The short version: in the beginning, there was nothing, which then exploded.
The longer version: all the matter in the universe was compressed into the smallest possible volume. Try to understand that this is so much matter that the force of gravity warps the laws of physics as we know them. The whole thing is is under so much pressure that it explodes – forming the universe as we know it as the laws of physics change radically from picosecond to picosecond, and eventually energy cools and congeals into matter.
It’s like they say: “it all started with the Big Bang!”
In the early millenia of what is sometimes referred to as the Hadean era of the Earth, there were no rocks as we would commonly understand the term – it was too hot for them to form. Still, the Earth was slowly cooling and solidifying. It’s worth noting that the Sun itself was not as hot at this time – like the larger planets of our solar system, it was still accreting matter to itself. Rockballs like the Earth (and Mars and Venus) were largely done with this process (although the occasional meteor or cometary impacts still occurred).
By the end of this era, approximately 3,800,000,000 years ago, the Earth had cooled sufficiently to allow for the stable formation of rocks, and its surface had begun to split into tectonic plates. Most importantly for humanity’s future, life had begun: the earliest evidence of photosynthesis dates from around this time.
The majestic oceans of planet Earth were formed neither quickly nor simply. It took literally millions of years between the first surface water’s appearance and the creation of the primordial sea.
Several factors contributed to this: the gradual cooling of the Earth was the first and most important, but also important was the slow release of water from existing minerals, the condensation of steam, and even the addition of water in the form of ice from occasional cometary collisions with the planet.
The first waters soon became the habitat of early prokaryotes – whose biochemical processes led to the formation of still more water. Indeed, it is possible that the majority of water on the planet today exists as a result of these organisms.
The earliest known bipedal vertebrate, eudibamus cursoris was a small parareptile. The sole specimen that has been found (in Thuringia, Germany) measured about 25 cm long – about the size of a house cat. Reconstructions of it give it an appearance resembling a cross between a tiny velociraptor and a modern iguana.
The sole specimen of it known to science was discovered in 2000 by a paleontological team including David S. Berman, Robert R. Reisz, Diane Scott, Amy C. Henrici, Stuart S. Sumida and Thomas Martens. The species is believed to have existed for a span of about five million years or so.
Pangaea was a super-continent – an agglomeration of multiple continents – that came into being about 250 million years ago. It was composed of all the continents we know today fused into a single landmass, surrounded by a single ocean (called Panthalassa) – and was the last time such a thing occurred. In fact, it was slightly larger than the combined areas of the modern continents, as supercontinent formation tends to lead to lower sea levels.
Pangaea (the name comes from the Greek Pan meaning All and Gaea meaning Earth) existed during the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras, and its best known inhabitants were the dinosaurs. It began to break up approximately 75 million years after it formed, although the continents would not reach anything approximating their modern positions until only about 35 million years ago, when the Indian subcontinent collided with Asia.
Everyone loves the dinosaurs. A lot of people – if the Jurassic Park films are to be believed – would like to see them come back. But without their extinction, we wouldn’t be here today.
Even now, it’s still not clear what exactly caused the extinction event – but the best known hypothesis is that of Luis and Walter Alvarez, which states that a meteoric or cometary impact caused a nuclear winter-like effect that altered the climate drastically, wiping out something like 75% of all species alive at the time. The effects were particularly felt by larger species – which included most dinosaurs.
In the wake of the event, now open evolutionary niches were occupied by mammals and birds, including our own ancestors.
Not actually true mammals, but instead mammaliformes, the members of the sub-class Allotheria are distinguished from other mammals chiefly by their dentition, which featured lower molariform teeth equipped with two longitudinal rows of cusps. Extant from the Late Triassic through to the Early Oligocene, the Allotheria were rodent-like animals in appearance.
They were widespread, found on all continents including Antarctica (which was considerably warmer in this era), and included in their ranks herbivores, carnivores and omnivores. Unfortunately for biodiversity, the last of them died out between 33.9 and 28.4 million years ago, give or take 100,000 years.
Australopithecus was an early proto-hominid that evolved in Eastern Africa around 4 million years ago. It consisted of a number of sub-species: A. anamensis, A. afarensis, A. sediba, and A. africanus; and two more sub-species whose genus is disputed: A. robustus and A. boisei. Over the course of two million years or so, the various Australopithecenes ranged across Eastern and Southern Africa.
The Australopithecines evolved about 2 million years after the split between the ancestral roots of humanity and chimpanzees (our closest relative), and one or more of the various sub-species of Australopithecus is likely to have been the progenitor of the Homo Genus, to which modern humanity (homo sapiens sapiens) belongs.
The earliest species to evolve in the genus homo was Homo habilis, which is believed to have evolved in Africa from Australopithecene ancestors (although which of several species of australopithecus was the direct ancestor is not known). The genus homo would go on to become the most successful species in the entire history of the earth, until it created a global ecological catasprophe in the early to mid twenty first century, which destroyed all the members of that genus, and almost every other genus above the size of bacteria.
(By the way, if you’re reading this, you’re either a homo, or an extraterrestrial intelligence that’s very tolerant of our immaturity.)
(Man, I love that pun.)
The earliest known member of the genus Homo, habilis evolved on the savannah of Africa between 2.5 and 2 million years ago. They are believed to have been the earliest part of our evolutionary chain to have been fully bipedal, to have lost (almost all of) the body hair that other primates have, and to have lived entirely on the ground – although possibly still gathering fruit from and seeking shelter in trees, much as we still do.
The reasons for this evolutionary move are many, but some of the more important ones include greater access to water, increased dietary variety and increased use of tools in hunting, which also made defence against predators easier than it had been for their australopithicene ancestors.
Okay, this one’s a bit of a reach, but work with me here.
At some point, boats were invented. We do not when, or where, or by whom. Nor, Mr Brown’s opinions aside, do we know what gender the inventor had.
What we do know is that, at the very latest, humans arrived in Australia having traveled by boat approximately 65,000 years ago. However, some evidence suggests that boats were actually invented in the Indonesian archipelago somewhere around 900,000 years ago.
The classic ‘caveman’, Neanderthals – homo neanderthalensis – were native to Europe, Western Asia and Central Asia. The earliest Neanderthal characteristics evolved at around this time – fossil evidence (admittedly incomplete) suggests that the full differentiation of the species had taken place by 130,000 BCE.
They were not, as is often thought, the ancestors of modern humanity, but rather a rival species that our ancestors wiped out in a competition for space and resources.
The earliest known example of tool making by a hominid species, the Mousterian tools were created by members of the species homo neanderthalensis. They were primarily a flint-based technology, consisting mostly of cutting and scraping tools. Their name derives from Le Moustier in France, where such tools were discovered. However, it is unlikely that Le Moustier is the actual site of the tools’ origin, as similar tools have been found throughout Europe, the Near East and North Africa. Wherever they were invented, they clearly disseminated widely and – one assumes – swiftly.
The advent of tool making is the beginning of humanity’s technology-enabled conquest of the world. Up until this point, our ancestors were one species among many – a little smarter than most, but not especially better adapted than any other. Tool making changed that, making hominid species deadlier and more efficient hunters, and leading in time to the technological civilization that anyone reading this lives in today.
The actual origin of religion is a hotly debated topic in anthropoligical circles. We don’t know exactly when or how it happened. We know that it pre-dated the invention of writing, but not by how much. And we don’t know what the first religious beliefs were – do cave paintings represent a recording of a successful hunt, or a devotion to the aurochs spirits?
It is generally – though not universally – accepted that the ritualisation of death and burial, and the invention of the funeral, mark the earliest evidence of a belief in an afterlife or a spirit world. We know nothing of what was believed, but the care and attention which our ancestors paid to the arrangement of the dead, the things they buried with them and the markers left at gravesites – all of these imply a developing spirituality. We cannot say exactly where it happened, but somewhere in this process, the idea of God was invented.
In the traditions of the Indigenous Australian peoples, their ancestors were created with the land, at the dawn of what is called the Dreamtime, the Dreaming or Alterjinga.
Science tells it a little differently. The original ancestors of the people now known as the Australian Aboriginals emigrated to Australia at some point between 40,000 and 120,000 years ago, with an increasing amount of evidence supporting the earliest date. Due to the wide variation of dates, it is unclear whether they arrived here after a sea crossing, or via a landbridge now submerged. It is not known where they first set foot in Australia, nor how many separate waves of migration occurred.
What is for certain is that these people dwelt in Australia with little or no contact with the rest of the world (the Macassar fishing fleets being one of the few exceptions), for thousands of years before European settlement in 1788. Whether or not one accepts the Dreamtime legend, there remains an undeniable case for considering them to be the traditional owners of the land, displaced and disenfranchised by European imperialism.
It’s unclear exactly how our nearest hominid relatives went extinct, but the leading candidates are our direct ancestors: whether fucking or fighting.
I mean that quite literally: some of them interbred with homo sapiens until they no longer existed as a separate species, or they just plain got killed by other homo sapiens. At their widest range, Neandertals occupied lands from Ireland and Spain in the west through to the southern Urals in the East. They did not go extinct everywhere at the same time, of course, but the precise details are somewhat obscured by the incompleteness of the fossil record.
The most recent Ice Age – or more precisely, the most recent glacial maximum of the current Ice Age – ended a little under 10,000 years ago, having lasted some 70,000 years itself. The abrupt climactic changes (abrupt in a geological sense) contributed to mass extinctions of various animal species, notably the woolly mammoth, although it is also believed that hunting by early humans also contributed to at least some of these extinctions.
In geological terms, the end of the last Ice Age is recorded as the transition from the Pleistocene to the Holocene epochs.
It’s Atlantis. Everyone knows the basics: an advanced civilisation on a large island or small continent in the Atlantic Ocean, sunk beneath the ocean in a single day.
The Atlantis story originated in two works by Plato, the Critias and the Timaeus. These tell the story of Atlantis – created by the sons of Poseidon, ruled the world as an economic superpower, and finally destroyed by the gods of Olympus for its hubris.
Of course, so far as anyone can tell, Atlantis never truly existed. It was a myth, a parable regarding the dangers of arrogance and pride.
It was a most Unexpected Party. Bilbo had no idea that he was going to be throwing it, for one thing.
But despite all the misunderstandings that Gandalf had apparently deliberately fostered (who says you can’t have a few laughs while you’re saving the world?), in the end, one bemused middle-aged hobbit with no prior experience at anything more challenging than walking down to the pub had agreed to travel halfway round the world with thirteen dwarves he didn’t know to steal things from a dragon. Because why not?
Diary of God, Day Six:
So tired today. Spent the whole day working on one thing, man. My plan is that he’s like an animal, only intelligent, like me. So because he’s not an animal, I figure he doesn’t need a mate. I mean, I don’t have one and I’m intelligent. Anyway, it went according to plan: I woke him up, told him that he was basically in charge whenever I’m not around, and called it a day.
Think I’ll take tomorrow off.
Stop me if you heard this one: so, a naive chick is tricked by some snake into eating something she probably shouldn’t have. Suddenly much less naive, she tricks her partner into seeing things her way. We’ve all heard it a million times, right? Except that in this case, the chick is Eve, the snake is better known as the Serpent in the Garden, and her partner, of course, is Adam.
It turns out that eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil tells you that it is evil to be naked, which is why when God (who is elsewhere described as both omniscient and omni-present) comes back, Adam hides from Him, so that God – who has seen him naked as often – if not more often – than any parent has ever seen their child, will not see him naked again.
God, in his infinite forgiveness, expels Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and sets an angel with a flaming sword to stop them from returning.
Anyway, it’s all holy and ineffable, so quit your snickering.
Legend has it that Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, was born in a most unusual way: when Cronus led his fellow Titans in a rebellion against their father, Uranus, the final victory was achieved when the son castrated his father, and cast his genitals into the ocean (accounts vary as to whether this was offshore from Paphos in Cyprus or the island of Cythera). Aphrodite sprung fully formed and already an adult from the foaming waves of the wine dark sea.
Aphrodite was known to the Romans as Venus, and it was under this name that she became popular with later Europeans, notably as the subject of the painting “The Birth of Venus” by Botticelli, and numerous surviving sculptures, such as the Venus de Milo.
Hundreds of years before the dawn of history
Lived a strange race of people… the Druids
No one knows who they were or what they were doing
But their legacy remains
Hewn into the living rock… Of Stonehenge!
Stonehenge was constructed out of massive slabs of bluestone, by persons unknown using means unknown for reasons unknown, on a field on Salisbury Plain, in Wiltshire, England.
Theories abound as to its purpose, although as the lyrics above suggest, it is generally believed to have been something druidic. Suggestions include it being a burial ground, a primitive observatory, or a place for human sacrifice. Less likely theories argue that it was constructed by Atlanteans or aliens.
So one day, God, in his infinite wisdom and mercy, got pissed off at basically everyone. I mean everyone.
Except for this one guy, Noah. And Noah’s family and their families. And all but two of each different kind of animal. God told Noah that he was planning to flood the entire planet and drown, well, everyone. He further instructed Noah to build an ark of the dimensions 300 cubits by 50 cubits by 30 cubits, to carry those whom God, in his infinite mercy, had deemed worthy of salvation.
Admittedly, no one’s quite sure exactly how big a cubit is – it’s based on the length of one’s forearm, but of course, no two forearms are exactly the same size either. What is fairly certain is that there’s no way that any such creation could be large enough to fit two of every animal, even allowing for excluding fish.
So God, in all his moodswingy glory, decided to wipe out the entire human race.
Except for this one guy, his wife, his three sons and his three daughters-in-law. So Noah gets told to engage in one of the world’s most unlikely acts of carpentry. He builds an Ark in which to place a breeding pair of every kind animal in the world – which, by the way, would totally not fit in the cubic volume of Ark, unless “cubit” is an ancient hebrew word for “mile” – and apparently successfully places them there.
And then God makes it rain for forty days and forty nights. Fortunately, the flooded Earth has a very low albedo, and all this water eventually evaporates into the vacuum of space, allowing the ludicrously small gene pool we are allegedly all descended from to not suffocate from the vast quantities of water vapour in the air. And there’s a rainbow.
And down the rainbow rode the Norse gods, and they looked at Noah for a while, told him “no way are you getting into Valhalla” and then rode back up the rainbow to Asgard.
The story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah shows God’s mercy at its finest. After he threatens to destroy the cities, Lot, who resides in one of them, bargains with his god, finally convincing him to spare the cities if Lot can find five righteous men in them (apparently, righteous women aren’t good enough).
The bar is not set high: Lot himself is considered righteous, although he clearly suffers from the sin of pride (it takes a pretty big ego to bargain with god as an equal). However, he does have one virtue that god appreciates, that of shameless toadying. Indeed, Lot is so desperate to curry favour with god and his servants that he offers his virgin daughters to the baying mob to do with as they please if they will simply consent to leave god’s servants alone.
For this, god spares Lot and his daughters, allowing them to flee the city before he smites down upon it with great vengeance and furious anger – although Lot’s wife, whose only crime is to like watching explosions, is turned into a pillar of salt as a punishment – which is pretty harsh considering how few fans of action movies have ever been similarly afflicted.
It’s unclear exactly what killed the mammoths off, although there are two leading contenders: the end of the last Ice Age made climates generally warmer (although the last ice age ended several thousand years before the extinction was complete) and predation – the predator in question being, of course, us.
At one point, mammoths were found across most of the northern reaches of Europe, Asia and America, in several different species, but bit by bit, these were hunted to extinction. The shrinking of their optimal habitat as the ice retreated probably made the hunting easier, but their extinction was a certainty as soon as our ancestors developed a taste for mammoth-meat.
The last known population of mammoths, that on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Sea to the north of Chukotka (the easternmost part of Asia), became extinct in about 1650 BCE, having survived their relatives on St Paul Island, Alaska, by about 1100 years.
