I didn’t know much about Harry Houdini before reading The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero. I remember seeing an old TV movie about the escape artist, but I really didn’t remember much about it. I also liked the fact that William Kalush, one of the authors, was a magician himself.

He and co-author Larry Sloman do a wonderful job of bringing Houdini to life on the pages of the book. They explore all aspects of his life from his childhood to his rise to fame to work debunking spiritualists. It also gives non-magicians like me a unique peek behind the curtain to see how magic is made.

I have to give Sloman and Kalush credit. They have written an exciting biography. Although Houdini led an interesting life, they still could have written a boring book. I am reading another biography now about an exciting man and yet, I find this particular book boring. So they deserve credit for making a larger-than-life character very alive.

Though Houdini made a career manipulating people, he was actually a very nice person who mentored other magicians. He was a strong family man. He also wore a lot of hats in his life: magician, escape artist, husband, son, brother, spy, actor and debunker of spiritualists. You get an excellent perspective of all these roles in the book.

So do yourself a favor. Read an exciting, true book about one of the most-interesting people you will ever get a chance to know.


As Paul Harvey used to say, “Here’s the rest of the story” about the Gettysburg man who tried to fly a plane to Mars.

People thought Cheston Eshleman, a Gettysburg High School graduate, was crazy when he tried to fly to Mars in a small airplane in 1939. Maybe they were right, but there’s a fine line between crazy and genius.

Eshleman’s flight of fancy cost him his pilot’s license, but it didn’t stop him from thinking about flying and how it could be done better. One of the things he thought about was how an airplane might be improved so that he could have had a better chance of flying further, although not necessarily in outer space.

One of his designs was called a “flying flounder” or “flying pancake” by people who saw it, but Eshleman called it his “flying carpet.” In 1942, the Gettysburg Times reported that the odd plane “has aroused the interest of Army and Navy officials.”

Eshleman, who was 25 years old, had been testing his new plane in Baltimore since January of 1942. By late July, it had flown successfully 62 times.

“A friend pilots the ship on its tests for Eshleman has been unable to fly since his license was revoked after a fishing boat picked him up at the end of his ‘Mars’ flight,” the Gettysburg Times reported.

Eshleman’s “flying carpet” was 24 feet long and 12 feet wide. It was made entirely of plastic except for some electronics and wiring. Eshleman and six other men had built the airplane in eight weeks at a cost of $5,000 (about $73,000 today). He told reporters that he believed that he could build a larger version of the plane in half the time.

“The wingless construction, he states, has reduced drag or wind resistance 30 per cent providing for speed increase. The aircraft, he asserts, retains normal lifting power, can land in a very small space, and will make 190 miles an hour when powered by a 130-horsepower motor. It has a normal tail assembly and a propeller in front,” the Gettysburg Times reported.

While most of the bugs had been worked out of the design by July, the maiden flight of the plane had been disappointing at best.

“The craft got a few feet off the ground, bounced back to earth, and caught fire. It looked like the end of an experiment which in a letter to President Roosevelt Eshleman had said would ‘cause all existing aircraft in the world to become historic,’” the newspaper reported.

Eshleman’s airplane designs were patented in 1943 and his start-up company began building light, commercial aircraft in Dundalk, Md.

After World War II ended, his attention seemed to shift from aircraft to other types of machinery. The Cheston L. Eshleman Company in Baltimore built lawn mowers, plows and garden tractors.

Then in 1953, his attention shifted again and he began building small, one-cylinder automobiles, golf carts, boats, and scooters. Though no longer building planes, he paid homage to his interstellar dream by calling his boat design, the “Rocket Boat,” which was built from surplus military aircraft wing tanks.

The one-cylinder, air-cooled, two-horsepower engine powered the car up to 15 mph and cost $295. It was sold as a child’s car while the adult car cost $395 and had a three-horsepower engine that could travel at 25 mph. The small cars featured battery-operated head and tail lamps, upholstered seats, and rocket emblems (an Eshleman trademark feature) on the flanks. The cars could also get 70 miles per gallon.

Eshleman ran an effective mail-order campaign to sell most of the vehicles. However, this proved a detriment when many people were disappointed at the small size of the cars, which were 54 inches long, 24 inches wide and 23 inches tall. They quickly returned the vehicles.

