Putin, orphans and the ‘Cadaver Synod’

Cadaver Synod 1870

More curiosity from Russia. Just days after President Vladimir Putin pushed a bill which would result in an end to US citizens adopting neglected Russian orphans, the nation opened a fraud trial against a man who’s been dead for more than three years.

And, as can seemingly only happen in Russia, the two are connected.

This made-for-Dostoyevsky case goes back to at least 2008, when Russian Sergei Magnitsky was arrested.

Before his arrest, Magnitsky, according to his lawyer, had uncovered a tax scam worth $235 million being perpetrated by interior ministry officials against the company he worked for, investment fund Hermitage Capital.

However, Magnitsky was then charged with the very crimes he claimed to have uncovered and was placed in pre-trial detention, according to Agence France-Presse.

He spent nearly a year in squalid prison conditions, dying at the age of 37 of untreated illnesses. A report by the Kremlin human rights council last year said he was tortured and handcuffed in his final hours, the wire service reported.

Even though Magnitsky is dead, he and his former employer – the head of Hermitage Capital, William Browder – are accused of tax evasion.

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Jewish gravestones discovered after 70 years

Greece Jewish Graves

Hundreds of marble headstone and other fragments from Jewish graves destroyed during the Nazi occupation have been discovered after a decades-long search, Greek police announced last week.

Some 668 fragments were found buried in a plot of land in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city.

The discovery comes after a 70-year search for the remains of graves smashed when the city’s massive Jewish cemetery was destroyed during World War II, according to the Associated Press.

Most of the gravestones found date from the mid-1800s up to World War II, said David Saltiel, the head of Thessaloniki Jewish community.

“This is our history,” said Saltiel, who is head of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece. “Apart from the names, the (gravestones) also include the person’s occupation. So this is a historic record.”

The Jewish community in Greece, most of which was concentrated in Thessaloniki, was all but annihilated in the Holocaust.

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The maverick who wrote ‘Jingle Bells’

savannah unitarian universalist church

Among the myriad tragedies of the American Civil War was its impact on families, with many divided as some members cast their lots with the North and others sided with the South.

One such individual who broke with his family over the war was James Lord Pierpont, a Boston native whose father Rev. John Pierpont was an abolitionist and pastor of a Unitarian church in the Massachusetts capital.

James Pierpont enjoyed a fascinating life by any measure.

Sent to boarding school at age 10, he ran away four years later, sailing aboard a whaling ship called The Shark. He apparently found sea life to his liking; following his stint aboard The Shark he served in the Navy until he was 21.

By 1845, he had returned to New England and married, but in 1849, James Pierpont left his wife and children with his father to open a business in San Francisco during the California Gold Rush. However, his business failed after his goods were destroyed in a fire.

James returned to New England, but his wife died in 1853. When his brother accepted a position as pastor at a Savannah, Ga., Unitarian church, James followed, taking over as the organist and music director, according to Timothy Daiss’ 2002 book Rebels, Saints, and Sinners: Savannah’s Rich History and Colorful Personalities.

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Plymouth Rock: public relations, Pilgrim-style

Plymouth Landing Bacon

Plymouth Rock, the purported landing place of the Mayflower pilgrims on their voyage from Europe to the New World in 1620, remains among the most enduring symbols of American history.

Located in Plymouth Harbor, Mass., it is reputed to be the spot where the pilgrims who founded Plymouth Colony disembarked from the Mayflower on Dec. 21, 1620, and continues to be visited by tens of thousands of tourists annually.

However, whether the large boulder actually played any part in the famed landing is questionable.

Surviving records from the period do not mention the rock, and, in fact, the story comes from a third-hand account that wasn’t recorded until 1832, more than 200 years after the Pilgrims landed in America.

The legend of Plymouth Rock stems from a 1741 incident, according to the Baltimore Sun.

“Hearing that a wharf was planned to be built over the rock in Plymouth harbor, Elder Thomas Faunce, a 95-year-old Mayflower descendant, asked to be carried in his chair down to the harbor,” the Sun reported. “As recorded in the ‘History of Plymouth’ (1832), he pointed out the rock and told those assembled that he had been assured by his father that this was the very rock that ‘had received the footsteps of our fathers on their first arrival and which should be perpetuated to posterity.’”

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Notre Dame de Paris begins jubilee year

notre dame de paris

Despite not looking a day over 700, the famed French cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris Wednesday began a year of celebrations to mark the 850th anniversary of its founding.

Dignitaries, tourists and Parisians gathered in the thousands Wednesday for a ceremony and Mass to celebrate the history of the Gothic landmark, which was begun in 1163 during the reign of Louis VII. Construction did not finish until the middle of the 14th century.

