Did the World’s First Killer Sub Sink Itself?

A MAJOR CLUE HAS SURFACED that may resolve one of the great mysteries of the Civil War: why the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley sank on February 17, 1864, just after it sent the Union sloop of war Housatonic to a watery grave. Nearly 13 years after the Hunley was recovered from the bottom of the Charleston, S.C., harbor in 2000, removal of crud from a 16-foot iron spar used to deliver the crude torpedo that sank the Housatonic has revealed a piece of the torpedo canister still bolted to the pole. Eyewitness accounts had suggested to historians that the Hunley had released the torpedo from the spar and moved about 100 feet away. But the remnant makes it clear the sub was right next to the sloop when the charge exploded and identifies a type of torpedo with an explosive payload of 135 pounds of black powder, about twice as much as earlier estimates. Researchers now must ponder the possibility that the Hunley virtually sank itself. “It may be the closest we get to a smoking gun in archaeology,” says Maria Jacobsen, head archaeologist for the Hunley project. Letters from the Hunley’s crew refute the idea that the sub was on a suicide mission, but the men may not have had time to test changes to the delivery system for the torpedo. What may have sunk the Hunley, after all, was an excess of courage.

Stickley Masterwork Revived

DISASTER BROUGHT the first major expression of Arts and Crafts style in America—a fire in the Syracuse, N.Y., home of designer Gustav Stickley on Christmas Eve 1901 led him to rework the interior. Now a $550,000 grant to the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse will help turn Stickley’s home into a museum. “This is a national treasure,” says Everson executive director Steven Kern, “the mothership house.”

Jewish Plymouth Rock Ruckus Erupts

IN 1790 George Washington presented his most stirring defense of religious freedom in a letter to the Touro Synagogue of Newport, R.I. Now that synagogue—the oldest in the U.S.—is battling with the oldest Jewish congregation in the country, Shearith Israel of New York City, over a $7.4 million pair of religious objects as well as broader issues of control. Touro wanted to sell its 18th-century silver Torah finials— used to hold the religious scroll—to financially secure its rapidly aging community. But Shearith, which became trustee of the Newport temple and its property in the 19th century after the Jewish community dwindled along with the commercial fortunes of the city, considers the sale to be a violation of religious traditions. A federal judge in Rhode Island has pushed the two parties to settle the dispute amicably. The Touro synagogue building, which became a National Historic Site in 1946, is not at risk, but, says George Goodwin, editor of Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes: “Jews think it would be a calamity if the congregation would disappear. This is, essentially, the American Jewish Plymouth Rock, the embodiment of American Jewish history.”

Ancient Chocoholic Stash Unearthed

NORTH AMERICA’S infatuation with chocolate began at least 300 years earlier than researchers once thought. A study of bowls from southeastern Utah that date to the eighth century showed traces of theobroma cacao, a substance used to make chocolate. No source of this cacao has been found in North America, so it would have been imported from Mesoamerica. Another telling clue is that some of these bowls were made and decorated in a way that differed from local traditions. “That rang a bell in front of me,” says archaeologist Dorothy Washburn, one of three authors of the study, which supports the notion of greater migration, as well as commerce, coming north into the American Southwest.


Originally published in the June 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.