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New York Tribune via the Library of Congress

The Assassins Cross the Border

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New York Tribune via the Library of Congress

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 August, 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 120th installment in the series.

May 28-June 3, 1914: “Militarism Run Stark Mad”

As May 1914 drew to a close, two years after the sinking of the Titanic the world was gripped by news of yet another horrific maritime disaster—but developments behind the scenes foreshadowed something even worse, as a high-ranking American diplomat warned President Wilson that Europe was on the brink of a terrible cataclysm … and Germany’s top general hoped for exactly that.

The Empress of Ireland Sinks

In the early morning hours of May 29, 1914, the RMS Empress of Ireland, a Canadian Pacific Steamship Company liner on the Quebec-Liverpool route, was traveling northeast in the St. Lawrence River towards the Gulf of St. Lawrence when she was rammed amid heavy fog by a Norwegian coal carrier, the Storstad, heading in the opposite direction. The Storstad survived, but the 570-foot-long Empress of Ireland sank within 15 minutes of the collision, which took place around 2 a.m.

The accident occurred just a few miles from the town of Rimouski, Quebec, in a busy waterway plied by other vessels which hurried to the rescue, but the toll was still staggering: out of a total manifest of 1477 passengers and crew, 1012 were drowned, including 134 children—putting the sinking of the Empress of Ireland in the same grisly “1000+” hall of infamy as the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912, when 1512 perished in the icy waters of the mid-Atlantic.

Like the Titanic, a disproportionate number of the victims in the Empress of Ireland sinking were poor “third class” passengers traveling below decks in “steerage"—and again, like the Titanic, many of these died needlessly, although for different reasons. The Empress of Ireland was provided with enough lifeboats—a positive legacy of the Titanic disaster—but half of these couldn’t be used be lowered as the ship listed to one side very quickly as it sank, probably because many passengers had opened their portholes to let in fresh air (in violation of regulations), allowing water to flood in even faster.

And like the Titanic, the sinking of the Empress of Ireland foreshadowed the terrible toll of the U-boat campaign against Allied and neutral shipping in the looming Great War, including the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915, when 1198 passengers and crew lost their lives. And the Lusitania was just one of some 5000 Allied and neutral merchant vessels sunk by German and Austrian U-boats from 1914 to 1918, resulting in the deaths of around 15,000 crew and a similar number of civilian and military passengers.

“Militarism Run Stark Mad”

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While the world was fixated on the Empress of Ireland sinking, behind the scenes diplomats were frantically trying to defuse European tensions amid mounting fears of a continental war. One of the most famous last-ditch attempts was the mission of Colonel Edward M. House (right), dispatched to Europe by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson (left) as an unofficial envoy in the hopes of reconciling rivals before it was too late.

As the personal emissary of the leader of the great Republic across the sea, House was received with due respect but also understandable curiosity by European diplomats and politicians who wondered what, exactly, he hoped to achieve. The general goal was certainly ambitious: Wilson and House believed the U.S., with its economic strength and lack of direct involvement in European affairs, could use its leverage to help initiate a new era of trust-building in the Old World. But the details remained rather vague.

House suggested that the three “Anglo-Saxon” powers—Britain, the U.S., and Germany—ought to divide the world up into spheres of commercial influence, creating a new world order that would guarantee Germany her long-coveted “place in the sun.” Of course there were some problems with House’s plan, beyond his sketchy racial taxonomy (classifying Germany as “Anglo-Saxon” was a stretch, even by the flexible standards of racial theorists like Houston Stewart Chamberlain). For one thing it left out France and Russia, both established world powers, as well as Japan, the rising power in Asia.

But the real historical import of House’s mission was his insight into the current situation in Europe. His letter to Wilson from Berlin on May 29, 1914, was alarming indeed:

The situation is extraordinary. It is militarism run stark mad. Unless someone acting for you can bring about a different understanding, there is some day to be an awful cataclysm. No one in Europe can do it. There is too much hatred, too many jealousies. Whenever England consents, France and Russia will close in on Germany and Austria.

