A Royal Mystery Solved

June 5, 2018

Hers was a story which inspired novels, movies and mini-series and, for 89 years, the question remained: had she survived?

Romanov-307824 (2)The woman in question was Anastasia Nikolaevna, better known as the Grand Duchess, daughter of the last Russian Tsar Nicholas II. She was born on June 5, 1901.

No doubt most people know how the Tsar and all his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks in August 1918. Yet rumors persisted for years that the youngest daughter of the family, Anastasia, somehow survived the event. From the Infallible Wikipedia:

“Rumors of Anastasia’s survival were embellished with various contemporary reports of trains and houses being searched for ‘Anastasia Romanov’ by Bolshevik soldiers and secret police. When she was briefly imprisoned at Perm in 1918, Princess Helena Petrovna, the wife of Anastasia’s distant cousin, Prince John Constantinovich of Russia, reported that a guard brought a girl who called herself Anastasia Romanova to her cell and asked if the girl was the daughter of the Tsar. Helena Petrovna said she did not recognize the girl and the guard took her away.”

anastasia_anna_franziska_thumbTo add to the intrigue, no less than ten women claimed to have been Anastasia. The most famous was a woman by the name of Anna Anderson who insisted she was the Grand Duchess until the day she died.

It was technology which paved the way for the puzzle to be solved.  Although Anderson died in 1984, DNA testing on some kept pieces of her tissue in 1994 told the truth: she was not Anastasia.

The rumors that Anastasia – and possibly others – survived the execution were fueled by the very people who had killed them. Fearing backlash from Germany and damage to a recently signed peace treaty, the Russians told the Germans that the royal women had been moved to a safer location.

With those assurances – and no way to prove or disprove the claim – rumors persisted. The first Anastasia ‘sightings’ cropped up shortly thereafter.

After the fall of the Soviet Union it was revealed that the burial site of the family had been discovered in 1991. Was the mystery finally solved? Also from the Infallible Wikipedia:

“However, on 23 August 2007, a Russian archaeologist announced the discovery of two burned, partial skeletons at a bonfire site near Yekaterinburg that appeared to match the site described in Yurovsky’s memoirs. The archaeologists said the bones were from a boy who was roughly between the ages of ten and thirteen years at the time of his death and of a young woman who was roughly between the ages of eighteen and twenty-three years old. Anastasia was seventeen years and one month old at the time of the assassination, while her sister Maria was nineteen years, one month old and her brother Alexei was two weeks shy of his fourteenth birthday. Anastasia’s elder sisters Olga and Tatiana were twenty-two and twenty-one years old respectively at the time of the assassination. Along with the remains of the two bodies, archaeologists found ‘shards of a container of sulfuric acid, nails, metal strips from a wooden box, and bullets of various caliber’. The site was initially found with metal detectors and by using metal rods as probes.

DNA testing by multiple international laboratories such as the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory and Innsbruck Medical University confirmed that the remains belong to the Tsarevich Alexei and to one of his sisters, proving conclusively that all family members, including Anastasia, died in 1918. The parents and all five children are now accounted for, and each has his or her own unique DNA profile.”

1200px-Russian_Imperial_Family_1913.jpgAnd thus ended years of questions and impostors and the mystery of Anastasia turned out not to be a mystery after all.

Last year for my birthday my sister and niece gave me a DNA kit. I think it’s about time I take a swab and send it in since I’m pretty certain I must be related to royalty somewhere. Not the Grand Duchess perhaps but some nice British royalty would be good. I’m still unhappy that I didn’t receive an invite to Harry and Meghan’s wedding.

For more on Anastasia and also Anna Anderson, two links:

Soaring High in a Hot Air Balloon

November 21, 2017

From the moment people could harness their imaginations, there has been no greater desire than to be able to soar like birds, high above the ground. Today, of course, we find air travel utilitarian and, perhaps, a bit mundane. But on November 21, 1783, it was anything but mundane when two Frenchmen, Jean-François Pilâtre deRozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes, became the first humans to travel in a ship through the ‘air.’

DeRozier balloon

DeRozier can credibly be dubbed the father of flight. He became interested in chemicals, specifically gases and how they reacted and interacted; he parlayed his obsession to a career as a teacher and scientist and, as such, opened a museum for nobles to come and witness his experiments.

When, in June 1783, he observed a tethered balloon ‘flight’ of a duck, a sheep and a cockerel, his desire to fly was ignited.

From the infallible Wikipedia:

“After several tethered tests to gain some experience of controlling the balloon, DeRozier and d’Arlandes made their first un-tethered flight in a Montgolfier hot air balloon on 21 November 1783, taking off at around 2 p.m. from the garden of the Château de la Muette in the Bois de Boulogne, in the presence of the King. Their 25-minute flight travelled slowly about 5½ miles (some 9 km) to the southeast, attaining an altitude of 3,000 feet, before returning to the ground at the Butte-aux-Cailles, then on the outskirts of Paris.”

