About A Blast from the Past


Mike Dash

I write books.

But when I’m not writing, I read a lot, and when I read it’s almost always history. The history that I like best is the stuff that no-one else is interested in – I’ll never knuckle down to George Washington or Henry VIII if I can curl up with a strange old book about a forgotten island in the Pacific or social banditry in Brazil. So I tend to stumble across stories that I love, but which are too small, too odd or just too fragmentary to tell my publishers about.

They know much better than I do what is marketable, and inevitably what sells isn’t always what I find fascinating. So I created A Blast From The Past to write about these small, strange stories. Because they’re eye-opening, and because they offer insights of their own into the world we live in. Because I think they ought to be better known. And because I hope you’ll like them too.

Stories past, present and future. Top row (l. to r.): Lost in the Taiga; The Curious Case of Charlie Abloom; Truth, Beauty and Pancho Villa; Lost in the Great Red Nowhere; The Murder Victim Muse; the Miniature Coffins Found on Arthur's Seat; The Emperor's Electric Chair. Main picture: Prince Charlie's Gold.

Stories past, present and future. Top row (l. to r.): Lost in the Taiga; The Man Who Never Wore a Hat; Truth, Beauty and Pancho Villa; White Vanishing; The Murder Victim Muse; The Miniature Coffins Found on Arthur’s Seat; The Emperor’s Electric Chair. Main picture: ‘What Rest!’

The ground rules

My aim is to make every single essay on this site the most complete, most balanced, most compelling account of its topic that you can find online. That’s what gives me a reason to write. Hopefully, it’s also what gives you a reason to read me.

For the most part, what I try to do here is to explore subjects that you won’t have come across anywhere else. To do that, I read widely and learn from the work of some great academic historians. I try to spin their analytical work into an interesting narrative.

Every so often, though, I come across something that nobody has looked at properly before. Then I do what I love best of all, and engage in some heavyweight original research of my own. So A Blast from the Past contains a handful of essays that I’m especially proud of, about things that you simply couldn’t find elsewhere, even in the dusty journals that are my usual haunts. You can find these special stories grouped together in the category cloud under the heading Investigations.

About the author


Selected by ACI Scholarly Blog Index

I’m probably in love with my subject just a bit too much. I read history at Cambridge and went on to complete a PhD at King’s College London back in 1990. Since then I’ve enjoyed an eclectic career as a journalist, magazine publisher, teacher, and author, in the course of which I’ve written five (and counting) heavily-researched popular histories: Tulipomania, Batavia’s Graveyard, Thug, Satan’s Circus and The First Family – if you really want the full story, go here. Oh, and I live in London with my wife and daughter in a house stuffed with approximately 4,000 books, about a third of which I’ve actually read all the way through. I don’t know why people always ask me about that, but they do.

About the blog

A Blast from the Past has been around, in various incarnations, for quite a while now. The earliest material on this site dates back to 2006, when I took up a longstanding invitation to write for the Charles Fort Institute. The material I produced for them was pretty varied, but some of the history content has been gathered and republished here.

I began writing ABFTP regularly from the spring of 2010, and things really took off early in 2011 when one of my early essays, The Emperor’s Electric Chair, was named “Post of the Year” by History News Network‘s then-influential Cliopatria Awards. That attracted the attention of the Smithsonian Institution, which was looking for someone to lead a new history blog it was setting up on Smithsonian Magazine‘s popular website. I agreed with them to write a regular weekly post for the new blog, which we called Past Imperfect, and continued to do so (not always weekly, I admit) until the Magazine decided on a change of direction in 2013 and shut down all its blogs.

Since then, I’ve reverted to publishing here. I probably could place my stuff on other sites that would pay me for it, but only at the expense of a certain editorial freedom. The Smithsonian was a fantastic site to work for, and they let me write about anything that interested me, but even they baulked at posts that ran past 4,000 words. I’ve found that the sort of stories that inspire me increasingly demand more space than that.

taigaWhat all this means is that about two thirds of the material here can also be found on the Smithsonian’s site – including Lost in the Taiga (or as the Smithsonian more effectively if less poetically titled it, For 40 Years, This Russian Family Was Cut Off From All Human Contact, Unaware of World War II.) This essay proved to be by far my most popular to date; thanks in large part to the Smithsonian’s reach, it went viral in a quite incredible way. To date (summer 2016), it’s been read by somewhere north of 20 million people, and inspired almost a quarter of a million Facebook posts, 300,000+ Pins, thousands and thousands of comments and Tweets, two documentaries, and one incredibly beautiful suite of music.

Other posts have gone viral too, and often they’re ones I’d never have predicted would have popular appeal: The Old Man of the Lake, The Loneliest Shop in the WorldTamám Shud, An Abandoned Lifeboat at World’s End, Slavery on the Steppes, and, most recently, The Twopenny Hangover.

