Queen Christina, Who Ruled as a King

Europeana // Public Domain
Europeana // Public Domain

When is a queen not a queen? When she's technically a king.

Christina of Sweden was one of Europe's most unusual monarchs, an intellectual ruler and patron of the arts known for flouting convention at every turn. The decisions she made about her rule, her religion, and her relationships shocked 17th century Europe—and have yet to be forgotten today.

"SHE HAS MADE FOOLS OF US ALL!"

Princess Christina of Sweden caused a stir from day one. Not only was she born during a planetary conjunction in 1626, causing the court’s astrologers to predict that the baby would grow up to be one of Sweden’s greatest princes, she was also, as she later wrote, born “entirely covered with hair” and cried with a “deep, loud voice,” causing her to be mistaken for a boy. Although her mother was disappointed to realize that the newborn was in fact a girl, and Christina herself wrote that the confusion “filled the palace with false joy,” her father, King Gustav II, was delighted. “She’ll be clever! She has made fools of us all!” he proclaimed.

Things got more unorthodox from there. Gustav made Christina his heir before he left for Germany to fight in the Thirty Years’ War, although the official title she was set to inherit was King, not Queen, of Sweden (Swedish law only recognized kings; there was no official status for queens). Accordingly, her father decreed that she should receive the education of a prince. Christina threw herself into her studies, rising at dawn for her lessons in classical Greek and Latin, theology, politics, and philosophy. She also learned fencing, hunting, horse riding, and other sports and games traditionally reserved for boys, as well as German, Dutch, Danish, French, Italian, Hebrew, and Arabic. As an adult, she became one of the best-educated women in Europe.

King Gustav II died on the battlefield in 1632, when Christina was five, making her the Queen (technically King) of the Swedes, Goths, and Vandals. Because her mother was seen as mentally unstable, her father had decreed that in the event of his death Christina should be cared by her paternal aunt, Catherine of Sweden. Indeed, the Dowager Queen’s condition was so dire that she refused to bury Gustav’s body for 18 months, regularly visiting and petting the putrefying corpse. Sweden’s chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna, finally stepped in, ordering the body buried in Riddarholm Church (the resting place of Swedish kings), exiling the widow to another castle, and sending Christina to live with her aunt until she reached the age of majority.

THE GIRL KING

Oxenstierna ruled in Christina’s stead until she was 18, although she began attending council meetings at 14. Despite receiving lessons in politics from him personally, Christina clashed often with Oxenstierna, particularly regarding the Thirty Years’ War. When Oxenstierna sent his son to the Peace Congress in Westphalia to seek a hard line on negotiations, for example, Christina sent her own delegate to oppose him, seeking peace at any cost.

It’s episodes like this that cause some to describe Christina as a brilliant ruler and others as a complete disaster. Sources do agree that she invested so much money into her vast art collection that it seriously impacted the country’s economy, and in general she displayed little financial skill—she was notorious for giving away land belonging to the crown and showering her favorites in lavish finery. But she’s also credited with preventing civil war in the aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War and its leftover rivalries, and her reign saw many progressive firsts, such as the establishment of the first newspaper in Sweden, in 1645.

But if Christina’s rule was controversial, her appearance and demeanor got even more attention. She wore a signature mop of unruly curls, which she rarely brushed, and regularly offended people with her blunt, unfiltered way of speaking. She was known across Europe for her blazing wit and keen intelligence—but just as well for her barroom manners and love of a dirty joke. Queen Christina, it has been said, “walked like a man, sat like a man, and could eat and swear like the roughest soldier.”

Also eyebrow-raising was Christina’s relationship with her lady-in-waiting Countess Ebba Sparre, with whom she spent most of her free time. The young queen waxed endlessly on Sparre’s brilliance and beauty, addressing her as “la belle comtesse” and referring to Sparre as her “bed-fellow.” Upon introducing the countess to an English ambassador, Christina candidly informed him that Sparre’s "insides were as beautiful as her outsides.”

