A little piece of history
February 22, 2019

Rachel Maddow added a little something special to the historical record on MSNBC Thursday night, and she says it's pretty relevant to today's geopolitical situation. She began with a note Vice President George H.W. Bush wrote to disgraced former Vice President Spiro Agnew in October 1988, thanking him for his advice right before a game-changing presidential debate against Michael Dukakis. Agnew, Maddow reminded viewers, had resigned in 1973, right before Watergate broke, and narrowly avoided jail for tax fraud.

But her main event was a secret deal between Agnew and the Saudi crown prince in 1980. It starts with a telex in which Agnew begs the crown prince for an audience to address "a personal emergency that is of critical importance to me." An August 1980 letter spells out what that personal emergency was. Maddow summarized it like this: "Spiro Agnew was writing to the Saudi royal family to solicit their help, their financial support, for him to lead a scorched-earth propaganda campaign in the United States to expose the Jews. To wage a political war on Jews in America."

Specifically, Agnew painted a conspiracy to destroy him by "Zionists" and the media "they" control, and asked for $600,000 that he could live off while he continued "my fight against the Zionist enemies who are destroying my once great nation." And in Maddow's "favorite part," Agnew signed off: "My congratulations to Your Highness on the clear and courageous call to Jihad."

"The jihad-congratulations reference there appears to be a reference to the fact that the Saudi crown prince, just days earlier, had publicly called for a holy war against Israel," Maddow explained. And the Saudis appear to have given him at least $100,000. "Less than 10 years out of office, a former American vice president orchestrated a secret financial deal with Saudi Arabia to fight Jews in this country," she reiterated. "That seems like something that should matter even today," when the same Saudi royal family is in control. Watch below. Peter Weber

January 25, 2016

On Aug. 14, 1933, aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart responded to a letter she received from a teenage girl who dreamed of becoming a pilot. That previously unpublished letter, containing practical advice and encouragement, is now being sold for $15,000.

June Pierson, 13, of Detroit wrote to Earhart, asking her to share the steps she needed to take in order to become a pilot. In her one-page letter, Earhart said Pierson needed to first undergo a physical examination to ensure she could safely fly, and then start taking lessons. She could also take on other jobs in the industry, Earhart wrote, like working as an air hostess or in a factory. "As far as women's opportunities in flying go, I think they will improve as they have in all industries," Earhart said. "Just now there are no pilots on the regular scheduled airlines. Someday I expect there will be." At the end of the letter, Earhart — who would disappear during an around-the-world flight in 1937 — promised to answer any additional questions Pierson might have. Catherine Garcia

October 6, 2015

When Abraham Lincoln Salomon tucked the first-class lunch menu into his jacket pocket on April 14, 1912, he had no idea that 103 years later, the yellowed piece of paper would sell at auction for $88,000.

Salomon was a first-class passenger aboard the Titanic, who survived the shipwreck by securing a spot on Lifeboat No. 1, dubbed the "Money Boat" because it sailed off with only 12 people aboard instead of the 40 it could fit (rumors later circulated that the wealthy passengers bribed crew members to row away from the ship instead of letting more people climb aboard). The menu was expected to bring in $50,000 when it went up for auction Sept. 30, but an anonymous buyer — who may be a relative of a Titanic survivor — shelled out $88,000 for the keepsake, Live Science reports.

During their last lunch aboard the ill-fated ship, first-class passengers enjoyed such dishes as corned ox tongue, fillets of brill, grilled mutton chops, and cockie leekie. Salomon also escaped with his ticket from the ship's Turkish baths, which recorded how much he weighed and was inscribed with the names of three of his fellow lifeboat passengers: Miss Laura Mabel Francatelli, Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon, and Lady Lucy Duff-Gordon. That tiny piece of history sold at auction for $11,000. Catherine Garcia

August 6, 2015

For the first time, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has published photos of the rock they consider sacred and believe was used by founder Joseph Smith to translate the Book of Mormon.

