Absolute Best History Podcasts

Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. November 10, 2019. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Here are my absolute favorite history podcasts. These are the podcasts to which I re-listen to episodes.

I, personally, download podcasts from iTunes. However, I linked to each podcast’s website.

1.) Uncivil, from Gimlet Media, hosted by Jack Hitt and Chenjerai Kumanyika

I blogged about this Civil War podcast a few months ago. Each episode discussed stories and events that aren’t part of the common Civil War narrative. For instance, one episode taught me about female soldiers who enlisted in the army as men. Many of the episodes featured stories and events involving African Americans.

I complained about this podcast last year because Season #1 ended with no announcement and Gimlet said nothing about the status of Season #2.

2.) American Hauntings Podcast by Troy Taylor and Cody Beck

I included American Hauntings because the podcast actually taught me more about history then it did about the supernatural.

I posted about American Hauntings last month. Co-host Cody Beck commented on my post! Thanks, Cody!

Season #4 is Haunted New Orleans! I learned that Jean Lafitte the pirate might actually have NO actual connection to the building known as “Lafitte’s” Blacksmith Shop Bar. That the most graphic stories about Madame LaLaurie’s mansion may be fiction. (Though the LaLaurie family’s brutal cruelty towards their enslaved servants DID happen.) I learned about “quadroon balls.”

I even learned that Nicholas Cage (who also owned the LaLaurie Mansion) purchased for himself a pyramid-shaped tomb in New Orleans’ St. Louis Cemetery No. 1!

The entire first season highlighted Alton, Illinois. I didn’t even know that Alton existed until I found American Hauntings. I learned that Alton competed economically with St. Louis. It hosted a Civil War Prison AND a tuberculosis sanitarium. A LOT of people died horrible deaths in Alton.

I learned that an abolitionist named Elijah Lovejoy ran a printing press in St. Louis. Three angry mobs destroyed Lovejoy’s printing press three separate times. Lovejoy moved to Alton, Illinois and bought yet another printing press.  A FOURTH angry mob, this time in Alton, destroyed Lovejoy’s fourth printing press. Also, the fourth angry mob shot and killed Lovejoy.

The Season #2 taught me about St. Louis, Missouri. Season #2 included a multi-episode feature on the Lemp brewing family. I learned that the most atrocious stories about the Lemps did NOT happen! (There is NO record that the young boy known as “Zeke” Lemp actually existed. Charles Lemp DIDN’T kill his dog. Lillian Lemp AKA “the Lavender Lady” DID face a child custody challenge from her ex-husband after she wore trousers in a photo.)

The audio quality of the episodes in the middle of the first season was not great. However, the audio quality improved greatly in Season #2.

Season #3, titled Murdered in Their Beds, covered the string of midwestern ax murders (including Villisca) that occurred at the turn of the last century. This was my least favorite season.

3.)  The Dollop, hosted by comedians Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds

In each episode, Anthony read a story from history to Reynolds, “who has no idea what the topic is going to be about.”

The podcast hosts used adult language. The hosts performed improv during each story. Their jokes probably offended some listeners. See, I warned you.

Here are some episodes for you:

101 – The Death of George Washington

106 – The Fenian Raids (The raids happened right after the Civil War.)

107 – General Order No. 11 (This happened during the Civil War.)

179 – The Whiskey Rebellion (I had to include this because I’m from PA.)

218 – The Donora Smog Disaster (I had to include this because I’m from PA.)

234 – Daniel Sickles (I had to include this because I’m from PA. I learned in high school history class that Sickles lost his leg at the Battle of Gettysburg. I didn’t learn any of the following in high school: Sickles introduced his mistress to Queen Victoria, except that he introduced her as the wife of his political rival. He shot his wife’s lover (Francis Scott Key’s son). A jury found Sickles innocent after he plead temporary insanity. He advised President Lincoln after Mrs. Lincoln allegedly leaked wartime information to the press. The men convinced the (illiterate) White House gardener to admit to the leak. Sickles threw General Meade under the bus in his Congressional testimony about Gettysburg. None of this stuff is humorous, but I couldn’t stop laughing during this episode.)

253 – James Oglethorpe and the Colony of Georgia (James Oglethorpe thought that he could establish a slavery-free colony in Georgia. Ha, ha, ha!)

274 – The Naughty Civil War Boat

276 – Harriet Tubman

284 – Lincoln’s Body

287 – The Caning of Sumner (This is Civil War-adjacent.)

289 – The Confederados (This is Civil War-adjacent.)

