December 24, 1801 — The “Puffing Devil” is first demonstrated

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.

December 24, 1895 – “Stagger” Lee Shelton kills William Lyons

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.

December 24, 1974 — Cyclone Tracy hits Darwin

It’s sometimes referred to as ‘The Night That Santa Never Came‘. What came instead were howlling winds of more than 200km an hour, tearing Darwin to pieces and having a similar effect on nearby towns in the Northern Territory.

In the end, the death toll would reach 71, of whom 22 were caught at sea by the storm. It destroyed 80% of all buildings in Darwin and left tens of thousands of people homeless, most of whom were evacuated to other cities.

Cyclone Tracy remains the greatest natural disaster in Australian history. Darwin today bears little resemblance to pre-Tracy Darwin, and although its population has long since surpassed the 49,000 residents at the time of the cyclone, the majority of them are new immigrants to the city or born since 1974.

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