Book Reviews: The Boston Massacre: A Family History by Serena Zabin


Author: Serena Zabin
Title: The Boston Massacre: A Family History
Narrator: Andrea Gallo
Publication Info: Recorded Books, 2020
Summary/Review:

The Boston Massacre is seen as a precipitating event of the American Revolution, but at the time, no one knew the revolution was coming.  People made the incident represent their political ideologies, whether it was Paul Revere depicting the British army  as butchers, or John Adams defending the troops in court.

To provide new perspectives and context to the Boston Massacre, Zabin performs a family approach to the history.  Soldiers assigned to Boston in 1768 often travelled with their family, wives and children who were derisively called “camp followers.” Other soldiers married local women.  The Massachusetts women who married into the military were criticized, but Zabin also notes that many of them were still considered upstanding members of society during the revolution.

The presence of British troops in the town’s streets caused tension as Bostonians were not used to being stopped at checkpoints. Zabin writes that using troops to quell civil disorder was common in the British empire and lead to multiple Boston Massacre-type incidents, even in London, in the previous decades. The arrival of a large number of men in a small town also created another conflict in that soldiers would take on jobs in an already tight labor market.  On the other hand, soldiers rented rooms and bought goods providing needed income for local landlords and retailers.  Some soldiers grew to have neighborly relations with the Bostonians they lived among.

Zabin concludes the family analogy with the idea that the Revolution was a divorce.  The strong family ties between Britain and her colonies were severed rather abruptly in the crises that would occur in the coming years.  This work is an excellent approach to understanding the meaning of the Boston Massacre beyond just a marker on the way to revolution.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Voyage of Mercy by Stephen Puleo


Author: Stephen Puleo
Title: Voyage of mercy : the USS Jamestown, the Irish famine, and the Remarkable Story of America’s First Humanitarian Mission 
Narrator: Sean Patrick Hopkins
Publication Info: New York : Macmillan Audio, 2020.
Books I’ve Previously Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Voyage of Mercy is a history of a United States mission to deliver food to the starving people of Ireland during the Great Hunger.  Approved by Congress, the military ship U.S.S. Jamestown sailed from Boston to Queenstown (Cobh) to deliver the good in the spring of 1847.  A naval ship was chosen to the unavailability of merchant vessels and the U.S.S. Constitution was even considered for the journey.

According to Puleo, the Jamestown mission was the first example of foreign aid and serves as a model of international disaster relief efforts.  The book focuses on two key characters.  Robert Bennet Forbes, an experienced merchant ship captain from the Boston area (born in Jamaica Plain and buried in Forest Hills cemetery, and I coincidentally passed his former home-become-museum in Milton on the day I finished this book), captained the Jamestown and was recognized for his good character and generosity.  Father Theobald Matthew of County Cork, a noted temperance leader, organized the relief operations on the Irish side.

The book is good but if it has flaws it is Puleo’s tendency to be  about the goodness of the people behind the relief effort.  Nevertheless, despite the success of the mission it did face challenges that later international relief efforts also suffered from. Distribution of the food stuffs was controversial as to whether it should be retained in County Cork or throughout Ireland. There was also the issue of the limits of charitable contributions to address deep, structural problems, in this case the colonial exploitation of Ireland by the United Kingdom.  I couldn’t help seeing parallels in the indifference and cruelty of the British government’s response to the potato famine to the current day response of the Republican Party to the Covid Pandemic in the United States.

This is a good and well-researched history, although I feel that Puleo stretched it out where a shorter book may have been sufficient.  Also, while I don’t know where my Sullivan family ancestors originated, it is a common name in County Cork, so I could very well owe my existence to mission of the U.S.S. Jamestown.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Podcasts of the Week Ending June 13


Coronavirus Daily :: Masks Are Even More Important Than We Thought

Wear a mask.  Keep your distance.  Wash your hands.  Repeat.

The Last Archive :: Unheard

The story of Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man, and the erasure of Black voices in history.

Throughline :: American Police

The history of policing in the United States from its origins in slave patrols to the present, with control of Black Americans as its central purpose.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Copyrights & Wrongs

The curious and convoluted cases of copyright in popular music: are musicians stealing from other musicians or just drawing inspiration?

What Next :: The Antifa Myth

The Antifa Bus is coming / And everybody’s rioting / New York to San Fransisco / An antifacist disco.


Documentary Movie Review: Sacco and Vanzetti (2006) #atozchallenge


Title: Sacco and Vanzetti
Release Date: April 6, 2006
Director: Peter Miller
Production Company: Willow Pond Films
Summary/Review:

This documentary tells this history of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a pair of Italian immigrants active in the anarchist movement who were convicted and executed for murder in Massachusetts in the 1920s.  The movie is Ken Burns style with lots archival photographs and film and modern day experts talking about the case, including Mary Anne Trasciatti, Howard Zinn, Studs Terkel, Nunzio Pernicone, Arlo Guthrie, and David Kaiser. Tony Shalhoub and John Turturo provide the voices of Sacco and Vanzetti.