Ebba Sparre as painted by Sébastien Bourdon
Ebba Sparre as painted by the artist Sébastien Bourdon
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Most scandalous of all, though, was the issue of Christina’s flat-out refusal to marry. In her autobiography, she wrote of “an insurmountable distaste for marriage” and “for all the things that females talked about and did.” As she became a teen, she began expressing great curiosity about Elizabeth I of England—the so-called Virgin Queen—as well as Catholic vows of celibacy. She informed her council: "I do not intend to give you reasons, [I am] simply not suited to marriage.”

Christina knew that she was expected to provide an heir, though, and she did play along for a while. When she was 16, she became secretly engaged to her first cousin, Charles Gustav, who was in love with her, before he went off to war for several years. But by the time he returned, the deal was off, and Christina resisted all future attempts by her advisors to have her married. In 1649, at age 22, she named Charles Gustav as her heir.

Two years later, Christina began making noise about abdicating and leaving her cousin in charge. She claimed that Sweden needed a man to rule and especially to lead the army, and also cited her heavy workload, bad eyesight, neck pain, and other physical ailments as reasons to forfeit the throne. Oxenstierna objected to this plan, as did her council. But another of her reasons eventually emerged: The queen had decided to convert to Catholicism. That was a serious no-no in Lutheran Sweden, partly because the Holy Roman Empire had been the main belligerent party in the recent Thirty Years’ War.

"GOD CREATING THE FIRST MAN"

After waffling back and forth for a few years, the Riksdag, Sweden's representative assembly, ultimately gave in and allowed Christina to resign in June of 1654, after 10 years’ rule, and accepted Charles Gustav as her successor. She was 28 years old. Christina later wrote that succeeding in her plan to make Charles king made her feel “like God creating the first man.”

At Christina's abdication ceremony, her royal regalia was methodically removed by the great officers of the realm in turn. Although they obliged in taking her sword, key, orb, and sceptre, an officer named Per Brahe, who was tasked with removing the crown, refused—in the end, she had to remove it herself.

When the ritual was over, Christina wore only an unadorned white taffeta dress. She made an impassioned speech, thanking God and her subjects, and asked Charles to take a seat in the silver throne she’d just vacated. Charles made a show of declining, then escorted her to her apartments. Christina left Sweden within a couple days. Her ultimate destination: the Vatican.

A painting of Queen Christina by David Beck
A 1650 painting of Queen Christina by David Beck
National Museum of Sweden // Public Domain

After chopping off her hair and riding south through Denmark disguised as a man for safety, Christina was eventually taken in by the Habsburg archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria at his palace in Brussels, where she converted to Catholicism in a secret ceremony. She then continued to Innsbruck, where she was received by another Catholic Habsburg archduke, Ferdinand Charles. There, on November 3, 1655, she announced her conversion to Catholicism in the city’s Hofkirche (the court church). Ferdinand Charles, who was as notorious as Christina for his extravagant tastes and terrible money management skills, threw a multi-day party for her. By the time she left for Italy five days later, her visit had nearly financially ruined him.

Now that word of Christina’s newfound Catholicism was afoot, the Vatican transformed this last leg of her journey into an all-out PR tour, with festivities held for her in five cities along her route. Six months after she left Uppsala, she landed in Rome, where Pope Alexander VII welcomed his prize convert with an opulent reception featuring 6000 onlookers and a procession of camels and elephants.

Once in Rome, 29-year-old Christina wasted no time in inspiring local gossip. Almost immediately, she began socializing with men her age, striking up a particularly close relationship with the young Cardinal Decio Azzolino, a code-breaker and one of the leaders of the liberal Squadrone Volante (Flying Squad) movement, which aspired to combat nepotism in the papal conclaves.

