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France Sends Anti-German Ambassador to Russia

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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 96th installment in the series. 

December 23, 1913: France Sends Anti-German Ambassador to Russia, Federal Reserve Created

Aside from the foreign minister, the most important job in the French diplomatic universe was ambassador to Russia. As guardian of the sacred Franco-Russian Alliance, the French minister to St. Petersburg was responsible for shoring up the key pillar of French national security, which meant reassuring the Russians of French commitment while politely extracting more concrete guarantees from the Russians.

The appointment of Theophile Delcassé as ambassador to the court of the Tsar in February 1913 sent a clear message to friend and foe alike. A former foreign minister and one of the main architects of the Franco-Russian Alliance, Delcassé was convinced that France was on a collision course with Germany, leading Kaiser Wilhelm II to call him “the most dangerous man for Germany in France.” Before leaving for Russia Delcassé told Maurice Paléologue (top), the foreign ministry’s (also ferociously “anti-German”) political director: “We are inevitably headed toward a great European conflict, and it will be France which will bear the first blow… for make no mistake about it, Germany will attack us through Belgium… It is necessary, therefore, that the Russian ally be in such a state to be able to launch a full-scale offensive in the shortest possible time…”

Over the course of 1913, Delcassé (along with French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre and President Raymond Poincaré) firmed up the Russian alliance, resulting in a new military convention, signed in September 1913, confirming and elaborating their plans for near-simultaneous attacks on Germany; this included a personal promise from Tsar Nicholas II to invade East Prussia within 15 days of mobilization (M+15) in hopes of forcing the Germans to divert forces from their attack on France.

But in the winter of 1913 Delcassé, complaining of ill health (and nursing political ambitions back home) let it be known that he would like to return to France. Opportunistic as always, on December 23, 1913, Poincaré seized the chance to cement his control over French foreign policy by nominating his friend Paléologue to replace Delcassé in St. Petersburg—thus sending someone who was perhaps even more virulently anti-German than Delcassé, if that were possible, to represent the Republic in Russia. 

Paléologue’s appointment was especially significant in the context of the continuing Liman von Sanders Affair, which the Russians viewed as a test of French solidarity in the face of German bullying. President Poincaré had previously hinted he might support Russia’s claims to control the Ottoman capital Constantinople and the Turkish straits, and Paléologue—whose family claimed (probably spurious) descent from Byzantine emperors—would support Russian claims to the ancient city in the coming conflict, helping pave the way for the disastrous Gallipoli Expedition. 

Paléologue’s appointment further consolidated the Franco-Russian Alliance during the final countdown to war, as both partners signaled their determination not to tolerate German bullying, relying on their mutual defensive agreement for strength. Bidding farewell to Paléologue in January 1914, French Prime Minister Gaston Doumergue left no doubt about the main thrust of his mission to St. Petersburg: “War can break out from one day to the next… Our allies must rush to our aid.” Meanwhile, Tsar Nicholas II echoed Poincaré’s earlier calls for a firm line against Germany, warning the departing Delcassé, “We shall not let ourselves be trampled upon.” 

Federal Reserve Created

On December 23, 1913, Congress passed and President Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act, creating a new national bank and massively increasing the government’s power to intervene in the economy by setting interest rates and controlling the supply of money. 

The United States had had national banks before: In 1791, Congress chartered the First Bank of the United States at the urging of Alexander Hamilton, who wanted the federal government to assume the Revolutionary War debts of the states to stabilize their finances and foster adherence to the new nation. But the national bank faced fierce opposition from Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and other critics who feared official corruption and federal aggrandizement. In 1833, Andrew Jackson shut down the Second Bank of the United States (the successor institution chartered in 1816), which he accused of favoring northeastern industrial interests over small farmers on the frontier. To “democratize” the financial system Jackson transferred the national bank’s funds to state banks (“pet banks”) mostly selected for political loyalty to Jackson and his allies in the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, “wildcat” banks free from federal regulation sprang up around the country and began issuing huge amounts of bank notes with little or no backing, resulting in financial collapse and the Depression of 1837. 

During the Civil War, Congress created a new system of “national banks” to finance the war and introduce the first uniform national currency, but stopped short of creating a new central bank, so the new national banks (which mostly operated like state banks) lacked the backing of a “lender of last resort” to supply emergency funds in the event of a financial crisis. That’s what happened in 1907, when a failed attempt to corner the stock of the United Copper Company on Wall Street triggered financial panic and bank runs across the U.S. Total financial collapse was averted by the frantic efforts of J.P. Morgan and bank presidents, essentially acting as an improvised central bank, but the public’s confidence was badly shaken and a steep economic downturn ensued. 

