Unusual American History 101.
February 18, 2011 4:48 AM   Subscribe

American history nerds: What are your favorite unusual, quirky, or unique events in American history?

I’m in the midst of compiling a list of episodes in American history of interest to readers born outside of the United States. I’d like to focus on episodes with a strong wow-factor—ones that will elicit remarks along the lines of, “I thought I knew a bit about American history, but boy--this totally upends my understanding of the subject!”

While an almost infinite number of events could be cited in this context, I’d like to stick with ones that have impacted the flow of US history (even to a lesser degree), and can be considered worthwhile or interesting to know about if you’re living outside of the US. For example, the history of Area 51 probably doesn’t fit the bill, because it’s primarily of interest to UFO researchers (or fanatics). Yet the history of official, covert military investigations into UFO reports might be a good candidate. I’m also interested in events in which the wow-factor springs out from the topic heading, e.g., “Did you know that Coca-Cola was originally developed to combat morphine addiction, among other ailments?”

Above all, I’m looking for stories; for events that can be spun into engaging—but true!—yarns that shed light on American history in general. (Returning to the Coca-Cola example, this can be spun into an interesting paragraph on morphine addiction in the Civil War, and then into a discussion of Civil War battlefield injuries.)

Putting yourself in the shoes of someone outside of the US—shoes you might be occupying right now, of course—what are some of the unusual, unique, or surprising stories that you’ve become enamored with, and would like to know more about?

Bonus points for book recommendations, too!
posted by Gordion Knott to Society & Culture (58 answers total) 141 users marked this as a favorite
If you don't mind me copy-pasting from an old comment of mine:
[A] little story about George Washington:

After the revolution succeeded, Washington enjoyed enormous popular support, and many people expected him to take the reigns of the newborn nation and become a monarch. Even King George expected this -- when an aide informed him that Washington would instead retire to Mount Vernon, the King remarked, "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world."

So there's Washington, keeping busy with the management of his estate. But there's trouble brewing. During the war many soldiers had worked for free with the promise of payment once the British were driven away. But the new Congress under the Articles of Confederation did not have enough taxing power to generate the revenues necessary to remunerate the army. Many were angry with the fecklessness of the new legislature, and some high-level officers began plotting open revolt against the civil power.

These rebels approached Washington and invited him to join their cause. They figured that with a celebrated war hero on their side, Congress would surrender quickly -- and if they installed Washington as unilateral ruler, he would see that his former soldiers were taken care of.

Washington was appalled. But he knew he had to diffuse the anger of the rebels effectively. So he leaked news of a covert meeting of the conspirators allegedly scheduled by one of his underlings. When Washington strode in a few minutes after it started, they were surprised. He began exhorting them to be good soldiers and to respect the new republic they'd fought so hard to achieve, pleading with them to "express your utmost horror and detestation of the man who wishes, under any specious pretenses, to overturn the liberties of our country, and who wickedly attempts to open the floodgates of civil discord and deluge our rising empire in blood."

But they were visibly skeptical. He knew he needed something more. So he pulled out a letter from a congressman regarding the delayed pay, then fumbled with it for a few heartbeats before setting it down, taking out his glasses (which few soldiers even knew he needed), and saying:

"Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country."

An eyewitness later recalled, "There was something so natural, so unaffected, in this appeal, as rendered it superior to the most studied oratory; it forced its way to the heart, and you might see sensibility moisten every eye."

The small audience was so shamed by Washington's statement that the conspiracy fell apart immediately, and the United States was saved.
posted by Rhaomi at 5:04 AM on February 18, 2011 [12 favorites]

History is written by the winners, or, until fairly recently, about the winners. So, you probably get the best unknown stories from history books about outsiders.

Thaddeus Russell, A Renegade History of the United States.

Or any interview book by Studs Terkel.
posted by ijsbrand at 5:04 AM on February 18, 2011

I was just reading Nathaniel Philbrick's excellent Mayflower and learned that the Plymouth Colony considered marriages as civil affairs, because not everyone in the colony shared the same theology.

Also, America's future might just have been secured when Edward Winslow played bedside nurse to Massasoit and saved his life by scraping the crusty nastiness off of the Indian chief's tongue, which allowed him to start eating again, and, as a result recover enough to help the colonists negotiate the new world.

