Surviving History

ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and eight other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Tuesday, July 31, 2012


He has lain in silence for 88 years - the preserved corpse of a man who refuses to die.
Lenin: a very long sleep
The mould is regularly wiped off his face and the body is given the occasional bath in a glycerol solution to prevent it from rotting.
The preservation of Lenin’s body provides a fascinating insight into the early Soviet Union and the development of the cult of personality. It is also an extraordinary testimony to the dedication of a small team of expert scientists.
As he was before the glycerine bath
When Lenin died on 21 January, 1924, his widow, Nadezhda Krupskaya, wanted him buried in the plot next to his mother. ‘Do not put up buildings or monuments in his name,’ she said.
But Lenin’s Politburo colleagues strongly disagreed. Felix Dzerzhinsky, chairman of the Lenin Funeral Committee, said: ‘If science permits, Lenin’s body must be preserved.’
But this posed a real problem. There were many known techniques for embalming a body in the manner of the ancient Egyptians, but none that could be guaranteed to preserve Lenin’s life likeness.
Egyptian embalming: not a great likeness
When the distinguished Soviet pathologist, Aleksei Abrikosov, was asked if it was possible, he replied that ‘science today has no such means.’
Others disagreed. Vladimir Vorobiev, a professor of anatomy at Kharkov University argued that ‘many anatomical compounds can be preserved for decades; this means we can try and apply them to an entire body.’
Embalmed in mud: the bogman
In the early days following Lenin’s death, his corpse was placed in a freezing wooden crypt near the Kremlin. But as spring approached and temperatures rose, the body showed the early stages of putrefaction. It was decided to permanently freeze it by placing it in a giant, specially made freezer.
But this had to be ordered from Germany and time was against the steadily decaying corpse. It was decided to summon Professor Vorobiev to Moscow and give him the weighty responsibility of saving Lenin’s from ruin. He was aided in his work by another expert, Boris Zbarsky: both men knew they’d be killed if they failed.
Dead but not yet embalmed
Lenin's blood, bodily fluids and internal organs were removed as part of the initial embalming. The whereabouts of his heart remains a mystery to this day: it seems to have been lost shortly afterwards. His brain is still kept at a Moscow institute but it was long ago dissected into many pieces in an attempt to discover the source of Lenin’s ‘genius’.
But the rest of what is on display in Red Square is genuine Lenin. His eyebrows, moustache and goatee are his original hair. And his genitals, too, were left in situ (although it goes without saying that they’re not on display).
Once the internal organs had been removed, the corpse was immersed for many weeks in a special solution that contained glycerine and acetate. The dark, mould-like spots that had appeared on the body were removed with acetic acid and hydrogen peroxide. It was very important to keep the eye sockets from collapsing: artificial eyes were made to replace the original pair and inserted into the holes.
Prof Vogt studies Lenin's brain
The body rapidly attracted vast numbers of Communist faithful, as well as quite a number of curious tourists. Lenin had to be hastily removed from Red Square during World War Two when Nazi bombing of Moscow endangered his continued survival. He was moved to the town of Tyumen, some 1,200 miles east of the capital, transported in a refrigerated wagon.
But Lenin was back in Moscow in the spring of 1945. The only change was that he was no longer wearing the traditional military field jacket. Now, he was dressed in a three-piece suit. Every ten years or so, he is given a new set of clothing.
Lenin's final resting place? The Moscow mausoleum
For many years the corpse was supervised by Yuri Denisov-Nikolsky. When asked about his macabre job, he confessed that although he never talked or sung to the body, he did have shaking hands when he first touched it.
‘Not every expert is allowed to restore such treasured historical objects, like a Raphael or a Rembrandt. Those who do it, we tremble. I feel a great responsibility in my hands.’
Boris Yeltsin was the first senior political leader to suggest that Lenin should be buried. He said that following the collapsing of the Soviet Union, it was no longer appropriate to keep the corpse on display.
But neither Vladimir Putin not anyone other senior figure seems inclined to remove from display what must surely rank as one of the most macabre tourist attractions in the world.
So there he lies, marble white, wrinkled and on occasions a little mouldy. A human corpse is an animate organism that’s bursting with life.
So long as he remains on display, Lenin will continue to be the corpse that never quite died. 
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I am the author of seven works of narrative history including the best-selling Nathaniel's Nutmeg and, most recently, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War. If you'd like to buy my books, click here for UK readers and here for US readers. For more information about my books, visit