There are two Niobes in Greek Myth: one was the daughter of Tantalus, and a prideful mother whose children were slain by Apollo and Artemis. The other, less well-known, was the daughter of Phorenus, and the mother, by Zeus of Argus – for whom the city of Argos was named.
It should be noted also, that thus Argus was not any of the other figures in Greek Myth named either Argos or Argus – he was not the shipwright who built the Argo, nor the son of Jason and Medea named for that shipwright. Neither was he a legendarily faithful dog whose master was Odysseus, nor the hundred-eyed giant known as Argus Panoptes. He was just this guy, who happened to be the third king of Argos, and the first child Zeus had by a mortal woman. He would have lots of half-siblings, mostly posthumously.
By William Henry Goodyear, A History of Art: For Classes, Art-Students, and Tourists in Europe, A. S. Barnes & Company, New York, 1889. Page 158. Scanned by Dave Pape., Public Domain, Link
As mentioned in:
When You Sleep — Cake
One of the best known stories in the Bible, the Exodus or Exit from Egypt, is the escape of the Israelites from slavery under the Pharoahs. The particular Pharoah in question is not specified in the Bible (and speculation about who it is has been a scholarly pastime for centuries), but whoever it was, he was clearly cut from the same cloth as the most stubborn, stupid and self-destructive leaders of history.
It’s only after numerous plagues – which kill off a goodly portion of his subjects – that he agrees to let the Israelites go. And even then, he changes his mind once more, pursuing them with his army…
…only to be killed, along with his army, when Moses unparts the Red Sea and the Israelites make good their escape to the Sinai, where they spend the next four decades preparing to invade Canaan and begin the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has continued, intermittently, ever since.
No doubt you’re familiar with the story: during the 40 years that the Israelites spent wandering in the Sinai desert between fleeing Egypt and entering Canaan, they encamped for some time at the foot of Mt Sinai.
At one point, God summoned Moses, his chosen prophet and the leader of the Israelites, to the top of the mountain, and here he gave him stone tablets upon which were inscribed the Ten Commandments – one of the world’s earliest legal codes that is still known to us.
When Moses carried the tablets back down the mountain, he was sufficiently enraged by the conduct and reaction of his fellow Israelites that he broke them half. Fortunately, God had made a backup copy, and Moses was able to once more bring the tablets of the Ten Commandments.
Jewish tradition holds that both sets of tablets were stored inside the Ark of the Covenant, which implies that their current resting place is a non-descript government warehouse somewhere in the USA.
Moses’ right hand man and heir, Joshua was the leader who led the Israelites into Canaan after their 40 years of exile in the Sinai desert.
The major conflict recorded by the Bible in this period – which was, in all fairness, an invasion and conquest of Canaan by the Israelites – was the battle of Jericho. The Israelites under Joshua laid siege to this town (which is one of the oldest continually occupied human settlements in the world). The Israelites spent a week carrying the Ark of the Covenant around the city while holding horns in front of it – on the seventh day, they blew the horns, and the walls came down. Stripped of their greatest defence, the Canannites of Jericho well slaughtered and the town razed – only a turncoat who had assisted the Israelites (and her family) was left alive.
The best known of all of the Egyptian Pharaohs, largely due to the sensational circumstances of his tomb’s discovery in 1924. At the time he was placed in it, Tutankhamen is believed to have been about 18 years old, and to have been Pharaoh for about a decade. His age has led many to speculate that he may have been assassinated by his regents, who wished to keep power and legally would not be able to do so once the Boy King reached adulthood.
However, recent research points at a combination of diseases (chiefly malaria, which he seems to have suffered from several times in his short life) and congenital defects (most likely due to the inbreeding that was common in many pharaonic dynasties) as the actual cause of his death – although the political advantages remain the same regardless of the cause.
The Minotaur was not the son of king Minos of Crete, but no doubt he felt responsible for it – it was the child of his wife and a sacred bull of Posiedon (or possibly a god in the form of said sacred bull). But it was too dangerous to let roam free; too holy to kill. Minos, along with his advised Daedelus, devised a solution: they would imprison the creature in a maze, the original Labyrinth.
The question still remained of what to feed the beast. Fortunately, at around this time, Minos won a war with Athens, and as part of the terms of surrender, he required them to send a dozen Athenian youths each year – which he then deposited in the Labyrinth: meat for the beast. This plan could have gone on for ever, but a young Athenian of dubious morality and considerable political skills by the name of Theseus got in the way of it.
Jason was a little-known hero who, in order to win the throne of Iolcus (in Thessaly), recruited a mighty crew and set sail in the Argo in search of the Golden Fleece. They found it only with the assistance of the goddess Hera and the princess Medea, who betrayed her father and eloped with Jason and the Fleece. Jason made it safely home, claimed the throne and married Medea. This did not end well for either of them.
Jason’s crew was a who’s who of Ancient Greek heroes. It included Hercules, Theseus, Castor, Pollux, Laertes (father of Ulysses), Bellerophon, Iolaus, Nestor, Orpheus, Deucalion, Asclepius, Atalanta, Peleus (father of Achilles) and Autolycus. In fact, not counting the heroes of the Trojan War (who were mostly not yet born at this point), the only significant Greek hero not to participate was Oedipus.
One can’t help thinking that Leda knew more than she was telling. Legendarily one of the most beautiful women in ancient Greece, this queen of Sparta dallied with a swan (who, it turned out, was actually Zeus in disguise), and gave birth to perhaps the only woman to be more beautiful than her: Helen (later of Troy).
In fact, she gave birth to four children, two sets of twins. Half of them were mortal, the children of Tyndareus (her human husband), and half were half-divine, the children of Zeus. Which children are descended from which father is inconsistent across the various tellings of the myth, although a majority of versions record that Helen was half-divine (accounting for her legendary beauty).
At least, according to the calculations of Eratosthenes, it ended on this date.
You know the story: Paris and Helen, Menelaus and Agamemnon, Hector and Achilles, Ulysses and a huge wooden horse. Ten years of war before the walls of Troy, ended finally by gambling on a deception.
In the end, the Greeks swept in, destroying the city and leaving very few survivors. Legend holds that some of them went to Carthage, and then to found Rome; another group of survivors founded London. Being descended from a Trojan was like the first millennium equivalent of being descended from convicts in Australia is today – it was thought cool.
Call him Odysseus or Ulysses, there’s never been any denying his cunning or his pride – and this particular incident in his legend displays both to full advantage.
It so happened that Ulysses’ ship was on course to pass by the island of sirens – horrible monsters who used their bewitching song to lure sailors to their deaths (they ate them, and not in the good way). Ulysses decided that he wanted to be the first man to hear their song and live.
This is how he did it: he commanded his men to tie him to the mast, then to stop their ears with wax, and to neither remove the wax nor let him loose until such time as the island was out of sight. His plan worked to perfection, and he remains the only man to have heard the sirens sing and lived to tell the tale.
Samson is one of the great heroes of Judges era of the Isrealites. A judge and priest, he was also a mighty warrior, gifted by God with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal man. (I don’t describe him this way by accident – Samson was explicitly one of the inspirations for Siegel and Shuster in creating Superman.) He had strength and skill at arms that made him a great hero to his people at a time when they were under constant attack from the Phillistines.
His great success came at a price, however. It’s fairly well-known that his power would desert him if he shaved or cut his hair. Less well-known is that he was also forbidden to drink alcohol. But maybe it was worth it to him. This is a man who once tore a lion apart with his bare hands. Who smote the Phillistines ‘hip and thigh’ – on one occasion, using ‘the jawbone of an ass’ as a weapon – and mowed through their armies like the Rambo of his day. Who, on one particularly slow day, tied flaming torches to the tails of no fewer than three hundred foxes, and drove the panicked animals through the farms of his enemies.
Understandably, he did not endear himself to the Phillistines, but they were unable to defeat him by force of arms. And so they resorted to guile.
Samson’s wife, Delilah, was approached by the Phillistines and bribed to cut his hair. Thus weakened, Samson was easy prey for his foes, and was captured, blinded and imprisoned in one of their temples where anyone could mock or hurt him without penalty. To the extent that his story has a happy ending, it is that many years later, God answered his prayers to restore his strength long enough for him to pull down the temple on top of himself and all his foemen inside it.
Chapter Seventeen of the First Book of Samuel describes Goliath thusly:
And there went out a champion out of the camp of the Philistines, named Goli’ath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span.
And he had a helmet of brass upon his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of brass.
And he had greaves of brass upon his legs, and a target of brass between his shoulders.
And the staff of his spear was like a weaver’s beam; and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron: and one bearing a shield went before him.
6 Cubits and a span is 2.97 metres (or 9 foot 9 inches, if you prefer). Fortunately for the Israelites, it turns out that this Schwarzenegger of the ancient world has a glass jaw, or rather, a glass forehead. (And a suspiciously convenient gap in his helmet of brass.)
David, our Israelite hero, is able to slay the Phillistine man-mountain with a single well-cast stone, that cracks open his mighty head and kills him stone dead. David goes on to become King of all Israel; Goliath doesn’t go on at all.
Socrates is one of the most influential, and also most enigmatic, figures in Western Philosophy. An Athenian who lived at the dawn of both writing and philosophy, if he wrote anything himself it has not survived, and today he is known only for the works of others that mention him. Foremost among these are the works of his student, Plato, similarly influential in philosophy, but also prone to idealize his master.
Socrates was particularly noted for his contributions to the field of ethics, and for his creation of the Socratic Method, a philosophical tool no less useful today than it was 25 centuries ago. He was also, if the writings about him are to be believed, a great fan of irony. He was, of course, executed for heresy, although his trial and death appear to have been the result of political infighting, and thus the charge may not accurately reflect the true reasons for his downfall.
Oddly, not the Platonic Ideal of the philosopher (although in fairness, he would have been the first to point that out), Plato is one of the trio of great Greek philosophers who helped to define Western Philosophy and Science for millennia. The other two were his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle (who was himself the teacher of Alexander the Great).
Plato was born in Athens (although the exact date is unknown – the one I have used here is traditional, but not necessarily correct) to a wealthy family, and given the best education money could buy. Even as a child, he was known for his quick mind. As a younger man, he traveled widely in search of knowledge, and returned to Athens at the age of forty to found the Academy, an institution that would last for nine centuries and train many philosophers, scientists and others from all over the ancient world.
He also left behind a considerable body of writing that helped to define the parameters of philosophy and science until virtually the Renaissance. He also wrote on politics, art and religion. Often, his writings were in the form of Socratic Dialogues, in which Socrates would be the one who espoused the ideas that were actually Plato’s.
The third of the three great Ancient Greek philosophers was the student of Plato (who, in his turn, had been a student of Socrates). The works of Plato and Aristotle were the foundation of science and reason – and for that matter, of theology – for literally hundreds of years. It was not until the Renaissance that their works were surpassed in Western Europe.
Aristotle’s works included foundational texts on logic, politics, ethics, poetry, physics, metaphysics and biology. In addition to being one of the most prolific writers of his era – and this is based only on his surviving works (some of them are lost to us) – he was also a teacher. He taught in Athens and later in Macedon, where his students included Alexander the Great, as well as Ptolemy I (a general of Alexander’s) and Cassander (a later Macedonian king). In his 62 years of life, it appears that about the only thing he didn’t do was sleep…
One of the greatest conquerors and military leaders the world has ever known was born in Pella, the capital of Macedon. His father was the king of Macedon, Philip II, and he himself was Alexander the Great. The genealogies of his parents were not merely royal – Philip claimed descent from Heracles, while his mother, Olympias, claimed descent from Achilles – and Alexander’s second cousin was the noted general Pyrrhus of Epirus.
He was raised as a noble’s son, and taught the arts of his class and sex – which naturally included warfare. From the ages of 13 to 16, he was tutored by the philosopher Aristotle, after which he served as his father’s regent while his father was absent pursuing military conquests. After Philip’s death and Alexander’s own accession to the throne of Macedon at the age of 20, Alexander began what would become one of the greatest conquests the world had ever seen.
In the first of three major engagements during his Persian campaign, Alexander the Great and his forces defeated a numerically superior foe. The Persian forces were bolstered by the presence of Greek mercenaries, but hampered by their command structure, which consisted of feuding satraps – the Persian emperor Darius did not fight in this battle.
The battle took place on the road from Abydos to Dascylium (near modern day Ergili, Turkey), at the crossing of the Granicus River (modern day Biga Çay?) – near the site believed to have once been Troy. It was a near thing for Alexander, because the Persians had orders to specifically target him, their leaders having reasoned that Alexander’s forces would fall apart without his leadership.
The reason for Alexander’s untimely end – he was one month short of his 33rd birthday – is unknown. The three leading theories are poisoning, a relapse of malaria or some sort of illness brought on by feasting on May 29. Alexander took ill right after that feast, and never left his bed again afterwards. He died on either the 10th or 11th or June.
Alexander’s death was also the death knell of his empire. Over the next five decades, the empire would fall into civil war, and by 270 BCE it would have devolved into three successor states, the Antigonid Empire in Greece; the Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt, Palestine and Cyrenaica; and the Seleucid Empire in Mesopotamia and Persia. The former two would be wholly absorbed by Roman expansion over the next three centuries, along with the western half of the territory of the Seleucid Empire.
One of the most influential works in Chinese history, the Analects of Confucius were written over a period of several decades during the Warring States period.
Ever since copies of the Analects first begin to be distributed, over 2000 years ago, it has shaped Chinese society, teaching the Confucian virtues to generation after generation. Its influence has also been felt in other parts of Asia, as it slowly diffused into other nations and cultures.
Even today, the Analects remains one of the canonical texts that any serious Chinese scholar (or scholar of China) must read and understand in order to be considered properly educated.
The self-proclaimed First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang is one of the most important figures in Chinese history. Under his leadership, massive reforms to the legal and economic systems took place – and, not incidentally, numerous scholars and writers were outlawed or executed, and their books burned. He also decreed vast infrastructure projects, including a massive program of road-building, and the creation of the Great Wall of China.
Huang was not responsible for the entire wall, but rather, for the construction of links between pre-existing sections and extending the ends of the them. The project was a long one, and would be completed for centuries, but it sure kept thousands of peasants to busy to rebel for generations at a time, and may have even served some defensive purpose (which is usually considered to be the reason for its construction).
In the final engagement of the Punic Wars, the Roman forces brought to war to the very doorstep of Carthage. From 149 BCE until the spring of 146 BCE, they laid siege to the city itself, which is located near the site of modern Tunis. The Romans could probably have won sooner, but incompetent commanders hamstrung their efforts. By the time they finally breached the walls and poured into the city, the Carthaginians had turned every building into a fortress, and armed every citizen.
However, the battle was never seriously in doubt. Although both sides suffered terrible losses, a Roman victory was inevitable once the city itself was invaded. The fall of Carthage represented the demise of the last organised opposition to Roman expansion in the Mediterranean, as the Carthaginians were their major rivals in the early days of Roman civilisation.
Although it is commonly taught that the Romans plowed Carthage under and sowed salt in the new fields, this claim does not appear in any contemporary sources, and appears to be an invention of nineteenth century historians.
“Crossing the Rubicon” is now an expression for passing the point of no return: this is the original incident from which it derives. In 49 BCE, Gaius Julius, at that time just a general and not yet Caesar, led his army across the Rubicon river, which marked the border of Rome: to cross it marked him as a treasonous leader of a revolt against the Roman state. Famously, he is said to have quoted the Greek playwright Menander, saying “alea iacta est” – “the die is cast.”
Julius would be successful in his quest for the leadership of Rome and its empire (much of which, particularly Gaul, added by his own military genius): which is why history knows him best as Julius Caesar.
The ancient feast of the god Lupercus, Lupercalia was an annual three day festival that ran from February 13 – 15 each year. It was intended to avert evil spirits and purify the city, releasing health and fertility. It is the ancient predecessor of the Christian festival of St Valentine, which is now better known as the more secular Valentine’s Day.
