance for them was Mao’s Red Army whose only goal was to kill Americans.  The Marines’ entry into the depths of the Reservoir and actions of Mao’s army are the focus for the second half of the book in which we see the Marines faced with tough decisions with very little time as wave upon wave of Chinese soldiers advanced on American posts. The fighting is savage and some of the soldiers we meet do not ride off into the sunset. Their ordeal is a sobering reminder that war is hell, Marines fight and they also die. However, the threat of death does not stand in their way and they come to life when needed in a nightmare that must seemed like a welcoming party for entry into Valhalla.

Commanders at X Corps soon realize that the Reservoir is a natural trap and the Chinese have severed key arteries that facilitate the movement of troops and supplies. The Marines are literally surrounded and must get out of the Reservoir. But the task is easier said than done and time is of the essence. The final part of the book is devoted to the controlled and strategic withdrawal by the Marines back to South Korea. And this is by far, the most uplifting part of the story as the battle-hardened troops rotate back to South Korea in route to the United States. But none of them would ever forget the Reservoir and how it became a death trap for the Marines taking on the communist threat from North Korea and China.

There are those who feel that the Reservoir was nothing short of a debacle. While it is true that the Marines suffered heavy losses, Mao’s Red Army fared just as bad if not worse. The battle is important not because of a win or loss but the psychological effect it had on the troops that served and in popular opinion. The full story can be found inside in this book which will surely delight students of history that have always wanted to learn more about an often forgotten war in America’s past. Highly recommended.

ASIN: B078VWRSXM

Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany-Hans J. Massaquoi

20180602_234529January 30, 1933 – Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) becomes Chancellor of Germany and his National Socialist German Workers’ Party becomes the dominant political party in Germany.  As Hitler marched through the streets of Germany under the banner of the Third Reich, millions of Germans watched the history unfolding before them with both anticipation and apprehension.  Among them was a young Germany boy named  Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi (1926-2013), who was born to a Liberian father and German mother.  Over the next twelve years, he witnessed the transformation of German society in a bastion of racial ideology founded on Hitler’s unrelenting thirst for world conquest.  This is the story of his life growing up black in Nazi Germany.

The story begins in the wake of World War I in which the Treaty of Versailles had forced Germany into a financially grueling situation.  On a cold day in January, 1926, Bertha Baetz (1903-1986) and Al-Hajj Massaquoi welcomed the birth of their son Hans.  For the Liberian Ambassador to Germany Momolu Massaquoi (1869-1938), his grandson Hans was a welcomed addition to the family but just three years later, life as they knew changed permanently as upheaval in Liberia forced the ambassador to return home.  He was followed by his son Al-Hajj but Bertha and Hans remained in Germany, unaware that an ambitious and fanatical Austrian menace was plotting the future of an entire country.  In seven years time, the reality of Adolf Hitler became horribly real.  Those who were able to leave Germany did and in some cases, left behind nearly everything they had. But others remained such as Hans and Bertha.  What they would see as the Nazi Party began its mission of racially purifying Germany is hauntingly captured here by Hans in this book that is sure to leave every reader with even more of an understanding of how ideology can develop into atrocities.

The title of the book gives the reader a clear idea of what to expect.  But there is far more to the story than what one might assume.  Growing up in Hamburg, love for his country and heritage is instilled in him from a young age by his Tante Möller who shows him the way to become an outstanding German citizen.  As a single mother, Bertha is tasked with raising a biracial child in a country where race is becoming the deciding factor for some between life and death.  Young Hans is unaware of the concept of race as a child until he begins to hear the term “neger”.  School proves to be the battleground and those tasked with his safety and education come from different sides of the fence such as the welcome Fräulein Beyle and Herr Schneider. They stand in stark contrast to the sadistic Herr Grimmelshäuser, Herr Wriede and Herr Dutke.  Readers should be aware that these may not be the actual names of the teachers as Massaquoi points out at the beginning that some names were changed but the events are correct.

Outside of the classroom, other important figures in his life enter the story as he passes from young boy, adolescent youth and into adulthood.  In each phase, he goes through a transformation as the world changes around him but he is always aware of his status as a “nichtarien”. His mother Bertha proves to be his guardian angel and after one demoralizing day at school which results in Hans wanting to reject his own physiology, mother and son have the following exchange:

“Whether you know it or not, your hair is beautiful,” she tried to assure me. “It’s easy for you to talk,” I told her, pointing to her lustrous, wavy dark brown hair. “You’ve got straight hair like everybody else.” “I would give it to you if I could. I so much wish I could, if that’s what would make you happy,” she said, “but I can’t. So you just have to learn to like the hair you’ve got. One day, when you are older, you’ll understand and agree with me when I say that your hair is beautiful.”