294 – Blackbeard

343 – Lord Gordon Gordon (I couldn’t stop laughing.)

346 – Henry Clay Frick (I had to include this episode because the hosts performed it live in Pittsburgh. Also, because Henry Clay Frick is such a Pittsburgh icon.)

354 – The Hayes Tilden Election Nightmare (This is another Civil War-adjacent episode.)

359 – Sam Houston and the Archive War

367 – Alice Roosevelt

372 – America’s First Ghost

381 – Harmen van den Bogaert

382 – Colonel Harland Sanders (KFC, anyone?)

4.) Southern Gothic by Brandon Schexnayder

Each episode explored a dark historical event, place, or folklore tale from American Southern history.

I included Southern Gothic on this list because the host did advise when folklore did not match historical records. For example, in the episode about the Myrtles Plantation, the host noted that dates on the local death records do not match the storyline involved with the plantation’s most famous ghost story. (Troy Taylor mentioned this same thing during an episode of American Hauntings.)

5.) Unobscured with Aaron Mahnke

Season One examined the Salem witch trials of 1692. The episodes included interviews with academics knowledgeable about the witch trials.

Season Two explored the Victorian-era Spiritualist movement.

What I’ve Been Reading: “Lady Clementine”

Big Ben. London, England.
Big Ben, London, England. September, 2008. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Back in November, I blogged about my trip to the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall in Carnegie, Pennsylvania. The staff calls this library the “Carnegie Carnegie.” I travelled to the Carnegie Carnegie to hear author Marie Benedict speak about her historical fiction novel “Carnegie’s Maid.”

Benedict impressed me so much with her presentation that I vowed to hear her speak again. Well, lucky me. Benedict announced during her Carnegie Carnegie talk that she had a brand new novel – “Lady Clementine” – coming out in January. (This historical fiction novel is about Mrs. Winston Churchill.) Benedict planned to speak at the Barnes & Noble in Monroeville about this new book today – January 5.

So, I marked my calendar for January 5.

Now, I have a confession. Before today, I don’t think that I have EVER driven myself from New Kensington to the Monroeville Mall. I used to drive to Monroeville all of the time back when I lived in Johnstown. I knew how to hop onto the Turnpike in Somerset or else Route 22 and show up in Monroeville. But I had no reason to visit Monroeville after I got my job in downtown Pittsburgh.

Google Maps told me that I could drive from my house to the Monroeville Mall in less than 30 minutes by taking a whole bunch of back roads. I left my house two hours early and I ended up in Penn Hills.

I still showed up at the Monroeville Barnes & Noble about 1.5 hours early. I went into the mall’s Bath & Body Works, but this still left me with way too much time to kill.

This was a really long way for me to tell you that I was the very first person to sit down in the special section of folding chairs reserved for Marie Benedict’s book talk. Since I sat down first, I went for the gold and sat in the center of the very first row.

A lot of people showed up for the book talk, but NOBODY sat down in the first row with me. Maybe I scared everyone else?

At the book signing, I told Benedict that I marked my calendar to attend this talk because I enjoyed her November presentation about “Carnegie’s Maid” so much.

Then, I overheard a man telling somebody else that he was a journalist for the Trib (one of Pittsburgh’s online “newspapers”). So, I approached him and told him the same thing that I had just told Benedict. He didn’t ASK me for a quote; I GAVE him a quote. Then I made him write down my name and town.

So, yeah, I guess that I acted creepy today. My sisters should feel so relieved that they weren’t with me.

The talk was totally worth getting lost in Penn Hills. Benedict is a very good speaker. I learned all about the Churchill family’s life in Great Britain through two World Wars. I cannot wait to read the actual novel.

I want to attend Benedict’s future talks in Pittsburgh when she launches her next books. And maybe next time, I won’t act like a stalker.

It Started Here: Lochry’s Defeat

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. January, 2010. (Photo: Jonathan Woytek)

Lochry’s Defeat started in 1781 when Archibald Lochry raised a militia unit in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. About one hundred men set off down the Ohio River from Fort Pitt (which later became Pittsburgh). A few weeks later, the entire group ended up captured or killed.

Archibald Lochry was a Westmoreland County leader during the American Revolutionary War. The British occupied Detroit. The American colonists in Western PA were at war with the British and their Native American allies. Many of these Native American allies attacked from the Ohio territory west of PA.

(The colonists referred to the British general in Detroit as “Hair Buyer Hamilton” because the British paid for the scalps of American colonists.)