Rumors quickly emerged that Christina and Cardinal Azzolino were having a lusty affair. Almost as quickly, Alexander VII noticed the talk and asked them to limit the time they spent together. When that didn’t squelch the chatter, Azzolino was shipped off to Romania as punishment. Christina wrote him dozens of ardent letters, some in French, others in a code that the two had devised. Distance couldn’t keep them apart, though, and they remained lifelong friends, to meet again many years later.

THE WOULD-BE QUEEN OF NAPLES

In the summer of 1656, Christina traveled to France to meet King Louis XIV with the goal of becoming Queen of Naples. French-Italian politician Jules Mazarin was aiming to free Naples from Spanish control and transform it into a semi-independent, pro-French monarchy, and Christina, who sought financial independence from the pope, was an attractive candidate as a leader. Christina was not welcomed as warmly in Paris as she had hoped, though—Parisians were shocked by her open, unscrupulous demeanor and androgynous style, and she was criticized for the way she sat with her legs crossed, put her feet on theatre seats, and laughed at inappropriate times. It was whispered that she made advances toward more than one French noblewoman, too.

An engraving of Jules Mazarin around 1650
Jules Mazarin
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Christina still managed to charm the Sun King enough that she felt she had his approval to rule the Neapolitans (the extent of his true approval is somewhat debated). But on her way to Naples, her entourage received news that the city had been ravaged by the bubonic plague, and so she was forced to abandon the plan and head back to France. She was granted apartments by the royal court at the Palace of Fontainebleau, just outside of Paris.

Fontainebleau was the scene of another great scandal, one that seemed only slightly less shocking to Europe than her abdication. For months, Christina had suspected her master of the horse, the marchese Gian Rinaldo Monaldeschi, of sharing her plan to become Queen of Naples with the Holy See. As such, she’d been seizing his letters, in which she claimed to have found concrete proof of his betrayal. She ordered him to appear before her at the palace to answer for himself. Monaldeschi denied the charges, but Christina remained unmoved and sentenced Monaldeschi to death.

One of the palace’s priests, Father le Bel, was appointed to receive Monaldeschi’s pre-execution confession. Afterwards, the horrified priest begged Christina on his knees not to have the death sentence carried out. But his pleas were fruitless, and members of Christina’s entourage began chasing Monaldeschi around Christina's apartments at the palace. Eventually, Monaldeschi was stabbed in the stomach by one Ludovico Santinelli, but his pursuers quickly discovered he was wearing chain-mail. They then stabbed Monaldeschi in the face, before killing him with blows to the neck.

Christina paid a monastery to say masses for Monaldeschi at his burial and washed her hands of the matter, expressing no regret. She later said she was only “sorry that she had been forced to undertake this execution,” and added that “justice had been carried out for his crime and betrayal.” Rather than asking for forgiveness herself, she asked God to forgive Monaldeschi.

This was not a good look for Christina. The marchese hailed from a powerful family that was close with the papacy, and her unapologetic attitude added insult to injury. The Romans were infuriated, viewing the incident as nothing but a straight-up murder, and French public opinion was little better.

Mazarin advised her to just blame the whole thing on Santinelli, the man who'd done the stabbing, but Christina refused, asserting full responsibility for Monaldeschi’s death. She argued that it was a perfectly legal thing to do, as she had judicial rights over all members of her court as the queen regnant of Sweden, which she continued to call herself despite her abdication.

There were consequences, however. By then Anne of Austria, Louis XIV’s mother, was eager for France to be rid of the ex-queen and her freshly stained reputation, so Christina had to leave town. Although she’d planned to visit England next, her trip was discouraged by Oliver Cromwell, thanks to the Monaldeschi murder scandal and general anti-Catholic sentiment. In May of 1658, she reluctantly went back to Rome, where she knew an unhappy audience awaited.