As the book progresses, we witness Hans’ inner turmoil as he struggles to fit in with his classmates while coming to terms of the growing influence of Nazi ideology that had reached the classroom as well.   And the restriction placed upon “non-Aryans” all but closed off Hans and other minorities from mainstream Germany society.  In spite of the adversity,  he continues to develop physically, mentally and emotionally.  Love and friendship are two pillars in the story and come in the form of several people that we meet such as Gerda, Gretchen Jahn, the Giordano family, Onkel Karl, Tante Grete, Trudchen and Inge.  And as a bonus towards the end of the book, Massaquoi provides un update on all to the fullest extent possible. It is said that people come into our lives for a reason and I believe that is fully on display here.

The war soon becomes the central topic in the book when Hitler accomplishes the infamous Anchluss with neighboring Austria.  The Nazi empire began its steamroll across Europe but the first Allied bombing raid on Hamburg caught the attention of German citizens who had believed up until then that the Luftwaffe was invincible.  Without re-telling the story of the war, it can be said that as the war dragged on, Germany sank further into dire straits. The author reveals what he saw in Hamburg before and during the deadly bombing raid known as Operation Gomorrah in 1943 which killed over 41,000 Hamburg citizens.  After leaving Hamburg with his mother and staying with relatives in Salza, Massaquoi has a glimpse of the camp at Kohnstein known today as Concentration Camp Dora-Mittelbau. And while he never enters the camp, what he describes is more than enough to inform us of what was taking place.

Hitler’s death on April 30, 1945 sealed Germany’s fate once and for all. But surprisingly, the news was met with a range of reactions as will be seen in the book.  Post-war Germany found itself in ruins and under Allied occupation.  The author soon learns that everything has a price and provides us with interesting anecdotes regarding his interactions with both American and British Troops. Smitty and Warner are two of the prominent figures with the latter becoming a lifelong friend.  But Hans is determined to get out of Germany and reestablishes contact with his father Al-Hajj in Monrovia. It is here that his life takes a very big turn that results in him eventually making his way to the land of the free and home of the brave.

Massaquoi’s experiences in Monrovia and Lagos are certainly a mixed bag.  But his friendship with his half-brother Morris and determination to become his own man set in chain the series of events that culminated with his arrival in Chicago, Illinois in 1950.  But the story is far from over and even Uncle Sam comes calling.  His life story is simply unbelievable but also a testament to the human spirit to continue even in the most adverse conditions.  And his reunion in America with the most important people in his life bring the book to a fitting close.  The horrors of the Third Reich are well-known and there are no shortages of voices from within Nazi Germany that have told the world of what they saw.  Adolf Hitler, a man consumed by the idea of racial purity and hatred towards those of the Jewish faith, ignited the spark that set off World War II and nearly caused the completely destruction of Germany.  But he could have never guess that there was a young biracial child who would grow up one day and write of a time in world history that he was destined to witness.

ISBN-10: 0060959614
ISBN-13: 978-0060959616

 

Titanic: A Survivor’s Story – Colonel Archibald Gracie

GracieThis past April marked 108 years since the RMS Titanic collided with an iceberg on its maiden voyage from Southhampton to New York City.   By the time the SS Carpathia had arrived to rescue passengers, the Titanic had sank and more than 1,500 passengers lost their lives. It is still one of the deadliest maritime disasters in history.  Survivors of the Titanic have given interviews and written their memoirs. Among them was Colonel Archibald Gracie IV (1858-1912).  On the night of April 14, 1912, Gracie was relaxing in his cabin when shortly before midnight, he was jarred awake and soon realized that the ship’s engines had stopped.  Unaware that the ship had suffered a fatal blow, considerable time passes before the shocking reality begins to settle in.  But when it did, Gracie went into action and this is his account of what he saw that night and what he did as the RMS Titanic met its doomed fate. 

