On August 2, 1980, a neo-fascist terrorist group hid a time bomb at the BolognaBologna Centrale station, killing 85 people and wounding more than 200. It is one of the major incidents during the tumultuous Years of Lead, the period of social and political strife that lasted from the 1960s to the 1980s, and arguably the very worst of these.
Some time after this massacre, a subtle controversy occurred concerning the station's clock. In a 2010 study, local people were asked about it, and 92 percent of them responded that they remembered the clock had stopped since the bombing. But, as it turned out, this was a collective false memory, a phenomenon commonly referred to today as the "Mandela effect."
In reality, the clock was repaired shortly after the attack. About 17 years later, it was again stopped and set to the time of the bombing in commemoration of it, and has remained so ever since.
This alliterative park in East Elmherst is unusual. It is littered with aviation guiding lights and cuts diagonally across several blocks before ending abruptly at the runway of LaGuardia Airport.
The reason for these strange patches of park is none other that good old fashioned government regulation and a too-close airport. Because the property line of LaGuardia's runway is so close to the nearby residential neighborhood in Queens, the airport's landing lights extend out into the neighborhood next door. Residents of the neighborhood are able to go out and enjoy the parks' open air, being sure to avoid the fenced off LaGuardia Landing Lights littered throughout.
The park was was created in 1958 to confirm with Federal Aviation Administration regulations, which require cleared land in the approaches leading up to airport runways. The nine pieces of the park were surrendered to the City for park purposes from the Port Authority and follow the flight path to LaGuardia Airport.
Planes have been taking off and landing from this area since 1929. But before it was expanded and named for former New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia, it was a small private landing strip. In 1935 Mayor La Guardia chose the site for the construction of a new airport, which opened in 1939 as the New York Municipal Airport after a $23 million renovation (equivalent to more than $400 million in 2020).
With works such as Ciudad Juárez's X and the Guerrero Chimalli, the sculptor known as Sebastián (real name Enrique Carbajal) is considered the go-to figure for massive, government-funded public artworks in Mexico. A majority of these are monochrome abstract figures—often red—and La Gran Puerta de México is no exception.
The Northern city of Matamoros, opposite the border from Brownsville, Texas, is the country's easternmost northern border crossing. As such, it can be considered a gateway into Mexico, so it makes sense that Sebastián's sculpture in the city would be a conceptual representation of such a portal. Inaugurated as part of the celebrations for the city's 181st anniversary, the sculpture consists of two curved towers united by a cube, giving it the appearance of a capital letter "M."
Per the creator, the "M" stands for both Matamoros and Mexico. The sculpture is located in the city's Parque Cultural Olímpico (Olympic Cultural Park).
Picture, for a moment, Kamala Harris cleaning up a territory known for horse thieves and train bandits, Elizabeth Warren boosting the treasury tenfold, and Amy Klobuchar squaring off against her own husband in an election. Now imagine all these women running on a ticket together, throw in two more of your favorite female politicos, then pop the bubbly (or mountain moonshine) for their blowout victory.
That’s essentially what happened, on a much smaller scale, a century ago in Jackson, Wyoming. The 2020 presidential election may have given us an unprecedented number of female candidates—six in the Democratic primary—but 1920 yielded one of America’s earliest female-run governments.
This spring marks the 100th anniversary of the election of the “petticoat rulers,” the name given to the ladies who took over Jackson, the notoriously lawless town. On May 11, 1920, the all-female ticket—with Grace Miller as mayor and Rose Crabtree, Mae Deloney, Faustina Haight, and Genevieve Van Vleck as council members—claimed victory against an all-male roster. The election drew the most voters the town had seen at that point (Jackson was incorporated in 1914), and in many cases, the women bested their opposite-gender opponents by 2-to-1. Rose Crabtree even toppled her husband, Henry, to claim her spot on the council.
“Of course they knew the significance of the moment on some level,” says Jim Rooks, great-grandson of Genevieve Van Vleck and a high-school social-studies teacher in Jackson today. “But I don’t think they ever could’ve fathomed that 100 years later people would still be celebrating the event.”
