Saturday, January 25, 2020

How Watertight Could It Be?

The author set his briefcase carefully down on the cabin’s desk.  As he carefully unfastened the leather straps, he watched his wife directing the stewards where to distribute the mountain of trunks and valises.  To make his wife happy, he had agreed to booking a first-class stateroom, in part because he knew that a smaller cabin wouldn’t have room for all the purchases his wife had made on her shopping trips to London and Paris. 

Though they had come to London so that he could do research at Scotland Yard for his mystery stories, his wife had taken advantage of the excellent shops of Paris and London.  As a result, they were returning to America with almost twice the luggage they’d had when they left their home, “Stepping Stones”, in Scituate, Massachusetts. 

He knew that it would take his wife, May, and the chambermaid the rest of the day to unpack their luggage, but that wasn’t important to him.  From his briefcase, he carefully removed a thick rectangular bundle, wrapped in brown paper and secured with string.  Telling his wife that he would be back shortly, he left the cabin, joining the throng of excited passengers in the passageway as they happily searched for their staterooms.

Without even realizing he was doing it, he held his package with both hands, close to his chest, as if it were a fragile object that needed protection.  The manuscript was the result of several months’ work, and until he delivered it to his publisher in New York, it was his responsibility to keep it safe.

“Excuse me,” he said to a passing steward, “Where can I find the purser’s office?”

“Down this hall, up the companionway two decks, then forward.   You can’t miss it.”

Despite this assurance, the author did miss it and had to ask directions twice more from the busy ship’s company before he joined a line at the purser’s desk.  When it was his turn, he carefully placed his package down on the mahogany countertop.

“I’d like to place this in the purser’s safe for safekeeping.”

“Certainly, sir,” the clerk answered as he fastened a claim check to the package’s strings.  “Name and cabin number?”

Jacques Futrelle.  Cabin C-123.

With the manuscripts he had been working on for weeks securely in the purser’s safe, Futrelle suddenly felt exhausted.  The night before, April 9, had been his birthday, and friends had surprised him and his wife at their London hotel room, keeping them up until 3:00 in the morning.  By the time the party had broken up, Futrelle and his wife had had to leave immediately for Southampton to board the ship. 

He was also exhausted after having feverishly worked writing and editing his manuscripts—now in the purser’s safe.  While his wife had shopped, he had worked on new mystery stories featuring his famous literary detective, Professor S.F.X. Van Dusen, ‘Ph. D., LL. D., F. R. S., M. D., etc., etc., etc.’, best known as ‘The Thinking Machine’.

Four days later, Futrelle was in the smoking room when he felt the boat suddenly shudder.  By the time he made his way back to his wife in their stateroom, people had begun to leave their cabins, carrying their life preservers.  Even though he got his wife to hurriedly dress, by the time they made their way to lifeboat deck, most of the lifeboats were already lowered into the water.

Spotting some crewmen readying a collapsible lifeboat, Futrelle hurried May over to the boat.  When she hesitated to enter without him, he reassured her that he would be leaving later in another boat.  The ruse failed to convince her, so he said that in the case he couldn’t find a place in one of the boats, he would simply hang onto the side of one of the lifeboats already in the water.

Futrelle didn’t mention that the freezing cold of the water would still kill him.

Still, May refused to enter one of the boats without him.  “Hurry up, May.  You are keeping the others waiting,” were the last words he said to his wife as one of the ship’s officers took her arm and forced her to the boat.

As collapsible lifeboat D was lowered, the last sight May had of her ‘Jack’ was of him talking to Colonel John Jacob Astor, with his face visible by the light of the match with which he lit a cigarette given him by the financier.  After the Titanic sank, neither of the two men’s bodies was ever recovered….And the purser’s safe has never been recovered, either.

Jacques Futrelle—pictured at right, on the deck of the Titanic—died at the age of 37.  Had the author lived, he would have undoubtedly published many more detective stories.  At the time of his death, his works were as popular as—and as profitable as—the stories of Sherlock Holmes.   If you have never read one of Futrelle’s stories, I particularly recommend “The Problem of Cell 13”—one of the best detective stories ever written.  (And since the author has been dead for more than 75 years, you can read it for free by clicking here.)

Unfortunately, unless the purser’s safe was unusually watertight, we’ll never get to read those missing stories.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Noche Triste Revisited

For a couple of decades, I regularly lectured on the colonial history of Mexico.  One of the highlights was talking about the gold that Don Hernán Cortés stole and then lost following the Battle of Noche Triste.  Everyone likes stories about lost gold.

Cortés’ expedition to Mexico was not only unauthorized, but such an outrageous act of treason that only the discovery of vast quantities of gold could possibly have saved the explorer’s life.  That he was ultimately successful is one of those historical accidents that strains the credulity of every student.

Everything about Cortés’ discovery of Tenochtitlan, the capitol of the Aztec empire, is incredible.  Not only was it the largest city that the conquistador had ever seen, it was located in the center of an island in the midst of a mountain-surrounded lake over a mile above sea level.  When Cortés discovered that the Aztec empire had huge quantities of gold and jewels, he decided to plunder the capital despite the immense size of the Aztec army.

As most students know, Cortés played on the superstitions and naïveté of Montezuma, the Aztec chief.  (Yeah, I know that wasn’t really his name.  But, depending on which authority you want to believe, it was either Moctezuma II, Montezuma, Moteuczoma, Motecuhzoma, Motēuczōmah, Muteczuma, or as the Nahuatl texts say, Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin.  If we are going to be that picky, he wasn’t the chief, but the ninth ‘tlatoan’ of the Aztecs.)

