Thursday, November 8, 2018

The California Gold Rush: A Few Ideas for Class

Discussing the Gold Rush was always fun; and if nothing else, I always thought history was best when history was interesting. (That lesson often seems to have escaped the publishers of textbooks.)

In my class, I found students rarely knew what year gold was discovered in California, why the San Francisco 49ers of the NFL were named the “49ers,” or why their colors were red and…gold.

Once we began our discussion, students often asked why the first discoverers didn’t keep their secret. I always told them “think like yourselves.” Who might you want to tell? And would you want to brag or would you have trouble keeping a secret?

Most students also seemed unclear about what the term “prospector” meant. I used to make fun of myself (I had one date during high school—and that was when a friend’s sister asked me to a dance; I couldn’t dance worth a darn, either). I would pick some young man, and put the idea to him: You are going to ask out your dream girl. What are the “prospects” or chances she says yes.

            We also talked about “prospects” in the NBA draft.

There are all kinds of good examples to use to stir student interest. One story I used every year (and can’t find right now) involved a rush in the Amazonian jungles of Brazil, touched off in 1985. The first “find” was accidental, when loggers scouting for promising sites came upon an uprotted forest giant. In the roots they found several gold nuggets. A mad rush followed. In one case, miners uncovered a “nugget” the size of a briefcase. I always reached behind my desk and thumped down my briefcase to make a point.

I retired from teaching in 2008; but my memory is that the nugget was worth $1.4 million. I do remember that the miners broke it up, fearing it would end in a museum and they’d be cheated somehow. But (see below), it would have had to weigh almost a thousand pounds to be worth that much.

Gold, of course, is much denser than almost any other element. A gold bar the size of a brick would weigh fifty pounds. As of today, as I type this up (11/8/18), gold is selling for $1,228 an ounce.

A pound of gold (there are only 12 Troy ounces per pound) would then be worth $14,736.

Other terms and details I thought students should know: the terms vigilante, lynching and stake a claim, pan out. (The term “stake a claim” comes from the habit of miners driving markers at the four corners of their claims to indicate property had already been taken.) The prejudice directed at non-white miners also seemed important to discuss. The Chinese, for example, were not allowed to own land, vote, serve on juries or testify against whites.

One immigrant who “struck it rich,” was Levi Strauss, who left Bavaria in 1848 and arrived in San Francisco in 1853. Strauss was soon selling heavy duty work pants to miners, using rivets at points of strain to make them more durable. In 1873 he patented these pants, today known as jeans.

Finding gold in 1849 was not unlike winning the lottery now. One couple that “struck it rich” deserves special mention. In 2013 a  California couple walking their dog noticed a can buried near a tree in their backyard. Inside, they found 1,427 gold coins, dating from 1847-1894. In May 2014 they began auctioning them off, the first coin going for $15,000.

The total estimated value: $11 million.

Jackpot in the ground. Some of the coins found in 2013.


If you are not familiar with the story of the S.S. Central America, my students were always intrigued.

The book Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea chronicles the story in great and often exciting detail.

Loaded with gold minted in San Francisco, the vessel was sailing for New York in 1857 when caught in a violent Atlantic storm. The Central America soon went down, taking three tons (or perhaps fifteen tons, sources differing) of gold and 425 passengers and crew  with her. For the next 125 years no one gave much thought to finding the wreckage. A man named Tommy G. Thompson, who had studied engineering and robotics at Ohio State, began studying old records. Eventually, he and a company he had founded with 160 other investors discovered the wreck in 7,000 feet of water (some sources say 8,000).

A great deal of detective work and searching of possible wreck sites were involved; one summer was spent on a site of another vessel, sunk around the same time, which fit the proper profile. Eventually robot cameras located the right wreck. Thompson and others first looked at a series of pictures snapped by the robot. Thompson described what they saw now: 

     “It was just…it was just…covered with gold! I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it! That was the most thrilling….We had hit right on a pile, nice low pictures, nice and clear. I mean everything was perfect, man. It was incredible! But I looked at it, and I looked up, and, Naaaah, this can’t be. I thought, That’s gotta be a bunch of brass laying there. So I looked again! Holy! And I just started looking at the other shots, and I…mean…it…was…PILES! I’m not kidding you, it is awesome! It is absolutely awesome! Stacks of coins and bars of gold of every size and shape just sitting there!” (Ship of Gold, p. 450)

Some of the coins were still in neat sacks, the bags they were contained in having long since rotted away.

In another scene from the book a robot camera is filming the ocean bottom. The submersible approached a beam sticking up. Nearby, a hundred gold coins, washed by some current glinted in the searchlight. Other hints of bars and coins showed under a layer of sediment. An operator above pointed the forward thruster downward and shot out a gentle wash of water to blow away the covering.

