Sorcerer-historians and hunted boats

No joke: author Erik Larson could write a book about paint drying and I would read it.

Little-to-no hyperbole, Larson is an honest-to-God time traveler, a sorcerer-historian hybrid that probably secretly knows more about wormholes and space-time than Einstein, Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson. His historical narrative books read more like eyewitness accounts than simple history. He seems to have some kind of magic microscope or magnifying glass, some absurd relic you’d see on “Dr. Who” that can be placed over photos and documents from the world’s archives and historical societies and transport the user to the moment in question.

He’s also seemingly fascinated with a very specific period in history, namely a 50-year span between the end of the Civil War and the start of World War I. “The Devil in the White City” is about the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 (and the serial killer H.H. Holmes who worked in a self-made house of horrors nearby).

“Thunderstruck” is about how the invention of wireless telegraphy played a role in the apprehension of a London murder suspect fleeing for the U.S. across the Atlantic, a tale that runs from the late 1800s up through 1910 or so.

“Isaac’s Storm,” set in September 1900, tells of the deadliest hurricane in history, how it rocked Galveston, Texas, left thousands dead, and changed the way we think about weather’s humbling assaults and preparation.

“In the Garden of Beasts,” a chilling view into Nazi Germany set at the dawn of World War II, is obviously a departure from his usual time period of choice, but close enough.

Larson’s latest and greatest, “Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania,” is another feather in his already-loaded time traveler’s cap. It tells of the infamous sinking of a famed commercial ocean liner by Germany’s Unterseeboot-20 and how it rocked the world.

Here’s part of the book’s intro, the line that double-sold me:

“I thought I knew everything there was to know about the incident, but, as so often happens when I do deep research on a subject, I quickly realized how wrong I was. Above all, I discovered that burned in the muddled details of the affair – deliberately muddled, in certain aspects – was something simple and satisfying: a very good story.”

Sold. Take my money.

I’ve only just begun, started the account of the fabled journey just this week, and am in the midst of learning about the ship’s captain, the esteemed William Turner. (Fun fact: he also served as commander of the Carpathia, the ship that would, under a different captain in 1912, come to the rescue of many who’d just suffered through another infamous maritime disaster on a ship called Titanic.)

Then came today, the 100th anniversary of the Lusitania sinking.

Totally unintentional. My timing is awesome, basically. The history teaching stars aligned, probably at sorcerer-historian Larson’s own hand.

But he didn’t stop there. In true sorcerer-historian form, Larson “live Tweeted” the ship’s departure and sinking this week. Chronologically.

You know, like any modern-day Internet addict would if the ship had sunk a century later than it did. Here’s one of his many Tweets:

Crazy how a single Tweet can send actual goosebumps up my back.

It’s an interesting contrast, really; this sorcerer-historian who lashed together a maritime suspense story using historic documents, logs, journals, archive photos, newspapers and other sources, then utilized a method of contemporary, digital record-keeping to retell the nightmarish account in 140-character installments.

Almost like he’s saying, “See, it doesn’t matter how you tell this story, it’s haunting and horrifying and unbelievable any way you slice it.”


One more quick thing.

To make the Lusitania sinking even closer to home, I give you Miss Dorothy Connors, of Medford, a passenger on the boat the day U-20 slithered through the Atlantic’s black waters and attacked like a robot shark.

From the Mail Tribune, May 7, 1915:

“Miss Dorothy Connors of this city sailed on the Lusitania for England to act in a unit of the English Red Cross as a nurse. Miss Connors left Medford three weeks ago, and is well known among the younger set. A message from her to her relatives in this valley as to her safety is expected. A mother in delicate health and a brother, Boudinot, live near Jacksonville.”

Here’s a headline from the following day, one that must have been a relief to family and friends:

Connors was one of 764 passengers who escaped with their life. Close to 1,200 would die.

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