Montezuma was something of a poet or philosopher and he was really curious as to the true nature of the strange armor-wearing people who invaded his realm.  Cortés was lucky—if he had arrived during the rule of Montezuma’s bloodthirsty father, Xochicueyetl who believed in killing first, and introductions later, it is doubtful that he would have lived long enough to have made the history books.  It is possible that Montezuma thought the strangers were gods, or emissaries of the gods, or—and this most likely—just curious folks.  For whatever reason, the Aztec chief invited the Spaniards into the city and even gave them his father’s palace to use during their “visit”.

The Spaniards were amazed at the amount of gold in the city, and more than a little alarmed at the brutal and bloody sacrifices that the Aztecs carried out in their temples.  The Aztecs willingly gifted large amounts of gold to their visitors, since the soft metal had little value for the natives.  When Montezuma questioned why the Spaniards were so eager to acquire what the Aztecs referred to as “excrement of the Gods”, Cortés answered, “Europeans suffer from a disease that can only be treated with gold”.

When Cortés learned that more Spaniards had arrived on the gulf coast, he quickly departed the city, leaving the Spaniards who remained in Tenochtitlan under the command of his lieutenant, Pedro de Alvarado.  Hurrying back to the coast, he met a much larger party of Spaniards who had been ordered to find and arrest the treasonous Cortés. 

Luckily for Cortés, this Spanish army also suffered from ‘the gold disease’, and when Cortés offered to split his new wealth with them, the majority of the force quickly changed its allegiance to Cortés, enabling him to conquer the rest of the party sent to arrest him.

Hurrying back to Tenochtitlan with his newly augmented force, Cortés discovered that Pedro de Alvarado had really screwed up in his absence.  This shouldn’t have been much of a surprise since Pedro always screwed up:  he was the embodiment of brainless failure.  A few years earlier, the ill-fated conquistador had acquired a fortune from the Maya by swapping glass beads for hundreds of golden axes.  Pedro was halfway home before he discovered that his fabulous golden axes were actually bronze.

Years later, when Pedro showed up in Peru, Pizarro was so eager to be rid of this walking disaster that he paid the hapless conquistador to leave.  Once again, Pedro was halfway back to Cuba before he discovered that his “payment” consisted of gilded lead bars. 

As soon as Cortés had left for the coast, Pedro had begun harassing the Aztec priests, who were, as far as the dimwitted conquistador was concerned, actively worshipping the devil.  When he interrupted one of the sacrifices and killed a few of the priests and noblemen, the mood of the city bordered on open violence.  When Cortés returned, he quickly realized that the Spanish had overstayed their welcome, but instead of withdrawing, Cortés took Montezuma as a hostage, with the result that the palace where the Spaniards were staying was surrounded by a hostile mob.

What happened next is still open to debate.  What everyone agrees on is that Cortés took Montezuma out on a balcony to tell the angry crowd to disperse and when they refused, Montezuma died.  According to Cortés, the crowd began throwing stones and one of those hit the chief on the head.  The Aztec version of events maintains that when Cortés realized that Montezuma was useless as a hostage, he got angry and stabbed Montezuma.  I guess who you believe may depend on how politically correct you are.

However Montezuma died, Cortés knew it was time to withdraw.  Gathering his forces, he told each man to take as much of the accumulated treasure as they wished, and that they would attempt to sneak out of the city that night.  Some of the men evidently burdened themselves down with just a little too much gold.

The island city of Tenochtitlan was connected to the shore by long causeways which had removable sections for defense.  The Spanish, knowing that the angry natives, eager for revenge, had removed these sections to prevent their escape, had built a light portable wooden scaffold to allow them to escape. 

At midnight, the Spaniards began to move silently through the city, making their way to the closest causeway.  An old woman, washing her clothes in the lake water, spotted the fleeing conquistadors and raised an alarm.  Almost instantly, Aztec warriors began chasing the conquistadors down the causeway and even more began to flank the sides of the causeway in canoes.  As missiles—rocks, darts, arrows, and spears—rained down on the men, they came to the first break in the causeway where they used their scaffold to cross, but then discovered that the wooden structure had become wedged, resisting their efforts to remove it in order to cross the next break in the escape route.

As the missiles continued to pelt the helpless men, those in the rear pushed the men in front of them into the water, where, weighted down with packs of gold, those men quickly drowned.  Some of the men in the rear eventually escaped by crossing on the bodies of their dead comrades.

Cortés had been justifiably angry with Pedro de Alvarado, whom he had ordered to bring up the rear of the column of men as they tried to make their escape.  According to one account, when Pedro came to the first break in the causeway, he managed to use his long lance to vault across the break.  (I’ve always thought it a little unfair that none of the record books credit him with establishing the first Mexican pole vault record.)

By the time Cortés gathered his men on the beaches of Lake Texcoco, he had lost somewhere between 400 and 800 Spaniards and well over 1,000 native allies.  Cortés supposedly sat under a tree and mourned his losses.  The Spanish called the night of June 30, 1520, the “Noche Triste”—the sad night.

Cortés would eventually rally his men, and would eventually conquer Tenochtitlan and all of Mexico.  Though Cortés would eventually gather a fortune in treasure, the gold that was lost that night was never recovered from the bottom of the lake, and is still waiting for someone to discover it.

Well, that was the story that I used to tell my students:  the tale how Cortés gathered Aztec gold only to lose it in his escape from the city.  But, this month, the story got a new ending.  The gold—at least some of it—has been discovered, nearly 500 years later.

Using special x-ray equipment, archaeologists have just identified a gold bar that a city worker uncovered from a Mexico City park as part of the missing treasure.  The bar, 1.93 kilograms, is worth over $50,000 today.  This is the first piece of the lost treasure that has been missing for 500 years to be located.

And even as you read this, I bet that new holes are being sunk in that park.