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10 World-Shaping Events That Happened in 1920

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The “Roaring Twenties” are the only decade in American history with a nickname. In his book 1920: The Year That Made the Decade Roar, Eric Burns explores the first year of a captivating decade and shows that it wasn't all flappers and jazz bands. Every aspect of life today was in some way influenced by the title year. Here are 10 things that 1920 has to say about 1920. 

1. The League of Nations was established. 

In an address to Congress in 1919, President Woodrow Wilson presented what he called the “Fourteen Points” (derided by others as his Ten Commandments because of Wilson’s insufferable self-righteousness), a plan to end war forever. The following year, he traveled to Paris to help negotiate the Treaty of Versailles. Upon his arrival, as Burns relates, “he was hailed by the French as no American since Benjamin Franklin had been hailed.” The Fourteen Points were enthusiastically adopted by diplomats, and became a framework for the League of Nations. On January 16, 1920, the League held its first Executive Council meeting, consisting of the major member-powers. In November of that year, it held its first General Assembly in Geneva, which was open to all members. At its height, the League of Nations had 58 member states. The United States never joined. 

2. America had a de-facto woman president. 

While on the campaign trail pushing for the U.S. to accept the League of Nations, President Wilson suffered a blood clot that caused paralysis, partial blindness, and brain damage. For the remainder of his term—another year and a half—he was, as Burns describes, “an invalid at best, little more than a rumor at worst,” totally incapable of meeting with lawmakers, governing, or performing the duties of the presidency; the First Lady, Edith Wilson, stepped in and assumed his role. She controlled access to the president and made policy decisions on his behalf. When something needed to be signed or written, she wrapped her hand around his and scrawled words with a pen. The French ambassador to the United States reported back to his superiors that Wilson was a non-factor in governance. The real power rested with “Mme. President.”

3. America sustained the worst terrorist attack in its history. 

On September 16, 1920, a horse-drawn cart carrying a massive, improvised explosive was detonated on the busiest corner on Wall Street. One eyewitness described “two sheets of flame that seemed to envelop the whole width of Wall Street and as high as the tenth story of the tall buildings.” Thirty-eight people were killed in the Wall Street Bombing, and hundreds were injured. It was, at the time, the worst terrorist attack in American history, unsurpassed in horror until the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995. The perpetrators were likely Italian anarchists. 

4. J. Edgar Hoover began his ascent.

As a result of a series of bombings in 1919, the attorney general of the United States, Mitchell Palmer, mounted a campaign to capture and deport foreign radicals. The next year marked the “most spectacular” of the Palmer raids, in which thousands of accused communists and anarchists across the country were arrested in a single swoop. The raid’s organizer was a young lawyer named J. Edgar Hoover, head of the Bureau of Investigation’s General Intelligence Division.

Ultimately, the raids proved to be fraught with questionable confessions and illegal warrants, and Palmer’s career was derailed as a result. Hoover, however, would go on to lead the Bureau and its successor agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, from 1924 until 1972.

The raids were a formative lesson for Hoover. After witnessing what happened to Palmer, Hoover would work obsessively to keep in the good graces of the politically powerful (the FBI never investigated a member of Congress while Hoover was in charge), and work always to protect the FBI’s image. 

5. Women gained the right to vote. 

The women’s suffrage movement reached as far back as 1638, when Margaret Brent, a successful businesswoman in Virginia, demanded the right to vote in the state’s House of Burgesses. By 1920, every state west of the Mississippi River allowed women to vote. Burns notes that “a mere nine states denied women the vote in all instances, and seven of those, to their inexplicable shame, were among the original thirteen colonies.” The last “yes” vote needed for ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which provided for women’s suffrage, was Tennessee. On August 18, 1920, the Tennessee House of Representatives voted in favor of the amendment by a vote of 50-49. 

6. The Constitution was twice amended in a single year.

It was the only year since the passage of the Bill of Rights that the Constitution was twice amended. The Eighteenth Amendment prohibited alcohol in the United States. It was, writes Burns, “the most openly ignored regulation in American history ... Not only did the Amendment fail to be heeded; it often failed to be acknowledged with a straight face.” As Will Rogers asked at the time, “Why don’t they pass a constitutional amendment prohibiting anybody from learning anything? If it works as well as prohibition did, in five years Americans would be the smartest race of people on Earth.” In 1920, Burns provides an astonishing array of statistics that were the result of Prohibition: drunk and disorderly arrests increased 41 percent; drunk driving increased 81 percent; violent crime and murder went up 13 percent; the federal prison population swelled by a staggering 366 percent; and “federal expenditures on penal institutions of all sorts soared a thousand percent!” 

7. The “Lost Generation” began its transformation of American literature. 

In 1920, the “Lost Generation”—expatriate writers who lived in Europe following World War I—became a force in American literature. Among books published in 1920 were Main Street, a skewering of small-town America by Sinclair Lewis; This Side of Paradise, the debut novel of F. Scott Fitzgerald; and Flappers and Philosophers, Fitzgerald’s first collection of short fiction. That year, Fitzgerald also introduced Maxwell Perkins, the famed editor for Scribner’s, to the short stories of Ernest Hemingway, who would go on to some success. 

8. The KKK terrorized the nation. 

The Ku Klux Klan, a genocidal domestic terrorist organization founded during Reconstruction, was revitalized in 1920, the result in part of new Klan leadership with an eye for publicity. The Klan’s activities, Burns describes, were “reigns of terror, spaced widely in time and place,” that could be “loosely compared to latter-day outbreaks of the Inquisition.” But while the Inquisition targeted heretical Roman Catholics, the Klan “hated not only Catholics, but Jews, Asians, African-Americans, and Europeans who were not from the non-Nordic countries of the north.” Fifty years later, President Johnson turned J. Edgar Hoover loose on the KKK, and the FBI would achieve the greatest law enforcement victory in its history, all but eradicating the terrorist organization. 

9. A guy named Ponzi came up with a sales scheme. 

In the early 1900s, representatives from countries around the world worked out a way to make it easier for people to send mail across national borders. They created an “international reply coupon,” which could be bought in one country and traded for postage stamps in another. Charles Ponzi, an Italian immigrant to the United States, discovered a loophole in the system. Because World War I left much of Europe in economic ruin, Ponzi realized that he could buy coupons in various countries and redeem them in the United States for a return on investment. Because he wanted large returns, he needed a large investment. He set up a business called the Security Exchange Company (which, Burns writes, “had just the right sound to him. Respectable, trustworthy, and accurate; the company was, after all, exchanging securities”). He hired agents to bring in new investors, promising large commissions for the money brought in. Eventually, word spread that investments could bring massive returns, and investors were able to bring in new investors, who brought in new investors, and so on. Ponzi soon found that profit was no longer even a necessary ingredient for the company to operate; investors were essentially funding each other’s commission. The system, of course, eventually collapsed, though Ponzi schemes live on today. 

10. The mass media was born.

In November 1920, the first commercially-licensed radio station began broadcasting live results of the presidential election. The transmission of breaking news was new and unprecedented, and as word spread of this new medium, the “talking box” exploded in popularity. Two years later, Americans bought 100,000 radios. In 1923, they bought 500,000. By 1926, there were over 700 commercial radio stations, and virtually the entire country was covered by radio signals. As Burns writes, “No other event of 1920 would have more of an effect on the future than the birth of radio, with was in turn the birth of American mass media.”

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A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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History
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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