Posts Tagged ‘history’

davidmccullough-thewrightbrothersI’m a big fan of David McCullough. After all, he’s the one who showed me that a non-fiction history book could read like a novel (1776).

I can’t say The Wright Brothers was such a book, but I definitely enjoyed it and was looking forward to reading it. Like many people, I know the Wright Brothers were bicycle makers who made the first powered manned flight at Kitty Hawk that introduced the age of modern aviation.

I was very surprised that the narrative reached the historic 1903 flight so quickly. When that happened, I realized that there must be a lot more to their story. While the brothers certainly went through a lot of trials to take to the air in Kitty Hawk, I was very surprised at how much resistance they met with not only in Europe but also from the U.S. government. In fact, the Europeans embraced the brothers sooner than the U.S. government did.

Although Orville made the historic first flight, he wasn’t the brother who took the most risks. That was Wilbur. Poor Orville seems to have been the one who was injured the most. He was the pilot of the first fatal airplane accident that killed his passenger on that flight.

Also, I was surprised by how quickly aviation advanced once the Wrights broke that initial barrier.

McCullough does a great job of humanizing the brothers and their close relationship. He also throws in lots of interesting little factoids, such as the person who took the famous Kitty Hawk picture had never taken a picture before. The first photo he took became iconic.

I can’t say that this is my favorite McCullough book. That honor belongs to 1776 and The Johnstown Flood. I definitely enjoyed it, and it didn’t become overwhelming like some of McCullough’s longer books. As always, I learned a lot more about the subject of the book and enjoyed the process.

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Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series about UFOs in West Virginia.


A photograph of a UFO supposedly sighted in West Virginia in 2016.

Tad Jones was driving to work one January morning in 1966 when he saw something blocking the two westbound lanes of Interstate 64 about a mile from the Institute exit. Jones told the Charleston Daily Mail that he drove his truck within 10 feet of a “dull aluminum sphere which hovered about four feet above the ground.”

He further described the unidentified object as being about 25 feet in diameter with two antennae protruding from the top and four legs and a propeller on the bottom of the sphere.

“He said it was rotating slowly when he stopped his truck. Jones said he did not leave his vehicle, watched the propeller start spinning, and that then the object rose swiftly, without noise, odor, exhaust or any sense of heat, and disappeared skyward like ‘it had been shot out of a gun,’” according to an article in the Daily Mail.

Two years later, a reporter tracked Jones down and asked him if he still believed he had seen an unidentified flying object.

Jones told the reporter, “I believe what I saw. It was there. I never saw anything like it before, and I haven’t seen anything like it since, but it was there that morning on I-64.”

Jones’ story is one of the many stories West Virginians can tell of objects, lights and spheres they have seen that defy explanation or identification. At one time, West Virginia had the reputation as the UFO capital of the world.

The reason?

“Seeing is believing, and more people in West Virginia have seen unidentified flying objects than people in any other state,” J. Ralph Jarrett, president of UFO Investigators, told a newspaper in 1969.

Reports of spaceships date back to Biblical times when Ezekiel wrote, “And when the living creatures went, then wheels went by them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up.” Ezekiel’s account is also believed by some to include a description of aliens.

The Beckley Register and Post-Herald also noted in 1972, “Granite drawings, estimated to be 47,000 years old now at the University of Peking, show people on ground level looking up at cylindrical objects in the sky. Carvings of sculptured rocks in the Sahara Dessert (sic) traced by the carbon method of the year 6000 B.C. show earth people staring at ‘human beings’ with strange round heads and other mystifying characteristics.”

UFOs and flying saucers became part of the American vocabulary on June 24, 1947 when the first report of a flying saucer was made. Kenneth Arnold was flying his private plane when he saw “a chain-like formation of disc-shaped objects” near Mt. Rainer, Washington.

Though West Virginia wasn’t the location of the first sighting, it soon became a popular destination for UFOs.

Charlie Connor of the Daily Mail wrote tongue-in-cheek, “We may be at the bottom of a lot of other activities, but we’re up among the top in UFO sightings. When the unknown beings from outer space decide to colonize Earth, there is no doubt they’ll settle among the hills and valleys of West Virginia where they’ve had such a receptive audience in the past.”