The sediment was thin, but when the wake of the thruster hit, it exploded upward, swirling into clouds, blotting out the rotted timbers, turning the monitors white. For several minutes the techs could see nothing but the roiling sediment. Then the clouds began to drift with the light current; the picture on the monitorys began to clear and slowly revealed a scene few people could imagine.
     “The bottom was carpeted with gold,” Tommy said. “Gold everywhere, like a garden. The more you looked, the more you saw gold growing out of everything, embedded in all the wood and beams. It was amazing, clear back in the far distance bars stacked on the bottom like brownies, bars stacked like loaves of bread, bars that appear to have slid into the corner of the room. Some of the bars formed a bridge, all gold bars spanning one area of treasure over here and another over here, water underneath, and the decks collapsed through on both sides.Then there was a beam with coins stacked on it, just covered, couldn’t see the top of the beam it had so many coins on it.” (p. 452)

Author Gary Kinder describes what the recovery team saw that day:

     So many bricks lay tumbled upon one another at myriad angles that the thrity-foot pile appeared to be the remnants of an old building just demolished. Except these were bricks of gold: bricks flat, bricks stacked, bricks upright, bricks cocked on top of other bricks. And coins single, coins stacked, coins once in stacks now collapsed into spreading piles, some coins mottled in the ferrous oxide orange and brown from the rusting engines, others with their original mint luster. Besides a tiny squat lobster carefully picking its way across piles of coins, the scene lay perfectly still.

One team member laughed, “Look at theose damn fire bricks.” A pink-orange anemone drifted softly through the scene. “Stiking up out of another area was a coin tower,” Kinder writes, “eight stacks of gold coins, twenty-five coins to a stack, all of the stacks abutting one another like poker chips still in the rack, the whole thing frozen together and angled upward at sixty degrees.” The camera on the underwater vehicle could swivel; and now they saw “a mound of gold dust frozen ten inches high, dotted with nuggets, and capped by two small gold bars.” (p. 453)

            The camera swung again, briefly passing a coin standing straight up. Tommy had caught the date. The camera was swung back.

     Everyone laughed as Moore tapped the camera back again. There stood a coin upright, face front, just as pure and lustrous as the day it left the San Francisco Mint. It was emblazoned with the bust of Lady Liberty, lovely in profile, her hair crossed with a tiara and cascading in ringlets down her neck, thirteen stars surrounding her, and her ringlets stopping just short of the date “1857.” In a pocket thirty feet across, the ocean floor lay covered with these coins.

     Doering [another member of the recovery team] figured he had now seen more gold coins in one place at one time than any other treasure hunter in history, and that included Cortes and Pizarro. He was ready to pluck some of that gold from the ocean floor, drop it into the artifact drawer, and bring it to the surface, so he could feel it right there in the palm of his hand. 9p. 455)

New technologies had to be developed to bring the coins up, unscratched, making them many times more valuable. (It was soon decided to lower a long, wide hose down to the site, coat the coins in silicon, pick them up and drop them in a drawer on the robot vehicle, the pull them out at the surface, unmarred.) There were gold bars fifteen times larger than anything then known to exist. The estimated value of the haul was $400 million; but there were multiple court challenges ahead—including one from an insurance company that had paid off the losses back in 1857.

In the end, Thompson prevailed, and the treasure was declared to be his; but he later ran off and left investors with the same amount of gold they started with, which would be none. Thompson sold his share of the gold, including 532 gold bars and a trove of coins, for $50 million. A lengthy manhunt ended with his arrest in 2015; but when last I checked he was still in jail and refused to reveal what had become of all the treasure. At least some of it had probably gone into a trust fund for his children.

Some of the gold from the wreck.
Coins and bars thousands of feet below the surface.

Gold bars cleaned up for display: each is worth tens of thousands (or more).


The journals of Alfred Doten, who left Plymouth, Massachusetts and sailed for California in 1849 also look promising as a source. I till check them out further soon.


            My students also liked the story of Bodie, California, a town founded in 1859 after another gold find. William Bodey, who found the first gold, later died in a blizzard. During its heyday, 1877-79, the town had a population of 11,000. The town reportedly had a murder per day, on average; and it was said the teacher went to school heavily armed.

            Various criminals came to no good end. Buffalo Bill Gross was stealing firewood; one victim tired of his losses, cut out part of a log, filled it with gunpowder, and sealed it up. Bill stole his firewood again and soon blew himself up. Two other men were digging up new graves ans stealing the caskets. A stage was robbed, and $30,000 in gold taken, but the robbers were caught, and the gold never found. At least one criminal escaped from a flimsy jail, by pushing a piano through the wall. As was often the case, prejudice against the Chinese was rampant. They were buried separately from the whites. A fire swept the town in 1892, doing significant damage and speeding the downhill slide.

