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History Unplugged Podcast

with Scott Rank

History Unplugged Podcast Episodes
Thomas Jefferson’s European Travel Guide Includes Architectural Sketches, Farming Tips, and an Astronomical Wine Expense Report
September 22, 2022 - 46 min
In 1784, Thomas Jefferson was a broken man. Reeling from the loss of his wife and humiliated from a political scandal during the Revolutionary war, he needed to remake himself. And to do that, he traveled. Traipsing through Europe, Jefferson saw and learned as much as he could, ultimately bringing his knowledge home to a young America. He wrote a travelogue called “Hints to Americans Traveling in Europe.”

Jefferson documented his trip in order to educate the infant nation on cutting-edge techniques in agriculture and architecture. He included sketches of buildings with Roman domes and columns, which he thought should be incorporated into America’s buildings to celebrate one of the ancient world’s greatest democracies. But he also indulged in European luxury and spent a gilded carriage’s worth on wine, ivory-handled knives, and porcelain statuettes, and (most odd) an organ for teaching songs to birds.

More than two hundred years later, Derek Baxter, a devotee of American history, decided to follow in his footsteps and see what he could learn from the Founding Father. Baxter is today’s guest and author of “In Pursuit of Jefferson: Traveling Through Europe With the Most Perplexing Founding Father.” He stumbled on Jefferson’s travelogue and used it as a roadmap, embarking on a new journey, following Jefferson to the same French wineries and rivers, even eating period-accurate food at Monticello. The goal was to figure out how to make sense of Jefferson and the multitude of contradictions in his life, the most debated being that he was a slaveholder who also wrote a world-historical testament to freedom.

This is an unflinching look at a founding father, and a moving personal journey. We explore how we can be better moving forward only by first looking back.
The Michigan Politician Who Created a Proto-New Deal, Defeated the KKK in Court, and Defended Interred Japanese-Americans
September 20, 2022 - 50 min
Frank Murphy was a public servant that achieved the highest levels of civilian success in the early 20th century. After serving in World War I, he served as mayor of Detroit, then as the top appointed U.S. official to the Philippines, then as Governor of Michigan, U.S. Attorney General, and ultimately as a Justice on the Supreme Court, appointed by FDR. But it was his securing justice for a black doctor against a KKK mob that made him an icon.

In 1925, Ossian Sweet, a black doctor, moved with his family into a traditionally white neighborhood in Detroit. The city did not have Jim Crow but it had the KKK and segregation, particularly in housing. On a daily basis, the Sweet family faced taunts and threats of violence from white mobs that gathered outside.

One day in September, the mobs grew violent and threw rocks at the Sweet house, shattering glass windows as the police stood by. Sweet (or one of his companions) shot out from the house and killed a white bystander. He was arrested and tried for murder before an all-white jury.

Judge Frank Murphy insisted on a fair trial for the Black defendants. As the trial judge, Murphy told the jury that Sweet had no duty to retreat if his home was threatened, as Americans had a right to live where they wanted. He evoked the house as a castle metaphor.

Twice, the jury refused to convict and the charges were eventually dropped. The result was hailed by the NAACP and others as a rare triumph of the legal process for black defendants. When Murphy later ran for mayor of Detroit, he won in black precincts by margins of 30-1.

Today’s guest, Greg Zipes, is here to share the story of Murphy. He’s the author of Justice and Faith: The Frank Murphy Story. Throughout his career, Murphy influenced the country’s values in tangible ways, cementing its focus on individual dignity and liberties at times in America’s history when it had moved in more authoritarian directions, whether through war-time suspension of rights or Jim Crow-era legislation or the internment of Japanese Americans.

Other fascinating parts of his life include his Organization of Mayors, which helped pressure the federal government to provide aid directly to cities and individuals, bypassing the states; how the US did not learn lessons about colonial decoupling from Murphy's role in the Philippines prior to World War II; and Murphy’s dissent in the 1944 Supreme Court decision Korematsu vs. US, a decision that debated the legality of Japanese internment camps.
The Rag-Tag Art Renegades that Brought Picasso and Modernist Art to the United States
September 15, 2022 - 50 min
Today we think of New York as the center of the twentieth century art world, but it took three determined men, two world wars, and one singular artist to secure the city’s cultural prominence. Pablo Picasso was the most influential and perplexing artist of his age, and the turning points of his career and salient facets of his private life have intrigued the world for decades. However, the tremendous feat of winning support for his art in the U.S. has long been overlooked.

