41 A.D. : Roman Emperor Gaius Caesar (Caligula) is assassinated by members of his Praetorian Guard. Nephew of the great Tiberius Caesar, Caligula’s five year reign quickly degenerated into an orgy of violence and sexual perversion. The Senate conspirators believed that removing him would allow for reinstatement of the Republic, but the army was so incensed by the murder that they spirited away Caligula’s uncle Claudius, rallying the troops to support the imperial throne against the Senate.
814 A.D.: Death of Charlemagne, 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. A great bulk of a man, his taciturn nature caused one of his early professors to declare him a “dumb ox…[whose] teaching will one day produce such a bellowing that it will be heard around the world.” 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.
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.
1564: Pope Pius IV issues the decree Benedictus Deus, ratifying the findings of the long-running Council of Trent. The Council was first seated in 1545 to begin a process of answering the practical and theological issues raised by the burgeoning Protestant movement, in particular the aggressive growth of Lutheranism in Germany, much of which was co-opted and exacerbated by the political struggles between Rome and the Empire. Over the course of its eighteen years, the Council of Trent conducted three major sessions and issued numerous canons and decrees, the vast majority of which remain in force to this day. While confirming some level of reform from the more egregious practices of the Church (i.e. indulgences), its primary products clarified and confirmed the beliefs and historical practices of Roman Catholicism, providing a stable catechism of faith for over three hundred years. The next ecumenical council after Trent took place in June 1868 at the First Vatican Council. The Second Vatican Council of 1962-65 is the most recent convocation of this stature.
1595: Death of Sir Francis Drake (b.c1540), of dysentery while anchored off the coast of Portobela, Panama. After a swashbuckling and heroic career at sea, which included significant harassment of Spanish treasure fleets, secret surveys, a circumnavigation of the globe, and the destruction of the Spanish Armada, Drake’s life ended while engaged on yet another crusade against the treasures of Spanish America. He requested to be buried in his full armour, and was buried at sea in a lead coffin, which is today the object of regular treasure hunts.
1627: Birth of Irish chemist Robert Boyle (d.1691). Boyle is largely regarded today as the first modern chemist, and therefore one of the founders of modern chemistry, and one of the pioneers of modern experimental scientific method. He is best known for Boyle’s law, which describes the inversely proportional relationship between the absolute pressure and volume of a gas, if the temperature is kept constant within a closed system.
1787: In the final battle of what today is an obscure incident, an unauthorized militia aligned with Massachusetts farmer Daniel Shays conduct a short, sharp battle with the legitimate Massachusetts Militia at the Springfield Armory. Four of Shays’ men are killed, twenty are wounded, and the rebels flee north, totally disbanded. Shays’ Rebellion grew out of attempts to collect debts left over from the Revolution. European investors were putting the squeeze on Boston business owners, demanding payment in specie. The businessmen, in turn made the same demands on their debtors, mostly small freehold farmers in the central part of the state. The collections quickly descended into complete seizures of properties, including houses of the farmers, who felt helpless to resist. Finally, in August of 1786, Bunker Hill veteran Daniel Shays had had enough, and under the rubric of revolution, organized his first band of militia to force the issue at the Springfield courthouse. The situation festered through the Fall and Winter, leading to the climactic battle this day, where the Massachusetts militia, without authorization, drew weapons and ammunition from the Federal Arsenal to prevent Shays’ group from expropriating it first. The threat of further actions of this nature underscored the fundamental weakness of the Articles of Confederation, and spurred calls for a constitutional convention to draft a more effective form of national government, which we now know as the Constitution.
1813: First publication of Jane Austin’s work Pride and Prejudice.
1832: Birth of British author Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known by his nom du plume, Lewis Carroll (d.1898). His artistic bent was toward word-play and nonsense literature, most famously his Alice books and the Snark and Jaberwocky poems. He also spend his final 25 years mastering a new art form, photography, creating images of children that are frankly uncomfortable to look at in today’s context, but were in the center of Victorian haute couture when they were made.
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.
1848: James W. Marshall finds gold at Sutter’s Mill near Coloma, California, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. News of the discovery triggered a massive Gold Rush, bringing over 300,000 prospective miners to the Golden State.