The Panic of 1907 laid the groundwork for the formation of the Federal Reserve System, beginning with the creation of a National Monetary Commission in 1908, followed by a top-secret meeting of bankers hosted by Delaware Senator Nelson W. Aldrich and Assistant Secretary of the Treasury A.P. Andrew at Jekyll Island, Georgia, in 1910, where they agreed on an outline for a National Reserve Bank. In January 1911 the National Monetary Commission formally recommended the formation of a National Reserve. After two years of debate over the balance between political and private control, the bill to create the Federal Reserve System – composed of regional Federal Reserve Banks owned by private banks, supervised by an independent Board of Governors, and backed by the “full faith and credit” of the United States—was introduced in the House of Representatives on August 29, 1913, passed by the Senate on December 18, approved by a joint conference committee on December 22 and 23, and immediately signed by President Wilson on the latter date.

During the First World War, the Federal Reserve helped protect the U.S. and world financial system from the initial shocks of the war, then became a key financier of the U.S. and Allied war efforts, with the New York Fed leading the way. To facilitate this process in 1916 and 1917, Congress lowered the amount of “real” money the Fed had to hold as collateral for loans, and also changed the rules so government debt could serve as collateral; this helped increase the money supply to fund the war effort, but also resulted in major inflation, with the purchasing value of the dollar decreasing by roughly half from 1914 and 1920. After the war the Fed’s “easy money” policies helped fuel the economic expansion of the “Roaring 20s,” but also contributed to the credit bubble that finally popped in 1929, triggering the Great Depression. 

See the previous installment or all entries

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History
When Lexicographer Samuel Johnson Became a Ghostbuster
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Getty Images (Johnson) / iStock (ghosts)

Dr. Samuel Johnson is today best known for his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), which remained the foremost authority on the English language until the Oxford English Dictionary appeared more than a century later. The dictionary took Johnson nine years to complete, for which he was paid the princely sum of 1500 guineas—equivalent to $300,000 (or £210,000) today. Although it wasn’t quite the commercial success its publishers hoped it would be, it allowed Johnson the freedom to explore his own interests and endeavors: He spent several years editing and annotating his own editions of all of Shakespeare’s plays, and traveled extensively around Britain with his friend (and eventual biographer) James Boswell—and, in 1762, helped to investigate a haunted house.

Johnson—who was born on this day in 1709 and is the subject of today's Google Doodle—had a lifelong interest in the paranormal, once commenting that he thought it was “wonderful” that it was still “undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it, but all belief is for it.” According to Boswell, however, he was more of a skeptic than an out-and-out believer, and refused to accept anything without seeing the evidence for himself. So when the news broke of an apparently haunted house just a few streets away from his own home in central London, Johnson jumped at the chance to perhaps see a ghost with his own eyes.

The haunting began in the early 1760s, when a young couple, William and Fanny Kent, began renting a room from a local landlord, Richard (or William—sources disagree, but for clarity, we'll use Richard) Parsons, at 25 Cock Lane in Smithfield, London. Soon after the Kents moved in, Richard’s daughter, Betty, began to hear strange knocking and scratching sounds all around the house, and eventually claimed to have seen a ghost in her bedroom.

Richard soon discovered that William was a widower and that Fanny was in fact his deceased wife's sister; under canon law, the pair couldn't be married, and Richard became convinced that the ghost must be that of William's deceased first wife, Elizabeth, blaming William’s presence in the house for all of the strange occurrences. He promptly evicted the Kents and the noises soon subsided—but when Fanny also died just a few weeks later, they immediately resumed and again seemed to center around Betty. In desperation, a series of séances were held at the Cock Lane house, and finally Fanny’s ghost supposedly confirmed her presence by knocking on the table. When questioned, Fanny claimed that William had killed her by poisoning her food with arsenic—an accusation William understandably denied.

By now, news of the Cock Lane Ghost had spread all across the city, and when the story broke in the press, dozens of curious Londoners began turning up at the house, queuing for hours outside in the street hoping to see any sign of supernatural activity. According to some accounts, Parsons even charged visitors to come in and “talk” to the ghost, who would communicate with knocks and other disembodied noises.

But with the suspicion of murder now in the air, the Cock Lane haunting changed from a local curiosity into a full-blown criminal investigation. A committee was formed to examine the case, and Johnson was brought in to record their findings and investigate the case for himself.

On February 1, 1762, one final séance was held with all members of the committee—Johnson included—in attendance. He recorded that:

About 10 at night the gentlemen met in the chamber in which the girl [Betty] supposed to be disturbed by a spirit had, with proper caution, been put to bed by several ladies. They sat rather more than an hour, and hearing nothing, went down stairs, when they interrogated the father of the girl, who denied, in the strongest terms, any knowledge or belief of fraud … While they were enquiring and deliberating, they were summoned into the girl’s chamber by some ladies who were near her bed, and who had heard knocks and scratches. When the gentlemen entered, the girl declared that she felt the spirit like a mouse upon her back.