Some other West Virginia reports of UFO’s include:

  • July 7, 1966 – Victor Camp, 18, John Parker, 18, and John McVay, 16, all from Clendenin, reported they saw a UFO that came so close that their car engine and radio quit, and they jumped out of the car and scattered.
  • March 4, 1967 – Night supervisor Adam Rohrig of the FAA control tower at Kanawha Airport reported that controllers there saw a formation of three lights crossing from southwest that moved “slower than meteorites but faster than jets.”
  • June 5, 1968 – Dr. John Herlihy observed a UFO from his porch in Charleston and Charles O’Dell and Shirley Shelton, both of Summersville, said a UFO flew parallel to them along U.S. 60 near Shrewsbury.
  • Jan. 6, 1969 – Air-traffic controllers Paul Anderson and Ted Curtis of the Mercer County Airport said they witnessed a mysterious, pear-shaped object over Bluefield several nights.
  • Oct. 26, 1978 – Many people see unidentified lights in the sky during the week, including 11 police officers who saw unidentified lights hovering over Parkersburg before they moved off.
  • Sept. 15, 2002 – A group of people, including a guard at the Snowshoe Mountain Resort, saw an object that hovered over Cheat Mountain and “looked like a child’s top with green, red and clear flashing lights, but there was no sound coming from the object.”

There seems to be no reports or few reports of UFOs in West Virginia in the 1980s and 1990s. Since the dawning of the new century, though, reports have begun to pick up.

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In 1921 and 1922, salesmen from the Point of Purchase Advertising Association visited retail businesses across the country with a simple pitch. If the business joined the advertising association, then it was eligible to receive a dollar a month (roughly $15 today) for each electric sign from a national advertiser that it placed in its business windows. Business owners could not only continue to generate their own sales with products advertised in their windows, but just the act of advertising them would generate income for the business.

“The Point of Purchase bid fair to reap a golden harvest for its promoter, due to the fact that it sounded feasible to retailers,” the York Dispatch reported.

Then in mid-June 1922, the officers of the association were arrested at their York headquarters. York Police took LeGrand Dutcher, president; Charles A. Hoffman, vice president; and Charles W. Newport, secretary, into custody and held on $5,000 bond each. The National Vigilance Committee of the Advertising Clubs of the World had investigated the company and shown their findings to the legal authorities. The investigation showed that the Point of Purchase Advertising Association was running a fraud scheme on the unsuspecting business owners.

The officers were charged with making “Fraudulent representation to organizations using prominent national retailers enabled Point of Purchase to make headway in a national membership campaign,” according to the York Dispatch. The newspaper also pointed out that the case was the first national fraud of its type.

The salesmen sold the membership contracts to retailers who then agreed to place the flashing electric signs in their storefront windows. In exchange for providing window space for the advertisers, the business owners expected a monthly check. The problem was that the retailers were led to believe that plenty of national retailers had signed up to have their businesses advertised when, in fact, they hadn’t.

“In many cases the first intimation they received that their name was being used to sell signs came from the national vigilance committee,” the York Dispatch pointed out.

Attorneys pointed out that the Point of Purchase Advertising Association’s name had been chosen with special consideration. The name reassured retailers who believed that national advertisers were anxious to reach customers at the local level where they purchased their goods.

What made things worse was that as the plan started to unravel, the salesmen went rogue. They would sell memberships and keep the money for themselves. They would call on the business once to collect the membership fee and were never seen by the business owner again. Some memberships were even sold to businesses that didn’t have the proper electrical service to operate the flashing signs.

The York Chamber of Commerce and York Police started receiving telegrams early in 1922 asking for information about the Point of Purchase Advertising Association and whether it was a legitimate business. The police department got so many telegrams that it created a form letter that outlined the scant details that the department knew. These letters were sent in reply to each person who sent a telegram.

Because the scheme had crossed state lines and used the U.S. Mail, the legal case also involved the Office of the U.S. District Attorney, Middle District Pennsylvania. Andrew Dunsmore prosecuted the case and won convictions of the officials.

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o-CHICKEN-facebookIn 1908, a crime wave hit Adams County, Pa. Residents would rush to their windows at every sound. They would peer into the dark searching for lurking figures in the darkness. It didn’t stop until a shootout and a massive manhunt ended with the capture of Ambrose Dittenhafer.

With his crime spree ended, chickens in Adams County were once again safe.

Yes, chickens.

Dittenhafer was a chicken thief.