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


It is one of the loneliest places on earth.
Did a freak wave like this one strike Flannan Island?
The lighthouse on Flannan Island stands 15 miles to the west of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides - a place so forlorn and windswept that the lighthouse crew had to be changed every 14 days. Longer stays on the island would addle men’s minds and drive them mad.
On 7 December, 1900, the lighthouse’s Head Keeper, James Ducat arrived at the island for a new tour of duty. He was accompanied by Second Assistant, Thomas Marshall, and an experienced young man named Donald Macarthur.
As it was: temporary home to three men
The men were taken to the lighthouse on a local vessel, accompanied by Robert Muirhead, the Superintendent of Lighthouses. His job was to check that everything was running correctly.
Muirheard suggested that Ducat make a few changes to the daily routine and then bade farewell. He shook the men’s hands as he left the island and wished them a pleasant stay. He was the last person to see any of the three men alive. They disappeared without trace, thereby instigating one of the great unsolved mysteries of the Victorian age. 
In the days that followed Muirhead’s departure, the island was kept under telescope observation from the Outer Hebrides. If there was an emergency, the keepers were instructed to hoist a flag. A boat would then be sent to the island.
Flannan Islands: note how high the lighthouse was above sea level
It was a system that rarely worked well. The island was often obscured by clouds of swirling mist and the distance from the Outer Hebrides meant that accurate observation was almost impossible.
The fortnight that James Ducat and his team spent on the island coincided with a period of thick sea fog. The lamp remained visible at night, but only just. It was sighted on 7 December but was then obscured by bad weather for the next four evenings. It was seen again on the 12 December. After that, it was not seen for over a fortnight.
Three days after the last sighting of the lamp, a vessel named the SS Archtor passed close to the island. Captain Holman searched for the light in the night sky but there was nothing. Concerned that something was wrong, he raised the alarm.
The fortnightly relief vessel was supposed to arrive at the island on 21 December, but the weather was so atrocious it was unable to set sail. Not until Boxing Day did the SS Hesperus finally reach the Flannen Islands, arriving at noon.
They simply disappeared. But to where?
Photo courtesy: John J Maclennan: Stornoway
The lighthouse crew traditional welcomed the arriving relief vessel by raising a flag (to show that they’d spotted it) and then rowing out to fetch the new crew.
But on this occasion, there was no flag and no sign of the lighthouse boat. Captain Harvie, on board the Hesperus, sounded the siren. There was no response.
Two of the Hesperus’s crew, Joseph Moore and Second Mate McCormack now rowed across to the island. They found the place deserted and the lighthouse’s outer door was locked.
Moore had a set of keys and proceeded to unlock the building. The interior was deserted. There was no sign of Ducat, Marshall or Macarthur. The clock on the inner wall had stopped working. There was no fire in the grate and the three beds were empty. A meal had been left uneaten on the table.
Moore returned to the Hesperus to inform his commander, Captain Harvie. He, in turn, informed the Northern Lighthouse Board. ‘A dreadful accident has happened at the Flannann,’ he wrote. ‘The three keepers, Ducat, Marshall and the Occasional [Macarthur] have disappeared from the Island… Poor fellows must have been blown over the cliffs or drowned trying to secure a crane or something like that.’
Flannan landing: very dangerous
The investigation was soon joined by Superintendent Muirhead from the Lighthouse Board. After a detailed search of the lighthouse and island he began to piece together the story of what might possibly have happened.
Everything seemed to have been running smoothly until the afternoon of the 15 December. James Ducat, had compiled weather reports up until the 13 and he had also written draft entries for the 14 and 15 December. There had been a storm on the 14, according to his text, but the following morning was calm.
It became clear that the storm had been severe for there was considerable damage to the lighthouse. The jetty was badly warped and the railings were twisted.
One of the storehouses had been washed clean away. Alarmingly, some of the stored ropes had become snared on a crane that stood fully 70 feet above sea level.
A genuine freak wave: terrifying
Muirhead could only find two possible scenarios and neither of them was very plausible. Either the three men had been blown off the cliffs (highly unlikely, since the wind was a westerly) or they had been swept off the island by a gigantic freak wave, which he called ‘an extra large sea’.
This latter hypothesis was ridiculed by many. Freak waves were believed to exist only in novels, poems and sailors’ fertile imaginations.
Hold on tight!
But it is now known that freak waves (not to be confused with tsunami or tidal waves) do exist and can be unbelievably destructive. In 2001, the expedition ship, Caledonian Star, was hit by a 30 metre wall of water that seemed to arise from nowhere. Such was its force that the bridge windows were smashed and the electricity failed.
Other vessels have encountered similarly massive waves, which are the result of a high winds and strong currents coming together to form a truly violent natural phenomenon.
In the absence of any other evidence, one must assume that the poor men of Flannan Island were swept off the land in a terrifying torrent of water - at least 70 feet in height - and then dragged to an unknown but watery grave.
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I am the author of seven works of narrative history including the best-selling Nathaniel's Nutmeg and, most recently, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War. If you'd like to buy my books, click here for UK readers and here for US readers. For more information about my books, visit

