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King George I of Greece Assassinated

Wikimedia Commons
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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.


Click to enlarge.

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.”

See previous installment, next installment, or all entries.

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History
A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

Some of the oldest chamber pots found by archeologists have been discovered in ancient Greece, but portable toilets have come a long way since then. Whether referred to as "the Jordan" (possibly a reference to the river), "Oliver's Skull" (maybe a nod to Oliver Cromwell's perambulating cranium), or "the Looking Glass" (because doctors would examine urine for diagnosis), they were an essential fact of life in houses and on the road for centuries. In this video from the Wellcome Collection, Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder discusses two 19th century chamber pots in the museum while offering a brief survey of the use of chamber pots in Britain (including why they were particularly useful in wartime).

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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