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The Strange Life and Mysterious Death of Kim Jong-nam

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Kim Jong-nam, the older half brother of Kim Jong-un, is dead. The quirky fan of Disneyland—and of just not being in North Korea generally—fell ill at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) and died suddenly on Monday. Was it murder? Maybe.

According to media reports from South Korea, the elder Kim—who is perhaps best known for being busted by customs officials when trying to enter Japan with a false passport in 2001, in an attempt visit to Tokyo Disneyland—was attacked by two females who killed him using either poisoned needles or a poisoned cloth. Malaysian police official Fadzil Ahmat reported that "the deceased felt like someone grabbed or held his face from behind. He felt dizzy, so he asked for help." He died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.

Kim Jong-un, the current leader of North Korea, certainly didn’t like his brother very much, and has taken a shot at him before—so it wouldn't be surprising if the North Korean government had something to do with his death. If they are responsible, it certainly took a bit of effort. While his ill-fated trip to Disneyland eventually saw him exiled to Macau by his father, the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-nam was not an easy target. He loved to travel, and in recent years had been spotted everywhere from Singapore to Jakarta to Paris (where his son, Kim Han-sol, lives). For a guy supposedly in hiding, he seemed to take special joy in running up tabs at expensive restaurants.

Historically, airports have been bad news for Kim Jong-nam. In 2001, he was nabbed by Japanese authorities at Tokyo's Narita International Airport for trying to slip into the country using a passport from the Dominican Republic—a crime made all the more bizarre because, in those days, he was the heir apparent to Kim Jong-il, the Shining Star of Paektu Mountain. He probably could have gotten VIP treatment with a North Korean passport, if only because they are so rare and almost never used more than once. On this trip, however, he preferred to travel as a Dominican named Pang Xiong (literally, “Fat Bear” in Mandarin).

This was the trip in which the globetrotter was attempting to visit Disneyland Tokyo. This did not go over well back home: After Kim was deported to China, Kim Jong-un became heir to the throne. (There is a middle brother, Kim Jong-chul, but he was passed over for being too feminine for his father’s taste.) Regardless, the official president of North Korea is Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994, making North Korea the world’s only necrocracy.

Because the Kim family isn’t exactly known for their lavish press conferences, much of Kim Jong-nam’s life had to be pieced together from photographs and unofficial reports. He didn’t attend his father’s funeral, and certainly wasn’t there for his brother’s “inauguration.” He was also reportedly opposed to hereditary rule, writing, allegedly, “As a matter of common sense, a transfer to the third generation is unacceptable.” He also threw shade at his brother, which certainly didn't help his position in the actuary tables. “The power elite that have ruled the country will continue to be in control,” he wrote. “I have my doubts about whether a person with only two years of grooming as a leader can govern.”

Being any other Kim but the top one is a hard business. Kim Jong-nam’s mother was exiled to Moscow, where she died alone. His uncle, Jang Song-thaek, was declared by the North Korean state to be a “despicable human scum” who was “worse than a dog” and who “perpetrated thrice-cursed acts of treachery in betrayal of such profound trust and warmest paternal love shown by the party and the leader for him.” He was later executed. (Though rumor has it that he was fed alive to 120 starving dogs, experts say he was more likely killed by a firing squad.)

Kim Jong-nam leaves behind a legacy of booze, women, and mouse ears. Considering his brother’s affinity for building nuclear weapons and lobbing long-range missiles at any country that isn’t North Korea, an ardent desire to ride the world famous Jungle Cruise isn’t the worst way to be remembered.

Portions of this article were published previously in 2013 and 2014.

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This Just In
A Connecticut Farm Purchased by Mark Twain for His Daughter, Jean Clemens, Is Up for Sale
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Mark Twain—whose wit was matched only by his wanderlust—had many homes throughout his life: a small frame house in Hannibal, Missouri; a Victorian mansion in Hartford, Connecticut; and "Stormfield," a country estate in Redding, Connecticut, just to name a few. Now, the Connecticut Post reports that a farm adjacent to Stormfield, purchased in 1909 by Twain for his daughter, Jean Clemens, is up for sale.

“Jean’s Farm,” as Twain nicknamed the home, is priced at $1,850,000. In addition to a storied literary legacy, the refurbished five-bedroom estate has a saltwater swimming pool, a movie theater, and a children’s play area. It sits on nearly 19 acres of land, making the property “well-sized for a gentleman's farm, for horses, or as a hobby farm,” according to its real estate listing. There’s also a fish pond and a 19th-century barn with an extra apartment.

While scenic, Jean’s Farm has a bittersweet backstory: Jean Clemens, who had epilepsy, enjoyed the pastoral property for only a short time before passing away at the age of 29. She lived in a sanitarium before moving to Stormfield in April 1909, where she served as her father's secretary and housekeeper and made daily trips to her farm. On December 24, 1909, Jean died at Stormfield after suffering a seizure in a bathtub. Twain, himself, would die several months later, on April 21, 1910, at the age of 74.

Twain sold Jean’s Farm after his daughter’s death, and used the proceeds to fund a library in Redding, today called the Mark Twain Library. But despite losing a child, Twain’s years at Stormfield—his very last home—weren’t entirely colored by tragedy. “Although Twain only spent two years here [from 1908 to 1910], it was an important time in the writer’s life,” historian Brent Colely told The Wall Street Journal. “Twain was always having guests over, including his close friend Helen Keller, hosting almost 181 people for visits in the first six months alone, according to guestbooks and notations.”

