Not an article about religion, but an article about what’s right.
JERUSALEM, Israel – Against a backdrop of growing anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, Christians who are descendants of Nazis are asking forgiveness from Holocaust survivors, their descendants and the Jewish people; and this move is leading to a greater sense of unity.
Jerusalem’s Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum welcomed the Christians to the city. She told them, “I saw you all marching and it’s so heart-warming to see our city filled with lovers of Jerusalem. Thank you for being here!”
Christians from some 30 countries came up to Jerusalem for what they call “The March of the Nations.” They came to say, “From the Holocaust to new life, Shalu Shalom Yerushalayim – Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”
Hassan-Nahoum told CBN News, “The founders of this march are essentially descendants of Nazis, and you know, to have the human beings coming and saying something so awful happened, we’re going to spend our lives trying to correct and compensate for that; and to create a movement like that.”
Jobst Bittner, from Tubingen, Germany, is the founder and president of the March for Life. “I am from a city in which the university is where Nazi perpetrators – SS murderers – were educated and trained,” he explained. “And they were responsible for the death of 700,000 Jews, and that’s why we started really researching the history of our city.”
Bittner says German families usually don’t speak about their Nazi past.
“We discovered that only once we are willing to actually speak the truth about the past, we will be able to take responsibility both for the present and the future. And that’s why we decided to give that call into the nations and to call hundreds of thousands to the streets to raise their voices against anti-Semitism, the hatred of Jews and for Israel,” he said.
Bittner, like many in the march, has a personal story.
He recalled, “My own father was an officer in the Wehrmacht (German army), and he was in France and in Northern Africa; and as an officer of the Wehrmacht, he shared in that responsibility for the deportation of Jews, for the murder of Jews, because everyone who was in the Wehrmacht shared that responsibility,”
Now he sees their responsibility is to stand with Israel, especially in times of crisis.
“United to be a light, and together with our Jewish friends, hand in hand, we want to walk and stand for Israel and that’s our theme: ‘united to be a light.'”
Heinz Reuss, the international director for the March for Life, said the past was revealed to them over time. “Many of us found out that our fathers, great-grandfathers, they were Nazis, they were part of the Shoah. They were concentration camp guards. They were part of the Wehrmacht,” he explained.
Reuss’ family shared a mixed past. While his Dutch great-grandmother hid Jews in her home, his German-Austrian great-grandfather took a different path.
“He was not a Nazi,” Reuss stated. “He was part of the Lutheran church and was not supporting Hitler. So, I thought, okay, everything was okay. But then I started to read his diaries and his letters, and what I found out is that…he withdrew from his Jewish friends at that time. So he didn’t speak up. He just didn’t want to have anything to do with that. And, that’s the problem, because at that time, people who knew better didn’t do anything.”
The march began as a movement of repentance.
“We realized that the same silence towards the Jewish people, it’s also in our own hearts.” He related that “in 2007, we learned that there were eight concentration camps around our little town of Tubingen in southern Germany. And there were death marches at the end of the war towards Dachau. And then we had …a word from the Lord to say, why not do a March of Life on these trails of the death march?”
They walked 300 kilometers, re-tracing the steps along those different routes for three days. The result was powerful.
“We had, reconciliation meetings in the middle of it, and beautiful encounters between the descendants of the Nazis and the Holocaust survivors and the descendants of Holocaust survivors,” Reuss said.
What they initially saw as a one-time event is now worldwide. Marches have been held in hundreds of cities in 25 countries. In the U.S., it is called the March of Remembrance.
Ahead of the Jerusalem event, Israeli President Isaac Herzog commended the group for its courage in facing their dark past. He wrote:
Your presence demonstrates unwavering moral support for our nation-state and its people, and the State of Israel welcomes you with open arms.”
Gerd Gekeler, a participant from Germany, noted, “I know that my, grandfathers were part of the army and they were – I don’t know much about it – but they were part of the system. And, so, I’ve learned that everybody who is part of the system has his part in it.” He added, “I was in Yad Vashem last week. And to see the dimension of that grief and that murder that was really hard; and I’m happy that I could be a part of this movement because I know, also in Germany, most people say it’s passed, it’s gone. But that’s not true. It’s part of our heritage.”
Susan Haueter took part in the march from Colombia. “I can take a stand for the past, the present, and the future with being part of the March of, (life in Spanish) in Espanol. I was three times, involved in organizing a march, in Colombia, in Bogota, (in the capital). Also, the Jewish community, the chief Rabbi of Colombia, is in favor of the march and just a few weeks ago, we had the fourth march, in Agua Sierra,” she said.
Nikolai Gagarkin, a participant from war-torn Kyiv, Ukraine, said, “We are praying for Israel. We are praying for the Jewish people in all countries, in the whole world.”