            The town, on the border of Nevada and California is at 8,379 feet above sea level, sitting in an almost treeless valley. Temperatures can drop to 30 or 40 degrees below zero. There can be eight or ten feet of snow blanketing the town during the winter. And when the gold ran out, the people soon began to trickle away. About $95 million was taken from the mines (not sure of what point that figure was computed). By the 1930s it was a ghost town, now a State of California historical site.

Bodie, California: Present population: 0.

My students liked writing ghost stories about Bodie. 

Pool table left behind when the last inhabitants left.

Abandoned buildings, Bodie.


Notes from the following story, Ralph K. Andrist in “Gold!” (American Heritage), may be of use to teachers. In the summer of 1847, John Sutter, a large land owner in California sent a carpenter, James Marshall, up the American River to build a sawmill. Months later, Marshall made his famous discovery:

January 24, 1848: Marshall lets the water run all night, to clean debris from the millrace in preparation for putting the sawmill into operation; and on this morning he spots yellow specks in the millrace. The men Sutther has hired continue to work, panning for gold only on Sundays, until the mill is finished in March. The first nugget, found by Marshall was about the size of a dime. The people of San Francisco, then a town of about 900, did not much believe early reports of gold. 

A group of Mormons began digging about 25 miles from the sawmill, what became known as Mormon Diggings.

Sam Brannan, a store owner with a place in Sutterville, near Sutter’s Fort, headed for San Francisco in May; with him he brought a vial of gold dust; it is said he walked the streets shouting, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” and waving his vial. This sparked the first, local rush. Within two days boats were leaving San Francisco and headed for the diggings. There they found Brannan’s store stocked with supplies and equipment needed to go prospecting. By June it is estimated only 100 people remained in San Francisco. According to the alcalade, workers constructing a school house in Monterey, California, heard the news, “threw down their saws and planes, shouldered their picks, and are off for the Yuba. Three seamen ran off from the Warren, forfeiting their four years’ pay; and a whole platoon of soldiers left their colors behind.” The stories continued to get better and better; there were said to be streams “paved with gold.” The mines, said one authority, exceeded “all the dreams of romance and all the golden marvels of the wand of Midas.”

A miner later wrote his wife, “I do not like to be apacking a thousand dollars about in my coat pockets for it has toar my pockets and puld the Coat to pieces.”

On December 5, President Polk, in his annual message, gave official blessing to the accounts. There were reports of rich veins as “would scarcely command belief.”

Andrist talks of the majority of miners who lived lives of “much rushing and little gold.” 

Sutter ended up with “his cattle butchered, his fields trampled and untended, his land taken by squatters, until he had not a thing left.”

After Polk’s announcement, the rush was on. The Argonauts, as they were called (after Jason and the golden fleece) had two water routes; almost all available ships were taken over; the New England whaling fleet was suddenly transporting passengers. As fast as vessels reached SF, their crews deserted and headed for the gold fields, leaving the harbor a forest of masts. Those going by the shorter route, across Panama, died by the undreds from malaria, cholera and unsanitary conditions. Hiram Pierce, a New York blacksmith, left a wife and seven children behind. He wrote home about “swineish” behavior by the passengers and a ship’s doctor almost always drunk. One night the doctor became tangled in his hammock and was hanging upside down until morning. Another time, “the same worthy took a dose of medicine to a patient & haveing a bone in his hand knowing, he took the medicine & gave the bone to the patient.”

Others crossed by land in the spring. Spring found one man ready to jump off for the trip West, armed with a rifle and accompanied only by his bulldog. He was planning to walk to California—and had already walked all the way from Maine. Another man planned to push a wheelbarrow to the fields. Cholera, brought from Europe to New Orleans in 1848, now spread up the river and was carried across the plains by the wagon trains. In parts of Utah and Nevada the water and grass were bitter with sulpher, alkalai and salt, even poisonous. One barren stretch had to be crossed in one jump, usually lasting 24 hours; at Boiling Springs, halfway, water could be poured into troughs and allowed to cool, and then proved drinkable, albeit unappetizing. Animals, already worn from the trail, gave out during this stretch, what one writer calls “the Forty-Mile Desert.” A traveler wrote, “The forty-five mile stretch is now almost impassable because of the stench of the dead animals along the road which is literally lined with them and ther is scarcely a single train or wagon but leaves one or more dead animal, so that it must be getting worse every day.”

