Sound Education + meeting Carlin

Sometimes you get lucky.

Last weekend I was lucky enough to attend the Sound Education conference at Harvard. There was a ridiculous amount of talent concentrated in the dowdy halls and classrooms of the Divinity School. I got to meet a bunch of fellow Dark Myths podcasters and rub elbows with some big names in the … what should we call it? The industry? The biz?

The point about language is no joke. It was blindingly clear that the folks at the conference divided sharply between the small independent types — the ones who work day jobs and run their passion projects on the side — and those who come to their podcasts loaded with resources ($) from radio stations and universities. At one panel, I asked a question about strategies to balance deep research and a timely release schedule. It was easy, one of the panelists said — just get your interns to do the research for you.

That divide also showed itself in levels of preparation. Some of the big-name panels were disappointing in that little preparation or thought had gone into them. It reminded me of a lot of disappointing master classes I went to in music school, where big-name musicians (who were well-paid for their time) would play for five minutes and then ask the room if anyone had questions. On the flip side, I saw a GREAT talk by CJ Kilmer of the Dangerous History podcast (and a fellow Dark Myths guy) about voluntarism in education; he spoke to a room of four people.

So I count all this as good luck. I was lucky to meet these people, make these connections, learn a bit about what separates the big fish from the small fish.

The biggest piece of luck, though, came courtesy of Kristaps Andrejsons, host of the Eastern Border podcast. I hosted him for part of the weekend, showed him around Boston, introduced him to New England seafood (it turns out oysters and clam chowder are in line with the Baltic addiction to salty things from the ocean), and in return, he gave us both the chance to meet one of our creative idols.

We spoke with Dan Carlin for about fifteen minutes in the lobby of Harvard’s music building, just after Dan had given a keynote talk in the main hall upstairs. We recorded it, and you can listen to the whole thing by following the link at the end of this post. The setting wasn’t ideal. You’ll hear that in the weird audio levels, the boomy acoustics of the space, and the arrival of a noisy elevator at the end of the interview.

But do yourself a favor and listen to the whole thing. Dan certainly didn’t have to make time for us, nor did he have to give two nervous junior podcasters his full attention. But that was exactly what he did. Dan was incredibly warm, personable, and took us and our questions seriously. This moment was loaded with meaning for me. When my fledgling career in music foundered a few years ago and I was desperately looking for a new creative outlet, Dan’s work pointed the way to something new and exciting. Inward Empire’s DNA goes back to my listening to Dan’s massive multipart series on the end of the Roman Republic and my desire to adapt and build on the model that Dan has created so masterfully. It’s always a relief to find out that someone you admire — especially someone you admire creatively — is also good person.

So here it is, a product of a tremendous piece of good luck in a weekend full of them. All my gratitude to Kristaps for making this happen, and to Dan for his generosity and time.



Inward Empire 2.0

My goal with Inward Empire was to create a podcast that I’d want to listen to, to fill a void that I saw and, with a few exceptions still see, in the field of history podcasts. Three and a half years into this project, I’m still thinking about how I can fulfill that vision. As I approach episode 10, I’ve come up with a list of resolutions. Some of them recognize what’s worked so far, and reflect my pride and satisfaction in that. Most are aimed at improvement and reform. I’m making them public because I think improvement stems from practice, reflection, and assessment; they’re my attempt to reflect and assess how I’ve fared so far, and to invite listeners to do the same.