House’s prediction that the Triple Entente would start the war reflected American distrust of Britain and France, suspected of harboring colonial ambitions in the New World, and aversion to Russia, a despotic absolute monarchy. But House also raised red flags about Germany, warning British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey that in Berlin “the air seemed full of the clash of arms, of readiness to strike.”

“If Only Things Would Boil Over”

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House was absolutely right, judging by a private remark made by the German chief of the general staff, Helmuth von Moltke, to a retired German diplomat, Baron Hermann von Eckardstein, just two days later, on June 1, 1914. “If only things would boil over,” Moltke remarked wistfully, adding: “We are ready; the sooner, the better for us.”

Moltke’s statement reflected the volatile mix of short-term confidence and long-term desperation prevailing in Berlin and Vienna. Just a few weeks before Moltke (left) had expressed the same view to the Austrian chief of the general staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf (right), in a private meeting at a hotel in the resort town of Karlsbad, Bohemia (now Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic). Conrad and Moltke agreed in their basic assessment: Germany and Austria-Hungary were ready for war with Russia and France now, but before long the balance of forces would begin to tilt permanently against them, as Russia implemented its Great Military Program and France started to benefit from increased manpower thanks to the Three-Year Service Law. Moltke warned Conrad: “If we delay any longer, the chances of success will be diminished; as far as manpower is concerned we cannot enter into a competition with Russia.”

Similarly, a week after the Karlsbad meeting Moltke told Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow “there was no alternative to waging a preventive war in order to defeat the enemy as long as we could still more or less pass the test.” And Moltke’s deputy, General Georg von Waldersee, wrote that Germany had “no reason whatever to avoid” war and in fact a very good chance “to conduct a great European war quickly and victoriously.” The conclusion was inescapable: if Germany and Austria-Hungary were going to fight Russia and France, it had to happen soon. Of course a suitable pretext would have to be found.

The Assassins Cross the Border

Wikimedia Commons

Events were already in motion that would provide Moltke and Conrad the very excuse they were looking for. On May 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip and several of his co-conspirators set out from the Serbian capital of Belgrade on their final journey to Sarajevo, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian province Bosnia, where they planned to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian and Hungarian thrones.

Princip (left) and his fellow plotters, Nedeljko Čabrinović (center) and Trifun Grabež (right), had received training with pistols from Milan Ciganović, an employee of the Serbian state railroad and associate of Major Vojislav Tankosić, who in turn was the right-hand man to Dragutin Dimitrijević (codename Apis) the chief of Serbian military intelligence and leader of Unity or Death, otherwise known as the Black Hand.

Serbia’s civilian government wasn’t totally in the dark about the plot to kill Franz Ferdinand: by late May 1914, Prime Minister Nikola Pašić (who was currently locked in a power struggle with Dimitrijević) had caught wind of the conspiracy, perhaps via Ciganović, who apparently served as an informer for Pašić inside the Black Hand. Pašić was worried enough to inform his cabinet, and tried to disrupt the plot by ordering officers in the Serbian frontier guard to apprehend the plotters when they tried to cross the border into Austrian Bosnia. Pašić also instructed the Serbian ambassador to Vienna, Jovan Jovanović, to ask the Austrians to cancel the Archduke’s visit to Sarajevo.

But both measures were doomed to fail. The Black Hand had already infiltrated the frontier guard and on the evening of May 31 to June 1, 1914, Princip and Grabež crossed the border with the help of Rade Grbić, an officer in the frontier guard who ferried them across the River Drina, at one point hiding them on an island popular with smugglers. They were followed not long after by Čabrinović, who crossed separately and met up with Princip and Grabež in the Bosnian town of Tuzla on June 3; all three finally arrived in Sarajevo on June 4.  Meanwhile it’s not clear if Jovanović—a radical Pan-Serb who may have been mixed up with the Black Hand himself—ever delivered the warning to Vienna as instructed. If he did, he was obviously ignored by the proud Austrians.