According to Shakespeare, when Julius Caesar attended this particular one, he was offered the crown of a monarch three times and refused it on each of those times. Nonetheless, the reason why he was stabbed to death a month later was apparently his limitless ambition.
Shakespeare’s version might be better known, but the best historical account of the death of Big Julie was written by imperial biographer (and obsequious toady) Seutonius. It is from Suetonius that we have Caesar’s famous last words (asking Brutus ‘even you, my child?’, which Shakespeare rendered as ‘et tu, Brute?’) – although curiously, Seutonius himself reports those words as claimed by others, and for himself believes that Caesar said nothing.
This is somewhat hard to believe, given that Seutonius also recounts that Caesar was attacked by 60 or more men, and received a total of 23 stab wounds from his assailants – it appears that the proximate cause of death was loss of blood. (Fun fact: Caesar’s autopsy report is the earliest one to have survived to the present day.) In a larger sense, the cause of the death of Gaius Julius Caesar was political ambition – his own, and that of others.
She was the widowed queen of Egypt and mother of the heir by birth of Julius Caesar; he was the man who had exposed and shamed the conspirators that killed Big Julie. She was the last of the last: the last descendent of Ptolemy I, of the thirty-third and final dynasty to rule Egypt independently. They were, legend tells us, besotted with each other at first sight.
Never mind that Mark Antony was married to the sister of his fellow Triumvir, Octavius. Never mind that his dallying in Egypt made it possible for Octavius to raise an army against him in Rome, and lead it to a decisive naval victory over Antony’s forces at Actium in 31 BCE. Never mind that Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, was herself the mother of one of those who stood between Antony and the imperial throne.
Because the heart wants what the heart wants, and for a decade, the hearts of Antony and Cleopatra got what they wanted.
Cleopatra VII, reputedly one of the most beautiful women ever to have lived, was the eleventh and last Ptolemy ruler of Egypt. A cunning politician who had co-ruled with her brothers Ptolemy XIII and XIV until the friction grew to the point where she was deposed and exiled.
She returned to Egypt and reclaimed the throne with the aid of Julius Caesar, with whom she had a son. After the death of Caesar, she manipulated his successors, Octavian and Marc Antony. When the tensions between the two Romans erupted into civil war, she threw in with Antony – who lost the war. Finally, in August 30 BCE, as Octavian invaded Egypt and Antony’s troops defected to the winning side, she and Antony each committed suicide – legend has it that Cleopatra provoked an asp (a poisonous snake native to Egypt) into fatally biting her.
The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest was a stunning defeat of the Roman legions by Germanic tribesmen. 2000 years ago today, the three day battle began, when elements of six different Germanic tribes under the overalll command of Arminius of the Cherusci ambushed three Roman legions under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus.
The batttle was the first engagement of a war that would last for the next seven years, and end with a Roman defeat. The Romans would end up withdrawing to the opposite bank of the Rhine, which became the border of the Roman Empire for the next four hundred years.
Armininius (or Hermann, as he is known in Germany) has become a folk hero to the German people, a symbol of resistance against invaders, especially Napolean.
Known to Christians as the “Agony in the Garden”, Christ’s prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives are mentioned in John 18:1, Matthew 26:36-45 (the only account to name the garden) and Luke 22:39-46. Accompanied by three of the Apostles – Peter, John and James – Christ retired to the garden to pray that God would permit him to not go through with his sacrifice and Crucifixion the following day.
The agony here is, of course, spiritual and emotional rather than physical. That would follow very shortly, however: immediately upon leaving the garden, Christ encounters Judas, a meeting which will result in the deaths of both men before the following sunset.
Note: This date is based on the traditional date of the Crucifixion as April 3.
The sixth and final ruler of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, Nero was the grand-nephew of his predecessor, the Emperor Claudius and the nephew of Caligula, Claudius’ predecessor. He would become legendary for his cruelty, although most of the accounts attesting to it are from contemporaries who disliked him, and may have been exaggerated. Nero was only 17 when he ascended to the throne – it was only because both these Emperors died without issue that he even got that close to power. If either of the two had had a son, Nero would today be a footnote.
Instead, he would reign for 13 years, being the Emperor during the great fire of Rome in 64 CE (history records that Nero was instrumental in the rebuilding of Rome afterwards – the business about the fiddling seems to have been a rumour spread by his political enemies), and the famed revolts of Britannia (led by Boudicca) and Judea (which ended in the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the beginnings of the Jewish Diaspora). Upon his death in 68 CE, (also without issue,) Nero threw the Empire into the chaos and civil war of what became known as the Year of the Four Emperors.
Looking at the history of the last three Julio-Claudian Emperors, one can only conclude that for a people so infamous for their orgies, the Romans must have known a thing or two about birth control.
It’s an iconic image, symbolising madness, decadence and a corrupt lust for power. But did it actually happen?
In all probability, it didn’t. For a start, the fiddle would not be invented for another thousand years – Nero played the lyre. And according to Tacitus, Nero not only wasn’t in Rome when the fire occurred, but raced back to organise the relief efforts and funded a large portion of the reconstruction of the city from his own purse. Hardly a picture of a depraved monster, is it?
The fire is believed to have started near the Circus Maximus. It burned for seven days and five nights – on the fifth day, it was nearly quelled before flaring up with renewed strength. Of the city’s 14 districts, seven were damaged and three destroyed outright.
The Flavian Ampitheatre – better known today as the Colosseum in Rome – was constructed between 72 and 80 CE. It is called Flavian because that was the name of the Imperial House that built it, Emperor Vespasian and his sons and successors Titus and Domitan being the three Emperors most associated with the building.
In addition to the gladiatorial contests, chariot races and executions that it is remembered for, the Colosseum was also the site of animal hunts, mock naval and land engagements (often re-enactments of famous battles) and theatrical presentations. It could seat 50,000 people at peak capacity, and continued to be used as a site for entertainments after the fall of Rome.
It was later used variously as a quarry, a fortress, housing, workshops and religious shrines. Today, it is an archaeological and tourist site, one of Rome’s premier attractions from the Imperial Roman era.
Eparchius Avitus was a member of the Gallo-Roman aristocracy of the empire in his day. He was a strong proponent of keeping Gaul in the empire, even holding his coronation in Toulouse. However, these views were unpopular with the Roman establishment, or rather, what remained of it after the city was sacked by the Vandals earlier that year.
However, he allowed the Vandals to take Hispania, and along with his appointment of other Gallo-Romans to important roles in his administration, this made him immensely unpopular, and he was deposed as Emperor after little more than a year on the throne.
Olybrius is one of the least distinguished Emperors in Roman history. He reigned over the Western Roman Empire for only seven months, and for that whole time, he was little more than the puppet of the men who had put him on the throne, the general Ricimer and his nephew Gundobad.
Olybrius was of the Roman senatorial class, and by his marriage (to Placida, daughter of Emperor Valentinian III) a member of the Imperial House of Theodosius – the last of that House, in fact. He spent most of his reign distracted by religious matters while Ricimer and (after Ricimer’s death) Gundobad ruled in his name. He died of dropsy, and only three more Emperors followed him before the western empire died too.
The Roman Empire had been in decline for centuries by the time Odoacer deposed the child emperor Romulus Augustus in 476 and declared himself ruler of Italy – the first time any non-Roman had done so.
His Italy remained more or less a client state of the Eastern Empire (the portion of the old Roman Empire that would become better known as Byzantium, and last for just under another millennium), and that in itself helps to illustrate the decay of Rome. From the point several centuries earlier at which Roman expansion ceased, to the splitting of the Empire into East and West in 395 after the death of Emperor Theodosius, the signs had been present for some time, and only growing stronger.
Even Odoacer’s sack of Rome was the third in less than seventy years, and when a nation can no longer defend its capital, you know things aren’t going well. Even so, the use of this date as the official Fall of Rome is fairly arbitrary – there are no shortage of other dates that have a just claim to the title.
Charles I, King of the Franks, was one of the most influential men in European history. His becoming King of the Franks was due to the death of Pepin the Short, “Mayor of the Palace” and king in all but name. But Charles – soon to be known variously as Charlemagne or Carolus Magnus (in the Latin) – found that not all of the Franks assented meekly to his rule. Acquitaine rebelled and had to be reconquered. Meanwhile, Charles had married the heiress to the throne of Lombardy, adding King of the Lombards to his titles in 770.
Before he was done, Charlemagne would succeed in uniting under a single rule more territory than anyone had done since the glory days of Rome, and would in fact be crowned the first Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (which was, in fact, none of these three things) and known as ‘the father of Europe’. No one would rule as much territory as Charlemagne bequeathed to his heirs for a thousand years, until Napoleon became an Emperor too.
The Abbey at Lindisfarne Island in Northumbria was founded in 635 CE by St Aidan. In the years that followed, it produced one of the most famous illuminated manuscripts, the Lindisfarne Gospels, and became the final resting place of St Cuthbert, who had been Abbot and later Bishop of Lindisfarne. It was a peaceful place of contemplation and worship.
All that changed on June 6, 793 CE. On that day, the Abbey was raided and destroyed by Viking raiders. It was the first major assault on the British Isles by Vikings, but many more would follow over the next few centuries, culminating in England’s invasion and takeover by the Viking-descended Normans in 1066. Some of the monks escaped with the body of St Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne Gospels manuscript, but the abbey itself was destroyed and not rebuilt until after the Norman Conquest.
The scourge of the world, the cause of oh so many cases of lung cancer and emphysema, cigarettes were first invented by the Maya people of pre-Columbian Meso-America. They apparently used them in religious ceremonies, a use that was later taken up by the Aztecs and other peoples of the Americas. Famously, it was then introduced to the Court of England by Sir Walter Raleigh, and quickly spread to Europe as well.
The Maya and Aztec civilisations featured short enough lifespans to probably not notice the effects of long term smoking, and the ritual nature of their tobacco use kept it reasonably infrequent too. It would take the mass production and consumer culture of Western Civilisation to truly bring cigarettes to their full disease-causing potential.
While there actually was a real Lady Godiva – although, as a Saxon, her name was more likely Godgifu or Godgyfu (Godiva is a latinised version) – it’s unlikely that she actually did ride naked through the streets of Coventry.
Legend has it that she rode naked to protest the taxes that her husband, Lord Leofric, had laid upon the common people, and that, in respect for her sacrifice, all of them looked away as she rode through a busy market day street (except for a tailor named Thomas – the original Peeping Tom – who was apparently struck blind for daring to look upon her).
In these enlightened days, of course, no one believes a word of it – but Coventry’s tourist industry still owes a great deal to women who are willing to get their kit off and go for a ride. (Indeed, the date I’ve used here is the date of the annual commemoration of the ride in Coventry.)
One of the most well-known Middle Eastern poets in the West, largely due to an apparently neverending series of translations of his Rubaiyat, Omar Khayyám was also a mathematician, an astronomer, and as his poetry tends to indicate, a philosopher. He’s one of the few people in history that could have dealt with Leonardo da Vinci as an equal, a true polymath whose work remains influential even today. Notably, he was one of the reformers who modified the Persian Calendar in 1079 – the new calendar, known as the Jalali calendar, is still in use (with some minor corrections) in Iran and Afghanistan.
Of course, he was also damned cool – legend has it that he was a boyhood friend of Hassan i Sabbah (and if you don’t know who he was, you’re in for a surprise), while modern historical research has uncovered evidence suggesting that he devised a heliocentric model of our Solar System centuries before Copernicus. Frankly, he’s a candidate for interesting historical fictions just waiting to happen.
Urban II had been Pope for seven years in 1095. But the events he is best remembered for had their origin in March of 1095, when an ambassador from from the Emperor of Byzantium called upon him for aid against the Turk, who had captured much of the Anatolian hinterland and would soon press upon Byzantium itself.
At the Council of Clermont in November 1095, Urban called for a Crusade to retake the Holy Land (Palestine) from the Muslims. This would both place Jerusalem in Christian hands and relieve pressure on Byzantium by opening up another front in its war. What would become known as the First Crusade (of Nine) started the following year, in 1096, and lasted (in its active phase) until 1099. It was the most geographically successful of the Crusades, but its longest term effects were the reopening of trade between Europe and the Levant (and by extension, to its trading partners beyond) and the importation of Arabic texts (some of them translations of Greek and Roman texts) that led to the scientific revolutions of the next thousand years.
The actual beginnings of the Knights Templar (or to give their full title, “the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon”) go back another ten years, to a French crusader and knight named Hugh de Payens. De Payens recruited eight other knights (all his relatives by marriage or blood). They took upon themselves the task of guarding all pilgrims in the Holy Land. (Yes. Nine of them. And their horses. To cover all of Outremer.)
In 1129, at the Council of Troyes, the Knights were officially recognised by the Catholic Church, largely thanks to the efforts and influence of Bernard of Clairvaux (later St Bernard), who was a hugely influential figure in the Church (and also the nephew of one of the nine original members). The meteoric rise of the Knights Templar began here, with Bernard promoting their Rule as the noble ideal to aspire to. Their ranks and coffers swelled, and then, so did the rumours. Less than two centuries after their founding, the Knights Templar would be denounced as heretics and disbanded.
The Siege of Acre was the first major military encounter of the Third Crusade. It began on August 28, 1189 and concluded with the surrender of the Moslem forces under Saladin on July 12, 1191. For their part, the Christian Crusaders had suffered great losses, exacerbated by the stubbornness of England’s King Richard I, upon whom overall command of the invading forces had devolved.
The death of Gerard de Ridefort, Grand Master of the Knights Templar, and one of the most militarily experienced commanders among the fractious ranks of the Crusaders, took a toll on both the unity and organisation of their forces. After his death, an inconclusive battle broke out on the 4th of October, killing thousands on both sides, but not advancing either cause particularly.
Richard I of England is one of its most legendary kings – better known in those legends as either “Richard the Lionheart”, and “Richard Coeur de Lion” – but probably also one of its worst. Of his ten year reign, he spent about six months (and none at all of his last five years) in England. He also spoke no English, despite being born there. He spent most of his reign fighting in the Crusades, and most of the remainder in his assorted French domains.
His death was from a gangrenous wound taken while trying to put down a rebellion in France. He left behind no direct heir, leading to England and France each being ruled by different claimants – his brother John in England (yes, THAT King John) and his nephew (via his other brother Geoffrey) Arthur in France. His legacy was one of warfare and loss, as neither claimant could conquer the entire territory that Richard has inherited.
The Children’s Crusade is the name given to a variety of fictional and factual events which happened in 1212 that combine some or all of these elements: visions by a French or German boy; an intention to peacefully convert Muslims in the Holy Land to Christianity; bands of children marching from various other European nations to Italy; and finally, the children being sold into slavery and failing entirely in their admittedly unlikely and quixotic mission.
It has become a byword for tragedy, waste, naivete and religious stupidity, although of course, since it was never officially sanctioned by Rome, the Catholic Church denies all responsibility for it.
Christina Mirabilis was a Catholic saint and visionary. Born into a poor peasant family, she was orphaned by age 15. A few years later (sources disagree as to whether she was 21 or 22), she started to experience visions, which were accompanied by violent seizures.
Legend has it that after one such vision, she was believed dead, and astonished the town of St. Trond (where she lived) by suddenly standing up during her funeral, and beginning to recount her visions. She had seen Heaven, Hell and Purgatory and met God, who charged her with a mission to help free the souls atoning in Purgatory.
She lived in extreme privation for her entire life, strictly adhering to her vow of poverty to such an extent that she would seek out sufferings if she adjudged her current lot insufficient.
Despite all this, she lived to the age of 74. July 24, traditionally the day of her death, is now considered her feast day by the Catholic Church.
The Medieval Inquisition was a series of Inquisitions that slowly merged into a more or less continuous process of arrest and interrogation of suspected heretics. Like all good coppers, the Inquisitors often complained that they were hamstrung by the limitations under which they worked – i.e., that they needed more powers, more authority to use them, and so on. In the middle ages, what that basically meant was torture.
