The First and Last Man Executed for the Crime of Slave Trading

Only one person was ever executed in the United States for slave trading across borders, despite the fact that it was illegal from 1810 through the American Civil War. The Maine resident Nathaniel Gordon was captaining a slave ship from the Congo River to the United Stats in 1860 when it was seized at sea by a naval cruiser. The crime was automatically a federal case. After two trials in New York, Gordon was convicted and sentenced to hang on February 7, 1862. The only way out was a presidential pardon.


Abraham Lincoln had not yet been in office a full year, but he was widely known for his sense of mercy, and his frequent use of the presidential pardon. He also received thousands of letters asking for Gordon to be pardoned, and a visit to the White House by Gordon's wife and widowed mother. Lincoln held fast, however: there could be no pardon for a man who made his living selling other human beings into slavery.


“I think,” the president wrote, “I would personally prefer to let this man live in confinement and let him meditate on his deeds, yet in the name of justice and the majesty of law, there ought to be one case, at least one specific instance, of a professional slave-trader, a Northern white man, given the exact penalty of death because of the incalculable number of deaths he and his kind inflicted upon black men amid the horror of the sea-voyage from Africa.” Lincoln did give him a two-week reprieve because the president thought the condemned man had been misled into thinking he would be pardoned, and so had not properly made his peace with God and his upcoming death. The two weeks passed by, then Gordon was executed on February 21st, 1862.

The Triumph and the Tragedy of the Soyuz 11

In June of 1971, the crew of the Soyuz 11 became the first humans to spend time on an orbiting space station. But on its return to Earth, a Soviet recovery team opened the capsule, and found the crew dead inside. Somewhere in its extraterrestrial journey a ventilation valve malfunctioned and killed everyone on board. Which makes the three men the only known humans to have died in space.

The Crusaders Taught Building Techniques

When Saladin took over Egypt in the 1170s, he decided to build a new palace for his new dynasty in the hills of Cairo. A bit surprisingly many of the skilled workers who created his palace were captive crusaders. The Europeans utilized techniques unknown to the Middle East at the time, which is rather helpful in determining who built the palace.

Crusader architecture was stronger and lasted longer. It also enabled building larger buildings. Over time, Muslims in the Middle East learned these new (to them) techniques, often by studying castles built by crusaders across the eastern Mediterranean seaboard.

Belgian inventor Adolphe Sax made a number of instruments, including the popular saxhorn and the short-lived saxotromba, before creating his best-known work in 1846: the saxophone.

The Mystery of Mao's Successor

On September 13th, 1971, a Triden 1E jet crashed from the Mongolian sky into the Gobi Desert. All on board were killed. Among the dead were senior Chinese Communist Party member and legendary communist general of the civil war, Lin Biao. The general had been Mao's chosen successor, yet he died along with his wife and son after fleeing his home in Beijing at dawn that morning. In their haste to leave, the waiting plane did not refuel, and it fell from the sky before reaching its intended destination.

Many questions surround Lin Biao's death. Why did he and his family flee? Where were they trying to flee to? What caused the plane to crash? Chinese records were destroyed shortly after Mao's death so nothing could contradict the official explanation: Lin plotted to overthrow Mao, fled when the plot was discovered, and then died when his plane ran out of fuel. But that official explanation is flimsy and was only released after a delay of three weeks.

Plotting to overthrow Mao made little sense because Mao was clearly ill by the 1970s. It was known a successor would be taking over soon. Perhaps intensifying factional battles inside the Chinese Communist Party over the succession, irretrievable now, lead the family to flee. Lin seemed to have grown tired of politics by 1971, though, so perhaps it was not him but his wife and son's political standing that had put the family in danger.

Where was the plane headed is another question. At the time the Soviet Union was hostile to China so perhaps they were seeking asylum there. But at the end of the Cold War it was revealed that the Soviets investigated the crash site. Their findings just made things more complex. Among other things, the Soviets determined the plane initially headed south from Beijing, not north. So the Soviet Union may not have been the plane's original destination.