“It’s a story that Jackson is really proud of and has been telling since the women were elected,” says Morgan Jaouen, executive director of the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum. Once the museum reopens this summer—it’s been closed since March 16 due to coronavirus—Miller’s jacket and side saddle will be on display as part of an exhibit called “Mountains to Manuscripts,” which highlights Wyoming’s rich history of female writers.
(Jaouen assembled a petticoat curatorial crew herself, enlisting only women to work on the project. It was set to close this spring but will likely remain in place through March 2021—something of a silver lining caused by coronavirus reshuffling).
The petticoat story still inspires local pride, but back in 1920, news of a lady-led government made waves from coast to coast. The New York Evening Herald ran the headline “Women Rule Western City; Gun Play Thru,” while the Los Angeles Times reported “Woman Mayor Running Former Bad-Man Rendezvous.” As far away as London, The Daily Chronicle trumpeted a “Town Ruled by Women. Would-Be Counciller [sic] Defeated by His Own Wife.” (For the record, Henry Crabtree is said to have taken his defeat in stride.)
The general consensus among newspapers at the time was that with women in power, Jackson would no longer enable a kind of Wild West criminality the area was known for: bands of horse thieves, fatal barroom brawls, gold miner murders. Though most of its citizens were law abiding, the town of Jackson, which is the center of Jackson Hole valley, had a reputation for being an outlaw refuge, thanks to its isolated mountain setting.
Jackson’s Hole Courier put it this way in 1920: “Whenever a serious crime was committed between the Mississippi River and the Pacific coast, it was pretty safe to guess that the man responsible for it was either headed for Jackson’s Hole or already had reached it.”
Even if purported gun play was “thru,” at least one bandit from the crime-riddled region didn’t seem to mind. When the women went on to win a second term a year later—this time by a 3-to-1 margin—Ed Trafton, a convicted stagecoach robber fresh from prison, sent a congratulatory letter to Miller. “I believe your little city has the distinction of being the first in the U.S. to elect its city government of women,” he wrote. “It not only shows the confidence placed in its intelligent women, but the progressive intelligence of its citizens. Hurrah for Jackson, WY.”
Actually, Grace Miller’s group wasn’t the country’s first all-female town council; Oskaloosa, Kansas, elected one in 1888, and Kanab, Utah, welcomed its own in 1912. But Jackson’s was perhaps the most famous.
That’s in large part due to timing: Ladies in politics was big news in 1920, the year the 19th Amendment was ratified and women across the country finally won the right to vote. (Wyoming had actually granted suffrage over 50 years earlier, in 1869—the first state to do so, thereby earning the nickname the Equality State.)
Jackson’s all-female town council was also exemplary in appointing only women to fill remaining government roles. Marta Winger became the town clerk, Edna Huff the health officer, and Viola Lunbeck the treasurer, while Pearl Williams—a five-foot-tall, 22-year-old dynamo—nabbed the position of marshal.
“She says that a while ago, she killed three men and buried them herself and that she hasn’t had no trouble with anybody since,” reported Jackson’s Hole Courier in May 1921 of Williams’ time as marshal.
In reality, Williams, whose pre-marshal résumé included only one job (soda squirt), spent most of her time keeping swine and cattle out of the town square. “I had a horse, so [the all-women council] thought I could keep the cows out of town,” Williams (who became Hupp by marriage) told her nephew in a 1983 interview. The rest she played up for the papers, though she did occasionally have a prisoner in her one-room jail.
What wasn’t exaggerated was the effectiveness of Mayor Miller’s government over the course of its three-year tenure. Within a fortnight, the women raised the town coffers from $200 to $2,000 by rounding up money due (the previous male leaders hadn’t bothered to actually collect taxes). They created a more concrete town square by grading the surrounding streets and installing electric lights. Mindful that Jackson needed a proper place to mourn, the ladies (all described as “councilmen” in the official minutes) bought the title to a 40-acre plot that became Aspen Hill Cemetery and built a road leading to the graveyard. They also instituted a bit of civility by prohibiting cattle grazing in public areas (thanks, of course, to the help of Williams), as well as the launching of firecrackers and other explosives.