Global Zionist Movement leader, Rabbi Yehuda Glick, welcomed the marchers, saying he hoped to see many more visiting and standing with Israel for the future. He also had an exhortation: “After the people of Israel came back home and established our state and established Jerusalem as our capital, now it’s the time that to raise the banner of God on the place that He chose in Zion. It’s time for the nations. Just like we – the Jewish people – took our destiny in our hands and came back home, now the nations have to stand up for Zion and make sure Zion is the House of Prayer for all Nations.”
In a powerful and emotional show of unity, the Jerusalem march and event participants sang the Aaronic Blessing from the Book of Numbers over Israel and the Jewish people.
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The comfort food-style restaurant chain Cracker Barrel, known for its overwhelming amount of ornamental knick-knacks and vintage signs plastered on the walls, is in some social media trouble today. Folks on the internet are claiming Cracker Barrel is racist.
What’s the meaning behind Cracker Barrel?
According to Southern Living, “cracker-barrel” was coined in 1916 because of barrels containing soda crackers — a popular item for sale at country stores. Customers at said country stores would hang around the barrels as a kind of ritual (kind of like the trope of employees gossiping near the water cooler). The first Cracker Barrel location opened in 1969 in Lebanon, Tenn., and it derived its name from the cracker-barrel community experience back in the day.
According to Dictionary.com, “cracker-barrel” means “of or suggesting the simple rustic informality and directness thought to be characteristic of life in and around the country store.”
But some Twitter users have also pointed out that the term “cracker” might have another, more racist connotation. According to NPR, the term “cracker” was used in the mid-18th century to refer to poor white people in states like Maryland, Virginia, and Georgia.
“It is suspected that it was a shortened version of ‘whip-cracker,’ since the manual labor they did involved driving livestock with a whip,” historian Jelani Cobb told the outlet.
But in the late 1800s, writers from the northern USA region referred to some southerners as “crackers.”
“[Those writers] decided that they were called that because of the cracking of the whip when they drove slaves,” historian Dana Ste. Claire told the outlet, though he noted those the term would be applied to weren’t typically wealthy enough to own slaves.
Users on Twitter also claimed that a “cracker barrel” was the barrel used to hold whips, though there is currently no historical evidence to back up that claim. [See the above screenshot from a Twitter post.]
Back in 2015, someone named Ryan Koch, who lived in Iowa, started a petition to change its name because he believed Cracker Barrel to be “racist” toward white folks. Per the Change.org petition, Koch wrote, “I say all European Americans start protesting C****er Barrel. It uses an offensive slur, and it is deeply offensive and mocks our long and proud heritage.” He later clarified the post was “satire.” Ummmmm, OK.
In a tweet, one user claimed you can even see a whip in the logo, going from the first R in “barrel” to the K in “cracker.”
While it’s currently unclear whether or not there is any historical evidence to that claim, the company has since removed the connecting line from the R to the K in the logo.
Cracker Barrel’s PR team reportedly told Pop Icon that the logo was meant to “invoke nostalgia,” and was inspired by “an older gentleman who sat on the front porch during the summer.”
Has Cracker Barrel ever been racist?
So, while it seems like the name of Cracker Barrel isn’t inherently racist, it sounds like a lot of Black customers have experienced racism at the restaurant locations, which is horrifying.
In 2004, there was a filing and settlement of a racial discrimination lawsuit against Cracker Barrel after finding evidence of racist behavior and discrimination in at least 50 locations across the U.S. According to CBS News, 21 people filed a $100 million federal lawsuit against the chain. At the time, a spokesperson for Cracker Barrel stated, “ Our mission is pleasing people, and that means all people. We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind.”However, evidence suggests that Cracker Barrel definitely knew what was happening and wasn’t doing anything about it. Attorney David Sanford stated, “It can’t be the case that Cracker Barrel doesn’t know about it. We have enough evidence right now to suggest that Cracker Barrel, to the very highest level, is responsible.”
According to CBS News, the lawsuit includes statements from Black customers who stated they were forced to wait while white customers were seated right away. One specific person said that she arrived at Cracker Barrel at 9:48 p.m. and was told that she couldn’t be served because the restaurant was about to close. However, she then saw four white men were allowed in. “We had hungry children, and he still refused to serve us,” the person said.
“There are perhaps thousands more African-Americans who have been denied service, treated rudely by servers and hosts, and subjected to racial slurs at Cracker Barrel restaurants,” attorney Grant Morris said.
Hopefully, the chain learned from their (sic) mistakes and has implemented a zero-tolerance policy among their (sic) staff. Nobody deserves to go to a restaurant and be discriminated against — period.
If you are looking for ways to donate your time or money to Black Lives Matter and other antiracist organizations, we have created a list of resources to get you started. [bolded in original]
Well, that last paragraph lets you know where this clueless white woman who posted this on DISTRACTIFY stands on the political spectrum.
It would seem she is so far gone that she doesn’t proofread her articles before submitting them. A number of commas are missing and misusing their for its. I left those in with the notation hat they are in the original.
