Frank Buckles, last WWI Doughboy, dies at 110

Frank Buckles, during a Veteran’s Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery at Arlington, Virginia, 2007, left, and in his U.S. Army enlistment photo, 1917.

Frank Woodruff Buckles lied about his age and joined the Army in August of 1917 when he was 16 years old. Since he was anxious to see action, he volunteered to drive ambulances, a duty that he had heard would get him to the Western front the fastest. He was deployed in December of that year, sailing to England on the Carpathia, the ship that rescued the survivors of the Titanic, then going on to various places in France.

“The little French children were hungry,” Mr. Buckles recalled in a 2001 interview for the Veterans History Project of the Library of Congress. “We’d feed the children. To me, that was a pretty sad sight.”

Mr. Buckles escorted German prisoners of war back to their homeland after the Armistice, then returned to America and later worked in the Toronto office of the White Star shipping line.

He traveled widely over the years, working for steamship companies, and he was on business in Manila when the Japanese occupied it following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. He was imprisoned by the Japanese, losing more than 50 pounds, before being liberated by an American airborne unit in February 1945.

He worked for a steamship until he retired in the mid-1950s, then he ran a cattle farm for another 50 or so years. As one of very few remaining World War I veterans, Buckles was a frequent participant in parades and national memorial events during the past decade. He was extensively interviewed, relaying his unique memories of the Great War. For instance, he told an interviewer how he had seen veterans of the Crimean War in a ceremony in England. That’s the Charge of the Light Brigade war, from the 1850s. One 110-year-old man connected us to so much history that seems so distant when we read about it.

He passed away on Sunday at his home in Charles Town, West Virginia. In 2007, he was one of four U.S. World War I veterans still alive, two of whom served Stateside and one with Canadian forces in Britain, so even then Buckles was the only surviving veteran of the Western front. As of February 2010, he was the last US World War I veteran alive and only one of three people remaining in the world who had served in the war in any capacity.

Now there are only two: Claude Choules, of the British Royal Navy, now living in Australia, and awesomely, Florence Green, of the British Women’s Royal Air Force, now living in England. Florence joined the Women’s Royal Air Force right at the end of the war, in September 1918, when she was 17. She worked in the mess halls of two Norfolk airbases. Choules saw much action from 1916 onwards, serving on the HMS Revenge, and witnessing the scuttling of the German fleet at Scapa Flow, Scotland, on June 21, 1919.

The Veterans’ History Project and the Library of Congress have an exceptional series of interviews with Frank Buckles, plus documents and pictures from his collection online. It’s not to be missed, seriously. Then when you’re done being fascinated by Frank, check out the rest of the VHP’s World War I archive.

Milton’s poems bound in murderer skin on display

Poetical Works of John Milton bound in human fleshA very special 1852 edition of The Poetical Works of John Milton was put on public display for the first time at the Westcountry Studies Library on February 26th as part of Devon’s Local History Day. As you might have cleverly deduced from the title, what makes this volume special is that it was bound in the skin of executed murderer George Cudmore.

George Cudmore, a short, humpbacked rat-catcher, was convicted in 1830 of poisoning his wife Grace by putting arsenic in food and medicine. He claimed to have been driven to the act by his lover Sarah Dunn. Dunn confessed that she had seen him messing around with a white powder, that she had told him not to poison his wife as he would be hanged. He put it in his wife’s elder tea anyway and she saw him do it without stopping him. She said that even though she wasn’t actively involved in the murder, she did let it happen and she did live “in criminal intercourse” with Cudmore, so she felt she was equally guilty.

The jury disagreed. Dunn was acquitted and Cudmore convicted at the Lent Assizes in March, 1830. He was sentenced to hang, and to have his cadaver donated to the Devon and Exeter Hospital for dissection. On March 25th, George Cudmore was hanged from his neck until dead as Dunn watched. Cudmore’s last request was that she be be kept in Devon County Gaol and made to witness his execution. For some reason that is unclear, they fulfilled his request even though she had been judged not guilty. She reportedly fell into hysterics and fainted when he dropped.