I’m familiar with the case but learned a lot of new things from this movie:

  • the men became anarchists due to sympathy towards the plight of poor and working people, although they were actually more prosperous themselves than typical Italian immigrants of the time
  • the defense lawyer Fred Moore took on prominent leftist labor cases and stirred up a lot of publicity around the case which provoked a lot of retaliatory anger from the justice system
  • their case was tried at Norfolk County Courthouse in Dedham, which is still in use
  • Judge Webster Thayer was very prejudicial and allowed the prosecution to allow evidence of Sacco and Vanzetti’s anarchist ideology and WWI draft resistance even though they did not pertain to the trial
  • at least one of the bullets presented as evidence in the case was not actually one found at the scene of the crime but fired later from Sacco’s pistol
  • the witnesses who placed Sacco and Vanzetti at the scene of the crime were unreliable at best
  • motions for retrial were denied by Judge Thayer, the same judge who tried their case
  • In 1925, Celestino Medeiros confessed to the murder.  Thayer still denied a retrial.
  • despite their names forever linked together, Sacco and Vanzetti were isolated from one another for the entire 7 years of the case.

The issues of how the United States mistreats immigrants and fails to uphold civil liberties for all remains a relevant issue in our time.  The 100th anniversary of the arrest of Sacco & Vanzetti will occur on May 5th.  If you are unaware of their case or want to learn more about it, this documentary is a good place to start.

Rating: ***1/2

Documentary Movie Review: Let the Fire Burn (2013) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “L” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “L” documentaries I’ve reviewed are The Last Waltz, Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, Life Itself, and loudQUIETloud: a film about the Pixies.

Title: Let the Fire Burn
Release Date: October 2, 2013
Director: Jason Osder
Production Company: George Washington University
Summary/Review:

On May 13, 1985, Philadelphia became known as “the city that bombed itself,” and incident that remains shocking and mindboggling 35 years later.  The Philadelphia Police dropped an incendiary device on the rooftop of an organization called MOVE, and then made the controversial decision to “let the fire burn” (although fire apparatus were on site) that lead to the deaths of five children, six adults, and the destruction of 65 row houses in the West Philadelphia.  The bombing resulted from a multi-year confrontation among police and neighbors with an organization called MOVE, a Black liberation group that espoused a back-to-the-earth philosophy and were highly confrontational with the police and neighbors (which included a loud speaker on the exterior of the house where they broadcast profanity-laced tirades).

The movie is structured around two films made in the wake of the bombing.  One is a deposition by 13-year-old Michael Moses Ward (aka Birdie Africa), the only child to escape the destruction of the MOVE house.  The other is the Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission hearings held in November 1985 chaired by chaired by William H. Brown, III.  With these retrospective accounts providing the framing, the film cuts in archival film and photographs as well as news coverage.

The film documents the emergence of MOVE in the 1970s, their initial conflicts with the police, and a 1978 shootout when Mayor Frank Rizzo tried to have the police evict MOVE from their first headquarters.  The shootout resulted in the death of one police officer and the conviction of nine MOVE members for his murder.  When the organization moved into their new location on Osage Avenue, they fortified the building with wooden boards across all the openings and constructed a wooden tower on the roof.  The rooftop “bunker” was a major concern for the police who saw it as a place where MOVE members could potentially fire at the police.  The destruction of that bunker proved to be the impetus that lead to the many unconscionable decisions by the police.

The movie has a verite style that kind of guides one through the events as they happen with no outside narrator providing context.  The movie feels all too relevant today when Black Americans continue to bear the brunt of police violence.  No doubt, MOVE was a cultish and obnoxious organization, but we’ve seen many instances of police dealing with well-armed white conservative and Christian groups without resorting to brutal violence, much less burning down the homes of dozens of innocent neighbors.  We see one police officer commended for attempting to rescue children from the burning building, and then learn that the words “n****r lover” were scrawled on his locker.  This movie serves as an important document of the intersection of liberty, policing, and racism in America.

Rating: ****

Podcasts of the Week Ending March 7


Afropop Worldwide :: Remembering Johnny Clegg

A tribute to Johnny Clegg, who died last year, reviewing his genre-defying career of blending Zulu music and dance with pop in apartheid South Africa.

Futility Closet :: If Day

The true story of an effort to sell Canadian war bonds by staging a Nazi invasion of Winnipeg.  (This was dramatized in the weird and wonderful Guy Maddin film My Winnipeg).

Hub History :: Remembering the Boston Massacre

250th years ago this week, British soldiers fired into a rowdy crowd in Boston, killing 5.  Nat Sheidly reflects on the deeply personal tragedy for the people involved and how the incident has been reinterpreted in popular memory.