  1. Maintain my standards: deep research, thoughtful writing, extensive use of primary sources, and a commitment to understanding the past as it was seen and experienced by human beings at the time.
  2. Get back in touch with the passion that drove episodes 1-3. I was emotionally invested in the stories of the conflicts of early New England and Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War memory in ways that I haven’t quite been able to recapture with later episodes. Whatever the shortcomings of those early shows, while producing them I felt a level of raw emotion that needs to be the criterion for every topic I choose.
  3. Produce shorter episodes. For Inward Empire 1.0, if I had a story that would take six hours to tell, I would tell it in two 3-hour episodes; for Inward Empire 2.0, I would tell it in six 1-hour episodes. This means more frequent content, and probably better quality. It’s easier to write ten outstanding pages than it is to write 50.
  4. Introduce more variety. This means not only time period (I love the late 19th century but let’s be real, it’s time for a break) but also region, theme, ideology, race, gender, etc.
  5. Make use of new resources. This means audio clips from newsreels, films, interviews, and so on. It also means collaborating with other podcasters and historians from time to time.
  6. Continue to improve audio quality and production value.
  7. Improve my “sound” as a podcaster, working towards a signature, instantly recognizable delivery. This is a tricky one, and in some ways it’s the most important on the list. Broadly, I think I’m strong at informing and weak at entertaining. That stems from a combination of my writing, editing (both script and audio), the quality of my voice, and my delivery. The last thing I want to be is boring, but I worry that my show falls into that trap from time to time. I have no broad plan to address this, which I think is fine — my experiences with music suggest that practice and time will do the trick. But I do think producing shorter episodes will help in the short term. I can think of only two people who can hold my interest while talking about history for hours on end: Dan Carlin and Yale historian David Blight (whose class on the Civil War + Reconstruction, last I checked, is on iTunes).

I encourage listeners to weigh in. Is there something I’ve missed, or is there anything about this project that you’ve found especially engaging, frustrating, or otherwise worthy of feedback? Drop me a line, either here or by email at

Images for Episode 9: Soldiers of Capital (Part Two)

Episode 9: Soldiers of Capital (Part Two)

Stream or download it for free on iTunesStitcher, or Podomatic.

After sending the Molly Maguires to the scaffold in 1877, Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency plunged headlong into America’s labor conflict. At the vanguard of its war on organized labor was the Protective Patrol, an armed force that deployed to over seventy major strikes. Was the Patrol a lawkeeping elite, as the Agency and its employers claimed? Or, as labor leaders and reformers argued, was it a gang of cold-blooded, mercenary killers? After a disastrous intervention in 1892, testimony in a dramatic Congressional hearing revealed that both sides might have been wrong all along…

Inward Empire music by Stephen Spencer.

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Arthur G. Burgyone, The Homestead Strike of 1892 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1979; originally published 1893)

Morris Friedman, The Pinkerton Labor Spy (New York: Wilshire Book Co, 1907)

Paul Krause, The Battle for Homestead 1880-1892: Politics, Culture, and Steel (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992)

Frank Morn, The Eye That Never Sleeps: A History of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982)

S. Paul O’Hara, Inventing the Pinkertons, or, Spies, Sleuths, Mercenaries, and Thugs (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016)

Allan Pinkerton, Strikers, Communists, Tramps, and Detectives (New York: G.W. Carleton, 1878)

Pinkerton Consulting and Investigations, Inc. “History of the Pinkerton Detective Agency”. (retrieved May 2, 2017).

Charles Siringo, A Cowboy Detective: A True Story of Twenty-Two Years with a World-Famous Detective Agency (Chicago: W.B. Conkey Co, 1912)

Charles Siringo, Two Evil Isms: Pinkertonism and Anarchism (Chicago: C.A. Siringo, 1915)

Robert Michael Smith, From Blackjacks to Briefcases: A History of Commercialized Strikebreaking and Unionbusting in the United States (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003)

United States House of Representatives, Committee on the Judiciary. Investigation of the Employment of Pinkerton Detectives in Connection with the Labor Troubles at Homestead, PA. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1892)  

United States Senate, Select Committee on the Employment for Private Purposes of Armed Bodies of Men, Investigation of Labor Troubles. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1893) 


Arthur Fremantle, Confederate Propagandist

If you’ve read The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara’s epic novel about the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg, or seen its schlocky film adaptation Gettysburg, you might remember this guy:

Image result for arthur fremantle

That’s Arthur Fremantle. In 1863 he was a young officer in the Coldstream Guards, an elite British regiment. The son of a famous general in the Napoleonic Wars, Fremantle hungered for a real taste of war. Instead, he found himself languishing in the British outpost at Gibraltar. The American Civil War raging on the other side of the Atlantic gave him a chance to satisfy his thirst for military adventure.