On May 15, Pope Innocent IV, who had been Pope for nine years and would continue in that capacity for another two, issued the now-infamous papal bull ad exstirpanda, which authorized, with some limits, the torture of suspected heretics for the purpose of eliciting confessions. The limitations were as follows:
- that the torture did not cause loss of life or limb
- that it was used only once
- that the Inquisitor deemed the evidence against the accused to be virtually certain
In practice, these limitations were meaningless – loss of life or limb could be deemed accidental, ‘only once’ was often interpreted to mean a series of tortures collectively defined as one, and Inquisitors were somewhat less objective than the bull appeared to assume. Subsequent Popes would expand the scope and powers of the various Inquisitions.
The legends are very specific: in the year 1284, the town of Hamelin, in the in Lower Saxony region of Germany, was overrun with rats. Hordes of rats. One day, a piper claiming to be a rat-catcher appeared in the town. A deal was soon struck: he would play his pipes and draw the rates away, the townspeople would pay him handsomely.
The piper led the rats into the nearby Weser river, where they drowned. But then the townsfolk reneged on their part of the deal. This was decision-making roughly on a par with saying “oh, what a lovely wooden horse, let’s drag it into the middle of Troy.”
The piper returned on the feast day of Saints John and Paul. He played once more, and this time, he enchanted the children of the town. 130 children followed him, leaving behind only one or two (accounts vary). Accounts also disagree over what happened to the children – some say he drowned them like the rats, some say they were safely returned after he was paid several times his original price. So it’s six to five and pick ’em whether the Pied Piper was a mass murderer, or merely a staunch advocate of contract law.
William Tell – or, in the languages of his native Switzerland: Wilhelm Tell (German); Guillaume Tell (French); Guglielmo Tell (Italian); and Guglielm Tell (Romansh) – is a legendary figure, as much a symbol of Swiss resistance to tyrannical rulers as Robin Hood is a British one. Also, and I don’t know if you’ve heard this, both of them were also seriously badass archers.
Although the reasons why differ, the basics of the story remain the same: Tell shot an arrow right through an apple balanced on his own son’s head. In some versions, he was forced to do this, in others, he wagers his ability to make the shot. In either case, the tyrant on the other side of the story is a Vogt named Albrecht Gessler, who is an enormous dick even by folk tale standards. Which is why the second part of the story about Tell’s archery prowess features him killing the Vogt (again, accounts differ: with an arrow, or with a crossbow bolt), and leading a popular rebellion in Switzerland.
The rebellion, by the way, appears to have been real. The apple-shooting, less so – it’s a fairly common motif in European folk tales. And Tell himself? Did he exist or not? In the end, it doesn’t really matter. He’s more important as a symbol than as a man.
Walter ‘Wat’ Tyler was born in 1341, and little is known of his life before his involvement in the Peasant’s Rebellion of 1381. He is believed to have served in the English army, seeing action at both Crécy and Poitiers, among others.
Tyler joined the rebellion apparently due to his strong egalitarian views, and sought an end, or at least a reform, of the feudal system. He led an army 50,000 strong into London, and their show of force persuaded the king to meet with them. Richard II, who was only 15, met with Tyler at Smithfield, although no account of their conversation survives. Tyler was struck down and stabbed repeatedly – it is widely believed that his first assailant was the Lord Mayor of London, who took exception to Tyler’s perceived ‘insolence’. Upon Tyler’s death, the king declared himself leader of the rebels, and commanded them to disperse. The promises he made to them were not kept, and the other leaders of the revolt were also killed, at his order.
Gilles de Rais first came to prominence as a wealthy nobleman who was one of Jeann D’Arc’s greatest allies, fighting alongside her in battle and helping her politically. But after her burning at the stake, he seems to have lost his way. He spent much of his fortune on self-indulgence and dissipation, and his early high moral standing was slowly but surely tarnished. In particular, he became interested in occultism and did not conceal his contempt for the Church – and that was an enemy he could ill-afford to make.
In 1440, he was arrested and charged with many crimes, including the murder of numerous children belonging to his subjects. De Rais confessed to many of the charges, and witnesses gave lurid testimony. He was hanged above a fire, although his corpse was cut down for burial before it was consumed in the flames.
Gilles de Rais’s trial and execution have been the subject of considerable speculation over the years. His guilt and the veracity of his confession have both been questioned, particularly in light of the fact that there was little evidence other than testimony that is similarly questionable, and the fact that his prosecutors were the Church (of which he was a known critic) and the nobleman who stood to inherit de Rais’ property. Event today, whether as a serial killer or a victim of the Church, he remains a puzzling enigma.
The most notorious of all members of the Holy Inquisition, Tomás de Torquemada’s fervour in punishing heretics and sinners – his fanaticism is one of the chief causes of the poor repute of the Inquisition – may well have been driven by a secret shame: although many of those he persecuted were Jews, he himself seems to have had Jewish ancestry.
Although at first his appointment as Grand Inquisitor – Spain’s first such – was a decision popular with nobles and peasants alike, over time, de Torquemada became so hated in Spain that he traveled everywhere with armed and mounted guards in order to protect him from the people he so often found it necessary to destroy in order to save.
Columbus’ expedition to the Far East was going well. He left Spain on August 3, and by October 7, the expedition sighted a large flock of birds. Finally, a sailor named Rodrigo de Triana (aboard the La Pinta) sighted land at about 2AM on October 12.
Columbus, being the shy, retiring flower that he was, later claimed that he had seen land first, which almost certainly had nothing to do with the reward of 10,000 maravedís. Columbus named the island San Salvador, although the resident indigenes had already named it Guanahani. Exactly which island in the Bahamas or Turks and Caicos this corresponds to is an unresolved topic; prime candidates are Samana Cay, Plana Cays, Grand Turk, or San Salvador Island (which was named San Salvador in 1925 in the belief that it was Columbus’ San Salvador).
Hernán Cortés was 34 years old when he led the Spanish Conquistador invasion of Mexico. The initial landing took place on the Yucatan Peninsula, in what was then Maya territory. Cortés’ force was only 500 strong, but they were armed with muskets and cannons, as compared to the arrows and spears used by their opponents.
Although initially peaceful, Cortés’ mission was one of conquest, and would eventually result in the destruction of the Aztec nation and its tributaries, and the Spanish conquest of Mexico.
Christopher Walker was a man of strong will. When he washed ashore on a remote Bangalla beach, he did not just swear vengeance on the pirates, but on all criminals. And he did not merely swear his own life, but those of all his descendants. The Phantom who appears in Phantom comics to this day is the 21st in a unbroken line of mighty crime fighters. Because of this constant succession – and the use of the same costume design for centuries – the Phantom is widely believed to be immortal, and local tribes refer to him as ‘the man who cannot die’ and ‘the ghost who walks’.
The 1527 Narváez expedition was a disaster. Only four of the approximately 600 men to go on it survived. Some died when two of the ships were sunk in a hurricane. Some deserted when they reached Cuba. The rest died from starvation, disease or in conflicts with the natives.
But one of the four men who survived was Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, originally sent on the mission as the king’s eyes and ears. He had been the treasurer and sherriff (responsible for making sure the crown got its 20% cut) and also the second in command. In 1536, he finally made his way to Mexico City, having trekked from where he was shipwrecked on Galveston Island (near the site of present day Houston, Texas) in November 1528. The following year, he returned to Spain and wrote a book: La relación of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca.
This book introduced the idea of the “Seven Cities of Gold” or “Seven Cities of Cíbola”, which were said to be located somewhere on the other side of the desert north of Mexico and rich beyond all imagining. Sadly, when conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado finally arrived at Cíbola in 1540, he discovered that the stories were unfounded and that there were, in fact, neither treasures nor cities in Cibola.
The 12th of October 1537 was a great day for England. The succession was finally assured, as Jane Seymour, third wife of King Henry VIII, gave birth to a son. Edward, later Edward VI and King of England in his turn, was christened three days after his birth, by which time it was quite clear that his mother was ill.
She died on the 24th of October, 12 days after Edward’s birth. Although it was widely rumoured that her death was the result of an ill-advised Cesarean section forced on her by her husband, historians now consider that unlikely, and a retained placenta which became infected is now thought to be the actual cause of her death.
It is notable that Henry VIII, who outlived all but one of his six wives, chose to be buried alongside Jane after his own death in 1547.
Technically, this is actually the date of Copernicus’ death, however, since no authoritative dating other than ‘shortly before his death’ exists for the publication of ‘De revolutionibus orbium coelestium’, I have chosen to use this date.
‘De revolutionibus orbium coelestium’, or in English, ‘On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres” is the single most famous work regarding the heliocentric theory of the solar system, i.e. the theory that the planets revolve around the Sun. It inspired considerable controversy in its day, which is one reason why Copernicus published it when he did – the historical evidence suggests that it was written between 1510 and 1530 – and effectively disproved the Platonic theory that the sun and planets revolved around the Earth.
It’s not true to say that Sir Walter Raleigh – privateer, nobleman, favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, soldier, sailor, explorer and unsuccessful quester for the fabled city of El Dorado – killed more men than cancer.
However, as the man generally credited with the introduction of tobacco products to England – where they became popular at court, thus guaranteeing their spread throughout the rest of the nation and rival European courts (fashion is a harsh mistress) – he should at least be thought of as one of cancer’s most able accessories before the fact.
It would be nice to say that he died of lung cancer, but actually, he was beheaded in what many believe to have been a political maneuver aimed at placating the Spanish (whom Raleigh had fought during the Armada incident and the related war), and something of a miscarriage of justice (since King James, Elizabeth’s successor, did not have much love for her former favourites).
Say what you like about Elizabeth I, Queen of England, but she wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty as a ruler. Even less afraid was her spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, whose careful interception of the letters of Mary, Queen of Scots, made it clear that Mary – who had a good claim to the English throne in her own right – was plotting to have her cousin murdered and to take her place as Queen.
Under the circumstances, Mary’s arrest, conviction and sentencing to execution were more or less guaranteed, although Elizabeth hesitated to order the death sentence carried out, as she worried that it might set a precedent for Queen-killing, something she had a vested interest in preventing. Her Privy Council took the matter out of her hands, and Mary was scheduled to beheaded on February 8, 1587. In the event, it took two strokes of the headman’s axe to kill her. Her body, clothing and personal effects were burnt to frustrate relic hunters.
Best known as the writer of “Leviathan”, Thomas Hobbes was one of the fundamental philosophers in the Western tradition. His understanding of humans as obeying the same physical laws as other matter and motion, remains influential; and his account of human nature as self-interested cooperation, and of political communities as being based upon a “social contract” (a term he created) is one of the basic concepts of modern political philosophy.
Hobbes lived to be 91, and also wrote numerous works of history and science in addition to his better known work as a philosopher.
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Bruces’ Philosophers Song — Monty Python
Born at almost the end of the 16th Century, Oliver Cromwell would grow to become one of the most important figures of the following century. He was born to a family of the gentry, and lived the first four decades of his life as a gentleman farmer. Had not two changes occurred in his life – an inheritance from an uncle that made him richer, and a conversion to a more Puritan faith.
With these behind him, Cromwell would become first the Member of Parliament for Huntingdon, and rise through the ranks to become Lord-Protector of England by the time of his death. He would also, by this point, by a recigide who had led a civil war against his rightful king, and responsible for an invasion of Ireland that killed thousands, many of them civilians – even today, he is still hated on many parts of Ireland.
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Oliver Cromwell — Monty Python
Widely seen as the first modern novel, Miguel de Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” (in full, “The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha”) remains a classic even today. It is a deconstruction and an affectionate parody of the chivalric romances that had dominated fiction in Europe for several centuries prior to its publication. The plot of the book concerns a deluded man named Alonso Quijano, whose head has been addled by reading too many chivalric romances. Adopting the name Don Quixote, he sets out to perform what he considers appropriately knightly endeavours.
Unfortunately, the rest of the world doesn’t go along with his delusions, and this conflict is the origin of most of the book’s famous comedy. Famously, Quixote attempts to battle windmills, believing them to be giants – from whence the phrase ’tilting at windmills’ originates. He is also the origin of the word quixotic. To say that Quixote – the character and the book – cast a long, long shadow over Western literature is to understate the case: this one book is more influential than all but the most important and well-known of Shakespeare’s plays, for example.
The heroine and role model of every goth woman who ever aspired to the title of Queen Bitch, Countess Elisabet Báthory was a Hungarian noblewoman most famous for bathing in the blood of virgins in order to preserve her youthful appearance.
It’s unlikely that Bathory ever actually bathed so, but it is certain that she numbers among the most prolific serial killers of all time, and is possibly the most prolific of female serial killers known to history. Most of her victims were indeed young women (although their virginity or otherwise is a question unlikely ever to be answered).
In 1610, she was arrested along with four of her servants. Three of the servants were later convicted and executed, with the fourth being sentenced to life imprisonment. Bathory herself was never convicted, but remained under the house arrest that had been instituted from the first. Four years later, it appears that she starved herself to death.
In the last few years of his life, Shakespeare wrote only in collaboration with John Fletcher – his last play written alone was The Tempest in 1611. Shakespeare moved back to Stratford in 1613, although he still travelled to London from time to time.
He was 52 years old at the time of his death, and his controversial will left most of his things to his elder daughter Susanna – and his second-best bed to his wife, Anne Hathaway. His other daughter, Judith, was also a beneficiary.
Shakespeare was buried in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. A monument placed by his family adorns the wall nearest his grave, featuring a bust that depicts Shakespeare posed in the act of writing. Each year on his claimed birthday, a new quill pen is placed in the writing hand of the bust.
An iconic event in the history (or more accurately, pre-history) of the United States, the passengers of the Mayflower were primarily of that group known to history as the Pilgrim Fathers. They were religious dissidents in England, known as Separatists. In 1620, they pooled their funds and purchased passage to the colonies of New England, where they intended to establish their own colony.
However, their departure was delayed by the necessity of moving around to avoid religious persecution in England, and it was not until mid-September of 1620 that they finally departed. 102 of them embarked, heading into the dangerous waters of the North Atlantic and an unknowable fate.
Charles the First, destined to end his rein several inches shorter than he began it, was a firm believer in his divinely ordained autocratic rights as King of England, Scotland and Ireland. (He also claimed to be King of France, although even a claim of King of Calais would have been inaccurate, the English having lost their last French possessions in 1558.)
Charles would spend his entire reign battling his own Parliament, with an increasing lack of success, to maintain what he saw as the right and proper prerogatives of the King. Reign and battle both would culminate in 1649, when a revolution led by Oliver Cromwell first deposed, then executed King Charles I.
The Rump Parliament was what remained of the British Parliament after Colonel Pride had purged it a month earlier, leaving only those parliamentarians who supported the army.
On January 6, 1649, the Parliament appointed a total of 135 men to constitute a High Court for the trial of King Charles I for tyranny. A quorum was declated to be twenty of these appointees.
The trial of Charles I commenced shortly thereafter, and duly returned the guilty verdict it was intended to.
It is the decisive exclamation mark that ends the English Civil War. Never before had an English monarch been deposed, tried and convicted of high treason, and then executed. (To date, no other English monarch has suffered the same fate, either.) The decapitation of Charles the First made plain to the people of England and the courts of Europe that the winds of change were blowing in England.
Charles’ son, Charles II, would eventually be restored to the throne that was his by right of primogeniture, and in the interregnum that followed, England would be variously led by Parliament, by Lord-Protector Oliver Cromwell, and briefly, by Lord-Protector Richard Cromwell (Oliver’s less talented and determined son). The restored king was a damned sight more careful of Parliament, and the gradual decline of the power of the monarchy would only continue from this time onwards.