The Sarajevo murder would find Serbia totally unprepared for conflict: On June 2, 1914, Prime Minister Pašić and his cabinet resigned at the urging of Serbia’s King Peter, who was trying to forestall a military coup by Dimitrijević and his fellow ultranationalists, and on June 24 King Peter himself would step down in favor of Crown Prince Alexander. Meanwhile the Serbian army was in disarray, exhausted and overextended following hard fighting in the Balkan Wars. On June 2, 1914 the Greek military attaché in Belgrade asked Crown Prince Alexander about the possibility of Serbian help in another war against Ottoman Empire, and summarized the gloomy reply: “The Serbs lack everything. They have no ammunition, no artillery, no rifles. They have nothing at all and even if they were to mobilize, there would be no response to the call-up.”

“Calm and Quiet – Perfect Peace”

On June 3, 1914, Mildred Aldrich—an American journalist and writer who had just moved to the rural French village of Huiry, overlooking the River Marne—wrote to her friend explaining her decision to leave Paris: “I have come to feel the need of calm and quiet – perfect peace.” With modest pride she noted her village “is in that district between Paris and Meaux little known to the ordinary traveler… these are all little villages of which you may never have heard. No guidebook celebrates them.” A few months later Aldrich’s idyllic retreat would provide a ringside seat to the greatest battle in history.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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9 Mysterious Facts About Murder, She Wrote
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CBS

For 12 seasons and 264 episodes, the small coastal town of Cabot Cove, Maine, was the scene of a murder. And wherever there was a body, Jessica Fletcher wasn’t far behind. The fictional mystery author and amateur sleuth at the heart of the CBS drama Murder, She Wrote was given life by actress Angela Lansbury, who made a name for herself in the theater world and in movies like 1944’s Gaslight and 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate. Though the show was supposed to skew toward an older audience, the series is still very much alive and being discovered by new generations of audiences every year. Unravel the mystery with these facts about Murder, She Wrote.

1. ANGELA LANSBURY WAS “PISSED OFF” AT THE TV ROLES BEING OFFERED TO HER BEFORE MURDER.

After years of high-profile parts and critical acclaim in the theater, Angela Lansbury was in her late fifties and ready to tackle a steady television role. Unfortunately, instead of being flooded with interesting lead roles on big series, she said she was constantly looked at to play “the maid or the housekeeper in some ensemble piece,” leaving her to get—in the Dame’s own words—“really pissed off.”

After voicing her displeasure, she was soon approached with two potential solo series, one being Murder, She Wrote, which grabbed her attention because of its focus on a normal country woman becoming an amateur detective. After meeting with the producers and writers, it was only a matter of time before Lansbury agreed to the role and began the 12-season run.

2. THE SHOW TOOK A SHOT AT FRIENDS IN ITS FINAL SEASON.

In 1995, CBS made a bold move: After airing on Sundays since 1984, Murder, She Wrote moved to Thursdays at 8:00 p.m. for its twelfth and final season, going head-to-head against Mad About You and Friends over at NBC. On a night dominated by younger viewers, Lansbury was at a loss.

"I'm shattered," she told the Los Angeles Times. "What can I say? I really feel very emotional about it. I just felt so disappointed that after all the years we had Sunday night at 8, suddenly it didn't mean anything. It was like gone with the wind."

Maybe not so coincidentally, during that last season of the series there was an episode titled “Murder Among Friends,” where a TV producer is killed in her office after planning to get rid of a member of the cast of a fictional television show called Buds. Complete with its coffee shop setting and snarky repartee, Buds was a not-so-subtle stab at Friends, coming at a time when Murder, She Wrote was placed right against the hip ratings juggernaut.

Putting the murder mystery aside for a moment, Fletcher takes plenty of jabs at Buds throughout, literally rolling her eyes at the thought of six twentysomethings becoming a hit because they sat around talking about their sexuality in every episode. The writing was on the wall as Murder, She Wrote was being phased out by CBS by the end of 1996, but Lansbury made sure to go down swinging.

3. JESSICA FLETCHER HOLDS A GUINNESS WORLD RECORD.

Here’s one for any self-respecting trivia junkie: Jessica Fletcher holds a Guinness World Record for Most Prolific Amateur Sleuth. Though Guinness recognizes that Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple has been on and off screen longer—since 1956—Fletcher has actually gotten to the bottom of more cases with 264 episodes and four TV movies under her belt.