“I remember my grandma describing her mother’s, Genevieve’s, expression that they needed to ‘settle up this place,’” says Rooks, explaining that the phrase comes from homesteading. “If you got a homestead, you had to settle it up; you had to improve it.”
This pragmatism may help explain how the women took over Jackson in the first place. “There was a practical approach to it: We need this, and we’ll do it ourselves,” says Michelle Rooks, another Van Vleck descendant (and Jim’s sister).
And yet, despite proof of petticoat success, Grace Miller’s government didn’t exactly set a precedent. Jaouen points out that Jackson didn’t have another female council member until the 1980s. Nor did the town elect another female mayor until 2001, when Jeanne Jackson became the executive. Sara Flitner, elected for a two-year term in 2014, was Jackson’s only other woman mayor.
“I do think [the petticoat rulers are] an inspirational story for young girls and for women,” says Jaouen. “But it did not set a standard or a path forward to where this became normal and accepted. I think women still have to work really hard to be in positions of leadership and power.”
Wyoming as a whole has had a tough time with gender representation in recent years. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, when it comes to women serving in the state legislature, the Equality State ranks 48th.
As for why the political gains of the 1920s didn’t continue to build, Jaouen says you have to do a deeper dive into why the petticoat rulers were elected in the first place. The answer, she says, is quite nuanced. Rather than a sweeping call to feminism, the all-women government was born of circumstance. Even though they ran against men, the women were elected to do a job that wasn’t particularly popular at the time.
“People were focused on other things, like farming and just trying to make a living,” says Jaouen. “They didn’t necessarily have time for civic duty.”
Statewide, experts theorize that women’s diminished role in politics over the last century is due in part to Wyoming’s shift from pioneering territory to settled state. When Grace Miller’s group took office, homesteading, which would last until 1927, was still a viable way to earn land. During that period, male attention was focused elsewhere, away from government roles. That’s, of course, in addition to blatant sexism and a belief that women shouldn’t lead.
Like Jaouen, Michelle Rooks struggles to reconcile what happened in 1920 with the century that followed. “Sometimes I discount what this meant,” Michelle says of the petticoat government. “And you know, maybe they weren’t politically motivated, but think about what it means.” But she quickly follows up her marveling with a question: “That happened 100 years ago, and we still have only had two female mayors following that … what’s that all about?”
While petticoat rule feels like a flash in the pan, ghosts of the all-woman government remain in Jackson today. Grace Miller’s ranch still stands and is part of the National Elk Refuge. Genevieve Van Vleck’s former home has become a restaurant, Café Genevieve. And a replica of the hotel that Rose and Henry Crabtree owned is now a retail space called Crabtree Corner (look for the Häagen-Dazs).
Additionally, a locally iconic photo of the 1920 town council, snapped on Van Vleck’s front porch, hangs in bars, restaurants, and grocery stores around town.
In the grand scheme of American politics, the 100th anniversary of the petticoat rulers is a reminder that momentum is never guaranteed—a lesson to keep in mind as we come off our most diverse presidential primary in history. And on a smaller scale, the story of Grace Miller and her lady gang illustrates how female-pioneered pragmatism helped tame a disorderly mountain town. It’s a legend in how the West was won—by women.
This year is the 100th anniversary of America going dry. In 1920, some 1,300 breweries in the United States faced the onset of nationwide Prohibition—a ban on alcohol sales that many expected to be repealed quickly, but instead lasted until 1933. When it ended, less than a quarter of those breweries remained in operation, and, although new brewers opened up shop, many of the survivors failed in the following years, while the rest were absorbed by major manufacturers like Anheuser-Busch. Not until 2016 did the number of breweries in the U.S. top 1873’s record of 4,131.
Today, the coronavirus is exacting the largest impact on American beer since Prohibition, and the pandemic will similarly shape this country’s beer story—an insight that is guiding Smithsonian curator and beer historian Theresa McCulla, who is already working to document this pivotal moment.
By March 23, McCulla, who curates the American Brewing History Initiative at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, had put out a call via Twitter. Like her fellow curators, who are asking Americans to donate grocery lists, letters from patients, homemade masks, and other signs of the pandemic’s effects on everyday life, she asked brewers, bar managers, and beer fans to save material that captures what the beer industry is experiencing: packaging and labels like Hackensack Brewing Co.’s limited-edition quarantine cans, menus geared toward delivery and curbside pickup, hand sanitizer and other alternative products made by breweries, and business records. McCulla is also recording oral histories.