This book was published in 1913 but Gracie never saw the reception it received. He died on December 4, 1912 due to the injuries he suffered on the night of the collision, making him one of the earliest Titanic survivors to died in the wake of the tragedy.  As the story begins, Gracie recalls what he was doing in the days before April 14.  What he discloses gives no indications that anything was amiss with the ship.  Passengers are passing the time with a number of activities.  But on the night of April 14, all of that changed.  Upon impact, Gracie relatees that:

“My stateroom was an outside one on Deck C on the starboard quarter, somewhat abaft amidships. It was No. C, 51. I was enjoying a good night’s rest when I was aroused by a sudden shock and noise forward on the starboard side, which I at once concluded was caused by a collision, with some other ship perhaps.”

It was a collision indeed, but one that none of the passengers could have ever imagined.  Soon it became clear to passengers that the Titanic was in trouble and as the ship began to take on water, urgency creeped in. But even in the face of death, the majority of passengers remained relatively calm.  However, ominous signs were soon upon them and forty-five minutes later, Captain Edward J. Smith (1850-1912) gave the order to lower the life boats.  Gracie provides a keen observation about the distress signals launched by the Titanic’s crew:

“I was on the Boat Deck when I saw and heard the first rocket, and then successive ones sent up at intervals thereafter. These were followed by the Morse red and blue lights, which were signalled near by us on the deck where we were; but we looked in vain for any response. These signals of distress indicated to every one of us that the ship’s fate was sealed, and that she might sink before the lifeboats could be lowered.”

Soon the loading of passengers into the lifeboats was underway and Gracie provides insight as to how the process took place and his own efforts in assisting Second Officer Charles Lightoller (1874-1952).  Gracie did not initially get into a boat himself but insted remained on the ship where he also makes acquaintenance with victim James Clinch Smith. His description of the ship’s final moments made the hair stand up on my neck. And it was nothing short of miraculous that Gracie eventually ended up in a lifeboat himself.  And it was not until he was board the Carpathia that he realized the full extent of his injuries and his ordeal.

As a first-hand witness, Gracie found himself in a position to debunk rumors about the night’s events, in particular whether an explosion took place, if the the ship broke in tow and whether some officers shot themselves.  Conspiracy theories may not believe what he has to say but as far as a I know, Gracie’s account stands as credible to this day.  And there is no doubt that he was a passenger and a survivor.  However, there is more to the book than just his memories and clarifying rumors.  What follows in the second half of the book is a solid discussion of the events that took place on other lifeboats taht were dispatched by the White Star Line’s crew.  Also included are statements provided by survivors to eithe the British of American inquiries and in appearances such as that of Lightoller, testimony is sampled from both.  It is an interesting read and provides insight into what the survivors were contending with as they drifted in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with no rescue ship in sight.

Gracie is adamant in his belief that the crew of the White Star performed admirably that night.  He expresses praise for Officer Lightoller and others who rose to the challenge that night. However, he does have an interesting observation about Edward J. Smith and also provides a statement by retired Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914) that was submitted to the Evening Post in which the retired Navy officer shares his views on J. Bruce Ismay (1862-1937. Readers may recall that Ismay was Managing Director of the White Star Line at the time of the disaster and that he survived the disaster after getting into the last lifeboat that left the ship.  Mahan minces no words about his feelings on Ismay’s actions that night but ultimately, it is up to the reader whether Ismay deserves the criticism leveled against him.

The book is quite short but still a fascinating yet tragic read.  The most haunting moments are undoubtedly the Titanic’s final moments as passengers still aboard the ship realized the pending doom before them.  All hope for them was lost and those who managed to find a lifeboat could only watch in disbelief and horror and what was occurring before their eyes. It is a memory that none of them would ever forget. Their memories which have been recorded for history are reminders of one of the darkest nights in maritime history.  Gracie’s story here has stood the test of time as a key addition to the wealth of material regarding the RMS Titanic.

ASIN: B01KU3F6K0

Biography of Dr. Ramón Emeterio Betances Alacan: Father of the Puerto Rican Motherland – Armando Pacheco Matos

BatancesOn May 12, 1898, the United States Military invaded the island of Puerto Rico, the Caribbean island once under the control of the Spanish Empire.  The occupation by the United States ended hopes of an independent Puerto Rico, the dream of Dr. Ramón Emeterio Betances Alacan (1827-1898) whom author Armando Pacheco Matos calls the “Father of the Puerto Rican Motherland”.  Betances died in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France on September 16, 1898, and did not live to see what would become of the island he loved.  Had he lived, he would have been appalled at the annexation of Puerto Rico by the United States and its designation as a commonwealth. Betances’ goal from the start was complete independence of Puerto Rico from the bruality of the Spanish empire.  Today, his name is rarely mentioned but if we want to have a discussion about Puerto Rico’s history, he must be part of the conversation. To understand why, it is necessary to read this book which captures Betances’ life and how it impacted the history and culture of Puerto Rico.