One traveler described traveling down the Humboldt

“and crossing the desert for more than one hundred miles before reaching the Sink…There is no grass of any consequence, the water is slippery stuff resembling weak lye as much as anything: from the Sink to Carson River is a distance of forty miles, the last twelve deep sand.”

Estimates put the number of travelers who came over the trails in 1849 at around 35,000. Another 15,000 came round the Horn, 6,000 across Panama. Numbers ran just as high for the next three or four years; but the fever ran hottest in ’49. (Andrist estimates that tens of thousands of travelers died by the end of the 1850s)

Andrist describes the hard work involved:

For mining involved more than swishing a little gravel and water around in a basin; it was hard, back-straining work. Placer gold, the only kind really known during the gold rush, consists of gold dust and occasional nuggets scattered thinly through sand and gravel (a miner never called it anything but “dirt”). To obtain the gold, it was necessary to wash a great deal of dirt, taking advantage of the fact that gold is about eight times as heavy as sand and will settle to the bottom while the sand is being carried oft by the water. The gold pan, traditional symbol of the miner, was used only in very rich claims or for testing samples of dirt to see whether they were worth working further. In ordinary circumstances, a hopperlike device of wood and perforated sheet iron called a cradle, or rocker, was employed in a two-man operation: while one shoveled in the dirt, the other rocked the device and poured water with a dipper. The dirt was washed through, and the gold was caught in settling pockets.

After 1849, an invention called the long tom was used wherever there was a good supply of running water. It was simply a wooden flume with water running through it; dirt was shoveled in and sluiced through while the gold caught on a slatted bottom. A long torn was worked by several men and could handle four or five times as much dirt per man per day as could a cradle. That meant, of course, that a miner had to shovel four or five times as much dirt into it as he would into a cradle to keep it operating at full efficiency. A man usually had to pay for what he got, even in the gold fields.

The terrain on which the prospectors worked did little to make things easier for them; it was usually difficult. The diggings were chiefly along the tributaries of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, which flowed out of the Sierra Nevada; each river, fork, branch, and creek was eventually followed by prospectors to its source. In the lower foothills the land might be only moderately rocky and hilly at best; near the headwaters rushing streams flowed in the clefts of deep, precipitous gorges whose bottoms were often cluttered with boulders and fallen rocks and choked with jackstraw tangles of dead trees. Even under these conditions, miners persevered at the ever-absorbing task of separating a small amount of gold from a mountain of gravel, and with amazing energy and ingenuity constructed hydraulic works to enable them to move the stream here or there or otherwise exploit it in their search for wealth.

One miner writes home that there are stories of men taking in as much as $16,000 in one day, but such strikes  are “once chance out of a thousand; the average is from ½ to 2 ounces per day….I shall stay up to the mines all winter, if I can make an ounce a day.”

In August, a miner wrote home, saying that agriculture in N. California was “all at an end” and provisions had to be brought from lands far away. Prices naturally skyrocketed:

“I will just give you a summary; Salt Pork here [in San Francisco] 75 cents per lb. at the mines $200 per Barrel. Flour $2.00 per lb. Bread at the mines one to one half dollars per lb. Sugar at the mines $2.00 per lb. tea $4.00. Revolving pistols woth in N. York $11.00 are here worth $55-75 dol. each. Onions 25-50 cents each. Potatoes about $30 per bushel. A ship load of the latter would bring two hundred thousand dollars.”

Another miner described his comrades as “the hairiest set of fellows that ever existed.”

Not only did most miners not “strike it rich,” the gold fields could be a dangerous place. A former school teacher wrote home in March 1852, “Seventeen dead bodies wee found on one road alone within the last four months and no clue to the perpetrators of this wholesale slaughter has as yet been discovered. California is yet sadly wanting in an effective judicial and constabulary organization.”

As late as 1853, a missionary spoke of the richness of California, but warned, “You can form no adequate idea of the depth of sin and moral degredation to which most of the people are sunk or rather sink themselves…There are a few however, who have not bowed the knee to Baal.”

Still: There were stories of men digging out gold flakes from between rocks with nothing but spoons. Near Auburn, four cart loads of dirt yielded one lucky miner/s (??) $16,000 in gold; and in the first days of the rush, Andrist writes, “it was not at all unusual for a man to dig $1,000 to $1,500 worth of gold between dawn and dusk.” A man near Angel’s Camp was hunting for rabbits. He jammed his ramrod down into the roots of a manzanita bush, and turned up a piece of gold-bearing quartz. That day, using his ramrod alone, he made $700. The next day, with better implements, he made $2,000. His third day of digging yielded $7,000. Three Germans, taking a shortcut home, struck it rich on the Feather River, taking out $36,000 in four days, without even having to wash gravel, and what became known as Rich Bar was soon swarming with other miners. Claims here were so rich it was agreed they would be limited to 10 feet square. Single panfuls of dirt were turning up $1,000 to $1,500. A company of four men made $50,000 in a single day. By 1852, however, the rush was nearly ended, most of the great spots having been discovered.

