814 A.D.: Death of Charlemagne, King of the Franks and first to hold the title of Holy Roman Emperor. His conquest and rule over a continuous empire covering most of central and western Europe created, for the first time in the post-Roman era, the political conditions for what we now know as “Europe,” an entity, rather than the plethora of tribes and anarchy that followed the collapse of Roman rule.
1225: Birth of Thomas Aquinas (d.1274), who began his career as an Italian monk, but whose force of intellect and spiritual insights catapulted him to professorship at the University of Paris, where he was prolific in his writings and instruction of the burgeoning cadre of church intellectuals. One of his key philosophical insights was the idea of the validity of truth being known through observation, a process he referred to as “natural revelation,” which helped lay the foundation for the growth and strength of the scientific revolution in Europe. His life and works remain the gold standard for intellectual Christianity. He was canonized in 1323, and is today held as a model teacher for aspiring Catholic priests, and anyone who thinks seriously about the relationship of science and faith.
1606: Death of the Gunpowder Plot ringleader, Guy Fawkes (b.1570), the last of the conspirators to be executed. As he mounted the platform he apologized for his part in the plot, and in a final act of defiance, leaped from the scaffold as soon as the noose was around his neck, so he would already be dead before his body was drawn and quartered.
1547: Death of the mercurial King Henry VIII (b.1491), leaving in his wake the 6 year old Edward VI as king. If you are anything like me, you probably thought that his daughter Elizabeth went right to the throne, but no, it was her half-brother, born of Anne Boleyn’s successor, Jane Seymour, who died only a few days after giving birth to Henry’s only male heir. In fact, not only was Edward in the way, so was her half-sister Mary.
1646: After a tumultuous reign that saw two vicious civil wars fought between his royalist army and armies of an increasingly assertive Parliament, King Charles I is beheaded for high treason. General Oliver Cromwell assumes the role of Lord Protector of the Realm. The conflicts were the logical end of a representative Parliament finally facing down a king who believed his decisions and demands were legitimized under the concept of Divine Right. Both sides backed down enough for a restoration into the beginnings of the constitutional monarchy we know today.
1661: As part of the settlement leading to the restoration of the British monarchy, the two-years dead remains of Oliver Cromwell are exhumed and ritually executed for regicide, 12 years to the day from Charles I’s beheading at Cromwell’s instigation. After the ceremony, the mutilated corpse was tossed into a common pit grave, and his head was displayed on a pike outside Westminster until 1685. It changed hands several times and was finally buried in 1960.
1812: Russian trappers and traders settlers establish Fort Ross on the coast of Northern California, about an hour up the coast from my hometown in Marin County. The site is on a windswept bluff above a small cove, and over the years some very accurate reproductions of the palisades and buildings have been built. Interesting to consider how far south, and how recently, the Russians operated down our western shoreline.
1813: First publication of Jane Austin’s magnum opus, Pride and Prejudice. Who’s your favorite character? Face it, guys, you’d like to be Darcy. Really.
1833: Birth of Charles “Chinese” Gordon (d.1885), one of the great British generals from the heyday of Victorian colonial expansion. He had a long and colorful career, which is reflected in his nickname, to say nothing of all the schools and roads named in his honor. And remember all the Islamist quacking about “the Mahdi” coming back after our invasion of Iraq? Gordon fought the guy himself in Sudan, and was killed by an onslaught of Mahdi forces on the steps of the palace in Khartoum.
1853: Birth of Jose Marti (d.1895). Remember Radio Marti, the Miami station that broadcast actual news and information a la Voice of America during the Reagan Administration? It was named after this Cuban nationalist who was unrelenting in working to extract Cuba from Spain’s sclerotic colonial rule.
1862: Launch of USS Monitor at the Brooklyn Navy yard in New York. We’ll be seeing more about her operational history in March, but a little-remarked side note in her history was the alacrity with which she was built: 120 days from the contract signature to launch. Granted, designer John Ericsson had the plans already in hand but it is still an amazing feat of the organization to produce such a technically advanced machine in such short order.
1865: With the Union noose ever-tightening its grip on Richmond, the Confederate government names Robert E. Lee as General-in-Chief of the southern armies.