The decisive naval encounter of the First Anglo-Dutch War, the Battle of the Gabbard saw the English, led by Generals at Sea George Monck and Richard Deane and Admirals John Lawson and William Penn triumph over the Dutch, led by Lieutenant-Admiral Maarten Tromp and Vice-admiral Witte de With. The Battle began on June 2, 1653, with a Dutch attack on the English fleet, but their numerical superiority was outweighed by the fact that the English were on heavier, more well-armed ships.
The following day, the English were reinforced, giving them a slight superiority in ship to ship terms (100 to the Dutch 98), but a much greater advantage in firepower, which they wasted little time in applying. The Dutch lost seventeen ships (6 sunk, 11 other captured) while the English lost none, and assured their control over the English Channel and the North Sea, instituting a naval blockade that strangled the Dutch. A month later, the Dutch succeeded in lifting the blockade, and the war ultimately limped to an inconclusive finish the following year. The next two decades would each see the British and Dutch go to war with each other again.
The final resolution of the power vacuum that existed in England after King Charles I was deposed was somewhat inevitable: Oliver Cromwell was always going to wind up at the top of the heap. Lambert’s creation of the Instrument of Government, following the dissolution of the Rump Parliament, and then that of the Barebones Parliament, provided for Oliver Cromwell to be appointed Lord Protector of England for life.
This was kingship in almost every respect: Cromwell would rule until his death, the position would be hereditary, and Cromwell would even wind up dissolving Parliament yet again to put a stop to reforms they wanted that he saw as overly democratic. By the time it ended, with Cromwell’s death in 1658, he was easily as unpopular as Charles had been before him. Some of the smarter Englishmen even realised that the problem with their political system might lie with autocracy in any form rather than monarchy itself.
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Oliver Cromwell — Monty Python
Hated by the Irish for his invasion the previous decade, Oliver Cromwell’s manner of death must have given them some satisfaction. He died from a malarial fever contracted during the invasion (and complicated by what appears to have been kidney stones).
Cromwell had come far and acheived much in his 59 years, but little that he had built long-survived him. His son Richard, who succeeded him as Lord Protector, resigned from that role due to a lack of political support less than a year later, and King Charles II was invited back to England to reinstate the monarchy the year after that.
In 1661, on the anniversary of King Charles I’s execution, Cromwell’s corpse was exhumed, and a symbolic posthumous beheading was carried out. His severed head would be a collector’s item for some years thereafter, before being reburied in 1960.
One of the greatest of the Baroque composers, Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach (in the duchy of Saxe-Eisenach, now a part of Germany). Even in a family as musical as the Bachs, Johann was a standout – in addition to composing, he was also an accomplished player of the violin, viola, harpsichord and organ (although it was the latter he was most in demand for during his lifetime).
Bach’s compositions include the Brandenburg Concertos, the Mass in B minor, the The Well-Tempered Clavier and over 300 cantatas. He lived to be 65, and was a great influence on the composers who followed him, including Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Mendelssohn.
It’s not entirely fair to call Henry Morgan a pirate – he was actually more a privateer, serving the English crown fairly well throughout his long career.
First acheiving the rank of captain in 1661, Morgan was highly successful, and became a romantic figure in England due to his daring exploits. The most controversial of these was the sack of the Spanish colony of Panama City in 1671, a feat all the more impressive because the city lay on the Pacific coast of Panama. Morgan and his men had to traverse the isthmus of Panama to attack from the landward side.
Unfortunately for Morgan, the attack violated a treaty between England and Spain, and he was summoned back to England to face charges. He managed to demonstrate that he had not known of the treaty at the time of the attack, and far from being punished, was knighted and returned to the Caribbean as acting Governor of Jamaica in 1675.
He died of what was diagnosed as ‘dropsie’ in 1688, although it is possible that it represents the effects of a lifetime of drinking catching up with his liver, or the effects of tuberculosis caught in England, or possibly both.
Accused of witchcraft and swiftly condemned and hanged for her supposed crimes, Bridget Bishop was the first person to be killed in the name of Christ during the hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials.
She was a resident of Salem Town – not Salem Village, as the majority of the other accused were – and it is believed that she may have been confused with the similarly named Sarah Bishop, a tavern-keeper in Salem Village. She was accused of bewitching five other women who were residents of Salem town (and each of whom would go on to accuse others of similar crimes). In a statement made after her arrest, Bridget stated that she did not know her accusers. Unfortunately for Bridget, she made contradictory statements at her trial (some of which may have been facetious or ironic), and the humourless religious fanatics who tried her were quick to seize on this as evidence of her guilt.
She was approximately sixty years old at the time of her trial, and known to be an outspoken woman in a time that regarded that quality with suspicion at best. She was found guilty, and sentenced to death.
On June 10, 1692, she was hanged. By the time the hysteria died down, another 19 people would be executed with a similar lack of evidence (or indeed, of common sense), and four more would die in prison.
James Cook, better known to history as Captain Cook, was born in Yorkshire, the second of eight children. After a period of service and learning in the merchant navy, Cook joined the Royal Navy in 1755, and rose through the ranks to become Captain of his own ship. In this role, he would distinguish himself as one of the greatest navigators and surveyors the world has ever seen.
He is best remembered for his three voyages to the Pacific, where he lead missions that were the first Europeans to set foot on New Zealand and the eastern coast of Australia, and the first people ever to cross the Antarctic circle, among other accomplishments. Even during his lifetime, Cook was so respected the world over that during the American Revolution, the rebel navy had orders not to fire on his ship, but to render him assistance as ‘a friend to all mankind’.
Hardly anyone at all knows it, but this ode of Thomas Gray’s is the origin of one of the English language’s most often quoted aphorisms: “ignorance is bliss”. One rather wonders if Thomas Gray himself would still agree, at least insofar as ignorance covered his works or his self. To be fair, Gray was not praising ignorance, but rather, the innocence of childhood.
Gray was an academic and a poet. He studied and worked at Cambridge most of his adult life, and was regarded as one of the greatest poets of his age during his lifetime, even though his total works amount to less than a thousand lines of poetry – whatever else can be said of him, Gray clearly favoured quality over quantity. His wordsmithing was not limited to the occasional aphorism: Gray is the originator of several phrases that are now horribly time-worn cliches, including “far from the madding crowd”, “kindred spirit” and “the paths of glory”.
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Til The Ocean Takes Us All — The Cat Empire
One of the best known and most loved composers of all time, Johann Sebastian Bach was 85 years old at the time of his death. In those years, he created such works as the Brandenburg Concertos, the Goldberg Variations, The Well-Tempered Clavier, the Mass in B minor, The Art of Fugue, and the famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Although he did not create any new forms, his works broadened and deepened the scope of existing forms.
After his death, several of his sons carried on his legacy as composers in their own right, notably Johann Christian Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach and Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. The Bach, it seems, did not stop here.
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Green Onions — The Blues Brothers
Handel was 74 years old at the time of his death. Unmarried, he left much of his estate to a niece. He had experienced loss of vision after a botched cataract operation eight years earlier, which had curtailed his output.
Handel’s musical compositions included 42 operas, 29 oratorios, numerous arias, chamber music, a large number of ecumenical pieces, odes and serenatas, 16 organ concerti and more than 120 cantatas, trios and duets. His best known work is the Messiah oratorio, which featured the Hallelujah Chorus. Handel was an unusual composer. Influenced by the great composers of the Italian Baroque and the middle-German polyphonic choral traditions, he also introduced a range of unusual instruments into his compositions, including the viola d’amore, violetta marina, lute, trombone, clarinet, small high cornet, theorbo, horn, lyrichord, double bassoon, viola da gamba, bell chimes, positive organ and harp – many of which would become more commonly used by composers and musicians as a result of Handel’s popularisation of them.
Charles Mason, a fellow of the Royal Society and noted astronomer, and his sometime assistant, land surveyor and amateur astronomer, Jeremiah Dixon, were hired by certain wealthy interests in what was then the British colony of America to conclude a number of difficult boundary disputes in the young colonies.
Landing in Philedelphia in 1763, Mason and Dixon spent the next four years painstakingly measuring and fixing the proper boundaries between the various colonies, ceasing their work on October 18, 1867. (A team of their subordinates completed the survey in 1787.)
The lines they laid down, although resurveyed since that time, formed the basic lines of the borders between the colonies (and later the states) of Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Later, as these states took different sides in the Civil War, the line came to symbolise the political and cultural border between the southern and northern states.
Hegel was one of the most influential philosophers of his time. He built upon the work of Kant, Descartes, Hume and others – his work assumes a familiarity with the writings of many of his predecessors – and Hegel himself was an influence on any number of the philosophers who followed him, notably Karl Marx and Theodor Adorno.
Hegel lived to be 61 years old, and spent most of his adult life studying and writing in a total of eight different German universities. He wrote four books: Phenomenology of Spirit (1807); Science of Logic (published in three volumes: 1811, 1812 & 1816); Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1816) and Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1822).
Generally acknowledged to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of the classical composers, Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, in what is now Germany. However, most of his early creative life was spent in Vienna, where he studied music under the tutelage of Joseph Haydn. Exposed to works by other composers of Vienna (notably Mozart and Bach), Beethoven nonetheless developed his own distinctive style.
At the age of 26, Beethoven began to develop tinnitus, an affliction which would slowly rob him of his hearing entirely. Undaunted, he continued to compose, play and conduct music, and many of his greatest works were written at a time when he was either partially or completely deaf.
The date given here for his birth is actually that of his baptism – no conclusive record exists of his actual birth date, although it is unlikely to have been more than a week or so earlier.
Schlegel and his brother August were two of the leading members of the Jena Romantics, a group of artists and patrons between roughly 1798 and 1804 who were the earliest influential Romantic movement in Germany. Schlegel would pass through atheism and a firm commitment to individualism in his twenties before converting to Catholicism in 1808.
His contributions to philosophy mostly consist of his promotion of and work to develop the Romantic school in Germany, especially as a critical position from which to analyze art.
Revere was a silversmith from Boston who would become an important player in the American Revolution. On the night of April 18, 1775, he was the first of a group of riders who spread the news of British troop movements in Charlestown to the towns of Somerville, Medford, and Arlington, finally arriving at Lexington to meet with Samuel Adams and John Hancock at about midnight. In his wake, other riders – perhaps as many as forty – carried the news in all directions.
A number of urban myths have become attached to Revere’s ride, not least its name, the “Midnight Ride”. It’s also untrue that Revere shouted “The British are coming!” – shouting would have attracted the attention of British patrols, and the actual message of Revere was “The Regulars are coming out” (something confirmed by Revere and numerous witnesses).
They are an ageless conspiracy that has existed since the dawn of time, secretly guiding the affairs of nations and peoples… but they’re also, apparently, a relatively small group of Freemasons living in or around a fairly unremarkable Bavarian town in the 1770’s, led by one Adam Weishaupt (who may or may not also have been, or have replaced, George Washington at some point).
The Bavarian Illuminati, as this group is referred to by historians for simplicity’s sake, quickly grew to a membership of over 2000 men (no women were members) by the time it was suppressed a decade later. Known members other than Weishaupt include Goethe, Ferdinand of Brunswick, Johann Gottfried Herder and the diplomat Xavier von Zwack, with numerous others speculated to be members, including most of the ruling and creative classes of southern Germany, Austria and nearby areas at the time.
It is a matter of some debate as to whether or not Betsy Ross actually created the first flag of the USA. While it is clear that she did create a design of her own which was widely used thereafter (the distinguishing feature of the Betsy Ross Flag is the arrangement of the 13 stars (or mullets, to use the heraldic term) in a circle). But the story of her creation of the flag seems to have been created from whole cloth a generation or so after the event, and there are enough loose threads in the story to make it clear that it is at least partially false (for example, Betsy Ross never met George Washington, and the records of Continental Congress show no committee to design a flag at that time).
The story of Betsy Ross seems to have been embroidered in order to address the lack of female representation in stories of the revolution, while still being an acceptably feminine role model (by the standards of the day) who would not threaten the nation’s social fabric. And for over a century, it had that role sewn up, appearing in history books as fact. It is only more recently that a generation of historians needled by the inconsistencies have cut truth from fiction.
Variously known as the “Stars and Stripes”, “Old Glory”, or “The Star-Spangled Banner”, the flag of the United States of America originally had 13 alternating stripes of red and white and 13 stars. The 13’s represented the 13 original states of the union, and that numbering is preserved today in the stripes, while each of the 50 states has its own star. The current flag is in fact the 27th incarnation, as it has been updated on numerous occasions as additional states joined the nation – it is also the design that has been in use for the longest period.
The first flag had no set design for the arrangement of stars, and multiple versions of it existed, each one with a different designer and different partisans. The original resolution of the Second Continental Congress on June 14, 1777 failed to specify an arrangement of stars, and indeed, it was not until 1818 that rules regarding the design of the flag, including the numbers of both stars and horizontal stripes, were formalised.
An advance party for the First Fleet to colonise Australia entered Botany Bay on this day. The Governor of the colony, Arthur Phillip, sailed the armed tender Supply into the bay, and weighed anchor. Two days later, they were joined by the other ships of the Fleet. However, the poor quality of the soil led to the entire fleet decamping, and landing instead in Port Jackson 8 days later, at what was named Sydney Cove by the Governor.
The French explorer La Perouse entered Botany Bay on the same day, January 26, too late to claim the land for France. The British penal colony was, of course, never heard from again.
Arthur Schopenhauer was born in Danzig, in what is now Poland. The child of a wealthy patrician family, Arthur went to university in 1809, and published his seminal book of philosophical thought (“The World as Will and Representation”) in 1819. However, he struggled to attract students as a lecturer (possibly because he was competing with Hegel), and soon left academia.
Nonetheless, over his 72 years, he continued his philosophical enquiries and published a number of other books, cementing his place in the history of his discipline. But his popularity as a philosopher peaked in the early part of the Twentieth Century (when he was a major influence on the Modernist movement), and has never again attained the same degree of prominence, although there has been a recent upswing of interest in his works.
William Bligh, whatever else you might say about him, had three inarguable qualities. First, he had the strength of his convictions, and second, of course, he had appalling interpersonal skills. The latter wasn’t necessarily a problem to a ranking officer in the British Navy of the late 18th Century, or so you might think. (You might also think it wouldn’t be a huge impediment to a Governor of New South Wales in the early 19th Century, for that matter).
As it turns out, Bligh is one of the few men in the history of the British Empire to have been both the cause and loser of two rebellions against his authority. The first of these was the infamous mutiny on the HMS Bounty, led by Fletcher Christian, in which 18 mutineers defeated Bligh and 22 of his loyal men, setting all but 4 of them adrift in a single longboat. (2 other men stayed neutral through the mutiny, and remained on board the Bounty.)
It was at this point that Bligh showed his other skill: superb seamanship. Over the course of the next 47 days, Bligh steered his longboat from Tofua to Timor. Christian and the men on board the Bounty went to Tahiti and eventually fetched up on the Pitcairn Islands.
The French phrase “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” is usually translated as “Let them eat cake”, and is widely attributed to Marie Antionette.
However, in the original – Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, which he finished writing in 1769, when Marie Antoinette was 13 – the remark is attributed only to “a great princess”. The phrase was attributed to Marie Antionette only after the Revolution began, and many citations for it exist prior to this, and not referencing her. In fact, the emerging consensus among historians at this time is that the Rousseau was referring to Marie-Thérèse, the wife of Louis XIV, and pre-dates Marie Antionette by at least a century.
The last king of France was not even a king at the time of his execution. He had been arrested the previous August and stripped of all his titles and styles when the monarchy was abolished a month later – his name at the time of his death, according to the newly formed French republic, was Citoyen Louis Capet. Louis faced his beheading bravely, and spoke to the onlookers, forgiving those who called for his execution.