One miner wrote home in March 1852,

“Jane i left you and them boys for no other reasons than this to come here to procure a littl property by the swet of my brow so that we could have a place of our own that i mite not be a dog for other people any longer…i think that this is a far better country to lay up money than it is at home. if a man will…tend to his business and keep out of licker shops and gambling houses. that is the way the money goes with many of them in this country. thare are murders committed about every day on the acount of licker and gambling but i have not bought a glass of licker since i left home…i never knew what it was to leave home till i left a wife and children…i know you feel lonsom when nigh apears but let us think that it is for the best so to be for and do the best we can for two years or so and i hope Jane that we shell be reworded for so doing and meet in a famely sircal once more. that is my prayer.”

Sorry this is blurry; it's from an old slide turned into a picture.
A stone pille at almost dead center shows where the sawmill used to be.


Here’s a short reading I provided for students, if you can use it.

            James Marshall had been born in New Jersey. He came to California after first trying his hand at farming in Missouri. There he grew sich with fever carried by mosquitoes and headed for healthier climates. He never made much money from his discovery. Eventually, the State of California granted him a small pension.
Marshall never married and died in 1885.

Henry Bigler worked at Sutter’s Mill where gold was first discovered. Afterwards he used to tell friends he was going “duck hunting” and look for gold on his own. On February 22, 1849, three miles down the American River, he found an ounce-and-a-half (worth the equivalent of $1,842 today)

Gold fever” was always hard to resist. In spring 1849 a prospector visiting friends in San Francisco told all who would  listen that he had taken twenty ounces of gold out of his claim in eight days of digging. Another fellow who caught the fever remembered his excitement: “Piles of gold rose up before me at every step!” He saw himself in a great marble mansion, with slaves to wait upon him and beautiful young women competing for his love.

The news of rich gold strikes soon swept San Francisco and the nearly deserted streets appeared “as if an epidemic had swept the little town.” Doctors forgot their patients and headed for the gold fields. Patients followed if they were healthy enough. The town council canceled its next meeting and “headed for the hills.” Sailors abandoned ships in the harbor. Even captains left their vessels to rot. U.S. soldiers deserted, too, and officers sent to find them never returned to their posts. (Army records indicate that 716 officers and men out of 1,290 soon disappeared.) Farmers left crops in the fields and cows roamed free, eating what they pleased. Ministers, students, unhappy husbands and happy ones, a few good women, and others not so good, gamblers, and criminals of every kind left for the mines to dig for gold or carry on their trades.

Abandoned ships fill San Francisco Bay.

No wonder they were crazy with gold fever. A claim on Feather River yielded 273 pounds of gold in seven weeks. A boy named Davenport took 77 ounces from his claim one day ($94,556) and 90 the next ($110,520. It was said a cook in one of the mining camps cut open a chicken and found a half-ounce nugget the bird had pecked at and swallowed. One prospector dug down and hit a rich pocket of gold dust and nugges, enough to fill a towel. He decided he had probably taken all he could from his claim and “sold out” to a fellow named Lorenzo Soto. Soto took out 52 pounds of gold from the same claim in eight days.

Chino Tirador took so much gold out of his claim that he could barely carry it. He then began selling gold for two silver ollars an ounce—a very poor price indeed, The next day, Tirador discovered that other men had been working his claim at night. So he bought a bottle of whiskey and launched a career as a professional gambler. According to one California history, “By ten o’clock that night he was both penniless and drunk.”

Soon the fever spread across the nation. On September 20, 1848, the Baltimore Sun and other papers “back East” began reporting on the incredible gold discoveries. President James K. Polk soon announced to Congress that rich deposits of gold had indeed been discovered in California. Men and women were now frantic to reach California and fought to gain places on ships heading in that direction. Others could hardly wait until spring in 1849 to set off by wagon. Half the men in Oregon gave up whatever they were doing and headed south to the diggings. Prospectors from as far away as Chile, China and Great Britain joined the rush. Soon trails and oceans were covered with dreamers headed for the Pacific shores.

A woman left behind weeps as a loved one heads West by wagon, bound for California.

Thousands never made it. They died in storms at sea or from disease or attacks by Native Americans along the trails. One three-year-old fell out of a wagon and under the wheels and was crushed. Four others died on the trail when an oak tree split in a storm and a great limb fell atop their tent.

As always, luck shined on some and not on others.

