A retrospective on the time a mountaintop solar observatory was mysteriously closed by the FBI

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A year ago I was working as a reporter for the Alamogordo Daily News and we got a call that a remote mountaintop observatory had suddenly been evacuated, apparently by the FBI. I went up there to try to figure out what was going on, and by the time I came back down, the internet had exploded with wild theories as to what exactly was going on. I admit I was swept up in the speculation, but it quickly became apparent how maddeningly incorrect almost all of the self-assured conspiracy theorists were about basic aspects of the situation, which in turn called into question the legitimacy of anything they were saying. Still, it was a pretty wild situation and the ultimate answer as to what caused the evacuation left more questions than it answered.

I wrote a piece on the whole situation one year later, and though I’m woefully late on posting this link, it can be viewed here at Narratively.

I’ve since received a brief email from the FBI saying only “The matter about which you inquire was investigative in nature, and Justice Department agencies generally do not comment on investigative matters. The FBI therefore cannot respond to your inquiry other than to state that the investigation concluded without the filing of criminal charges.” While I’m grateful for the response, other sources say this isn’t entirely accurate and they are still waiting for the other shoe to drop in terms of what comes next for the person allegedly behind the crime discussed in the above story.

I’ll continue to look into this strange saga, not indulging any conspiracy nonsense but at least sniffing out some leads on some other weird things that were going on in the area at around the same time. It’s probably nothing, and there’s ample evidence that the charges mentioned in the story are simply a cover for an investigation into a much more serious security breach, meaning that we’ll probably never know the real story. Then again, maybe something will suddenly be announced or maybe this really was all that happened.

At any rate, check out the story and feel free to get in touch with any ideas, leads, or suggestions!

Just published – The Curse of the Ship of Gold!

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I’m very happy to post a link to one of the most in-depth stories I’ve had published, the fascinating and tragic tale of Tommy Thompson, a brilliant scientist cursed by the grandeur of his discovery.

Please feel free to check out The Curse of the Ship of Gold here!!!

In 1988, Thompson and a crew of scientists and adventurers discovered the remains of the SS Central America, a ship that sank in a hurricane in 1857. The ship was carrying tons of gold from the Gold Rush, making it the dream quarry of treasure hunters. Thompson’s mission drew widespread acclaim as an example of classic American ingenuity, but he soon learned that he had also unleashed the wild specter of greed.

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From there, Thompson’s life was turned upside-down and would take him from court rooms to hoarded-out mansions to life on the run as a federal fugitive. He was ultimately captured after disappearing for almost two years and recently went on trial for allegedly making off with gold due to investors in the mission three decades before.

Thanks again to Narratively for taking on this piece and for the fantastic and classy look of the finished story!

Thanks for stopping by at the Ohioana Book Festival!

Yours truly at the 2019 Ohioana Book Festival

Yours truly at the 2019 Ohioana Book Festival

It is rare that I get to spend so much time with other writers and so I was very glad to be able to spend the day hanging out and hawking my goods at the 2019 Ohioana Book Festival. Talking to everyone from science writers to novelists to obscure nonfiction writers was incredibly inspiring, and being asked to participate as a panelist in a discussion about Ohio politics was a cool opportunity as well. Living in Texas, I don’t often get the chance to talk about the Ohio township system, so cheers to the organizers for letting me do just that! It was an honor to share the table with other dedicated, smart, and interesting nonfiction maniacs, and simply being in an environment where writing and books are so appreciated was very moving. Plus the catering of the after-party was so sick – thank you to whoever arranged such an impressive spread!

I became aware of the controversy surrounding the festival the day before it started and was surprised at the embarrassing oversight that almost all participants were white. Ohioana issued a statement addressing this, so hopefully things will be different and better going forward!

Cheers to Trillium Press for arranging for me to be there! My book Dance of the Trustees: on the Astonishing Concerns of a Small Ohio Township is of course still available for sale. Thank to everyone who bought this book at the festival and for appreciating my obscure area of expertise!

See you all next year I hope.