To discuss this largely forgotten story is Hugh Eakin, author of Picasso’s War How Modern Art Came to America. He details the story of how a single exhibition, years in the making, finally brought the 20th century’s most notorious artist U.S. acclaim, irrevocably changed American culture, and in doing so saved dozens of the twentieth century’s most enduring artworks from the Nazis.

A small group of eclectic figures made this happen: the renegade Irish-American lawyer John Quinn and the mountain-girl-turned-foreign correspondent, Jeanne Foster; the art dealer and Paris kingmaker, Paul Rosenberg; the wunderkind museum founder Alfred Barr and his sharp-witted, Irish-Italian wife, Margaret Scolari. Working sometimes together and often at odds, they were determined to bring the radical art revolutions of Europe to the States, no matter what stood in their way. In the end, they would have to overcome political revolutions, bankruptcies, divorces, art seizures—and years of American cultural hostility before they could achieve their goal. Collectively, it would take the destruction of New York’s first great modern art collection and finally, the Nazis’ war on modernism to bring this twenty-year quest to its surprising conclusion.
The Oldest Stories of King Arthur Have Female Warriors, Black Knights, and Whole Lot of Supernatural Encounters
September 13, 2022 - 46 min
The stories of King Arthur and Merlin, Lancelot and Guinevere, Galahad, Gawain, Tristan and the rest of the Knights of the Roundtable, and the search for the Holy Grail have been beloved for centuries and are the inspiration of many modern fantasy novels, films, and shows. These legends began when an obscure Celtic hero named Arthur stepped on to the stage of history sometime in the sixth century, generating a host of oral tales that would be inscribed some 900 years later by Thomas Malory in his classic Morte D’Arthur (The Death of Arthur).

But Malory had many more sources than he could ever use in his book. As such, historians of Arthur have thougth for decades than an update was necessary. Today’s guest, John Matthews, took up the challenge. He’s the author of “The Great Book of King Arthur & His Knights of the Round Table.” He brings these legends into the modern age, using accessible prose for contemporary readers for the first time. He includes many tales of Arthur and his knights either unknown to Malory or written in other languages, such as the story of Avenable, the girl brought up as a boy who becomes a famous knight; Morien, whose adventures are as fantastic and exciting as any found in Malory’s work; and a retelling of the life of Round Table favorite Gawain, from his strange birth to his upbringing among the poor to his ascension to the highest position—Emperor of Rome.
Steve Guerra on Freemasonry, The Catholic Church, and the Modern World
September 9, 2022 - 18 min
This is a sample of a recent episode of Steve Guerra's History of the Papacy Podcast ( about Freemasonry, the Catholic Church, and the modern world.
Mata Hari Was Either the World’s Greatest Female Spy or a WWI Exotic Dancer Way In Over Her Head
September 8, 2022 - 33 min
Even before Mata Hari (née Margaretha Zelle) was executed by a French firing squad in 1917 for spying on behalf of the Germans, her life had already become legend. At her trial, prosecutors claimed that the world-famous exotic dancer had seduced countless men from both sides of the war (definitely true) and leaked intelligence that caused the deaths of 50,000 French soldiers (almost certainly false).
Immediately after her death, biographies ran with the juicier narrative and turned her into the femme fatale archetype, who lured high-ranking officers into her boudoir and steal their documents while they were asleep. She inspired books, musicals, and films.
But more recently, historians argued that she was merely a gossip who tried to steal state secrets but never discovered anything that couldn’t be found in the newspapers. The only recent the French military charged her with espionage was to distract the nation from France’s poor showing in the war.
In today’s episode, we explore the life and death of Mata Hari, a woman who was an excellent performer, perhaps a poor spy, but above all else, never, ever uninteresting.
Vikings Definitely Came to the New World Before Columbus. Did Celtic Monks, the Chinese, and Phoenicians Do So Also?
September 6, 2022 - 65 min
Many brave sailors arrived in North and South America long before Columbus, suggesting that trans-oceanic voyages could be accomplished centuries before his voyage. Some think that the Atlantic was crossed as far back as the Bronze Age. While written records of such voyages are often poorly sourced, archeology keeps rewriting the story about Old World visitors to the New World.
How America Chooses to Remember Itself: 200 Years of U.S. Museums, and Presenting the Civil War, Spanish Flu, and the Culture Wars
September 1, 2022 - 43 min
On an afternoon in January 1865, a roaring fire swept through the Smithsonian Institution. The New York Times wrote that “the destruction of so many of its fine collections will be viewed as a national calamity.” Dazed soldiers and worried citizens could only watch as the flames engulfed the museum’s castle. Rare objects and valuable paintings were destroyed. The flames at the Smithsonian were not the first —and certainly would not be the last—disaster to upend a museum in the United States. Beset by challenges ranging from pandemic and war to fire and economic uncertainty, museums have sought ways to emerge from crisis periods stronger than before, occasionally carving important new paths forward in the process.