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You know you’re in trouble when your own hometown newspaper endorses the other guy.
John Fetterman’s hometown newspaper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, has endorsed Republican Dr. Oz in the Pennsylvania senate race.
Newspaper endorsements rarely count for much unless they make a surprising choice that makes people take notice.
This is one of those cases.
Mr. Fetterman’s life experience and maturity are also concerns. He has lived off his family’s money for much of his life. That has allowed him to do some good things, including mentoring disadvantaged young people and working to improve community policing and economic development in Braddock.
That work, along with his six-foot-eight frame, shaved head and tattoos, attracted national media attention. Still, Mr. Fetterman, despite his hoodies and shorts, has little experience in holding real jobs or facing the problems of working people.
In 2013, as the mayor of Braddock, Mr. Fetterman, after hearing gunshots, pulled a shotgun on an unarmed Black jogger. It was, we believe, an honest mistake. Still, it’s troubling that Mr. Fetterman never apologized for it. And during Tuesday’s debate, confronted with his 2018 statement that he didn’t support fracking, Mr. Fetterman still said, with a straight face, that he always supported fracking…
Unlike most Republican politicians, candidate Oz spent a lot of time in poor urban neighborhoods, talking to people and, most important, listening and learning. He is more moderate on some issues than portrayed.
We don’t believe he will be a stooge for the far right or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. We hope that Mr. Oz will disappoint them and serve in the Pennsylvania tradition of moderate Republicans, such U.S. Sens. John Heinz, Hugh Scott, and Richard Schweiker.
How embarrassing for John Fetterman.
“All candidates for a major elected office should release their medical records, as did Mr. Oz. If you want privacy, don’t run for public office.”https://t.co/cnCtm4a5SN
A bizarre string of events is unfolding at the American Historical Association (AHA). Last week, AHA president James H. Sweet published a column in the organization’s magazine on the problem of “presentism” in academic historical writing. According to Sweet, an unsettling number of academic historians have allowed their political views in the present to shape and distort their interpretations of the past.
Sweet offered a gentle criticism of the New York Times’s 1619 Project as evidence of this pattern. Many historians embraced the 1619 Project for its political messages despite substantive flaws of fact and interpretation in its content. Sweet thus asked: “As journalism, the project is powerful and effective, but is it history?”
Within moments of his column appearing online, all hell broke loose on Twitter.
Incensed at even the mildest suggestion that politicization is undermining the integrity of historical scholarship, the activist wing of the history profession showed up on the AHA’s thread and began demanding Sweet’s cancellation. Cate Denial, a professor of history at Knox College, led the charge with a widely-retweeted thread calling on colleagues to bombard the AHA’s Executive Board with emails protesting Sweet’s column. “We cannot let this fizzle,” she declared before posting a list of about 20 email addresses.
Other activist historians joined in, flooding the thread with profanity-laced attacks on Sweet’s race and gender as well as calls for his resignation over a disliked opinion column. The responses were almost universally devoid of any substance. None challenged Sweet’s argument in any meaningful way. It was sufficient enough for him to have harbored the “wrong” thoughts – to have questioned the scholarly rigor of activism-infused historical writing, and to have criticized the 1619 Project in even the mildest terms.
New York Times columnist and 1619 Project contributor Jamie Bouie jumped in, casually dismissing Sweet’s concerns over the politicization of scholarship with contemporary “social justice” issues. 1619 Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones retweeted the attacks on Sweet, even though she has previously invoked the “journalistic” and editorial nature of her project to shield it from scholarly criticism by historians.
Other activist historians such as the New School’s Claire Potter retorted that the 1619 Project was indeed scholarly history, insisting that “big chunks of it are written by professional, award-winning historians.” Sweet was therefore in the wrong to call it journalism, or to question its scholarly accuracy. Potter’s claims are deeply misleading. Only two of the 1619 Project’s twelve feature essays were written by historians, and neither of them are specialists in the crucial period between 1776-1865, when slavery was at its peak. The controversial parts of the 1619 Project were all written by opinion journalists such as Hannah-Jones, or non-experts writing well outside of their own competencies such as Matthew Desmond.
The frenzy further exposed the very same problems in the profession that Sweet’s essay cautioned against. David Austin Walsh, a historian at the University of Virginia, took issue with historians offering any public criticism of the 1619 Project’s flaws – no matter their validity – because those criticisms are “going to be weaponized by the right.” In Walsh’s hyperpoliticized worldview, historical accuracy is wholly subordinate to the political objectives of the project. Sweet’s sin in telling the truth about the 1619 Project’s defects was being “willfully blind to the predictable political consequences of [his] public interventions.” Any argument that does not advance a narrow band of far-left political activism is not only unfit for sharing – it must be suppressed.
Within hours of the AHA’s original tweet of Sweet’s article, the cancellation campaign was in full swing. Predictably, the AHA caved to the cancellers.