After a fire destroyed the Baltimore factory in 1956, the company moved to Crisfield, Md., and renamed itself the Eshleman Motor Company in 1959. It also started building slightly larger cars that were up to 72 inches long and 60 inches tall.

While the company continued building cars, Eshleman moved to Miami, Fla., and began working on new design for a front bumper. Eshleman called it a “crash absorber” and made it from a tire. It was impact resistant up to 15 mph.

Though he continued to invent and earn patents, Eshleman largely retired from the business world in 1967.

Eshleman died at age 87 in 2004, never having reached Mars, though he had certainly seen his dreams soar.






My writer’s group just had a discussion about Son of the Morning Star and the consensus was that despite its flaws, it was the best of the Custer movies.

Originally posted on Practically Historical:

An earlier post pilloried poor historical dramas…this list contains superior efforts.

31 seconds to infamy

     Tombstone-1993:  No movie will ever accurately portray the life and character of Wyatt Earp, he’s not nearly likable enough; but Tombstone comes close to capturing the tumultuous two-year period the Earp clan resided in Southern Arizona.  Kevin Jarre crafted a remarkably accurate and detailed script and was granted permission to direct the film.  Shortly after filming began, studio hatchet men fired Jarre and stripped much of his work from the final product.  The production values remained high featuring authentic costuming, gun play, and a detailed recreation of Arizona’s biggest boom town.  Enough of Jarre’s script remains giving Val Kilmer’s sly Doc Holliday plenty of saucy one liners to balance Kurt Russell’s conflicted Earp.  Put Sam Elliot on a dusty street with a gun and a Stetson, good things will happen.  The film takes liberties with history (Holliday was…

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eshelman01On Monday morning June 5, 1939, 22-year-old Cheston Lee Eshleman climbed into the cockpit of a small plane in Camden, N. J. and flew it east. His goal wasn’t to cross the Atlantic Ocean. No, the Gettysburg High School graduate had a much further destination in mind.

He was going to fly to Mars.

He had given a letter to a “jittery citizen” at the airport asking that it be mailed to the Philadelphia newspapers. The letter noted his interstellar destination and said that Eshleman wanted to return the “visit to Mars on Sunday evening, October 1938 (the night of the Orson Welles radio broadcast),” according to the Ironwood (Mich.) Daily Globe, one of the many newspapers nationwide that carried the story. Orson Welles’ adaptation of War of the Worlds during a radio program on Halloween night 1938 had sent many people into a panic who missed the introduction to show and believed it was a real news program about an alien invasion.

Another reason for his trip was “To survey a temporary hideout for the harmless people so they may escape in time of war the slave-enforced ultra-tragedy when the maniacs versus the he-man feud to destroy themselves and their possessions,” the Daily Globe reported.

Eshleman was born in McKnightstown on January 23, 1917. His parents, Samuel and Bertha Eshleman, owned the Fox Hill Orchards.

However, out on his own, Eshleman had dreams beyond agriculture. Those dreams took a turn for the worse, though, when the airplane that he had rented for $11 an hour developed problems over the Atlantic Ocean. A gas line broke in the aircraft and kept reserve gasoline from being pumped into the main fuel tank.

“This kid just went frantic with fear when he lost the radio beam out of Newark,” Edward Walz, the owner of the airplane, told reporters. “He didn’t know which way to go out there over the water. So he came down the first chance he got.”

The plane crashed into the water about 200 miles east of Boston. Eshleman escaped but the plane sank. Eshleman was left floating in the water until fishermen pulled him aboard their fishing trawler. He had spent 13 hours in the water.

Once ashore, Eshleman was arrested for larceny of the airplane and jailed in the little township jail in Pennsauken, N.J. where he was the sole prisoner.

When arraigned, the blue-eye, brown-haired Eshleman told court reporter George E. Yost that he had planned for a 15-hour flight.

“Where?” Yost asked him.

“Mars,” Eshleman replied with a smile. Then he added, “But there has been one serious misstatement. I’m not a thief. What I planned to do was to pay the $11-an-hour rent for the plane out of my earnings after the trip.”

