SS Mosel and insurance fraud

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Alexander Keith, Jr., image found on Wikipedia

On December 11, 1875 a horrible explosion occurred at the dock in Bremerhaven, Germany, leaving over 80 people dead and many more maimed and injured.  The story of how this came to be starts with a man named Alexander Keith, Jr., also known by the alias William King Thomas.

Keith was born 1827 in Scotland and moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia when he was a boy.  As a young man he worked briefly for his uncle, Alexander Keith, who was a well-known and influential man in Halifax having served as mayor and owning a popular brewery, Alexander Keith’s.  The brewery still operates to this day.  When the Civil War broke out in the United States Keith saw an opportunity and aligned himself with the Confederacy although he seized every chance to take advantage of both the North and the South.  He was a ruthless man and eventually ran off with a chambermaid and investments worth $1 million.  His victims hired a detective to hunt him down, causing Keith to have to move further west until he eventually reached Highland, Illinois.  Keith married and settled down for a short time until the law came calling in December of 1865.  When he had the chance, he and his wife fled to Germany where they lived the high life.  But, as it usually happens, money ran out and so Keith had to come up with a scheme to get more.   Read more

Spanish Rapiers

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Recently we had to pull several weapons to photography, including several that are on display.  For four of them, three rapiers and a sword, this was the first time any of us were able to get up close to them as they have been on display in Age of Exploration since the early 90’s.  The three rapiers are attributed as Spanish, but one of our curator’s has pointed out that this is most likely inaccurate.

This first one is a  composite rapier with tapering blade, iron hilt, comprising vertically recurved quillons, arms, and a pair of asymmetrical shells framed by a double ring, knuckle guards, globular pommel and later wire bound wooden handle, ca 1600’s.  Its origin is unknown though, and we haven’t found any markings to give us any clues.   Read more

German POWs: Boys, Old Men, and Volkssturm

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Liberty ship Joseph Warren in quarantine at Newport News with 300 German POWs on board
Liberty ship Joseph Warren in quarantine at Newport News with 300 German POWs on board

During World War II, hundreds of prisoners of war from both Germany and Italy passed through Hampton Roads. Many of them stayed in prison camps on the Peninsula or in Norfolk while others were shipped to prisons all across the country. Eventually some were given jobs as laborers such as working in saw mills or repairing railroad track. The Army Signal Corps documented these prisoners as they arrived and were processed. From this we get a sense of how the POWs were treated and what their daily lives were like.

Late in the war something interesting happens: the demographic of German POWs entering Hampton Roads changes. We see fewer men of fighting age and a increase in the number of men in their 40s and teenagers. The Americans noticed this and interpreted it as a sign that the quality of Germany’s fighting force was in decline. It was a sign the war was drawing to a close.   Read more

Artifact of the Month – Galatea

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For November I decided to make one of our beautiful figureheads the artifact of the month.  Choosing one was rather difficult as they are all wonderful in their own ways, but eventually I picked that of Galatea.

I’ve found that, like Galatea here,  a lot of figureheads get their names from mythology.  There are two myths that go along with Galatea, the first stating that she was a beautiful sea goddess/nymph who was in love with a man named Akis.  The cyclops Polyphemus was in love with Galatea and jealous of the young Akis, crushed him beneath a rock.  In her grief, Galatea turned Akis into a stream.   Read more

Artifact of the Month – Painting of SS Kaiser Wilhelm II

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kaiser wilhelm

Today’s object of the month is an oil painting featuring the steamship Kaiser Wilhelm II in front of the Great Pyramids of Egypt.  I remember when I first came across it as I thought it was such a strange image with the ship completely out of water, but of course that’s how an allegorical painting is supposed to look.  With my interest piqued, I went to check out the file folder to see what the background of this painting was.  To my dismay, there was next to no information in the file and the wrong artist had even been attributed to the painting, despite the fact that there is a clear signature in the bottom left hand corner.

I am a rather curious person by nature, and so not knowing anything about this painting was rather painful.  Taking what little I knew about it, which was basically just the artist, I turned to my best friend for answers, Google.  I soon found out that the artist, Otto Bollhagen, was a well-known painter in Bremen, Germany.  This is where he set up his ‘atelier’, meaning studio.  Underneath ‘Atelier Bollhagen’ on the signature is ‘Bremen’.  The business Otto started in 1892 continues today under the leadership of a great-grandson.   Read more