One day after the offending article went live, the AHA tweeted out a “public apology” from Sweet. It reads like a forced confession statement, acknowledging the “harm” and “damage” allegedly caused by simply raising questions about the politicization of scholarship toward overtly ideological activist ends. It did not matter that Sweet’s criticisms were mild and couched in plenty of nuance, or that they even came from a center-left perspective that also criticized conservative historians for politicizing the debate around gun rights. Sweet was guilty of pointing out that partisan political activism undermines scholarly rigor when the lines between the two blur, because the overwhelming majority of that activism inside the history profession currently comes from the political left. And for that, the very same activists extracted an obsequious apology letter. Its text, reproduced below, reads like a “struggle session” for academic wrongthink.
Sweet’s apology excited the activist wing of the profession, though it did little to placate their ire. The resignationdemands continued, because Sweet’s apology was “insincere” and because his argument would be used by the “wrong” people – i.e. anyone who dissents from a particular brand of progressive activist orthodoxy. Simply criticizing the 1619 Project would play into the tactics of “Right-wingers, Nazis, and other bad-faith actors” who could use Sweet’s commentary “in the service of white supremacism and misogyny” announced Kevin Gannon, a historian who’s primarily known for scolding other scholars on twitter when they deviate from the profession’s far-left orthodoxies.
In this branch of academia, it does not matter whether the 1619 Project was truthful or factually accurate. The only concerns are whether its narrative can be weaponized for a political cause or used to deflect scrutiny of the same. As is often the case in the pseudo-moralizing political crusades of academia, the loudest demands against Sweet also came from the least-productive academics – historians with thin CVs and little in the way of original scholarly research to their names, although they do maintain 24/7 Twitter feeds of progressive political commentary.
Lora Burnett, one of the more vocal cancellation crusaders after the initial article posted, scoffed at Sweet, announcing “this apology was basically, ‘sorry I made you sad but I’m still right.’” She continued: “lamenting ‘inartful expression’ is apparently easier than admitting to flawed argument, unsupported claims, and factually incorrect assertions.” Note that Burnett and the other detractors never bothered to explain how Sweet’s argument was flawed or unsupported. Nor did they attempt to pen a rebuttal, which could have produced a constructive dialogue about the role of political activism in shaping historical scholarship. It was sufficient to denounce him as guilty for holding the wrong opinions. No matter the apology that Sweet made, the campaign to eject him from the history profession’s markedly impolite company would continue.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world began to take notice of the bizarre spectacle playing out at the main professional organization for a major academic discipline. As criticisms mounted on the AHA’s twitter feed, the organization moved to shut down debate entirely. They locked their twitter account, and posted a message to members denouncing the public blowback as the product of “trolls” and “bad faith actors.”
Keep in mind that only 24 hours earlier, the AHA had no problem with hundreds of activist historians flooding their threads with actual harassing behavior by bad faith actors. It tolerated cancellation threats directed against its president, calls to flood the personal email accounts of its board with harassing messages and denunciations of Sweet, and dozens of profane, sexist, and personally degrading attacks on Sweet himself. There were no AHA denunciations of those “trolls” or their “appalling” behavior, and no statements calling for “civil discourse” while the activist Twitterstorian mobs flooded the original thread with obscenity-laced vitriol and ad hominem attacks on Sweet.
Sadly, this type of unprofessional belligerence is now the norm on History Twitter. It would never be tolerated from any other perspective than the far-left, but it is valorized in the profession as long as it serves that particular set of ideological objectives.
The final irony is that the AHA only shuttered its twitter feed from the public when it could no longer restrict the conversation to the activist mob calling for Sweet’s cancellation. It’s the same brand of intellectual closure that Sweet’s offending column warned against in its final passage: “When we foreshorten or shape history to justify rather than inform contemporary political positions, we not only undermine the discipline but threaten its very integrity.”
Phillip W. Magness is Senior Research Faculty and Research and Education Director at the American Institute for Economic Research. He is also a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute. He holds a PhD and MPP from George Mason University’s School of Public Policy, and a BA from the University of St. Thomas (Houston).
Prior to joining AIER, Dr. Magness spent over a decade teaching public policy, economics, and international trade at institutions including American University, George Mason University, and Berry College.
Magness’s work encompasses the economic history of the United States and Atlantic world, with specializations in the economic dimensions of slavery and racial discrimination, the history of taxation, and measurements of economic inequality over time. He also maintains active research interest in higher education policy and the history of economic thought. In addition to his scholarship, Magness’s popular writings have appeared in numerous venues including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Newsweek, Politico, Reason, National Review, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.
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At Guédelon Castle the year is 1253 and the minor nobleman, Gilbert Courtenay, has ridden off to fight in the Crusades, leaving his wife in charge of workers building the family’s new home: a modest chateau that befits his social position as a humble knight in the service of King Louis IX.