In short, McCulla is gathering the sort of artifacts and documentation she has used to study Prohibition so that she can do the same with the pandemic.
While it’s impossible to predict how COVID-19 will change the beer industry, she is already thinking about the story these objects may one day tell at the Smithsonian. “The means to protect ourselves [from the virus] is to withdraw, in terms of gathering in person,” McCulla muses. “The way craft beer has grown in the last couple of decades is to emphasize the importance of people gathering in taprooms.” Breweries can make and sell beer, but on-premise consumption is a huge chunk of their revenue.
The effect of losing those sales can already be seen: In April, a Brewers Association survey of small breweries found that a combined 58 percent said they would have to permanently close if social-distancing measures remained equally strict for anywhere from one week to three months. The same survey found that 66 percent of brewery employees had been laid off or furloughed.
As breweries attempt to make up lost revenue, regulations formed during Prohibition’s repeal often dictate whether they can deliver beer, ship it, and sell it across state lines.
“The federal government left it up to states to decide how to repeal the Prohibition,” McCulla explains. “That’s why, to this day, you can go somewhere like Las Vegas and buy alcohol 24/7, 365 days a year, but in other places, you may not be able to buy alcohol on Sundays.” A huge hurdle of the lockdown is that in addition to coming up with ways to boost sales, breweries often have to lobby local governments to be able to act on those plans.
Bart Watson, the Chief Economist for the Brewers Association, doesn’t think the pandemic will shape regulations as dramatically as Prohibition, but he does believe changes different states are making could stick around in some form. “We’re already seeing a shift in the short-term regulatory environment, with greater freedoms for breweries and off-premise operators for things like delivery and to-go,” says Watson. “It has the potential to set in motion a wave of different legislative structures because of the need for direct-market access for small producers.”
During Prohibition, breweries including Coors, Yuengling, Anheuser-Busch, and Pabst Brewing Company pivoted to make near-beer, soft drinks, infant formula, frozen eggs, ice cream, and ceramics. Many survived by leasing their spaces to other companies and industries—surviving on real-estate holdings that small, independent brewers lacked.
But McCulla is heartened by the increased support that exists for the craft industry now, and the inspiring creativity on display. In New Orleans, Urban South Brewery won a bid to make 50,000 bottles for the state’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness—it is one of many breweries and distilleries making hand sanitizer. In Milwaukee, Good City Brewing took over a vacant bank for drive-thru sales. “It’s been an absolute joy to watch our team roll up their sleeves, adapt, and execute a completely new business model,” says co-founder David Dupee. In San Francisco, Anchor Brewing Company partnered with Bay Area artist Jeremy Fish to post a version of the San Francisco flag on boarded-up restaurants and bars with a QR code that directs people to donate to the United States Bartenders Guild. In Brooklyn, Threes Brewing has taken its eclectic events lineup online and created an online store and its own delivery system.
A bottle of hand sanitizer from Urban South, a photo of Good City’s drive-thru, an art print from Anchor: These are the kinds of items McCulla will collect over the following months and years to tell the story of the pandemic and beer. As she does, she will have to determine which objects best tell that story and preserve our experiences. “That’s the great challenge and art of being a curator,” says McCulla, “trying to judge what those items are and how we can take care of them.”
In the middle of a verdant park lie the scattered remains of a once grand Georgian manor. After the manor house was destroyed in a fire in the 1950s, only the outline of the walls and foundations remain to hold the history of Irwell House.
The house was built in 1790 by the local industrialist Peter Drinkwater , who would go on to become the Lord of the Manor of Prestwich. Irwell House's grounds covered many acres of rural land around the river Irwell. Irwell house and the surrounding land were sold to Prestwich and Salford councils in 1902, who turned the grounds into Drinkwater Park.
The manor house was turned into an isolation hospital for smallpox patients. Its isolated location made it an ideal spot for treating sufferers of this highly contagious disease. The house was abandoned in the 1950s, and in 1958 was badly damaged by a fire caused by a civil defense exercise. Unfortunately the house was allowed to rot after this, until a few years later the remains of the house were demolished, with just the foundations and the bricks of a few walls.
