Friday, January 8, 2010

The Knights Templar and Holy Grail in America? (An Encore Presentation)

Back in September, I posted a piece about a History Channel Documentary that attracted a lot of buzz. Entitled "The Holy Grail in America," the documentary explored if and how the Holy Grail may have been hidden in what is now the United States. It definitely makes for some interesting scenarios. While some historians dismiss the notion entirely, one quickly learns to "never say never" when it comes to history. In the very least, it is interesting to discuss the possibility. Below is the original September 2009 posting:

I just watched a really amazing show on the History Channel called "The Holy Grail in America." The premise was that there is circumstantial evidence indicating that exiles from the Knights Templar explored America over 100 years before Christopher Columbus made his 1492 voyage. The Knights Templar had been outlawed by the Pope in 1307 and many were slaughtered as a result. Legend has it that other groups of the Templars (who were rumored to possess the Holy Grail - known possibly as the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper) fled to far flung locations including Scotland and Portugal to escape the Pope's armies. Some claim that a few groups of Templars actually traveled to North America to hide a grand treasure. The chisled stone shown on the left is known as the Kensington Runestone. It was discovered in 1898 in Minnesota, and the stone's inscription indicated that it was written in 1362, hundreds of years before any other Europeans explored the area. Further, the inscription was written in a language including characters widely used by the Knights Templar. Experts have debated widely over the accuracy of the stone, but geologic testing has indicated that it indeed dates to the 14th century.

More circumstantial evidence also suggests that other Templar Knights explored the New England coast in the late 1390s, leaving behind several carved stones with writing similar to that found on the Kensington Runestone. Some people also claim that the Holy Grail is possibly hidden somewhere in North America! One suggested location is Oak Island, off the coast of Nova Scotia. Some claim that a major treasure was hidden by Knights Templars deep underground in a booby-trapped island. For decades, people have tried to discover this treasure but have failed because of the booby-traps. Further, some scholars calim that Christopher Columbus was himself associated with the Knights Templar (via family connections), and found his way to America in 1492 because of directions handed down by the Templar Knights! This theory is based partly on the fact that Columbus used Templar symbols in his writing. While a lot of this is all highly debatable and unproven, it certainly gives us all a lot to think about! Kudos to the History Channel for providing such fascinating programming!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Farewell to CNU's "Old" McMurran Hall

I was on the Christopher Newport University campus today to attend some meetings and noticed that the "old" McMurran Hall (shown in the center of this photo) was being torn down. The building is being replaced by a new McMurran Hall that is much larger and more technologically equipped than its predecessor. I spent some time in the new McMurran Hall today and it is a really spectacular building. I look forward to teaching classes there!

Nevertheless, it is the end of an era and an important milestone in CNU's history. The old McMurran, built in 1964, was orginally known as "Christopher Newport Hall." It was the first building constructed on the Shoe Lane land tract and in its early days housed almost the ENTIRE college. Classrooms, administrative offices, a library, and bookstore were all located in the building. It was renamed McMurran Hall in 1985 to honor longtime state legislator, Lewis McMurran, who sponsored the legislation creating CNU in 1960. In later years as the campus expanded, it eventually housed the Information Technology (IT) and History Departments.
In recent years, the old McMurran began to show its age and it was certainly an appropriate time to replace it with a larger facility that can better meet the needs of the modern CNU's student, faculty, and staff population. Nevertheless, it is a building that should be remembered.

I am happy I had the opportunity to feature the old McMurran Hall prominently in my recent book, Christopher Newport University (Arcadia Publishing, 2009) and give it the attention and dignity it deserves. As the CNU campus continues its exciting and much-needed facility modernization, I think it is important that we do not forget the school's noble history and heritage. As CNU moves ahead, I plan on doing my best to find ways to appropriately commemorate as well as celebrate the university's history. The generations of faculty, student, staff, alumni, and community supporters who committed their time and resources to building the school over the years deserve no less.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

An Attack on New York decades before 9/11

We are all unfortunately quite familiar with the tragic 9/11 attacks in New York in 2001. However, few know about a massive attack that took place near the city roughly 85 years before. In its "Jersey City: Past and Present" webpage, Carmela Karnoutsos with New Jersey City University provides a thorough description:

"On Sunday morning, July 30, 1916, at 2:08 a.m., Jersey City residents were awakened by a major explosion and a succession of explosions that lasted for several hours, sending shock waves as far as ninety miles away. The explosions occurred at Black Tom Island--a misnomer for a mile-long pier on landfill that connected the one-time island with the Jersey City waterfront near Greenville. The name "Black Tom" is said to come from a "dark skinned" fisherman who lived on the island for many years. Owned by the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company, it filled in the marshland between Black Tom and the mainland; it was then used as a work yard where the National Dock and Storage Company had warehouses.