Criminal conspiracies on the world’s foremost micronation

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I am very pleased to announce that I recently had an adapted excerpt from my upcoming book on the Principality of Sealand and its remarkable 51-year history published by Narratively.

What happens when a gang of international criminals bootlegs passports from the country your family founded? Quite a bit, it turns out: bank fraud, gunrunning, and a connection to the murder of Gianni Versace.

The article can be found here.

Read on if you like intrigue, self-determination, kidnapping, and governments-in-exile!!

The locks and canals of the mighty Muskingum

Lock #10 is unique in that it is a double-lock, with two chambers to raise and lower boats. At least half a million gallons are displaced in each step of the process.

Atlas Obscura recently published a piece I wrote about the old lock system still in use up and down the Muskingum River in southeastern Ohio. The locks are operated by hand and require the skills of a lockmaster, who stays on site to help the estimated 7,000 annual boaters traverse the dams that make the river navigable.

It’s always a pleasure to pore through dusty old archives and historical collections, and this certainly holds true when investigating the interesting history of my beautiful hometown! Thanks to the various historians and lock enthusiasts for talking to me, and to Tim Curtis for showing me how it all works!

The article can be found here. 

The Grisly Murder That Launched a Podcast Star

I have been listening to a true crime podcast called “True Murder” for years. Each week, host Dan Zupansky interviews true crime authors about the cases they’ve written about. The complex/troubling appeal of true crime is a discussion for another time, but Zupansky is one of the first true crime podcasters and is considered an OG expert in the genre.

Zupansky will sometimes make reference on the show to a case he himself was involved with in 2003. A man named Sydney Teerhuis viciously killed another man in a Winnipeg hotel, seemingly doing so for the grim celebrity it would bring him. Zupansky, who always wanted to be a journalist, saw an opportunity to write his first book. He got in touch with Teerhuis, who agreed to work with him on the book. Zupansky unwittingly became a major witness in Teerhuis’s trial, experiencing firsthand some of the world he had so often read about. This article is about the strange Zupansky-Teerhuis affair, and how Zupansky was able to launch his own career as a result.

This was especially interesting to work on because I got to speak with Zupansky directly. I was really familiar with his voice from having listened to so many episodes of his show, and talking to him almost felt like a personal podcast playing for me.

The article was published by Narratively in September, 2017, and can be found here.

On the history of (scarily frequent) powder mill explosions in Southwestern Ohio

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This post was originally published on ysnews.com and discusses a powder mill that sits a few miles south of Yellow Springs, Ohio, along the bike path on which I frequently travel. I came across these particulars while doing research for another project and was stunned by just how often these factories exploded.

March 1 marked a sad day in the history of the area, as it was the 131st anniversary of an enormous explosion just south of town in Goes Station. On March 1, 1886, the buildings that used to belong to the Miami Powder Company exploded and killed three people, just a fact of life in an industry “marked by explosions.” While perhaps a self-evident risk when working at a place that produces “villainous saltpeter,” knowing the danger doesn’t dampen tragedy when it happens. The explosion occurred with such force, heat and clamor that everyone nearby probably thought the very gates of Hell opened up in their backyard.

Previously a scythe factory, the Miami Powder Company was refitted as a powder company in the early 1840s by some “Eastern capitalists” in the 1840s. The mill was built alongside the railroad leading from Springfield to Xenia and near the Little Miami because of the abundance of willow trees. When burned, the willow tree, “lining the banks of the stream for miles,” produced a high-grade charcoal perfect for the manufacture of explosives. This charcoal was stored on the property in one of a number of structures housing the different compounds combined to create industrial explosives. Machinery mixed and ground the compounds together, producing a caustic admixture that was kept in a building at the end of the line. In other words, the building was basically a giant bomb.

