Second Decade

A historical show examining the fascinating events and people of the second decade of the 19th century (the 1810s), hosted by historian Sean Munger.
RSS Feed Subscribe in Apple Podcasts



All Episodes
Now displaying: May, 2017
May 14, 2017

The early months of the War of 1812 served up a relentless drumbeat of bad news for the United States: our untrained and ill-equipped forces, fighting a war they were unprepared for in the first place, suffered reverse after reverse on the battlefield. But on the high seas, the exploits of one remarkable ship, the USS Constitution, provided the only bright spot in the gloom and demonstrated that the new republic could, when circumstances called for it, compete militarily even with the greatest naval power on Earth. Sent to patrol the Atlantic coast, the Constitution and her captain quickly found themselves tangling with the overconfident British commander James Dacres, who went so far as to capture an American vessel and write a literal taunt into her log daring an American frigate to come out and fight him. The result was a thrilling real-life adventure involving a desperate chase, booming cannons, crackling muskets and every cliché you’ve ever seen in a nautical adventure film from the Age of Sail—except in this case it really happened.

Sean Munger takes you into the thick of naval warfare in the War of 1812 with the story of the USS Constitution, her commanders, officers and the Royal Navy captains who found themselves surprisingly shaken at staring down her 44 guns. In this episode you’ll understand exactly why the Constitution was created in the first place, you’ll learn what “kedging” is, you’ll understand how the Constitution got her nickname “Old Ironsides,” and you’ll gain a glimpse as to why the British were so surprised at the naval prowess of the upstart Americans. This episode is pure adventure—all the stuff of a Patrick O’Brian novel, with the added benefit of being true.

Additional materials and photos available at the website for this episode.

(Some background music for this episode licensed CC3.0 by Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston).

May 8, 2017

The image and concept of Frankenstein’s monster—most notably personified by Boris Karloff in the 1931 Universal horror film—are indelible in literature, cinema and popular culture. Far more than just an 1818 novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein is a philosophical journey as well as a cultural phenomenon. But how did it come about? The idea for the novel was famously hatched at a lakeside chateau in Switzerland, the Villa Diodati, in the late spring and early summer of 1816 by Mary Shelley (then Mary Godwin), her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron (who was then having an affair with Mary’s step-sister, Claire Clairmont), and his doctor John Polidori, who went on to write The Vampyr. A nightmare summer of inclement climate-changed weather, haunting visions of dead children and monstrous women, endless cycles of personal and sexual jealousy, and the toxic personality of Lord Byron all contributed to Mary’s flash of genius. The story of Frankenstein’s origin is wrapped up in the broader story of the 1810s as a whole, and is intimately connected to the environmental disaster of that decade.

In this episode, historian Sean Munger presents the complicated and fascinating personal stories of Mary Shelley and the literary circle that gathered in Geneva that summer, as well as their tragic ends in the years following. You’ll learn why Lord Byron was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” why the neighbors of the Villa Diodati set up a telescope on the lawn to spy on the scandalous goings-on, and you’ll meet the horrifying midnight vision that frightened Percy Shelley so much Polidori had to give him ether. This extravaganza of Gothic terror sounds like a bad horror film (and has provided the basis for more than one), but it’s real, actual history—like you’ve never heard it before.

Visit the website for this episode for show notes, pictures of the people discussed, and a trailer for the 1931 Frankenstein film!

(Some background music for this episode licensed CC3.0 by Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston).