Originally published 07/08/2013
High on the facade of Santa Maria Antica, among soaring Gothic spires and forbidding statues of knights in armor, pathologist Gino Fornaciari prepared to examine a corpse. Accompanied by workmen, he had climbed a 30-foot scaffold erected against this medieval church in Verona, Italy, and watched as they used hydraulic jacks to raise the massive lid of a marble sarcophagus set in a niche. Peering inside, Fornaciari found the body of a male in his 30s, wearing a long silk mantle, arms crossed on his chest. The abdomen was distended from postmortem putrefaction, although Fornaciari caught no scent of decomposition, only a faint waft of incense. He and the laborers eased the body onto a stretcher and lowered it to the ground; after dark, they loaded it into a van and drove to a nearby hospital, where Fornaciari began a series of tests to determine why the nobleman died—and how he had lived.
Originally published 06/07/2013
Half a millennium ago, in 1513, the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León departed Puerto Rico for the verdant island of “Bimini”—an uncharted land in what is now the Bahamas. He eventually landed instead in Florida, where he staked a claim for the Spanish Crown and ensured himself a spot in the annals of history.As legend has it , and as scholars have maintained for centuries, Ponce was in search of the Fountain of Youth, a fabled wellspring thought to give everlasting life to whoever bathed in or drank from it. But new scholarship contradicts the old fable and suggests that Ponce was interested not in longevity but political gain.The real story goes something like this: In 1511, messy political squabbling forced Ponce to surrender the governorship of Puerto Rico, an appointment he had held since 1509. As a consolation prize, King Ferdinand offered him Bimini, assuming the stalwart conquistador could finance an expedition and actually find it....
Originally published 03/11/2013
Tom Johnson was one of those extraordinary characters that history throws up in times of crisis. Born in 1772 to Irish parents, he made the most of the opportunities that presented themselves and was earning his own living as a smuggler by the age of 12. At least twice, he made incredible escapes from prison. When the Napoleonic Wars broke out, his well-deserved reputation for extreme daring saw him hired–despite his by then extensive criminal record–to pilot a pair of covert British naval expeditions.
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