Don't Know Much

More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War (Available May 15)


Available on May 15, 2018 by Henry Holt, this book recounts the story of the most deadly epidemic in modern times, the Spanish Flu pandemic, which struck the world 100 years ago during the last months of World War I.

The book and audio versions are available for preorder and links to online sellers can be found here.

Davis (In the Shadow of Liberty) immediately sets the urgent tone of his forthright chronicle, citing staggering statistics: the Spanish Flu pandemic that began in spring 1918 claimed the lives of more than 675,000 Americans in a single year and left a worldwide death toll estimated at 100 million. The author structures his exhaustive account of the origins, transmission, and consequences of the pandemic within the framework of WWI, underscoring the lethal concurrence of these “twin catastrophes.”

Publishers Weekly (full text of review)


 Invisible. Incurable. Unstoppable.

From bestselling author Kenneth C. Davis comes a fascinating account of the Spanish influenza pandemic that swept the world from 1918 to 1919.

With 2018 marking the centennial of the worst disease outbreak in modern history, the story of the Spanish flu is more relevant today than ever. This dramatic narrative, told through the stories and voices of the people caught in the deadly maelstrom, explores how this vast, global epidemic was intertwined with the horrors of World War I – and how it could happen again. Complete with photographs, period documents, modern research, and firsthand reports by medical professionals and survivors, this book provides captivating insight into a catastrophe that transformed America in the early twentieth century.

Listen to a sample of the Audio version coming from Penguin Random House Audio.

I hope you will also read my previous book IN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY.

In the Shadow of Liberty


As the headlines show almost daily, the history of slavery and its role in American history and society has never been more important –or more misunderstood. My recent book puts a human face on slavery and its significance in American history through the lives of five remarkable people who were enslaved some of America’s most famous men.

In The Shadow Of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives

Notable Children’s Books-2017 ALSC/ALA

•A FINALIST for 2017 Award for Excellence in Young Adult Nonfiction by YALSA — the Young Adult Library Services Association of the American Library Association.

•A selection of the 2018 Tayshas Reading List/Texas Library Association


YALSA medal_2


•Named one of the BEST CHILDREN’S AND YOUNG ADULT BOOKS OF 2016 (Washington Post)


Did you know that many of America’s Founding Fathers—who fought for liberty and justice for all—were slave owners?

Through the powerful stories of five enslaved people who were “owned” by four of our greatest presidents, this book helps set the record straight about the role slavery played in the founding of America. These dramatic narratives explore our country’s great tragedy—that a nation “conceived in liberty” was also born in shackles.

  • BILLY LEE, who became George Washington’s valet and fought in the American Revolution alongside him.
  • ONA JUDGE, who escaped from Washington’s Philadelphia household—only to be tracked down by the president’s men.
  • ISAAC GRANGER, who survived the devastation of Yorktown before returning to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
  • PAUL JENNINGS, who was present at the burning of James Madison’s White House during the War of 1812.
  • ALFRED JACKSON, who was born into slavery at Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, survived the Civil War, and lived at the plantation into the 20th century.


These stories help us know the real people who were essential to the birth of this nation but traditionally have been left out of the history books. Their stories are true—and they should be heard.

Some of the hidden history from IN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY

  • Five of the first seven presidents, and ten of the first fifteen, were slaveholders or raised in a slaveholding household.
  • George Washington once bought teeth from enslaved people to be used in his dentures.
  • For seven years as President Washington knowingly broke a Pennsylvania that freed enslaved people who lived in the state for more than six months.
  • Dozens of enslaved people from Jefferson’s Monticello, along with seventeen from Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation, were among thousands of African American refugees with the British in Yorktown, Virginia when American and French forces won the last battle in the Revolution.
  • The first man to write a memoir of working in the White House was formerly the enslaved valet of James Madison who witnessed the burning of the White House during the War of 1812.
  • Andrew Jackson went into debt to pay for the legal defense of four enslaved men from his Hermitage plantation who were tried for murder.


The first “Mother’s Day”-Some Hidden History


[Updated post]

Let me be among the first to say Happy Mother’s Day. Spouses, partners, and children everywhere: Don’t forget.