1865: After passage in the House of Representatives, President Abraham Lincoln signs a bill for the 13th Amendment, ending involuntary servitude in the United States, and sends it to Several States for ratification. Illinois ratified it the same day, and 10 others followed suit in the first week. Ratification came into force in December, 1865. To date, 36 states have formally ratified the amendment, the latest being Mississippi in March of 1995 (although the state failed to notify the Director of the Federal Register until February of 2013. True: you can’t make this stuff up).
1887: Punxsutawney Phil sees or doesn’t see his shadow for the first time. At least, not in front of crowds of adoring Pennsylvanians. Happy Groundhog Day.
1890: Birth of Robert Stroud (d.1963), convicted of the manslaughter of a love rival, and later the murder of a prison guard, before becoming The Birdman of Alcatraz. Twice sentenced to death, he spent his entire bird-raising career at Leavenworth Prison, in Kansas, not The Rock.
1901: Birth of actor Clark Gable (d.1960).
1905: Birth of Ayn Rand (d.1982), philosopher, author, and patron saint of the libertarian movement. Her magnum opus, “Atlas Shrugged,” tells of a world where the most productive minds in the country refuse to be crushed by society, or the increasing encroachment of the government in their lives.
1912: Birth of American “artist” Jackson Pollock (d.1956).
1930: Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Corporation, a.k.a. 3M, begins marketing a self-sticking cellophane tape.
1948: Death of aviation pioneer, Orville Wright (b.1871).
1953: A combination of new moon spring tides and a severe winter storm push the waters of the North Sea 18 feet above normal overnight, overwhelming the dykes and flood canals of the Netherlands and southeastern England, flooding the sleeping towns and farms of Zeeland in particular, and creating general havoc well down the coast into France. Over 1,800 Dutch citizens lost their lives that night, and hundreds more perished in Belgium and England. Thousands of acres of polder land suddenly were again underwater, tens of thousands of farm animals drowned, and thousands of buildings were damaged or destroyed by the flood waters. The disaster triggered the creation of the Delta Works, a massive flood control project consisting of dykes, seawalls, flood gates, and pumping stations across virtually the entire coastline of the Netherlands.
1958: Lego Corporation patents its design for locking bricks.
1969: Death of horror actor Boris Karloff (b.1887), best known for his brilliant portrayal of the Frankenstein Monster.
1971: Ten months after the near-catastrophe of Apollo 13, astronauts Alan Shepard, Stuart Roosa, and Edgar Mitchell launch in Apollo 14 for a moon landing mission that will take them to the surface of the Frau Maru highlands. At age 47, Shepard was the oldest man to fly in space, and the only of the original Mercury astronauts to reach the moon.
1979: Ayatola Ruhollah Khomeini returns to Iran after 15 years of exile in France. Rapturous crowds meet him wherever he goes, at least initially, but within months the Islamic Revolution will begin to alter Persian society.
1986: Space Shuttle Challenger blows up 73 seconds into launch, killing all 7 astronauts aboard. Living in Jacksonville, Florida at the time, we were privileged to see many of the higher inclination shots as they streaked heavenwards.
1996: Death of Gene Kelly (b.1912), who unfortunately always had to endure comparisons to Fred Astaire, especially since he reached his peak later, in the ‘50s, when folks were starting to get a little cynical. Both of them represent the absolute top rung of the song-and-dance man genre, but Kelly sang in the rain, while Astaire stayed on the ballroom floor.
2003: After a two-week-long science mission, Space Shuttle Columbia, the original orbiter in the fleet, disintegrates on re-entry into the atmosphere, killing all 7 astronauts aboard. After the completion of the mishap investigation, NASA decided to terminate the Shuttle program in favor of a newly designed Constellation system. The Columbia weighed around 8000 pounds more than the other orbiters, and was not suited for high-inclination missions. She was also not fitted with an ISS-compatible airlock, so she was never used for an ISS servicing mission, but assumed primary duties for science missions and satellite launches. Columbia flew 28 times, spending just over 300 days in orbit. Due to the annual proximity of the 17 spaceflight deaths of its astronauts, NASA commemorates their memory on January 27th.