By all accounts, DeRozier was fearless and continued his experiments with what we know as ‘hot air balloons.’ Several successful balloon flights followed and, in June 1785, he took on his most ambitious journey which was to travel from France to England across the English Channel. Because of the distance involved, DeRozier determined that using just hot air (powered by stoves set up in the balloon basket!) would not be enough to make the journey. Instead he developed his own balloon – called the DeRozier Balloon – which was powered by use of hydrogen fuel to heat the air. By all accounts it should have worked. But a sudden change in wind direction pushed the balloon back, and caused it to rapidly deflate. It plummeted 1500 feet to the ground, killing DeRozier and the two others onboard.Rozier death

The accident ended the adventurer’s life and research, but the “modern hybrid gas and hot air balloon is named the Rozière balloon after his pioneering design.”

So the next time you fly remember how very far air travel has advanced in just 234 years.

Update November 21, 2020: I was so very fortunate to attend the Albuquerque Balloon Festival in 2018. What an incredible experience! It was a visual feast of balloon, after balloon. Although I did not get to ride in one, it was fascinating to watch as wave after wave of balloons puffed up to life and lifted into the sky. If you ever have a chance to attend such an event, I highly recommend it.


To read more about DeRozier and balloon flight:

And a general history of Balloon flight:



The hubby and I at the Balloon festival 2018.
So many whimsical balloons like this penguin.
So many people. So many balloons.

The Tale of Galloping Gertie

November 7, 2017

Galloping Gertie GifLast week we explored the world of horseracing and author Dick Francis. This week we will be discussing galloping. But unlike how a horse gallops, this galloping took place on November 7, 1940 and has since become a text-book example of what NOT to do when building a bridge.

We are talking, of course, about the Tacoma Narrows Bridge which sank on this date. It was dubbed ‘Galloping Gertie’ as even the most gentle of breezes would cause the roadway to sway. I can only imagine the feeling of unease one had when driving over the structure.

For Tacoma News Tribune editor Leonard Coatsworth it proved terrifying. From the infallible Wikipedia:

“Leonard Coatsworth, a Tacoma News Tribune editor, was the last person to drive on the bridge:

‘Around me I could hear concrete cracking. I started back to the car to get the dog, but was thrown before I could reach it. The car itself began to slide from side to side on the roadway. I decided the bridge was breaking up and my only hope was to get back to shore.

‘On hands and knees most of the time, I crawled 500 yards or more to the towers… My breath was coming in gasps; my knees were raw and bleeding, my hands bruised and swollen from gripping the concrete curb… Toward the last, I risked rising to my feet and running a few yards at a time… Safely back at the toll plaza, I saw the bridge in its final collapse and saw my car plunge into the Narrows.’”

The bridge had opened only four months earlier! In reading about everything that went wrong the biggest mistake seemed to have been that in a desire to save money on what was perceived as a bridge which would be lightly used, the design was flawed from the beginning.

Ultimately they determined the bridge failure was due to ‘aeroelastic flutter’. Unless, of course, you are an engineer the term means little. The film of the event for us laypeople, however, reveals a structure bucking like an unbroken stallion during its first ride.

hood canal bridgeAlthough I was not around in 1940, I was going to school in Tacoma on February 13, 1979 when another bridge met the same fate as Galloping Gertie. It was then when I grasped the power of a Pacific Northwest windstorm. During the night prior to its sinking, sustained winds of 85 mph buffeted the structure. They estimated gusts up to 120 mph (called a ‘hurricane’ most anyplace else as any sustained wind over 72 mph is classified as such) had occurred. The bridge was swamped and at 7 a.m. that dark, windy and rainy morning, the bridge sank.

I90 November 25 1990Fast forward to November of 1990 and yet a third Washington state bridge met a similar doom. We watched in fascinated horror live TV news on the morning of November 25th as the floating bridge – being resurfaced to continue carrying traffic while a new span was constructed – which connected Mercer Island to Seattle was inundated. As my husband no doubt said at the time: “surf’s up!”

In the 30 plus years I’ve lived in Western Washington there are a couple things you can count on me doing. First, I will do anything I can to avoid driving in windstorms. I’ll drive in rain, snow, sleet and dark of night but the wind stops me. Second, I will move to the northeast corner of any structure, especially one with nearby tall trees. The worst winds hale from the southwest so if a tree is going to come down it will fall from that corner of the house. My family knows that a heavy wind means ‘going to the mattresses’ and sleeping on the floor of the living room as far from the trees as possible.

Now that we are in windstorm ‘season’ remember to batten your hatches when the wind blows and you just might want to avoid driving on bridges.

As always some interesting links PLUS a video from the Washington State History museum which tells the entire Galloping Gertie story.

The Beard Tax

September 5, 2017

Peter the Great

While September 5, 1882, marks the first Labor Day celebration, there was, in fact, a much more momentous occurrence on this date.  It was on September 5, 1698 that Russian Tzar, Peter the Great, decreed a tax be collected on all men who bore a beard.

