337AD: Death of Constantine the Great, the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity. He aggressively set about un-doing the persecutions carried out by his predecessor, Diocletian. In particular, he issued the Edict of Milan in 313, declaring religious tolerance throughout the Empire as the law of the land. He also rebuilt the ancient Turkish city of Byzantium, re-naming it Constantinople and making it the capital of the eastern portion of the Empire, a position it maintained for another thousand years.
1471: Birth of German artist Albrecht Durer (d.1528), a man of extraordinary artistic and intellectual talent. Best known for his woodcuts, he also worked in oils and pencil. He was deeply engaged in the intellectual unrest of the early Reformation period, but remained loyal to the Roman Catholic church to his death.
1521: Concluding the process of the Imperial Diet that began in mid-April, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V issues the Edict of Worms, formally declaring Martin Luther a heretic and outlaw, subject to arrest and punishment. The edict reads in part: “For this reason we forbid anyone from this time forward to dare, either by words or by deeds, to receive, defend, sustain, or favor the said Martin Luther. On the contrary, we want him to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic, as he deserves, to be brought personally before us, or to be securely guarded until those who have captured him inform us, whereupon we will order the appropriate manner of proceeding against the said, Luther. Those who will help in his capture will be rewarded generously for their good work.” Luther’s friend and mentor Prince Frederick III, Elector of Saxony captured him en route to his home and spirited him away to safe haven in Wartburg Castle, where he began work on his German translation of the Bible. The Edict was temporarily suspended in 1526 but was put back in force in 1529. Although it was never enforced against Luther himself, it was used as justification for arrests of Lutheran agitators in the Low Countries under Charles’ direct control.
1626: Director-General of the New Netherlands division of the Dutch West Indian Company, Peter Minuit, purchases Manhattan Island from the local indigenous tribe for items valued at 60 Guilders, often misrepresented as $24 of wampum. Historians Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace in 1999 noted “…the Dutch were engaged in high-end technology transfer, handing over equipment of enormous usefulness in tasks ranging from clearing land to drilling wampum.”
1701: Death of Scottish-American privateer Captain William Kidd (b.1655), hanged by the neck until dead after his conviction for murder and piracy in a London court. His corpse is put into a gibbet on the Execution Dock, where it remains on display for thirty years as a warning to other potential pirates.
1738: Christian conversion of John Wesley, who went on to lead the Methodist movement in Great Britain.
1738: The English colonies of Pennsylvania and Maryland sign a peace treaty, ending Cresap’s War, also known as the Conojocular War. The boundary dispute arose out of an imprecise description of Pennsylvania’s southern boundary in its 1681 charter- or more exactly, a very precise description based on incorrect geography: the start point was the town of New Castle, Delaware, and from thence “…a circle drawn at twelve miles distance from New Castle Northward and Westward unto the beginning of the fortieth degree of Northern Latitude, and then by a straight Line Westward..” The dispute began in 1730 when Maryland began to enforce its territorial claims after ten years of settlements and counter-settlements by Pennsylvanians in the lands west of the Susquehanna River. The flash point became dueling ferry services (no joke) established by the two colonies. In 1730 two Pennsylvanians attacked the Maryland ferry run by Thomas Cresap. No one was injured, but Cresap began a harassment campaign against Pennsylvania settlers, eventually leading to sporadic violence against both parties and ultimately to the militias of both colonies marching across each others’ claims. King George II ordered the Royal Committee for Plantation Affairs to settle the dispute, and the agreement was signed on May 25th. The territorial definition was conclusively settled after the 1767 survey completed by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon.
1787: The Constitutional Convention, under the leadership of General George Washington, convenes in Philadelphia to write a new governing document to replace the inadequate Articles of Confederation.
1803: Birth of English author Edward George Bulwer-Lytton (d.1873), whose original prose includes such current clichés as: “the pen is mightier than the sword” and “the great unwashed” and “the pursuit of the almighty dollar” and perhaps most famously, “It was a dark and stormy night…”
1856: Abolitionist John Brown leads a group that murders five pro-slavery settlers in Pottawatomie, Kansas. Before the secessionist movement took root in the South, “Bleeding Kansas” became the violent first battleground between pro- and anti-slavery forces.
1859: Birth of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (d.1930), British physician, mystic, and man of letters, best known for his creation of the detective Sherlock Holmes.
1878: Birth of Glenn Curtiss (d.1930), motorcycle builder and racer, aviation pioneer, and competitor of the Wright Brothers. Barred by the threat of patent infringement of the Wright’s wing-warping principles and mechanism, Curtiss invented the aileron as a means of roll control in his airplanes. The Navy was an early purchaser of his machines, which were used for the first launches and recoveries from Navy ships.
1883: After 14 years of construction, the Brooklyn Bridge opens for traffic.
1896: In Moscow, the thirty-year-old Nikolay Alexandrovich Romanov is crowned Czar Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias.
1896: In New York, James Dow publishes his first index of key industrial stocks, 12 companies with an index value of 40.94.
1906: The Wright Brothers receive U.S. Patent number 821,393 for their “flying machine.” The patent is the result of the Wright’s extensive testing and refinement of aircraft control mechanisms on their basic 1903 design and was indicative of their decision to leave the bicycle business and make a go of it in the nascent field of commercial aviation. This is the same patent I mentioned the other day that led Glenn Curtis and others to create workarounds that would avoid patent infringement issues, although the patent fights between them would continue for years.
1907: Birth of John Wayne (d.1979).
