Saturday, September 2, 2017

THE TRIALS OF THE KING OF HAMPSHIRE : MADNESS, SECRECY AND BETRAYAL IN GEORGIAN ENGLAND
by Elizabeth Foyster 

Was John Charles Wallop, the 3rd Earl of Portsmouth really insane? According to his family he was. They initiated a Commission of Lunacy against him in 1823. A the time, Lord Portsmouth was fifty-five years old and had enormous wealth. The family wanted to place that fortune under legal protection. Anybody who knew Portsmouth from aristocrats to servants gave statements to the Commission, which was well over one hundred people. They testified that he definitely was crazy. But, there was also an equal amount of witnesses who said that Portsmouth had a sound mind. So, who was to be believed? This case was a goldmine for the newspapers. A lifetime of secrets was now being aired to the public and they just ate it up. The trial would become the most expensive British insanity trial ever held.
It's almost always enjoyable to read about someone who I never of, especially if they're quirky, unconventional, have foibles and the book is especially well-written. Author Elizabeth Foyster did a masterly job with The Trials of the King of Hampshire. Her specialization is in family history, which she was able to utilize effortlessly in digging out all the machinations ("dirty laundry") that the Portsmouths had. Luckily for Foyster, there was tons of information on Portsmouth in the archives. Nobody else seemed to be interested in him until Foyster came along. I'm glad that she brought Portsmouth to the forefront as this story is really fascinating.
Highly recommended.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

THE GREAT RESCUE : AMERICAN HEROES, AN ICONIC SHIP, AND THE RACE TO SAVE EUROPE IN WWI
by Peter Heron

Almost two years later (minus one month) after the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912, the most luxurious ocean liner made its appearance in New York. Germany's newest behemoth was called the SS Vaterland  and would eventually make four voyages from Europe to the United States. This boat was the biggest vessel at the time and its grandeur attracted many wealthy passengers. The total amount of people it was able to hold was 5200. By the time of its last trip on July 30, 1914, World War I had begun and the shop was ordered to remain in New York. It would stay docked for nearly three years before America entered the war. The government seized the ship for the U.S. Navy. President Woodrow Wilson renamed the liner the USS Leviathan, which in the Bible means "monster of the deep." From now on the Leviathan was to be used for transporting thousands of American troops to France fighting against the Germans. Needless to say, it was very successful considering that German U-Boats were constantly sinking American ships and the biggest prize for them would have been the Leviathan But by the end of World War I it had made nineteen crossings carrying over 100,000 soldiers.
The Great Rescue is not just about a huge ship that was completely revamped to fit in as many passengers as humanly possible. Author Peter Hernon writes about all of the interesting characters who were leaders in their own right: Henry Bryan, the captain of the Leviathan; General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force; Freddie Stowers, a black man from South Carolina whose heroism with the 371st Regiment was basically ignored; and Irvin Cobb, a war reporter for the Saturday Evening Post. FDR makes an appearance (he was assistant secretary of the navy) and he is walking at this time. Polio has not yet surfaced. 
You feel as if you have a front row seat and are actually watching the fighting. I don't know how much has been written about Americans fighting with the French against Germany, but there's certainly plenty here to keep your interest. This is one of those books of unknown history that deserves to be read.
Recommended.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

SPIES IN THE FAMILY : AN AMERICAN SPYMASTER, HIS RUSSIAN CROWN JEWEL, AND THE FRIENDSHIP THAT HELPED END THE COLD WAR
by Eva Dillon

