399BC: Socrates is sentenced to death. A glass of hemlock seals his fate in the presence of his students. Do you ever wonder about this? Me too. Socrates was one of the leading intellectual lights of classical Athens. As a philosopher, he questioned almost everything and everyone, forcing men- not just students, but political leaders- to confront their own false thinking.
270AD: Traditional date of the martyrdom of one of the Roman Church fathers, Valentinus. There are really only two known facts about him: 1) his name, and; 2) his burial place north of Rome. That said, there are more than a few biographical bits, variously recorded through the 13th century, that paint a little broader picture of his importance. His most common identity is either as a priest in Rome or a bishop of Terni, not far inland from Rome itself. The most detailed account of his activities indicates he was persecuted by the Emperor Claudius II, for officiating at the marriage of Christian couples, which was illegal at the time. Claudius himself became friends with Valentinus, until the priest tried to convert the Emperor himself to Christianity, at which point his vocation became treason. Conventional stoning failed to kill him, and the execution ended with his beheading.
600AD: Pope Gregory the Great issues a decree that confirms, “God bless you” is the correct response to a sneeze.
1542: Death of Catherine Howard (b.1523), Henry VIII’s fifth wife and first cousin to Anne Boleyn; executed for adultery. She is beheaded at age 19 after only 17 months of marriage to the king.
1554: Death of Lady Jane Grey, cousin of Edward VI (Henry VIII’s son and heir), who held the throne of England for nine days based on the deathbed will of the 15 year old Edward. The will itself, her attendant claim, and the stronger counter-claim by Henry’s daughter Mary triggered a succession crisis that ended in a conviction of treason against both Lady Grey and her husband Lord Guilford Dudley.
1564: Birth of Galileo Galilei (d.1642) in Pisa, Italy
1733: British General James Oglethorpe settles the 13th British colony in North America, Georgia, specifically formed to be a haven for Britain’s poor, especially those confined in debtor’s prison.
1778: John Paul Jones, Commanding Officer of the sloop of war USS Ranger, receives the first official salute of the US flag by a foreign power in Quiberon, France.
1779: Death of Captain James Cook (b.1728), during his third voyage of discovery in the Pacific Ocean. He was initially greeted as a god by the natives of Hawaii, who lavished him and his crew with every type of assistance during their earlier month-long stay on the island. Only a week or so after their departure, HMS Resolution suffered problems with her rigging, which necessitated the ship’s return for repairs. The islanders were not happy to see them again, and on this day attempted to steal a longboat from Cook’s shore party. A scuffle ensued, and dozens of the islanders descended on Cook and beat him to death as the rest of the crew vainly fought them off until they could themselves escape. After the event, the Hawaiians honored Cook’s body with full royal rites and ceremony.
1797: A Royal Navy fleet of 15 ships of the line (plus 5 frigates) under Admiral Sir John Jervis, meets, splits and soundly defeats a Spanish fleet of 27 ships of the line (plus 7 frigates) at the Battle of Cape Saint Vincent. The decisive victory allowed the RN to resume its patrols in the Mediterranean, and brought fame and fortune to Jervis, including ceremonial swords, gold medals, promotion, knighthood, and a huge share of prize money. More importantly for the future of the Royal Navy, his young commander Horatio Nelson was recognized for his stunning display of derring-do during the battle, leading a boarding party to capture the Spanish ship San Nicholas, with which his own ship Captain was entangled. Seizing the opportunity to double the capture, Nelson then ordered a second boarding party to continue with him across to the similarly entangled San Jose, which also surrendered to Nelson. Nelson himself was knighted into the Order of Bath and made Rear Admiral, and given command of the RN force that went on to repeated victories against the French throughout the Mediterranean theatre, most notably at the Battle of the Nile 18 months hence.
1804: American naval captain Stephen Decatur leads a daring nighttime raid in Tripoli harbor. He and a hand-picked cadre of men re-board and set fire to the former American frigate USS Philadelphia, which grounded last October and was subsequently captured by the Pasha of Tripoli. The raid climaxes by burning the ship to the waterline to prevent its use by the Barbary pirates. None other than Horatio Lord Nelson called Decatur’s work “The most bold and daring act of the Age.” Decatur himself returned to the United States a national hero.
1809(a): Birth of Abraham Lincoln (d.1865), born in a log cabin, in Hardin County, Kentucky.
1809(b): Birth of British naturalist Charles Darwin (d.1882), whose observations of flora, fauna and fossils during the 4 ½ year circumnavigation voyage of HMS Beagle led him to develop the theory of natural selection as the means by which species adapted to their environments. He followed up his initial publication of On the Origin of Species with the explosive culmination of evolutionary theory in The Descent of Man, the thesis of which defines the essence of what we know today as the Culture War, to wit: is mankind the current end point of essentially random natural processes or the end result of a creative God?
1818: Birth of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass (d.1895)
1893: Birth of Omar N. Bradley (d.1981), “The Soldier’s General” in World War II. Patton’s deputy in North Africa, he vaulted over his former boss to lead the American armies swarming ashore at Normandy. After passage of the National Security Act of 1948, he was named the first Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He had the distinction of being the United States’ last surviving 5-star general.
1898: The American battleship USS Maine mysteriously blows up in Havana harbor. In the United States, William Randolph Hearst leads the journalistic hysteria in demanding a declaration of war with Spain, not only to avenge the loss of the ship and its sailors, but to free Cuba and the Philippine Islands from the yoke of Spanish colonial oppression. The “Splendid Little War” that follows gives us Colonel Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders’ charge up San Juan Hill, the battle of Manila Bay (“You may fire when your are ready Gridley…”) and new American possessions of Cuba, the Philippine Islands and Puerto Rico.