I always thought Fremantle was an interesting character, and I liked the idea of reading an outsider’s perspective on the Civil War. So much American writing and thinking (and podcasting, shitposting online etc) about the war is slanted by our own emotional and political attachments. That can lead to some pretty bad history. When I started researching Fremantle, I thought that he’d offer insights about the conflict that could only come from a detached outsider.

In the summer of 1863, as the Army of Northern Virginia prepared for its invasion of Pennsylvania, Fremantle took leave of his regiment and crossed the Atlantic by steamship. He skirted the Union blockade, landed in Mexico, and began a long, often dangerous journey across the Confederacy. Traveling on foot, in rickety stagecoaches, overcrowded trains, and mule-driven carts, he experienced America at war. When it was all over, he produced a vivid travel diary called Three Months in the Southern States.

When I read this diary and researched its author, however, I found that it was far from an objective observation of the wartime South (or the North, for that matter — Fremantle arrived in New York City just in time for the draft riots). Instead, I found a sophisticated propaganda piece that offered a rationale for a potential British alliance with the Confederacy.

British military intervention in the Civil War remains one of the biggest what-if scenarios in world history. The British textile industry relied on southern cotton, and the Union blockade of Confederate ports threatened a key sector of the British economy. The British government also toyed with the possibility of cutting the US, a major international rival, down to size. But an alliance with the Confederacy presented a major moral problem: how could staunchly anti-slavery Britain ally with a nation that had proclaimed slavery to be its “cornerstone“? Pro-Confederate British writers had grappled with this problem since the first southern states seceded in 1860. By 1863, their attempts to rationalize slavery had failed to convince a majority of Britons that intervention was in their nation’s best interests.

Fremantle hoped to influence this debate over intervention. By 1862, he fervently supported the southern cause. Raphael Semmes, a blockade runner who met Fremantle in Gibraltar, found him to be an “ardent Confederate.” Fremantle even submitted his diary to James Mason, a southern diplomat in Britain, to make sure the final product matched Confederate talking points.

Fremantle’s contribution to the intervention debate was brilliantly simple. Instead of rehashing old political arguments, he argued that Confederates and Englishmen were cultural and racial kinsmen with a common way of life. British intervention would protect and preserve these transatlantic relatives while forging a major alliance.

In his diary, Fremantle constantly emphasized the Englishness of the Confederacy, and especially of elite Confederate men. Southern officers, he said, “glory in speaking English as we do, and … their manners and feelings resemble those of the upper classes in the old country.” He found their military culture to be “very similar to what it is in the British army.” Southern generals wore their facial hair “in the English fashion,” while Jefferson Davis apparently served first-rate tea. At an Episcopal service in Augusta, Fremantle “might almost have fancied [myself] in England.” Even the southern landscape, at times, could be “rather English-looking.” Fremantle suggested that by intervening in the Civil War, the British government would be fighting on behalf of a society that was essentially their own.

Fremantle’s own experience seemed to prove the closeness of English and Confederate culture. Earlier English travel diarists had written with disgust about American habits like chewing tobacco. None other than Charles Dickens called it an “offensive and sickening … filthy custom” in which no Englishman would ever partake. Yet Fremantle breezily described now “I no longer shrink at every random shower of tobacco juice; nor do I shudder when good-naturedly offered a quid.” He also learned to love American fare (especially bacon, which he ate “voraciously”) and American slang (“nooning it” under the blazing sun, crossing “criks,” “getting tight” around campfires, disparaging “Uncle Abe.”) Fremantle even dressed like a Confederate, ditching all his clothing except for a grey shooting jacket. He looked, ate, and to an extent talked, like a southerner.