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


It was a terrifying moment for the men on board the USS South Dakota.
Just twelve, but eager to serve
The ship’s electrical equipment had suffered a severe breakdown, rendering their radio, radar and gun batteries inoperable. Now, they looked on helpless as three Japanese destroyers and a heavily armed cruiser headed towards them at full speed.
Among the nervous US marines serving on the South Dakota was one whose slight frame and unshaven face gave him the look of a young boy. There was good reason for this. Calvin Graham was just 12 years of age, making him the youngest person to serve on the Allied side in the Second World War.
USS South Dakota: hell on earth when Graham was on board
He had enlisted in the aftermath of Pearl Harbour because he wanted to do his bit for the American war effort. He left home after telling his mother that he was going to visit relatives. Instead, he and a small band of friends set off to join the navy.
‘I stood 5'2" and weighed 125 pounds,’ he later recalled, ‘but I wore one of my older brothers' clothes and we all practiced talking deep. The Navy knew we were underage, but we were losing the war then so they took six of us."
Graham was sent to join the South Dakota, a destroyer that was heading to tropical Guadalcanal, one of the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. Guadalcanal’s airport made it a strategically important base; it had been captured by American forces some three months earlier. Now, the Japanese were determined to recapture it.
The battle between the two navies began on 12 November 1942 but it was not until the night of the 14th that Graham and his comrades found themselves under sustained and heavy fire. As the Japanese ships closed in on the defenceless South Dakota and her escorting entourage, Graham knew he was about to undergo a terrifying rite of passage.
US forces capture Guadalcanal
The Japanese attack was fast and furious: they first hit the destroyers Walke and Preston. Both were sunk with heavy loss of life. Gwin was the next to be hit. A shell landed in her engine room and crippled her.
The South Dakota was next to be targeted. With her electrics out of action, she was particularly vulnerable to the big guns of the Japanese fleet. Unable to hide or to return fire, she was illuminated by Japanese spotlights before being systematically targeted by gunfire and torpedoes. She was hit at least 25 times, causing carnage as shells exploded all over the vessel.
In the bloody firefight that followed, the muzzle blast from the South Dakota’s own 16-inch guns set a number of sailors on fire. Many more of Graham’s comrades were hurled into the sea as the Japanese fired shell after shell at the crippled American destroyer.
The Japanese fleet on the attack
Young Graham was absolutely petrified by the explosions that were taking place all around him. He was blown off an upper deck while trying to help a wounded shipmate and tumbled 30 feet through the air, badly shattering his upper jawbone when he finally crashed to the deck.
Japanese searchlights at Guadalcanal
By the time the shelling and gunfire came to an end, half the ship's crew of 3,300 were killed or wounded. Graham himself escaped with his life, although he was badly injured. He emerged from the battle with a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
The wounds he suffered during the battle were just the beginning of a long and painful trip back to civilian life. His mother made the mistake of revealing his age to the navy. Graham found himself arrested and incarcerated in a military prison. He was swiftly released when his sister threatened to inform the newspapers of his treatment, but was stripped of his medals and given a dishonorable discharge. This meant that he forfeited all his disability rights.
He spent the rest of his life fighting his case, but it was not until 1978 that President Jimmy Carter changed his discharge to ‘honorable.’ This brought some recognition of his service in the navy, but his Purple Heart medal was still not reinstated.
The coveted Purple Heart
Graham continued to fight for full recognition of what he had done but it was not until 1988 that President Ronald Reagan signed legislation that granted Graham disability benefits.
The US military still refused to reinstate his Purple Heart, even after a movie was made about his time aboard the South Dakota. They argued that he had lied about his age when joining the American marines and that this permanently disqualified him from ever reclaiming his medal.
It was not until 1994, two years after his death, that they had a change of heart. Graham’s precious medal was finally reinstated and presented to his widow, Mary.

