The strange journey of an Empress

At the Pope’s Tavern Museum a small, out of the way place in Florence, Alabama, amid the Civil War relics and antique furniture, a visitor suddenly encounters an exquisite bisque bust of a European woman from the 1800s. The bust is the likeness of Charlotte of Belgium, who was once the Empress of Mexico. What in the world is it doing there?

One of the strangest episodes in Mexican history was the French invasion, the subject of my book, Flanagan and the Crown of Mexico. While America was distracted by its own Civil War, the French, under Napoleon III and his Belgian allies, invaded Mexico, drove out President Juarez, and placed the Austrian Archduke Maximilian in Mexico City as Emperor. Maximilian’s wife, Charlotte of Belgium was crowned Empress Carlotta. Charlotte/Carlotta was both beautiful and capable and was soon the power behind the throne.



But Juarez kept fighting and by 1866, America was applying pressure and the French public was getting weary of the whole affair. Napoleon III ordered his troops home and expected Maximilian to do the same. Instead, he sent Carlotta back to Europe to plead his case and secure support. By this time, however, Carlotta was beginning to crack under the constant strain, and was detained in Italy by her relatives. Meanwhile, Maximilian stubbornly remained after the French troops left, thinking the Mexicans would support him. He was captured by  Juarez and later executed by a firing squad. Meanwhile, Carlotta’s condition worsened. She was shipped off to a castle in Belgium, where she remained, subject to delusions and destructive outbursts, but also capable of periods of rationality, until her death in 1927. Although in the path of the German army in WWI, the castle was untouched by order of the Kaiser, to protect the woman who was once married to one of his Austrian allies.

Which brings us to the remarkable bisque bust in the museum in Alabama. The bust was a likeness of Charlotte given as a wedding present to her from Napoleon III upon her marriage to Maximilian. Thinking she would return, Charlotte left it in Mexico when she returned to Europe, and it was snatched up by a family member of one of Maximilan’s loyalists when Juarez took power. Fearing retribution, the loyalists fled Mexico and wound up in the United States, where they later gave the bust to an American family who had helped them. The American family passed the bust down through several generations until one of the descendants married a man from Florence, Alabama. The couple sold the bust to the Susan K. Vaughn museum and it was donated to Pope’s Tavern Museum in Florence, Alabama.



The bust is so detailed and lifelike, it seems as if it could talk. If it could, what a tale it could tell; the likeness of a Belgian noblewoman who married an Austrian and became Empress of Mexico, only to lose her empire, and with it, her mind.

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Rumrunners and book pushers

If you are a writer, you never know who is looking at your stuff and how they are reacting, but sometimes it leads in unexpected directions.

Here I am a couple of weeks ago, talking about Chesapeake Bay rumrunners at the Rumrunners Weekend Rendezvous, put on by Annapolis Yacht Sales. The 1920s themed event was held at Deale, on the Western Shore and attracted over 200 boat owners. The sponsors asked if I could dress for the occasion, hence the Don Corleone meets Guys and Dolls look. I explained to the audience that I didn’t usually dress that way, but I’m not sure they believed me. This picture was taken at the very beginning when I told them how I first got mixed up with the Prohibition era when writing Master Detective and later the Roaring 20s Mysteries. The Chesapeake Bay has a long history of rumrunning and smuggling due to the miles of waterways coupled with lots of independent types with boats.


One of the great things about giving a talk like this to a bunch of boaters was that everyone was familiar with the nautical terms, types of boats, and bay locations. I flashed a picture of a nondescript automated light in the lower bay and most of them recognized it.
Anyway, writers take note; the sponsors of the event contacted me some months ago and asked me to do a talk about rumrunning because they stumbled on my books and noticed all the Prohibition references. Well, you can’t write about crime in the 1920s without getting into rumrunning any more than you could talk about modern crime without mentioning drugs. As someone once said, “You don’t write a book because you’re an expert; you’re an expert because you wrote a book!” A few people vowed to read my books and a couple asked if I could do the talk again for their group. The lesson is that you never know where your writing will take you or who might notice. (They even gave away one of my books and a bottle of rum as a door prize)

The group pic appeared on Annapolis Yacht Sales Facebook page…more free publicity!