But amidst the brunches, flower-giving, and chocolate samplers, there is a story of another “Mother’s Day” that is worth remembering this weekend.

Julia Ward Howe, a prominent abolitionist best known for writing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” published what became known as the “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” originally called “An Appeal to Womanhood Throughout the World.”

Julia Ward Howe (1907) Source: Library of Congress

Julia Ward Howe (1907) Source: Library of Congress

In 1870, Howe wrote:

Our husbands shall not come to us reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy, and patience. . . . From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says, Disarm, Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice! Blood does not wipe out dishonor nor violence indicate possession.

Source and Complete Text: Library of Congress

Howe’s international call for mothers to become the voice of pacifism found few takers. Even among like-minded women, there was greater urgency over the suffrage question. Her passionate campaign for a “Mother’s Day for Peace” begun in  1872 fell by the wayside.

Mother’s Day, as we know it, is not the invention of Hallmark; it started in 1912 through the efforts of West Virginia’s Anna Jarvis to create a holiday honoring all mothers for their sacrifice and to assist mothers who needed help.

Today, Mother’s Day is largely a commercial bonanza — flowers, chocolates and greeting cards. Is it possible to truly honor Howe’s version of Mother’s Day and work towards her original vision of Mother’s Day?

If only we remember the history behind the holiday and what she thought it should be.

Now In paperback THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah

Don’t Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition

Don’t Know Much About U.S. Grant


Born on this date in 1822, the 18th President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant


April 27, 1822       Born in Point Pleasant, Ohio

1839-1843            Attended West Point

1843-1853            Served in the Mexican War and a succession of U.S. Army posts, then resigned his commission.

1854-1858            Farmed near St. Louis, Missouri

1860-1861            Clerked in tannery store at Galena, Illinois

1861-1865            Served in Civil War; commanded all Union Armies

1869-1877            18thPresident

1880                    Unsuccessful candidate for Republican presidential nomination

July 23, 1885        Died at Mt. McGregor, New York, aged 63

The country having just emerged from a great rebellion, many questions will come before it for settlement in the next four years which preceding Administrations have never had to deal with. In meeting these it is desirable that they should be approached calmly, without prejudice, hate, or sectional pride, remembering that the greatest good to the greatest number is the object to be attained.

This requires security of person, property, and free religious and political opinion in every part of our common country, without regard to local prejudice. All laws to secure these ends will receive my best efforts for their enforcement.

–Ulysses S. Grant, First Inaugural (March 4, 1869

The conquering hero of the Union, Ulysses S. Grant did not look the part. He was short, scruffy, favored enlisted men’s uniforms, and was dogged by reports of his fondness for drink –a somewhat undeserved reputation. Grant clearly was a drinker at times in his life, but the image of him as a stumbling drunk is a caricature. One successor, Theodore Roosevelt later called him, “The Hammer of the North,” and wrote,

“Grant’s supreme virtue was his doggedness….He was master of strategy and tactics, but he was also a master of hard-hitting. …His name is among the greatest in our history.”

There is no question that he was a dogged, determined general whose command skills helped win the war for the Union. Unfortunately, those strengths did not translate into the complexities of leading the large, swiftly growing, and rapidly changing nation. Another of his successors, James A. Garfield, who served on the battlefield under Grant, once said,

“He has done more than any other President to degrade the character of Cabinet officers by choosing them on the model of the military staff, because of their pleasant personal relationship to him and not because of their national reputation and public needs.”

Garfield was right. Personally honest, Grant was notoriously inept when it came to surrounding himself with men who were corrupt, both in private and as president. Some of them blackened his Presidency; others would reduce Grant to bankruptcy. Finally, a third later successor, Woodrow Wilson, once wrote of him, “The honest, simple-hearted soldier had not added prestige to the presidential office. He himself knew he had failed… that he ought never to have been made president.”

One reason that Grant has been positively reevaluated as President, however, was his commitment to achieving the vote for African Americans.  In his 1874 Message to Congress, he said:

Treat  the negro as a citizen and a voter, as he is and must remain, and soon parties will be divided, not on the color line, but on principle.

Fast Facts

Religion:    Methodist (Although raised Methodist, Grant never officially joined a church.)