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I am the author of seven works of narrative history including the best-selling Nathaniel's Nutmeg and, most recently, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War. If you'd like to buy my books, click here for UK readers and here for US readers. For more information about my books, visit

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


It was 5th December, 1945, a beautiful sunny day in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Now you see them... five similar Avengers
Shortly after 2pm, five military airplanes - Avengers - took off on a training mission that would take them far out over the Gulf of Florida.
The planes were fully fuelled and in good condition. Flight leader Lieutenant Charles Taylor was an experienced pilot. There was no reason to expect anything other than a routine exercise.
By 3.40pm, the planes had been in the air for some 90 minutes and the training mission was almost complete. But just as they turned for home, something went terribly wrong.
Taylor: experienced
A ground-based flight instructor named Robert Cox was tuning his radio when he picked up a strange message transmitted between the planes of Flight 19.
One of the captains, Edward Powers, could be heard saying in a puzzled tone: ‘I don’t know where we are. We must have got lost after that last turn.’
The infamous Bermuda Triangle
This was followed by a more mysterious message. ‘Everything looks strange, even the ocean,’ said one of the voices. Another pilot could be heard saying: ‘It looks like we’re entering white water… we’re completely lost.’
The final, crackling message was picked up much later, at about 6.20pm. After that, there was radio silence. The five planes of Flight 19 had disappeared without trace and were never seen again. Nor, indeed, were the 14 airmen on board.
It was to prove one of the great mysteries of the 20th century. What, exactly, had happened?
It did not take long for conspiracy theories to appear in the press. The fact that the disappearance occurred in the so-called Bermuda Triangle, where numerous other planes and ships had gone missing, only fuelled the sense that some mysterious force was at work. But surviving evidence points to a more prosaic (if no less disquieting) explanation. From the very outset, Flight 19 had set off on a course that was doomed to disaster.
The lead aircraft: where is it now?
The Bermuda Triangle may well have played a part in this. It covers an area of ocean where the well-known phenomenon of compass variation is particularly powerful. Pilots need to compensate for the needle pointing to geographic rather than magnetic north. Lieutenant Taylor was heard complaining that the on-board compasses did not seem to be working correctly.
No less significant was the ominous build up of storm clouds on the horizon. Although it was sunny when the planes took off, the weather began to deteriorate throughout the course of the afternoon.
Isn't that the Florida Keys?
A third factor that would later come to the attention of investigators was the fact that this was Taylor’s maiden flight from Fort Lauderdale. Although he had clocked up many flying hours, he had previously been based in Miami and was unfamiliar with the Lauderdale topography.
Although the five planes of Flight 19 lost contact with the control tower, the ground-based radio operators were able to listen in on their conversations. It quickly became clear that Taylor was hopelessly lost.
‘I am sure I’m in the [Florida] Keys,’ he said to the other pilots, ‘but I don’t know how far down and I don’t know how to get to Fort Lauderdale.’
Taylor’s words give the first hint that Flight 19 was set on a course for disaster. It was later determined that he was actually looking down on the Bahamas, not the Florida Keys. Unaware that he had strayed wildly off course, he now took the decision to swing his planes north-east, reasoning that this would bring him back to Florida. In fact, by setting off in such a direction, he was leading his planes far out into the Atlantic.
Lost without trace
The last message picked up by Taylor hints at the impending doom: ‘All planes close up tight… when the first plane drops below 10 gallons, we all go down together.’
The five aircraft must have ditched into the ocean with the hope that they could keep the planes floating on the surface unto rescue ships arrived. But Avengers are notoriously difficult to land on water and even harder to keep afloat. In the mountainous seas in which they landed, they would have sunk like rocks.
Abducted by aliens, according to
conspiracy theorists
A PBM Mariner plane was scrambled in order to search for the missing aircraft. But it, too, disappeared without trace, along with the 13 men on board. It was later presumed to have blown up in a terrible mid-air explosion.
The coast guard and navy combed 700,000 square kilometres of sea for five days but found no wreckage or even any sign of oil on the surface. The final report by the Navy Board of Investigation was inconclusive. Investigators said that they were ‘not able to even make a good guess.’
It was to prove a bonanza for the Bermuda Triangle conspiracy theorists. It wasn’t long before they were claiming that the crew of Flight 19 had been abducted by aliens. Presumably they’re alive to this day and living on some distant planet.

My new book, Russian Roulette, is now published in the USA and available at amazonbarnes&noble and all good independent publishers.  