1923: Birth of USAAF aviator Chuck Yeager (d.2020), first man to fly faster than Mach 1.0 and live to talk about it. His steely nerves made him an ideal test pilot in the transition period between props and jets and into high-performance supersonic flight.
1924: King Tut’s tomb is opened, three months after its discovery by explorer Howard Carter. Earlier, on November 26, 1922, Carter made the famous “tiny breach in the top left hand corner” of the doorway, and was able to peer in by the light of a candle and see that many of the gold and ebony treasures were still in place. He did not yet know at that point whether it was “a tomb or merely a cache”, but he did see a promising sealed doorway between two sentinel statues. When Lord Carnarvon* asked him if he saw anything, Carter replied: “Yes, I see wonderful things”
1933: President-elect Franklin Roosevelt survives an assassination attempt in Miami. An unemployed bricklayer named Guiseppe Zangara shouts “Too many people are starving!” and fires six shots toward FDR, who had just finished a speech from the back of his car. Five people were hit, including the mayor of Chicago, who was mortally wounded. Zangara was executed for the killing on March 5th, a mere four weeks after the event.
1935: Crash of the U.S. Navy rigid airship USS Macon (ZRS-5) off the coast of Big Sur, California. The Navy was heavily invested in the technology of lighter-than-air vessels for reconnaissance and patrol, but the loss of Macon and the earlier losses of USS Akron (ZRS-4) and USS Shenandoah (ZR-1) sealed their fate. Macon and Akron both carried the F-9C Sparrowhawk fighter for what was termed “parasitic protection.” The fighter was dropped in flight, and at the completion of the mission recovered aboard the airship via a strong hook and trapeze assembly that would pull it inside the envelope for servicing and storage.
1939: Launch of the German battleship Bismarck.
1941: Birth of North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il (d.2012)
1942: Singapore falls to Japanese forces. Continuing their juggernaut throughout the western Pacific region, the Japanese army’s Malay Peninsula campaign ends with the surrender of over 60,000 British and Imperial forces defending Singapore. The most famous “…doh!” from the battle was the defender’s realization that virtually all of Singapore’s defenses were designed to repel an attack from seaward. The Japanese arrived instead from the landward approaches and entered the island opposed only by small arms fire across the single small bridge connecting it to the mainland.
1945: An overnight Allied air raid on Dresden ignites a literal firestorm, killing upwards of 300,000 civilians (some estimates climb toward 500,000), many of whom had just recently fled to Dresden from the fighting along the Russian front. Dresden’s casualty count is higher than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. 1600 acres of the central city is pulverized to rubble in the 13-hour raid (132200FEB45-141030FEB45).
1945: President Franklin Roosevelt meets with Ibn Saud, King of Saudi Arabia, aboard USS Quincy (CA-71) in the Great Bitter Lake of the Suez Canal. They meet formally and established diplomatic ties between the new Arab kingdom and the United States.
1945: Three years after its loss to the Japanese, American forces re-take the island fortress of Corregidor in Manila Bay.
1956: At the 20th Soviet Party Congress, General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev gives a four-hour speech entitled “The Personality Cult and its Consequences.” Given behind closed doors, it is often referred to as the “Secret Speech,” although it gained wide and official circulation in the months that followed. In it, Khrushchev repudiates the methods and results of Stalin’s stewardship of the Soviet state, in particular, the perversion of leadership into a cult of personality, and the wholesale abuses of individuals and groups who opposed his rule. Although the speech was intended to lift Soviet Russia into a new, more open environment, the deadening bureaucracy that underlay Stalin’s power stayed in place through 1990.
1959: Fidel Castro is sworn in as Prime Minister of Cuba after forcing former dictator Fulgencio Batista into exile in the Dominican Republic. The event is the culmination of the three year guerrilla campaign that Castro, his brother Raul and Che Guevarra, the hard-line Argentine Marxist, led from the Sierra Maestra mountains. Fidel’s dictatorship was the first Communist government in the western hemisphere.
1961: A trio hunting for geodes near Olancha, California, finds a likely nodule that they tentatively date at 500,000 years old. When they cut through the stone to hopefully find a beautiful crystal geode inside, they instead find what appears to be a 1920s vintage Champion spark plug. The Coso Artifact immediately generates a firestorm of controversy over geological dating methods. The estimable Wikipedia reports that other researchers, more certain than most, conclude that the dating method is infallibly accurate, therefore the spark plug was most likely the result of:
1) an ancient, advanced civilization like Atlantis;
2) a pre-historic visit by extraterrestrial travelers;
3) human time-travelers dropping something from their period.
1971: Great Britain officially adopts the decimal system for their currency, dropping the ancient pound-shilling-pence (“LSD”) denominations.
1972: Wilt Chamberlain scores his 30,000th point in a game against the Phoenix Suns, completed in 941 games. Five of the remaining six players with that point total took well over a thousand games to get there; the sixth, Michael Jordan, took 960.
1989: Iranian “holy” man Ayatolla Khomehni issues a fatwa for any good Muslim to murder British author Salmon Rushdie, whose book Satanic Verses was declared to be heretical.
1997: 25 year old Jeff Gordon becomes the youngest winner of the Daytona 500, a record that held until 2011 when Trevor Baine took the title the day after his 20th birthday.