Education:       United States Military Academy (West Point)

Career before Politics:  Soldier, farmer, leather shop clerk

Military Service:  U.S. Army- Mexican War, Civil War

Political Party:  Republican

First Lady: Julia Boggs Dent Grant (January 26, 1826-December 14, 1902) Grant’s best man was West Point classmate James Longstreet, later a Confederate general who attended Lee’s surrender in April 1865.

Children: Frederick, Ulysses S.Grant, Jr. (“Buck”), Ellen (“Nellie”), and Jesse Root Grant

  • Grant is the first of seven presidents born in Ohio (second-most from one state after Virginia).
  • At age 46, Grant was the youngest president elected up to that time.
  • After Grant’s death in 1885, more than 60,000 people marched and one million spectators watched the funeral procession to his burial in New York’s City Upper West Side.

Twelve years later, Grant’s Tomb was dedicated. Built with $600,000 donated by more than 90,000 people, it is the largest mausoleum in North America. Once again, more than one–million people attended the parade and dedication ceremony when Grant was interred in the tomb on April 27, 1897. Grant’s wife, Julia, was also interred –not buried—in Grant’s Tomb, after her death in 1902. It is the site of the General Grant National Memorial (NPS).

Advance Praise for MORE DEADLY THAN WAR-In stores May 2018


More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and World War I -Coming MAY 2018

In May 2018,  More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War will be published. I am extremely pleased and gratified to say that the book has just received the following advance reactions from several readers whose work I greatly admire, Deborah Blum, Karen Blumenthal, and Steve Sheinkin.


More Deadly Than War is a riveting story of the great influenza pandemic of 1918, packed with unforgettable examples of the power of a virus gone rogue. Kenneth C. Davis’s book serves as an important history – and an important reminder that we could very well face such a threat again.”

Deborah Blum, author of The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. Deborah Blum is also the Director of the Knight Science Journalism Project at MIT and Publisher of Undark magazine.


“With eye-popping details, Kenneth C. Davis tracks the deadly flu that shifted the powers in World War I and changed the course of world history. In an age of Ebola and Zika, this vivid account is a cautionary tale that will have you rushing to wash your hands for protection.”

Karen Blumenthal, award-winning author of Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different


“Davis deftly juggles compelling storytelling, gruesome details, and historical context. More Deadly Than War reads like a terrifying dystopian novel – that happens to be true.”

Steve Sheinkin, author of Bomb and Undefeated


The Spanish Flu, World War I, and Suffrage,


On Friday March 9, 2018, I joined the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC in New York City to talk about the Spanish Flu, World War I, and their impact on suffrage.

The interview can be heard here.


Don’t Know Much About® the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire


Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911 from front page of The New York World (Source: Cornell University ILR School Kheel Center © 2011)

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911 from front page of The New York World (Source: [Post revised from original on 3/25/2011]Cornell University ILR School Kheel Center © 2011)

[Reposted from original on 3/25/2011]

On this date, March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York caught fire and 146 people died, most of them women between the ages of 16 and 23.



“Look for the union label.”

If you are of a certain generation, you may recognize those words instantly. They are the first line of a song that became a 1970s advertising icon.

Sung by a swelling chorus of lovely ladies (and a few men) of all colors, shapes and sizes, it was the anthem of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

Airing as American unions began to confront the long, steady drain of jobs to cheaper foreign labor markets, the song rousingly implored us to look for the union label when shopping for clothes (“When you are buying a coat, dress or blouse”).

Seeing these earnest women, thinking of them at their sewing machines, made us race to the closet and check our clothes for that ILGWU tag. (“It says we’re able to make it in the USA.”)

The International Ladies Garment Worker Union was born in 1900, in the midst of the often-violent period of early 20th century labor organizing when brutal working conditions and child labor were the norm in America’s mines and factories.

One of the companies the union attempted to organize was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory at what is now Greene Street and Washington Place in New York’s Greenwich Village. It employed many poor and mostly immigrant women, most of them Jewish and Italian.

A walkout against the firm in 1909 helped strengthen the union’s rolls and led to a union victory in 1910. But the Triangle Shirtwaist Company –which would chain its doors shut to control its workers— earned infamy when a fire broke out on March 25, 1911 and 146 workers were trapped in the flaming building and died. Some jumped to their deaths.