This American Life :: Everyone’s a Critic

Stories about white tourists observing Black church services, a Chinese journalist investigating coronavirus, and a woman who love the movie musical Cats.

Throughline :: Public Universal Friend

A glimpse into transgender identity in American history through the story of a Revolutionary War Era leader of a Quaker sect known as the Public Universal Friend.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Satanic Panic

The history of backmasking in popular music and the moral panic that ensued.

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Appearances in 2020

Book Review: Fault Lines by Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer


Author: Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer
Title: Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974
Publication Info: New York : W.W. Norton & Company, [2019]
Summary/Review:

I was born near the end of 1973, so this book is essentially the history of America during my lifetime.  The authors are professors at Princeton University who built the book out of course on recent American history.  I’m not familiar with Zelizer, but Kruse has established himself as a leading public historian by sharing facts and debunking myths on Twitter. The central thesis is that the polarized politics of the United States began in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal (which disillusioned Americans faith in government, something that is ironically exploited by Nixon’s own party) as well as the revolutions of civil rights, gender, and sexuality and their conservative counter-revolutions.

The book is a thorough history of the past 45 years, and I had a lot of “oh yeah, I remember that!” moments.  I have two criticisms of the book in general. One, is that it reads like a laundry list of events with very little analysis.  Two, it is a top-down approach focusing on the actions of Presidents and Congresses as opposed to the greater societal actions.  I understand it would be a much thicker book if these things were included, but the instances in the book that offer analysis and history of the people are much richer than the book overall.

That being said, this is an excellent summary of how we got to where we are in the United States.  Every living American has lived at least partly in the period of time covered here and would benefit from reading about our recent history.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Podcasts of the Week Ending March 2


Afropop Worldwide :: globalFEST 2019 at the Copacabana

Every year I hear the great music from globalFEST and think I’ll need to go to New York for the festival next year, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Memory Palace/Radio Diaries :: When Nazis Took Manhattan

The story of the year Hank Greenberg hit 58 homeruns, the strongman The Mighty Atom performed to captivated audiences, and 20,000 Nazis rallied at Madison Square Garden.

99% Invisible :: Beneath the Ballpark

Chavez Ravine was a tight-knit Mexican-American community, one of the few places in Los Angeles where Hispanic people could own homes.  It was destroyed in the name of progress, but instead became home to Dodger Stadium.  The scars still remain.

Throughline :: The Forgotten War

A short history of the division of the Korean peninsula, the continuing war between the two Koreas, and the role of the United States in all of this.

Decoder Ring :: Baby Shark

Everything you need to know, and then some, about this year’s viral sensation, “Baby Shark” (doo, doo, doo, doo, doo).

Radio Boston :: W.E.B. Du Bois Turned Data Into Art, And Used It To Humanize The Black Experience

Data visualization seems to be a current trend, but W.E.B. Du Bois used it to illustrate the African-American experience in the United States at a showcase at the Paris World Fair in 1900.

The Truth :: The Other Fran

Going to a school reunion can feel like “reminiscing with strangers,” and this fictional drama takes that to the next level.


Running tally of Podcast of the Week appearances:

Book Review: American Passage: The History Of Ellis Island by Vincent J. Cannato


Author: Vincent J. Cannato
TitleAmerican Passage: The History Of Ellis Island
Narrator: Jonathan Hogan
Publication Info: Recorded Books (2009)
Summary/Review:

American Passage offers a comprehensive history of Ellis Island from the 1890s to today.  Cannato’s thesis is that the history of Ellis Island as an immigration inspection station parallels the history of American attempts to restrict immigration.  Prior to Ellis Island opening in 1892, there had been few restrictions against immigration in United States history, with the Chinese Exclusion Act of a decade earlier being the first major restriction legislated by the Federal government.

The opening of Ellis Island itself was part of a Federal immigration reform effort that began with taking over the state immigration inspection station at Castle Garden in 1890.  The move to Ellis Island was prompted by three factors.  One, the need for an isolated location to screen passengers for infectious diseases.  Two, to isolate newly arrived immigrants from the scam artists who gathered around Castle Garden. And three, to similarily keep immigration agents seperate from the temptation of bribery and corruption that occurred in lower Manhattan.

While the earliest exclusions of immigrants were for disease and disability, movements soon grew to agitate for greater restrictions on immigration, often based on prejudice and fearmongering.  Immigrant aid societies often stood up to defend immigrants, there were also a good number of naturalized citizens and descendants of immigrants who saw the current immigrants as inferior.  Much of the discrimination was against immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. Laws would be made to exclude immigrants based on political beliefs, the suspicion that an immigrant would become a “public charge,” eugenic ideas of intelligence, and moral turpitude.  Major politicians in both parties seemed to straddle the line between welcoming immigrants and stricter restrictions.  Interestingly, three consecutive Presidents (Roosevelt, Taft, & Wilson) ended up vetoing one of the anti-immigrant crusaders greatest desires, a literacy test. Another interesting reform proposal was to create equality by having all immigrants – not just those from steerage – screened at Ellis Island, but was quickly shot down by the elites from first and second class who did not want to mingle with their “inferiors.”