1853: Birth of Jose Marti (d.1895). Radio Marti, the Miami station that broadcast actual news and information a la Voice of America during the Reagan Administration was named after this Cuban nationalist who was unrelenting in working to extract Cuba from Spain’s sclerotic colonial rule.
1880: Birth of Douglas MacArthur (d.1964), American General, Medal of Honor recipient, Army Chief of Staff, Governor of the Philippines, chief executive of occupied Japan; a leader whose impact on the 20th Century rightly earned him the title “American Caesar” in the definitive biography by William Manchester.
1887: Birth of Marc Mitscher (d.1947), American Admiral who led his carrier strike groups through wide-ranging and brutally effective campaigns against Japan’s South Pacific empire. He earned particular distinction when, after ordering a late-day follow on strike after the Marianas Turkey Shoot, he subsequently ordered his carriers to brightly illuminate their ships and the skies around them in order that his returning fighters could find and land aboard the carriers in the dark. Early in his aviation career, Mitscher piloted the NC-1 flying boat in the Navy’s first attempt to cross the Atlantic by air. He and the NC-1 made it as far as the Azores, while NC-4 continued on to Portugal to complete the mission. The hazards of the mission cannot be overstated, and for his role in it, Mitscher was awarded the Navy Cross.
1890: Birth of Robert Stroud (d.1963), convicted of manslaughter of a love rival, and later the murder of a prison guard, before becoming The Birdman of Alcatraz and something of a folk hero to the intelligentsia set. Twice sentenced to death, he spent his entire bird-raising career at Leavenworth Prison, in Kansas, not Alcatraz.
1911: Aviation pioneer Glen Curtiss makes the first American float-plane flight in San Diego harbor.
1912: Birth of American artist Jackson Pollock (d.1956).
1919: The delegates meeting at the Paris Peace Conference in Versailles approve a motion to develop a League of Nations, based on President Wilson’s 14 Points.
1921: Birth of Donna Reed (d.1986). The perfect girlfriend in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), the perfect wife and mother in The Donna Reed Show (1958-66), she also played a “fallen woman” in From Here to Eternity (1953).
1924: Opening day in Chamonix, France of the first Winter Olympics.
1924: The beautiful Russian city of Petrograd, nee St. Petersburg, is re-named Leningrad by the Soviet government in honor of the communist cretin who died two days before.
1938: First flight of Lockheed’s P-38 Lightning twin-engine fighter. The airplane was the machine that later carried Major Richard Bong, USAAF to 40 victories in the Pacific theater of WWII, making him the United States’ all-time fighter ace.
1943: The U.S. Army’s 8th Air Force launches its first raid into Germany, sending 91 B-17s and B-24s against submarine construction yards in Wilhemshaven.
1944: After 872 days of creating unrelenting shelling and misery for the population of the former Saint Petersburg, the German Wehrmacht lifts its Siege of Leningrad and withdraws, finally allowing the opening a broad corridor for the Soviet government to re-arm and re-supply the citizens and armed forces of that beleaguered city.
1945: The Red Army liberates the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland.
1947: Death of Chicago mobster / businessman / politician / Ward Chairman Al Capone (b.1899).
1951: The U.S. begins nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Range, using a B-50 bomber (a modified B-29) to drop a Mk-4 device, approximately the same size and weight of the Fat Man used at Nagasaki but with new triggering mechanisms and a modified nuclear pit. The vast majority of the 1,054 U.S. live tests were conducted at the Nevada site.
1958: Lego Corporation patents its design for locking bricks.
1965: Death of Sir Winston Churchill (b.1874), one of the greatest Britons of all time. A prolific author on top of all his other pursuits, he remains one of the most quotable characters in history:
Lady Nancy Astor: If I were your wife I would put poison in your coffee!
Churchill: And if I were your husband I would drink it!
1967: The crew of Apollo 1, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, are killed when a fire sweeps through their Command Module during a routine rehearsal prior to the scheduled launch. The ignition source was not conclusively discovered, but the flaws inherent in the initial design were exacerbated by the module being pressurized with pure oxygen to 16 psi to simulate structural pressures in space. Redesign efforts put the program on hold for 20 months.
1971: In Uganda, Colonel Idi Amin (1925-2003) leads a coup d’état against Milton Obote, becoming president of that benighted land.
1986: Space Shuttle Challenger blows up 73 seconds into launch, killing all 7 astronauts aboard.