The pier stood opposite the Statue of Liberty in the New York Harbor in the Greenville section of Jersey City and today is along Morris Pesin Drive at Liberty State Park in the vicinity of the Park Administration Building and Flag Plaza.

Prior to American entry into World War I, war materiel manufactured in the northeastern states was sent to Black Tom for transport to the Allied Powers of England, France, Italy and Russia. The Allies were engaged in World War I against the Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary. President Woodrow Wilson had declared neutrality, but American rights to "freedom of the seas" were affected by British naval control of the Atlantic sea-lanes. According to Jules Witcover in Sabotage at Black Tom: Imperial Germany's Secret War in America, 1914-1917, this situation resulted in the work of German saboteurs to prevent British receipt of munitions from the US (257, 266-267).

Black Tom was only one of a number of homeland attacks in retaliation to the British naval blockade of Germany. In New Jersey, on January 1, 1915, a fire took place at the Roebling Steel foundry in Trenton. And after the Black Tom incident, on January 11, 1917, a fire took place at the Canadian Car and Foundry plant in Kingsland. These facilities had contracts for goods being sent to the Allies. The US entered the war on the side of the Allies in April 1917, after numerous claims of German espionage and violations to American neutrality.

On the evening of the Black Tom incident, barges and freight cars at the depot were reportedly filled with over two million pounds of ammunition waiting to be shipped overseas. The munitions at the depot included shrapnel, black powder, TNT and dynamite. The Johnson Barge No.17, for example, held some one hundred thousand pounds of TNT. Given these incendiary devices, the Black Tom facility was not securely gated to safeguard the nearby civilian population from the potential of foul play.

Shortly after midnight on Sunday morning, small fires on the pier were discovered and the eight guards on duty gave flight. One of the guards, however, sounded the fire alarm alerting the Jersey City Fire Department. The fires gradually set off a succession of exploding shrapnel shells. After the terrifying 2:08 a.m. blast, the well-stocked arsenal was ablaze, even casting the barges at Black Tom afloat in New York Harbor. Pieces of metal from the explosion struck the Jersey Journal building clock tower at Journal Square, stopping the clock at 2:12 a.m.

During the explosion, Jersey City residents took to the streets and gathered at the waterfront to witness the ongoing fire works. Emergency vehicles in the city responded to alarms without full comprehension of the emergency and a disruption in telephone service created an information blackout. Witcover reports: "The blast jolted the Hudson Tubes [PATH system] under the river connecting Lower Manhattan with Hoboken and Jersey City . . . . in the Bay View and New York Bay cemeteries monuments and tombstones toppled and some vaults were jolted askew" (13). A larger than usual number of worshippers had turned out for the six o'clock morning mass at the Mission of Our Lady of the Rosary (today Holy Rosary Church at Sixth Street).

Witcover also writes that Frank Hague, the commissioner of public safety in Jersey City, was informed that Barge Johnson 17 "had tied up at Black Tom to avoid a twenty-five dollar towing charge--false economy, he noted . . ." (22). Hague and Hudson County prosecutor Robert S. Hudspeth agreed that the presidents of the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company and the Central Railroad of New Jersey had violated the twenty-four hour time limit for storing dynamite and for keeping railroad cars with explosives at the terminal. The conditions at Black Tom had placed the civilian population in Jersey City and elsewhere in immediate danger.

Accounts of the total number of fatalities differ, but it is known that a policeman, a guard at Black Tom, and the barge captain of the Johnson Barge No.19 were killed; a ten-week old infant was thrown from his crib. Hundreds of individuals were injured. The reported property damage was over $20 million. The Black Tom depot with its freight cars, warehouses, barges, tugboats and piers was completely destroyed. In the nearby harbor, the Statue of Liberty sustained $100,000 in damages from the spray of shrapnel, and newly-arrived immigrants at Ellis Island had to be evacuated for processing at the Immigration Bureau at the Battery in New York City. Some five hundred people living on houseboats and barges in the harbor also required evacuation.

Across the river, windows blew out in lower Manhattan and windows panes shattered in the Times Square area. Repercussions from the explosions were reported along the Jersey shoreline from Hoboken to Bayonne and over to Staten Island and Brooklyn and from as far away as Philadelphia.

After World War I, the Lehigh Valley Railroad, who owned Black Tom, and others, brought charges of German sabotage before the Mixed Claims Commission under the 1921 Treaty of Berlin between the United States and Germany. The commission questioned the origins of the Black Tom explosion. Had the fire begun as a result of "spontaneous combustion," carelessness of one of the employees or guards, or German sabotage?