So what can we say about Lin Biao's death? Mao's chosen successor died in a mysterious plane crash in Mongolia in 1971. His wife and son died with him. Those are about the only absolutely true facts we know today.

That's How To Kick Off A Party!

The Scottish Parliament was dissolved after Scotland formally united with England to form Great Britain in 1707, under Queen Anne. It was re-established in 1999 after an act by the British Parliament. Winnie Ewing, who had been a member of the Scottish National Party for almost forty years, opened the Scottish Parliament with words so historic I will quote them to you know. She proclaimed "I want to start with words that I have always wanted either to say or hear someone else say - the Scottish Parliament, which adjourned on March 25, 1707, is hereby reconvened."

The invention of tofu is actually a little obscure, but it is generally thought to have been invented during China's Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE).

The Little-Known Prehistoric Botai-Tersek Culture

The Botai-Tersek culture (3700-3100 BCE) was an neolithic culture on the central Asian steppe. They were named after the village Botai, in northeastern Kazakhstan, where some of the earliest evidence for their existence comes from. The Botai were one of the first people, if not the first people, to use domesticated horses in context of food production. It is pretty significant that the vast majority of bones at their sites are horses' bones. Which would mean they were living off the horses, either by hunting them or by herding them. Research on the bones, though, indicate the Botai drank horses' milk. Drinking milk means they probably at minimum tamed wild horses, if not outright domesticated them. The Botai-Tersek also provide the oldest evidence of bitwear -- so they were riding horses as well as drinking their milk. Yet more evidence suggesting the Botai were the first to domesticate horses for food.

Ochre Mine Found in Mexican Cenote

Archaeologists, examining underwater caves in Mexico's Yucatan peninsula for Mayan artifacts, have found evidence of something much older than the Maya. The remains of an underwater ochre mine from 12,000 years ago. It may be the oldest mine in the Americas, dating to when lower sea levels meant the caves were dry and on land.

The mine was a large operation, with enough ochre taken out to alter the landscape of the caverns permanently. The large operation also left behind lots of evidence. The team found a range of evidence of prehistoric mining activities, including digging tools, ochre extraction beds, navigational markers, and ancient fireplaces to light the caves. Then suddenly, 10,000 years ago, they stopped mining ochre at the site. It is unknown why. But with more than 2,000 kilometers of known cave systems they may simply have moved on to another site.

One thing the find makes clear is that ochre was very, very important in ancient Palaeoindian culture. They were willing to travel deep into a complex cave system that was illuminated only by small torches. Once inside they were willing to work hard, striking the ground with hammers made of stalagmites, then make the reverse journey carrying out the valuable pigment. For 2,000 years miners risked their lives deep in the darkness so it must have been a very important resource indeed.

Studying Native American Pipes To Understand Their Tobacco Habits

Researchers have detected traces of smooth sumac, or Rhus glabra, in the residues left in 1,400-year-old pipes unearthed in central Washington state, using a new technology that can detect thousands of plant compounds. Traces of a species of tobacco plant not currently grown in the region were also detected in the pipes. The smooth sumac may have been mixed with tobacco and used for its medicinal properties. Or simply to make the tobacco taste better. This study also analyzed a pipe used after contact with Europeans began in the area. It had residue containing a tobacco plant grown by Native Americans living on the East Coast. This is slightly surprising, as it had previously been thought that plants grown by Europeans quickly took over post-contact trade in tobacco. The evidence from the West Coast suggests that Native American growers remained in demand longer than previously thought.

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    By Lillian Audette

    This blog is a collection of the interesting, the weird, and sometimes the need-to-know about history, culled from around the internet. It has pictures, it has quotes, it occasionally has my own opinions on things. If you want to know more about anything posted, follow the link at the "source" on the bottom of each post. And if you really like my work, buy me a coffee or become a patron!

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