1468: Death of Johannes Gutenberg (b.1398), who invented re-usable, movable type for printing presses, launching an information revolution. In 1455 he published his first major project, the Holy Bible, of which about 180 were produced. The last modern sale of a complete Gutenberg Bible was for $2,200,000 in 1978. Many of the other surviving copies have been broken apart for sale of individual leaves or sections; an estimated 21 remain intact as complete.
1478: Birth of the counselor to Henry VIII, Sir Thomas More (d.1535), who called himself “The King’s good servant, but God’s first.”
1488: Portuguese explorer Bartholomew Diaz lands at Mossel Bay in what is now South Africa, becoming the first European to round the Cape of Good Hope and sail into the Indian Ocean.
1497: In Florence, Italy, the Dominican Friar Girolamo Savonarola instigates from the pulpit a quest for purity from “moral laxity,” calling for systematic destruction of any items that might lead to sin: i.e., mirrors, cosmetics, statuary, fine arts, books, and the like. He ordered the items piled in the central square, and on this day burned them to ashes, in what he called The Bonfire of the Vanities. Yes, the original and actual one, not the metaphor. The event represented the apex of Savonarola’s spiritual and political influence over Florence, whose leading family (the Medici) had been regular targets of his righteous indignation, despite their earlier patronage of his ministry. By May, his exhortations became too much for Pope Alexander VI, who finally excommunicated him. A year later, after torture and confessions, Savonarola himself and two associates were executed, and their bodies burned in the very spot of the Bonfire of the Vanities. To avoid their remains becoming the relics of martyrs for his faithful followers, the corpses were re-burned twice, their bones crushed and thoroughly mixed in with the ashes of brushwood, and then thrown into the River Arno to eliminate the need for a grave site. Savonarola’s apocalyptic preaching remains the archetype for near-cultic demagoguery.
1587: Death of Mary, Queen of Scots (b.1542). executed on allegations of treason against Elizabeth I. She was, in fact, deeply entwined in several conspiracies seeking to depose Elizabeth and re-impose Catholic rule to Great Britain. She had family connections to the French throne, who threatened military action but sent none. The more aggressive Spanish throne was deep in planning to perform multiple assassinations, including a regicide, to un-do Henry VIII’s work of creating a nominally Protestant kingdom. Elizabeth’s counselor*, Francis Walsingham, penetrated the Spanish plans and captured documents signed by Mary that directly implicated her in the plot. Her fate was thus sealed. At her execution, the axe man picked up her head to present it to the crowd, but it fell back to the platform, with the executioner left holding only her red hair, which was a wig that disguised her short, grey locks.
1693: In the colony of Virginia, the College of William and Mary is granted a Royal Charter from King William III and Queen Mary II.
1756: Birth of Aaron Burr (d.1836), one of the key second-level leaders of the American Revolution: soldier, New York politician, and Thomas Jefferson’s Vice President. Best remembered today for the duel he fought with former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, who died of his wounds.
1793: Death of New England farmer Samuel Whittemore (b.1696), who, at age 78 was the eldest of the original cadre of Massachusetts militia who fought the British Regulars on their retrograde from the battles of Lexington and Concord on 19th April, 1775. Shot, bayonetted, beaten, and left for dead, he recovered from his wounds and lived to the age of 96.
1794: Creating the rare exception that perhaps proved the French Revolution was not a complete human disaster, on this day the National Assembly abolishes slavery throughout the territories of the French Republic.
1839: Birth of German aviation pioneer Hugo Junkers (d.1935). He pioneered the design of all-metal airplanes and flying wings. His company, Junkers Flugzeug- und Motorenwerke AG, was one of the mainstays of the German aircraft industry in the years between World War I and World War II.
1869: In Victoria, Australia, discovery of the largest single piece of natural gold in history, the “Welcome Stranger” alluvial nugget. The piece weighed in at 2,283 ounces (142.7 pounds), and measured roughly 24 x 12 inches. It was discovered by Cornish miners Richard Oates and John Deason, who eventually were paid just under 9,500 pounds sterling for their efforts.
1885: Belgian King Leopold II establishes Congo Free State as his personal possession, managed by the International African Association, of which he was the sole director and shareholder. The association thence began a systematic exploitation of the Congo River basin’s natural resources, which in short order made Leopold a very, very rich man. It also made him responsible for the systematic exploitation and abuse of Congo’s human resources, creating a system of forced labor that pitted white against black in an increasingly destructive spiral of abuse and brutality unequaled in the colonial world. An illustrative example is the contemporary collage (below) of African workers who failed to meet their rubber harvesting quotas being punished by the loss of their hands.
Editor’s Note: The exploitation of the Congo became the basis for Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, which in turn was used by the Congo Reform Association to expose the abuses perpetrated by Leopold’s company. Authors Arthur Conan Doyle and Mark Twain added their pens to the international movement to end the horror. Leopold himself claimed innocence of intent. By 1908, pressure from the reform movement essentially forced the Belgian government to annex Congo Free State as the Belgian Congo, thus making it (and its overseers) subject to the laws of Belgium rather than the king’s commercial interests.
1895: Birth of George Herman Ruth, Jr. (d.1948), the great slugger for the New York Yankees, not the Boston Red Stockings.