In 1698 Russia that was, well, pretty much every man who lived there. Peter’s goal was to modernize his country but those pesky peasants – and more than a few merchants, civic leaders and courtiers – believed there was a religious component to the growing and wearing of facial hair.

Not to be deterred, he put the tax in place and then commanded the police to enforce it. From the infallible Wikipedia:

“To enforce the ban on beards, the tsar empowered police to forcibly and publicly shave those who refused to pay the tax. Resistance to going clean shaven was widespread with many believing that it was a religious requirement for a man to wear a beard. The tax levied depended upon the status of the bearded man: Those associated with the Imperial Court, military, or government were charged 60 rubles annually; wealthy merchants were charged 100 rubles per year while other merchants and townsfolk were charged 60 rubles per year; Muscovites were charged 30 rubles per year; and peasants were charged two half-kopeks every time they entered a city.”

Once the tax was paid the man received a beard token as proof he had complied with the law. The coin bore the Russian double eagle on one side and the lower part of a face featuring nose, mouth, whiskers and beard on the obverse. A variety of tokens were minted during the years the tax was in place. It was not lifted until 1772, seventy-four years after institution!


Beard Tax Token

As to Peter the Great’s original goal – to make Russia a more modern nation by the standards of his time – he was largely successful. He established compulsory education, strengthened the military, increased Russia’s land holdings, and European dress and customs were adopted.

For more information on the beard tax and on Peter The Great, click on these links:

Hernando de Soto vs. The Crimson Tide

May 30, 2017

According to the “Today in History” site it was on May 30, 1539, when explorer Hernando de Soto landed near Tampa Bay, Florida. Being that it was almost June and not January, de Soto didn’t spend long there. After all, Disney World would not be carved from the alligator infested swamp lands until October, 1971, 432 years later. And June in Florida is rather hot and humid, so I can’t really blame him for not wanting to be there that time of year. Who would?

De Soto is an interesting explorer. Sponsored by Spain his mission appears to have been to claim what was to become the United States for the mother country. He left Florida and meandered about the south through Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee. Things were going okay until he got to Alabama where he encountered a rather hostile group of native people. According to the infallible Wikipedia:

De Soto’s expedition spent another month in the Coosa chiefdom before turning south toward the Gulf of Mexico to meet two ships bearing fresh supplies from Havana. Along the way, de Soto was led into Mauvila (or Mabila), a fortified city in southern Alabama. The Mobilian tribe, under Chief Tuskaloosa, ambushed de Soto’s army. Other sources suggest de Soto’s men were attacked after attempting to force their way into a cabin occupied by Tuskaloosa. The Spaniards fought their way out, and retaliated by burning the town to the ground. During the nine-hour encounter, about 200 Spaniards died, and 150 more were badly wounded, according to the chronicler Elvas. Twenty more died during the next few weeks. They killed an estimated 2,000-6,000 warriors at Mabila, making the battle one of the bloodiest in recorded North American history.

gators vs tideDe Soto was, it seemed the first team to face the mighty Crimson Tide. The Spaniards escaped to Mississippi but their quest for a national championship was doomed. Their bad luck continued and they were plagued by more unhappy natives, disease and lack of supplies. De Soto, committed to his mission, eventually was stopped by the Big Muddy near what is the happy sounding, present day, Sunflower Landing, Mississippi. He saw that body of water as a pain in the neck, keeping him from his westward march for domination. His relationship with the Mississippi River did not end well. No, it wasn’t the natives who killed him nor did he drown in the river. Instead it was a fever. He died May 21, 1542 in a native village on the western banks of the river near present day MacArthur, Arkansas.

It ended up that it was the stodgy British who, seventy years later, successfully established colonies in the new world. But those people had to live in Massachusetts in the winter since cheap flights to Florida were not yet a thing. I would have been stodgy too.

For more about the life of Hernando de Soto:

For more about alligators (because they fascinate me and it’s kinda freaky to think, if the urban legend is true, that EVERY pond, lake, roadside ditch and swamp in Florida contains at least one), click this link:

Thar’s Gold In Them There Hills

January 24, 2017

It was on January 24, 1848 when James Marshall made a discovery which changed the course of history. It was at a mill on the American River where he noticed something shiny in the water. He immediately shared the news with his partner, John Sutter, and they agreed the find needed to be kept secret. That didn’t pan out, so to speak, and soon some 80,000 men descended upon California in search of gold. While many did make a fortune from the discovery, neither Marshall or Sutter, profited from the find. Marshall experienced multiple business failures and Sutter was forced to turn over his holdings to his son.sutters-mill-1850One can visit Coloma, California, and see the spot where gold was discovered and learn more about this fascinating history at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historical Park. Since my daughter lives ‘above’ this area at the north end of Lake Tahoe I plan to drag the hubby here on our next trip south.As always, a link: