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.
1478: Birth of the brilliant counselor to Henry VIII, Sir Thomas More (d.1535), who called himself “The King’s good servant, but God’s first.”
1763: Signing of the Treaty of Paris, which ends the fighting known in the New World as the French and Indian War.
1775: Completely stymied by the continuing unrest in its primary New World port, the British Parliament formally declares Massachusetts to be in rebellion.
1812: Massachusetts* Governor Eldridge Gerry signs a redistricting bill designed to favor his Democratic-Republican** political party. The unusual shape of the ensuing districts, one in particular that was shaped like a salamander, prompted widespread derision and anger, and eventually the coining of a new verb to describe the act: gerrymandering. I know you are as shocked, shocked as me to know that the process continues to this day, and is the source of special anxiety during every decennial census. We, in 2016, underwent some electoral drama here in the Old Dominion as a series of court cases unwound the 3rd and 4th congressional districts into more natural slices of the political pie.
1825: John Quincy Adams is elected to the Presidency by the House of Representatives. In the four-way race for president, none of the other three candidates was able to secure a majority of electoral votes. Adams was actually second in the 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 Constitution.
1847: Birth of Thomas Alva Edison (d.1931), the brilliant inventor dubbed “The Wizard of Menlo Park,” who held 1,093 U.S. patents on a plethora of gadgets and processes that in many respects define the 20th century. He began his professional life as a telegrapher, becoming very familiar with the physics and practical application of electricity***, which in turn fed his mind with scores of ideas, many of which paid off handsomely. A couple examples: the stock market ticker, the kinetoscope motion picture process, phonographic sound recording and, of course, the carbon-filament incandescent light bulb. One of his most important works was the establishment of his industrial research laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, where he and a core staff pursued any and every lead enroute to the next big thing. And they found it.
1867: Birth of author Laura Ingalls Wilder (d.1957), whose stories of life growing up on the wild American prairie have inspired generations of more sedentary explorers.
1893: Birth of Jimmie Durante (d.1980), song and dance man who made a long and successful career of delightfully mocking his stunningly large nose.
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, open letter to the President of the French Republic entitled “J’Accuse!” (lit: I Accuse You!) (DLH 1/13). 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.
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.
1934: Birth of TV actress Tina Louise, one half of the eternal question for adolescent boys: Ginger or Mary-Ann?
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. His was one of the great practical minds who helped define the United States’ coming of age as a world power.
1950: Birth of the great Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz, 9-time Olympic gold medalist, including 7 at the 1972 games in Munich.
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 (lately using his brother as mouthpiece) until just a couple years ago, when he finally earned his just reward. The embargo remained in effect through 10 U.S. presidencies.
1964: The Beatles perform their first gig on the Ed Sullivan Show, sending millions of adolescent girls into a swoon