His corpse was promptly sent to the Devon and Exeter Hospital where it was promptly dissected. It’s unclear exactly how it got from the hospital onto a book, but it’s thought that a portion of his skin fell into the hands of one Mr. W. Clifford, an Exeter bookseller, in 1853. He dressed it white (which I gather is some kind of tanning process) and bound Tegg’s 1852 edition of Milton’s Works with Cudmore’s skin. From Clifford it entered into the collection of Ralph Sanders, Esq., who left it to Exeter’s Albert Memorial Museum. Eventually it wound up in the Westcountry Studies Library where it remained in the rare book collection, out of public view, until a couple of days ago.

Senior assistant librarian Tony Rouse said: ‘It is certainly an unusual and grisly thing, but if it weren’t for the description, it would be difficult to discern its past.

‘There is no hair or stray nipple or anything like that. It is outwardly unremarkable but a closer inspection reveals it to be a surprising artefact.’

No hair or stray nipple?! EVIL DEAD LIED TO ME!1

The book is going on display this year because the theme of Local History Day is crime and punishment. There will be other talks and exhibits on the theme, including lectures on other Devon executions and witch trials.

A new old face for Otzi

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the discovery of Otzi the Iceman. On September 19, 1991, tourists Helmut and Erika Simon stumbled on a mummified corpse lying on his front embedded in the ice of the Ötztal Alps, just 100 yards inside the Italian border. At first authorities thought he was recently deceased and thus dug him out in a slapdash manner, damaging him with jackhammers and allowing lookie-loos to collect pieces of his clothing and accessories.

It was only after he was sent to the morgue that people realized he was 5,300 years old, Europe’s oldest natural mummy. He’s been on display in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology since 1998, where a panoply of researchers study him, regularly releasing new information about his life and death.

This year, the museum plans a variety of events and new exhibits to celebrate the 20th anniversary, including a new state-of-the-art reconstruction model of what Otzi might have looked like. There have been earlier attempts using anatomical data and measurements. In 1993, National Geographic published a reconstruction done by anthropologically-trained artist John Gurche, but he didn’t have a 3D cast of the skull to work from, which is a major stumbling block to creating anything like an accurate facial reconstruction. Gurche had to use CT scans and pictures as the basis for his model.

Now Alfons and Adrie Kennis, two Dutch experts in anthropological reconstruction models have created a new model of Otzi to display at the South Tyrol Museum’s Otzi20 exhibit. They used the latest scientific information and an exact 3D copy of the skull created from the most recent X-rays and CAT scans.

This latest work by these artists, famous for their reconstructions, shows a denizen of the Alps from the Stone Age, striking in the lifelike nature of every detail, from his skin colour down to the smallest wrinkle on his brow: of medium height, slight yet wiry, with narrow, sharp features, an unruly beard and tanned skin.

He looks much older than the earlier reconstructions. He was 40 when he died, so he was at first depicted as a strapping middle-aged man. However recent findings suggest that Otzi would have been weatherbeaten and prematurely aged by the harsh environment of the Copper Age Alps, and that his eyes were brown, not blue as previously thought.

Here’s the new reconstruction on the left, the early 90s version on the right:

New reconstruction of Otzi the Iceman, courtesy National Geographic Germany 1993 National Geographic reconstruction of Otzi

Nine Wari tombs found in Cuzco

Archaeologists excavating one of the last standing Inca citadels in the Andean jungle region of Cuzco, Peru have discovered nine tombs from the pre-Incan Wari culture. Some Wari artifacts were first found last July; then over the next three months the tomb complex was discovered and finally announced to the public Wednesday.

Wari noble gold and silver piecesOne of the tombs includes gold and silver burial goods which mark it as having belonged to a person of high status. Archaeologists have dubbed him the “Lord of Vilca” in a nod to the Lord of Sipán, the Moche aristocrat whose intact burial (from ca. 100 A.D.) was found in northern Peru in 1987 still full of jewelry, art and precious metals. The Lord of Vilca was buried with a large Y-shaped silver chestplate, a silver mask, two gold bracelets and two walking sticks laminated with silver.