Today what remains of the house lies in a small clearing surrounded by thick woods. It’s possible to see the foundations of the main house and some of the steps, along with part of the former gardens. The site is a few minutes walk from the bridge over the River Irwell in Drinkwater Park.
Since ancient Roman times, the thermal springs of Wiesbaden have attracted people interested in the purported healing qualities of a hot mineral bath. As the town grew into a major spa destination in the 1700s, its wealthy visitors sought other forms of entertainment, and facilities appeared nearby for theater, music, and, above all, gambling.
The first regulated card games were licensed in 1771. By 1810, Wiesbaden boasted a monumental spa-house to accommodate its bathers and gamblers. A stream of aristocrats and celebrities passed through its grand hall. Napoleon is rumored to have been an early client, and Dostoevsky was a prominent visitor in the 1860s.
In fact, the roulette-crazed Russian author hurriedly wrote his novel The Gambler to regain financial stability after his casino habits drove him into debt. In one version of the tale, Dostoevsky wagered and lost his life savings on a single spin of a Wiesbaden roulette wheel, which was then retired from the casino floor and preserved as a memento of his recklessness.
The casino's popularity was such that it outgrew the original 1810 spa-house, and a larger building was constructed from 1905 to 1907. Kaiser Wilhelm II attended the grand opening of the new structure, which included space for concerts, balls, and banquets, in addition to a lavish gambling hall. In a nod to its origins, the building is called the Kurhaus (referring to the thermal "cure") and its grand entrance portico is inscribed "Aquis Mattiacis," meaning the waters of the Mattiaci tribe who inhabited the area in antiquity.
The Kurhaus complex has had various uses during its life and was damaged in World War II, but has been restored and once again welcomes gamblers. A secondary building contains a modern casino with electronic slot machines, while the grand Kurhaus has event space and an upscale traditional gambling hall, where polished wooden roulette wheels spin just as they did in Dostoevsky's day.
As for the fateful roulette wheel that bankrupted Dostoevsky, some say that it has been lost, but others claim that it is in safekeeping at the casino, a historic token of reckless frenzy and outrageous misfortune.
Between the towns of Itri and Fondi, in southern Lazio, the valley of Sant'Andrea provided a natural passage through the harsh and wild Aurunci Mountains, now a protected area. In this valley you can find the remains of a section the original route of the Via Appia Antica.
Consul Cladius Appius Caecus built the famous Roman road in 312 B.C., connecting Rome with Brindisi, on the southeastern Italian coast. One of the best preserved stretches of the Appia Antica is the stretch in this valley, which was used until the beginning of the 20th century to connect north and south. Pilgrims, armies, and highwaymen all left their traces on this extraordinary open-air archaeological site.
The road we see today is largely the result of three phases of reconstruction. The large basalt stones were placed during the reign of Emperor Caracalla in 216. In 1568 Perafan de Ribera, the Viceroy of Naples, rebuilt the road with smaller volcanic stones and built the bridge that one crosses when approaching Fondi. Between 1767 and 1768, Ferdinand of Bourbon ordered additional restoration works for this main road into his kingdom (at the time, the town of Fondi was a border town between the Papal States and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies).
One of the most interesting sites on this itinerary is the so-called Sant'Andrea Fort (Fortino di Sant'Andrea), which was built by Joachim Murat, king of Naples during the Napoleonic age, to prevent the Austrians from entering his kingdom through the Aurunci Mountains.
However, the history of the fort is much more ancient: the fort was built on the podium of a Roman temple to Apollo (the polygonal walls and the walls in opus incertum provide an indication as to how large this religious building truly was) dating perhaps back to the fourth century B.C.
In the sixth century a chapel to Saint Andrew was built on the ruins of the temple, whose structure would have been radically altered by the need to place the fort's heavy artillery in the early 19th century.
