John’s Believe It Or Not… December 18th

* 1813 – Col John Murray and 562 troops cross the river to capture Old Fort Niagara. * 1620 Mayflower docks at Plymouth Harbor. * 1912 Piltdown Man discovered. * 1878 The death of Molly-ism. * 1961 The Tokens earn a #1 hit with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”

It’s Monday! Did You Know…

* 1813 – Col John Murray and 562 troops cross the river to capture Old Fort Niagara.

Fort Niagara was an important American post near the outlet of the Niagara River into Lake Ontario. During the early days of the war, it was involved in several exchanges of artillery fire against the British at Fort George on the other side of the river.

On 27 May 1813, the Americans won the Battle of Fort George. This left Fort George in their hands, and they briefly captured the entire Niagara peninsula, but they were then driven back to a narrow enclave around Fort George. Later during the year, almost all the regular soldiers on the Niagara front were redeployed to Sacket’s Harbor to take part in an attack down the Saint Lawrence River against Montreal. They had briefly been replaced by regulars from the western theatre under William Henry Harrison, but in November these too had been ordered to march to protect Sacket’s Harbor, which had been stripped of troops to furnish the Montreal expedition. This left Brigadier General George McClure of the New York militia with only 60 regulars, 40 volunteers from the New York militia and 100 Canadian Volunteers (renegades fighting for the United States) to hold Fort George.

In late 1813, Major General Francis de Rottenburg, the British Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, had been alarmed by defeats in the west (the Battle of Lake Erie and the Battle of the Thames) and American concentrations to the east. On 9 October he ordered the troops on the Niagara peninsula to retreat hastily to Burlington Heights at the western end of Lake Ontario. He intended to abandon even this position and concentrate his forces at Kingston but during the first week in December, de Rottenburg was replaced by the more forceful Lieutenant-General Gordon Drummond. Drummond was aware that the American attack on Montreal had been defeated, leaving the American Army stranded in poorly-supplied winter quarters in Upper New York State. He immediately canceled de Rottenburg’s plans for further retreat and ordered the units at Burlington Heights to advance instead.

On 10 December, McClure learned of this advance. He had despaired of receiving any reinforcements and decided his position was untenable. He hastily evacuated his troops to Fort Niagara. The artillery could not be withdrawn from Fort George and was thrown into the ditch surrounding the fort.

Earlier in the year, the United States Secretary of War, John Armstrong, had given permission to destroy the nearby village of Newark if it became necessary to prevent British troops finding cover close to Fort George. The inhabitants were to be given several days’ notice, and care was to be taken that they were not to be left destitute.[6] As the Americans abandoned Fort George, McClure gave the order to burn down the village with only two hours warning, leaving the inhabitants without shelter or possessions in the depths of winter. Part of the village of Queenston was also torched. It was alleged that the pro-American Canadian Volunteers performed most of the destruction.

This action was undoubtedly contrary to the conventions which governed warfare at the time, although several similar acts had already been committed by both sides during the war. The burning of Newark was to be the pretext for the British to carry out several outrages later.

On the night of 18 December, a force consisting of the 100th Foot, the grenadier company of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Scots, and the grenadier and light companies of the 41st Foot, with some small detachments of militia and Holcroft’s Company, 4th Battalion Royal Artillery (now known as 52 (Niagara) Battery Royal Artillery), crossed the river 3 miles (4.8 km) above Fort Niagara. The force numbered 562 and was under the command of Colonel John Murray, the commanding officer of the 100th Foot. They were equipped with axes and scaling ladders and under orders to use the bayonet so as not to lose the advantage of surprise.

They captured American pickets posted in the village of Youngstown, the men having been trying to stay warm instead of keeping watch. One of the prisoners was forced to reveal the American challenge and password. The British force then advanced silently towards the fort. An advance party of some artillerymen and the grenadier company of the 100th under a lieutenant and a sergeant approached the gate, where the sergeant affected an accent from the southern American states and confused the guard long enough to gain entry. By the time the defenders became aware of the deception, it was too late to stop the British from rushing in.

Resistance came mainly from two buildings, the South Redoubt and the Red Barracks, which was being used as a hospital. Some of the defenders barricaded themselves inside the South Redoubt of the fort and held off repeated attempts to break into the building. However, when they refused demands that they surrender, the British commander offered no quarter to the defenders. When the attackers forced their way into the building, the infamous order was given to “Bayonet the whole”.

Fort Niagara in winter.
Fort Niagara in winter. (

* 1620 Mayflower docks at Plymouth Harbor.

On December 18, 1620, the British ship Mayflower docked at modern-day Plymouth, Massachusetts, and its passengers prepared to begin their new settlement, Plymouth Colony.

