Bearing the Legacy of Topf and Sons

by Karen Bartlett

When Hartmut Topf was a small boy, he was captivated by puppets. On a warm summer’s day in 1930s Berlin, he would sit with his sisters under the blossom of the fruit tree in the family’s back garden while their otherwise rather taciturn father acted out puppet shows through the dining room window. With Hitler in power, the city was already in the grip of the Third Reich, but the horrors of that regime remained hidden from Hartmut, who enjoyed collecting and swapping Nazi belt-buckles, badges and toy planes with boyish enthusiasm.

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Posted in Modern History

Who Was William Dudley Pelley and the Silver Legion?

william dudley pelley

by Bradley Hart

In 1933, a former Hollywood screenwriter-turned-mystic named William Dudley Pelley made a startling public announcement. During a trance four years earlier, Pelley claimed, he had received some startling news from his spiritual contacts. The world was about to be plunged into economic chaos. From that crisis, an important new world leader would emerge. Pelley would know him by his former profession: The leader in question would previously have worked as a house painter. When that leader had obtained power, the prophecy concluded, Pelley was ordained to create his own so-called Christian Militia and make preparations to seize power in the United States. With the recent rise of former painter Adolf Hitler to the Chancellorship of Germany, Pelley now announced, the time had come for him to make a play on the national stage through his new organization, the Silver Legion. Over the coming years, the Legion would become one of the most bizarre—and terrifying—groups looking to emulate Hitler’s Germany in the United States.

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America’s First Native American Doctor

by Joe Starita

On March 14, 1889, Susan La Flesche Picotte received her medical degree—becoming the first Native American doctor in U.S. history. She earned her degree thirty-one years before women could vote and thirty-five years before Indians could become citizens in their own country.

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Who Was Fritz Kuhn and the German American Bund?

fritz kuhn bund rally

by Bradley Hart

On the Fourth of July, 1937, a group of Americans gathered in the town of Yaphank, Long Island, to celebrate the country’s birthday. Many of the traditional elements of Americana were present, including picnic baskets, beer, and the inevitable fireworks. Yet there were some unusual elements as well. Some of those in attendance were in uniform, but not the uniform of the U.S. Army. More than 300 men in silver-gray shirts with black ties and Sam Browne belts that passed over their right shoulders, and others in black shirts, goose-stepped past the stage and saluted their leaders with extended right arms. A huge swastika adorned the stage next to the American flag. The usual patriotic speeches focused not only on the United States, but also several of its soon-to-be-enemies. Cries of “Heil Hitler!” and “Heil Mussolini!” filled the summer air.

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The Death of an Escape Artist: Harry Houdini

by Arnold van de Laar

When Erik Weisz died on 31 October 1926, it was world news. Like Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Erik Weisz typified the spirit of that wonderful time in America. Almost no one knew his real name but his stage name is still—almost a century later—known around the world and has become synonymous with the art that he developed. Erik Weisz was the world-famous Harry Houdini, the escape artist who had himself buttoned up into a straitjacket and hoisted up in the air by his feet, wrapped in chains and sealed in a wooden chest and then thrown overboard in New York harbor, handcuffed and shut in a milk churn full of beer. And he always emerged unharmed, even after being buried alive in a bronze coffin. Many will think that his death was as spectacular as his life, that he drowned while performing his legendary Chinese Water Torture Cell act—handcuffed, upside down and underwater, on stage, in front of a packed theatre. But nothing is further from the truth.

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Posted in Modern History

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