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Papers, please

Let’s say you have some money in the bank, have your suitcase packed, and are ready to see the world. Your passport is up to date and you are ready to go. The world is at your feet.
Not so fast.
Many people think your passport acts as, well, a passport; the official document that unlocks the doors to exotic places.  Just present that good old US passport and watch them roll out the red carpet. The fact is, however, that in many countries, the passport isn’t enough; they require a separate visa to even visit as a tourist. And here’s the amazing part; the less attractive a country is to visit, the harder they make it. You’d think the C list places would be bending over backwards to make it easy for the tourists, but that is not the case.
tourist visa l visa china visa for tourist
For instance, you do not need a visa to visit the Bahamas, or Tahiti, or France, or Singapore, or Canada, or the Cayman Islands, or Belize, or Bermuda, but you do need one to visit such tourist deserts as Cuba, Bukina Faso, Paraguay, Nigeria, Tajikistan, Somalia, or Syria. What’s more, some countries make visas available on line, some sell visas at destination airports, and some require you to go to their embassy or consular office in the US in person to get their visa.
There are some interesting and seemingly nonsensical variations on this game. Russia usually requires a visa for tourists, but if you visit St Petersburg on a cruise ship you need only your passport. However, you may only leave the ship on a guided tour; no strolling or wandering at leisure. What’s more, a dour-faced customs official will examine your passport every time you leave the ship and every time you return.

Passport inspection in St Petersburg for cruise ship passengers going to or from an approved tour

Of course, some countries have big league security issues, so you can understand the extra caution, but that doesn’t make things easier for the casual visitor. Some countries have their own wrinkles in the visa game. The Seychelles do not require a visa if you can show a local hotel reservation; Mauritius does not require a visa if you show sufficient funds and a return ticket to your home country; Libya and Sudan will refuse you a visa if your passport shows you have visited Israel; and you need a visa to visit the northern part of Cyprus, but not for the southern part.
Pre-Board Screening Officers being called Customs - Orbiter-Forum
The moral to this story is to always check these requirements before you leave. One thing you don’t want to do on your vacation is to have some border official tell you your papers are not in order while standing in line in some steamy foreign airport.
You can check the requirements online at several sites. One is
So does this mean that if you go to a country that doesn’t require a visa you are in the clear with just your passport?
Not entirely. There is yet another trip-up-the-traveler requirement; your passport must not only be current, but it must have at least SIX MONTHS before it expires.
Even if you are only going away for a week? Yes! This is to make sure you have a valid passport if you overstay due to illness, accident, legal troubles, etc. See? Uncle Sam is looking out for you!
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Dashing through the snow

Thousand Islands Life online magazine has just published an article I wrote telling the story of a little known prisoner of war escape attempt across the ice of the frozen St Lawrence River in 1942. I corresponded with the escapee, Luftwaffe pilot Ulrich Steinhilper years ago, when I was researching Evasive Action. He has since passed away, but he was very gracious and patient with my questions about life in a Canadian POW camp and his escape attempts.

Here is the article: When the road to Germany ran through the Thousand Islands.

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The long journey of a Mustang Boss

The Ford Mustang has always been popular among car enthusiasts and collectors. One of the most desirable and rare is the 1969 “Boss” edition, especially with a monster 429 cubic inch engine. Only a little more than a thousand were made, increasing its rarity and value. (If your eyes are starting to glaze over at all this car talk, be patient; the human interest part is coming.) Such a car in very good condition can command $50,000 and up to several hundred thousand. Not bad for a used car.

Back in 1969, one Mustang Boss was purchased new by a teenager in Michigan. He loved the car as only a young man can, and drove it proudly, but there were other demands that had to be met in his life. In 1971, he left the Mustang with his parents for safekeeping and went off to Vietnam.