The 53-year-old Dittenhafer had had run-ins with the law for years. Some involved animal cruelty. One was assault on a police officer, but it was a nighttime wholesale chicken business that sent him to jail for a significant amount of time.

However, in the late fall of 1908, chickens started disappearing from hen houses around the county. No one knew who the thief was, but they had their suspicions.

On election night, Straban Township resident Martin Harman had to go to Hunterstown for some reason. His wife followed him later in the evening. As she headed to Hunterstown, she saw Dittenhafer walking along the road. Something about the situation and Dittenhafer made her suspicious and she told her husband what she had seen when the met up with him.

Harman borrowed a gun, made sure it was loaded and headed back to his farm. He passed Dittenhafer on the way back. Harman turned off the road early to mislead Dittenhafer. Then Harman tied up his horse and hurried across a field to his property. Once there, he hid in his barn to wait.

A few minutes later, someone whose identity was hidden in shadows entered the barn.

“The dark figured selected some fat pullets roosting on the barn year fence and hurriedly placed them in a bag which he was carrying. Next, he made for a willow tree near the Harman farm watering trough. Some well fattened Spring chickens were found slumbering here and Ambrose was in the act of selecting the choicest of those when Mr. Harman commenced action,” the New Oxford Item reported.

Harman fired at the thief twice. The shots, which were probably rock salt, hit the thief. Unfortunately, Harman learned later that his shots also killed several of the chickens in the bag.

Dittenhafer shouted, “Don’t shoot again!”

As Harman approached him, Dittenhafer dropped his bag and ran off. “It is said that in his efforts to escape Dittenhafer divested him of all his clothing possible and cast aside all unnecessary possessions,” the New Oxford Item reported.

For some reason, Harman remained at large for more than a week. Then he entered the Lower Brother’s Store in Table Rock on Nov. 20 and was recognized. Justice of the Peace H. B. Mears issued a warrant that Constable John F. Wolf of Butler Township served on him at the store.

“With a vigorous denial he made a dash for the door, Constable Wolf hanging on to his coat and urging the men about to help him hold the man who was fast making his exit,” the Adams County News reported.

Dittenhafer grabbed the club he always carried and fled out the door. He ran across a nearby field “making decidedly uncomplimentary remarks about Constable Wolf on the way,” the Adams County News reported.

Three days later, a report came in that Dittenhafer was going to return to his home.

Detective Charles Wilson, County Deputy Fred Kappes and Constable Morrison of Straban Township surrounded Dittenhafer’s house and remained in hiding through the night when they thought they saw him sneak into the house.

“Detective Wilson at once rushed in and was confronted by the man’s wife who had a shot gun leveled at him. Not dismayed he hurried through the various rooms after the man, being met in one of them by one of Dittenhafer’s sons armed with a gun. No harm was done,” the Adams County News reported.

However, Dittenhafer wasn’t found. He had managed to escape into the foggy night.

The law officers then organized a large posse of citizens and set off on Dittenhafer’s trail. They followed him for three miles through the fog only rarely catching sight of him.  When he was seen, the posse would fire shots at him, apparently without hitting Dittenhafer.

He managed to double back and he returned to his house. After six hours of pursuit, the posse managed to surround him.

“Here the man realizing that his chances for escape were rather slim made a desperate fight and armed with a razor and his “big stick” was ready for a hand to hand combat. Shot after shot fired into his hiding place and he finally emerged to be met by Detective Wilson whose pistol was pointing straight at his head. Realizing that all was up he surrendered,” the Adams County News reported.

Dittenhafer begged to be let go. He said that he would leave the county if Wilson let him go. Wilson’s answer was to handcuff him and transport him to the county jail.

On February 1, 1909, Dittenhafer pled guilty of “larceny of chickens.” Dittenhafer said that he would leave the county if the judge wouldn’t sentence him to jail time. Instead, Judge Swope sentenced him to one year in Eastern State Penitentiary. Rebecca Dittenhafer pleaded that her husband be allowed to serve out his time in the county jail.

Swope was unmoved. He told her, “If you were to stay here she might feel that she ought to bring some food to you at the county prison and thus spend some of her energy which will be necessary for the support of the family while you are serving her sentence,” the Gettysburg Times reported.

Dittenhafer behaved well in the penitentiary and was released a couple of months early. Things did not improve for Dittenhafer as a free man.