On that terrible March day, 50,000 pounds of explosive in the dry house ignited for due to a faulty steam boiler. The building was completely wiped off the face of the earth, leaving a crater 10 feet deep. The resulting explosion was heard 100 miles away, felt in Columbus and Cincinnati, smashed buildings and windows from Yellow Springs to Xenia, and “completely demolished” a house three miles away. A covered bridge was knocked down and a “number of people in the vicinity were so prostrated by the shock that they were confined to their beds for several days after.” A 60 pound piece of rock from the foundation was found almost a mile away.

Employees of the mill “felt the earth give beneath their feet and then, seemingly, to rise as though in the throes of a violent earthquake. Some were thrown against nearby obstacles; others were swept from their feet and hurled to the ground.” And these were the lucky ones. Of the three men killed in the explosion, the “largest part found was a piece of backbone,” while other parts were gathered in baskets and bags. An arm was found two miles away. Families wept with joy when their loved ones emerged from the wreckage unscathed, but as Henry Lowe poignantly notes in his 1904 Historical Collections of Ohio, “to three women and their children, the fathers and husbands came not.” The three men – Christy McCann, 50, Henry Franklin, 40, and Michael Haney – left eight children behind.

Remarkably, the March 1886 explosion wasn’t the first or second huge explosion to occur at the powder mill, nor was it necessarily going to be the only explosion that year. One newspaper cheerily reported that only one of the “two or three” annual explosions were deadly. The frames of a few nearby houses, tottering at perilous angles, were all that was left of a nearby neighborhood after being exposed to repeated blasts. (But some “old settlers” that lived just far enough away “didn’t dread [the explosions] as much as other people.”)

Explosion 1The same powder works exploded at 10 a.m. on February 5, 1872. This explosion eclipsed even the wholesale destruction and violence that would come with the 1886 blast. Attributed to an errant spark caused by the machinery that mixed compounds, one building exploded and was followed by four others. At least five workers were instantly and totally vaporized – the only recognizably human remain was a “portion of [a] head and trunk” – while many more later died from injuries sustained in the blast.

As explosions were wont to do, the blast destroyed nearby buildings, blew off chimneys, caused someone to fall down a flight of stairs and blew out all the glass at Antioch College. A train narrowly missed being destruction because it was running a few minutes behind. (Can you imagine being passengers on the train and slowly rolling through that nightmarish accident site?)

A few years later, the trains themselves were the site of a blast. On July 15, 1890, brakes failed as one string of train cars was being attached to another, ramming cars loaded with gunpowder. An explosion occurred that “burst the eardrums of everyone in the immediate vicinity” and burning down 13 buildings. Yet “fate was kind” and the flames did not reach a warehouse containing 25,000 kegs of powder. Nevertheless, 12 people died in the accident.

Not all explosions were quite as catastrophic, sometimes only taking one or two people with them. According to Howard Burba’s 1933 article “Remember When the Powder Mills Exploded?”, the inaugural explosion at the Goes Station mill resulted in an employee “blown to bits for his negligence. A nail in his shoe heel, coming in contact with a nail in the floor of a powder magazine, flashed a spark that touched off the powder around which he was working.” But the curse of explosions extended further than the grounds of the powder mills. An employee of the Miami mill was said to live at the “ill-fated house” on Limestone Street that had already claimed the lives of or driven insane its previous tenants. The employee was asked to try out a new explosive, which ended up exploding in his face and killing him as soon as he set it down. It is unknown how many people died in accidents at local powder plants, but sometimes “powder mill explosion” or a similar explanation can be found in old cemetery records.

The one consolation is that being “reduced to atoms” is probably as instantaneous a way to go as you can get. (The mills reportedly paid well, which probably helped a lot of people overcome their fears of fiery death.) For everyone else, however, such explosions probably felt like the universe was being ripped apart. A cursed finger of the Gods was pressed briefly but resolutely down onto a small patch of Ohio, sowing unspeakable terror and leaving grim silence as it withdrew. “For a full half-hour the cloud held its position, gradually growing whiter and whiter and changing in shape until it became merged with the clouds of the sky,” Burba wrote.

Another explosion at the Miami Powder Company in 1920 took two lives, and the company finally closed its dangerous doors in 1925 following yet another blast.