Here, in a forest clearing in northern Burgundy, history is being remade to the sound of chisel against stone and axe against wood, as 21st-century artisans re-learn and perfect long-forgotten medieval skills.
The Guédelon project was dreamed up as an exercise in “experimental archaeology” 25 years ago. Instead of digging down it has been built upward, using only the tools and methods available in the Middle Ages and, wherever possible, locally sourced materials. Now, in an unforeseen twist of fate, Guédelon is playing a vital role in restoring the structure and soul of Notre Dame cathedral.
Notre Dame’s complex roof — know as La Forêt because of the large number of trees used in its construction was destroyed in the 2019 fire.
Paris’s imposing 13th-century cathedral, a world heritage site, was consumed by fire in April 2019, destroying its complex roof structure, known as La Forêt because of the large number of trees used in its construction. The widespread view was that it would be impossible to rebuild it as it was.
“The roof frame was extremely sophisticated, using techniques that were advanced for the 12th and 13th centuries,” Frédéric Épaud, a medieval wood specialist, tells the Observer.
They said it was impossible.
“After the fire, there were a lot of people saying it would take thousands of trees, and we didn’t have enough of the right ones, and the wood would have to be dried for years, and nobody even knew anything about how to produce beams like they did in the Middle Ages. They said it was impossible.
“But we knew it could be done because Guédelon has been doing it for years.”
The beams of La Forêt lasted for 800 years, The builders must have done something right.
A number of the companies bidding for the Notre Dame work have already engaged carpenters trained at Guédelon, and more are expected to beat a path to the Burgundy clearing 200km down the autoroute du Soleil from Paris.
It might be quicker and cheaper to turn wooden beams out of a sawmill – especially with French president Emmanuel Macron’s pledge to reopen the ravaged cathedral in 2024 – but you will not find anyone at Guédelon who believes it should be done that way.
Stéphane Boudy is one of a small team of carpenters at the medieval site, where he has worked since 1999. Boudy, 51, trained as a baker, then an electrician, until discovering his vocation at Guédelon. He explains how hand-hewing each beam – a single piece from a single tree – respects the “heart” of the green wood that gives it its strength and resistance.
“We have 25 years’ experience of cutting, squaring and hewing wood by hand,” he says. “It’s what we [have done] every day for 25 years. There are people outside of here who can do it now, but I tell you they all came here to learn how. If this place didn’t exist, perhaps the experts would have said: no it’s not possible to reproduce the roof of Notre Dame. We [have shown that] it is.
“This isn’t just nostalgia. If Notre Dame’s roof lasted 800 years, it is because of this. There’s no heart in sawmill wood,” he says.
Maryline Martin is co-founder of the Guédelon project that attracts around 300,000 paying visitors every year and was featured in a 2014 BBC documentary series, Secrets of the Castle. She says the chateau’s blacksmith has been commissioned to make the axes that will cut the wood for Notre Dame, and its carpenters are expected to train others to work on the cathedral.
“…a private enterprise lost in our forest that receives no public money.”
“It’s prestigious for us that Notre Dame will be restored by many who learned their trade at Guédelon. We are a private enterprise lost in our forest that receives no public money. We work with many state research bodies, but some people wrote us off as a theme park,” she says.
“Now, after 25 years, we are the only ones who can understand and are able to do what has to be done, and they discover we have not sold our soul to the devil. Our people will be working on Notre Dame one way or another, but why would we want to go to Paris? We will continue our 13th-century work here.”
Florian Renucci, the Guédelon site manager and a philosopher turned master mason, has already been asked to oversee training of artisans expected to work on Notre Dame.
“All we heard over and again after Notre Dame burned was that it was not possible to reconstruct the roof as before. There was no wood, no savoir faire – it was an argument used by those who wanted to modernise. We showed that it can be done and we know how to do it,” he says.
“All those who didn’t think it was possible didn’t know about Guédelon.”
Épaud is on the scientific committee at Guédelon and the committee overseeing the reconstruction of Notre Dame, as well as a member of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), France’s national research body. He says that going back to build the future is not just nostalgia.
“I have studied the 13th-century technique for many years and, if we respect the internal form of the tree, the beams will last for 800 years. Guédelon is the only place in France, and I believe in Europe, where they build this kind of roof structure in wood. All those who didn’t think it was possible didn’t know about Guédelon.”
He adds: “But it shouldn’t be rushed. Macron’s insistence that the cathedral be open by 2024 is idiotic. We are talking about a cathedral, we’re not in a hurry and we have the money to do it the right way. If we rush it, there’s a risk it [will] be done badly and something is missed. Sadly, I fear Macron doesn’t understand that.”
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From a German immigrant who arrived in America with nothing to a cousin of Queen Elizabeth II, the Astor family’s story is one of hard work, ruthless business tactics, snobbery, and savvy investment in real estate. For more than a century, they were the richest family in America, and their shrewd marriages linked them to some of the most politically powerful families. Here are 11 facts about this fascinating family.