Pictures of the smooth brown stone and leather pouch that it was stored in will appear in a new book, along with photos of the first printer's manuscript of the Book of Mormon, The Associated Press reports. The stone has always been in the church's possession, and will go back into the vault where it has been stored. Mormons believe that in 1827, Smith was guided by an angel to a spot in present-day New York, where he found ancient gold plates engraved with "reformed Egyptian" characters. He used the stone and other tools to translate the plates into what became the Book of Mormon.

The church has been releasing more information on its history in order to be more transparent, experts say, and to clarify details that members and non-members alike can easily find on the internet. "The other churches' origins are concealed by the mist of history," said Prof. Terryl Givens of the University of Richmond. "Mormonism is the first world religion in which the origins were exposed to public view, to documentation, to journalists and newspaper reporting." Catherine Garcia

August 4, 2015

Not even astronauts can escape having to fill out expense reports and customs declarations.

In celebration of the 46th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, Buzz Aldrin has spent the past week sharing photos from the historic event, including snapshots of his travel voucher and customs form. The pictures show that Aldrin claimed $33.31 for the trip to the moon and back, and declared on his customs sheet that he brought back samples of moon rock and moon dust. Both Neil Armstrong and Aldrin said on the form that they were not "suffering from illness other than airsickness or the effects of accidents," but noted it was "to be determined" if they had "any other conditions on board which may lead to the spread of disease."

One thing's certain — when you're returning from the moon, the line at customs isn't long at all. Catherine Garcia

July 22, 2015

At the U.K.'s University of Birmingham, researchers have discovered that pages found in the school's library, untouched for nearly a century, could be the oldest fragments of the Koran in existence.

Radiocarbon dating shows that there is a probability of more than 95 percent that the parchment is from between 578 and 645. "They could well take us back to within a few years of the actual founding of Islam," David Thomas, the university's professor of Christianity and Islam, told the BBC. "According to Muslim tradition, the Prophet Muhammad received the revelations that form the Koran, the scripture of Islam, between the years 610 and 632, the year of his death. The person who actually wrote it could well have known the Prophet Muhammad. He would have seen him probably, he would maybe have heard him preach. He may have known him personally — and that really is quite a thought to conjure with."

The fragments were written on sheep or goat skin in Hijazi script, an early form of written Arabic, and were mixed in with other Middle Eastern books and documents. The local Muslim community is excited by the news, and the university plans to put the pages — described by Thomas as a "treasure that is second to none" — on display in the Barber Institute in Birmingham this fall. Catherine Garcia

July 10, 2015

For collectors of the grisly, gruesome, and ghastly, a piece of evidence lifted off the body of a Jack the Ripper victim is now on sale for $4.75 million.

In 2007, Russell Edwards, a businessman and self-described "armchair detective," purchased a shawl worn by Catherine Eddowes, one of Jack the Ripper's victims, the New York Post reports. Edwards wanted to once and for all determine the identity of Jack the Ripper, and brought the bloodied shawl to a molecular biologist for examination. The results of that test led Edwards to believe that he finally cracked the case, and in a book called Naming Jack the Ripper, he said the serial killer was a Polish immigrant with schizophrenia named Aaron Kosminski.

Now that he's certain he's solved the nearly 130-year-old mystery, Edwards is parting with the piece. Anyone who wants the shawl can send their millions to Moments in Time, the company selling it. Just keep in mind that the company's disclaimer states, "There is some controversy surrounding the authenticity" of how the shawl was discovered, and "interested parties are advised to do their own research." Catherine Garcia

June 18, 2015

The Statue of Liberty arrived in New York 130 years ago on June 17, 1885, all 350 pieces of her transported in crates on the French steamer Isere. Here are just some of the millions of photos taken of Lady Liberty since then, from her younger days to the present. Catherine Garcia

See More Speed Reads