1914: Bosnian Serb anarchist Gavrillo Princip leaves Belgrade on a conspiratorially secret 10-day journey to Sarajevo. Princip was the Bosnian Serb student who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophie, Duchess von Hohenberg, in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. The assassination gave Austria-Hungary the pretext it was looking for to launch hostilities against the Kingdom of Serbia and thus precipitated World War I.
1915: Eruption of Northern California’s Mount Lassen, the only other U.S. volcano in the lower 48– besides Saint Helens– to blow in the 20th century. This was the first of 107 separate eruptions that occurred during the next twelve months. Views of Lassen became a staple of the local postcard industry.
1921: Opening day of the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, in Boston. The two immigrant Italian anarchists, usually described sympathetically as a shoemaker and a fish monger, were arrested for robbery and murder, and after an internationally sensational trial was sentenced to death. The trial gained notoriety not only for the lurid twists and turns promulgated by both the prosecution and the defense (“someone changed the barrel of his gun!”), but also by the two’s unrepentant status as international anarchists. Further controversy followed as the presiding judge Webster Thayer refused to grant five motions for new trials, later confronting a colleague with, “Did you see what I did with those anarchistic bastards the other day? I guess that will hold them for a while…”Sacco and Vanzetti were electrocuted on August 23rd, 1927. Anarchist riots and bombings broke out in response as far away as Buenos Aires.
1927: Thirty-three and a half hours after his perilous launch from Roosevelt Field, Charles Lindbergh lands at Le Brouget Airport in Paris. Although he expected some level of fame for his accomplishment, the public acclaim that followed him made him one of the 20th century’s first media superstars. As National Geographic put it, “he took off as an unknown boy from rural Minnesota and landed 33 1/2 hours later as the most famous man on earth… and sent the world into an unprecedented frenzy.” When he was sighted in the morning crossing the coast of Ireland the news was immediately broadcast worldwide. Over 150,000 Parisians worked their way to his arrival airport to witness the historic event. He reached Paris in the gathering darkness and spent several minutes circling the Eiffel Tower to get his bearings, during which time the crowds broke through the police lines protecting the landing area, creating a situation that Lindbergh called the most dangerous part of the entire flight. The crowds that surged around his machine as he rolled out cut swaths of fabric off the fuselage for souvenirs, and despite his fatigue, he was forced into event after event with both French and American luminaries.
1932: After a 14-hour flight through turbulence, icing, and un-forecast winds, bad weather finally forces Amelia Earhart down into a farmer’s field near Derry, Ireland, and into history as the first woman to solo across the Atlantic. Although only two locals witnessed her touchdown, the media quickly picked up the story, and “Lady Lindy” became the next media sensation. Her Lockheed Vega is on display in the National Air and Space Museum.
1934: After a four-year spree of robbery and murder, Bonnie Parker (b.1910) and Clyde Barrow (b.1909) are gunned down by a posse in rural Black Lake, Louisiana.
1937: Opening Day of the Golden Gate Bridge, linking San Francisco with my actual hometown in Marin County. What a beautiful bridge- for over thirty years the longest single span (1.5 miles) in the world.
1940: Opening of the 9-day Battle of Dunkirk, where British and other Allied forces were surrounded on the French beach by two German armies which swept across the Low Countries and burst out of the “un-passable” Ardennes Forest to overwhelm the defenses of France. Rather than destroying or capturing the fleeing forces, Hitler ordered a ceasefire that lasted three days, during which the British were able to establish a defensible perimeter and set conditions for a somewhat orderly evacuation under fire, which rained down primarily from the Luftwaffe. The eventual evacuation of 338,226 men via a flotilla of “the little ships of Dunkirk” became the stuff of legend and the nucleus of the army that would return to the Continent at Normandy four years later.
1941: On her maiden cruise into the North Atlantic, the German battleship Bismarck engages and sinks HMS Hood, which goes to the bottom with the loss of all hands save three.
1941: Birth of singer/songwriter Bob Dylan.
1945: Nazi chief of the SS Heinrich Himmler commits suicide in his Allied cell, avoiding public responsibility for his war crimes.
1947: President Harry S. Truman signs into law an economic assistance act for Greece and Turkey that will become the foundation for the Truman Doctrine on controlling the spread of Communism.
1961: President John F. Kennedy gives his speech committing the United States to land a man on the moon and bring him safely back by the end of the decade.
1964: President Lyndon Baines Johnson announces the Great Society legislative program, in which he promises to “eliminate poverty and racial injustice in America.”
1965: Death of Geoffrey de Havilland (b.1882). The British aircraft designer’s Mosquito fighter, made entirely as a “plywood” laminate structure, was one of the most innovative and best-loved fighter planes of the Second World War.
1968: USS Scorpion (SSN-589) suffers an explosion of unknown origin and sinks with 99 souls on board into 9,800 feet of water, 400 miles southwest of the Azores. The circumstances of its sinking remain partially classified, but all of the evidence points to an onboard malfunction of a torpedo. The wreckage site is regularly monitored for radioactive contamination from its reactor and torpedoes.
1972: President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Leonoid Brezhnev sign the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The landmark agreement limited the parties to a single fixed site (Moscow and Grand Forks, ND) and for practical purposes enshrined Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) as a viable basis for the relationship of the two nuclear superpowers. The United States withdrew from the treaty in December 2002, per the provision requiring six months’ notice.
1977(a): Mountaineer George Willig performs a single-handed free climb of the south tower of New York’s World Trade Center. He is arrested for trespassing and fined $1.10, a penny for each floor.
1977(b): Opening night for the space film Star Wars.