Readers who are looking for a thorough discussion of Puerto Rico’s history will not find it here.  But I do recommend Rudolph Adams Van Middeldyk’s The History of Puerto Rico: From the Spanish Discovery to the American Occupation which I found to be the perfect go ot source to learn how Puerto Rico went from a Spanish colony to a United States commonwealth.  The focus here is strictly on Betances’ life and I found the author’s work to be highly informative and the subject of this book highly underrated.  In fact, as readers will see in the book, Betances was critical to the development of Puerto Rican pride and also the history of the Dominican Republic.  He proved to be invaluable to former President Gregorio Luperón (1839-1897).  His contributions to Dominican society are duly noted and highlight his belief in true independence not just for Puerto Rico but any nation under imperialist rule.

The book is not very long but it is packed with a wealth of information and the story moves quickly.  And although it may not be an “extensive” biography, it is just what is needed to understand who Betances was. And this is where the author succeeds.  We learn about Betances’ childhood, the ramifications of his African ancestry and how his travels abroad helped form the foundation for the actions he would take later in his life.  To say that he was multi-dimensional would be an understatement.  As a polyglot, he took command of several languages and used his medical training to improve the quality of life of all Puerto Ricans and impoverished people.  His love for the Antilles is on full display as Puerto Rico contends with two foreign nations determined to take control of the island of enchantment.

Betances had formed critical alliances as his revolutionary activity increased and some of those individuals also appear in the story such as Segundo Ruiz Belvis (1829-1867), Lola Rodríguez de Tió (1843-1924) and Eugenio María de Hostos (1839-1903).  Tió may be known to some readers as the writer of the original Puerto Rican anthem.  Dr. Betances also had many people he admired and their names which will be familiar to nearly every reader provide further insight into where Betances sought inspiration as he continued to develop into the revolutionary he would later become.

While the book is a biography, the crux is El Grito De Lares (The Cry of Lares) that occurred on September 23, 1868.  The uprising against the Spanish and its aftermath are critical events in Betances’ story as readers will see. Today, we know with hindsight that independence did not come about because of the uprising.  But it did have other effects and remains to this day, one of the most significant acts of resistance against the Spanish empire that decimated the Americas through genocide and disease.  And Betances is forever linked with Lares, the city in which his vision for freedom was put into action.

As I read through the book, I did notice that there is not much information on his wife Simplicia Isolina Jiménez Carlo, who appears mainly towards the end, in particular after Betances’ death in France from where she sends out a vital letter to secure financial assistance.  However, there is not much else we can learn about her as she is not frequently mentioned in the story. Whether that is because there is a lack of information about her life or that the author chose to focus mainly Betances himself, I do not know for sure.  It does not appear that the couple had any children and there is no mention of the same here.  And I am sure that there ae some parts of his life that may be lost to history.  However, the author does provide the names of other writings by Betances for further reading, including a snippet of the late doctor’s Ten Commandments of Free Men.

Having finished the book, I do feel that there are some gaps in the story and long periods of Betances’ life could have been explored further.   However, Matos has still provded an important and incredible story.  My only wish is that the book would have been much longer as I felt that I was still learning who Dr. Betances really was even as it ended. And I am certain that there is far more to his legacy than what we see in the book. But if you are looking for a solid introduction to one of Puerto Rico’s greatest heroes, this is the book for you.

ASIN: B004VWL4V2

Freedom’s Detective: The Secret Service, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Man Who Masterminded America’s First War on Terror – Charles Lane

hiramYesterday America once again celebrated its independence from British Colonialism.  Cookouts and fireworks were held all over the country as people sought out even the smallest amount of happiness during what are surreal times.  The Coronavirus Pandemic and murder of George Floyd (1973-2020) have placed America at a crossroads.  As a nation we are forced with both an invisible enemy that spreads from person to person and a highly visible one which has festered in our nation for far too long.  But what is paramount to remember is that America has faced these enemies before but what we do moving forward will truly define what type of country we wish to have.  I found this book on Amazon while browsing through a list of daily recommendations and the cover caught my attention instantly. I do confess that did not have the slightest idea who the person on the cover was and why he is important in American history.  All that changed as I opened the pages of this book and learned a history lesson that I have never seen in any textbook.