The pope wanted nothing to do with her. Once her greatest champion and benefactor, Alexander VII hung back at his summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, and made it clear that visits from Christina were not welcome. He later described her as “a woman born of a barbarian, barbarously brought up and living with barbarous thoughts [...] with a ferocious and almost intolerable pride.” Her popularity among the Romans had vanished as well. She’d gone from one of the Holy See’s most touted treasures to a tarnished embarrassment in just three and a half years.

Since the pope had cut her off, the politician Mazarin let Christina stay at his place in Rome for a while. The following summer, Cardinal Azzolino saved the day, arranging for her to move into Palazzo Riario, safely across town from the Vatican, where she once again held salons with Europe’s most esteemed artists and intellectuals. Azzolino also set her up with new servants, including a replacement for Santinelli, Monaldeschi’s disgraced executioner.

PROTECTRESS OF THE JEWS

After the scandal, Christina drifted around Europe for a few years, moving between Rome, Antwerp, and Hamburg, until Pope Alexander VII died in 1667. The new pope, Clement IX, had been installed by Azzolino’s nepotism-fighting Squadrone Volante. He was an ally of Christina’s, having been a guest at her home many times. Christina was in Hamburg when she heard the news, and was so thrilled that she tactlessly hung banners of celebration in the town. She also held a giant party at her rented mansion, replete with wine-flowing fountains—to the outrage of the Protestant population of Hamburg, who did not tolerate Catholics well. Furious locals stormed the house in an attempt to capture her, and the party ended with a riot, eight deaths, and Christina escaping out the back door in disguise.

Back in Rome, Christina occasionally locked horns with Pope Clement IX, demanding that he outlaw the chasing of Jews in the streets as part of Rome’s Carnival customs—a festival fixture since the 1400s. In August of 1686, she wrote to Pope Innocent XI to appoint herself the Protectress of the Jews of Rome, signing her declaration as la Regina (the Queen). She also established her own theatre, Tor di Nona. However, after Clement IX died, the next two popes, Clement X and his successor Innocent XI, were not friends of the theatre, with the latter forbidding women from acting, singing, or wearing low-cut gowns. Christina cheerfully ignored his laws, continuing to hire actresses in her playhouse.

Christina's tumultuous life came to an end on April 19, 1689, when she was 62. Scholars think she may have died from a combination of diabetes mellitus, a streptococcus bacterial infection, and pneumonia. Cardinal Azzolino was at her bedside at the end, and she named him her heir. Although she’d requested a simple burial in Rome’s Pantheon, the pope embalmed and displayed her—wearing a silver mask and covered in jewels and furs—in the Palazzo Riario for four days. She was buried in the Vatican’s Grotto, one of only three women who have held the honor.

Since her death, Christina has been portrayed on the stage and the screen in dozens of productions, most notably by Swedish actress Greta Garbo in the not-very-accurate Queen Christina (1933). The Girl King, released in 2015, comes slightly closer to the truth, but still hypes her alleged relationships with women over her work as a regent and activist of religious tolerance. Accuracy aside, it’s a testament to Christina’s bold individuality that people today are still discussing and debating the life of this crossdressing, troublemaking, opinionated Renaissance queen. That is, king.

Bessie Coleman, the Black Cherokee Female Pilot Who Made Aviation History

Photo illustration by Riccardo Zagorodnez, Mental Floss. Plane/landscape, iStock via Getty Images. Portrait, New York Public Library // Public Domain
Photo illustration by Riccardo Zagorodnez, Mental Floss. Plane/landscape, iStock via Getty Images. Portrait, New York Public Library // Public Domain

Early 20th century America didn’t offer many career paths to people like Bessie Coleman. It was a time when women were discouraged from working outside domestic spheres, and opportunities for women of African American and Native American descent were even more limited. When Coleman fell in love with the idea of flying planes, she knew that realizing her dream would be impossible in the United States—but instead of giving up, she moved to France to enroll in flight school. Less than a year later, she returned home as the first African American and the first Native American female pilot in aviation history.