He apparently figured that a trip to Mar and back would bring him fame and fortune, and it certainly would have if it could have been done.

The police doubted that Mars was Eshleman’s actual destination. They argued that the maps and letters they found in Eshleman’s room at the YMCA said it was more likely that the young man was hoping to reach an airfield in Scotland.

Eshleman was held on $5,000 bail. His parents managed to post a bond and a settlement was worked out with the Walz Flying School. In August, Eshleman’s hearing was postponed indefinitely after his family agreed to pay for the lost airplane.

One might think that after this experience, Eshleman would have been committed to mental institution and would have never flown in an airplane again.

One would be quite wrong. More on that to come.


babe ruth006          Word had gotten around that Babe was back, the home run king of the American League had returned. Those who heard came to see him; some even took the trolley from Frederick to Thurmont and then switched to the Emmitsburg Railroad to make the rest of the journey to Emmitsburg. So when George Herman Ruth walked onto Echo Field at Mount St. Mary’s College on May 7, 1921, a crowd was there to greet him.

The Babe Discovered

It was far larger than the one that had greeted him when he made his first appearance on the field in 1913.

At that time, Ruth was a young man of 18 years who was playing baseball with the team from St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys of Baltimore. The school was a reformatory and orphanage. Ruth had been there since he was seven years old because his parents couldn’t care for him.

Brother Matthias Boutlier, the Head of Discipline at St. Mary’s Industrial School, introduced Ruth to the game of baseball, which he quickly took to. The team made the trip to Mount St. Mary’s in 1913 to play a commencement day game against the Mount St. Mary’s freshman baseball team as an opener to the alumni game that featured college alumni playing against the varsity team.

The odds looked good for the alumni to win in 1913. They had Joe Engel, a pitcher for the Washington Senators, on the mound for them. He was able to play in the game since Sunday baseball wasn’t allowed in Washington D.C. at the time and so he was off work.

Engel had once been something special in his own right. When he had attended the Mount, he had lettered in track, baseball, basketball and football. He also pitched a perfect game while on the Mount baseball team. He pitched in the Major League from 1912 until 1920. Once he was sent to the Minor League, Engel would show himself to be an excellent scout. He eventually became known as one of the greatest scouts and baseball promoter in the history of the game.

It could be argued that that talent first began to show itself in Engel in 1913. He was among the crowd who watched Ruth, who stood 6 foot 2 inches tall and weighed 170 pounds, strike out 18 of the 20 batters he faced.

“The St. Mary’s pitcher caught Engel’s eye, partly because of his fastball and partly because of his haircut. Ruth—he was the pitcher, of course—no longer wore his hair cropped short but instead was wearing it in the most mature hair style, that he, Engel, had ever seen on a school kid,” Henry Thomas wrote in Walter Johnson: Baseball’s Big Train. The haircut apparently was tightly clipped on the sides and “roached” or waved over his forehead. According to Thomas it was “in the mode highly favored by bartenders and other cool cats of the day.”

Engel said later of his first impression of Ruth, “He really could wheel that ball in there, and remember, I was used to seeing Walter Johnson throw. This kid was a great natural pitcher. He had everything.”

Then once the game had ended, Ruth cleaned himself up and joined the band to play the bass drum.

That evening on a train to Baltimore, Engel ran into Jack Dunn, the owner and manager of the Baltimore Orioles, which was a Minor League team that had no connection to the current Major League team with the same name. Engel knew Dunn professionally and the two began to talk during the ride. When Dunn heard that Engel had been playing in his alma mater’s alumni game, he asked if anyone on the college’s team showed promise. Engel began talking about the young pitcher he had seen who could also play the drums.

“He’s got real stuff,” Engel told Dunn.

It was the first time Ruth’s name was mentioned professionally, according to Tom Meany a writer who has written extensively about Babe Ruth.

Dunn made a note of the name, but he didn’t immediately act on it. That came later when another person with a keen eye for baseball praised Ruth’s ability.