In those days, before television, movies and the internet allowed people to “see” the world, the circus was a popular form of entertainment. The most amazing experience of all was to buy a ticked and see an elephant. Now, people headed for California told friends and relatives they were “going to see the elephant.”

In the gold fields new towns sprang up overnight and grew rapidly. It is estimated that 90% of the population of these towns was male. Drinking, gambling and fighting filled the social calendar. Gamblers often got rich by cheating miners at cards and other games of chance. One prostitute claimed she had earned $50,000, equal to several million dollars today. Good women were rare. So one groom charged other miners $5 simply to attend his wedding and see his young bride. Theaters and dance halls sprang up in all the towns. A play which included an actual female of good face and figure—or even not so good a face and figure—was sure to sell a fortune in tickets. A female singer could expect thunderous applause and a shower of presents after any concert.

Even the town names tells us something about this strange new land. Some of the best: Hangtown (where miners hanged three claim jumpers from a tree), Slapjack (slang for “pancakes”), Whiskey, Hoodoo, Muletown, Chicken Thief Flat, You Bet, Jacksass and Pinchemtight.

Prices for food and equipment were always high. So most miners never really got rich. Those who made only enough in the “diggings” to apy expenses called their work “mining for beans.” One husband returned home from his claim after several weeks. He was happy to have a few ounces of gold. But while he was gone his wife had made more money just by doing laundry for men in the camp.

Headed for the gold fields, filled with hope.

Leaving the gold fields, flat busted.


One of these days I’m going to get around to writing up the Gold Rush in a more detailed story for students.

I have a reading almost ready on the Silver Rush of 1859, in Nevada. And I do sell materials at TpT, if you’re interested.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Two "N" Words and a "D" Word

I tried to teach my students to have empathy at every chance I had; this is my favorite lesson and one I believe had a real impact.

In light of the massacre in Pittsburgh yesterday, I thought I'd share this for what it might be worth. 

I was writing in another venue about how much I hated standardized testing, and how I thought the tests weren't even helping, when I changed to the topic of empathy, as you will see below:

            By comparison, one lesson I’m proud of, created long before teachers were ordered to standardize everything, and maybe wear matching shirts and slacks, went to the heart of human decency.

            It began with a boy on the bus. 

            “Back when I was in ninth grade,” I explained to classes, “we used to see kids we called ‘hair lips.’ I don’t mean to be cruel. They were born with a birth defect involving a hole in the palate (here I showed what I meant) or lip. Doctors closed the hole. But this left scars and most ‘hair lips’ sounded funny when they talked.

            “We had a boy like that, who had other handicaps, who rode our bus. The only person he talked to was the driver. Every morning he’d climb aboard and call out, ‘Eyyyy, Brrnee.’ Bernie. That was the driver’s name. He’d walk down the aisle and two big high school guys would go: ‘Eyyyy, Brrnee.’ They mocked him every day. It made me sick then. It makes me sick now.

            “If I had been bigger, I would have told them to stop,” I added, “but I was skinny and couldn’t do much to help.”

            Every student in the room could see the point. The cruelty of the two older boys. The evil of picking on one so defenseless. This held their attention and we went from there.

            For homework students had read a handout based on A Brief History of the Indies, published in 1552, written by Bartolome Las Casas, a Spanish priest. Las Casas admitted when he first came to the New World all he cared about was gold. He purchased Indian slaves and ignored the teachings of Christ. When he saw cruelties all around he began to feel a weight upon his soul. He freed his slaves and took holy orders, devoting his life to saving as many natives as he could. 

Students read scenes like this:

     The Christians, with their horses and swords and lances, began to slaughter and practice strange cruelty among them [the natives]...and spared neither children, nor the aged, nor pregnant women, nor those in child labor. They not only stabbed them but dismembered them [cut them up] like lambs in a slaughterhouse.
     They made bets as to who could split a man in two or cut off his head with one sword blow...They took babes from their mothers...and dashed their heads against the rocks...Others they seized by the shoulders and threw them into the rivers, laughing and joking...and saying as the babies fell into the water, “Boil there, you offspring of the devil!”

Before classes began, I prepared by taping pictures of the Holocaust on the board and pulling down maps and a movie screen to hide them. Students entered and took their seats. I told them the story of the boy on the bus and asked simply, “How can people be so cruel?”

That was our question for the day.

“What was the worst example from last night’s reading?” I inquired.

Almost every student raised a hand. “When the Spanish cut off the hands of the slaves,” Maggie responded.

“When soldiers burned the building with 300 Indian leaders inside,” said Marco.

“Throwing babies into the river,” Deedee added.

Page from Ian's book for a project on human hatred.

“How could they do it?” I asked again. “How could so many be so cruel? And what made Las Casas and others who tried to save the natives different?”