1. The Astor fortune was partly founded on drug smuggling.
John Jacob Astor I. / Oscar White/GettyImages
The wealth of the Astor family originated in fur trading, guided by the intelligent but ruthless business tactics of their American founder, John Jacob Astor I. Having tried his hand at being a butcher like his father and an instrument maker like his brother, John I emigrated to America in 1783. He used the voyage to learn about the fur trade.
Always on the look out for a new opportunity, he began trading with China in around 1800, but the Chinese were resistant to Western goods—so in 1816, Astor became involved in the lucrative opium smuggling trade.
Opium was first banned in China in 1729 in an attempt to halt a growing epidemic of users, but 115 metric tons were still being imported into the country in 1798. With the Indian supply of the drug monopolized by the British, Astor made deals to buy huge quantities from Turkish suppliers, which he smuggled in via small vessels and large bribes. During his involvement between 1816 and 1825, the amount of opium being smuggled into China continued to rise; by 1839, 2500 metric tons entered the country from India alone.
Astor made millions from a trade the future U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt described as “fair, honorable, and legitimate.” He used the money to buy tea, porcelain, and silks, which he imported into America at a huge profit. Astor used that fortune to invest in New York real estate, and by the time of his death in 1848, he was America’s first ever millionaire.
2. John Jacob Astor I’s wife was so good at the business, she reportedly charged her husband $500 an hour.
John married Sarah Cox Todd in 1785. She was the daughter of his landlady—and had a $300 dowry, plus connections to sea captains, merchants, shop owners, and ship owners. Her dowry allowed them to open their first shop selling musical instruments, which gradually gave them the opportunity to invest in furs.
Astor called his wife “the best business partner any man ever had.” He would always credit Sarah’s part in his success, not just in the connections that she brought or the financial independence that her dowry allowed him, but also in her business acumen. Sarah’s knowledge of furs grew until she had turned herself into a leading expert in quality pelts; when John was away, she ran their New York business.
She was shrewd, thrifty, and intelligent, involved in both day-to-day decisions and plans for how they would expand their enterprises. Sarah encouraged John to invest in real estate, the foundation of their multi-million dollar fortune.
By the end of her life they were so successful that John reputedly paid her $500 an hour for her work, which she invested in religious causes.
3. Caroline Schermerhorn Astor ran America’s social hierarchy, known as the “four hundred.”
In the New York of the 1880s and 1890s, if you wanted to be accepted into society, it was not enough just to be wealthy. Anyone could have money in the fast moving and socially mobile America of the Gilded Age—what was important was to have the right sort of money.
Although America did not have a class system in the same way as much of Europe, the families who were descended from New York’s original settlers and had inherited their money considered themselves the aristocracy of American society. Those making their fortunes from new industries like the railroad were upstarts who, although sometimes even richer than the old money crowd, would never quite fit in.
At the forefront of these old families were the Astors. Now 100 years on from the self-made John Jacob Astor I, they believed that as old money, they had a superior role in New York society. Caroline Schermerhorn was descended from the Dutch immigrants who had settled Manhattan in the 17th century—and she had even considered the Astors beneath her own pedigree when she married John I’s grandson, William Backhouse Astor II, in 1853.
4. The family was torn apart by a feud about who would be called Mrs Astor.
John Jacob Astor I’s second son, William Backhouse Astor Sr., inherited his fortune; he in turn passed it to his two sons, John III and William Backhouse Jr. But if he thought the two sides of the family would live in harmony, his plan was thwarted by a disagreement over who would be known as Mrs. Astor.
John III and William Jr.’s wives were known by their husband’s names—Mrs. John Charlotte Astor and Mrs. William Caroline “Lina” Astor. When Charlotte died in 1877, Lina let it be known that she was now to be addressed as simply Mrs. Astor.
The Astors believed in elder sons taking precedence, and Charlotte’s son, William Waldorf Astor, took enormous exception to the fact that this seemingly innocuous act threatened the superiority of his line. It was also an insult to his own wife, Mary, who he considered the senior woman of the family.
John III died three years later, and William Waldorf became the head of the family. Using his new position, he tried to persuade his Aunt Lina to relinquish the use of the title, but with her position in society to maintain, she refused. She continued to be known as the Mrs. Astor.
Although William Waldorf was forced to concede, he had his revenge and the incident created a feud between the two branches of the family that would last years: The brothers, John III and William II, had lived in neighboring houses on 5th Avenue, but after John’s death, his son demolished their house in 1893 and built the 13-story Waldorf Hotel on the site, right next to Aunt Lina.
She spent the next three years living next to a building site. The humiliation of her prestigious residential area becoming a bustling tourist destination was more than she could bear, and she was finally persuaded to move. But her humiliation wasn’t quite over—her new home was farther up 5th Avenue, surrounded by the new money families.