As a person of color, I am sometimes placed in a tough position.  I love America deeply but I am sometimes ashamed of the image that we project to the rest of the world. Domestically, we all know of and may have even been to the region simply called “the South”.  For black men and women, the southeastern part of the United States was nothing short of hell on earth.  And the enslavement of people of color remains entrench in America’s dark past.  In the wake of the Civil War, the Republican Party had embarked on a path to eradicate all traces of the Confederacy and rebuild the South from scratch as a part of the Union in which freedom, liberty and equality held true for all.  In the state of Georgia, a Radical Republican named George W. Ashburn (1814-1868) had pushed for the reconstruction of Georgia and firmly believed that African-Americans were human beings and should have a part to play in a new society.  His actions and beliefs enraged former Confederate officers, slave owners and racists still seething from losing the war. On the night of March 31, 1868, several hooded men burst into the lodgings of Hannah Flournoy where Ashburn was staying and shot the politicaan to death.  The group that carried out the murder became known to the public as the Ku Klux Klan.

Founded in 1865 by a group of disgruntled Confederate soldiers in Pulaski, Tennessee, the Ku Klux Klan grew into a widespread organization that terrorized white and black citizens through horrific acts of violence. Their savagery however, was always saved for Black Americans and the atrocities committed by the Klan’s upon people of color is too extensive and disturbing to discuss here.  In Washington, D.C., President Ulysses G. Grant (1822-1886) took notice and the government created its plan to dismantle the Ku Klux Klan. The division tasked with such a daunting objective was the Secret Service under the direction of officer and Second Chief Hiram C. Whitley (1834-1919), whom author Charles Lane calls Freedom’s Detective.

As I started the book, I kept asking myself how a figure like Whitley has gone unmentioned in history books?  It was clear that he was not a major political figure or military leader but after starting the book, I soon realized why he is important and his story should be known.  To be clear, Whitley will most likely never be seen as a “social justice warrior”. In fact, an incident in Kansas involving an abolitionist named John Doy initially put me on the defensive regarding his character.  However, I pressed on and as the story develops Whitley is transformed from deviant into a law enforcement officer willing to fight fire with fire.  Some readers may be surprised that he was a Secret Service agent and not a typical law enforcement officer.  The reason is that upon its creation, the Secret Service was mainly tasked with cracking down on counterfeit money which was a highly lucrative business.  And as Lane points out towards the end of the book, it was not until the assassination of William McKinley in 1901, that the Secret Service was assigned to protect the president.  Prior to this, the agency had its primary area of investigation but was also asked to take action in other areas which are thoroughly explored in the book.  And interestingly, there is a surprising fact about its  creation that many of us might not be aware of.

Following Ashburn’s murder, Whitley is dispatched to Georgia to bring the assailants to justice. And what he accomplished marked the first successful infiltration into the Ku Klux Klan and proved to Washington that the organization was far from a myth as some right wing southern newspapers had proclaimed.  By no means was the task easy and there were many who still sympathized with the South and had no desire to see African-Americans on equal footing. However, Whitley was undeterred and believed in breaking down the Klan for good.  But he was not without his faults, some of which were exposed during the trial of New York City counterfeiter Joshua D. Miner.   The arrest of the highly respected Miner and the trial that ensued could have changed the course of history had the old veteran Whitley not been quick on his feet and armed with the support of Washington which was ramping up its war on the Klan.

On June 7, 1871, Senator John Pool produced witnesses from North Carolina to testify before the Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States.  The committee became known informally as the Ku Klux Committee and heard from witnesses, stories of the atrocities being committed in the south.  Washington was paying close attention as Whitley was joined by fresh faces including Joseph G. Hester, whose own past was just murky as Whitley’s. However, Hester figures prominently in the mission to defeat the Klan and Whitley’s agents dealt staggering blows to the Klan as part of their goal to see its extinction.  But as readers will learn in the book, silencing the Klan was as much a political issue as it was a social issue.  And what I learned caused me to hang my head in shame and disbelief.

You might be wondering, if the government had begun to eradicate the Klan, why did it not go all the way? I began to ask myself the same question and Lane provides the answer to it.  What should have been the moment for the U.S. Government to end the Klan once and for all, turned into a moment of the highest lack of foresight. And one result is that it paved the way for Jim Crow and the battle for civil rights that continues to this day.   Whitley, Hester and the other agents who fought valiantly against the Klan began to see the writing on the wall.  And the recapturing of power by Southern Democrats sealed the Radical Republicans’ fate and their mission to bring true equality to all people in the United States.