The only place where Fremantle called attention to his Englishness was when he talked about slavery. A Charleston slave auction, he said, was “not a very agreeable spectacle to an Englishman,” and he professed to feel “the dislike which an Englishman naturally feels at the idea of slavery.” But Fremantle had nothing more to say about the grim spectacle of fifteen men, three women, and three children sold into bondage, apart from his remark that they seemed “perfectly contented and indifferent.” Three Months in the Southern States is full of descriptions of slaves who are happy, contented, vain, childlike, and loyal. In one chilling indication of Fremantle’s adoption of southern racial attitudes, he began using the word “nigger” in his entry for May 20.

Even after the war ended in April 1865, Fremantle continued to defend his favorite southern “gentlemen.” In fact, when Raphael Semmes met him for a second time in London, he found him “more of a Confederate than ever.” Fremantle defended southern leaders against accusations of atrocities at Andersonville prison in Georgia, where thousands of Union POWs died of disease and starvation. The hard, undeniable evidence of mistreatment was nothing more than “odious calumnies,” Fremantle huffed in a letter to the London Times. Pictures of emaciated prisoners were “sensational” and “disgusting.” He felt it was his duty to “vindicate … the spotless honour” of “great” southern leaders like Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. They were not traitors, rebels, or war criminals. They were great Americans, “gentlemen” to the core.

The Fremantle diary and Fremantle’s postwar defense of the Confederacy can tell us a lot about the role of truth in history. On the surface, Fremantle’s diary looks like an honest, truthful record of the wartime South. Hidden political goals, however, influenced every word. During the war, he tried to convince his countrymen to side with a slaveholding republic; when the war ended, he fought to create a slanted, mythologized image of the Confederacy. Fremantle insisted that this image was “the truth of what was going on in the South.” And his story showed how a well-crafted image can shape a reality all its own.

Images for Episode 8, Soldiers of Capital (Part One)

Episode 8: Soldiers of Capital (Part One)

Stream or download it for free on iTunesStitcher, or Podomatic.

Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency was 19th-century America’s premier private police force, the leader of a flourishing industry that offered solutions to the chaos and corruption of the nation’s law enforcement. But the Pinkertons were more than just detectives. By the 1890s, they were a private army-on-call for powerful corporations. In the first episode of this two-part series, we’ll chart the birth and evolution of the Agency — from its founding by a radical immigrant in the 1850s to its bloody pursuit of outlaws and Irish labor groups in the decades after the Civil War.

Inward Empire theme by Stephen Spencer.

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Pamela Bedore, Dime Novels and the Roots of American Detective Fiction (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)

Kevin Kenny, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998)

Frank Morn, The Eye That Never Sleeps: A History of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982)

S. Paul O’Hara, Inventing the Pinkertons, or, Spies, Sleuths, Mercenaries, and Thugs (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016)

Allan Pinkerton, General Principles and Rules of Pinkerton’s National Police Agency (Chicago: George H. Fergus, 1867)

——————– The Expressman and the Detective (New York: G.W. Carleton, 1875)

——————– The Molly Maguires and the Detectives (New York: G.W. Carleton, 1877)

——————– Thirty Years a Detective: A Thorough and Complete Expose of Criminal Practices of All Grades and Classes (New York: G.W. Carleton, 1884)

Edgar Allan Poe, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” in Great Short Works of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by G.R. Thompson (New York: Harper & Roe, 1970), 272-313

Beau Riffenburgh, Pinkerton’s Great Detective: The Amazing Life and Times of James McParland (New York: Viking/Penguin, 2013)

Robert Michael Smith, From Blackjacks to Briefcases: A History of Commercialized Strikebreaking and Unionbusting in the United States (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003)

Francois Eugene Vidocq, Memoirs of Vidocq: Master of Crime, trans. Edwin Gile Rich (Edinburgh: AK Press / Nabat, 2003, originally published 1828)