The tragedy of it all is that Louis had been one of the greatest reformers in the history of the French monarchy, and had repeatedly instituted (or attempted to institute) policies that would help the common people of France. However, his reforms were repeatedly blocked by a nobility jealous of its privileges – especially those reforms that would have harmed them financially. The reforms they did allow through often proved economically disastrous – Louis and his advisers were poor economists. As king, the ultimate responsibility rested with Louis, and as a man, he paid the ultimate price for it.
Jean-Paul Marat was a fiery republican journalist who was an important figure in the French revolutionary movement. A scientist (he translated Newton’s “Opticks” into French, among other accomplishments), after the revolution, he devoted himself to politics and propaganda. He was heavily involved in the factional struggles surrounding the revolution.
It was this latter that led to his death. Charlotte Corday was a member of a rival political faction, the Girondists, who believed that Marat was largely responsible for the fall of the Girondists – and that the outcome of that factional struggle might well lead to outright civil war in France. And so it was that Corday surprised Marat in his bathtub one night, stabbing him once in the carotid artery, which killed him in very short order. Later that year, he was immortalised in a painting, “The Death of Marat” by Jacques-Louis David, which has become an iconic image of revolutionary martyrdom.
Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon were a pair of English astronomers who were hired by Thomas Penn and Frederick Calvert, respectively the proprietors of Pennsylvania and Maryland, to resolve a boundary dispute between the two colonies in 1763. The two had worked together for two years before that, Dixon serving as Mason’s assistant.
The survey took three years to complete – and the pair remained in America for another two years after that, being admitted to the American Society for Promoting Useful Knowledge, in 1768, before they left American in the same way they had entered it: via Philadelphia.
Napoleon had grand dreams of empire when he embarked for the Middle East in 1798. And at first, they seemed warranted. His forces took Malta in June 1798, and then eluded the British Navy for nearly two weeks as they crossed the Mediterranean to Egypt. On July 1, the fleet landed at Alexandria, although Napoleon himself was still at sea.
Perhaps this is why his orders were ignored, and his forces invaded the city during the night, taking it with little resistance. Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign was a mixed success: on land his forces triumphed over the Egyptians and ended the rule of the Mamelukes; at sea, they lost a disastrous engagement with the British. Undaunted, Napoleon continued with his plans to invade Syria, but a combination of harrying from the British at sea and the Ottomans on land, coupled with uprisings of the conquered (notably at Cairo in October 1798) eventually forced him to withdraw. The lasting results of his invasion were few: Egypt remained an Ottoman possession, although the decline of the Ottoman Empire was now undeniable; and the discovery of the Rosetta Stone led to great advances in archaeology, making it possible to translate hieroglyphics into modern languages.
Constructed by Richard Trevithick in Camborne, Cornwall, the Puffing Devil holds the distinction of being the world’s first steam rail locomotive. On its inaugural run, on Christmas Eve 1801, it carried six passengers and a steersman, Trevithick’s cousin, Andrew Vivian. The run was considered quite successful by Trevithick, notwithstanding the accidental destruction of the engine a few days later.
In 1802, Trevithick would take out a patent on a high pressure steam engine (also the first of its kind), and in 1803, he built another steam locomotive, which was more successful than the Puffing Devil. The emblematic invention of the Industrial Revolution would transform the world over the next few decades.
The first ever steam train was built by Richard Trevithick in Wales in the early 19th century. On its maiden journey, on February 21, 1804, the unnamed steam locomotive hauled a train along tracks from the Pen-y-darren ironworks, near Merthyr Tydfil to Abercynon in south Wales. It was the world’s first ever railway journey. (The phrase ‘steam train’ would not be coined until 1822, but it applies to this vehicle.)
From there, the idea took off like wildfire. Railways opened up the vast plains of Australia and North America to settlement, while in Europe, they drove the Industrial Revolution to heights of productivity without precedent in human history. And although steam would in time give way to diesel and electricity as the fuel of choice for running railways, the importance of trains for hauling freight and passengers would only grow as the years went by.
People like to describe modern American politics as a blood sport. They have no idea.
Back in 1804, former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and sitting Vice President Aaron Burr fought a pistol duel that would result in the death of one and the arrest of the other on changes of murder. Burr and Hamilton, who were members of opposing political factions, had hated each other for years. Part of it was personal – Hamilton in particular had engaged in character assassination of Burr in the press – and part of it was political, tensions then being at least as high as they are today.
In the early morning of July 11, 1804, the two met at the Heights of Weehawken in New Jersey (a popular dueling ground at that time). On the day, Hamilton intended not to fire directly at Burr, at least not on the first round. Burr, on the other hand, did intend to hurt Hamilton, and probably would have done an even better job of it had he been a better shot. As it was, Burr mortally wounded Hamilton, although he did not die until the afternoon of the following day.
By Illustrator not identified. From a painting by J. Mund. – Lord, John, LL.D. (1902). Beacon Lights of History. Vol. XI, “American Founders.” (London: James Clarke and Co Ltd. Republished as a Project Gutenberg eBook, 2004-01-08. eBbook no. 10644., Public Domain, Link
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Lazy Sunday — The Lonely Island
Probably the most famous member of Shoshone tribe of North American Indians, Sacajawea (or Sacagawea, depending on your translation) is best-remembered as the native guide who helped Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their journey up the Missouri river, and on to the Pacific Ocean.
Sacajawea was vital to the success of the mission, as without her knowledge of the Shoshone tongue, Lewis and Clark would not have been able to barter with that tribe for badly needed supplies. Lewis and Clark tended to refer to her as ‘the Indian woman’ in their journals – but those same journals make it very clear that the entire expedition would likely have died, either from starvation or encounters with hostile Indians, without her knowledge of the lands, tribes and tongues of the areas they explored, and her apparently considerable skills in diplomacy.
The first extra-territorial land battle fought by the armed forces of young United States of America. It is the source of the Marine Corps Hymn (“To the Shores of Tripoli”), because the American forces – which consisted mostly of a few hundred mercenaries, backed by three ships – were led by 54 marines. It was the decisive engagement of the First Barbary War (fought between the United States and Sweden on one side and the so-called Barbary States – the Eyalet of Tripolitania and Morocco – on the other).
The battle itself took place after the mercenary forces, led by 8 US marines, attacked the fort at the city of Derna, taking it after heavy fighting against a greatly numerically superior enemy. The surrender of the Barbary forces came a month later, and the US set an early precedent for its poor treatment of its veterans by stiffing the mercenaries on part of their pay.
Benjamin Banneker was born a free black man in Virginia in 1731 – his mother was also a free black, his father a former slave now free. Largely self-educated, in 1791 he was a member of the team that surveyed the boundaries of the newly declared District of Columbia. His primary duty was to take astronomical observations to ascertain the exact locations of the various points the survey visited.
The following year, Banneker turned his skill at astronomy to creating an ephemeris, which he then published in an almanac. The almanac sold well enough that he continued to make them annually until 1797. He became a man of some note, and was a regular correspondent of President Thomas Jefferson, with whom he argued about slavery and other political issues. He died after retiring from public life, aged 74.
It is possibly the most notorious defeat in military history, a textbook example of strategic and logistical errors: Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, in the chilly Winter in 1812. This day, December 14, marks the date upon which the French were finally expelled from Russian territory.
A combination of factors – worsening weather, an over-extended supply chain, the scorched-earth policy of the Russian peasantry and the guerilla tactics of the Russian military being the most well-known – came together to make the French position in Moscow untenable. When Napoleon left the army to shore up his political position in France, the already poor morale of the French army sank lower still, and the remaining commanders ordered a retreat, most likely in order to prevent a mutiny.
Thus began one of the most infamous and fatal retreats the world has ever seen. In addition, the defeat was the beginning of the end for Napoleon, whose fortunes declined over the next few years, finally culminating in his defeat in the battle of Waterloo in 1815
In the annals of military pointlessness, few battles are quite as ridiculous as the Battle of New Orleans. It was fought 16 days after the official end of the War of 1812, of which it was a part, due to the fact that the peace treaty was signed in Europe, and the news took two months to reach America.
The Battle of New Orleans was important to later American history, though. It ended the war with a decisive American victory (in a war where neither side had managed to seize the advantage over the other), and it brought to prominence a commander named Andrew Jackson, who would later become the seventh President of the USA.
It must have been some party. George, Lord Byron was the host, and his guests were the recently married Percy and Mary Shelley, Dr John Polidori and Claire Clairmont (Byron’s lover and Mary’s step-sister). It was the summer of 1816, or should have been: 1816 is sometimes called ‘the year without a summer’, so gloomy was the weather. In this mood of darkness and gloom, Byron read aloud from one of his works, Fantasmagoriana, and challenged them all to write something in a similar vein.
Byron himself wrote the poem Darkness in response to his challenge; Polidori wrote The Vampyre, which is largely forgotten today but was a bestseller in the 19th century, and influenced Stoker’s Dracula greatly. Finally, Mary Shelley wrote the first parts of what is often considered to be the first modern science fiction novel: Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus.
The party thus set a creative standard to which all subsequent goth parties would aspire, and few if any would reach.
One of the greatest of the Romantic Poets, Shelley was the husband of Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein) and a close friend of both Lord Byron and John Keats, his fellow Romantics. His best known works as poet and playwright respectively were Ozymandias and Prometheus Unbound.
His death was foretold by omens, at least according to Shelley himself, who believed he had met his doppelganger shortly before his death. In the event, he died in a storm on the Adriatic Sea, along with the two others aboard his boat. He was less than a month short of his thirtieth birthday at the time, and some have suggested that his death was no accident, although this seems unlikely. Shelley did seem depressed in the days before his death, but even he had been suicidal, it is unlikely that so staunch a pacifist would have countenanced the deaths of others in seeking his own demise.
By After Amelia Curran – one or more third parties have made copyright claims against Wikimedia Commons in relation to the work from which this is sourced or a purely mechanical reproduction thereof. This may be due to recognition of the “sweat of the brow” doctrine, allowing works to be eligible for protection through skill and labour, and not purely by originality as is the case in the United States (where this website is hosted). These claims may or may not be valid in all jurisdictions.
As such, use of this image in the jurisdiction of the claimant or other countries may be regarded as copyright infringement. Please see Commons:When to use the PD-Art tag for more information., Public Domain, Link
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These Words — Natasha Bedingfield
Alexander Pearce was a convict in the Macquarie Harbour “secondary punishment” penal colony when he and seven others made their escape. Being sent to “secondary punishment” means that these men who had already been convicted in Britain and transported to Van Diemens Land, and had then misbehaved sufficiently to be singled out for additional punishment in harsher conditions.
The other convicts: Alexander Dalton, Thomas Bodenham, William Kennerly, Matthew Travers, Edward Brown, Robert Greenhill and John Mather. Brown and Kennerly soon gave up and turned back. They were recaptured by the Macquarie Harbour authorities and died in the prison infirmary. The authorities more or less gave up the search at this point, reasoning that the elements or the natives would kill them. They were wrong about this, but just how wrong they wouldn’t know for more than another year.
Pearce and his five fellows – Alexander Dalton, Thomas Bodenham, Matthew Travers, Robert Greenhill and John Mather – had been on the run, exposed to the elements and without food for eight days. They were desperate, cold and starving. Robert Greenhill, who had carried an axe since the escape and, as the only member of the group able to navigate by the stars, had basically become the leader. Supported by Travers, he led the gang in deciding to resort to cannibalism.
The men drew lots, and Alexander Dalton came up short. Greenhill killed him with the axe, and then the five remaining men butchered the corpose, cooked the meat and, well, ate him. That much at least is probably true.
But we have only the word of self-confessed murderer and cannibal for all of this – and Pearce tends to embellish a little to diminish his own guilt. On the other hand, given the extraordinarily heinous nature of the crimes he did confess to, you have to wonder what he thought he’d gain by lying.
By this point in their escape – after eleven days on the run – the five remaining escapees reached the Franklin River. Swollen with early spring run off, the river ran high and fast. And of the five men in the group, only three could swim. They crossed easily, but the other two had to be more or less dragged across, clinging to branches.
You almost wonder why they bothered to drag Thomas Bodenham across, given that shortly afterwards they’d be killing him and eating him – leaving two uneasy duos facing off. Alexander Pearce and John Mather were one pair, while the ‘leaders’ of the group, Robert Greenhill and Matthew Travers, were the other pair. It was going to be tense trip to Hobart Town.
AFter 113 days of freedom, about half of it spent making the deadly trip from Macquarie Harbour to Hobart Town through the trackless wilderness of the southern Tasmania, Alexander Pearce was captured again outside of Hobart. Pearce, no stranger to this process, sang like a canary. An at times inconsistent canary, but certain themes emerged.
Pearce had escaped with seven other men. Two had turned back and been recaptured. The rest…
…the rest had killed and eaten each other one at a time, until finally only Pearce and another man, Robert Greenhill, were left. Pearce claimed to be innocent of all the killings except Greenhill, which he made a fairly convincing case was self defence. He did, however, claim to have eaten at least part of each of the five.
Of course, Pearce was an Irishman and a convict, which meant that getting the authorities to believe him would be quite a job.
Alexander Pearce had committed many crimes – the original theft that saw him transported to Van Diemens Land from Ireland, sundry minor infractions in Hobart Town including at least one escape attempt, and assorted infractions after he was sent to Macquarie Harbour. But on this day, he stood before the court charged with escaping Macquarie Harbour and making his way overland to Hobart Town.
He had left Macquarie Harbour with seven others, two of whom had turned back and surrendered to the authorities there. The other five were unaccounted for, except by Pearce’s remarkable tale of cannibalism among the six, whittling down their numbers until he was the last left alive. The judge, of course, knew this for the lie it was. Pearce was sent back to Macquarie Harbour and the watch for the other five, still at large, was redoubled.
The only problem was, Pearce had told the truth. He really had participated in the murder and consumption of five other men. But no one would believe him until he did it again.
Alexander Pearce escaped custody for the last time in the company of one Thomas Cox. However, their escape was due to be short-lived. Pearce remembered all too well how difficult his overland trip the previous year had been, and he wasn’t about to do the same thing again. His plan was to steal a boat and travel north along the coast until they could find a settlement, from whence they could hopefully get to the mainland.
Unfortunately, Cox could not swim, let alone sail – which was why Pearce had taken him along in the first place. As it happened, this escape would last less than a week, and lead to the deaths of both men. But along the way, they would end up confirming some of the things that Pearce had claimed about his previous escape.
Thomas Cox was probably foolish to try escaping alone with Alexander Pearce. While the authorities might not have believed that he was a cannibal who’d eaten the last group of men whom he escaped with, it seems likely that the other convicts did. But perhaps Cox thought it was just the extremity of the situation that drove Pearce to it.
He must have been surprised when Pearce assaulted and killed him, although he would have been too dead to be surprised that Pearce then cooked and ate him. And he would no doubt have been astonished at Pearce’s deliberate surrender to the authorities and instant confession of what he had done to Cox. This time, the authorities believed Pearce – and when he faced trial again, this time he was sentenced to hang. The saga of Tasmania’s cannibal convict was at an end.
George Gordon Byron, the 6th Baron Byron, was one of the greatest of the Romantic poets, responsible for such works as Don Juan, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and the short lyric “She Walks in Beauty.” He was only 36 when he died, although that probably came as little surprise to those who knew him by his “mad, bad and dangerous to know” reputation – think of him as an 18th century Jim Morrison and you won’t be too far wide of the mark.
A restless man, in the months before his death Byron had cast his lot with the Greek side in their War of Independence. But he saw no combat in his time with them. Before Byron could reach the front, he was struck ill, and his condition only worsened when the doctors treated him with bloodletting, which weakened him further and led to an infection. He developed a terrible fever which quickly led to his death on April 19, 1824, in Missolonghi, Greece, but his body was then transported back to England, and the Baron was buried at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire.
Finally, after escaping twice from custody, and participating in the murders of 6 men (at least two of whom he killed himself) for cannibalistic purposes, Alexander Pearce was executed for his crimes. The Cannibal Killer of Van Diemen’s Land was no more.