In true Astor fashion, her son, John Jacob Astor IV, used the episode to make more money. Following his cousin’s example, he demolished the family house and built a 16-story hotel called the Astoria in 1897. That same year, the family merged the two hotels in a new business venture: The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The original structure was demolished in 1929 and replaced by the Empire State Building.
5. William Waldorf Astor moved the senior branch of the family to Britain.
William Waldorf Astor. / Hulton Archive/GettyImages
The difficulties with his aunt would have an unexpected outcome for William Waldorf Astor. Not only did it lead him into the hotel business, but it also resulted in his emigration to Britain.
Although he was born in New York, William Waldorf was raised in Italy and Germany, where he developed a passion for the European lifestyle. He returned to America and studied law, but after a short period involved in politics—where he unsuccessfully ran for Congress—he returned to Europe in 1882 for three years as the U.S. Minister to Italy.
On his father’s death in February 1890, he reportedly inherited $100 million, and, disillusioned with his failure in politics, upset by the war with his aunt and her son, and ridiculed by the U.S. press, William Waldorf declared that America was “no longer a fit place for a gentleman to live” and moved his family and business operations to Britain.
He retained his interest in politics, giving generously to the Conservative Party. Despite his hatred of the American press, he bought several UK publications, including The Observer newspaper. In 1899 he became a British citizen, and in 1917 he was raised to the British peerage when George V created him the 1st Viscount Astor of Hever.
6. The Astors once owned Hever Castle, the childhood home of Anne Boleyn.
Hever Castle in Kent was built in 1270, but its most famous residents were the Boleyn family, who had owned it between 1462 and 1540. It was Anne Boleyn’s childhood home and, after returning from France in 1522, she frequently stayed at the castle with her parents, enticing Henry VIII to visit on several occasions during their courtship. Later, Henry’s fourth—and unwanted— wife, Anne of Cleves, lived there, leasing the manor for an annual rent of £9, 13 shillings, and 3.5 pence.
By the time William Waldorf purchased Hever in July 1903, the house had passed through several families and was almost derelict, with all traces of its Tudor gardens gone. But, as a history buff—who had written several historical novels—with a passion for art and architecture derived from his time spent in Italy, he immediately recognized its potential.
The series of renovations William undertook were sensitively done, preserving the original structure while installing modern luxury. Part of his vision included building a new wing in the style of a Tudor village, and he redesigned the 125-acre gardens to incorporate a 38-acre lake, an Italian loggia, a rose garden, a Tudor garden, and a woodland. Under Astor ownership, Hever Castle was saved. People can still visit the historic site today.
7. Nancy Astor was the first woman to take a seat as a Member of Parliament.
Nancy Astor. / Keystone Features/GettyImages
Nancy Witcher Langhorne was born into an impoverished Virginian family in 1879, but by the time she was 18 her father had made his fortune and she was sent to New York, where she met her first husband, Robert Gould Shaw II. The marriage ended in divorce in 1903, and, at the persuasion of her father, she sailed to Britain at the end of 1904 with her son and sister, Phyllis. Her arrival in London put her in the company of several American-born women who had become the wives of British peers, including Pauline Astor, whose brother, Waldorf Astor, Nancy married on April 19, 1906.
Waldorf was the eldest son of William Waldorf, Viscount Astor. The Viscount gifted them the family home, Cliveden Estate, which they turned into the center of political and literary thought. Like his father before him, Waldorf had an inclination for a career in politics and, with Nancy’s support, he was elected as the Member of Parliament for Plymouth Sutton in 1910. On his father’s death in 1919, he inherited the title of 2nd Viscount Astor and was promoted to the House of Lords, leaving his seat in the House of Commons vacant.
Nancy seized the opportunity the 1918 Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act gave her and ran as the Unionist Party (now Conservative Party) candidate to replace her husband as Plymouth Sutton’s MP. Her victory on November 15, 1919, meant that the first ever female MP to take her seat in the House of Commons was a member of the Astor family. She remained an MP until 1945.
8. John Jacob Astor IV died on RMS Titanic while returning from his honeymoon.
John Jacob Astor IV was the son of the Mrs. Astor, Caroline, and cousin of the 1st Viscount Astor. For much of his early life, he tinkered as an inventor and wrote novels—while still managing to increase the family fortune through real estate, particularly the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
In 1910, the 47-year-old millionaire caused a scandal when, five months after his divorce, he began courting the 18-year-old debutant Madeleine Force. The two married on September 10, 1911. The couple then set off on honeymoon, traveling from New York to Bermuda to Egypt and then on to Europe. When Madeline became pregnant during the trip, the couple decided to go home. They boarded the RMS Titanic at Cherbourg, France, on April 10, 1912.
No amount of wealth could save them from the horrific events that unfolded on the night of April 12, 1912, when the liner struck an iceberg and began to sink. Madeline, her maid, and her nurse were all given a place on lifeboat 4, but John was told that he and his valet would have to wait until all the ladies were off the ship before they could be evacuated. Reports claimed that John then helped two women—Ida Hippach and her 17-year-old daughter Jean—into the boat before telling his wife, “You are in good hands and I will meet you in the morning.”