Thomas Jefferson, then the governor of Virginia, promoted George Rogers Clark to the Virginia rank of Brigadier General. In 1781, Clark left Fort Pitt to navigate down the Ohio River into the Ohio territory.

Lochry and his militiamen followed in their own flotilla some time later. Lochry was supposed to meet up with Clark’s expedition downriver. Unfortunately, after a number of issues including supplies, communication, and the threat of desertions among Clark’s men, Lochry missed Clark several times. Lochry never caught up to Clark.

In August 1781, Joseph Brant and George Girty led Native Americans allied with the British. (George Girty was Simon Girty‘s brother.) This group set out looking for Clark.

Brant and Girty instead surprised Lochry, who had stopped on the banks of the Ohio River in present-day Indiana. Brant and Girty ambushed Lochry and killed him. They killed dozens of his men and took the rest prisoner.

The families back in Westmoreland County didn’t learn about this until a significant time later.

The Wikipedia entry for this event also refers to it as the Lochry Massacre. I chose to not use the word “massacre” because indignenous people were involved in the victory. I explained my choice of semantics in this other blog post.

If you want a much more detailed account of Lochry’s Defeat and Clark’s expedition, by all means go read the Wikipedia entry on this. The Wikipedia page includes a photo of the Lochry’s Defeat site in Indiana. I also saw in this photo some military equipment that I believe came from a 20th century war. To be honest, at first glance I mistook this equipment to be an empty boat trailer. (This is IS along the Ohio River banks.)

I wrote today’s blog post for all of the people who, like me, don’t remember learning about this in high school history class. In fact, I never even heard this story from my Westmoreland County family members who first told me about Simon Girty. I learned about Lochry’s Defeat from the historical fiction novel “The Day Must Dawn” by Agnes Sligh Turnbull.

Just to keep this in context with other local history, Lochry’s men from Westmoreland County set off from Fort Pitt in the summer of 1781. Lochry’s Defeat happened in Indiana in August 1781. The Crawford Expedition set off down the Ohio River in May 1782. (William Crawford led this expedition. Most of his militiamen came from Westmoreland and Washington counties.) The British and their Native American allies captured and executed Crawford in Ohio in June 1782. Simon Girty was present at Crawford’s execution. Then, the British and their Native American allies attacked and burned Hannastown in Westmoreland County in July 1782. The Revolutionary War ended in 1783.

According to Wikipedia, Joseph Brant allegedly got into a violent, drunken brawl with Simon Girty over the issue of whether Brant or George Girty deserved the credit for Lochry’s Defeat. Brant was a Mohawk military leader and Girty (who was himself raised by Native Americans) has an infamous reputation in frontier America. At least one Canadian monument refers to Simon Girty as a British Loyalist. Keep this in mind when you read such tales.

What I’ve Been Reading: “The Huntress”

Last summer, Jonathan gave me a copy of “The Huntress” by Kate Quinn for my birthday. World War II novels aren’t really my thing, so I put it in my stack of “to be read” books.

I’ve been sick since the day after Christmas until yesterday, so I read “The Huntress.” It was so good! I could not put it down. This is a historical fiction novel about a British Nazi hunter in the 1950’s mixed with flashbacks from a female Soviet fighter pilot (a member of the Night Witches in World War II) and also the tale of a Boston teenager whose father married a German war refugee with a shadowy past.

Here’s a random scene that pleased me to read: the British Nazi hunter walked into his office and saw his team member, the female Soviet pilot, reading the 1950’s British Regency romance novel “Regency Buck” by Georgette Heyer.

The Brit asked the Soviet woman, “Why do you read that tosh?

She responded, “I come to library my first month in Manchester – need books to learn about England, practice my reading. The librarian, she says, “Georgette Heyer is England.” Is not much like the England I see, but maybe is the war?

I personally didn’t read “Regency Buck” by Georgette Heyer, but I DID read “The Spanish Bride” by Georgette Heyer. Now, romantic historical fiction doesn’t have a very good reputation for literary snobs. However, it fills its own role in a nation’s culture. Georgette Heyer researched her historical fiction. She wrote the book “The Spanish Bride” about the adventures of real-life army wife Juana Smith during the Napoleonic Wars, and she based the tale partly on the memoirs of Smith’s husband, Lieutenant-General Sir Harry Smith. (Sir Harry served as a junior British officer during the Peninsula Wars. He was at the White House when the British burned it down during the War of 1812. He was at the Battle of New Orleans when Andrew Jackson defeated the British. He was at Waterloo. He commanded his own victory in India. He became a governor of British South Africa.)