“Then Dunn heard the same name from Brother Gilbert when he went to scout a possible pitcher at St. Joseph’s. Brother Gilbert, wanting to keep his own player in school and pitching for St. Joseph’s, began to extol the natural talent of a kid named Ruth over at St. Mary’s. Dunn decided it was time to see for himself,” wrote Wilborn Hampton in Babe Ruth: A Twentieth-Century Life.

Dunn went to St. Mary’s Industrial School and watched Ruth pitch during a workout for half an hour and signed him to a contract for $250 a month on February 14, 1914.

babe ruth002George Becomes Babe Ruth

By July, Ruth had made the jump to the Boston Red Sox to play in the Major League. He got his first victory pitching during his major league debut on July 11. He was sent back to the Minor League for awhile and returned as a starter the following year. That season his record was 18-8 and his batting average was .315. The Red Sox won that year’s World Series and though Ruth played in it, he grounded out during his only time at bat.

By 1918, the Red Sox began to recognize Ruth’s ability as a hitter. They began using him less as a pitcher and more as a hitter. That year, he led the American League in home runs and the following year, he would set his first single-season home run record (29 home runs).

Ruth was sold to the New York Yankees in December 1919. During the 1920 season, Ruth hit 54 home runs with a .376 batting average, again setting records. His .847 slugging average would stand for more than 80 years.

This was the legend that returned to Mount St. Mary’s. Discovered as a teenage pitcher here, he was now returning as the home run king.

The King Returns

It was big news for Frederick County. Although The Frederick Post didn’t routinely report on Emmitsburg news, it included a paragraph in its May 7 edition noting: “’Babe’ Ruth, the home run king of the American League, spent last night at Mt. St. Mary’s College. He passed through Frederick by auto about  8:30 o’clock yesterday evening. He will return to Frederick early this morning making the return trip by automobile. He will pass through Frederick again between 8 and 8:30 o’clock.”

When Ruth had arrived at Mount St. Mary’s College on Friday evening, he visited the faculty and met them. Then visited a study hall to meet with students there and talk with them. It was there that the students convinced him to spend the night and give a demonstration of the talent that had made him a legend the next morning.

The good-natured Ruth relented and word spread quickly that Ruth would be giving a hitting demonstration the next morning. And so, when Ruth stepped onto Echo Field the next morning, a crowd had gathered to see the man who was on his way to becoming a baseball icon.

“Time after time mighty shouts went up as the Terror of Twirlers sent the white pellet first over the tennis courts in right field and then over the bank in left. For nearly an hour, the King of Swat stood up to the plate and golfed the horsehide to all corners of the lot. He slammed them anywhere and everywhere. Slow ones, fast ones, it made no difference to the ‘Bam,’ he hit them all right on the old nose,” The Mountaineer reported.

Mike Gibbons, director of the Babe Ruth Museum, said, “He hit monstrous flies and let people catch them. He also let the pitcher strike him out, which the crowd loved.”

Ruth stopped only because he needed to get on the road to be elsewhere, but he was besieged by fans who wanted a picture with him or signed balls and bats and “one guy presented a tattoo needle to stamp a little remembrance on for keeps,” according to The Mountaineer.

Ruth left Emmitsburg and drove to Washington where he played in a game against the Senators where he hit his eighth home run of the season.

The 1921 baseball season was a good year for Ruth. He hit 59 home runs, batted .378 and had a slugging average of .846 and led the Yankees to their first league championship.

babe ruth001




View of Scheveningen Sands with and without the beached whale. Courtesy of Yahoo News.

View of Scheveningen Sands with and without the beached whale. Courtesy of Yahoo News.

Maybe they can change the saying, “The elephant in the room” to “The whale on the beach.”

Art conservators discovered a hidden portion of a painting that when revealed changes the whole meaning of the picture. Hendrick van Anthonissen around 1641 painted “View of Scheveningen Sands” around 1641. More than 100 years later the painting was donated to the Fitzwilliam Museum.

The painting at that time showed people gathered in small groups on a beach in The Hague in the Netherlands. It seemed a typical seascape. The problem was it wasn’t the painting that van Anthonissen had created, at least not entirely.

Of course, no one knew that at the time.

It was only when Shan Kuang, a conservation student at the University of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum, started cleaning the painting recently that the truth was uncovered…literally.