“Nobody will give me any work and I do not have sufficient money to support my family,” Dittenhafer told the Adams County News. “It is right in the middle of the Winter and I cannot raise any produce with which to earn a living. No one will give me a job or lend me money, and there you are. If I steal, down the road I go. I want to lead an honest and honorable life now but it’s pretty hard times.”

During his time in prison, his wife and children had been living in the county poor house. Dittenhafer had gotten a new suit and $10 on his release from prison. The money disappeared quickly, though. He had $3 stolen from him after he paid for car fare home from prison, and with the remainder, he bought his son, George, a new set of clothes.

By March, it was reported that Dittenhafer had finally not only left the county but the state. He was said to be managing a farm in Maryland.

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After the Civil War ended, a young 24-year-old veteran returned home and decided that he wanted to be a teacher. He found a job as the schoolmaster for the school in Grantsville, Md., which was then part of Allegany County, Md. Ross R. Sanner was a man who commanded men in battle, and he turned those leadership skills into educating a new generation of young citizens.

“The writer (editor of the Oakland Republican) had the privilege of being one of his primary pupils in 1868 and among the readers of The Republican are many who received their first instructions from this grand old pedagogue and who have ever since held him in grateful memory and high esteem,” Benjamin Sincell wrote in 1916.

Sanner was born in Lower Turkeyfoot Township in Somerset County, Pa., in 1842. He had answered the call for soldiers in 1861 and walked to Uniontown to enlist in the 85th Regiment Pennsylvania Infantry as a 19-year-old private. He fought gallantly in various campaigns with his unit and soon started earning promotions, ending the war as a captain.

He was wounded at Folly Island in Charleston, S.C., and spent two months recovering in a hospital. He returned to duty and was injured a second time during the Battle of Petersburg. Sanner was fighting alongside his cousin, Norman Ream, when Ream was injured.

“He was six feet, two inches tall, and Captain Sanner carried him a mile on his shoulder to safety, the Cumberland Press reported. “Later Captain Sanner was wounded in the same battle and the pair became separated.”

It was this wound that caused him to be honorably discharged from the army on September 22, 1864, and he began collecting an invalid pension.


Grantsville School2 - pre-1909 (3)

Grantsville School prior to 1909. Photo courtesy of Alice Early.


Upon his return home, he attended the Iron City Business College in Pittsburgh and Mount Union College in Mount Union, Ohio. In 1866, he became a teacher in Grantsville, and also a husband when he married Alice C. Fuller.

He would eventually move on to teach in schools in Frostburg; Cumberland; Confluence, Pa.; and at the Soldiers’ Orphans’ School in Uniontown, Pa.

He moved to North Dakota for a number of years to try his hand at wheat farming, but teaching was his passion and he returned to the area once again and became the superintendent of schools in Oakland.

The in 1915, his career came full circle and returned to Grantsville to once again become the principal. They took up residence at the Casselman Hotel and Sanner enjoyed teaching with fewer responsibilities.

“In times of peace as well as of war he has stood by the best principles of government, and his influence over the minds of his pupils and those coming within his sphere has always been exerted for good,” according to Portrait and Biographical Record of the Sixth Congressional District of Maryland in 1898.

Three years after his return to his teaching roots, “Grantsville’s Grand Old School Teacher” passed away in Confluence at 76 years old from cirrhosis of the liver. He was buried at the Confluence Baptist Cemetery.

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Emmitsburg, Md., has a long history of both fires and fire protection. The Great Emmitsburg Fire of 1863 is considered the most-serious fire in the town’s history. By the time the flames sputtered out, 28 houses and nine businesses had been damaged or destroyed. Three of the four corners of the town square were black with fire and three of the towns four blocks were fire damaged. Other reports put the number of damaged buildings at 50 and half of the town destroyed. In actuality, probably about a quarter of the town burned, based on a population of slightly less than 1,000.


Firefighting efforts improved in 1884 when water from the town’s newly built reservoir was piped under the street to fire hydrants. This provided a more-dependable supply of water to the engines. When the reservoir was dug and the water lines put in, The Emmitsburg Chronicle reported, “When it is considered that the reservoir is located 224 feet above the level of the square, any person can estimate the advantages that must accrue to the village when the improvement is completed. With proper hose at hand, it will scarce be possible for any great fire to occur here, and this security lessening the risks, must diminish the rates of insurance, and we trust that in due time the water power will be availed of for manufacturing purposes.”

