As a veteran journalist, I've long been drawn to overlooked narratives from the past. In this case, a magazine article questioning the identity of the body sealed up in the John Paul Jones sarcophagus at Annapolis led me to the intriguing story about the search for the admiral's body more than a century ago in Paris.
The frame of the story invariably shows up in the final chapters of Jones biographies. But I was more curious about Ambassador Horace Porter, the man who put his own fortune behind the expensive search to try to find and recover Jones's body (and yes, I believe he found the right one). The lives of Jones and Porter, I realized as I dug into the research, cover large swaths of American history, from the Revolution to the Civil War to the nation's emergence as an industrial power and then a world power with the 1898 Spanish-American War.
But it also is a story involving fascinating characters, from Jones, the Scottish gardener's son who, in some eyes, was the creative force behind the US Navy, to Porter, a Civil War hero who moved among the upper reaches of American industrialism and politics. It touches on presidents Ulysses S. Grant (Porter was an aide in both the war and the White House), William McKinley (Porter raised millions in the campaign to get him elected), and Teddy Roosevelt (under whose administration Jones's body was finally discovered and moved to the US Naval Academy, where it now rests).
I hope you find it as intriguing to read as I found it to write.
The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial
The Fear Within: Spies, Commies and American Democracy on Trial explores the 1949 trial of 11 leaders of the Communist Party-USA who were charged under the Smith Act with "teaching or advocating the necessity of overthrowing the United States government." They weren't charged with doing anything, just talking about it, without any specific plans for its actually happening. In essence, they were convicted and imprisoned by the United States government for their thoughts and beliefs.
I got launched on the project because I found the story fascinating, and relatively unexplored outside the realm of Cold War historians. I also found parallels to the USA Patriot Act, in that it and the Smith Act were enacted out of fear of the outside. It's a perverse phenomenon that in times of national crisis, the U.S. tends to undercut the principals it professes to be fighting to preserve -- in this case, freedom of speech and assembly, among others.
The 11 convictions were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court just after the Korean War broke out. But a change in the makeup of the court, and a lessening of the Red Scare passions, led the court six years later to effectively reverse itself and gut the Smith Act. But by then the men had each served five-year sentences (some more for going on the lam; some less for good behavior).
It's a fascinating story, complete with spies, riots, legal chicanery and intriguing characters.
Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West
By early April 1914, Colorado Governor Elias Ammons thought the violence in his state's strike-bound southern coal district had eased enough that he could begin withdrawing the Colorado National Guard, deployed six months earlier as military occupiers.
But Ammons misread the signals, and on April 20, 1914, a full-scale battle erupted between the remaining militiamen and armed strikers living in a tent colony at the small railroad town of Ludlow. Eight men were killed in the fighting, which culminated in the burning of the colony. The next day, the bodies of two women and eleven children were found suffocated in a below-ground shelter.
The "Ludlow Massacre," as it quickly became known, launched a national call-to-arms for union supporters to join a ten-day guerrilla war along more than two hundred miles of the eastern Rockies. The convulsion of arson and violence killed more than thirty people and didn't end until President Woodrow Wilson sent in the U.S. Army. Overall at least seventy-five men, women, and children were killed in seven months, likely the nation's deadliest labor struggle.
In Blood Passion, journalist Scott Martelle explores this little-noted tale (outside the world of labor historians) of political corruption and repression and immigrants' struggles against dominant social codes of race, ethnicity, and class.
More than a simple labor dispute, the events surrounding Ludlow embraced some of the most volatile social movements of the early twentieth century, pitting labor activists, socialists, and anarchists against the era's powerful business class, including John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and helped give rise to the modern twins of corporate public relations and political "spin."
But at its heart, Blood Passion is a journalist's dramatic retelling of the dramatic story of small lives merging into a movement for change, and of the human struggle for freedom and dignity.
"...a lively journalistic account."
Caleb Crain, in The New Yorker
"We must welcome this carefully-researched study of one of the most dramatic, violent, and important episodes in the history of labor struggles in this country."
-Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States
"Blood Passion is the definitive account of a major landmark in the American struggle for social justice. And the way Scott Martelle tells the story is splendid proof that history can both be written as vividly as a novel and also be documented with scrupulous care."
-Adam Hochschild, author of Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves
How Blood Passion came about
A few years back I was reading a now-forgotten American history book and stumbled across a footnote reference to 100 men, women and children killed in a months-long war between striking coal miners and the Colorado National Guard. My first thought: Why didn’t I know about that? I knew about the April 1914 Ludlow Massacre, when two mothers and 11 children died after marauding Guardsmen torched a strikers' tent colony. But the broader war came as a revelation. And it was telling that such a protracted showdown between capital and labor had been reduced to a literal footnote. History is written by the victors, and labor has not been victorious very often.
Curiosity drove me deeper into the history, with loose plans to write a magazine article on the Colorado Coal Field War Project, an archeological exploration of the Ludlow colony and the nearby Berwind mining camp. Led by Dean Saitta of the University of Denver, Philip Duke of Fort Lewis College in Durango, and Randall McGuire of the State University of New York at Binghamton, the 1999-2000 project was the first to treat the site as a place of archeological inquiry, trying to determine what life was like for the miners both before and during the strike. But it quickly became apparent to me that there was more material here than I could shoe-horn into a magazine piece. Blood Passion is the result.
Although Blood Passion explores the violent trajectory of a labor strike, it is not a work of labor history. Rather, it is a journalist's look back at a story of oppression and rebellion, of ordinary people revolting under a corrupt local political system, and of immigrants who discovered that if they wanted a piece of the American Dream they had better be ready to fight for it. A union helped them in that battle, and is an integral part of that history, but this book is about the combatants and the battles themselves.
From this country's earliest days, we have wrestled with the conflicting concepts of respecting our government and rebelling against it. Blood Passion is an attempt to knock some of the dust off this long-forgotten yet hugely emblematic moment in American history.
-- Scott Martelle