A Determined Beginning

Bessie Coleman was born to sharecroppers in Texas on January 26, 1892. She was one of 13 siblings, and like the rest of Coleman clan, she was expected to help pick cotton on the farm as soon as she was old enough. At 6 years old, she started walking to school: a one-room wooden shack located four miles from her house. Her classroom often lacked basic supplies like paper and pencils, and, like all schools in the region, it was segregated.

Despite less-than-ideal conditions, she excelled in class and continued her studies through high school. In 1901, her father, who was part black and part Cherokee, relocated to Native American territory in Oklahoma to escape discrimination in Texas, leaving Bessie and the rest of his family behind. She knew she couldn’t depend on her now single-parent family to contribute money toward her education, so to save for college, she went to work as a laundress.

After a year at the Colored Agricultural and Normal University—now Langston University—in Langston, Oklahoma, she dropped out when her tuition fund ran dry. Even though she was more educated than many women of the time, there were few opportunities for her in the South. At age 23, she followed her brothers to Chicago, which, though racially segregated, was slightly more welcoming to people of color than Texas had been. In Chicago, Coleman was able to mingle with influential figures in the African American community. She went to beauty school and became a manicurist in a local barbershop.

Chicago was also where she decided she wanted to learn how to fly.

Dreams of Flight—and France

Around the same time Coleman moved up north, World War I erupted in Europe. The conflict quickened the pace of technological advancement, including in aviation. For the first time in history, people around the world could watch fighter planes soar through the skies in newsreels and read about them in the papers. Coleman fell in love.

When her brother John returned home to Chicago after serving overseas, he gave her more material to fuel her daydreams. In addition to regaling her with war stories, he teased her about her new fantasy, claiming that French women were superior to local women because they were allowed to fly planes, something Bessie would never be able to do. He may have said the words in jest, but they held some truth: Female pilots were incredibly rare in the U.S. immediately following World War I, and black female pilots were nonexistent.

Coleman quickly learned that American flight instructors were intent on keeping things that way. Every aviation school she applied to rejected her on the basis of her race and gender.

Fortunately for Coleman, her brothers weren't her only source of support in Chicago. After moving to the city, she met Robert Abbott, publisher of the historic black newspaper The Chicago Defender and one of the first African American millionaires. He echoed John’s idea that France was a much better place for aspiring female pilots, but instead of rubbing it in her face, he presented it as an opportunity. Abbott viewed France as one of the world’s most racially progressive nations, and he encouraged her to move there in pursuit of her pilot's license.

Coleman didn’t need to be convinced. With her heart set on a new dream, she quit her job as a manicurist and accepted a better-paying role as the manager of a chili parlor to raise money for her trip abroad. At night she took French classes in the Chicago loop. Her hard work paid off, and with her savings and some financial assistance from Abbot and another black entrepreneur named Jesse Binga, she boarded a ship for France in November 1920.

The First Black Aviatrix

Coleman was the only non-white person in her class at the Caudron Brothers' School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France. Students were taught to fly using 27-foot-long biplanes that were known to stall in mid-air. One day, she even witnessed one of her classmates die in a crash. Describing the incident later on, she said, "It was a terrible shock to my nerves, but I never lost them."

Despite the risks, she pressed on with lessons, and after seven months of training, she received her aviation license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. She became both the first African American woman and the first Native American woman in the world to earn a pilot’s license.

Coleman completed some extra flight lessons in Paris and then boarded a ship bound for the United States. American news outlets were instantly smitten with the 29-year-old pilot. The Associated Press reported on September 26, 1921 that "Today [Coleman] returned as a full-fledged aviatrix, said to be the first of her race."

In the early 1920s, an aviatrix, or female aviator, was still a fairly new concept in America, and many of the most famous women flyers of the 20th century—like Laura Ingalls, Betty Skelton, and Amelia Earhart—had yet to enter the scene. Coleman's persistence helped clear the path for the next generation of female pilots.