Tongue scraping, dude.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:19 AM on February 18, 2011

When I asked about good true crime books, Jessamyn recommended The Devil in the White City to me, about the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 and the serial killing spree of H.H. Holmes a few blocks away. As a non-American, there were quite a few wow factors there (I think one of the jacket blurbs was also "You'll find yourself wondering how you don't already know this", which makes it seem like a good fit with your criteria).
posted by Beardman at 5:39 AM on February 18, 2011

Don't mess with Austin... Texas Archive War. Townfolk chasing wagons of archival materials with a cannon in tow!
posted by candyland at 5:49 AM on February 18, 2011

Boston Molasses Flood
posted by mneekadon at 6:04 AM on February 18, 2011 [8 favorites]

Don't Know Much About History: Everything You Need to Know About American History but Never Learned by Kenneth C. Davis had a few good stories that I know I liked but can't remember now. In any case, check the book out.
posted by Blake at 6:10 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

A source for you: The Memory Palace blog & podcast.
posted by jon1270 at 6:11 AM on February 18, 2011

I enjoy non-academic history books. I have two recent favorites that you might enjoy. One is, A Voyage Long and Strange: on the Trail of Vikings, Conquistadors, Lost Colonists, and Other Adventurers in Early America. I loved this book and found it very quirky, informative and fun. I also really liked Empire of the Summer Moon. It’s about the Comanche Nation and the kidnapping of Cynthia Ann Parker who gave birth to Quanah Parker. I really had no idea how powerful some of these Native American armies were and how recent it was that they were still conducting raids.
posted by iscavenger at 6:19 AM on February 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

i always found the history of Tammany Hall and the impact on immigration in America to be fascinating.
posted by wayward vagabond at 6:24 AM on February 18, 2011

I just finished reading The Great Divorce.

Known today for their elegant hand-hewn furniture, in the early 19th century the Shakers were a radical religious sect whose members renounced sexuality, property, and family to join a Christian utopian community. And if a father joined the Shakers with his children, as James Chapman did in 1814 in upstate New York, his estranged wife had neither parental rights nor legal recourse. In his smoothly narrative and revealing debut, Woo objectively deciphers this segregated society that, despite its stance in the Chapman case, believed in gender equality and was led by its own "Mother Lucy." Eunice Chapman successfully took her case against the Shakers and her husband to the New York legislature, where she obtained a divorce and regained legal custody of her three children, forcibly taking them back in 1818. Full of information about women™s lives and status at the time, the book makes the case that Eunice™s charisma and obsessive determination helped her overcome the usual rejection of women in the public sphere. Both Eunice™s struggle and the Shakers™ story fascinate equally while dispelling romanticized myths of utopian societies in the tumultuous postrevolutionary period.

A ground-breaking divorce is granted to a woman in the 1800's. Practically unheard of and paved the road (somewhat) for reform on divorce.
posted by Sassyfras at 6:24 AM on February 18, 2011

Some of the US/Canadian military conflicts of the early 19th century are fascinating, partly because the US and Canada are such peaceful neighbors and share the world's longest undefended border these days. It's up there with France and Germany being BFFs in the EU for "kind of amazing stories of diplomacy winning out."

Dole engineered the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and its entry into the US as a territory so they could stop paying tariffs on pineapples. In the 1890s, I think?

Pennsylvania has that funny chimney on its west end because the state was convinced the union would fail and refused to join unless it had access to the international waters of Lake Erie for when it became an independent nation, as it was sure would happen.

There was an entire war fought as a sort of side-sortie to the War of 1812 called the Peoria War, having to do with an Indian uprising in what is now central Illinois. The territorial governor (based nowhere near the conflict) sent US troops to violently suppress the "rebellion"; when the troops failed to locate the leader (Tecumsah) as the territorial governor was under deep pressure to do, they set on the town of Peoria (it's slightly unclear whether this was on the governor's orders or their commanding officer's), burned it, and drove the citizens out of it, because Peoria was this mongrel town full of French-speakers, Indians, half-breeds, and not all that many English-speakers. Unfortunately, the US Congress sort-of frowned on killing citizens for no apparent reason, and they were citizens, and when he got wind that the shit was hitting the fan, the territorial governor tried to really fast repopulate the area by re-selling all of the land to English-speaking farmers so it'd look like nothing happened, I guess. This resulted in the same (very fertile) land being legally owned by two people across the entire area; Congress had to pass a law dealing specifically with settling these claims and compensating the "losing" owner. There was no sunset provision in the law, and cases were routinely brought for 100 years; I think the most recent was in like *1983* as people periodically think it's a good idea even though none of the claims are outstanding any longer (as near as anybody can tell). The whole episode was pretty deeply bizarre, and sort-of has shades of the War on Terror, I think, with this territorial governor making TERRIBLE decisions because of the pressure to catch Tecumsah, and bad legal decisions made in haste, and so on.