Carl Maria von Weber was one of the earliest significant composers of what is now called the Romantic movement. His best known works include his operas Der Freischütz, Euryanthe and Oberon, and the Konzertstück (Concert Piece) in F minor (a work for piano).
In addition to his composing, von Weber was also a noted for his orchestration, a music journalist, and an engraver. The last of these he actually taught himself – he wanted to be able to engrave his own compositions.
He was 39 years old when he died of tuberculosis while visiting London. Although his remains were buried there, they were later exhumed and reburied in Dresden at the instigation of Richard Wagner. Von Weber had been director of the Opera since 1817.
Ludwig van Beethoven is one of the most well-known composers ever. His Fifth Symphony’s opening bar is perhaps the most recognisable musical passage in Western culture – “da da da DAH!” (It’s also the Morse code for V, which is the Roman numeral for 5. Sam Morse apparently liked complicated puns.)
Born in Bonn, Germany in the year 1770, he would rise from relatively humble beginnings to become one of the great composers of his (or any other) era. In addition to his nine symphonies, he also wrote a wide variety of sonatas, concertos, string quartets and a single opera. Among his better known compositions are “Fur Elise” and the Triple Concerto.
He died on March 26, 1827 in Vienna, after a lengthy series of illnesses that had left him deaf and bedridden. His funeral was a massive undertaking, and mourners lined the streets of Vienna as his body was taken to the cemetery. He left behind him a vast musical legacy, and remains one of the most played and performed of composers even today.
Nat Turner’s first vision was a striking one: the Spirit appeared to him and told him to take up Christ’s cross and suffer in his place, metaphorically. Turner interpreted this as a call to arms, and began laying plans for a rebellion (which would eventually bear fruit in August of 1831).
For the meantime, Turner continued to work in slavery, building his forces and biding his time, and growing ever stronger in his faith. How much he suffered we can only guess at, but based on the events of the slave rebellion he led, it must have been a great amount.
Franz Peter Schubert was only 31 when he died of what doctors diagnosed as typhoid fever (although others claimed that it was tertiary syphilis). The Austrian was one of the most prolific composers of his era, writing more than 600 songs, 7 symphonies – not including his famous “Unfinished Symphony” (of which he wrote two movements before his death) – 5 operas and 21 sonatas.
His 600 songs were primarily Lieder, and Schubert’s greatest influence is found in this form – understandably, as in doing so many of them he explored nearly every possible variation of them. There is no telling what he might have accomplished had he lived longer – even in his relatively brief span, his style changed and evolved markedly. His epitaph reads “Here music has buried a treasure, but even fairer hopes” – and rarely has anyone had a more accurate epitaph.
Nat Turner was a slave in the fields of Virginia. Unusually well-educated and literate for a slave, Turner’s intelligence was matched only by his religious fervour. In May 1828, he saw a vision in the heavens, confirming his intuition that he was destined for great things. In 1831, he witnessed an eclipse of the Sun, which to him appeared as the hand of an enormous black man reaching for and obscuring the solar disc.
He took this as an omen that the time of rebellion was at hand, and began planning in earnest. In August of that year, Nat Turner led a slave rebellion that would be the largest in American history, and which would contribute to the tensions that erupted into Civil War a generation later.
By William Henry Shelton (1840–1932) – Image was found on Encyclopedia Virginia. The print is in the Bettman Archive. The image has been printed on p. 321 of 1882’s A Popular History of the United States, and p. 154 of 1894’s History of the United States from the Earliest Discovery of America to the Present Day., Public Domain, Link
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Nat Turner — Reef the Lost Cauze
Nat Tuner was a black slave in Virginia who believed he was divinely inspired to lead his people to freedom. The rebellion he led in 1831 is the single largest slave rebellion in the history of the United States of America, with a death toll of at least 160 people (100 of them black, including Turner himself, 60 of them white).
The rebellion was a bloody and vengeful affair on both sides, but in the end, Turner’s slaves – for the most part lacking horses and firearms – had little chance against the white establishment. Many of them were killed in the fighting, and the few surviving ringleaders were tried and hung – by people who believed they were divinely inspired to deny them their freedom.
In August 1831, guided by visions sent from God (or so he claimed), black slave Nat Turner led a rebellion of slaves in Virginia. Turner and his fellow rebels killed between 55 and 65 white men, women and children (accounts vary as the exact number). But the rebellion was put down quickly, and most of the rebels were slain or captured (and then, for the most part, executed).
Nat Turner eluded capture for many weeks after the end of the slave rebellion he had led. It was not until October 30 – more than two months later – that he was captured. He was tried in Jerusalem, Virginia, and defended by white lawyer Thomas Gray. The trial did not take long – on a single day, he was tried, convicted and sentenced to death. Turner was hung on November 11, 1831. Controversy regarding his goals and methods continues to this day.
John Batman was a Tasmanian who organised a syndicate of investors to fund him and some other settlers to build a new village on the banks of the Yarra River. Of course, this land was already occupied by the tribes of the Kulin nation, primarily the Wurundjeri and Boonwurrung, each of which greatly outnumbered the small group of settlers Batman led. Thus, Batman made a deal with the chiefs of the Wurundjeri, purchasing a small stretch of land. In time, the village would become Melbourne (today a metropolis of more than four million people, very few of them members of the Wurundjeri or other Kulin peoples).
However, there are many grounds on which to dispute Batman’s treaty. It is a matter of some dispute whether the tribesmen Batman dealt with understood the deal they were making in the same way Batman did – among the Kulin people, as among most Australian Aboriginal peoples, land was not owned by individuals in the same way it was by Europeans. Legally, even by the standards of colonial empires, Batman was also on shaky ground, as he had no authority from the Crown to make such a deal. And while it does appear that, at least to start with, the colonists made efforts to deal in good faith with the various Kulin peoples, misunderstandings were inevitable between two such disparate peoples, leading to bloodshed on several occasions. Later colonists, who were not party to the original deal, treated the Kulin (and in time, the other native peoples of Victoria) much worse. Batman, like so many of the natives, was dead by then.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s design for the SS Great Western, which he designed (with some assistance from Thomas Guppy and other members of the Great Western Steamship Company) for the company whose name it bore, was a revolutionary design, and a breakthrough in ship construction. Brunel’s key insight was that the carrying capacity of a ship increases as the cube of its dimensions, whilst the water resistance only increases as the square of its dimensions – which meant that a larger ship was disproportionately more effective in speed and fuel economy.
The SS Great Western would become the model for all successful paddle steamships in the Atlantic, and its owners were able to turn a profit from it even though it was the only ship they ran for several years. It was later sold off after the dissolution of the company, passing through various hands and seeing service as a troopship during the Crimean War. It was broken up for salvage in 1856.
The Thames Tunnel, connecting Rotherthithe and Wapping, was the first of its kind – the only tunnel up to that point to have been excavated beneath a navigable river. Construction on it began in 1925, by Marc Isambard Brunel and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The two used a new invention created by the older Brunel and his associate Thomas Cochrane, called a tunneling shield. The shield’s purpose is to prevent mud, water or other liquids from flooding the tunnel.
Even with this shield, the tunnelling took years – by the time it finally opened to the public in 1843, after floods and other delays, many had given up on it. But the tunnel proved to be a wonder of its era. It was intended for horsedrawn carriages, but attracted so much pedestrian traffic that it was used solely by pedestrians until 1869. In that year, it was purchased by a railway company and tracks were laid. Services still run through the tunnel today.
This time around, there’s no better way to tell it than with the actual lyrics. All you need is a little scene setting – it’s the Democratic Party’s National Convention in Baltimore, Maryland, in the year 1844:
In 1844, the Democrats were split.
The three nominees for the presidential candidate
Were Martin Van Buren, a former president and an abolitionist
James Buchanan, a moderate
Louis Cass, a general and expansionist.
From Nashville came a dark horse riding up:
He was James K. Polk, Napoleon of the Stump
Austere, severe, he held few people dear
His oratory filled his foes with fear.
The factions soon agreed:
He’s just the man we need
To bring about victory,
Fulfil our manifest destiny,
And annex the land the Mexicans command.
And when the votes were cast the winner was:
Mister James K. Polk, Napoleon of the Stump
And there you have it 🙂
I don’t intend to make a habit of simply quoting large slabs of lyrics here – it’s lazy, for one thing – but on this occasion, I felt an exception had to be made. There’s no way I could have summarised the same information as lucidly or as elegantly as this.
Of all the great philosophers, none is quite so famous for being, well, a raving loon, as Friedrich Nietzsche.
Born in Rocken, near Leipzig, on October 15, he would become the most famous German philosopher of the 19th century. His best known works include the posthumous “Will To Power”, “Ecce Homo”, “Beyond Good and Evil” and “The Spake Zarathustra”.
Nietzsche was widely seen, in Germany and elsewhere, as a supporter of German militarism – and his work was influential to Hitler and other Nazis (although they were selective in their use and interpretation of him). Later, he was seen as a forerunner of the Existentialists. However, his most lasting contribution to Western culture may be the concept of the Übermensch, or Superman.
It was his first publication under his own name, and still one of his best known. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” was printed in the Evening Mirror, a newspaper in New York City.
It wasn’t instantly recognized as a classic – neither William Butler Yeats nor Ralph Waldo Emerson, fellow poets both – thought much of it. But it had a catchy rhyme scheme – AA,B,CC,CB,B,B – which is complex but not too complex. And there is, of course, that wonderful one word refrain…
And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted — nevermore!
Beginning about a year into the Crimean War (1853-6), the Battle of Balaclava is perhaps the best known engagement of the war. Its outcome was indecisive; it did not end the siege of Sevastopol, but neither were the Allied losses so great as to constitute a major defeat.
But in its very unimportance, it became something else. An inspiration and a beacon of courage and chivalry. For this one bloody day of fighting saw the famous charge of the Light Brigade, immortalised in poetry by Kipling and Tennyson. As such, its effect on British morale helped that nation and its allies hang on until victory was achieved. (Ironically, the legendary charge was an error resulting from a misinterpreted order.)
A British explorer who, along with his fellow explorer Richard Burton, was among those to search for the source of the Nile, John Hanning Speke was the lucky one who actually found it. In 1856, he and Burton had journeyed to East Africa and worked their way inland looking for evidence of the Nile. They were the first Europeans to sight Lake Tanganyika, but that Burton fell ill.
Pressing on without him, Speke was the first European to find Lake Victoria, and named it in honour of his Queen. He returned to England before Burton, and became famous on the strength of this discovery, but history remembers Burton better (as he was a better writer, a more daring explorer, and a more shameless self-publicist). Speke is remembered in Uganda, one of the countries that the lake’s shores touch, with a mountain named after him.
One of the most controversial books in the world, On the Origin of Species (often called Origin of the Species is one of the foundational texts of modern science. Not only is almost the entirety of modern biology built on its foundation, but it remains an excellent (if imperfect) example of the scientific method.
Charles Darwin had spent many years developing this theory, beginning with initial observations in 1835 during his voyage on the Beagle, and working on it in earnest for more than 15 years prior to publication. Darwin was entirely unprepared for the controversy he kicked off, although one suspects that he’d merely be saddened and confused by the low esteem in which a majority of Americans currently hold his theory.
Born in 1791 in Germany, Giacomo Meyerbeer was one of the foremost exponents of the musical and theatrical form known as ‘The Grand Opera’. In his day he was one of the most famed composers in all of Europe, but his reputation has suffered since his death – largely due to the attacks on his character and works by his former student Richard Wagner.
The motivation for these attacks is complex – Wagner was clearly jealous of his teacher’s success and the wealth that it brought him, but also despised Meyerbeer due to the older man’s Jewishness. Among other wild accusations, Wagner accused Meterbeer of bribing critics to ensure favourable reviews.
The Clifton Suspension Bridge was built more than a century after it had first been proposed, from a design by Isambard Kingdom Brunel that was completed by William Henry Barlow and John Hawkshaw after Brunel’s death in 1859. The bridge is particularly notable in that, unusually for a suspension bridge, the towers at each end are not symmetrical with each other.
The bridge operated as a toll bridge upon its opening and it remains one today, still in operation more than 150 years after its construction. It was also the site of the first modern bungee jump, in 1979
Composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky when he was only 24, “Characteristic Dances” was the first of his pieces to be publicly performed. Tchaikovsky himself was not present for the performance, which was conducted by Johann Strauss (itself an honour to a neophyte composer). However, he was pleased with both the fact of the performance and its reception.
Amazingly, “Characteristic Dances” has never been published, and exists today only in a modified form, as Tchaikovsky reworked it as “Dances of the Chambermaids” in his 1867 opera, “The Voyevoda”, and this is the form that they were recorded and popularised in. However, despite its obscurity, the public performance of his works was a turning point in the career of Tchaikovsky, and marked the first step to his becoming one of the best known of all Russian composers.
Michael Davitt was born in County Mayo, Ireland, in the year 1846, during the worst of the Great Famine (known outside of Ireland as Irish Potato Famine). He grew up passionately devoted to the cause of Irish freedom, which led him to join the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
It was as a member of the latter that he was arrested while waiting to collect an arms shipment in Paddington Station, London. He was charged with treason and convicted to 14 years imprisonment with hard labour. Davitt, not unreasonably, claimed that he had never received a fair trial or an adequate defence. In prison, he kept busy writing his political allies, and these letters became a part of their ammunition in demanding an end to the unjust imprisonment and cruel treatement of Irish political prisoners in the United Kingdom. He was released on December 19, 1877, after serving seven and a half years of his sentence, and given a hero’s welcome in his return to Ireland.
The Great Chicago Fire was not, despite early reports, started by Catherine O’Leary’s cow kicking over a lantern – the reporter who claimed that later admitted that he’d decided to sexy up the story a little. In fact, despite the fact that the fire started in the O’Leary’s barn (and failed to destroy either their house or the nearby Catholic church at which they worshipped), the O’Learys appear to have been scapegoats. The true culprit was likely a thief who set fire to the barn – the same man who first reported the fire, one Daniel “Pegleg” Sullivan.
The fire lasted for two days, and burned hot enough that it was impossible to enter parts of the area it affected for some days, even after it was extinguished. 125 bodies were recovered, but it is believed that they may have been less than half of the total deaths. The fire destroyed an area more than 2,000 acres in size, including about a third of the city’s buildings. Over $200 million of damage was done, and that’s in 1871 dollars. Approximately a third of Chicago’s citizens were rendered homeless by the blaze.
Chicago was rebuilt by architects such as Daniel Burnham, and within two decades, the city was bigger and better than ever before. Today, the former site of the O’Leary farm now houses the Chicago Fire Academy.
General George Armstrong Custer went into battle at Little Big Horn under a number of false impressions.
He was under the impression that he would be facing no more than 800 Native Americans, rather than more than twice that number – Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse had recruited assiduously, knowing that a battle was coming. He was under the impression that his major challenge would be preventing the escape of the enemy forces, rather than defeating them. And finally, he was under the impression, based on these assumptions, that the force under the command of his subordinate Major Reno would be far more effective in battle than it proved.
But with Reno’s forces isolated and routed, Custer’s forces were outnumbered and surrendered. More than 200 men in Custer’s army, including Custer himself, were killed.
A great war leader of the Ogala Lakota people, Crazy Horse fought the US Cavalry for more than a decade, in many successful battles in the 1860s and 1870s, most notably at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876. Crazy Hprse was acclaimed a great and brave warrior among his own people and other Indian tribes who fought against or alongside him.
But the battles, successful though they were, took a heavy toll. The Indians had greater knowledge of the territory in most of them, and were often tactically superior to their foes – but the white man had apparently endless numbers and superior technology (especially in terms of killing from range). Crazy Horse surrendered on May 5, 1877 at the Red Cloud Agency, located near Fort Robinson, Nebraska. He lived near there until his death exactly four months later.