The Wari civilization flourished between 600 and 1100 A.D., 300 years before the Inca built the largest pre-Columbian empire on the continent. The Lord of Vilca’s tomb dates to right in the middle of that range, around 1000 A.D.

The tombs are within the archaeological complex of Espiritu Pampa, in the Cuzco district of Vilcabamba, some 1,100 kilometers (680 miles) south-east of Lima.

Vilcabamba was the last refuge of Inca resistance after Spanish conquistadors captured and executed the Inca emperor in 1532. The last resistance leader, Tupac Amaru I, was captured by the Spaniards after fleeing the site and executed in 1572.

It is a “spectacular, truly surprising” discovery, said archaeologist Luis Lumbreras, former director of the National Cultural Institute (INC).

“This will make us revise part of Inca history.”

Historians previously thought the Wari civilization had reached Cuzco, but only up to the mountainous sierra. The Espiritu Pampa jungle region where Vilcabamba is found was thought to have been inhabited only by the Incas. It might suggest a closer link between the rise of the Inca Empire and its Wari predecessor.

Wari burial complexes are always found inside cities and were part of complex formal funerary rites. They don’t yet know the exact dates and extent of the citadel in which the tombs were found, but the burial complex covers an area of 450 square meters (about 4,844 square feet).

Add this find to the 2008 discovery of a Wari city in Chiclayo, way up north, and the enormous reach of the culture becomes unmistakable. They covered almost the entire length of modern Peru and more than halfway inland.

Nine Wari tombs found in Vilcabamba Wari reach

Buy your own genuine historic Soviet space capsule

The first man in space, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, blasted out of the Earth’s atmosphere on April 12, 1961 in a wee little sphere called the Vostok 3KA-3 Space Capsule. Three weeks before that momentous day, the Soviets sent up the last of their test spheres, the Vostok 3KA-2, carrying a mannequin named Ivan Ivanovich and a dog named Zvezdochka into low earth orbit.

The Soviet Vostok 3KA-2 Space CapsuleAfter completing one full orbit of the earth, the capsule reentered the atmosphere with only minor scorching and landed in a gully near the city of Izhevsk. Ivan Ivanovich ejected as planned before landing, and Zvezdochka emerged from the capsule unharmed.

V.P. Efimoz, one of the people who worked on the pressurized spacesuit that kept Ivan and later Yuri intact, described its retrieval: “[arriving] by sleigh, the rescue team reached the landing place of the descent capsule. Half scorched, slightly bent over the ground, it seemed an enormous animal driven too hard, lying in a narrow snow-covered gully, the snow melting around the charred and still hot body of the unit. Attached to it by slings, lay sprawling the voluminous canopy of the parachute.”

With the success of this test mission using an identical twin of the capsule Gagarin would stuff himself into, the historic mission to put a man in space got the final green light.

Ivan Ivanovich is on display at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum. Gagarin’s Vostok 3KA-3, later renamed Vostok 1, is part of the permanent collection of Russian rocket company Rkk Energia’s Museum outside Moscow. The Vostok 3KA-2 is going up for auction at Sotheby’s New York on April 12, 2011, the 50th anniversary of the first man in space.

The bottom half is blackened from scorching while reentering the Earth’s atmosphere. The top half of the outside shell, made of synthetic materials, is bronze-colored and bears a huge dent. Inside, the cramped space is littered with remains of old wires and the ejector seat.

“These were very primitive,” Redden said. “There was a good shot that whoever went into space was not coming back.”

And even if they did, just the fact of being shot into space in a 2.5 meter (8 feet) cabin would be challenge enough.

Sotheby’s estimates the sale price at $2-10 million. The seller is an anonymous American who bought it from Russia (thank you, post-Soviet cowboy capitalism) some years ago. Plutocrats with money to burn are major buyers on the Russian antiquities and collectibles market right now, so my guess is that this item will sell big and will end up back in Russia. Here’s hoping it goes on public display instead of being squirreled away into another secret collection like the one it came from.