You will also never run out of fascinating trivia about Lincoln. Personally, I like the duel he had with broadswords.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:25 AM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

One time, a vice president killed a former treasury secretary in a duel. The duel took place in New Jersey instead of New York because the penalty was lower in NJ.

The vice president was later charged with treason by the president he served for an unrelated crime (you know, starting up your own army in Louisiana).
posted by General Malaise at 6:32 AM on February 18, 2011

Broadswords in a pit
posted by Mayor West at 6:33 AM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

The caning of Sumner by Brooks!
posted by Dr. Wu at 6:40 AM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

The first use of aircraft in warfare was ... the American Civil War. Surprised? It was a hot air balloon used for recon purposes. The Union guys would go up in the balloon at night, fly over the Confederate camp and count the number of lights.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 6:43 AM on February 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

Seconding the plot by corporate leaders to overthrow FDR and install a fascist military dictatorship and the story of General Smedley Butler. Worth noting: Prescott Bush, father of George H.W. Bush, was one of the figures involved in trying to win over Butler.
posted by briank at 6:52 AM on February 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

I came in to say the Boston Molasses Flood, but instead will suggest the following speech.
Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don't know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose. But fortunately I had my manuscript, so you see I was going to make a long speech, and there is a bullet - there is where the bullet went through - and it probably saved me from it going into my heart. The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best.
He then went on to talk for 90 minutes.
posted by elsietheeel at 6:55 AM on February 18, 2011 [6 favorites]

I'm partial to the Fenian raids, when the Irish invaded Canada.

There are a lot of good and surprising episodes in Lies My Teacher Told Me.

Bushnell's Revolutionary War submarine is pretty interesting. There's a replica of it in the Connecticut River Museum; I don't think you could pay me enough to go underwater in that thing.

I always enjoyed some of the protest stunts of the Yippies, like levitating the White House and showering $1 bills down onto the floor the New York Stock Exchange.
posted by Miko at 6:58 AM on February 18, 2011

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 is pretty fascinating, especially as compared to the protesting that's going on in the mid-east (and Wisconsin) right now. The amount of violence and property damage done by both the strikers and the federal troops sent in to quell the uprisings would be unthinkable in the US these days. Riots broke out in at least half a dozen cities and scores of strikers were killed and millions of dollars of buildings and trains were destroyed. The battles went on for a month and a half before the feds finally defeated the workers.
... militiamen bayoneted and fired on rock-throwing strikers, killing twenty people and wounding twenty-nine others.[5] Rather than quell the uprising however, this action merely infuriated the strikers who then forced the militiamen to take refuge in a railroad roundhouse, and then set fires that razed 39 buildings and destroyed 104 locomotives and 1,245 freight and passenger cars. On July 22, the militiamen mounted an assault on the strikers, shooting their way out of the roundhouse and killing 20 more people on their way out of the city. After over a month of constant rioting and bloodshed, President Rutherford B. Hayes sent in federal troops to end the strikes.
posted by octothorpe at 6:58 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

The story of the President's Desk is fascinating for what it tells you about Arctic exploration and Anglo-American relations in the 19th Century - it's a helluva well-traveled desk!
posted by Coobeastie at 6:58 AM on February 18, 2011

I recently read That's Not In My American History Book, which was very interesting and entertaining.
posted by HFSH at 7:04 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's not really a story, per se, but my mind was blown when I learned that James Buchanan (our 15th President) was probably gay, and lived for years with an Alabama Senator who was widely assumed to be his partner. Or whatever they called boyfriends back then. Good old Andrew Jackson often referred to Buchanan and King as "Aunt Nancy" and "Miss Fancy."
posted by something something at 7:11 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Great Molasses Flood
posted by Mizu at 7:14 AM on February 18, 2011

The Astor Place Riot, when working-class New Yorkers went on a rampage because they disapproved of a performance of Macbeth

(It's actually a really interesting incident in 19th century urban history. In general, New York had some wild and wacky riots in the 19th century which are worth looking into.)
posted by craichead at 7:25 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Toledo War!