But her success in France didn’t mark the end of her battle with racism. Bessie needed more training to learn the airshow tricks she now hoped to do for a living, but even with her international pilot's license and minor celebrity status since returning home, American flight schools still refused to teach her. Just a few months after landing in the U.S., Bessie went back to Europe—this time to Germany and the Netherlands as well as France to learn the barnstorming stunts that were quickly growing into one of the most popular forms of entertainment of the 1920s.

Upon her second homecoming in 1922, newspapers praised her once again, reporting that European aviators had dubbed her "one of the best flyers they had seen." Finally, she would be able to show off her skills in her home country. Robert Abbott, the newspaperman who helped fund her dream, sponsored her first-ever American airshow at Curtiss Field, Long Island, on September 3, 1922. She spent the next few years touring the country, thrilling spectators by parachuting, wing-walking (moving atop the wings of her biplane mid-flight), and performing aerial figure-eights.

Coleman had become a real celebrity, and she tried to use her prominence to help black people. She gave speeches on aviation to predominantly black crowds and planned to open her own flight school for African American students. She only performed for desegregated audiences—the one notable exception being a show in Waxahachie, Texas, the town where she lived for most of her childhood. Event organizers planned to segregate black and white guests and have them use separate entrances. Coleman protested and threatened to cancel the exhibition unless a single entrance was set up for everyone. Officials eventually agreed, though audience members were still forced to sit on separate sides of the stadium once they entered.

Just when it seemed her career was reaching new heights, it was cut short by tragedy. On April 30, 1926, she was riding with her mechanic William Wills in Jacksonville, Florida, in preparation for a show scheduled for the next day, when a wrench left in the engine caused the plane to spin out of control. Coleman hadn’t been wearing her seatbelt, and she was tossed from the passenger seat at 3000 feet above the ground. She died at age 34.

Bessie Coleman never achieved the same level of name recognition as some of her peers, but the impact she left on aviation history is undeniable. Even if they’ve never heard her name, Chicagoans living near Lincoln Cemetery have likely heard the sounds of jets flying overhead on April 30. Every year on the anniversary of her death, black pilots honor Coleman by performing a flyover and dropping flowers on her grave.

Henry Johnson, the One-Man Army Who Fought Off Dozens of German Soldiers During World War I

It was after midnight on May 15, 1918 when William Henry Johnson began to hear the rustling. Johnson was a long way from his home in Albany, New York, guarding a bridge in the Argonne Forest in Champagne, France. Sleeping next to him was Needham Roberts, a fellow soldier. Both men had enlisted in the New York National Guard just a few months earlier and were now part of the French Army, donated by U.S. forces to their understaffed allies in the thick of World War I.

As Johnson continued hearing the strange noises late into the night, he urged his partner to get up. A tired Roberts waved him off, believing Johnson was just nervous. Johnson decided to prepare himself just in case, piling up his assortment of grenades and rifle cartridges within arm's reach. If someone was coming, he would be ready.

The rustling continued. At one point, Johnson heard a clipping noise—what he suspected was the sound of the perimeter fence being cut. He again told Roberts to wake up. "Man," he said, "You better wake up pretty soon or you [might] never wake up."

The two began lobbing grenades into the darkness, hoping to discourage whoever might be lurking around the perimeter. Suddenly, in the middle of the French forest, Johnson saw dozens of German soldiers come charging, bayonets pointed toward him. They began to fire.

What transpired over the next hour would become an act of heroism that prompted former President Theodore Roosevelt to declare Johnson one of the bravest Americans to take up arms in the war. Johnson would even lead a procession back in New York City, with crowds lined up along the street to greet him.

Johnson may or may not have felt like a hero, though he certainly was. But he must have also felt something else—a sense of confusion. A man of color, he had been dispatched to a segregated regiment, where he received paltry combat training and was assigned menial tasks like unloading trucks. Even his homecoming parade was split up according to race. Henry Johnson, decorated virtually head to toe in French military honors, returned to a country that considered him both hero and a second-class citizen.