4. THE SHOW’S FICTIONAL TOWN WOULD HAVE BEEN THE MURDER CAPITAL OF THE PLANET.

Quiet, upper-class New England coastal towns aren’t usually known for their murder count, but Cabot Cove, Maine, is a grisly destination indeed. In fact, if you look at the amount of murders per the population, it would have the highest rate on the planet, according to BBC Radio 4.

With 3560 people living in the town, and 5.3 murders occurring every year, that comes out to 1490 murders per million, which is 60 percent higher than that of Honduras, which only recently lost its title as the murder capital of the world. It’s also estimated that in total, about two percent of the folks in Cabot Cove end up murdered. 

5. SOME FANS THINK FLETCHER WAS A SERIAL KILLER THE WHOLE TIME.

That statistic leads us right into our next thought: Isn’t it a little suspicious that Fletcher keeps stumbling upon all these murders? We know that Cabot Cove is a fairly sleepy town, but the murder rate rivals a Scorsese movie. And this one person—a suspicious novelist and amateur detective—always seems to get herself mixed up in the juiciest cases. Some people think there’s something sinister about the wealth of cases Fletcher writes about in her books: It’s because she’s the one doing the killing all along.

This theory has gained traction with fans over the years, and it helps explain the coincidental nature of the show. Murders aren’t just exclusive to Fletcher and Cabot Cove; they follow her around when she’s on book tours, on trips out of town, or while writing the script to a VR video game for a company whose owner just so happens to get killed while Fletcher is around.

Could Jessica Fletcher have such an obsession with murder mysteries that she began to create her own? Was life in Cabot Cove too boring for a violent sociopath? Did she decide to take matters into her own hands after failing to think of original book ideas? We’ll never know, but it puts the whole series into a very different light.

6. LANSBURY WAS NOT HAPPY ABOUT A PROPOSED REBOOT.

Despite its inimitable style, Murder, She Wrote isn’t immune to Hollywood’s insatiable reboot itch, and in 2013 plans were put in motion to modernize the show for a new generation. NBC’s idea was to cast Octavia Spencer as a hospital administrator who self-publishes her first mystery novel and starts investigating real cases. Lansbury was none too pleased by the news.

"I think it's a mistake to call it Murder, She Wrote," she told The Hollywood Reporter in November 2013, "because Murder, She Wrote will always be about Cabot Cove and this wonderful little group of people who told those lovely stories and enjoyed a piece of that place, and also enjoyed Jessica Fletcher, who is a rare and very individual kind of person ... So I'm sorry that they have to use the title Murder, She Wrote, even though they have access to it and it's their right."

When the plug was pulled on the series, Lansbury said she was "terribly pleased and relieved” by the news, adding that, "I knew it was a terrible mistake."

7. JEAN STAPLETON TURNED DOWN THE LEAD ROLE OF JESSICA FLETCHER.

It’s impossible to separate Angela Lansbury from her role as Jessica Fletcher now, but she wasn’t the network’s first choice for the role. All in the Family’s Edith Bunker, actress Jean Stapleton, was originally approached about playing Fletcher, but she turned it down.

Stapleton cited a combination of wanting a break after All in the Family’s lengthy run and the fact that she wasn’t exactly thrilled with how the part was written, and the changes she wanted to make weren’t welcome. Despite not being enthralled by the original ideas for Fletcher, Stapleton agreed that Lansbury was “just right” for the part.

8. FLETCHER’S ESCAPADES HAVE LIVED ON IN BOOKS AND VIDEO GAMES.

For anyone who didn’t get enough of Fletcher during Murder, She Wrote’s original run, there are more—plenty more—dead bodies to make your way through. Author Donald Bain has written 45 murder mystery novels starring Fletcher, all of which credit Fletcher as the "co-author." The books sport such titles as Killer in the Kitchen, Murder on Parade, and Margaritas & Murder. Not even cancellation can keep Cabot Cove safe, apparently.