But the committee were suspicious. Betty was asked to hold out her hands in front of her, in sight of everyone in the room:

From that time—though the spirit was very solemnly required to manifest its existence by appearance, by impression on the hand or body of any present, by scratches, knocks, or any other agency—no evidence of any preternatural power was exhibited.

Johnson ultimately concluded that it was “the opinion of the whole assembly that the child has some art of making or counterfeiting a particular noise, and that there is no agency of any higher cause.” And he was right.

As the investigation continued, it was eventually discovered that Richard Parsons had earlier borrowed a considerable amount of money from William Kent that he had no means (nor apparently any intention) of repaying. The two men had a falling out, and Parsons set about elaborately framing Kent for both Fanny and Elizabeth's deaths. The ghostly scratching and knocking noises had all been Betty’s work; she hidden a small wooden board into the hem of her clothing with which to tap or scratch on the walls or furniture when prompted.

The Parsons—along with a servant and a preacher, who were also in on the scam—were all prosecuted, and Richard was sentenced to two years in prison.

Although the Cock Lane haunting turned out to be a hoax, Johnson remained open minded about the supernatural. “If a form should appear,” he later told Boswell, “and a voice tell me that a particular man had died at a particular place, and a particular hour, a fact which I had no apprehension of, nor any means of knowing, and this fact, with all its circumstances, should afterwards be unquestionably proved, I should, in that case, be persuaded that I had supernatural intelligence imparted to me.”

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The King of Kong © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery
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geography
The Mountains of Kong: The Majestic West African Range That Never Existed
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The King of Kong © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

If you look closely at a 19th century map of Africa, you’ll notice one major way that it differs from contemporary maps, one that has nothing to do with changing political or cartographical styles. More likely than not, it features a mountain range that no longer appears on modern maps, as WIRED explains. Because it never existed in the first place.

A 19th century map of West Africa
From Milner's Descriptive Atlas, 1850

The “Mountains of Kong” appeared on almost every major commercial map of Africa in the 1800s, stretching across the western part of the continent between the Gulf of Guinea and the Niger River. This mythical east-west mountain range is now the subject of an art exhibition at London’s Michael Hoppen Gallery.

In "Mountains of Kong," stereoscopic images by artist Jim Naughten—the same format that allowed Victorians with wanderlust to feel like they’d seen the world—reveal his view of the world of wildlife that might have existed inside the imagined mountains. As the gallery describes it, “he imagines a fictitious record made for posterity and scientific purposes during an expedition of the mountain range.” We’ve reproduced the images here, but to get the full effect, you’ll have to go to the gallery in person, where you can view them in 3D with a stereoscope (like the ones you no doubt played with as a kid).

Toucans fight a snake in two almost-identical side-by-side images.
The Toucans © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

Naughten created the images by taking two photographs for each, and moving the camera over some 3 inches for the second photo to make a stereoscopic scene. The landscapes were created by shooting images of Scottish and Welsh mountains and dioramas in natural history museums, using Photoshop to change the hues of the images to make them seem more otherworldly. His blue-and-pink-hued images depict fearsome apes, toucans sparring with snakes, jagged peaks, and other scenes that seem both plausible and fantastical at the same time.

The Mountains of Kong appeared in several hundred maps up until the 20th century. The first, in 1798, was created by the prominent geographer James Rennell to accompany a book by Scottish explorer Mungo Park about his first journey to West Africa. In it, Park recounts gazing on a distant range, and “people informed me, that these mountains were situated in a large and powerful kingdom called Kong.” Rennell, in turn, took this brief observation and, based on his own theories about the course of the Niger River, drew a map showing the mountain range that he thought was the source of the river. Even explorers who later spent time in the area believed the mountains existed—with some even claiming that they crossed them.

Two colobuses stand in a tree on a mountaintop.
The Colobus © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

The authority of the maps wasn’t questioned, even by those who had been to the actual territory where they were depicted as standing. Writers began to describe them as “lofty,” “barren,” and “snow-covered.” Some said they were rugged granite peaks; others described them as limestone terraces. In almost all cases, they were described as “blue.” Their elevation ranged from 2500 feet to 14,000 feet, depending on the source. Over the course of the 19th century, “there was a general southward ‘drift’ in the location,” as one pair of scholars put it.

Though geographers cast some doubt on the range’s existence as time went on, the Mountains of Kong continued to appear on maps until French explorer Louis-Gustave Binger’s Niger River expedition between 1887 and 1889, after which Binger definitively declared their nonexistence.

By 1891, the Mountains of Kong began dropping off of maps, though the name Kong still appeared as the name of the region. By the early 20th century, the mountains were gone for good, fading into the forgotten annals of cartographic history.

[h/t WIRED]

All images courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery.

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