 

Though officers would later verify much of Johnson’s account of that night in the woods, his early life is harder to pin down. It has been reported that Johnson himself wasn’t quite sure when he was born. No one appeared to have kept a close eye on his birth certificate, which came out of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The official U.S. Army website honoring Johnson’s service lists an approximate birth date of July 15, 1892. Other research indicates he could have been born as early as 1887 or as late as 1897.

After moving to New York as a teenager, Johnson took on an assortment of odd jobs; he was a chauffeur and a soda mixer, among other occupations. Depending on the account, he was living in Albany working either in a coal yard or as a railway porter when he opened a newspaper in the spring of 1917 and read that the 15th New York Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard was accepting enlistees. The regiment was comprised entirely of black soldiers.

Sergeant William Henry Johnson poses for a photo in uniform
Sergeant William Henry Johnson poses for a photo in uniform.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Johnson showed up on June 5, 1917, weighing a slight 130 pounds and standing 5 feet, 4 inches tall. Assigned to Company C of the 15th—which later became known as the 369th U.S. Infantry Regiment—he was quickly dispatched to Camp Wadsworth in South Carolina, where he trained along with the rest of the segregated unit. Though minorities had served in the U.S. military since the Revolutionary War, they often lacked support from officials and got inferior training compared to their white counterparts. At Camp Wadsworth, Johnson was said to have been used primarily as labor, unloading supplies and digging latrines. If there was one bright spot during this time, it was that he married his wife, Georgina Edna Jackson, that September.

Johnson and the 369th were sent to France on January 1, 1918. There they continued laboring, which frustrated their commander, Colonel William Hayward. Hayward lobbied his superiors to give his men a chance in combat. Since France was experiencing a shortage of men, the 369th—which later became known as the Harlem Hellfighters because many of their members had come from Harlem in New York City—joined the 161st Division of the French Army, even wearing the jackets and helmets of the foreign military.

To the French, Johnson and his fellow soldiers were a welcome solution to their lack of manpower. Sent to the front lines in March 1918, Johnson and the others learned enough French to understand commands from superiors. They were armed with rifles and held on to the bolo knives used by the U.S. Army. The imposing 14-inch blades weighed more than a pound and had much of their weight running along the back, giving them a cleaving action similar to a machete. Johnson would soon be glad he had such a weapon on his waist.

Along with Needham Roberts—a man from Trenton, New Jersey—Johnson was assigned sentry duty on the western edge of the Argonne Forest. Patrolling near a bridge, Johnson and Roberts were given the late shift, on patrol until midnight on the evening of May 14. It would be a night neither he nor Roberts would ever forget.

As their shift wound down, Johnson saw two relief soldiers approaching. The soldiers were young and inexperienced, and Johnson felt uncomfortable leaving them alone. He stayed put and surveyed the area while Roberts went to rest in a trench. Shortly thereafter, he began to hear the rustling noises, which eventually became German soldiers rushing through the darkness. Johnson realized they were surrounded, and urged Roberts to run for help. But Roberts didn't get far before he decided to come back and help, and was soon hit by the shrapnel of a grenade in his arm and hip.

Still conscious, Roberts handed Johnson grenades to toss. When those ran out, Johnson began firing his rifle while being hit by bullets in his side, hand, and head. Quickly, Johnson shoved an American cartridge into his French rifle, but the ammunition and the weapon were incompatible. The rifle jammed. As the Germans swarmed him, Johnson began using the rifle like a club, smashing it over their heads and into their faces.

After the butt of the rifle finally fell apart, Johnson went down with a blow to the head. But he climbed back up, drew his bolo knife, and charged forward. The blade went deep into the first German he encountered, killing the man. More gruesome work with the weapon followed, with Johnson hacking and stabbing bodies even as bullets continued to strike him.