To mark the jubilee year, the cathedral features new, improved lighting, a viewing platform and a renovated organ. Officials expect an additional five million individuals to visit the church in the coming year, according to Agence France-Presse.

Over the centuries Notre Dame has been witness to much history:

  • In 1185 Heraclius of Caesarea, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, sounded the call for the Third Crusade from the still-incomplete cathedral.
  • In 1431, English monarch Henry VI was crowned King of France. Not only did he not keep his hold on France for long, but he eventually lost his title to England, as well. Continue reading

NASA releases amazing image of Saturn

cassini saturn

The above awe-inspiring image of Saturn was recently released by NASA. It was taken by the Cassini spacecraft in mid-October as it moved through the shadow of the famed ringed planet.

The photo combines 60 images taken in the violet, visible and infrared portions of the spectrum, according to blogger Astro Bob.

“What a spectacle!” Astro Bob writes. “Views like this are impossible from Earth since Saturn, located far beyond Mars and Jupiter, never passes between the sun and Earth. The last time the probe was at a sufficient distance from the planet and had the time to piece together a similar view was September 2006.”

The above photo was taken from a distance of 500,000 miles.

(One imagines NASA is relying on something more technologically advanced than Kodak disposable cameras.)

Click here to see a higher-resolution image of the above photo.

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Zealots: tragedy always equals opportunity


This blog isn’t big on examining life’s more crucial issues. There are plenty of other folks who do that, and do it with far more acumen than yours truly could ever hope to muster.

Once in a harvest moon, however, something sticks in my craw and it becomes necessary to put aside the desire to delve into history, economics and whatnot to address the truly idiotic.

Case in point: within hours of the horrific shootings at a Connecticut elementary school last Friday, myriad half-wits were hard at work on outlets such as Facebook and Twitter doing their best to show the world their inept grasp of theology, common sense and overall human decency.

I write of those who posted such foolishness as the image which showed the following rhetoric: “Dear God, why do you allow so much violence in our schools? Signed, a concerned student.” To which God responds: “Dear Concerned Student, I’m not allowed in schools. God.”

Insulting, insensitive and illogical, all in 25 words.

First off, I write what follows knowing full well that those who forward such ill-conceived Internet memes aren’t going to be swayed by any amount of reasoning. Most aren’t even interested in being swayed; they’re simply seeking to push a point of view and will use whatever means available.

As the old saying goes, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

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Recalling the South’s last black senator

blanche bruce

Word that US Rep. Tim Scott will replace Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina means, among other things, that a southern state will be represented by a black senator for the first time in more than 130 years.

The last black senator from the South was Blanche Kelso Bruce, a Republican from Mississippi who served from 1875 to 1881.

Bruce was born a slave in Prince Edward County, Va., in 1841 to a white plantation owner and a house slave. Bruce was unusual in that he was tutored by his master’s son. Also unusual was that Bruce’s father, Pettis Perkinson, legally freed him so he could learn a trade as a printer’s apprentice.

Bruce left Virginia at the beginning of the War Between the States. Rejected for service in the Union Army, Bruce instead taught school and attended Oberlin College for two years.

He then moved to Mississippi where he bought an abandoned cotton plantation and amassed a real estate fortune, according to a 2008 article by Politico.

In addition to being a Mississippi planter, Bruce served as a member of the Mississippi Levee Board – no minor post given the havoc the Mississippi River could wreak with its then-regular flooding – and served as sheriff and tax collector of Bolivar County 1872-1875, according to the Biographical Dictionary of the United States Congress.

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Set of Founding Fathers’ signatures up for sale


A rare collection featuring the signatures of all 56 men who signed the US Declaration of Independence will be put up for sale by a New England auction house tomorrow.

RR Auction of Amherst, NH, is auctioning off the Proctor-Sang-Newell Collection of Signers of the Declaration of Independence. RR Auction calls the collection one of the finest quality sets ever offered for sale.

“Most of the examples are substantial-length letters, many of which feature significant historical content by some of the nation’s most important Founding Fathers,” the company writes in promotional material.

The key signature in the Proctor-Sang-Newell Collection is said to be that of Georgia signer Button Gwinnett. There are just 51 examples of his autograph known to exist – and only 11 in private hands, according to RR Auction.

Individual examples of Gwinnett’s autograph have sold for as much as $150,000, making his signature by far the most valuable American autograph.

Gwinnett, born in 1735, had a relatively short public life, being elected to the Georgia Provincial Assembly in 1769 and serving briefly as the provisional president of Georgia in 1777 before being killed in a duel later that same year.

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