            I didn’t expect anyone to bite yet. I continued: “How long did Las Casas spend trying to save the Indians?”

Ken responded: “Fifty years.” 

I asked: “How many of you ever walk down the street and see a bug and step on it?”

All kinds of hands went up.

“Didn’t you feel guilty?” I asked one boy. “Gary! You murderer! That bug had a family, and they’re all like, ‘Hey, when’s Dad coming home, maybe he’ll bring us a toy,’ and you’re like, ‘No big deal. I’ll just scrape dad off the bottom of my shoe and keep walking.’”

The bug idea always got a laugh—the last of the day. I asked how the Spanish (some of them) could do what they did. No one was ready to answer. “It’s the same as the two boys on the bus. Or stepping on a bug. What did the soldiers say when they threw babies in the river?”

“Boil there, you offspring of the devil,” Deedee offered.

Correct. “Now, if the devil walked in this room right now and Gary jumped up and killed the devil, wouldn’t he be good?”

Deedee admitted Gary would be good. 

“You admit you’ve stepped on bugs,” I reminded her. “No one thinks killing bugs is wrong?”

They’re just bugs classmates interjected.

Unfortunately, I explained, Hitler and his followers believed killing Jews was acceptable. One Nazi official said the world would build a monument in their honor because they had the courage to do what no one else did. Getting rid of Jews was “like killing vermin,” he insisted, “a matter of cleanliness.”

            Did anyone know what vermin were?

“Bugs, fleas. Rats, I think,” Jacob offered. I told the class he was right.
“It’s a question of dehumanization,” I continued. The definition goes on the board: “to see others as less than human; lower than yourself.”

“I hate to tell you this,” I said, “but most of you dehumanize others. You put labels on groups or individuals you don’t like and you’re on your way!”

“We don’t kill people, though,” Greg objected. True. I turned and added to our notes: “Labeling: to see all members of a group as the same, without individual difference.”

In our school, students admitted peers were labeled “preps,” as in preppy, well-dressed, college-prep types. Poor kids (at least when I started) were labeled “grits,” dirty, lowly, unclean. Labels, we noted, allowed us to ignore the fact our enemies are human. 

I threw this out: “Next time you see someone you don’t like, say: ‘I hate that human being.’ It doesn’t work.”

I said I despised labels. But who could think of one? Every year I worried some parent would see this day’s notes and flip. The examples poured out: nigger, fag, gook, bitch, jock, nerd.

“Yeah,” I interjected, “let’s pick on him. He’s a nerd!” I asked someone to tell me what made a nerd a nerd.

Oliver and Kayla both said nerds were weak. That’s two “N-words” now.

“Oh! Even better! Let’s pick on the weak!” I added scornfully. We were back to the boy on the bus. Students who knew they were guilty of such behavior were already shifting in their seats.

            Then we moved to the final steps of the lesson. We raised the maps and movie screen. The kids came forward and looked at pictures of the Holocaust. There were young children being rounded up, Stars of David upon their sleeves. There was a grandmotherly-type looking straight into the camera. “Look: she seems like the type who’d bake cookies for the grandkids.

            “Dangerous,” I scoffed.

Another picture showed a house painted with the word: “Jude.” “Notice,” I told my class, “you can walk down the street and say, ‘I hate those Jews!’ You don’t even have to see them to hate them.”

“We do the same,” Antoinette replied. “We label people according to skin color and don’t think.” 

I nodded agreement.

Not the same picture used in class; but same idea.

Antoinette was staring at a photo of a long trench filled with emaciated corpses. Tears started. Her friend tugged her arm and led her to her seat. Students were subdued when I sent them back to their places. The bell was about to ring and we would pick up on the subject the next day. 

I used this lesson plan for twenty-five years and it never failed. Then, one day, I heard something completely unexpected. Susie spoke up, one of my favorite students, but still plain-looking and gawky at thirteen. The lesson was finished. The bell was about to ring. Classmates were thinking about labeling and the cruelty that inevitably follows. Susie had her hand up. Clearly, she hoped to have the final say. 

I called on her and she explained in an anguished voice, “You know, Mr. Viall, the other kids label me. They call me a ‘dog.’”

For once I was speechless. We all know teens can be cruel. No one had ever exposed this so perfectly, in such timely fashion, in its starkest forms. The word “dog” hung in the air like a Nazi victim on a scaffold.

We had just devoted an entire period to a discussion of human cruelty. Now those who had inflicted pain on Susie saw themselves, as it were, in a mirror. The image reflected wasn’t flattering.