 A police officer and others with the broken bodies of Triangle fire victims at their feet, look up in shock at workers poised to jump from the upper floors of the burning Asch Building. (Credit: Cornell University ILR School Kheel Center ©2011)

A police officer and others with the broken bodies of Triangle fire victims at their feet, look up in shock at workers poised to jump from the upper floors of the burning Asch Building. (Credit: Cornell University ILR School Kheel Center ©2011)

The two owners of the factory were indicted but found not guilty. The tragedy helped galvanize the trade union movement and especially the ILGWU.

On the 105th anniversary of that dreadful event, it is worth remembering that American prosperity was built on the sweat, tears and blood of working men and women. Immigration and jobs are the issue again today, just as they were more than a century ago.

Cornell University’s Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation offers a web exhibit on the Triangle Factory Fire. The Library of Congress also offers resources on the tragedy.

On February 28, 2011, American Experience on PBS aired a documentary film about the tragedy and the period.

The site is part of New York University and a National Historic Landmark.

I also discuss labor history in Don’t Know Much About History.

Don't Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition

A different Irish parade in New York-Orange Day


(Published March 16, 2017; Updated March 16, 2018)

As New York prepares for the St. Patrick’s Day parade, here is another reminder of the past view of the Irish–especially Irish Catholics– in America: the Orange Riots of 1870 and 1871.


The Orange Riot of 1871 as depicted in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. The view is at 25th Street looking south down Eighth Avenue (Source Wikipedia:

Long before the nation’s birth, anti-Catholic venom was an accepted American truism –a deep divide with roots in Europe’s deadly wars between Catholic and Protestant. The hatred of all things Roman Catholic was part of America’s Puritan and Protestant roots. In 1844, Philadelphia had been raked by anti-Catholic violence known as the “Bible Riots,” subject of a previous post.

By the middle of the 19th century, waves of Irish immigrants had magnified the hatred and transformed New York’s politics. Political boss William Tweed used their votes to secure power for Tammany Hall and himself. But the growth of Irish Catholic power in New York only deepened ancient animosities.

New York’s virulent anti-Catholic sentiment peaked with the largely overlooked “Orange Riots” of 1870 and 1871. In the first of these, Irish Protestants marched in celebration of the July 12, 1690 victory of the Protestant King William III over Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne. Taunting Irish Catholic workmen as they paraded up Eighth Avenue, the Protestant “Orangemen” went to a park where a pitched battle ensued.


Thomas Nast’s Anti-Catholic cartoon “The American River Ganges snd the Children” Harpers’Weekly September 30, 1871

Eight people died.

Another “Orange Day” march planned in 1871 was nearly banned for public safety reasons. But prominent businessmen and cartoonist Thomas Nast objected vehemently to this affront to Protestant rights. With Boss Tweed guaranteeing protection for the marchers, the 1871 parade stepped off, guarded by some 5,000 policemen and National Guard militia units.

Almost immediately, the marchers were pelted with bottles, bricks, shoes and stones. Pitched battles continued along the parade route. When it was over, the rioting and street-fighting left sixty people dead, most of them Irish Catholic laborers as well as three Guardsmen.

The bloodshed of these “Orange Riots” and Tweed’s failure to secure the parade were crucial factors in breaking his stranglehold on New York politics and government. The city’s newspapers and largely Protestant-controlled business and financial world turned on him. Tweed was deposed, eventually arrested, and later convicted of corruption.

Anti-Irish sentiment in New York and elsewhere continued for decades.

When Irish Eyes Were Not Smiling-The Bible Riots


(This is a revised version of a post that originally appeared on March 17, 2012)

A reminder once more that the “dangerous, dirty, job-stealing” immigrants were once Irish and Catholic. 

It is the day for the “wearing of the green,” parades and an unfortunate connection between being Irish and imbibing. For the day, everybody feels “a little Irish.”

But it was not always a happy go lucky virtue to be Irish in America. Once upon a time, the Irish –and specifically Irish Catholics– were vilified by the majority in White Anglo-Saxon Protestant America. The Irish were considered the dregs by “Nativist” Americans who leveled at Irish immigrants all of the insults and charges typically aimed at every hated immigrant group: they were lazy, uneducated, dirty, disease-ridden, a criminal class who stole jobs from Americans. And dangerous. The Irish were said to be plotting to overturn the U.S. government and install the Pope in a new Vatican.