Check out some photos of Jean’s Farm below, courtesy of

Jean’s Farm, a property in Redding, Connecticut that author Mark Twain purchased for his daughter, Jean Clemens, in 1909.

 Jean’s Farm, a property in Redding, Connecticut that author Mark Twain purchased for his daughter, Jean Clemens, in 1909.

Jean’s Farm, a property in Redding, Connecticut that author Mark Twain purchased for his daughter, Jean Clemens, in 1909.

Jean’s Farm, a property in Redding, Connecticut that author Mark Twain purchased for his daughter, Jean Clemens, in 1909.

[h/t Connecticut Post]

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The Dangerous History Behind the Word 'Deadline'
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Nowadays, the word deadline is used all but exclusively to refer to a date or time by which something must be accomplished. But over the centuries, the term has been used in a number of different contexts: Among early 20th-century printers, for instance, a deadline was a line marked on a cylindrical press outside of which text would be illegible, while the Oxford English Dictionary has unearthed a reference to an angler’s “dead-line” dating from the mid-1800s referring to a weighted fishing line that does not move in the water.

The modern sense of deadline, however, may be influenced by a much more dangerous meaning. It originated during the Civil War, and came to prominence during the much-hyped trial of an infamous Swiss-born Confederate leader named Henry Wirz.

Wirz was born Heinrich Hartmann Wirz in Zürich in 1823. In his early twenties, a court forced him to leave Zürich for 12 years after he failed to repay borrowed money, and in 1848 he left first for Russia before eventually settling in America. After working a string of jobs at several spots around the country, Wirz married a woman named Elizabeth Wolf in 1854 and moved to Louisiana. After the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, he enlisted as a private in the Fourth Louisiana Infantry.

One of Wirz’s first engagements in the war was the Battle of Seven Pines on May 31, 1862. He was badly wounded in the fighting, losing the use of his right arm, and when he returned to his unit a few weeks later he was promoted to the rank of captain in recognition of his bravery and service. From there, Wirz rose through the ranks to become an adjutant to John H. Winder, an experienced and high-ranking general overseeing the treatment of Confederate deserters and Union prisoners. In 1864, Wirz was put in control of Camp Sumter, a newly-established internment camp for Union soldiers located near Andersonville in rural Georgia.

Over the remaining 14 months of the war, Camp Sumter grew to become one of the largest prisoner of war camps in the entire Confederacy. At its peak, it held more than 30,000 Union prisoners, all of whom shared an enormous 16.5-acre open-air paddock—conditions inside of which were notoriously grim. Disease and malnutrition were rife, and a lack of clean water, warm clothing, and adequate sanitation led to the deaths of many of the camp’s prisoners. Of the 45,000 Union prisoners held in the Camp at one time or another, it is estimated that almost a third succumbed to Sumter’s squalid and inhumane conditions.

In his defense, Wirz later claimed to have had little real control over the conditions in the camp, and it is certainly true that the day-to-day running of Camp Sumter was a disorganized affair divided among numerous different parties. Incompetence, rather than malice, may have been the cause of many of the camp's horrors.

Execution of Captain Henry Wirtz (i.e. Wirz), C.S.A, adjusting the rope
Execution of Captain Henry Wirz in 1865

In 1865, the war came to an end and Wirz was arrested in Andersonville. He was eventually sent to Washington, and held in the Old Capitol Prison to await trial before a military commission. That fall, more than 150 witnesses—including one of Wirz’s own prison staff and several former prisoners—took to the stand and gave testimony. Many provided damning evidence of Wirz’s harsh treatment of the prisoners (although historians now think some of these testimonies were exaggerated). As accounts of him withholding food and other supplies from prisoners found to have committed even minor offenses were relayed in the press—and as the full extent of the terrible conditions inside Camp Sumter became public—Wirz emerged as a much-vilified symbol of the camp’s inhumane treatment of its Union prisoners.

One of most damning examples of his inhumanity was his implementation of what became known as the Camp’s dead line:

Wirz, still wickedly pursuing his evil purpose, did establish and cause to be designated within the prison enclosure … a “dead line,” being a line around the inner face of the stockade or wall enclosing said prison, and about twenty feet distant and within said stockade; and so established said dead line, which was in many places an imaginary line, in many other places marked by insecure and shifting strips of [boards nailed] upon the tops of small and insecure stakes or posts, he … instructed the prison guard stationed around the top of said stockade to fire upon and kill any of the prisoners aforesaid who might touch, fall upon, pass over or under or across the said “dead line” ...

—Report of the Secretary of War, October 1865

In other words, this deadliest of all deadlines was a line Wirz implemented just inside the inner wall of Camp Sumter. Any prisoner wandering beyond the line would immediately be killed.

Stories like this were all the evidence the court needed: Wirz was found guilty of violating the rights of wartime prisoners, and was hanged on the morning of November 10, 1865.

Widespread press reports of Wirz’s trial and the horrors of Camp Sumter soon led to the word deadline being popularized, and eventually it passed into everyday use—thankfully in a less severe sense.

By the early 20th century, the word’s military connotations had all but disappeared and the familiar meaning of the deadlines we meet—or miss—today emerged by the early 1920s.


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