Seventeen years after the early death of Paul Dillon (1997), his daughter, Eva, along with her brothers, went over to the house they had lived in sporadically in Virginia. They were there to clean it out and what they found in the attic was very surprising. Cardboard boxes were filled with letters, magazines and newspaper articles, pictures, and mementos that covered the entire span of the family's life. One of the magazines called George had an article about Eva's father. It said that Dillon was "an unsung hero of the Cold War." While working for the CIA, he was the case officer (handler) for a Soviet intelligence officer. This Soviet spy named Dmitri Fedorovich Polyakov became the most valuable asset the CIA had ever had. Of course, the spy's name was not revealed in the article; only that he spied on the Russians for the United States during a period of eighteen years. The fact that Eva's father was so deeply involved with this top Soviet spy was earth-shattering. He obviously had secrets and never explained what was going on to his children as they moved around from country to country. They thought he was a U.S. State Department employee and never asked questions. After finding this tremendous treasure trove of information, Eva was determined to learn more about her father's life.
I never tire at reading books about spies, especially the ones who are traitors to the United States. Spies in the Family does have these despicable scumbags written about here, but Polyakov was not that kind of man. Normally the reason that people spy and give out classified information to another country is because they are in need of an excessive amount of money. Not so with Polyakov. He offered his services to the United States because he was disgusted with what was going on in the Soviet Union, the lies that were being told to the citizens, the dislike he had for its leaders, and had a very favorable impression of America. So he was never paid with any cash. Instead, the CIA agents gave him small gifts for his children and to the Russian employees Polyakov worked with. The very close relationship he had with Dillon was a "match made in heaven." It was productive, they trusted one another, were co-conspirators, and became friends. The intelligence flowed to monumental proportions. And then it stopped because of a betrayal.
Spies in the Family is a riveting story and if you're an aficionado of espionage, you'll definitely want to read this book. Eva Dillon is a terrific writer and was lucky to have had interviews with many of her father's former colleagues at the CIA. She even got to interview Polyakov's son, Alexander.
Not to be missed.
Very highly recommended.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

THE BLACK HAND : THE EPIC WAR BETWEEN A BRILLIANT DETECTIVE AND THE DEADLIEST SECRET SOCIETY IN AMERICAN HISTORY
by Stephan Talty

At the beginning of the twentieth century, thousands of immigrants came to America to begin a new life. Most of the influx were from Italy. They arrived in New York City and began to establish themselves with successful businesses. The other nationalities distrusted them and considered them to be savages. Better people should have the right to become citizens not the Italians. It was a constant fight for the Italians to be accepted. This wasn't the only hostility they had to deal with.
During the summer of 1903 The Society of the Black Hand reared its ugly head. The Black Hand was an extremely dangerous crime organization that used extortion, kidnapped children, assassinated tons of people, and bombed businesses and residences. They were from Sicily and were the original mafia. Letters would be dropped into mailboxes of anyone who had done well in the new world and an exorbitant sum of money would have to be coughed up.  If they went to the police, the absolute worst could happen to them or to their children. Within a period of time, not only New York City was in a panic but the fear had spread to other cities all over the United States.
The only person who was deemed to be able to destroy the Black Hand was Joseph Petrosino. He was known as the "Italian Sherlock Holmes." Using disguises and a huge network of informants, Petrosino worked relentlessly to capture the members of this insidious Society and bring them to justice. Eventually, he would have to travel to Sicily to annihilate the source of the Black Hand's power.
The Black Hand is a tremendous book and Stephan Talty is one heck of a writer. This is definitely true crime at its finest. Joseph Petrosino was an incredible detective and an American hero. He prevailed against being a target of the Black Hand (they HATED him), lack of help from the government, and even being shunned by some of his fellow Italians. Petrosino put his life on the line for his dedication to the new immigrants and for his love of America.
Highly recommended.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

MURDER IN MATERA : A TRUE STORY OF PASSION, FAMILY, AND FORGIVENESS IN SOUTHERN ITALY
by Helene Stapinski 

There was a murder in the family. From the time when she was a young child to adulthood Helene Stapinski's mother told endless stories about this wild great-great-grandmother named Vita Gallitelli. That side of the family (the maternal) came from Matera, a province in Southern Italy. (The name actually means mother in Latin.)
Apparently the murder happened over a card game. Vita's husband, Francesco Vena, was also involved. Many years later, Vita decides to come to America without Francesco. It's 1892 and very unusual for a woman to travel without her husband alone with three children. They settled in Jersey City where the two brothers, Leonardo and Valente, worked as barbers. Vita did not live real long. On Mischief Night she was hit in the head with a sock full of rocks.Within a week she was dead at the age of sixty-four. Was this some kind of revenge for what happened in Matera?
Stapinski decides to go to Italy to find out what really occurred. At first she goes for a month with her mother and her two young children leaving her husband behind. It's not a productive trip. The people who are questioned don't know of Vita, never heard of any murder, and nothing gets resolved. It would take ten years and multiple trips before Stapinski discovered the secrets that have been hidden for decades.
Murder in Matera is not your average true crime book. The fact that there's very few clues, no photos of the perpetrators, a couple of street names, and birth and death certificates is not much to go on. But, author Helene Stapinski does some impressive research upon returning to Italy which opens up a whole flood of information. 
Stapinski is a terrific writer and is also very funny. She knows how to tell a good tale (probably inherited this from her mother) and keeps you riveted to the page. There's never a dull moment. I, for one, did not want it to end.
Very highly recommended. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