Before the time of Murat, however, the valley had witnessed a significant number of battles and warfare. Starting in the 1500s, the wars over the Kingdom of Naples and of the Two Sicilies drew a significant number of Italian and foreign armies into this valley: Neapolitan, Papal, French, Spanish, Austrian and German armies all marched on the basalt stones of the Appia Antica. (In 1734, the Austrian army fortified the valley to stop the Spanish troops of Charles of Bourbon.)
At the same time, the famous briganti (highwaymen) took control of the Valley at different times, leading to constant reprisals and violence and playing a significant role in the conflicts over Southern Italy. During Masianello's rebellion in Naples in 1647, highwaymen led by Papone and D'Arezzo of Itri blocked the mountain pass to halt the Spanish troops who had been sent to take the city back.
Napoleon's troops found a worthy enemy in the most famous highwayman of the region: Fra' Diavolo (brother Devil). In 1798, serving as a Bourbon officer, he held the mountain pass with a small troop and slowed down the Napoleonic conquest of Southern Italy.
As you walk along the Appia Antica, you will notice the remains of all of those buildings that were functional to long-distance traveling in ancient Rome: the mansiones and mutationes, serving the needs of travelers.
If you were trying to get ahead in 15th-century France, being a renowned warrior was a pretty good way to do it. Not only was there the fame and prestige of being a storied fighter; there was also the repute that came with following a chivalric code, and conducting oneself gallantly.
It’s hard to say whether fighting or manners are more difficult to master, but the former certainly leaves its subject more breathless. And since breathlessness is a goal of strenuous exercise, it’s worth revisiting what knights did to get fit in the Middle Ages.
Though we’re no longer contained in metal suits, we are confined to our homes. And while both are constraining, suits of armor—contrary to popular perception—actually offered a full range of motion.
That's not the only fact worth setting straight when it comes to knightly vigor (and vim!). There’s also the longstanding myth that knights had to be hoisted onto their horses by medieval cranes, due to the weight of their armor. In actuality, any swordfighter worth their salt could vault themselves onto a horse’s back solo, without so much as a squire to help.
Most movies set in medieval times aren’t very helpful when it comes to understanding a real knight’s regimen. Better, then, to delve into some of the documents of the day. In the High Middle Ages, few books dominated the cultural consciousness as much as Secreta Secretorum, or “Secret of Secrets” (clearly either a poorly kept one or a shrewd bit of medieval marketing). A pseudo-Aristotelian manuscript, Secreta Secretorum explores a range of topics relevant to the medieval state, knighthood chief among them.
Using the Galenic concept of humors as a foundation for its espousals on knightly health, the manuscript describes how a knightly body’s “thiknesse of the sholdres and of the bak, with a brode brest, shewith worthynesse ... [and] hardynesse.”
For knights like Boucicaut—a famed French military leader whose real name was Jean II Le Maingre—fitness was a means to an end: having a body that was honed for war. Boucicaut traveled from Prussia to the Ottoman Empire, fighting in conflicts that helped define the map of medieval Europe. And he couldn’t have done so without a stringent, self-imposed exercise circuit, ideal for someone traipsing around in a clattering metal outfit.
His routine is repeatable today—if you have a spare suit of armor. The fit French fighter insisted on doing his exercises—vaulting onto a horse, performing somersaults, climbing walls, and running long distances—while wearing what he would wear in combat.
To practice using his weapons, he employed an extra-heavy arsenal—not unlike the way a baseball batter uses a weighted ring (called a doughnut) before stepping up to the plate. In both cases, the idea is to make swinging the real thing—a sword or a bat—a lighter, faster experience.
Boucicaut’s most astonishing fitness feat, though, was scaling a ladder while clad in his 60-pound suit of armor, taking each rung with both hands at the same time, without his feet to support him.
This may all sound pretty esoteric. But with the exception of the horse, it’s not too hard to dig up the tools you would need to get in some knightly exercise at home. A weight belt, for example, is a modern analog to armor. And ladders, of course, have never gone out of style.
The true test, though, is your endurance. But at this point you’ve made it through at least a couple of months of global tumult (and this story). Perhaps it’s worth some more pain for future gain.