He never returned.

In their grief, his devastated parents moved the car into the barn, and there it remained for 40 years, a reminder of the son who once drove it. Although under roof, the car deteriorated here and there. A few parts rusted, the paint faded, engine parts gummed up as fluids evaporated, and the upholstery frayed with age, but it was still a Mustang Boss with that huge engine sleeping under the hood.

Occasionally, someone would approach the parents and offer to buy the car, but they refused to sell. One collector and car restorer in particular made repeated attempts to buy the Boss. His plan was to restore the car to its original condition and make a profit selling it to a collector. Each time he was turned down, he made a higher offer to no avail. Finally, he realized the parents were too attached to the car and the memories that it held to sell at any price. Every time they saw the car, they saw their son driving around in it.


Finally, a man from St Michaels, Maryland approached the parents, not knowing the long history of the parents’ refusals to sell.  He did his research and made what he considered a generous offer. The father didn’t answer right away, but asked him what he intended to do with the car. The man from St Michaels wanted to restore the car, but he had no plans to resell it. He just wanted a Mustang Boss for himself and his family. They would enjoy it just as the son had.

The father asked a few more questions, then said he would sell the Mustang after all, but not at that price.

He would sell it for less. He had never been interested in money, only in preserving something his son had loved in a way that someone else would love it as well. He just wanted the car to have a good home.

Two years later, the St Michaels man took the fully-restored Mustang Boss back to Michigan for a visit, and took the parents for a ride in their son’s car.


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Pleasing the public vs pleasing the experts or, why the Kingston Trio is like the Eiffel Tower

We went to see the Kingston Trio in concert the other night. It’s a strange set up, since the Kingston Trio stopped performing over 40 years ago. In their place, however, are three guys fully sanctioned by the originals, a sort of super tribute band, or maybe a clone band that carries the original name and has the original strong catalog. These guys have been doing this forever and they are very good. I once saw the original band in the 1960s and these guys actually put on a better concert in my opinion.


The original Kingston Trio

Anyway, the experience led me to read up on the KT and their history. The Kingston Trio revolutionized folk music in the early ’60s, and, some might say, music in general. Their finely crafted songs and harmonies raised folk music to heights of popularity it had never seen before, and spawned unknown numbers of imitations. American type folk music even became popular around the world. No folk group and very few music groups of any kind ever enjoyed the success and popularity of the KT.

For all their success, however, the KT were scorned by lesser, more traditional folk groups and even trade publications as not being “authentic”, or “pure” enough to the source material. This was ironic, because the KT never even claimed to be a folk group, let alone an “authentic” one. If you have ever heard “authentic” folk singing, with its monotony, droning vocals, rudimentary musicality, and repertoire of songs about obscure tragedies or dreary and dated subjects, you would understand why the KT did so much better. They were enjoyable and fun, and the public responded. Another criticism of the KT was that they weren’t “socially aware” enough and didn’t participate in the fashionable protests of the era. What this really meant was that they were more interested in pleasing the public than in posturing. After all, nobody goes to congress for entertainment, why go to a folk concert for politics?

So the Kingston Trio became immensely popular with the public while being dismissed by the “experts”. As strange as this sounds, the phenomena is really quite common. It even extends to historical landmarks.

I am currently working on a book tentatively titled “The Secrets behind the Structures”, giving the inside story of some of the world’s landmarks. Here is a webpage devoted to the project. Anyway, in researching the book, I frequently come across beloved structures that were condemned at the time by the experts. Gothic cathedrals, for instance were considered ugly and too ornamented and elaborate by many architects and critics when they first appeared. The term Gothic was a term of derision since the Goths were the barbarians that sacked Rome. The common people, however, looked on the Gothic cathedrals with their soaring spaces and stained glass as a vision of heaven itself.


The Eiffel Tower was condemned as a rusty industrial eyesore by the intellectuals and artists of Paris, but ordinary citizens looked on in wonder and awe at Gustav Eiffel’s achievement. They still do.