A suspect in the incident was Michael Kristoff, a 23-year old immigrant living with relatives in nearby Bayonne and a former employer at the Tidewater Oil Company. Kristoff is said to have started the fires at Black Tom with incendiary devices in exchange for five hundred dollars. Kristoff died in a Staten Island hospital in 1928. On one side, officials at Black Tom were charged with "criminal and gross negligence" and on the other, documentation was found regarding German espionage at the time, but no one was found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In 1939 after seventeen years of deliberation, the German-American Mixed Claims Commission claimed Germany responsible of sabotage. Germany was ordered to pay reparations of $50 million to all claimants, but the restitution was not paid due to the intervention of World War II. After the war, Germany agreed to settle on outstanding war claims that included those related to the Black Tom explosion and they were paid in 1979."


"Black Tom Blasts of 1916 Recalled." New York Times 31 July 1966.
Lender, Mark E. One State In Arms. Trenton, NJ: The New Jersey Historical Commission, 1991.
Wagen, Irv. "Black Tom--The Blast That Made History." Jersey Journal 18 April 1978.

Witcover, Jules. Sabotage at Black Tom: Imperial Germany's Secret War in America, 1914-1917. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 1989.

By: Carmela Karnoutsos
Project Administrator: Patrick Shalhoub

Monday, January 4, 2010

Surviving Nazi-occupied Holland During WWII

My parents recently shared with me a fascinating photo of my Grandpa Heuvel (shown standing third from left) taken during World War II. A native of Rotterdam, Holland, Grandpa (1914-2003) served in the Dutch Air Force before and during the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands in 1940. Growing up, he told me about his and my grandmother's challenging experiences during this period. For instance, during the initial invasion, Grandpa was reassigned to the Dutch infantry forces (since the Air Force was quickly decimated by the Luftwaffe) and ordered to defend a bridge. However, after seeing a Nazi panzer division on the horizon coming toward him across the river, he decided that the bridge was not worth dying for and quickly left the scene!

To avoid being shipped to labor camps in Germany, Grandpa later joined the Rotterdam Fire Department (he is shown in dress uniform with his firefighter colleagues in this photo). He therefore, spent the bulk of the war fighting fires created by Allied and German bombing.

At one point, he was rounded up with other Dutch civilians and ordered to board a train for Germany (to undoubtedly end up in a labor camp). However, a sympathetic German guard allowed him to return home to presumably get a sandwich. Grandpa then went into hiding until things cooled down. The war was brutal for my grandparents and other Dutch civilians. With little food available, they faced starvation as they struggled to find food for their young children (my aunts and uncles). For the rest of their lives, my grandparents could not stand eating sweet potatoes because it reminded them of the rotten potatoes they were forced to eat in wartime Holland.

I was also told growing up that my Grandma Heuvel helped a downed British fighter pilot escape Nazi capture by dressing him up in women's clothes and smuggling him the the Allied underground. Fortunately, my grandparents survived the war and lived to immigrate to the United States and start a new life. In the future, I look forward to hearing more family stories about their wartime experiences.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Researching a World War I Ancestor

"Tidewater Historian" is back from a longer than anticipated hiatus (a result of time limitations brought on by graduate school coursework and job responsibilities). Lately, I've been researching my ancestors who served during World War I. Interestingly, I have four great-granduncles (all brothers) who served in the U.S. Military during its involvement in the war - Bill, George, Roy, and Millard. All of them were Xenia, Ohio natives with Bill, George, and Millard entering the Army while Roy enlisted in the Navy. It appears that all of the brothers except Millard (shown here) served stateside during the war. Bill and George served at U.S. Army installations in Ohio while Roy served at the Norfolk Navy Base. Tragically, he died of pneumonia. Consequently, his mother (my great-great-grandmother) was a "Gold-Star" mother.

Enlisting on July 1, 1917, Uncle Millard (born in 1897) joined Co. I of the 148th Infantry Regiment, 37th Infantry Division and received training in Ohio and Alabama before shipping out to serve in the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in France. Promoted to Corporal in May 1918, Uncle Millard later served in the famous Meuse-Argonne Offensive from September to November 1918. Although it was one of the last campaigns of the war, it was also one of the bloodiest, with over 117,000 U.S. casualties - the highest casualty count of any single engagment in U.S. military history. Fortunately, Uncle Millard made it out O.K. and recieved an honorable discharge in September 1919. He later married, started a family, and lived a relatively long life. Uncle Millard was definitely one of the lucky ones! Fortunately, I possess some of his original wartime letters and other WWI-era historical documents belonging to his brothers. It all makes for fascinating reading!