“That is absolutely wrong,” I spluttered, my voice shaking with emotion. I looked to her peers for explanation. Chastened by a victim’s revelation, no one dared utter a word. The bell rang and I stood and stared as Susie’s tormentors snuck out the door and made their escape to lunch. 


            If you’re a dedicated teacher, and in my experience most of my peers were, you always try to improve. In the summer of 1996, I spent two weeks gathering material and writing a new handout on the Holocaust. The plan was to couple it with the story of Las Casas in the fall.

The first lesson remained the same. Now, on the second day, we addressed dehumanization in more modern forms. We began by listing basic terms: Holocaust; Gestapo, Nazi, swastika; genocide, dictator, and more. The last page of the reading, which we began in class, was nothing more than a large photo of Hitler’s face in black and white. I had scrawled “a cesspool in the head” across his forehead before running off copies. As expected, few students knew what a cesspool was. I had Rob, a young man we nicknamed Mr. Dictionary for his prowess with words, explain. 

I did not expect to find there were those who did not recognize Hitler. We started every class after that by turning to the page where the dictator was shown. I wanted to insure everyone knew who it was, with the drooping hair and toothbrush mustache.
(That’s one of many basics a teacher discovers must be taught only by teaching. That’s a car you want in the parking lot.)

The story was filled with hard-to-pronounce names. So we read the opening section aloud. I told students not to worry about names and dates once I turned them loose. They should try to imagine a world gone mad. The story was titled HITLER’S BLACK HARVEST.

Angie, a hard-working young lady and one of my favorites, volunteered to be first to read:

     Most students today know a little about the Holocaust. They usually know gas chambers were disguised as showers. They realize Jews had to wear yellow stars. Some know six million Jews died. Only a few know non-Jewish victims totaled another ten million.
     Still, it seems impossible to come to grips with the horror. To understand the truth we must focus on the broken heart. We must go beneath the surface of the printed page. 
We must dive into an ocean of blood.     

I asked Angie to stop a moment and allowed the words “ocean of blood” to sink in. Then she kept going:

We must watch as German troops arrest Israel Lewi. Then we must see his tearful daughter rush up to say goodbye to her father. We must see a soldier’s anger as he orders the poor girl to open her mouth. Then gasp as he fires his pistol down Liebe Lewi’s throat. 

“How many of you would want to say goodbye to your father in this situation?” I asked. You personalize history and every kid can sense how terrible this must have been.
Caitlyn volunteered to read next:

We must see Icek Bekerman steal a piece of leather to make into a pair of shoelaces, from the shop where he works as a Nazi slave. See him caught. Then see him hanged.
We must see Sophie Scholl and brother Hans, not Jews but “good Germans,” protest Nazi rule. See them paint: “Freedom!” and “Down with Hitler!” on building walls. We must shudder as they are arrested, placed on trial, sentenced to death, and beheaded.
It is not easy to watch what we must watch. And sometimes we must listen. Hear the cries of a nameless Polish prisoner. His head has been caved in and both legs broken when police torture him to make him talk. His battered body makes a thump when he is thrown into a wood coffin and sent to the ovens to be burned. Listen now. Listen as he regains consciousness at the last second, screaming: “Open up! Open up! I am still alive!”
Listen. Let his terrified shouts enter your soul. Then you may be ready to understand.

We stopped again to let the horror sink in. Silence hung over the room. I warned the reading would be hard to take and told everyone to go ahead and pick up where we left off. They would be looking evil in the eye and I asked them to see what they might discover.

I took a seat and settled down to paperwork. At first, the hush was broken only by rustling pages. Then I heard quiet crying. I glanced up and saw a girl with tears running down her cheeks. I thought: I hope I haven’t gone too far, but I want students to feel the evil.

I focused again on grading. The sound of crying grew. Melissa, normally a most enthusiastic young lady, was weeping. 

            Now I was worried. Had I delved too deeply into horror? Frankly, I feared some parent might complain. “Are you okay?” I asked Melissa. She sniffed, said yes, wiped her face, and turned a page. “Are you guys okay?” I asked the class. Nods. Tears. Most kept reading.

            I started watching. Some were turning red, stifling their horror. Finally, I said, “Look, if this is too hard, you don’t have to finish.” One or two folded their handouts back to the first page and wiped their faces. 

Melissa choked out a few words and kept going. “No….we….need….to….know this,” she sobbed. Classmates nodded and most kept reading till the bell rang, signaling an end to the period.
I asked everyone who could to finish the handout for homework.

The next day we focused on “empathy” once more, what I always called the “antidote for hate.” I believed it was possible to teach students to have empathy and hoped the idea stuck.

The definition again: “You can feel what another person feels.”

In my experience, most teens grasped this concept quickly, that we are all human, that we are all the same.

In my class we discussed this matter the very first day.