To leave footprints in so many places that I didn’t even know I’d been to is a powerful incentive to keep blogging. So I will.


If you would like to contact me, you can do so here.

Coming … eventually

The Blue Tattoo

The Blue Tattoo

A plank and a helmet, a bell and a skull

A plank and a helmet, a bell and a skull

Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?

Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?

The Man-Leopard Murders

The Man-Leopard Murders

Monsieur Buttons

Monsieur Buttons

74 thoughts on “About A Blast from the Past

  1. Mike, I manage a history group blog, Cliopatria, at History News Network, http://hnn.us/blogs/2.html . Annually, we give Cliopatria Awards for the Best in History Blogging. I’m pleased to tell you that your “The Emperor’s Electric Chair” has won the Cliopatria Award for Best Post in 2010. We’d be pleased if you would display the Award’s logo on your site. Best wishes for continued success in the new year.
    Sincerely yours,
    Ralph E. Luker

  2. I spent some time on your blog and loved it – and what it said about journalistic practice! Nothing much has changed by the way…

  3. I’ve just found this (via Metafilter) great stuff. If you take suggestions for things to research, years ago, in a book about the end of the Ottoman Empire, I read a footnote about the bones of victims of the Massacre of Smyrna being shipped to the UK, I’ve since lost the book and cannot find anything about it on tinternet.

    • Interesting. To which massacre at Smyrna are you referring, though? There were significant outrages in that city in 1770 (1,500 dead), 1772 and September 1922, the latter at the time the Greeks were expelled from Turkey. On the last occasion the violence lasted for three days, and estimates of the number of dead range from 25,000 up, many clustering around the 100,000 mark.

      There were certainly Royal Navy ships present in the harbour in 1922, which saved a few but could do nothing to avert the general massacre or the burning of the town. In his The Grey Dilplomatists (1938). Kenneth Edwards refers to British sailors tackling bodies floating in the harbour by securing iron weights to them to sink them (p.52), but that’s the only book that deals with the subject in much detail that I have in my own library and – like you – I’ve read nothing about the repatriation of bones.
      Smyrna burning, September 1922

      If I get a chance I will dig further.

      • It was the 1922 massacre, the interpretation that I got from the note I saw was that the bones were bought to Britain to be be used in an industrial process (fertiliser manufacture?).

  4. Came across this website during my surfing. It’s full of intriguing stories, sure to be something here for everyone. Fascinating.

  5. Pingback: A Blog to Blog About: “A Blast From The Past” « Pamela Seley, REALTOR®

  6. There were certainly Royal Navy ships present in the harbour in 1922, which saved a few but could do nothing to avert the general massacre or the burning of the town. In his The Grey Dilplomatists (1938). Kenneth Edwards refers to British sailors tackling bodies floating in the harbour by securing iron weights to them to sink them (p.52), but that’s the only book that deals with the subject in much detail that I have in my own library and – like you – I’ve read nothing about the repatriation of bones.

  7. Your website is an inspiration to us all. I can only hope that my site will capture the interests of history buffs as yours apparently has. Thanks for this great site!

  8. Reading a book about Magellan, and realising how spoilt I am by Mike Dash’s beautiful prose. I want him to write all pop history books!

  9. Currently reading Batavia’s Graveyard. Impeccable detail and research and gruesome story ideal for film. Thoroughly recommended

  10. Pingback: About A Blast From The Past | richstine

  11. Although I have never had the pleasure of meeting the gentleman, I confess to a serious crush on the work of Mike Dash. I deeply admire his research skills and hope to emulate them in my own work.

  12. Only a little Dash will never do! Snagged completely by Batavia’s Graveyard, Read, Tulipomania until sun-up, became gangsterized with The Family…now, I must confess, I want some more!
    Thank goodness you blog, Dr. Dash. Seriously glad to see you’ve been appropriately heralded by The Smithsonian, too.

    Well done.

    RS 🙂

  13. […] Undaunted, I’ll be the guy trying to find Mike Dash’s phone number. You see, he wrote a book a while back called Tulip mania : The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused ($11, Amazon).

    I figure Bitcoin might make a dandy follow-on book, though possibly going global in nature […]

  14. [..] After these mild disappointments, I sensibly reverted to reading history and am thoroughly enjoying my current book, Mike Dash’s Batavia’s Graveyard, a popular history about the sinking of a V.O.C. (Dutch East India Company) ship off the Australian coast in 1629. This combines the gripping story of a gruesome shipwreck and its harrowing aftermath (in which starvation and natural hardships are being exacerbated by the cruelty of a psychopathic Anabaptist pharmacist-turned-colonial-entrepreneur—I’m still reading, but the prospects look grim!) with a well-told account of Dutch culture, religion, politics, and colonialism in the early modern period. Unlike the first two books, I would heartily recommend this both for its historical interest and as a highly entertaining story. It will take me inordinately long to finish, as I am reading it in Dutch translation (I got it as a present from my Dutch relatives) as a way to brush up on my Dutch while here in the Netherlands on a three-week family visit […]

  15. Love your historic writing and love how you find strange bits of history, or less-known angles on well known historic events – the blog is top notch

  16. I came here exactly because I needed to get a real grip of history, not all the widespread bits of high school type of history if you know what I mean. Too general, too large, whereas history is exactly made of little persons who made a difference, even though we only remember the big ones. Really inspiring blog, I look forward to reading more of your posts!

