Ghoulish Acts & Dastardly Deeds

On 29 March 1951, shortly after 5 p.m., a hand-grenade-sized pipe bomb exploded in the landmark Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Ordinarily, the detonation of a pipe bomb in a busy commuter terminal at rush hour would be cause for grave public concern, yet the local news media barely acknowledged the event.

It had been a hectic news day. In one of the shrillest moments in America’s infamous anti-communism “red scare,” husband and wife Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were both found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage. News from the ongoing war in Korea dominated the space below the fold. By comparison, the small explosion from the homemade pipe bomb at Grand Central didn’t hurt anyone; it merely startled passers-by and damaged a cigarette urn outside the Oyster Bar. Police dismissed the event as the work of “boys or pranksters.” The New York Times reported the event in the following day’s issue, though only with a three-paragraph brief at the bottom of page 24.

About four weeks later, another small bomb exploded inside a phone booth in the basement of the New York Public Library. Again, no one was injured, though the explosion damaged the booth—as well as the composure of a security guard leaning against the booth at the time. The NYPD bomb squad found fragments very similar to the Grand Central device; both were lengths of well-machined pipe with a cap on each end. Inside, a .25 caliber shell detonated a reservoir of explosive gunpowder packed with nuts and bolts. The alleged “boys or pranksters” had evidently reprised their prank—and they were far from finished.

No Country For Ye Olde Men

The year was 1721. The ship was called the Prince Royal, its destination the American colonies. And the cake—the cake was gingerbread.

The British crew shouldn’t have been surprised to find the metal file in the cake. Its stasher, James Dalton—a notorious thief and escape artist—had been shuttled involuntarily between Britain and America more times than a trans-Atlantic diplomat. Unluckily for Dalton, this particular mutiny fell apart as soon as the cake did. Luckily for Dalton, there would always be a next time. After all, as a convict who’d been sentenced to the punishment of “transportation” multiple times, Dalton had mutinied before.

Fire and Dice

Downstairs in the casino, little remained of the MGM Grand Hotel’s former glory. In the early morning hours of 21 November 1980, a fire had broken out in the Las Vegas landmark, ripping through the lounge in an explosive wave that instantly killed everyone in the area. Bodies sat frozen in front of what had once been slot machines, now no more than blackened pillars jutting upward from a flow of melted slag along the floor. The room’s plastic and chrome-plated decor, it turned out, had been as much a facade as its promises of riches.

Fortunately, the Clark County Fire Department had responded immediately, and the blaze never spread beyond the first floor. From where David Demers and his fire investigation team stood on the 23rd floor, no one would have even felt the temperature rise. Why, then, were they surrounded by corpses?

The Reconstruction of Ulysses S. Grant

In the second half of the 19th century, few Americans were better known—and revered—than the man whose face looks out today from the $50 bill. Ulysses S. Grant led Union troops to victory in the American Civil War, then thwarted attempts by President Andrew Johnson to suppress fundamental civil rights of newly freed black Americans. Twice elected president himself, Grant stewarded a war-torn nation as it struggled to reunify. After leaving the White House, he invested his name and entire life savings to a Wall Street brokerage firm. It would make him rich, he was told, and afford him a comfortable retirement. Instead, it would leave him penniless.

Like any army commander, Grant had lost battles and had known the pain of defeat. But this loss hit personally. Never before had he found himself in straits so dire, literally destitute. Fortunately, the former president and retired general had one more fight in him—because his real troubles had just begun.

The Greatest Baroque Composer Never Known

As a choirmaster in 1870s Salzburg, Innocenz Achleitner often saw sheet music treated in a less-than-reverent manner. It might be scattered across a composer’s desk, crammed into vocalists’ folios, or even marred with personal notes about bowings or breath marks. Never before, however, had he seen it wrapped around vegetables.

Only about 80% of men at the time were literate enough to sign their own name, so it’s possible Achleitner’s greengrocer didn’t recognize what the marks on his packing material meant, especially since each page stretched roughly 80 centimeters tall and resembled something more like newsprint rather than a standard sheet of music. The choirmaster knew better, of course, and quickly convinced his grocer to hand them over.

Thus, by a coincidence of his shopping schedule, Achleitner happened to rescue the Missa Salisburgensis, or Salzburg Mass, known today to be the largest surviving composition from the Baroque era. It would come to be recognized as one of the most important historical works of music, and it would certainly cement its composer’s place as a master at the forefront of the era…if experts could figure out who wrote it.

Foreign Exchange(s)

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By the summer of 1944, the Mount Washington Hotel had been mothballed for two years. Nestled deep in the Appalachian mountains, the sprawling resort was once a favorite getaway for wealthy New Englanders. But in the wake of the Great Depression and the second war to end all wars, the end appeared nigh for this silent relic of America’s Gilded Age.

Then the US Treasury department offered its owners a staggering $300,000 if they would host a conference—to start in less than a month. An army of hotel workers and hastily recruited townspeople got to work. On the first of July, 730 delegates from 44 countries checked in and proceeded to conduct one of the most influential economic conferences of all time, carving into history the name of the sylvan outpost where it was held: Bretton Woods.

Known officially as the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference, the Bretton Woods talks focused primarily on foreign exchange rates (the price of US dollars, say, in British pounds) and other tedious minutia of monetary policy. With the world engulfed in war, few in those days were giving much thought to topics as arcane as these. But some people were giving it quite a lot of thought. One was US Treasury advisor Harry Dexter White, who had been toiling in relative obscurity to forge an exchange rate policy that all nations on earth would agree to. Nothing like this had ever been attempted before.

Now the technocrat from humble roots was about to pull it off, earning recognition and his first official government title: Assistant Secretary to the US Treasury. Harry White would soon experience recognition of another sort, with his name splashed across newspaper headlines—but for reasons having nothing to do with exchange rates, economics, or Bretton Woods.

One of the outcomes of World War 1 was, quite unfortunately, the setting of political and economic conditions that led to World War 2. There were many factors at play, but the isolationist policies of the United States—such as its refusal to join the League of Nations—certainly didn’t help. After the second world war the US would play a far more active political role on the world stage as a key member of the United Nations. Lesser known is how the US propelled itself into the economic center of the post-war world and indeed came to dominate global finance. The man chiefly responsible for this turnabout was a most unlikely fellow.

Starving for Answers

In early 1945, 36 American men lay in their bunks in a windowless room, each man alone with his thoughts as he tried to fall asleep despite the hunger that gnawed at his gut. Just a few weeks earlier, they had all been fit, healthy young men, eager to serve their country. But then their overseers had decreed that their rations were to be cut in half, and the men assigned to feed them had shown no mercy. Now they were so weak from hunger that they could barely roll over in their bunks. During the day, they tried to smile and laugh with each other to keep their spirits up, but at night the depression that accompanied starvation seeped in, telling them to give in, to give up. But the men soldiered on, despite the fact that they were not actually soldiers at all: they were pacifists who had volunteered to be starved for the sake of science.

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