The famous Mayflower story began in 1606, when a group of reform-minded Puritans in Nottinghamshire, England, founded their own church, separate from the state-sanctioned Church of England. Accused of treason, they were forced to leave the country and settle in the more tolerant Netherlands. After 12 years of struggling to adapt and make a decent living, the group sought financial backing from some London merchants to set up a colony in America. On September 6, 1620, 102 passengers–dubbed Pilgrims by William Bradford, a passenger who would become the first governor of Plymouth Colony–crowded on the Mayflower to begin the long, hard journey to a new life in the New World.

On November 11, 1620, the Mayflower anchored at what is now Provincetown Harbor, Cape Cod. Before going ashore, 41 male passengers–heads of families, single men, and three male servants–signed the famous Mayflower Compact, agreeing to submit to a government chosen by common consent and to obey all laws made for the good of the colony. Over the next month, several small scouting groups were sent ashore to collect firewood and scout out a good place to build a settlement. Around December 10, one of these groups found a harbor they liked on the western side of Cape Cod Bay. They returned to the Mayflower to tell the other passengers, but bad weather prevented them from docking until December 18. After exploring the region, the settlers chose a cleared area previously occupied by members of a local Native American tribe, the Wampanoag. The tribe had abandoned the village several years earlier, after an outbreak of European disease. That winter of 1620-1621 was brutal, as the Pilgrims struggled to build their settlement, find food and ward off sickness. By spring, 50 of the original 102 Mayflower passengers were dead. The remaining settlers made contact with returning members of the Wampanoag tribe and in March they signed a peace treaty with a tribal chief, Massasoit. Aided by the Wampanoag, especially the English-speaking Squanto, the Pilgrims were able to plant crops–especially corn and beans–that were vital to their survival. The Mayflower and its crew left Plymouth to return to England on April 5, 1621.

Over the next several decades, more and more settlers made the trek across the Atlantic to Plymouth, which gradually grew into a prosperous shipbuilding and fishing center. In 1691, Plymouth was incorporated into the new Massachusetts Bay Association, ending its history as an independent colony.

'Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor' (1882), oil painting by William Halsall
‘Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor’ (1882), oil painting by William Halsall (

* 1912 Piltdown Man discovered.

After three years of digging in the Piltdown gravel pit in Sussex, England, amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson announces the discovery of two skulls that appear to belong to a primitive hominid and ancestor of man, along with a canine tooth, a tool carved from an elephant’s tusk, and fossil teeth from a number of prehistoric animals.

Despite muted criticism from a minority of paleontologists, the majority of the scientific community hailed the so-called Piltdown Man as the missing evolutionary link between ape and man. The remains were estimated to be up to a million years old. For the next decade, scientists heralded the finding of Eoanthropus dawsoni, or “Dawson’s Dawn-man” in Latin, as confirmation of Darwin’s still-controversial theory of human evolution.

In the 1920s and ’30s, however, the Piltdown gravels were found to be much less ancient than believed, and other finds of human ancestors around the world seemed to call the authenticity of the Piltdown Man into question. In 1953, at an international congress of paleontologists, the Piltdown Man was first openly called a fraud. An intensive study of the remains showed that they were made up of a modern human cranium–no more than 600 years old; the jaw and teeth of an orangutan; and the tooth of a chimpanzee. Microscopic tests indicated that the teeth had been doctored with a file-like tool to make them seem more human. Scientists also found that the bones had been treated with chemicals to make them appear older. Other fossils found in the Piltdown quarry proved to be authentic but of types not found in Britain.

The person who orchestrated the hoax never came forward, but in 1996 a trunk in storage at the British Museum was found to contain fossils treated in the exact same manner as the Piltdown remains. The trunk bore the initials M.A.C.H., which seemed to suggest that Martin A.C. Hinton, a volunteer at the British Museum in 1912 and later a curator of zoology at the institution, was likely the culprit. Some theorized that he was attempting to embarrass Arthur Smith Woodward, curator of the British Museum’s paleontology department because Woodward had refused Hinton’s request for a weekly pay raise.

Dawson (left) and Smith-Woodward search for more bones, Illustrated London News Piltdown
Dawson (left) and Smith-Woodward search for more bones, Illustrated London News Piltdown (History Today)

* 1878 The death of Molly-ism.

John Kehoe, the last of the Molly Maguires, is executed in Pennsylvania. The Molly Maguires, an Irish secret society that had allegedly been responsible for some incidences of vigilante justice in the coalfields of eastern Pennsylvania, defended their actions as attempts to protect exploited Irish-American workers. In fact, they are often regarded as one of the first organized labor groups.