It should be noted that despite all these efforts to restrict immigration, only 2% of the arrivals at Ellis Island were denied entry.  The lack of staff and resources meant that the flood of immigrants passing through each day received only cursory inspection.  And many of the agents were sympathetic to the new arrivals and did not follow the regulations to the letter of the law.  When eugenecists were conducting research on Ellis Island, the immigration station’s doctors were angered that their research interpreted that natural confusion of immigrants in a stressful situation as a sign of inferior intellectual capacity.

By 1924, the anti-immigration forces pushed quota acts through Congress, ending mass immigration. Around this time, the numbers immigrants crossing the borders of Mexico and Canada began to surpass those entering through New York.  Requiring potential immigrants to go through screening at American consulates in their country of origin, also slowed the number of new arrivals.

For its final three decades of operation, Ellis Island served primarily as a detention center.  Noted anarchist Emma Goldman spent her last days in America at Ellis Island before deportation.  Suspected Axis sympathizers – primarily German-American – were rounded up in the early days of the United States entry into World War II.  During the Cold War it would hold communists, or those suspected of communist sympathies.  Ellis Island closed as an immigration and detention center in 1954 as the United States entered into a period of low immigration.

The buildings on Ellis Island fell to ruin over the ensuing decades with various proposals for what to do with the island put forth from time to time.  One of the more interesting ideas came from an organization of African American capitalists who hoped to use the island as a utopian community to help recovering addicts and criminals prosper by producing goods for sale.  The Nixon administration gave a lot of support to the idea as a way that Republicans could make connections with Blacks in a way that was opposite to the Great Society reforms.

Ellis Island would eventually be renovated as kind of a side project of Lee Iacocca’s public-private partnership to renovate the Statue of Liberty for its centennial in 1986.  Cannato discusses the efforts to make a proper museum and shrine that places Ellis Island in its proper historical context.  The idea that immigration is a shared part of American heritage is one that is questioned by people descended from indigenous peoples, those brought to America by force and enslaved, and even Anglo-Saxon Americans who see their ancestors as “settlers” rather than immigrants.

I thought this book was an interesting overview of Ellis Island, although it does have a top down focus.  Cannato offers a lot of detail about the careers of the directors of Ellis Island and the actions of various politicians and elites from Presidents on down.  I would like to also read a book that offers more of the perspective of immigrants passing through Ellis Island, and those detained for longer periods, as well as the everyday employees.  I think that would make a good complement to this otherwise excellent history.

Recommended booksThe Detonators: The Secret Plot to Destroy America and an Epic Hunt for Justice by Chad Millman, Five Points by Tyler Anbinder
Rating: ****

Book Review: Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickeyi


Author: Colin Dickey
TitleGhostland: An American History in Haunted Places
Narrator: Jon Lindstrom
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2016)
Summary/Review:

This book is a travelogue of haunted places in the United States, but it’s not the anthology of creepy stories you may expect.  While the author is skeptical of ghosts and hauntings, this is also not a work of debunking.  Instead it’s a deeper analysis of the stories as folklore that explain the hidden parts of the human psyche as well as how Americans deal with the past (or more commonly, how we hide from it).

Stops on his tour include places known for traumatic events and exploitation, such as brothels, prisons, asylums, ghost towns, sites connected with slavery, and even hotels.  Dickey visits several cities that have made an industry of monetizing their traumatic history as ghost stories for tourists, including Salem, Savannah, and New Orleans.  These stories can sanitize past tragedies while clearing us of wrongdoing. Then there’s the message of the ruin porn of Detroit where the message is that someone’s hubris is definitely to blame, although that may also be a deferral.

In short, one may open a book of ghost stories and find oneself reading a social justice critique of the United States instead.  And a good one at that.

Favorite Passages:

“… all of these stories, in one way or another, respond to history.  Ghost stories like this are a way for us to revel in the open wounds of the past while any question of responsibility for that past blurs, then fades away.” – p. 48

“If the Kirkbride asylums are haunted, they are haunted by the difference between how history is conceived and how it plays out.” – p. 185

“Surely ghosts will follow wherever there is bad record keeping.” – p. 200

“Ghosts stories, for good or ill, are how cities make sense of themselves: how they narrate the tragedies of their past, weave cautionary tales for the future. ” – p. 248

Recommended booksBeloved by Toni Morrison, The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings by Jan Harold Brunvand, and Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong by James W. Loewen
Rating: ****