Unfortunately, this did not prove to be true because Emmitsburg had its second great fire the following year.

Fire broke out in St. Joseph’s College just before noon on March 20, 1885, and quickly spread. Fighting fires in the large college buildings was too much for the firefighters with Vigilant Hose Company who were doing “grand work, but their efforts were, of course, unequal to the requirements,” according to The Frederick Daily News. Someone telegraphed for the help of fire companies from Frederick and Hagerstown. At the time, St. Joseph’s College was valued at $1 million and the total damage calculated at about $60,000.

What could be considered Emmitsburg’s third most-serious fire happened in December 1909 just days before Christmas. Shortly before noon, the roof of the Rowe property caught fire, which at the time was occupied by the Home Bakery, Harry Hopp, and Mr. Peters.

“The alarm was sounded but by the time a stream of water could be made to play on the burning roof the adjoining properties, the Reformed Church parsonage and the house occupied by Mrs. Virginia Gillelan were ablaze,” The Gettysburg Times reported.

Vigilant Hose Company combated the fire, but “A high wind aided the flames and for a time it was thought that nothing could be done to save the Rowe property although every effort was being made in that direction.”

Lulu Patterson then discovered that the Motter building occupied by Motter and Ruth Gillelan’s store was on fire. This split the efforts of the fire company as they now battled two fires. If that wasn’t enough, it was then discovered that the homes of H. W. Eyster and George T. Eyster were also on fire.

The firefighters didn’t give up, though.

“Inside of an hour the flames had been overcome and Emmitsburg, at least part of it, was saved,” The Gettysburg Times reported.

In all, 10 buildings were lost or damaged in the blaze.

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1918-flu-pandemic So it seems like everyone lately has the flu. Schools are sending warnings home to parents. Hospitals are telling patients with the flu not to come in. The Centers for Disease Control has said that is has hit epidemic level.

So how bad can it get?

The worst to date has been the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. It left about 50 million dead after just a couple months. I wrote about it in my novel October Mourning. I’ve also written about half a dozen articles about it and given a couple talks about it.I continue to be fascinated (scared?) by it.

It killed more people than World War I and in a shorter time frame, too, yet the war had the headlines during 1918. It was estimated that 675,000 Americans died from the Spanish Flu or 10 times more than died in the war.

It killed more people in one year than the Black Plague did in 4 years.

It was so devastating that human lifespan was reduced by 10 years in 1918.

CopsHere’s how it was described. One physician wrote that patients rapidly “develop the most vicious type of pneumonia that has ever been seen” and later when cyanosis appeared in patients “it is simply a struggle for air until they suffocate.” Another doctor said that the influenza patients “died struggling to clear their airways of a blood-tinged froth that sometimes gushed from their mouth and nose.”

Public meetings were canceled. Streetcars and other public transportation had to travel with windows open. Plus, you couldn’t spit on the street and needed to use a handkerchief when you cough or sneeze or face a fine in many places.

It wasn’t that the flu was particularly deadly. It was about 10 times deadlier than the average flu, or rather, it had a 2.5 percent mortality rate according to one report I read. While deadly for flu, there are diseases with a much higher mortality rate. The thing about those diseases is that they usually aren’t that contagious. I’ve read that the Spanish Flu struck half of the world’s population.

So turn it into a math problem.

A disease like Ebola kills about 50 percent of those who get it, but there were only something like 21,000 cases last year. So the chances of you catching Ebola, much less dying from it were unlikely.

However, Spanish Flu killed 2.5 percent of those who got it and you had a 50 percent chance of catching it. That means 15 out of every 1000 people in the world, regardless of whether they caught the flu or not, died.

Doctors and nurses, who were exposed more frequently to sick patients, caught the flu. Many died, leaving a heavier burden on those behind. They found themselves at even a greater risk of exposure.

Medical personnel weren’t the only ones affected. Trains struggled to run on time because of sick personnel. Few operators meant that fewer calls were getting through.

StreetcarUndertakers couldn’t keep up with the demand for new graves. Yet, in many places, the ground was frozen so the bodies had to be stored in piles in some towns.

Then the flu season ended and fewer cases were reported. There was a bit of a resurgence in early 1919, but the flu had already started mutating. The new form wasn’t as contagious, and by the fall, the flu was back to being just something that kept people home from work or school for a few days.

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