In the first five years of the Irish potato blight that began in 1845, 500,000 immigrants came to the United States from Ireland–nearly half of all immigrants to the U.S. during those years. The tough economic circumstances facing the immigrants led many Irish men to the anthracite (hard coal) fields in the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania. Miners worked under dangerous conditions and were severely underpaid. Small towns owned by the mining companies further exploited workers by charging rent for company housing. In response to these abuses, secret societies like the Molly Maguires sprung up, leading sporadic terrorist campaigns to settle worker/owner disputes.

Industry owners became increasingly concerned about the threat posed by the Molly Maguires. Franklin B. Gowen, president of the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company, hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to infiltrate the secret society and find evidence that could be used against them. James McParlan, who later became the most celebrated private detective of the era, took the high-risk assignment and went undercover within the organization. For more than two years, he established his place in the Molly Maguires and built trust among his fellow members.

Eventually, several Molly Maguires confessed their roles in the murder to McParlan. When he was finally pulled out of the society in February 1876, the detective’s information led to the arrest and conviction of 19 men.

In June 1877, 10 Molly Maguires were hanged on a single day. In December of the following year, Kehoe was arrested and hanged for the 1862 murder of Frank W.S. Langdon, a mine foreman, despite the fact that it was widely believed he was wrongly accused and not actually responsible for anyone’s death. Although the governor of Pennsylvania believed Kehoe’s innocence, he signed the death warrant anyway. Kehoe’s hanging at the gallows was officially hailed as “the Death of Molly-ism.”

Though the deaths of the vigilante Molly Maguires helped quell the activity of the secret society, the increased assimilation of the Irish into mainstream society and their upward mobility out of the coal jobs was the real reason that protective secret societies like the Molly Maguires eventually faded into obscurity.

Illustration entitled 'THE MARCH TO DEATH,' depicting Molly Maguire members on the way to the gallows in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. Undated engraving.
Illustration entitled ‘THE MARCH TO DEATH,’ depicting Molly Maguire members on the way to the gallows in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. Undated engraving. (

* 1961 The Tokens earn a #1 hit with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”

The song that topped the Billboard pop chart on December 18, 1961, was an instant classic that went on to become one of the most successful pop songs of all time, yet its true originator saw only a tiny fraction of the song’s enormous profits.

The story begins in Johannesburg, South Africa, where in 1938, a group of Zulu singers and dancers called Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds stepped into the first recording studio ever set up in sub-Saharan Africa and recorded a song called “Mbube”—Zulu for “the lion.” “Mbube” was a regional hit, and it helped make Solomon Linda into a South African star. But the story might have ended there had a copy of the record not made its way to New York City in the early 1950s, where it was saved from the slush pile at Decca Records by the legendary folklorist Alan Lomax. Without actually hearing any of the records in a box sent from Africa, Lomax thought a friend of his might be interested in the box’s contents. That friend was the folksinger, Pete Seeger.

Unable to understand the lyrics of “Mbube,” Seeger transcribed the central chant as “Wimoweh,” and that became the name of the song as recorded by the Weavers and released in early 1952, just as the group was about to be blacklisted thanks to the McCarthy hearings. Eventually, Jay Siegel, the teenage lead singer of the Tokens, would hear and fall in love with “Wimoweh” through the Kingston Trio’s cover version of the Weavers’ song. The Tokens’ label commissioned English-language lyrics for the song, which was re-titled “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and went on to become not just a #1 song on this day in 1961, but one of the most-covered, most successful pop songs of all time.

In an excellent article for Rolling Stone magazine in 2000, South African journalist Rian Malan followed both the music and the money associated with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” exposing the sequence of business arrangements that ended up making millions for a handful of prominent U.S. music publishers while yielding only a $1,000 personal check from Pete Seeger to Solomon Linda during Linda’s lifetime. Because his composition was treated as public-domain “folk” material by Seeger and by the subsequent writer of the English-language lyrics in the Tokens’ version, Linda never participated in the royalty stream generated by either “Wimoweh” or “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” And prior to reaching an undisclosed settlement in 2006, his heirs received only a tiny fraction of the millions of dollars they might have been due had Linda retained his songwriting credit on what Malan rightly calls “The most famous melody ever to emerge from Africa.”

Ad showing a sleeping lion with caption: "At any given time, the urge to sing 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight' is just a whim away... a whim away, a whim away, a whim away..."

Today’s Sources: 

* Canadian History Timeline – Canada’s Historical Chronology

* This Day In History – What Happened Today              

* Wikipedia                                                                        

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