Also, I have been amazed at the adventures of Adams and Jefferson and Franklin during the black hole of history located between the Declaration of Independence and the 1796 federal election. At one point, Adams and Jefferson wandered around England for a while and carved their initials in Shakespeare's furniture. No, really. Plus, I believe the whole "died on the 4th of July, 50 years after the Declaration" story is generally unknown still.

The Amistad case is another good one, as is John Quincy Adams's entire career (from being Jefferson's secretary to the guy who wrote the Monroe Doctrine to the Senate, and by the way being President for a while, too.)

But mostly the Toledo War.
posted by SMPA at 7:30 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Pig War - not only a mostly forgotten episode in the history of US - Canadian relations, it also gave birth to Robert's Rules of Order.
posted by penguinicity at 7:31 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

The state of North Dakota tried to secede from the union TWICE.
(self-link, sorry, nobody else has as much info)

But, from outside the US, the Civil War may be seen as the one and only time the US broke up, but lots of people have pushed right up to the edge of Union-busting both before and since the Civil War for a variety of reasons, each of which demonstrates just how tenuous the Union is, and what it is that really holds it together.

And seconding the Fenian Raids -- I'm working on a book about them. Related to the Fenian Raids is the Alabama problem: Great Britain built a warship for the Confederacy during the US Civil War, which went on to attack hundreds of Northern commercial vessels, and after the war the North was none too happy with England for helping the wrong side. Also, Canada (part of the UK at the time) supported the St Alban's Raid, the northernmost Civil War engagement, which also made the US unhappy with England. So, when England was all, "aah, the Irish are invading, and they're using US army rifles and US cities as staging grounds and sailing on US ships and hiding behind their US citizenship to avoid prosecution, please help, President Johnson", Johnson's response was pretty much, "yeah, it's tough when foreign nations who signed neutrality treaties still support your enemies, huh. We're still waiting for payment of war reparations, so as soon as we get that check in the mail..."
posted by AzraelBrown at 7:35 AM on February 18, 2011 [4 favorites]

The first astronaut.
posted by Brocktoon at 7:38 AM on February 18, 2011

Last year I made an FPP about the Koreshan Unity, my favorite bit of weird American history. It may be too obscure for what you're looking for, though the movement's influence reached as far as San Francisco, Chicago, and Nazi Germany. It's really just one example of the pseudoscientific cult fad that swept the nation in the late 19th century, which ties in loosely with the "Professor Marvel" miracle remedies/tonics craze that Coke and Pepsi emerged from, that you mentioned in your question.

Also interesting is the little-known history of the Federal Reserve, the 1910 conspiracy which involved industry titans meeting secretly in a railway car and on a secluded island in Georgia, disguising their meeting as a "duck hunt" and hiding from the press. It's fascinating that such a major part of the American economy began as a clandestine corporate takeover of the country's money supply.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 7:57 AM on February 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

My favorite piece of cold war history is the abandoned plan to explode a nuclear weapon on the Moon. Carl Sagan worked on the project (Project A119).

It was an attempt to display American military prowess at a time when we were clearly losing the space race. It also would have been the first lasting impression on a heavenly body by human kind - a huge pock mark on the face of the man-in-the-moon.
It was decided that titled the American public wouldn't be too fond of it, and we aggressively pursued a more peaceful space race - resulting in Neil Armstrong landing on the moon.
posted by ten year lurk at 8:01 AM on February 18, 2011

You may be interested in Reviel Netz's Barbed Wire. In the first part of the book he examines the social conditions that led to the invention of barbed wire in the American West in 1874, and from there spins out to explain how it was adopted in military technology, culminating in World War I, and then played a central role in Nazi concentration camps. Beyond the subject matter itself, you might be interested to see how he constructs his argument -- how a small thing snowballs and becomes representative of the history of modern Western civilization.
posted by lilac girl at 8:15 AM on February 18, 2011

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787

wiki - Arguably the single most important piece of legislation passed by members of the earlier Continental Congresses other than the Declaration of Independence, it established the precedent by which the United States would expand westward across North America by the admission of new states, rather than by the expansion of existing states.