With this marvellous, meticulously researched and truly ground-breaking account of British spies working in Lenin's stripling Soviet Union, Giles Milton - with his best book so far - reminds us of a time when the spying game was dangerous, fun and - dare one say it - even cool.' Simon Winchester, author of The Men who United the States and The Professor and the Madman

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


Crowds of excited visitors had gathered to see the new exhibit at the Bronx Zoo in New York.
Benga: into the monkey house
In previous years they had come to gawp at elephants, tigers and lions. But on 8 September, 1906, the zoo’s new addition was altogether more alluring. Ota Benga was a pygmy from the African Congo and he had been placed in the monkey house.
His tenure at the zoo was to spark a violent debate about racism, human rights and the growing acceptance of evolutionary Darwinism.
Ota Benga had been brought to New York by the American businessman and missionary Samuel Phillips Verner. Verner had travelled to the Belgian Congo in 1904 in order to acquire an assortment of African pygmies to be displayed at the St Louis World Fair.
At St Louis: Benga is second left
Verner first met Benga while on an expedition to the equatorial forests; he managed to acquire him for a pound of salt and a roll of cloth. Benga himself then persuaded a few companions to join him on an expedition to North America. It was a voyage that was to change their lives.
Ota Benga proved an instant (if controversial) attraction at the world fair. He was put on display with other pygmies in the anthropology tent.
Part of the attraction was his strange teeth; they had been filed to sharp points when he was a young boy, as part of a Congolese ritualistic ceremony. Newspapers described him as ‘the only genuine African cannibal in America’.
Bronx Zoo: Benga was the star attraction
Benga returned briefly to the Congo after the fair but made a second visit to America with Verner in 1906. This time, the treatment he received was far more distressing.
After a brief spell at the American Museum of Natural History, he was moved to Bronx Zoo. The zoo’s director, William Hornaday, was quick to realise the appeal of a ‘human savage’ on display. But he was also aware that it was controversial and sought the backing of Madison Grant, the distinguished Secretary of the New York Zoological Society.
Grant thought it was a brilliant idea: Benga was to live in the monkey house, along with a parrot and an orang-utan called Dahong.
A rare picture of Benga at the Bronx Zoo
The display panel read: ‘The African Pigmy, Ota Benga. 
Age, 23 years. Height, 4 feet 11 inches.
 Weight, 103 pounds. Brought from the 
Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Central Africa, by Dr. Samuel P. Verner. Exhibited each afternoon during September.’
In an article for the zoological society’s bulletin, Hornaday wrote enthusiastically about the zoo’s new acquisition: ‘A genuine African Pygmy, belonging to the sub-race commonly miscalled ‘the dwarfs’. Ota Benga is a well-developed little man, with a good head, bright eyes and a pleasing countenance. He is not hairy, and is not covered by the ‘downy fell’ described by some explorers.’
Hornaday: saw nothing wrong
His presence in the zoo excited controversy from the opening day. The New York Times initially defended the decision to put him in the monkey house. ‘We do not quite understand all the emotion which others are expressing in the matter,’ declared their editorial. ‘It is absurd to make moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation Benga is suffering. The pygmies are very low in the human scale, and the suggestion that Benga should be in a school instead of a cage ignores the high probability that school would be a place ... from which he could draw no advantage whatever.’
The debate intensified with every day that passed. White churchmen were concerned by Benga’s presence in the monkey cage, largely because they felt he was being used to promote Darwin’s theory of evolution, something that many of them opposed.
African-American churchmen were far more appalled by Benga’s new home. The black pastor, James Gordon, said that, ‘our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with the apes. We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.’
Before long, Benga was released from the monkey house and allowed to wander freely around the zoo dressed in a white linen suit. But this scarcely helped his plight.
He was hounded by visitors until it eventually became too much for him to bear. According to Hornaday, ‘he procured a carving knife from the feeding room of the Monkey House and went around the Park flourishing it in a most alarming manner.’
Congo rainforest: Benga longed to return home
The New York Times now changed its tune and joined the growing chorus of dissent about Benga’s treatment. The newspaper complained that his time at the zoo had only served to brutalise him.
At the end of 1906, he was released from captivity and housed in an orphan asylum in New York.
Benga always dreamed of returning to Africa but it was not to be. When the First World War broke out - and the Atlantic crossing became too dangerous - he despaired of ever making it back to the Congo.
Depressed by his experience of life in America, he stole a pistol and shot himself through the heart. He was buried in an unmarked grave in New York.
The American Museum of Natural History retains a life size body cast of Bengi’s body. To this day it is not marked with his name or any indication that he was a human being.
The label has just one word: ‘pygmy’.
UK paperback
I am the author of seven works of narrative history including the best-selling Nathaniel's Nutmeg and, most recently, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War. If you'd like to buy my books, click here for UK readers and here for US readers. For more information about my books, visit