Axis Sally, North Korea, the world’s first real-life detective, and reader reactions: newsletter, May 14, 2021

May 24, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, history, newsletter, watercolor, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,350) on Friday, May 14, 2021.

The Big Apple is the common nickname for New York City, but its origins are murky. What do apples have to do with New York City? The answer, according to an essay I found recently by Maria Popov (, is nothing. It’s not about apples at all.

The expression was first used by a sportswriter named John J. Fitz Gerald, who covered horse racing for the Morning Telegraph in the early 20th century. Fitz Gerald used the term first in a story and later had a regular column headed “Around the Big Apple.” Fitz Gerald never claimed he originated the term but also never explained fully where he picked it up.

Popov digs a little more deeply into it, and I’ll let you read her results if you are interested. But the name is highly appropriate, she says, for a city where for generations people have bet their fortunes, their careers, and their lives.

Wherever you have placed your bets this weekend, I hope that the results are good ones.

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,352 subscribers and had a 25.7 percent open rate; 2 people unsubscribed.

Important: Remember to open the images or click on one of the links so that my email service will record your engagement, and you will stay active on the list. Thanks.

Axis Sally, the broadcasting voice that worked for the other side

In the late 1940s very few people knew the name Mildred Gillars, but the whole world seemingly knew her nickname: Axis Sally.

Part of the reason she remained famous, or rather infamous, in the years after the war was that the United States government — in the throes of the Cold War —had decided to put her on trial for treason. The government’s indictment charged her with 10 counts of treason, but its legal arguments we’re confused and even contradictory. So was her defense.

But that’s getting ahead of the story.

Mildred Gillars was born in 1900 in Ohio. She grew up wanting to be an actor, a dancer, or something that would make her famous. She ultimately achieved that goal, but certainly not in a way that anyone could have imagined.

Gillars had a way of falling in and out of love, and it was usually with the wrong person. She was unable to establish an acting career for herself in New York City, and in the early 1930s, she left for Europe. She eventually found herself in Germany, and she managed to land a job with the German State Radio.

She remained in Germany as it sunk into the grip of National Socialism and began to spin inevitably toward war. In 1941, United States Embassy in Germany began advising American citizens to leave the country, but Gillars decided to stay. She was engaged to a young American who had become a naturalized German citizen, and he told her that he would not marry her if she returned home. Shortly after that, Germany invaded Russia, and the young man was sent to the Eastern Front where he died in combat.

Gillars had no choice but to continue her work had to try to navigate her dangerous situation as best she could. She met another American who had also become a German citizen, Max Otto Koischwitz. Koischwitz was a leading figure in Germany’s propaganda machine, and he recruited Gillars to be the star voice for a program directed at American GIs called Home Sweet Home.

The purpose of the program was to damage the morale of the soldiers and remind them of the things they were missing back home.

Another show in which Gillars was the star was called Midge at the Mike. In this show, she interspersed American music with the Nazis’ racist and anti-Jewish propaganda, and she made many despairing remarks about American President Franklin Roosevelt.

Gillars acquired the name Axis Sally when another American female used the name “Sally” to broadcast anti-American propaganda from Rome. The two were often confused by American GIs. Gillars’ most famous broadcast came shortly before D-Day in 1944 when she played the part of a mother in Ohio who wakes up screaming after dreaming that her son had been killed as part of the D-Day invasion force.

When the war was finally over, Gillars disappeared into the chaos of Germany. American army officers had not forgotten about her, however, and they conducted an intensive search for nearly a year before she was located and arrested in March 1946. During the next two years she spent most of her days in American custody and was finally indicted and brought to trial for treason in late 1948.

The trial was closely covered by newspapers and radio reporters and caused a sensation. Gillars headed to the spectacle by dressing flamboyantly, showing off her mountain with blond hair, and treating the whole thing like a Broadway production with her as the star. Her defense centered on the argument that she had done nothing illegal and simply exercised her first amendment rights by expressing unpopular opinions.

Ultimately, the jury found her guilty on only one count of treason, and she was sentenced to 10 to 30 years in federal prison. She served a little more than 10 years of that sentence and was released in 1961.

During her time in prison, she converted to Roman Catholicism, and when she was released, she returned to Ohio. She eventually became a teacher in a convent school and lived quietly until her death in 1988.