As it relates to development of the territory

- established townships as the first rung in government, and by way of surveying, set up the territory in grids, which is why in the area concerned, should you be lost on a country/ gravel road somewhere, you can usually just hang three rights, and be back where you were.

my absolute fave historical thing!
posted by timsteil at 8:18 AM on February 18, 2011

If your audience is Dutch they would probably dig the story of Andriaen van der Donck, the largely forgotten Dutch lawyer-turned-colonist in New Amsterdam who campaigned vigorously for a Dutch-style republic in the remote company trading post. It's not a snappy little vignette, since the guy devoted many years to bringing the Dutch Enlightenment to the New World, but it's certainly a little-known aspect of American history. (The problem: van der Donck wrote in Dutch, naturally, and the English who conquered New Netherland imposed their language on the colony, so van der Donck's work soon became unintelligible.)

For more about this disregarded era, check out Island at the Center of the World: THe Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America by Russell Shorto. The Dutch contribution to early American history has been woefully short-changed (history being written by the victors, and all that), but some of our best ideals are more Dutch than English.
posted by Quietgal at 9:56 AM on February 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

Emperor Norton (a San Franciscan who declared himself Emperor of the United States) has always fascinated me, not just for his inherent weirdness, but how he seemed to be held in high esteem.
posted by Turkey Glue at 10:12 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sparkletack is a podcast that specializes in weird and wonderful elements from San Francisco history.

Here's one about how Johnny Mathis was nearly a world-class athlete instead of a singer. (Or is that too recent and not world-changing enough for your purposes?!)
posted by vickyverky at 10:58 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Naval War of 1812 as told by Theodore Roosevelt is a classic. Obviously, we're a warlike sort, and it's interesting to see that our achievements in arms are nothing new. Like as not, we'd still be willing to go to war over a pig. (Some of the players in this bloodless "war" went on to fame.)
posted by Hylas at 11:33 AM on February 18, 2011

Shortly after the peace was signed, the story began, the Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen "had occasion to visit England" where he was subjected to considerable teasing banter. The British would make"fun of the Americans and General Washington in particular and one day they got a picture of General Washington" and displayed it prominently in the outhouse so Mr. Allen could not miss it. When he made no mention of it, they finally asked him if he had seen the Washington picture. Mr. Allen said, "he thought that it was a very appropriate [place] for an Englishman to Keep it. Why they asked, for said Mr. Allen there is Nothing that Will Make an Englishman Shit So quick as the sight of Genl Washington."
-- One of Abraham Lincoln's favorite stories, from Team of Rivals
posted by kirkaracha at 1:05 PM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

Shay's rebellion is pretty cool. It took place in the period between the Revolution and the creation of the Constitution; actually it exposed big weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation, leading to a Constitutional Convention.

A bunch of the rebels gathered in my town before marching onto Worcester County Courthouse. Kids play soccer on the fields today.

posted by JohntheContrarian at 1:06 PM on February 18, 2011

I'm not sure what the best story to illustrate the concept is, but Faithless Electors are a pretty mind-blowing way to introduce the topic of how elections actually work in the USA.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 1:12 PM on February 18, 2011

The Battle of the Crater, an episode during the siege of Petersburg in the Civil War, is a fascinating and tragic story. Union forces developed an ingenious plan to secretly tunnel under Confederate lines and detonate explosives beneath enemy forces; however, just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong, and Ulysses S. Grant called it "the saddest affair I have witnessed in this war."

The crater is still there, too.
posted by cirripede at 1:29 PM on February 18, 2011

Triangle: The Fire that Changed America.

About the Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy and how it spurred New York to begin enacting work safety regulations and encouraged workers to unionize to protect themselves from careless, greedy bosses.