Last week, as protests against police violence and systemic racism were spreading across the country, activists took aim at monuments around the American South. Some toppled a monument in Linn Park in Birmingham, Alabama, and covered the neighboring Confederate Soldiers and Sailors monument, a five-story obelisk, in graffiti. They communicated their distress in red and black letters, scrawling #BLM, the “Black Lives Matter” hashtag, across the monument’s base. They climbed the obelisk and tried to topple it, too. They wanted the thing to come down.
More than 150 years after the Civil War, symbols of the Confederacy, and thus of racism and violence against African Americans, remain visible in public spaces and in the names of highways, bodies of water, and other places named after Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and “Stonewall” Jackson, among others. By the Southern Poverty Law Center’s count, at least 114 plaques, statues, or other symbols have been removed since 2015. (The organization began tracking these figures after a white supremacist murdered nine black worshippers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, the New York Times reported.) Even so, more than 770 Confederate monuments remained as of February 2019, with the largest number in Georgia, Virginia, North Carolina, Texas, and Alabama.
The Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument, in Birmingham, has been a particular flashpoint. A few years ago, the city built 12-foot-tall plywood screens around the base of the monument to hide celebratory inscriptions, such as "The manner of their death was the crowning glory of their lives.” But the Alabama Supreme Court unanimously ordered the screens to come down, NPR reported, deciding that the barriers violated the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act, which protects monuments that have stood on public property for at least four decades. This includes monuments to the Confederacy. The cornerstone of the Birmingham monument was laid in 1894, and the structure was dedicated in 1905.
Many monuments—Confederate and otherwise—are obelisks, and fit into a longer American tradition of borrowing gravitas from faraway places and the distant past. “In the 1800s, America was desperate to look like it had been around for a while,” the journalist Kat Escher once observed in Smithsonian. Historically, in ancient Egypt, “obelisks served as statements of political power, as an expression of a ruler’s ability to rearrange the past, and as victory monuments and symbols of elite self-promotion,” writes the archaeologist Paul Rehak. That was appealing to the builders of a young nation. Writing for Vanity Fair, Bruce Handy recounted how, for American designers and architects in centuries past, Egyptian-inspired structures evoked ideas of “permanence, stability…and the type of solid, well-built structure that remains standing through the ages.” (No wonder the Washington Monument, which was built between 1848 and 1884, is shaped like an obelisk, too.)
On May 31, as anger and grief swirled and protests targeted the Confederate Sailors and Soldiers monument, the Egyptologist Sarah Parcak tweeted a winking-but-informative guide to pulling down an obelisk. She emphasized that she meant the ones that “might be masquerading as a racist monument”—not the Washington Monument, and certainly not bonafide antiquities. Parcak wrote that it was all “hypothetical,” but added, “There might be one just like this in downtown Birmingham! What a coincidence. Can someone please show this thread to the folks there.” (She couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.)
Obelisks look simple—tall, skinny rectangles with triangles on top—but are famously hard to wrangle. In ancient Egypt, they were often painstakingly quarried in a single piece, hauled off on sledges, and loaded into sturdy barges; they often weighed hundreds of tons and stood dozens of feet high. (When an Egyptian obelisk later traveled to Central Park, it is said to have wound through the streets of 19th-century Manhattan at just 97 feet per day.) The heft makes them hard to topple, so Parcak recommended looping metal chains around the obelisk and affixing rope to those chains. Two lines of people would need to flank the obelisk, she wrote—maybe 40 people, total, for every 10 feet of monument. Each row would need to stand about 30 feet from the base, and then start rocking back and forth. She included a hand-drawn, “rough schematic” of two groups of stick figures apparently playing tug o’ war with an obelisk, which was labeled “racist monument.”
In the end, protestors didn’t dismantle the Birmingham monument—the city did. Earlier this week, crews took it down, piece by piece. Cranes lifted the heavy stone onto the bed of a truck, and crews laid the segments on their sides. Public information officers from the office of Birmingham’s mayor, Randall Woodfin, did not respond to Atlas Obscura’s requests for comment about where the pieces of the monument would go, or who would become the custodian of them. The state’s attorney general has already filed a lawsuit against the city for violating the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act, and the city has been charged a $25,000 fine for removing the monument. Meanwhile, other symbols of America’s troubled past stand as reminders of injustices that are as old as the country itself.