But museums ask questions about power and who gets to determine what stories are told or foregrounded, who gets to determine how those things are exhibited, framed, and talked about.

To talk with us today about museums is today’s guest, historian and professor Samuel J. Redman. He’s the author of The Museum: A Short History of Crisis and Resilience. We explore World War I and the 1918 influenza pandemic, the Great Depression, World War II, the 1970 Art Strike in New York City, and recent controversies in American museums from the COVID-19 pandemic to race and gender issues, this timely book takes a novel approach to understanding museum history, present challenges, and the future. By diving deeper into the changes that emerged from these key challenges, Samuel J. Redman argues that cultural institutions can—and should—use their history to prepare for challenges and solidify their identity going forward.
The Many Ways To Die While Building an Aircraft Carrier
August 30, 2022 - 47 min
Tip the Empire State Building onto its side and you’ll have a sense of the length of the United States Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, the most powerful in the world: the USS John F. Kennedy. Weighing 100,000 tons, Kennedy features the most futuristic technology ever put to sea, making it the most dangerous aircraft carrier in the world.
Only one place possesses the brawn, brains and brass to transform naval warfare with such a creation – the Newport News Shipbuilding yard in Virginia and its 30,000 employees and shipyard workers.

The building of the USS JFK is part of a millennia-long story of the incredible danger that comes with building a ship. Welders have to walk hundreds of feet in the air and hang upside down like Batman to join beams. Painters have to squeeze into compartments smaller than coffins. All of this under impossible deadlines with the specter of COVID hanging overhead.

To talk about the past, present, and future of aircraft carriers is Michael Fabey, author of “Heavy Metal: The Hard Days and Nights of the Shipyard Workers Who Build America’s Supercarriers.” We discuss the importance of this American made industry not only on a local but nationwide level, and why aircraft carriers still matter in the third decade of the 21st century.
The Divorce Colony: Why Women Fled to South Dakota in the 1880s to End Their Troubled Marriages
August 25, 2022 - 48 min
No-fault divorce laws began spreading across the globe in the 1970s, in which neither party had to prove wrong-doing. Before this time, somebody had to prove that the other party breached the marital contract, typically through infidelity or desertion. Basically, it was shockingly difficult to get divorced. For a woman in the late 19th century, there was only one place in the country to reliably get a divorce: Sioux Falls, otherwise known as the “Divorce Colony,” a place where the land and the laws had not yet been tamed.

To explore this topic further is today’s guest April White, author of “The Divorce Colony: How Women Revolutionized Marriage and Found Freedom on the American Frontier.” She discusses the stories of four real women who made the trek to Sioux Falls to get their divorces because the new state had short residency requirements before a settler fell under the jurisdiction of its flexible laws. We discuss salacious newspaper headlines, juicy court documents, and high-profile cameos from the era’s most well-known socialites to unveil the incredible social, political, and personal dramas that unfolded in Sioux Falls and reverberated around the country.

In particular, we discuss how the scandalous divorces of socialites and actresses at the turn-of-the-century led to greater acceptance of divorce in the United States; why turn-of-the-century suffragists were split on the question of divorce; and wow increased access to divorce changed the role of women in the United States.
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