Towards the end of the book as the Klan fades away from Washington’s concern and Democrats take control of Washington, Whitley finds himself embroiled in a mind-boggling fiasco that left me speechless. The events surrounding Columbus Alexander felt as if I were reading an eerie premonition of what we now refer to as Watergate.  I can only imagine how many investigations would take place and how many hearings would be held if a Secret Service chief attempted what Whitley concocts.  The old adage that truth is stranger than fiction applies all throughout this book. And if you need more confirmation, play close attention to Whitley’s actions regarding James Ivins, the stepson of former Attorney General George H. Williams (1823-1910).  I cannot put into words just how mind-boggling this part of the book is.

Hiram C. Whitley was certainly an unorthodox figure and while he was far from a beacon of equality, he did lead the way in the battle against the Ku Klux Klan and had his vision prevailed, the organization might have met its demise as early as the 1870s.  But the rise in power of the Southern Democrats and the reluctance of Liberal Republicans to go after the Klan, allowed the South to reincorporate its power and for black people, life would become more burensome than any could have predicted.  Readers will be left with many what if questions regarding the aftermath of the Civil War. I firmly believe that every American should read this book.  And if all men are created equal, we have to understand where we went wrong as a nation so that we can actually do what is needed to correct it.  The past is always prologue. Highly recommended.

ASIN: B079S8XK5Q

Hitler’s Last Secretary: A Firsthand Account of Life with Hitler -Traudl Junge with Melissa Muller

TraudlOn April 30, 1945, the Soviet Union Red Army, had reached within several blocks of the Reich Chancellory.  Realizing that their fates were sealed, Reich Chancellery Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) and Eva Braun (1912-1945) took their own lives instead of risking capture by Allied forces.  Over the next two days, those who had chosen to remain with them in the underground bunker made their way to surface and attempted to flee Berlin.  Among them was one of Hitler’s personal secretaries, Gertraud “Traudl” Junge (1920-2002).  As a close assistant to the Führer, she found herself in a unique position to observe the daily routine of one of the most powerful men in world history.   This is her memoir of the time she spent with the man who lit the spark for the second world war.

Traudl Junge was one of several people close to Hitler who wrote about their time with him at different points in his life.  Two memoirs that stand out in particular are The Young Hitler I Knew by August Kubizek (1888-1956) and I Was Hitler’s Pilot by Hans Baur (1897-1993).  Both are very good books and show Hitler’s life in different time periods.  Neither discuss the Final Solution in detail and I do not believe that Kubizek was a member of the Nazi Party.  However he was a close friend of the teenage Adolf Hitler and in his book, recalls many memories of their time together during their teen years.  Junge’s account is just as appealing and confirms much of what has been written about the cast of characters that formed the leadership of the Third Reich.

The information she reveals here is not anything groundbreaking nor are there any “smoking guns”.   In fact, there is very little discussion of the war or the Final Solution.  In regards to the war, Junge was assigned to stay close to Hitler and rarely left his side.  Her knowledge and exposure to the war comes largely from dictation that she is asked to type, military figures who arrive to converse with Hitler and the fate of her husband Hans Herman Junge (1914-1944).  The atrocities against Germany’s Jews also receives very little discussion.  But there is a scene in which the wife of a high-ranking official brings up the deportation of Jews.  The matter is not discussed further and Junge does not see her come around again.  As to how much she knew about the extermination camps will always be a mystery.  She did reveal some things here but any other information she may have kept close to the chest went with her to the grave when she died on February 10, 2002.  In 1973, she sat for an interview which was later included in a documentary called World at War, which aired on British television.  It is one of several interviews she gave about her time as Hitler’s secretary.  The program is available on YouTube and can be found here.  And to my surprise she speaks in fluenty English while recalling the memories she had with vivid clarity.  Of course, more than thirty years had passed since war ended and her once brown hair had by then, turned completely white.  But what she says in the interview closely matches what is written in the book.

What is really good about this story is that Junge observes many things about everyone who comes in and out of Hitler’s circle.  What becomes clear throughout the book is that Hitler is without a doubt the pupeteer and those under his command, who are entranced by his aura, go above and beyond to gain his admiration and sabotage competitors.  Rivalries, infidelity, gluttony and even drunkeness are all on the table as Junge gives her descriptions of the many faces she meets in just a few very short years.  And at times, the events that take place make it seem as if Hitler and his suboordinates lived in an alternate reality.

