Samuel Verner, an American businessman and missionary, apparently was motivated more by business than by missionary zeal when in 1904 he bought, for a measure of salt and some cloth, an African pygmy named Ota Benga. His intent was "to acquire an assortment of African pygmies for display at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair," according to British historian Giles Milton's new collection of historical anecdotes.
Benga was put on display in the fair's anthropology tent, where fairgoers marveled at his teeth, filed to fine points when he was a boy. Hucksters falsely claimed, and newspapers reported, that he was a cannibal. He returned to Africa after his fair run, but Milton tells us that Verner brought Benga to the United States again two years later and installed him first at the American Museum of Natural History, then at the Bronx Zoo. There, he was on display in the monkey house. There's more, including a remarkably racist defense of the display by the New York Times, which disputed humanitarian suggestions that Benga should be in school, "a place," the Times observed, "from which he could draw no advantage whatsoever."
Milton has strong credentials as a writer and rigorous researcher. This would be one of his lighter endeavors, a book to keep handy by the nightstand or in the deer camp outhouse. The 50 brief but detailed stories, from the hilarious to the absurd, may have you searching the Internet for verification — or the rest of the story.
He tells how Israeli secret service agents identified Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief Nazi monsters behind the Holocaust, by watching him deliver 25th-anniversary flowers to his wife in his Argentine hiding place — on the date the agents knew to be Eichmann's 25th anniversary. And he tells how the last U.S. casualty of World War I died a minute before the Armistice took effect at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918, when he charged a German machine gun nest despite the Germans shouting and trying to wave him off. Henry Gunther had been busted from sergeant to private after being accused of defeatism. He was determined now to show that he was in fact courageous.
The stories are well told, historical nuggets with a Robin Leach-like "Lifestyles of the obscure and infamous" quality. For the skeptical, Milton provides an extensive "Further Reading" list of established historical accounts.
So settle back (or down) and read how Hitler took cocaine, Lenin lost his brain, Japan sent balloon bombs across the Pacific to attack the U.S. mainland, and Britain's most famous executioner bragged that he could take a condemned prisoner from cell to scaffold and make him dead all within a minute.
Chuck Haga, a former Star Tribune reporter, lives in Grand Forks, N.D., where he teaches media writing at the University of North Dakota.