“Kuang was tasked with removing a coat of varnish, which is typically found on oil paintings, but unfortunately yellows over time. When she began cleaning, a figure emerged on the horizon of the ocean next to a shape that looked like a sail. This was “extremely peculiar and unexpected,” Kuang said. But further cleaning with a scalpel and solvent revealed the floating figure was actually standing on top of a whale, and what at first appeared to be a sail was actually the whale’s fin,” Megan Gannon wrote for Live Science.

It was kind of like an 19th Century version of Photoshop.

No one knows when the whale was painted over, but it was most likely done because societal sensitivities of the day didn’t want to view a dying whale.

The painting can be seen in the Fitzwilliam Museum.



Ralph F. Kelly of Emmitsburg, Md., was a battle-hardened veteran of World War II by the age of 24. It only prepared him for what was to come.

“He was with the first Allied troops which invaded the North African coast last November, and has been fighting steadily since with the exception of a two-week period spent in a hospital recovering from wounds received in initial engagements,” the Gettysburg Times reported in 1943.

In August of 1943, the Allied Forced invaded Sicily. The soldiers met strong resistance from the Italian and German armies as each side battled to control the high ground in the hilly country.

During the fighting, Sgt. Kelly found himself behind a machine gun firing on the enemy. He fired on the enemy time and again, but eventually, he and the other riflemen in his machine gun nest found themselves isolated from the rest of their company as the Axis soldiers slowly pushed forward.

The enemy fire began focusing on the machine gun nest as it was one a diminishing number of close Allied targets.

“Although the machine gun was isolated from the rest of his company and bearing the brunt of an enemy counterattack, Sergeant Kelly refused to leave his position despite the ferocity of the enemy attack and the fact that his ammunition was seriously depleted, Sergeant Kelly continued firing upon the enemy and inflicted serious casualties,” Kelly’s Silver Star citation read.

More importantly, was what Kelly’s actions allowed to happen. One soldier told Associated Press writer Don Whitehead, “The boys had plenty of guts, and what about Kelly? There’s a soldier for you. Ralph refused to leave his machine gun post until all the riflemen were out and he had no support himself.”

For Kelly, it must have seemed like just another workday.

Kelly graduated from Emmitsburg High School in 1935 and took a job in the Taneytown plant of the Blue Ridge Rubber Company.

Kelly was inducted into the army in January 1942, following in the footsteps of his older brother, Luther, who was a veteran of WWI. Kelly trained for six months at Camp Blanding in Florida and Fort Benning in Georgia before being sent overseas to become part of the First Army of the First Division.

He landed in North Africa with the Allied forces in November 1942 and was hit with shrapnel in his right leg. He spent a few weeks in the hospital and returned to duty with a Purple Heart.

During a fight near Gela, Sicily, Kelly saw a wounded soldier lying in the open and in danger of being shot and killed. Kelly rushed from his place of safety to grab the soldier and carry him to safety. This action earned him an Oak Leaf Cluster for his gallantry.

He was wounded again in November 1944 while fighting in Germany and had to spend a couple more weeks in the hospital.

During his time overseas, Kelly saw fighting in Africa, France, Sicily, Belgium and Germany.

Kelly was given a month’s leave in early 1945. When he returned home to Emmitsburg to visit his family, the Gettysburg Times dubbed him “Commando” Kelly.

“Although his honors do not include the Congressional Medal – highest award of any of the armed forces – Sergeant Kelly’s decorations include enough other ribbons to weight down his tunic,” the Gettysburg Times reported.

In his 2 ½ years overseas, Kelly had won:

  • A Silver Stars for gallantry in action
  • An Oak Leaf Cluster (in lieu of a second Silver Star)
  • 2 Purple Hearts for wounds received in action
  • A Bronze Star that is given only to infantrymen
  • A Combat Infantryman’s Badge
  • A Silver Rifle and Wreath that can only be won by an infantryman fighting in the field
  • A Good Conduct Medal
  • The European Theater of Operations Ribbon with 5 Battle Stars

Following his leave, Kelly returned overseas to finish out the war. The Gettysburg Times noted, “The Army needs experienced men like him to carry on the battles to victory.”

“Commando” Kelly died in 2003 at Taneytown, Md.







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