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.”
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 gravesite.
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 actually deep in planning to perform multiple assassinations, including a regicide, in order 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 actually 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 for the duel he fought with former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, who died of his wounds.
1763: Signing of the Treaty of Paris, which ends the fighting known in the New World as the French and Indian War. France lost large territories in North America: everything west of the Mississippi went to her ally Spain in compensation for Spain’s loss of Florida to Great Britain. Most importantly, France lost everything east of the Mississippi, including all of French Canada, to Great Britain. They also lost most of their Caribbean islands to l’Albion perfide, thus confirming Britain’s absolute colonial dominance of the North American theater.
1775: Completely stymied by the continuing unrest in its primary New World port, the British Parliament formally declares Massachusetts to be in rebellion.
1825: John Quincy Adams is elected to the Presidency by the House of Representatives. In the four-way race for president during the November** election, none of the other three candidates was able to secure a majority of electoral votes. Adams actually finished second in the original electoral count behind Andrew Jackson, who had a plurality, but not the required majority, thus sending the election to the House, per the rules laid down in the 12th Amendment to the Constitution.
1895: Birth of George Herman Ruth, Jr. (d.1948), the great slugger for the New York Yankees.
1898: Opening day of the criminal libel trial of Emile Zola, the brilliant French intellectual and journalist who sparked The Dreyfus Affair with a front-page, an open letter to the President of the French Republic entitled “J’Accuse!” (lit: I Accuse You!). His accusation was that the French government was intentionally covering up an egregious miscarriage of justice- the conviction of an artillery captain of espionage four years earlier- because the captain was Jewish, and because the government was, at its core, anti-Semitic and reactionary. The ensuing controversy almost immediately polarized French society, and for another eight years, l’affaire Dreyfus was bitterly fought out in the press and in the courtrooms of France. Alfred Dreyfus himself was at the time imprisoned on Devil’s Island. When the President eventually offered to pardon him, he refused, insisting on complete exoneration. As Zola predicted, the truth eventually became clear, and Dreyfus was released from prison and re-instated in 1906 as a major. He fought in the Great War from start to finish and left the army as a lieutenant colonel. For his part, Zola was convicted on the 23rd of the month and immediately fled to England, where he remained through June 1899. After his return to France, he continued to write, but in September 1902, he died suddenly in his apartment, the cause being carbon monoxide poisoning from a blocked chimney. Conspiracy Alert: the roofer who intentionally blocked the chimney took credit for the act as a political statement, as he himself lay on his deathbed ten years later.
1899: The U.S. Senate ratifies the Treaty of Paris, formally ending the “Splendid Little War” between Spain and the United States.
1904: First shots of the Russo-Japanese War, a torpedo attack by Japanese warships against the Russian fleet anchored at Port Arthur, Manchuria. The bitter 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: Launch of HMS Dreadnaught, the first modern battleship, whose innovations were so overwhelming that she immediately made all earlier warships completely obsolete. The scramble to compensate for Britain’s sudden advantage triggered a naval armaments race- particularly with Germany- that was one of the proximate triggers for the Great War eight years hence. Dreadnaught’s technical innovations centered on her design as an “all big gun” platform: ten 12” guns mounted in five turrets with only minimal secondary armament, as opposed to the conventional bristling of multiple layers of secondary and tertiary guns. She was also the first warship to be powered by steam turbines, giving her a speed in excess of 21 knots, unheard of in an age of 12-knot capital ships. For naval historians, HMS Dreadnaught set the marker that decisively defined the end of the transition from sail to steam, and set the standard for all the naval innovations to come. There is the pre-Dreadnaught era, and the Dreadnaught era, which lasted to the rise of aircraft carriers in the early 1930s.
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 a member of various commissions and delegations. He was one of the great practical minds who helped define the United States’ coming of age as a world power.
1942: Continuing their South Pacific juggernaut, Japan initiates an invasion of Singapore.
1950: Birth of the Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz, 9-time Olympic gold medalist, including 7 at the 1972 games in Munich.
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.
1959: The Soviet Union launches the R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile- the world’s first- creating yet another layer of technical anxiety and competition between themselves and the U.S. The launch was the core issue in the “missile gap” controversy that dominated the 1960 presidential election between Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John Kennedy.
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. Castro, you probably noticed, remained firmly in power. The embargo remained in effect through 10 U.S. presidencies.
1964: The Beatles perform their first shoe, we mean Show, on the Ed Sullivan Show
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.
1996: Chess Grand Master Garry Kasparov loses his first match to the IBM Deep Blue supercomputer.