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King George I of Greece Assassinated

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 61st installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

March 18, 1913: King George I of Greece Assassinated

The Greek conquest of Salonika on November 9, 1912 was a major historical event by any standard. Founded in 315 BCE and captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1430 CE, Salonika (Greek: Thessaloniki) was a crown jewel of the Balkans and the main prize of the First Balkan War. Thus it was a foregone conclusion that King George I of Greece would pay a triumphal visit to glory in his conquest (and cement Greek ownership of the city, which was also claimed by Greece’s ally Bulgaria).

In the afternoon of March 18, 1913, the king was taking his daily walk along the waterfront near the “White Tower,” a famous fortress built by the Ottomans in the 16th century. The king’s advisors had warned him that the mood in the city was unsettled, but George—perhaps trying to demonstrate the common touch for which he was famous—had insisted on taking his stroll without bodyguards. So there was no one to protect the king when, around 5:15 p.m., an anarchist named Alexandros Schinas slipped out of a café, walked up behind him and shot him several times in the back at point-blank range. One of the bullets pierced the king’s heart, killing him instantly.

Like so many other successful assassins, Schinas’ momentous crime dwarfed his modest achievements in life up to that point. Some years before he’d joined the Eastern European exodus to America, where he worked for a time in the kitchen of New York City’s Fifth Avenue Hotel; co-workers recalled his passionate rants against privilege and authority. Failing to make a life for himself as an immigrant in the New World, Schinas returned to his hometown in Greece, where he founded an anarchist school that was quickly shut down by the authorities. At the time of his arrest, the Greek police described Schinas as a homeless alcoholic. On May 6, 1913, he died after “falling” from a police station window; the death was officially recorded as a suicide, though there is obvious reason for doubt.

The assassination came just a few weeks before the 50th anniversary of George’s accession to the throne. Ironically, after his Golden Jubilee celebration the 67-year-old monarch was planning to abdicate in favor of Crown Prince Constantine. Now, as the old king’s body lay in state in Salonika, the new king took the constitutional oath of office in a subdued ceremony in front of the Greek chamber of deputies in Athens on March 21, 1913. In contrast to the somber mood inside parliament, in the surrounding streets large crowds cheered the new king, who’d captured the popular imagination with his victories in the First Balkan War. 

As a young man Constantine had spent a number of years in Germany, where he studied at universities in Leipzig and Heidelberg, and became friends with Kaiser Wilhelm II; in fact in 1889 he married Wilhelm’s sister Sophia. During the coming Great War his German sympathies would put Constantine at odds with the British and French, who helped establish a rival government under Prime Minister Venizelos in Salonika. In 1917, the Allies forced Constantine to abdicate in favor of his son Alexander, who then brought Greece into the war on the side of the Allies.

Sadly political assassinations were all too common during this period, due in part to the spread of violent anarchism, a shadowy international movement which advocated “propaganda of the deed”—terrorism—and posed a threat similar to Islamist extremism today. Anarchist terrorists favored high-profile targets: On September 14, 1911, Russian prime minister Pyotr Stolypin was murdered in front of Nicholas II and his family by the anarchist Dmitri Bogrov; on November 12, 1912, Spanish prime minister José Canales y Méndez was assassinated by the anarchist Manuel Pardiñas; and on April 13, 1913, anarchist Rafael Sancho Alegre tried and failed to kill Spanish King Alfonso XIII.

Of course anarchists weren’t solely responsible for the rash of assassinations: Then, as now, there were also plenty of well-armed lunatics in circulation. On October 14, 1912, a psychotic saloonkeeper named John Schrank was barely foiled in his attempt to kill Teddy Roosevelt at a campaign stop in Milwaukee. Lunacy and ideology often overlapped: Leon Czolgosz, the anarchist who murdered President William McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York in 1901, was clearly mentally disturbed.