Hitler is by far the star of the show and Junge’s account of his daily activites provides an intimate look at the Führer. And in an almost Wizard of Oz like setting, we go behind the curtains and observe the contradiction between Hitler the leader and Hitler the person who cunningly presents himself as a benevolent father like figure, only concerned with Germany and its people.  Junge easily admits that his charm and personality blinded her to the evil lurking under the surface.  And that side of him is what kept Junge and others arround him largely unaware of major events that were spelling doom for Germany.  Admittedly, the picture she shows of Hitler does give the impression of a harmless older gentleman who many of us would love to have around. However, the cracks in the facade began to appear and she sums the point up perfectly in this quote:

Hitler lived, worked, played with his dog, ranted and raged at his generals, ate meals with his secretaries, and drove Europe towards its fate – and we hardly noticed. Germany was echoing with the wail of sirens and the roar of enemy aircraft engines. Fierce battles were being fought in the East.

This climate of insulation kept Hitler partially blind to his own egomania and the reality on the front lines.  News reports painting a grim picture for Germany’s success do come in and Junge vividly recalls those moments where Hitler literally flew into rages.  And at one point, even as the Russians are steadily advancing on Berlin, he still remains committed to defeating the Red Army.  Perhaps it was delusion or refusal to accept that the destiny he planned for Germany would never come to fruition.  By the time Hitler has decided to take his own life, it is clear to all involved that Germany is doomed. The reality of living in a post-war Germany as a Reich conspirator and the fear of Soviet capture, induced others to follow Hitler’s path including the Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945), his wife Magda Goebbels (1901-1945) and their six children. Today it might seem extreme that they chose death but Junge recalls a comment by Madga that explains the thoughts of those in the bunker:

“Frau Goebbels talked to me about it. There were no differences of class or rank any more, we were all bound together by fate. Frau Goebbels was in greater torment than any of us. She was facing six deaths, while the rest of us had only to face one. ‘I would rather have my children die than live in disgrace, jeered at. Our children have no place in Germany as it will be after the war.” 

Yet even as Hitler was planning his own demise, there were still others were carrying out their duties even if the Führer would not.  The efforts to achieve a negotiated surrender by Heinrich Himmler(1900-1945) and the attempt to seize control of the Reich by Hermann Goering (1893-1946) are both discussed, providing us with a look into the fragmented and substance riddled mind of the Führer, partly due to years of the injections by the Reich “Spritzenmeister”, Dr. Theodor Morrell (1886-1948).  The doctor makes an appearance as well and it is clear that Junge held the same opinion as many others about Hitler’s favorite doctor.

At less than three hundred pages, the book is slightly on the shorter side. But I do feel that Junge and Muller produced a very good memoir that will remain a welcomed addition to my library.  Some readers might expect more from her but what she did leave for us adds another level of authenticity to history’s record of Adolf Hitler’s last days.

ASIN: B005V2EEG8

American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World – David E. Stannard

StannardEarlier this week, my boss mentioned during a Zoom office meeting that Columbus Day needed to be re-examined.  He had learned of many dark aspects of Christopher Columbus’ (1451-1506) arrival in the Caribbean.  The movement to end the celebration of Columbus’ life has gained considerable traction over the past several years.  Some states in America have renamed the Columbus Day to  “Indigenous People’s Day”, in honor of the Native Americans who sufferend immensly at the hands of Spanish and other European explorers.  It is a sound recommendation and one that may even happen here in New York City as it becomes harder for people to ignore the disturbing actions by Columbus and his group of marauders.  Many of us learned in school that he was the man who “discovered America”.  But is that what really happened?  An uncontested fact is that Columbus never set foot on North American soil, making the claim of discovering America misleading.  And we know today after many years of neglect by mainstream media, is that indigenous populations were decimated when exposed to the new visitors from abroad.   The true story however, goes far beyond Columbus, who was just one of many bloodthirsty religious fanatics who favored violence over peaceful assimilation.  David E. Stannard revisits the Columbus story in this eye-opening and chilling account that resulted in a stiff drink and a long moment of silence after I had finished reading.