On top of that, two point-and-click computer games were released based on the show in 2009 and 2012. Both games feature Fletcher solving multiple murders just like on the show, but don’t expect to hear the comforting voice of Angela Lansbury as you wade through the dead bodies. Only her likeness appears in the game; not her voice.

9. LANSBURY WOULD BE GAME TO REPRISE THE ROLE.

When recently asked about her iconic role by the Sunday Post, Lansbury admitted that she'd be into seeing Murder, She Wrote come back in some form. "I was in genuine tears doing my last scene," Lansbury said. "Jessica Fletcher has become so much a part of my life, it was difficult to come to terms with it being all over ... Having said that, there have been some two-hour specials since we stopped in 1996 and I wouldn’t be surprised if we got together just one more time."

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Why the Names of the Dragons in Game of Thrones Are Important—and Telling
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HBO

Warning: This post contains spoilers for “Beyond the Wall,” the sixth episode in Game of Thrones’ seventh season. If you are not caught up on the series, stop reading now.

The death of a dragon in “Beyond the Wall,” the latest Game of Thrones episode, highlighted just how little we really know about Daenerys’s three children. (Be honest: Could you have named the dragon that died?) But for fans itching to know more about the show’s dragons, alive and undead, the symbolism in their names offers clues about their true characters and hints at how they might behave in the future.

First, the dragon that died was Viserion. The show doesn’t make it very easy to distinguish Viserion from its sibling Rhaegal—Rhaegal is slightly greener on screen than Viserion—but if you watch closely you’ll see that Viserion was the one downed by the Night King’s spear.

Notably, this is the dragon named after Viserys, Daenerys’s power-hungry older brother. In the first season, Viserys sold his sister to Khal Drogo in exchange for an army he could use to take the Iron Throne. But after growing impatient with Drogo, Viserys threatened to kill his pregnant sister if the invasion didn’t begin immediately. Drogo, at his wit’s end, silenced Viserys’s whining with a pot of molten gold. Last night, Viserion died, too. Like its namesake, Viserion is set to turn on Daenerys and Drogon, the dragon named after Drogo.

That leaves Rhaegal, named after Daenerys’s eldest brother—and Jon’s father—Rhaegar Targaryen. If anyone is going to ride Rhaegal it would make sense for it to be Jon, the only other living Targaryen in Westeros and the son of the dragon’s namesake. After all, Jon has already demonstrated an ability to put dragons at ease in “Eastwatch,” when he patted Drogon on the snout.

Last night’s episode put to death the iteration of the Three-Headed Dragon theory that predicted Tyrion Lannister would be revealed as a hidden Targaryen and ride the third dragon into battle. But the theory will now almost certainly be fulfilled in a much more chilling way: with the Night King as the third rider.

It’s unclear how Viserion would behave as the Night King’s mount. Nerdist reported on how, in the books, Old Nan alludes to mythical ice dragons in stories she told Jon growing up. There’s also a constellation called the Ice Dragon, complete with a rider with a blue star for an eye that always points north. The World of Ice and Fire, the companion encyclopedia George R.R. Martin wrote to further detail his fantasy world, describes unverified reports of ice dragons over the Shivering Sea north of the wall. Sailors claim they are bigger than regular dragons, translucent, and breathe cold that “can freeze a man solid in half a heartbeat.”

Long before he started on A Song of Ice and Fire, Martin also wrote a children’s book called The Ice Dragon—though he has since insisted that his children’s book does not exist in the same sex-and-violence-crazed universe as his later novels. In the world of the children’s book, the good ice dragon defeats the evil fire-breathing dragons to save the story’s protagonist. Over at Vanity Fair, Joanna Robinson wondered if Viserion might end up being one of the good guys, writing that, "Now that we’ve seen two close-ups in the span of two episodes, of dragon eyes both brown and blue, will we eventually see one go white as Bran takes control of Viserion back from the Night King in Season 8?"

It remains to be seen which side will win in the Game of Thrones universe—and chances are we won't have all the answers by the time the current season concludes.

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