One notorious chapter in the hidden history of Irish-Americans is left out of most textbook– the violently anti-Catholic, anti-Irish “Bible Riots” of 1844.

In May 1844, Philadelphia –the City of Brotherly Love– was torn apart by a series of bloody riots. Known as the “Bible Riots,” they grew out of the vicious anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment that was so widespread in 19th century America. Families were burned out of their homes. Churches were destroyed. And more than two dozen people died in one of the worst urban riots in American History.

You can read more about America’s history of intolerance –religious and otherwise– in this Smithsonian essay, “America’s True History of Religious Tolerance.”

The story of the “Bible Riots” is another untold tale that I explore in my book A NATION RISING.

A Nation Rising

“Two Societies, One Black, One White”


(Revised post originally published on February 29, 2016)

Once again, it is necessary to repost this piece about the Kerner Commission, formed fifty years ago to address violence in American cities. The latest school shooting only adds to the urgency.

On July 27, 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson established an 11-member National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. He was responding to a series of violent outbursts in predominantly black urban neighborhoods in such cities as Detroit and Newark.  (New York Times account.)

Time Magazine cover August 4, 1967

Time Magazine cover August 4, 1967

On July 29, 1967, President Johnson made remarks about the reasons for the commission:

The civil peace has been shattered in a number of cities. The American people are deeply disturbed. They are baffled and dismayed by the wholesale looting and violence that has occurred both in small towns and in great metropolitan centers.

No society can tolerate massive violence, any more than a body can tolerate massive disease. And we in America shall not tolerate it.

But just saying that does not solve the problem. We need to know the answers, I think, to three basic questions about these riots:
–What happened?
–Why did it happen?
–What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?

Source:Lyndon B. Johnson: “Remarks Upon Signing Order Establishing the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.,” July 29, 1967. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.

On Feb. 29, 1968, President Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, later known as the Kerner Commission after its chairman, Governor Otto Kerner, Jr. of Illinois, issued a stark warning:

“Our Nation Is Moving Toward Two Societies, One Black, One White—Separate and Unequal”


Governor of Illinois Otto Kerner, Jr., meeting with Roy Wilkins (left) and President Lyndon Johnson (right) in the White House. Date29 July 1967 SourceLBJ Presidential Library

Governor of Illinois Otto Kerner, Jr., meeting with Roy Wilkins (left) and President Lyndon Johnson (right) in the White House. 29 July 1967 Source LBJ Presidential Library


The Committee Report went on to identify a set of “deeply held grievances” that it believed had led to the violence.

Although almost all cities had some sort of formal grievance mechanism for handling citizen complaints, this typically was regarded by Negroes as ineffective and was generally ignored.

Although specific grievances varied from city to city, at least 12 deeply held grievances can be identified and ranked into three levels of relative intensity:

First Level of Intensity

1. Police practices

2. Unemployment and underemployment

3. Inadequate housing

Second Level of Intensity

4. Inadequate education

5. Poor recreation facilities and programs

6. Ineffectiveness of the political structure and grievance mechanisms.

Third Level of Intensity

7. Disrespectful white attitudes

8. Discriminatory administration of justice

9. Inadequacy of federal programs

10. Inadequacy of municipal services

11. Discriminatory consumer and credit practices

12. Inadequate welfare programs

Source: “Our Nation is Moving Toward Two Societies, One Black, One White—Separate and Unequal”: Excerpts from the Kerner Report; American Social History Project / Center for Media and Learning (Graduate Center, CUNY)
and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (George Mason University).

Issued half a century ago, the list of grievances reads as if it could have been written last week.

Read more about the unrest of the Civil Rights era in Don’t Know Much About® History. The crucial role of race in the American military is also treated in The Hidden History of America at War. And the long history of slavery is addressed in In the Shadow of Liberty.

The Latest From My Blog

More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War (Available May 15)

More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War now on sale.

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In the Shadow of Liberty

While waiting for the arrival of More Deadly Than War (May 15) do check out In The Shadow Of Liberty:

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