I need to point out from the start that this book is not for the faint at heart.  If you are easily upset by graphic descriptions of barbaric actions, then this book may not be for you.  It is dark, chilling and beyond tragic.  And that is exactly why the way history is taught in the United States is in need of change.  Although the cover of the book gives the impression that the story is solely about Columbus, there is actually far more included in the book regarding the arrival of Spanish and English explorers whose wave of destruction spread across North America, the Caribbean, Central America and South America.

One question that has always typically been asked about the Americas is how long did the native population live there?  It is a good question and Stannard does provide a discussion about the original inhabitants of the Americas.  And what he says might suprise some readers.  I found the topic of Berengia to be highly interesting. The Berengia theory for human migration into the Americas is plausbible and the Bering Land Bridge which no longer exist, gives credence to the author’s point.  However, what is clear is that what we call the Americas had been populated by anicent civilizations thousands of years ago.  Creationists may believe differently but to completely diregard the science at hand would be highly unfortunate as the author provides a thorough discussion of humanity’s existence.

The story picks up pace as the Spanish arrive in the New World.  in August of 1492,  Columbus and his crew wasted no time in implementing their program of terror upon the natives.  The violence is nothing short of gratuitous and disease proved to be just a deadly.  The combination of the two as detailed in the book, had long reaching and long-term effects from which the Americas have never fully recovered.  And in case defenders of Columbus and other explorers point to disease as the major killer, Stannard has this to say:

However, by focusing almost entirely on disease, by displacing responsibility for the mass killing onto an army of invading microbes, contemporary authors increasingly have created the impression that the eradication of those tens of millions of people was inadvertent—a sad, but both inevitable and “unintended consequence” of human migration and progress.

The names of the tribes that suffered so much destruction are voluminous and I learned the name of several that I had no prior knowledge of.  Their names are almost endless and I am sure that only a fraction of the true number of indigenous tribes that called the Americas home are covered here.  In North America alone there were hundreds of tribes, some of which are now extinct including the Canarsie, who have a neighborhood and high school dedicated in their honor right here in my hometown of Brooklyn, New York.  Sadly, most do not know the true story of the Canarise but this book certainly does provide an idea.

Aside from the grim account at hand, Stannard takes yet another approach and explores the reasons behind the Spanish exploration across the ocean.  The true reason for Columbus’ voyage should cause readers to take notice about how much he knew about navigation and the position of the Spain in the European hierarchy.  Putting that aside, there is a much darker aspect to the Spanish missions and this is where religion enters the story.   Many of us know of the Crusades and the horrors of Christianity but in regards to Columbus, there is far more than meets the eye.  The mind-boggling details are included in Stannard’s account revealing yet another side of Columbus that will make many stare in disbelief at the words they are reading.   And if that is not enough, there were yet other reasons for the Spanish conquest and the end result left me shaking my head.

Halfway through the book I felt as if I needed a break but pressed on as I knew there was much more to learn about extermination of Native Americans in what is today called the United States.  Stannard keeps the discussion streamlines but does mention the Trial of Tears and Wounded Knee.  Each of those topics would require a separate book to fully go into the stories behind the tragedies.  The purpose here is to show the different ideologies behind Spanish and British actions in the Americas which both led to the same result for native populations.  The atrocities committed against Native Americans by the United States Government aare beyond upsetting and amount of gore found in recollections of the events might cause some readers to revolt in disgust.  Quite frankly, the European arrival in North America was just as deadly as the Spanish pillaging of Central and South America.  Each empire had its own reasons but for both, religious ideology, finanical motives and beliefs in racial superiority resulted in what Stannard believes to be the worst genocide in world history.   In fact, he states pointedly:  “the destruction of the Indians of the Americas was, far and away, the most massive act of genocide in the history of the world

After I finished the book, I had to sit in silence for a while to digest what I had just taken in.  Columbus’ actions were not a surprise to me as I had already known of his dark legacy.  What I did not know were the names of the numerous forgotten tribes of the Americas who no longer exist today.  The systematic destruction and eradication of their lives and culture is indefensible and nothing short of genocide, sexual exploitation and the plundering of territory inhabited by others whose way of life was completely changed by new faces upon their shores. If this book does only thing, I hope that is to shatter the myth of the new settlers in the Americas arriving with open arms and becoming fast friends with the native peoples.   Revisiting the past is often painful and reveals many disturbing facts that we would rather not know.  But if we are to have a frank and honest discussion about the people we have long called “heroic” and trailblazing” then all of their deeds should be open to examination.  This book is masterfully written, haunting but yet eerily relevant even today.

ASIN: B004TFXREI