  17. You probably have to be a historian to realise how rare it is for anyone to write interestingly and expertly across such a wide range of history – geographically and temporally. Especially at times such as these, when we are all specializing in increasingly narrow little fields.

    I am enough of one to recognize how rare it is to do these things as well as you do. You have my thanks, congratulations and admiration.

  18. so it’s one in the morning and now i’m obliged to read this entire blog before i go to bed

    thanks so much…

  19. This looks like an amazing blog and I can’t wait to see what you have up next. I’m a huge history fan and one of the things I enjoy the most is seeing current events parallel historical ones and the choices made then and now.

  20. […] Here’s a fabulously researched (and extremely varied) history blog, in case you’re interested in that kind of thing […]

    • Thank you. Taking a look at your site, I’m impressed by its range and pleased to see that we have similar interests. We’ve both written on the Christmas Truce, and I’m in the middle of preparing an essay about poisoning scares in 17th century Italy that prominently features the miraculous oil produced at the shrine of St Nicholas of Bari.

  21. […] This blog is called A Blast From The Past and it’s about history. It was fairly easy for me to navigate seeings how I just clicked on a link on my site. The blog is okay, I didn’t find it very visually appealing it’s organized, just not attention grabbing. It was informational, it talks about the past, history, but not the stuff you learn in your History classes. The blog focuses on the little events in history that no one really pays attention to. A Blast From The Past wasn’t bias or one sided at all, it’s a neutral blog. There are no obvious advertisements of any kind, well at least I couldn’t find any. The history blog had pictures along with every post and links, there is a video page also. I believe the blogger accomplished whatever it is he tried to accomplished, people love his blog and he has won awards and he’s talking about history […]

  22. Pingback: Малки експерименти с отрязани глави | Какви ги мислят криминолозите?*

  23. […] Not sure who pointed me towards it, but this history blog is superb […]

  24. just stumbled across this, and i am very impressed with the sight , i already added it to my favorites , i was just reading the article on slavery in russia

  25. […] Just wow. Long form articles (3000 words plus, most of them) about all sorts of interesting Historical stuff. The guy has a way with words, and offers detail enough to present the facts without being hugely judgmental or so brief as to leave most of the facts out. He’s doing his homework before he writes these.


    Just as a teaser, I’ll let you look at this one first.


    I’d give you a quote, but it’s too entangled and long to do it justice with less than a third of the article, so just go look at it, OK? You might be glad you did.

    I’m not even 10% of the way through the place yet, but if you have some time and the patience to read his stuff, it’s really engaging and very strange.

    And don’t say I didn’t warn you about wasting half you life for the next couple of weeks or months […]

  26. […] I’m sure there are other Dash FPPs out there. We all need to keep populating the Mike Dash tag. The man’s a treasure […]

  27. Not sure if me finding out about your website is a good or a bad thing for me….I have always been a procrastinator and have so much work to do, but find myself glued to the computer screen reading, reading, and reading more and more…..Your website, your stories!!!

    Thank you and damn you at the same time Mike.

  28. Just found your history blog. It is great. I teach history for junior college and will be referring them to your blog. I noticed you have not written in a while. Having just found your page I hope you have not given up writing on it!

    • I’ve sent the past 18 months working on a book, but I certainly haven’t given up. There will be new content later this year, I hope – and I have quite a backlog of material to write up.

  29. Hi Mike
    I am gobsmacked by this wonderful article. I had a very sketchy understanding of this history. However, I am in the process of writing a school musical that focuses on the relationship between the Macassan fishermen and the Indigenous people of NT and Northern Queensland, pre European settlement. It is not trying to be historically, super accurate, by just a ripping yarn that introduces Australians to this rarely spoken about part of history. Your research as filled plenty of gaps for me. Thank you!!!
    Happy to send you a copy – once completed

  30. Your blog is the BEST!! I’m a huge fan of history (and you) and love the oddities and eccentricities that you write about. I know you’ve had a hiatus from the site but please, please, please add more stories. I’ve read every word and then re-read some of them. I’m addicted to A Blast From the Past! I need regular fixes.

    • Thank you for your very kind words. I am back at long last – the next update is finally scheduled, and ought to appear before the middle of June. After that publication ought to become more regular again. As you’ll appreciate, my stuff is quite heavily researched, but I want to produce something at least once a month.

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