A new movie about Gillars, starring Al Pacino and Meadow Williams and focusing on her treason trial, will be released in late May 2021. The title of the movie is American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally.

King William’s War and the first paper money issued in America

The little-known King William’s War (1688-1697) was but one of a series of conflicts in colonial history that pitted English settlers in New England against French settlers in Canada. It was a war of raid and retaliation, and its brutality was frequent and shocking. Tragically, its result was simply the status quo that had been in place before the conflict began.

The war did contain 1 major historical marker, however. It resulted in the Massachusetts Bay Colony government issuing the first paper money in America.

Central to this story is a man named William Phips, who was born in what is now the state of Maine in 1651 and who spent the first years is life working on his father’s sheep farm. He then was apprenticed to a shipwright, and he married a wealthy widow who taught him how to read and write.

His work as a shipbuilder brought him into contact with many people and their stories. One of those stories had to do with a ship that was carrying gold from Mexico to the mother country of Spain and had sunk in the Caribbean. Phips found financial backing for an expedition to search for the sunken treasure, and although his first expedition was a failure, a second expedition had the incredible good fortune of actually finding the ship.

As a result, Phips was given £16,000 and a knighthood. Despite his newfound wealth and status, Phips was known as a man who spoke easily, honestly, and without any pretense, and people had come to trust him.

When the conflict broke out between the New Englanders and the French Canadians, the English asked the Crown for money and material to support their efforts to defend themselves and to retaliate against the French. The Crown ignored their request. The Massachusetts Bay Colony government then stepped in to underwrite a two-pronged invasion of Canada.

Phips led one of the forces of the invasion, but the whole thing turned out to be a disaster. Part of the reason for the failure was a smallpox epidemic that spread through the invading militia. None of the war aims of New Englanders came to fruition, including the one that had the invaders raiding the Canadians’ treasury. As the force was returning home, those in power knew that the soldiers that they had sent out would expect to be paid.

There was no hard currency available, so the government began printing paper bills of credit. It was the first time that paper money had been issued in the American colonies.

When the soldiers returned home, they were none too pleased to find that their payment was in something other than hard currency. Phips prevented the situation from becoming a crisis when he expressed confidence in the paper money and even purchased many of the notes himself. With that start, paper currency soon proved to be a convenient and efficient way of handling and exchanging money, and it has been with us ever since.

King William’s War continued for several more years, but it mostly consisted of New England towns defending themselves against forays by the French Canadians. The war ended inconclusively in 1697, but a few years later, the conflict was ignited once again oh, this time being dubbed Queen Anne’s War.

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.”

From the archives: The ‘private eye’ in literature begins with the real-life character of Eugene Francois Vidocq

The genesis of the private eye lies with a 19th Frenchman named Eugene Francois Vidocq.

Eugene Francois Vidocq

Vidocq’s life and legends, some of which he created through his partially fictionalized memoirs, were the inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe’s character C. Auguste Dupin in Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841), which is considered the world’s first detective story.

All of the famous detectives of literature — including Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone — owe something to the real-life Vidocq.

As a young man in the 1790s, Vidocq appeared to have a promising career in the army ahead of him. His trouble was that he was too imaginative – and maybe too hot-headed – to follow the rules. He strayed to the wrong side of the law, and there he remained for the next decade and a half.

Committed to prison by the courts several times, Vidocq always managed an escape. He had a generous, affable nature that sometimes got him into trouble — such as the time he forged a pardon for a fellow prisoner. He was a master of disguise, which also aided him in eluding the authorities. He was made an escaped by marching out of town in a funeral procession.

In 1809 he found himself in the hands of the police against, this time facing a long, harsh prison sentence. He boldly switched sides, telling the police that he could go undercover (to use a modern term) and help them capture dangerous and highly sought-after criminals.

For nearly two years, he did this with some noted success. He later wrote in his memoirs:

I believe I might have become a perpetual spy, so far was every one from supposing that any connivance existed between the agents of the public authority and myself. Even the porters and keepers were in ignorance of my mission with which I was entrusted. Adored by the thieves, esteemed by the most determined bandits (for even these hardened wretches have a sentiment which they call esteem), I could always rely on their devotion to me.