As might be expected, many assassinations took place as part of coups and political upheavals. In the Ottoman Empire, war minister Nazim Pasha was killed by the Young Turks during the coup on January 23, 1913, and Grand Vizier Mahmut Sevket Pasha was assassinated by military officers angry about Turkish defeats on June 11, 1913. In Mexico, President Francisco Madero and Vice-President José María Pino Suárez were murdered by coup plotters on February 22, 1913. And in China Song Jiaoren, a founder of the Kuomintang, was assassinated on March 20, 1913, probably at the behest of rival Yuan Shikai.

Another prominent cause of political violence during this period was nationalism—and nowhere was more seriously afflicted than Austria-Hungary, a dynastic empire whose multinational composition was particularly ill-suited to the modern era. Here nationalism mixed with anarchism to produce an especially dangerous brew—and fire-breathing Slavic nationalists in neighboring Serbia were eagerly stirring the pot, hoping to liberate their ethnic kinsmen in Bosnia-Herzegovina.


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On June 15, 1910, a Slavic nationalist and anarchist named Bogdan Zerajic made an unsuccessful attempt on the life of General Marián Varešanin, the Hungarian military governor of Bosnia-Herzegovina; Zerajic killed himself and was venerated as a heroic martyr by Slavic nationalists. On June 7, 1912, a Hungarian nationalist named Gyula Kovács tried and failed to kill the Hungarian speaker of the house, István Tisza, whom he accused of collaboration with Hungary’s Austrian oppressors. A day later, on June 8, 1912, the ban (imperial governor) of Croatia, Slavko Cuvaj, barely escaped assassination by a Bosnian Croat, Luka Jukić, who managed to kill several other officials. On August 18, 1913, Stjepan Dojčić, a Croatian house painter who had emigrated to America and then returned, failed in his attempt to assassinate Iván Skerlecz, Cuvaj’s successor as governor of Croatia. And on May 20, 1914, a second plot against Skerlecz’s life was foiled by police in the nick of time; a “Yugoslav” nationalist, Jacob Schafer, was arrested, and the investigation soon traced the plot back to Serbia.

Back in February 1912, Jukić (who would try to kill the Croatian governor in June of that year) had helped organize nationalist protests by students in Sarajevo, the provincial capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, together with a fellow Bosnian Serb named Gavrilo Princip; Princip—a small, wiry 17-year-old with intense blue eyes—had threatened students who didn’t want to participate in the protests with brass knuckles. In March 1913, Princip, now 18 years old, arrived in the Serbian capital Belgrade, supposedly to attend high school. Here he would come into contact with a secret Serbian nationalist group called “Unity or Death”—better known as “The Black Hand.”

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Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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The Little-Known History of Fruit Roll-Ups
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David Kessler, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The thin sheets of “fruit treats” known as Fruit Roll-Ups have been a staple of supermarkets since 1983, when General Mills introduced the snack to satisfy the sweet tooth of kids everywhere. But as Thrillist writer Gabriella Gershenson recently discovered, the Fruit Roll-Up has an origin that goes much further back—all the way to the turn of the 20th century.

The small community of Syrian immigrants in New York City in the early 1900s didn’t have the packaging or marketing power of General Mills, but they had the novel idea of offering an apricot-sourced “fruit leather” they called amardeen. A grocery proprietor named George Shalhoub would import an apricot paste from Syria that came in massive sheets. At the request of customers, employees would snip off a slice and offer the floppy treat that was named after cowhide because it was so hard to chew.

Although Shalhoub’s business relocated to Brooklyn in the 1940s, the embryonic fruit sheet continued to thrive. George’s grandson, Louis, decided to sell crushed, dried apricots in individually packaged servings. The business later became known as Joray, which sold the first commercial fruit roll-up in 1960. When a trade publication detailed the family’s process in the early 1970s, it opened the floodgates for other companies to begin making the distinctive treat. Sunkist was an early player, but when General Mills put their considerable advertising power behind their Fruit Roll-Ups, they became synonymous with the sticky snack.

Joray is still in business, offering kosher roll-ups that rely more heavily on fruit than the more processed commercial version. But the companies have one important thing in common: They both have the sense not to refer to their product as “fruit leather.”

[h/t Thrillist]

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