THE GHOSTS OF HISTORY WHAT THEY CAN TELL US

Francine PainoBy Francine Paino

The late president, Harry S. Truman said, “The only thing new in the world is the history you do not know.”

People make history. What were the lives of those who came before really like? Men and women who lived without the conveniences, comforts, and communications we enjoy today.

Most adults throughout history couldn’t read or write. They depended on oral historians and they certainly didn’t have 24-hour news cycles to keep them informed.

How and why did they prosper or fail? Who were the great leaders of these populations? How was the common person’s life impacted by discoveries, wars, and political decisions? Were their lives improved or worsened?

What provocative question would you ask that cannot be learned from the histories you do know? The ghosts of artists, performers, and sports figures, political and military leaders might offer corrections or additions to our knowledge.

Starting with the first humans to stand upright, there are questions. Archeologists still ponder the evidence of humans using and controlling fire a million years ago. While spontaneous fires happened and probably frightened those first men and women. What accident caused the spark that showed these primitives that they could create fire? Perhaps it was a woman trying to crush the head of a fish and accidentally struck another rock that caused that first human made spark. Wouldn’t I love to know?

Think of the great warrior women in history. Would you call up the spirit of one of the biblical women like Deborah, Judith or Jael? What secrets could they tell of their lives? When thinking of great warrior women and leaders in ancient times one cannot ignore Cleopatra or Boudica.

I always wonder which Roman leader and general Cleopatra truly loved, if she loved either. Was it Caesar or Marc Antony? Did she seduce and use Marc Antony only to protect her’s and Caesar’s son, Caesarian’s birthright?

In A.D. 60-61, Queen Boudica, of the Iceni tribe was a remarkable pagan leader who refused to bow to Rome. Her courageous leadership inspired her tribe to fight against the might of the Roman war machine. Defeated in the end, Boudica and her daughters took poison rather than face capture.

Everything known about Boudica, the Iceni and the battles with Rome was written and recorded by Roman scholars. What corrections might her ghost give us, if summoned?

Albert Einstein, Marie Curie and other great scientists have advanced the sciences in all areas. Is there anything they might add to the histories we know? Are there unrevealed truths, known only to them?

In sports, maybe you’d like to know about Babe Ruth, beyond the opinions and movies. Already considered one of the best ballplayers, after leading the Boston Red Sox to three world series, how did the Sultan of Swat, otherwise known as the Bambino, really feel when club owner Harry Frazee sold him to the New York Yankees?

For me, there are too many ghosts to name, but if I could summon only one, it would be the 17th President of the United States.

Democrat Andrew Johnson was elected vice-president when Republican Abraham Lincoln won the presidency. In the early 19th century, presidents and vice-presidents did not run as a team from the same party. These two men served during one of the most devastating times in U.S. history.

After the destructive Civil War, that ended slavery, but killed 600,000 men, an exhausted nation then faced the shocking assassination of Abraham Lincoln, on April 14, 1865. Democrat vice-president Andrew Johnson, under the U.S. Constitution, took the oath of office and became the 17th president, even as the hunt for the conspirators continued.

Those involved in Lincoln’s assassination were speedily caught. The planner and triggerman, John Wilkes Booth resisted capture and was shot to death outside the barn on Garrets Farm, in Virginia. Another conspirator, John Surratt, Mary’s son escaped to Canada.

In early May 1865, the remaining eight faced a military tribunal. All were found guilty. Four, Arnold, Mudd, and O’Laughlen, were sentenced to life in prison, and Spangler received a six-year sentence. Their part in the conspiracy to kidnap the president was well established, but not their involvement in the assassination.

The four collaborators found guilty and sentenced to death were Herold, Powell, Atzerodt, and Mary Surratt.

After the trial, five of the nine military commissioners who found Mary Surratt guilty petitioned President Johnson. They recommended that her sentence be changed to life in prison. Instead, Johnson, who never directly replied to the request, ordered the executions to take place as soon as possible.

Thus, on July 7, 1865, Mary Surratt was the first woman ever executed by the United States.

My burning question to the ghost of Andrew Johnson, would be,  After the recommendation for leniency from  five battle-hardened generals who’d found her guilty, why sir, could you not have shown mercy? There is much speculation and obfuscation, but I’ll never know that answer in this lifetime.

History is the study and accounting of past events, especially the development of human knowledge, understanding and growth, and the social interactions between peoples. It is through these affairs that we filter our attitudes and beliefs in today’s world. Not knowing history is imprudent and dangerous.

Real history is bloodier than the bloodiest fiction, more heart wrenching than the best novels of love and loss, and more beautiful and inspiring than anything an author can invent; and all created in real time by real men and women.

It makes one wonder what history books will say about us and what our ghosts may be able to reveal to the future generations.

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