1899: Only months after our prying the islands from Spanish colonial rule, Philippine nationalists rebel against nascent American rule, opening the Philippine Insurrection. The war officially lasts through July, 1902, but at that point the rebellion simply moved underground, becoming a terrorist movement that simmered and flared for two more years. In April, 1904, the Moro Rebellion broke into open warfare against American occupation forces, becoming a bitter jungle war lasting through June, 1913.
1899: The U.S. Senate ratifies the Treaty of Paris, formally ending the “Splendid Little War” between Spain and the United States.
1902: Birth of Charles Lindbergh (d.1974).
1904: First shots of the Russo-Japanese War, a torpedo attack by Japanese warships against the Russian fleet anchored at Port Arthur, Manchuria. The 18-month conflict centered on Russian desires for a warm-water seaport for their Pacific fleet, and the Japanese Empire’s equal determination to prevent such a force from establishing a presence so near the Japanese homeland.
1906: Birth of American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh (d.1997), whose patience in the search for “Planet X” came to fruition on the 18thof February, 1930.
1906: Birth of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (d.1945), whose incisive observations on the nature of the Christian in civil society are cited to this day. One of his core theses was the fight against what he called “cheap grace,” a philosophy that fails to comprehend the extraordinary price paid for God’s real gift of grace. He was an outspoken leader of the German church resistance to the Nazi movement. Bonhoeffer was arrested in April of 1943 as part of bureaucratic infighting between the Abwher (of which he was an agent, and active participant in plots against Hitler) and the SS. After multiple prison transfers, he stood before a kangaroo court, was found guilty, and was executed by hanging only three weeks before the end of the war.
1912: Birth of Eva Braun (d.1945), mistress of Adolf Hitler and for 40 hours in the Fuhrerbunker under Berlin, his wife.
1913: Final ratification of the 16th Amendment to the Constitution, the full text of which reads: “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.” You’ll note there is no “temporary” in the text, contrary to the gripes of the many, many in the country who find this a most obnoxious levy.
1913: Birth of civil rights activist Rosa Parks (d.2005), whose refusal, in December of 1955, to sit in the back of the bus finally sparked the kind of widespread outrage that led to the burgeoning and ultimately successful civil rights movement.
1917: The United States breaks diplomatic relations with Imperial Germany, the day after the Germans announce resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in the waters surrounding Great Britain.
1919: Sensing a tremendous business opportunity, silent movie stars Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin join with director D.W. Griffith to create United Artists, the first comprehensive movie production studio. The studio has gone through a number of ownership and management re-shuffling over the years, and is currently headed by Tom Cruise.
1924: Death of President Woodrow Wilson (b.1856), incapacitated since collapsing of exhaustion in September of 1919. He further suffered a debilitating stroke on October 2nd that year, leaving him paralyzed on the left side and blind in the left eye. From that point, he was essentially sequestered from seeing anyone except his wife and doctor. The isolation most particularly affected the Vice President and Cabinet officers, who carried on their duties with Presidential relations carefully stage-managed by his wife.
1937: Death of Elihu Root (b.1845), who served as Secretary of War under Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt, Secretary of State for President Roosevelt, and Senator from New York, in between practicing law and serving as member of various commissions and delegations.
1952: Death of Britain’s King George VI (b.1895). Although his declining health from lung cancer was well known, his sudden death at age 57 came as a shock to the nation. His daughter Elizabeth, now suddenly Queen Regent, was out of the country at the time.
1958: After a mid-air collision with its F-86 escort during a night navigation mission, a damaged USAF B-47 jettisons its 7,600 pound Mk-15 hydrogen bomb into the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of Tybee Island, Georgia. The crew safely recovered their aircraft at Hunter AAF, but the bomb itself has never been found, despite several exhaustive search efforts. Today it lurks in conspiratorial folklore as The Tybee Bomb.
1959: Deaths of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and Big Bopper Richardson in a plane crash in Iowa. “The Day the Music Died” as the song goes.
1962: In an attempt to apply economic sanctions against a too-close-for-comfort hostile communist regime, the United States institutes an embargo of imports and exports from Cuba. Its goal, if not to force Fidel Castro from power, was to at least force him to moderate his anti-American rhetoric and activities. The embargo remained in effect through 10 U.S. presidencies.
1971: Apollo 14 astronauts Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell land their lunar module Antares on the Moon’s Fra Mauro highlands, originally selected for the near-disaster of Apollo 13. Command Module pilot Stuart Roosa remained in lunar orbit aboard Kitty Hawk.
1993: Death of American tennis star and Richmond, Virginia native Arthur Ashe (b.1943), winner of not only three Grand Slam titles, but also individual titles at Wimbledon, the US, French and Australian Open tournaments. After retiring from tennis, he became an outspoken advocate for ongoing civil rights issues both in the United States and internationally, particularly during South Africa’s long return from apartheid. He died from complications created during his second open heart surgery, when he was transfused with blood tainted with the AIDS virus. During his decline, his graciousness and lack of public bitterness over his fate was an inspiration to millions.
2008: Death of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (b.1917), an actual guru, whose Transcendental Meditation techniques gained international fame when the Beatles began to meet with him.