An illustration depicts William Henry Johnson fighting off German soldiers
An illustration by artist Charles Alston depicts William Henry Johnson fighting off German soldiers. The artwork was used by the Office for Emergency Management (OEM) to inspire American soldiers during World War II.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

At one point, Johnson noticed the Germans had grabbed Roberts and were attempting to haul him away. He intervened, stabbing more soldiers, including one in the ribs.

The melee went on for roughly an hour, he said. When reinforcements finally arrived, the remaining Germans fled. Johnson was given medical attention. So was Roberts. Both lived.

The next day, military officials visited the scene of the battle. German helmets rested on the ground, along with puddles of blood. Four bodies were left behind. The officials estimated Johnson had wounded up to 24 others. Some men who walked the site said the death toll was six, with Johnson injuring 32 men. After all the fighting, Johnson had prevented the Germans from breaking the French line.

The nicknames came fast. The bridge was declared “the Battle of Henry Johnson.” Johnson himself was given the unofficial label “the Black Death” and the official rank of sergeant. He was headed back home.

 

Before they departed, the French honored Johnson and Roberts with the Croix de Guerre, one of France’s highest awards for valor. They were the first two Americans to receive it. Johnson’s was amended with the addition of the Gold Palm, intended to signify extraordinary valor.

It was an honor, though one that came with a heavy price. Johnson later estimated he had been shot five times, the bullets striking both feet, his thigh, his arm, and even his head. A scar stretched over his lip. A bayonet had been plunged into his torso—twice. He had to have a metal plate inserted into his left foot. In all, Johnson endured 21 injuries as a result of his defiant stand against the Germans.

Back home, he convalesced as the country sang his praises. Often, such reports of his bravery took pains to note he was a man of color. "When proudly speaking of fighting races we must not overlook the American Negro," read an editorial in the New York Evening Telegram. Other times, Johnson found himself in the peculiar position of being celebrated while simultaneously being reminded of his purportedly inferior status. The parade that honored the Harlem Hellfighters in February 1919 ran for seven miles, with Johnson leading the procession in an open-topped cab. But the Hellfighters could not march with their white counterparts.

Needham Roberts (L) and William Henry Johnson (R) pose for a photo with their Croix de Guerre medals in 1918
Needham Roberts (L) and William Henry Johnson (R) pose for a photo with their Croix de Guerre medals in 1918.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Unfortunately, Johnson’s postwar life remains as murky as his earliest years. He reportedly received disability payments from the government as well as medical care, but it’s unknown to what extent that supported him or how badly his injuries kept him from employment opportunities. (He did ask for, and received, as much as $100 per minute during speaking engagements in cities such as St. Louis—well over $1000 in today's money.) An attempt was made by the Albany Afro-American Association to raise money to build him a home as a way of expressing gratitude for his service, but it’s unclear whether the effort was successful. On July 1, 1929, Johnson died of myocarditis (an inflammation of the heart muscle) while living in Washington, D.C. He was awarded a posthumous Purple Heart in 1996.

For years, it was unclear what became of Johnson's remains. In 2002, when the historians at the New York Division of Military and Naval Affairs researched his service at the behest of his descendants (though it was later discovered they were mistaken and not actually related to Johnson), the historians determined Johnson was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. With confirmation of the gravesite, Johnson also became eligible for and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002.

In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded him the Medal of Honor, which was accepted on Johnson’s behalf by Sergeant Major Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard. And every June 5, Albany celebrates Henry Johnson Day in acknowledgement of the day he enlisted. The city also gives out a Henry Johnson Award for Distinguished Community Service for those making contributions in the area.

Those honors joined the Croix de Guerre, which Johnson was said to have worn with humility. He sometimes needed to be prodded into discussing his act of bravery, as if it were of no major consequence. “There wasn’t anything so fine about it,” he said. “[I] just fought for my life. A rabbit would have done that."

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