John’s corpse was one of only 333 bodies recovered from the sea. He was brought back to New York and buried in Manhattan, and the gold watch he was found with was given to his oldest son and heir, Vincent, who wore it for the rest of his life. Madeleine gave birth to a healthy son on August 14, 1912, christened John Jacob Astor VI (although he is sometimes incorrectly called John V), who immediately inherited a $3 million trust. Madeleine received his house and a $5 million trust fund, though she lost both after remarrying, as John’s will stipulated that she must forfeit the fortune unless she remained single.
9. John Jacob Astor V won an Olympic gold medal for Great Britain.
After his father, William Waldorf, moved to Britain with his family, John V was raised as an English gentleman. He attended Eton College and Oxford University and excelled at sports, including racquets, a game said to have originated in prisons before becoming popular in the alleys of London. By the early 20th century it had become a game for gentlemen, played in some of the most exclusive schools and clubs where specially built courts could be found.
The 1908 Olympics in London featured a number of sports that are no longer found in the modern games, including running deer shooting, tug-of-war, and Jeu de Paume. Racquets was also included, though only Britain fielded a team; Astor was a member in both singles and doubles. He and his partner, Vane Pennell, played only twice—on April 30 and then May 1—to beat their fellow Brits and win the doubles gold medal. Astor then won a bronze in the singles tournament despite only playing one match.
Astor continued his love of the game and that of its sister-sport, Squash Racquets. In 1922, he followed his sister-in-law, Nancy, into politics as MP for Dover, and, despite losing a leg during World War I, he competed in and won the parliamentary squash racquets championship in 1926 and 1927.
10. The Astors count presidents and monarchs as their relatives.
Marriage in 19th-century New York became a slightly socially incestuous affair. Wealthy and politically ambitious families intermarried to the point that by the end of the 19th century, it was possible to claim kinship with almost everyone else. In 1981, Brooke Astor recalled, “My husband, Vincent, used to say that one of the reasons for the various Astors success was that they always married above themselves! It became a family tradition he said, as later on they married with the Schermerhorns and Willings and Beekmans.”
In politics, the Astors had close ties with the Roosevelt family. In 1844, William Backhouse I’s daughter, Laura, married Franklin Delano, the great-uncle of future President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The family connection continued when, in 1878, Helen Schermerhorn Astor, daughter of The Mrs. Astor, married James Roosevelt, becoming Franklin D. Roosevelt’s sister-in-law. And lastly, Helen’s daughter (also Helen), married Theodore Robinson, the nephew of Theodore Roosevelt.
The English branch of the Astor family, meanwhile, found itself mixing with the aristocracy to the extent that they can count members of the British royal family as their relatives. In 1929, Rachel Spender-Clay, granddaughter of William Waldorf, 1st Viscount Astor, married David Bowes-Lyon, the brother of Elizabeth, Duchess of York and the future Queen Consort of George VI. The Astor family could now claim kinship with monarchy—not only was Rachel the sister-in-law of George VI, but her son, Sir Simon Bowes-Lyon, is Elizabeth II’s first cousin.
11. A party given by the Astors helped bring down the UK Conservative government.
William Waldorf Astor II, 3rd Viscount Astor / J. Wilds/GettyImages
Nancy Astor’s son, William Waldorf Astor II, continued the family’s interest in politics by becoming an MP himself. Although he was forced to quit the role in 1952 when he became the 3rd Viscount, he continued to mix in political and social circles at his home on the Cliveden Estate.
In July 1961, William was hosting a party that included John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War, at the same time his friend and osteopath, Steven Ward, was throwing a party elsewhere on the estate. When the two groups mingled at the swimming pool, Profumo met Christine Keeler, a model and friend of Ward’s. The affair that ensued was brief and over by the end of 1961. But unfortunately for Profumo, Keeler was also the girlfriend of another of Ward’s guests, a Soviet Union naval attaché named Yevgeny Ivanov.
By 1963, the affair was becoming public, and whispers were circulating that the three were involved in a spying ring. Profumo made a statement to the House of Commons claiming that “there was no impropriety whatsoever in my acquaintanceship with Miss Keeler,” but by June he was forced to admit the affair and that he had lied to Parliament. While no evidence was ever found that he had passed secrets to Ivanov via Keeler, he resigned his ministerial position.
The Conservative government, under the Prime Minister Harold McMillian, was seriously damaged by the scandal and, unable to recover, they lost the subsequent general election. William was accused of having an affair with one of the other models, Mandy Rice-Davies, and although there was no evidence that he orchestrated the meeting between Profumo and Keeler, he was investigated by the police. His standing was irreversibly damaged and he became a social pariah. When he died of a heart attack in 1966, the Astor family left Cliveden, never to return.