Tower Bridge, now a beloved London Landmark, was criticized by many artists, architects, and city planners of London because its quasi-Gothic architecture didn’t match the nearby Tower of London. Now, even China has built a replica.

So, if the experts didn’t like the Kingston Trio, who did?

Everyone else.

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The last combat deaths of the First World War took place over six months later, and were in Scotland!

When the Armistice was declared in November of 1918, hostilities of the Great War were officially over and a cease fire went into effect. In the final seconds on the Western Front, there was a fury of gunfire in the final seconds before the deadline, as soldiers competed to see who could claim to have fired the last shot of the war. Different sources claim different names as the last death of the war, but since men were scattered in so many places, exactly who died last in the seconds just before the cease fire is uncertain. Some were no doubt killed hours or even days later in isolated places that didn’t get the word of the cease fire on time.

Image result for ww1 armistace headline


Despite this confusion, however, we can say for certain that the last combat deaths of the First World War took place on June 21, 1919… northern Scotland! This is the story.

When the Armistice was signed ending the First World War, the German Navy was in a difficult position. The allied powers were undecided whether to scuttle the ships, or divide them up as spoils of war among the allied nations. If they were divided up, exactly who got what and how would it affect the balance of power in Europe in the future? While the allies tried to figure this out, they decided to intern the German surface ships at Scapa Flow, the gigantic British Naval Base in the north of Scotland. A total of 72 German vessels, including several battleships, were anchored in Scapa Flow awaiting final disposition.

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Admiral von Reuter


The German command of this dreary mission was given to Admiral Ludwig von Reuter. While the Allies negotiated the fate of the German High Seas Fleet, the ships were still under the command of von Reuter and still manned by their German crews. As may be imagined, the morale of the Germans was close to rock bottom. In addition to being defeated, they sat day after day in one of the bleakest places on earth, watching the fog and rain. They could not go ashore or even visit other ships. The food was miserable, mail was slow, and many of the men were close to mutiny. A few already had. Von Reuter found maintaining discipline increasingly difficult as they awaited a decision on their fate.

Turning their ships over to the Allies to be distributed to their former enemies was a bitter pill to swallow, and von Reuter planned to scuttle the ships if he got the chance. The British, however, were alert to such a move, and how much cooperation von Reuter might get from some of his fellow officers was uncertain, so the long wait continued. Von Reuter secretly made preparations and awaited his chance.

The months passed and most of the German crews were taken off and sent back to Germany. This actually made things easier for von Reuter, because it gave him a way to retain only officers and men he could trust. Finally, the Treaty of Versailles was scheduled to be signed at noon on June 21, 1919. This would formalize the final disposal of the ships and allow the British to take possession from their German crews. Admiral Sydney Fremantle, the British commander planned to seize the ships on June 21st. Instead of seizing the ships in the morning, however, Fremantle decided to take advantage of some rare good weather and take most of the British ships out to conduct some long-overdue torpedo drills. The seizure would take place in the afternoon upon his return.


Admiral Fremantle

Seizing his chance, von Reuter signaled the German ships to hoist the Imperial German flag and scuttle. Water rushed into the ships, with the smaller ones sinking first. The British, alerted to the situation, sent smaller gunboats to stop the Germans, who were by now escaping in lifeboats. At this point, several British boarding parties swarmed about several of the ships, but met resistance from the Germans. The British, considering the Germans had made themselves enemy combatants once again, opened fire on the Germans, killing 9 and wounding 16. All together, 1774 Germans were recaptured. The nine deaths were the last combat deaths of the First World War; over six months later and in the north of Scotland.

Image result for scapa flow scuttling german

Of the 74 interned ships, 54 were sunk, including the big battleships. Some of the ships were re floated and some were salvaged. Although the British were angry that the Germans had gotten the better of them, they were relieved that the whole thorny question of who was going to get the ships was now moot. In ensuing years, more of the wrecks would be salvaged and only a few now remain as dive sites.

Image result for scapa flow scuttling german


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