Relevant in an age where certain politicians work to gut OSHA, kill off unions, and return to laissez-faire capitalism.
posted by marsha56 at 3:00 PM on February 18, 2011

The Teapot Dome Scandal is my favorite. There was a great book about it that came out about 2 years ago. A great read!
posted by buzzkillington at 6:02 PM on February 18, 2011

James Garfield is kind of the most interesting president no one ever heard of. He could (supposedly) write in Greek and Latin at the same time (he was ambidextrous), and campaigned in German and English. He fought against corruption and hoped for closer ties between the US and Latin America. He was shot by a madman angry that he had been denied a government post, and suffered a long painful death with the bullet still in him, despite the use of a metal detector Alexander Graham Bell invited for the occasion (it was thrown off by the metal bedsprings).
posted by pynchonesque at 8:11 PM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I loved Legends, Lies, and Cherished Myths of American History by Richard Shenkman.
posted by SisterHavana at 10:13 PM on February 18, 2011

For me the fascinating stuff was the skirmishes between English and French long before the revolution. The British colonies were pushing west but hemmed in by mountains; the French strategy was to contain them using a series of military alliances with native groups, supported by a string of forts and trading posts. Thus the entire region from Canada to New Orleans was French-controlled (nominally, though it was all native land then of course). And all through the region you see cities with French names, Detroit, Des Moines, Boise, St. Louis... names all completely Americanized like they were never French. Try saying détroit or boisée all French-like, it's amusing.

The Cajuns in Louisiana are a fascinating story too. As you probably know they are French-speaking. Their origin is the colony of Acadia ("Acadian" = "Cajun"), which is present-day Maine, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. The colony flipped back and forth between the English and French so many times (typically a prize in various treaties) that they just did their own thing without caring which flag was flying, but when the British king drafted them and they refused to fight they were deported. The French king invited them to Louisiana and many settled there; others dispersed throughout the east coast; many died; and some remained in their homeland and have kept the culture going.
posted by PercussivePaul at 2:02 AM on February 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Wow, way to bork a link: Adriaen van der Donck in Wikipedia, spelled correctly. Sorry dude, you definitely deserve better.
posted by Quietgal at 1:12 PM on February 19, 2011

The narratives behind a few of the insurrections in America are pretty fascinating when you look into them: The fact that Italian anarchists were thought to have bombed Wall Street in 1920 and killed dozens and injured over 140 people has always fascinated me.
posted by jeremias at 5:40 AM on February 20, 2011

I've always been intrigued by the story of the mysterious vanishing of the settlers at Roanoke in the late 1580s - no signs of a struggle, just the word CROATOAN carved in a tree, and 90 men, 17 women and 11 children were never heard from again. The Wikipedia entry is short on spooky atmospherics, sadly.
posted by CunningLinguist at 8:15 AM on February 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

The first inauguration of Andrew Jackson:
The inauguration itself took place on March 4, 1829, and was the first time in which the ceremony was held on the East Portico of the United States Capitol, whereas in earlier times it had been an indoor, invitation-only affair. Ten thousand people arrived in town for the ceremony.

The White House was opened to all for a post-inaugural reception, and was filled by the public even before Jackson arrived on horseback. Soon afterward, Jackson left by a window or a side entrance, and proceeded to Gadsby's Hotel in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. The crowd eventually descended into a drunken mob, and only dispersed when bowls of liquor and punch were placed on the front lawn of the White House.
In their search for booze, the mob actually trashed the White House, breaking several thousand dollars worth of china.
posted by awenner at 12:13 PM on February 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

An article updating the Triangle story appeared in today's NYT, and there is apparently an upcoming HBO special on it too.
posted by marsha56 at 11:01 PM on February 20, 2011

The Iroquois Theater fire of 1903 has always interested me. Its the second most deadly disaster in Chicago history (after the capsizing of the S.S. Eastland in 1915. Both those events killed more people than the Great Fire, believe it or not.) The Iroquois fire also lead to asbestos cutrains being mandatory in theaters and panic bars mandatory on almost all public buildings.
posted by Hey Dean Yeager! at 2:38 PM on February 21, 2011

Even a lot of American's don't know about Juneteenth, which celebrates the day in 1865when slaves in Galveston got the news that they had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. Sure, they had technically been free for about two years at that point, but that's no reason not to throw a party every June 19th.

The Statue of Liberty was originally supposed to be at the northern entrance to the Suez Canal, which is oddly apropos to current events.
posted by Panjandrum at 2:42 PM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Battle of Athens, Georgia, aka the McMinn County War, in which armed citizens rebelled against their county government, which was running a lucrative arrest-and-fine revenue scheme.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:21 AM on October 17, 2011

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