Now that I think about it, the fictional character in “The Huntress” who read Georgette Heyer novels was a war refugee who spoke no English when she entered into a marriage of convenience with a British man who could keep her from starving to death. Real-life Juana Smith was also a war refugee, and she did the same thing.

I like to think that back in the 1950’s, a British librarian really DID tell war refugees to improve their English and learn about England by reading Georgette Heyer romance novels.

******* This last paragraph contains spoilers: Most of the English Regency romance novels (and also most of the non-English Regency romance novels that are STYLED after English Regency romance novels) that I read include the following story line: a woman marries a man because she HAS to marry him. She needs to have a husband so that she doesn’t get raped, so that she isn’t labeled as promiscuous, so that she can get her papers to emigrate to England. Whatever. The man agrees to the marriage of convenience out of the goodness of his heart because he sees himself as the woman’s protector. Both parties agree that it’s a paper marriage. However, as the story progresses, the couple falls in love with each other. The exact same thing happened in “The Huntress” between the British Nazi hunter and the female Soviet fighter pilot. ******

The Christmas Tree Ship; Podcast Episode from Haunted Places

Chicago Skyline
Chicago Skyline. Chicago, Illinois. June 2017. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

I found a new podcast episode that I really enjoyed this week.

As I mentioned on this blog, my in-laws once lived on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. They deeply loved the Great Lakes. They shared this love with their kids and also with me.

I really wish that I could bring back my mother-in-law, Fran, and then transport my sisters’ appreciation for a good ghost story podcast into her soul. Then, I would have someone who would be as excited to listen to this podcast as I was:

The Christmas Tree Ship episode from Haunted Places from Cutler Media and part of the Parcast Network.

To quote the Episode Info from the podcast website:

The Rouse Simmons, or “The Christmas Tree Ship,” was a 205-ton, three-masted schooner. In 1912, the beloved ship met an untimely demise when it sank to the bottom of Lake Michigan. Today, locals have reported seeing the ghost of the ship and its crew sailing the waters it used to call home. 

I posted above a photo of the Chicago lakefront because the Rouse Simmons delivered trees to the Navy Pier in Chicago each year.

On another note, I’m still learning to podcast myself. I don’t want to post anything that I didn’t enjoy creating. Stay tuned for future podcasts from me.

Finally, I cannot thank you fantastic readers enough for reaching out to me in support of the Parnassus Pen.

Intergenerational Wealth

So, U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted something this morning that I myself tried to correctly word for years:

A lot of people who struggle with imposter syndrome haven’t realized yet that what they’re actually competing with is intergenerational wealth.

Be patient and kind to yourself.

I want to blog here about history and folklore, especially the history and folklore of Western Pennsylvania. However, Western PA’s economic and class struggle strongly defines us. The economic and class struggle strongly defines me and my family. So, I just shared a quote that now resonates with me very strongly.

Extremely Rich People in Alcohol Caves

A cave / railroad tunnel. NOT a wine cave or a beer cave!
An abandoned railroad tunnel. NOT a wine cave or a beer cave!

This week, I learned about modern-day billionaires in wine caves.

Last year, I learned about the 19th century Lemp family in St. Louis, Missouri. This family owned a brewery empire. They integrated caves into their beer making process. They also entertained and socialized in a cave.

I learned about the Lemp family and their caves on Season 2, Episodes 6 – 11 of the American Hauntings podcast. Be sure to check out the second episode in this Lemp series (Season 2, Episode 7 on the website) to learn about the Lemp caves. Here is the podcast, hosted by Troy Taylor and Cody Beck. Just type “Lemp” into the search bar.

Growing Up With Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell will celebrate a birthday next week. Perhaps I already gave her age more attention than I would if she were a man. But, I’ve thought about her work as a writer and historian very much lately.

Vowell edited for and appeared on This American Life, wrote several nonfiction books about American history and culture, and acted as the voice of Violet Parr in The Incredibles series of animated movies.

Years ago, my sister K. gave me a book of Vowell’s essays for Christmas. This was my introduction to Vowell. (Podcasts didn’t exist back then, and I didn’t listen to This American Life on the radio.)

I don’t remember seeing any political essays in our local rural newspaper that included (positive) pop cultural references. I didn’t see any syndicated political columns written by young women, or even women.

Vowell WAS a young woman when I first read her work. She wrote about American history, politics, and current events. She also wrote about pop culture, travel to historical landmarks, and her family in these same essays.