INCENDIARY : THE PSYCHIATRIST, THE MAD BOMBER, AND THE INVENTION OF CRIMINAL PROFILING
by Michael Cannell 

The bombings had begun in New York City in 1940. No place was actually safe as the homemade explosives were planted in the most populated areas: Radio City Music Hall, Penn Station, the Paramount, a library, subway stations, theaters, etc. The most formidable police force were dumbfounded and couldn't figure it out. In the beginning when the bombs were set off, nobody was hurt. That changed in 1956. The bomber began to send in letters to newspapers and they were signed as "F.P." His intent now was to kill. In desperation police Captain Finney contacted Dr. James A. Brussel, a psychiatrist who was experienced in the criminal mind.Dr. Brussel examined the evidence from crime scenes, plus the weird verbiage of F.P.'s letters. Within two hours he was able to compile a profile of the bomber even down to what kind of clothing he wore. So now the police and detectives had a vision of what this guy possibly looked like but it wasn't enough. Dr. Brussel suggested that a tabloid that everybody read called The Journal-American reach out to the public to let them know what was going on and if they knew of anybody that fit this description. It worked because not only did the information generate plenty of interest, the bomber himself wrote to the tabloid explaining his reason why he did it. F.P. was eventually discovered.
Incendiary is a terrific story. With this book you read about the minds of schizophrenics, the beginnings of forensic profiling, the amazing Dr. Brussel, what the police went through, and the aftermath when F.P. was captured Author Michael Cannell used meticulous means of research, which took him three years, to write a riveting tale.
If you enjoy reading true crime, you don't want to miss out on Incendiary. It will definitely keep you glued to the page.
Highly recommended. 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

THE RADIUM GIRLS : THE DARK STORY OF AMERICA'S SHINING WOMEN
by Kate Moore

Radium used to be considered "the greatest find in history." At the beginning of the nineteenth century, scientists had discovered that it could destroy tumors. So, because radium saved lives it was assumed that it would be beneficial to health. The medical establishment was enthralled with it. Radium was claimed to cure hay fever, gout, cancer, give vitality to the elderly, and pretty much anything else. The sky was the limit. Everyone who was able wanted to be involved in some aspect of the radium craze.
America entered the war in April 1917 and dial-painting factories became vital and were in demand. Hundreds of girls were hired to paint watch faces using radium powder. They used very fine camel-hair brushes that would become gritty. In order to remedy that situation, the girls would put the brushes in their mouths. It was called lip-pointing. They were told that they had nothing to worry about, that it was neither dangerous nor harmful. The girls wore no protective gear and the radium dust was everywhere. This luminous chemical covered their bodies from head to toe and in total darkness they glowed.
By 1919 the war was over but the factories were busy as ever. The girls were still employed working as hard and as fast as they could to produce what was needed. They all loved their job until they began to not feel so good. Some mysterious illness was affecting them and both the doctors and the dentists were puzzled. Soon enough they could no longer work as their bodies deteriorated. They complained to the companies but they turned a blind eye to them saying that it was their imagination and the radium was not causing their problems. They were lying. In 1925 and 1927 the company had their doctors conduct medical tests on the girls. The results were terrifying. The girls were radioactive and were never told. While several of the girls ended up dying the strong ones held on and filed a lawsuit. Their case made history and enthralled the world.
The Radium Girls is quite a story. The author is British and she discovered these women by googling "great plays for women." Kate Moore ended up directing a play called These Shining Lives in London and realized that she had to write a book to let others know about these women who suffered so much and yet had strength and courage to keep fighting. Her research took her to the cities where the factories were. She was able to visit the homes where the girls had lived and interviewed relatives. She was lucky to find their diaries, letters, and court testimonies, plus spent days poring through microfilmed records in libraries. Kate even went to their graves.
Many people might not want to read the horrifying aspects of what happened to each and every one of these girls. It's not a pretty picture. I could not put this book down. It's definitely a page-turner and even though it can be gruesome, it's an important-read. Kate Moore was the right person to tell this story and to bring it to the forefront.
Highly recommended.