Eugène François Vidocq, Memoirs of Vidocq, p. 190

Vidocq also – obviously – had a talent for self-promotion, which he used to great effect for the rest of his life.

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And that life was, indeed, remarkable. It included

  • establishment of a plain-clothes criminal investigative unit for the French police, which inspired a similar unit for  Scotland Yard in Great Britain and eventually the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States;
  • identification techniques of criminals that relied on extensive record-keeping;
  • criminal investigation procedures that included ballistics examinations, crime-scene analysis, and even the beginnings of finger-printing;
  • founding of the first private detective agency, which he did in 1833 after tiring of constantly squabbling with police.

Vidocq was never shy about proclaiming his successes, taking credit for his accomplishments, and comparing his genius to the bumbling methods of the uniformed police. His fame spread through Europe and the United States, particularly as he cultivated close friendships with famous French authors of the day such as Honore de Balzac, Victor Hugo, and Alexander Dumas, just to name a few. Each of these writers created characters for their novels based on Vidocq.

Today, Vidocq is not well-known, not as much as he should be. As Mike Ashley has written

As with so many originals, Vidocq’s life has become so overshadowed and masked, not only by those he inspired, but by his own legend as well, that today, if he is mentioned at all, it is to dismiss his achievements as fiction. But he was real, and he was a true living legend.

Source: The Great Detectives: Vidocq – Strand Mag In this article from issue 4, Mike Ashley looks at the life of Vidocq, a thief turned detective who was to prove the inspiration for many great fictional detectives.

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Biographies of Vidocq:

  • Edwards, Samuel (1977). The Vidocq Dossier: The Story of the World’s First Detective (1st ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-395-25176-1.
  • Hodgetts, Edward A. (1928). Vidocq: A Master of Crime. London: Selwyn & Blount.
  • Morton, James. The First Detective: The Life and Revolutionary Times of Vidocq. Ebury Press. ISBN 978-0-09-190337-4.
  • Stead, John Philip (1954). Vidocq: Picaroon of Crime.

Podcast recommendation: The Lazarus Heist from the BBC

North Korea involved in a bank robbery — a BIG bank robbery? This is a true-crime podcast that sounds like a lot of fun — and it’s from the BBC, so the production values are top-notch.

Hollywood is involved, too.

The most daring bank theft ever attempted? From hacking Hollywood to a billion-dollar plot. North Korea stands accused but says it had nothing to do with it and it’s part of the United States’ attempts to tarnish its image. Premieres 19 April 2021. A true crime investigation with Geoff White and Jean Lee. Source: BBC World Service – The Lazarus Heist, Introducing The Lazarus Heist

Yes, this sounds like a lot of fun, but it gets serious pretty quickly. The heist is no joke. It affects the lives, careers, and bank accounts of many people and organizations. Rather than being a lot of fun, it turns out to be pretty scary.

This is a tale for our time, and it is definitely worth listening to. The recording is superb, and the production values of the podcast are at the standard you would expect from the BBC.


Eric S.: In response to your recent letter-writer who suggested the violinist in your watercolor was off balance, I would agree. But that’s no error. I like it. Your violinist appears to be moving fast with her back leg supporting most of her weight. With her other foot in mid-air, she’s in the process of regaining her balance. The viewer senses tension, an excellent painting of kinetic energy.

Jack S.: Personally, I consider what’s happening at our southern border is indeed a crisis, and getting crisisier.

Having been born in Mexico myself, with many relatives still there, I doubt that I’m prejudiced against the illegal aliens (slap my hand!).  I’m not fond at all of how our government—through all kinds of administrations—is handling the problem well at all.  I guess Trump was better than the others, but still his leadership in this area was far from satisfactory.

Marcia D.: My two Billy Wilder Movies were Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. Saw them on TV.

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: Leaders of the band

Best quote of the week:

“In reality, the world have payed too great a compliment to critics, and have imagined them men of much greater profundity than they really are.” Henry Fielding (1707-1754), English novelist, essayist, satirist, playwright, poet, journal editor, and magistrate

Helping those in need

Fires in California, freezing weather in Texas, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief ( is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: Billy Wilder the journalist, what happens when you rule the world, and many readers react: newsletter, May 7, 2021

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