Michael Davitt was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), a revolutionary movement that espoused armed uprising as the only way to rid Ireland of British rule. He mostly participated in arms smuggling operations, and it was on one of these that he was arrested in 1870.
He was sentenced to 15 years hard labour in Dartmoor Prison, where he was subjected to casual brutality and solitary confinement. The letters he sent, describing his treatment, were read aloud in the British House of Commons by sympathetic politicians, and a public outcry against the treatment of Davitt and other Irish prisoners led to his early release. He received a hero’s welcome on his return to Ireland, and returned at once to the struggle, albeit now concentrating on non-violent political actions.
A series of border disputes between British settlers and the Zulu people escalated to the point where, in late 1878, the British sent an ultimatum to Cetshwayo, the ruler of the Zulu nation, requiring among other things that he disband his army, pay reparations and once more allow Christian missionaries into his lands. Cetshwayo ignored the ultimatum, which expired on January 10, 1879. The following day, a British and allied forced under Lieutenant General Frederick Thesiger, the 2nd Baron Chelmsford, invaded Zulu territory.
The Zulus had a massive numeric advantage over the British (over two to one), and were also fighting on their own land. The British, on the other hand, were better armed, with rifles and cannons as compared to the Zulu’s assegai (short spears). The Zulu nearly succeeded in overwhelming the British at Rorke’s Drift, but were turned back with enormous casualties on both sides. Another Zulu attack, at Islandwana, was more successful, and turned back the British. However, less than six months after the war’s commencement, the British had triumphed, and the Zulu nation’s power was broken forever.
Michael Davitt and Charles Parnell were the two leadng lights of the Land League of Mayo. Formed in response to the Land Act of 1870, which was actually intended to make life for Irish farmers less harsh. Unfortunately, most of the good it might have donw was wiped away by years of economic depression that followed it – and even had that not been the case, it fell far short of what the Irish wanted. The demands of the Land League were the three F’s: Fair rent, Fixity of tenure and Free sale. It was one of the major resistance movements against British Rule in Ireland, intended as a way to fight for Irish Independence within the system, and to relieve some of the burdens of occupation.
Inevitably, resistance crystallised around it to become something less legal and more overt: the period of prolonged civil unrest and low level rebellion generally known as the Land War, and the Land League of Mayo was suppressed as a revolutionary organisation in 1881, and many of its leaders thrown into prison.
By the time Ned Kelly was finally brought down by the police, not long after dawn on the 28th of June, the bushranger had to know it was all over for him. The other three members of his gang lay dead inside the hotel at Glenrowan where they had holed up, and he himself was bleeding from several injuries and running low on ammunition. He was cut off from any possible support or escape – but there’s a reason why we Australians have the expression ‘as game as Ned Kelly’.
Kelly made the police fight to the very last – whether he was trying to get himself killed or simply incapable of giving up we will never know, but what is certain is that Kelly surrendered only when physically overpowered. Police accounts say that he was surprisingly good-humoured after his capture, and that jokes were exchanged between men who had, an hour earlier, been trying to kill each other in a foggy Glenrowan morning. Such is life, I suppose.
Despite his long list of charges, Ned Kelly was convicted of only one capital crime: the murder of Constable Lonigan at Stringybark Creek, two years and two days earlier. However, a single conviction for murder still carried the death penalty, and Judge Redmond Barry wasted no time in pronouncing it, ending with the traditional “…and may God have mercy upon your soul.”
Kelly would have none of that, and his response was chilling: “I will go a little further than that, and say I will see you there when I go.” Kelly was hung on November 11, 1880. Redmond Barry died of a sudden illness on November 23, 1880. It is not known whether the two saw each other afterwards as Kelly had promised.
Ned Kelly was the most famous of the Australian bushrangers, and perhaps the greatest. He was smart, articulate and a skilled criminal. It was only his weariness at life on the run that had trapped him at Glenrowan. But once he was trapped – and the other three members of his gang killed – Kelly surrendered to the police with every evidence of good humour, for all that everyone knew that the court’s verdict was a foregone conclusion.
On the day of his execution, he reportedly muttered the immortal last words “Such is life”, which became one of the greatest maxims of Australian stoicism. A pity then that the exit line was invented by a journalist – the hangman and others close enough to actually hear Kelly swore he never said those words. Most historians have printed the legend.
By Australian News and Information Bureau, Canberra – National Archives of Austrailia, Public Domain, Link
As mentioned in:
Gough — The Whitlams
Known to history as “Whistler’s Mother”, after the painting she was the subject of, Anna Matilda (née McNeill) Whistler was 76 when she died. It had been nearly ten years since she sat for her son James, becoming the subject of his eponymous and best-known painting – which was actually titled “Arrangement in Grey & Black No.1” by her son.
Ironically, for such a quintessentially American painting, it was painted while she and her son were both living in England. Anna Whistler later died, still in England, and was buried in Hastings Cemetery.
Billy the Kid – better known to history as William H. Bonney, although his real name was actually Henry McCarty – was actually something of a non-entity in his lifetime. Although he claimed to have killed 21 people, one for each year he was alive, it’s likely he killed less than half that number.
He was betrayed and killed by Pat Garrett under circumstances which are still a matter of debate. In fact, Billy wasn’t even famous until a year after his death, when his killer Pat Garrett published a sensationalistic biography titled The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid. This was what made Billy famous. He became a legend of the Old West, later fighting Dracula and traveling through time.
Okay, so he didn’t really travel through time or fight Dracula. The movies where he did are not that much more historically inaccurate that Pat Garrett’s book (which was, admittedly, ghostwritten).
One of the greatest of the German composers, Wilhelm Richard Wagner is best known for his Ring Cycle, or Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) in full. His earlier Tristan and Isolde is seen by some as marking the start of modern music (by which, of course, they do not mean pop music).
Wagner was 69 when he died, and he left behind a towering legacy. He influenced almost all later composers, although in some cases (such as Debussy and Tchaikovsky) this influence was seen in their efforts to avoid his shadow. A friend of Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher’s first major work was a glorification of Wagner’s compositions (although the prickly Nietzsche later found fault with his one time idol). Finally, Wagner’s popularity also popularised his views – which included large elements of racism and anti-semitism – views which would continue to dominate German culture until at least 1945, when his greatest German fan committed suicide.
Perhaps best known for his architectural legacy, “Mad” King Ludwig was born on August 25, 1845, and became the King of Bavaria on March 10, 1864. In the twenty-plus years of his reign, he was responsible for the creation of numerous buildings, many of which have since become popular tourist attractions, and almost all of which display, to say the least, an unusual aesthetic. Notable examples include the Winter Garden of the Residenz Palace in Munich (now dismantled); Neuschwanstein Castle (completed only after his death, and the inspiration for the Disneyland castles); parts of Linderhof Castle and Herrenchiemsee Castle. Ludwig was also unusual among monarchs in that he paid for the majority of his constructions out of his own pocket, rather than the realm’s.
In 1886, Ludwig’s uncle, Luitpold, deposed him amidst allegations of insanity – Ludwig’s castles being exhibit A. The following day, the king died in mysterious circumstances – he was found floating in shallow water in Lake Starnberg, but he had not drowned. Ludwig was known to be a strong swimmer, and in any case, an autopsy found no water in his lungs, nor other visible injuries. The likelihood is that he was either poisoned, or fell victim to a stroke or heart attack.
Ludwig is remembered fondly in Bavaria to this day, especially by those who work in the tourism sector.
Born Israel Isidore Baline, the composer better known as Irving Berlin was 101 years old when he died. His family came to America in 1893, fleeing the anti-Jewish pogroms of Russia. They settled on the Lower East Side of New York City, where the family got involved in music and Irving’s talents as a musician first came to light.
Over the course of his life, he wrote more than 1800 songs, which included the scores for 19 Broadway shows and 18 Hollywood films, including songs such as “White Christmas” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and such classic musicals as “Annie Get Your Gun”. His music was nominated for Academy Awards on eight separate occasions, but he never won one.
It doesn’t seem to have bothered him much, although he did retire from songwriting in the Sixties and spent the rest of his life in relative obscurity in his beloved New York City.
Joseph Merrick (often incorrectly called John) was one of the most notoriously deformed human beings ever to live. Among other unusual features, he had thick, lumpy skin with enlarged lips, and a bony lump growing from his forehead. One of his arms and both of his feet became enlarged, and at some point during his childhood he fell and damaged his hip, resulting in Merrick becoming perpetually lame.
He made a living (of sorts) as a circus freak for many years (about the only work he could get – Merrick had no illusions about how others regarded his appearance, although those able to look beyond that generally reported him to be friendly and well-mannered, if understandably shy), until a Dr Frederick Treves arranged for him to reside in a hospital in London. It was here that Merrick spent the last six years of his life, being examined by the finest medical minds that the Victorian Era had to offer, and remaining (even to this day) enigmatically undiagnosable. Merrick was only 27 when he died, apparently from injuries caused in his sleep by his enlarged head bones. Most of what is known about him today comes from the writings of Treves, which were unfortunately rather subjective.
I (User:Belovedfreak) have emailed the Royal London Hospital Archives to request information regarding the author. The Trust Archivist for Barts and The London NHS Trust has confirmed that they do not know the name of the photographer, and no such name is included on the carte de visite. – Photograph downloaded from Sideshow Wiki (direct image link)
The image hosted at the Sideshow Wiki is a copy of an original carte de visite of Joseph Merrick that is owned by Royal London Hospital Archives.
Royal London Hospital ref: RLHLH/P/3/24/2.
The carte de visite in the Royal London Hospital Archives had been in the possession of the Rev. H. Tristram Valentine, who was Chaplain at the London Hospital from 1885–1889., Public Domain, Link
As mentioned in:
If I Had A Million Dollars — Bare Naked Ladies
Colonel James Forsyth of the US Cavalry led a force of approximately 500 soldiers into the Lakota camp at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation on the morning of December 29, 1890. Their intent was to disarm the Lakota tribespeople there, as there was great concern among the European-descended American population that the Native American ‘Ghost Dance’ portended a revolutionary uprising.
Nothing could have been further from the truth, but after literally centuries of slaughtering, deceiving and cheating the native tribes, the American people and their government found it hard to believe that the Indian’s response could be anything other than violence. Tragically, due to the intransigence and fearfulness of Forsyth’s troop, as soon as a single shot was fired (apparently by accident), it became the signal to open fire without restraint or mercy.
Ninety men of the Lakota, and two hundred of their women and children were slaughtered in the ensuing violence, more than half the residents of the camp. Despite claims that the killings happened due to the chaos of battle (which does no doubt account for a good number of them), the fact that some women and children were pursued as far as two miles to be murdered by cavalrymen undermines the idea that this was just a misunderstanding. Twenty of the 500 cavalrymen were awarded the Medal of Honor for their deeds at Wounded Knee (compare this to a total of three Medals of Honor awarded among 64,000 South Dakotans who fought in World War Two).
The massacre is generally seen to mark the end of the American Indian Wars (although there were a few smaller incidents in the following weeks). Henceforth, the genocide of the Native Americans would be pursued by slower and subtler means.
They say she done all of ’em in.
They say she done it with an axe.
They are, in this case, probably right. Certainly someone murdered Andrew and Abby Borden with an axe, in their own home, when Lizzie was the only other person who could have been in the house at the time. But was she?
At her trial, she was acquitted, largely due to lack of evidence (although her father’s unpopularity in the community may also have been a factor). And there were other reasonably credible suspects (such as the family maid). At this late date, we’ll probably never know.
Daniel Hale Williams was one of the first Afro-American men to achieve prominence as a surgeon. He served as the surgeon-in-chief of Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. from 1896 to 1898, and also established a teaching college for nurses at the hospital. Other notable achievements include being a charter member of the American College of Surgeons (and the first ever black member) and founding the first non-segregated hospital in America.
But he is best known for performing one of the earliest successful heart surgeries, a pericardium repair on a stabbing victim named James Cornish. Cornish convalesced for 55 days after the operation, but made a full recovery. Cardiac surgery would develop little for another 50 years, until World War Two prompted surgeons to investigate it more closely, and the pioneering work of Williams and others was belatedly recognized.
By Unknown – Source now defunct; images fetched from the Wayback Machine. Description page at . Image at ., Public Domain, Link
As mentioned in:
Black Man — Stevie Wonder
Born Samuel Horwitz, Shemp Howard and his brother, Moe Howard, were two of the original Three Stooges, one of the most successful acts of the vaudeville era, and also one of the few to make the jump to cinema. Shemp would come and go from the Stooges over the years, being replaced by his and Moe’s brother Curly in the lineup. In between times, Shemp was a fairly successful stand up comedian.
His stage name was derived from how his nickname, Sam, sounded when pronounced by his mother, who had a thick Litvak accent. Shemp was famous for his ability to improvise, and his quick wits belied the foolish image of the Stooges. In his solo years, he also performed in a few dramatic roles, showing a range that few would have suspected.
Oscar Wilde was one of the greatest English writers. He was persecuted for his homosexuality, and indeed, it was a conviction for being one who enjoyed “the love that dare not speak it’s name” that led to his arrival in Reading Gaol.
Wilde had been convicted on May 25 after a trial lasting almost exactly a month. He was first sent to Pentonville, then to Wandsworth, and finally transferred to Reading Gaol. His famous work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol was written about his experiences in prison after his release four years later.
Reputed to be one of the deadliest men in the whole of the West, John Wesley Hardin claimed to have killed 42 men between 1868 and 1878, when he was sent to prison for his crimes.
He was pardoned in 1894, but killed by the father of an off-duty policeman in El Paso, Texas. The policeman had argued with Hardin earlier regarding a friend of Hardin’s, and then the policeman’s father also argued with Hardin on the night of August 19, 1895. Apparently a firm believer in Hardin’s fearsome reputation, this man, John Selman, Sr, shot Hardin in the back of the head, killing him.
Selman himself was killed a year later after a dispute over a card game led to an exchange of gun fire.
Lee Shelton (sometimes spelled Sheldon) killed William Lyons in a bar run by one Bill Curtis in St Louis, on Christmas Eve, 1895.
Shelton was a cab driver who moonlighted as a pimp – he was in fact a member of a group of fashion-conscious pimps called the Macks. Perhaps this explains his murder of Lyons, who, in the course of a lengthy argument with Shelton, grabbed the other man’s hat and refused to return it even when Shelton drew on him. So Shelton shot him.
He was convicted of the murder, and spent the rest of his life in prison, where he died of tuberculosis in 1912. He almost certainly heard at least one version of the multitude of variants that exist of the song about his crime.
The above selection includes just a few of my favoourite versions – there are literally hundreds out there.
Although there has been considerable controversy over the years regarding who actually invented radio – controversy not helped by Marconi himself being at times over-willing to claim credit for the work of others – it is now generally agreed that it was Marconi himself who first invented radio. (The disputes mostly revolve around who invented various later refinements of Marconi’s original patent.)
That patent – British Patent 12039 “Improvements in Transmitting Electrical impulses and Signals, and in Apparatus therefor” – was applied for on June 2 of 1896, with the complete specification being provided on March 2 of the following year, and the patent as a whole being accepted on July 2, 1897.
Unfortunately for Marconi, Tesla had been granted similar patents in America, and the two men would spend decades locked acrimonious dispute over the matter. In fact, in America it would only be resolved by a court decision after both men had died – the court found in favour of Tesla. But perhaps Marconi won anyway – it’s his name, not Tesla’s, which is used as a synonym for ‘radio’ even today.
A composer of the Romantic school, Johannes Brahms in his 64 years associated with many of the other greats of his era, such as Liszt and Schumann. His works include a dozen sonatas, four symphonies, four concertos, a number of waltzes and a great number of variations, a form which he is particularly known for.
Brahms developed cancer of either the liver or the pancreas which eventually killed him. He is buried in the Zentralfriedhof of Vienna, where he lived in his last years.