I digested Sarah Vowell’s work at the very same time that I myself became a young adult woman.

I didn’t agree with every single thing that Vowell wrote. In fact, I disagreed with her a healthy amount. Her one essay about her reverence for Theodore Roosevelt caused me to roll my eyes more than I usually roll them.

I even gave one of her books three out of five stars on Amazon. (I discovered that some Amazon reviewers actively argue with reviews critical of Vowell’s books. Who does that? Who are these people who devote time and energy arguing with negative book reviews? I’m going to give Vowell the benefit of the doubt and assume that she does not recruit her friends and family to do this.)

Vowell wrote her most recent book in 2015. I can’t find anything online that Vowell wrote since 2015. Ever since the 2016 United States presidential election, I sometimes ask myself, “What would Sarah Vowell say about this?”

I have to guess the answer. I don’t have Sarah Vowell around to tell me how to think about things.

Why did Sarah Vowell go silent? Is she working on another book? Did she retire forever on her royalties? Did she get tired?

So, Sarah, wherever you are, I hope that you are healthy in every way. I hope that you are happy. I hope that your cult following makes you proud. I hope that you have a happy birthday.

Lock Him Up: An Election Story

I own a signed copy of Pittsburgh: The Story of An American City, written by Stefan Lorant with several contributors. I purchased it for $5 from a used bookstore. The book came apart in several places at the binding. The book contains almost seven hundred pages of Pittsburgh history and photos.

This book’s Chapter 3 The City Grows by Oscar Handlin includes a sidebar titled Pittsburgh in the News. This sidebar includes the following item:

Joe Barker, a colorful street preacher, was arrested in 1849 when he was involved in a riot while delivering one of his many tirades against Catholicism. He was thrown into jail and while in prison he was elected as mayor of the city. After serving for one year he was defeated for re-election and sank into obscurity. He died in 1862 when run over by a train.

(Wikipedia taught me that the train decapitated Mayor Joseph Barker. He is buried in Allegheny Cemetery.)

Horne’s Department Store

Horne's Department Store Christmas Tree. Highmark building. Downtown Pittsburgh.
Horne’s Department Store. Pittsburgh, PA. December 28, 2015. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Pittsburgh had a department store chain called Joseph Horne’s, or Horne’s Department Store, or simply Horne’s.

An electric Christmas tree decorated the building’s corner each holiday shopping season.

Horne’s merged with another chain in 1994. Then, the building which housed Horne’s downtown flagship store became offices for an insurance company (Highmark).

However, this tree still graces the building each year from the week before Thanksgiving until New Year’s.

Here is a photo of the building and its tree.

Horne’s Department Store. Pittsburgh, PA. December 18, 2014. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Everything that I know about Horne’s Department Store came from “American Elegy: A Family Memoir” by Jeffrey Simpson. This particular book detailed the author’s family’s experiences in Parnassus, a sort-of Pittsburgh suburb. In the Chapter titled “Parties (Quint and Ruby),” the author wrote the following about his step-grandmother Ruby’s affinity for shopping at the downtown Pittsburgh Horne’s:

When my mother and Ruby were young women in the late 1920s and 1930s, there was a lounge on Horne’s mezzanine where you could wait for friends. The lounge had a book in which you could leave messages for your chums if you had to leave early or had dashed up to Lingerie for a quick purchase while you were waiting; it was an amenity that seemed to belong to a period of orange minks and nose-tip veils, when girls fresh from college, eager with their first salaries, met “in town” for lunch on Saturday.

Simpson wrote that Ruby grew up “poor” and thus as soon as she received her first very own paycheck, she spent it at Horne’s. Ruby referred to Horne’s as the “good” store. She relished the chance to be seen shopping there. Simpson noted that the Parnassus community and Ruby herself thought that Ruby had married up (to a widower with a good family and a good job). That Ruby’s clothes, purchased from Horne’s, helped her to achieve this marriage.

Simpson concluded:

The Horne’s boxes, cream-colored pasteboard with Jos. Horne Co. in light, bright blue on the lid, represented for Ruby the life she had made for herself.

My own maternal great-grandma worked for Horne’s. However, I don’t have any stories about her retail career.

I myself work directly across the street from the old downtown Horne’s building. I never shopped for clothes there. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania. I started working in Pittsburgh years after Horne’s closed.

When I interviewed for my job, the building housed an Old Navy store.

By the time that I started my job, the Old Navy was a Rite Aid.