325AD: Convocation of the First Council of Nicea, one of the earliest attempts to define and formalize Christian church doctrine. It was ordered by Roman emperor Constantine I as a result of a number of competing heresies that were confusing the core truths of Christianity across the empire. 1800 bishops were invited, and anywhere from 250-318 attended. They worked through and resolved a number of significant issues, including the nature of the deity of Christ, condemnation of certain heresies, setting the process for dating Easter, and creating the first draft of what we know now as the Nicean Creed.
577AD: Death of Saint Brendan the Navigator, the Irish monk whose legendary travels in a leather currach helped establish the idea of a lush and inhabited island across the sea from Europe. “St. Brendan’s Island” often shows up on early maps; one school of thought believes it indicates that Brendan was actually the first European to make landfall in North America. He remains the patron saint of sailors and navigators.
1096: In the beginning of the unauthorized crusade led by Peter the Hermit, his unruly mob swarms into the Jewish section of Worms, Germany and begins a pogrom that leaves over 900 dead.
1499: Catherine of Aragon- the same Spanish royalty whom we keep reading about throughout the year- is married by proxy to Arthur, Prince of Wales, son of English King Henry VII. She is 14. He is 13. They have been legally betrothed* for ten years already, the Tudors of England and the Trastamaras of Aragon & Castile reasoning that a marriage of their two families would provide a solid diplomatic bulwark against the territorial claims on both countries by the Valois dynasty of France.
1506: Death of Christopher Columbus, in Valladolid, Spain, thus beginning another adventure regarding the movements of his corporeal remains around the world. He was initially buried in Valladolid, and then was moved to a monastery in Seville. At the request of his son Diego, who had been governor of Hispaniola, his remains were then moved back across the sea to Santo Domingo. When the French took over the island in 1795, the remains were moved to Havana, and then after the Spanish-American War in 1898, they were moved again to the cathedral in Seville, where they remain today (we think). The Dominican Republic maintains a huge memorial tomb they call the Faro a Colon (Columbus Lighthouse) in which is buried a small lead box, discovered in Santo Domingo in 1877, inscribed with “Don Christopher Columbus” and containing bone fragments and a bullet. Recent DNA sampling between the bones and Columbus’ descendants is inconclusive.
1532: Sir Thomas More resigns as England’s Lord High Chancellor, his second attempt to leave Henry VIII’s court over the issue of papal versus royal supremacy. The sovereign is not amused. More’s “season” approaches its end.
1536: Death of Anne Boleyn (b.1501), Queen Consort of King Henry VIII, beheaded after conviction on charges of adultery, high treason, and incest.
1568: Queen Elizabeth I of England orders the arrest of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots.
1792: Opening bell on the New York Stock Exchange.
1795: Birth of Baltimore businessman and philanthropist Johns Hopkins (d.1873). One of the all-time wealthiest men in the United States, Hopkins was a keen businessman, parlaying a dry goods business into enough capital that he could invest in the nascent railroad industry, most notably the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, whose smashing success sealed his fortune. Fortunately for the rest of us, Hopkins left a huge endowment to the university and medical school that now bears his name, to say nothing of the rest of his artistic and cultural legacies.
1801: Birth of William Seward (d.1872), Secretary of State in the Lincoln Administration, and the official at Lincoln’s deathbed who announced to the press, “Now he belongs to the ages.” In the Andrew Johnson Administration, Seward became the chief advocate of the United States’ purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867. The popularly remembered “Seward’s Folly” cost the country $7,200,000.00, or 2 cents per acre.
1802: Napoleon Bonaparte initiates the French Legion of Honor award. It is the France’s highest decoration, available for military and civilians who exhibit extraordinary courage or accomplishment in the performance of their duties. It is specifically designed to not confer a title of nobility- the Revolution did away with all that- nor is it infused with any sense of religious legitimacy- the Revolution did away with all that, too. It is explicitly secular (using a 5-pointed star instead of a stylized cross) and based solely on merit, available to all, regardless of birth. The Legion remains active to this day as a functional body of the government, with the President as its head.
1802: Napoleon Bonaparte, acting as First Secretary of the French Directory, re-establishes slavery in French colonies, where it had previously been repealed in 1794 by an early decree of the French Revolution. Many of the colonies, particularly in Saint-Domingue (Haiti), rebel violently at this move. France’s inability to suppress the slave revolt there convinced Napoleon that he could no longer hold onto his American possessions, leading to his eventual decision to sell all of Louisiana to the United States a year later.
1845: The Franklin Expedition– Under the leadership of Arctic explorer John Franklin, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror depart the River Thames with 134 men on what they hope will be a conclusive discovery and transit of the elusive Northwest Passage. They are never heard from again. Their disappearance captures the imagination and curiosity of Great Britain, and multiple rescue and recovery expeditions are launched to find out what happened. Eventually, bits and pieces of evidence are found, including the emaciated and partially cannibalized corpses of several expedition members. The ships remain unlocated for over 150 years, although the documents recovered in earlier searches confirm they had proceeded well into the icy archipelago of northern Canada before they were completely iced in. In 2005, Canada launched a “Franklin 150” expedition using highly technical sensing equipment to search for the ships, in part to solve the historical puzzle and in part to affirm Canadian sovereignty claims in the high north. The search paid off in September, 2014, when Canadian PM Stephen Harper confirmed that the teams had discovered and conclusively identified the wreckage of Terror in the Queen Maude Gulf off the Adelaide Peninsula.
1860: Opening day of the Republican National Convention in Chicago. Springfield lawyer and former Member of Congress Abraham Lincoln defeats the front-runner New Yorker William Seward on the third ballot.
1861: Opening shots in the Battle of Sewell’s Point. Two Federal gunboats from Fort Monroe are dispatched to investigate Confederate activity across the water at Sewell’s Point. When they see two artillery pieces and the beginnings of fortified breastworks, they open fire and scatter the men working there. USS Monticello remains in place overnight and re-commences firing in the morning. The Confederate battery answers back. There are no fatalities on either side. The Confederate position is abandoned a year later when Norfolk is evacuated.
1863: General U.S. Grant completely surrounds Vicksburg, Mississippi and begins to lay siege to the city.
1868: President Andrew Johnson is acquitted on his impeachment trial by a single vote in the U.S. Senate.
1873: San Francisco tailor Levi Strauss patents a rugged style of denim trouser, fastened with copper rivets.
1879: Birth in Danville, Virginia of Nancy Langhorne (d.1964), who rose socially and politically to become The Right Honorable Nancy Astor, Viscountess Astor. On the accession of her husband Waldorf Astor to the House of Lords, she ran for election for his Commons seat and won, becoming the first woman to be seated in that chamber. She was an exceptionally vocal MP, particularly during the buildup to the Second World War. After a tumultuous period of scathing critiques of just about everyone in the political spectrum, she retired in 1945, but remained in the public eye as something of a curmudgeon until her death. She is especially remembered for her acerbic wit. No-one was immune. A few quotes pulled from the estimable Wikipedia: “I married beneath me. All women do.” “One reason why I don’t drink is because I wish to know when I am having a good time.” “We women talk too much, but even then we don’t tell half what we know.”
1886: Death of John Deere (b.1804), American blacksmith who invented and successfully marketed the first cast steel plow.
1881: Birth of Mustafa Kemel Ataturk (d.1938), the First President of the Turkish Republic. General-Pasha of the Ottoman army during the Great War, he was in command of the Turkish forces that held the ANZAC invasion of Gallipoli (DLH 4/25) to nothing more than a toehold until they withdrew under fire nine months later. He then commanded Ottoman armies both in the Levant and on the northern reaches of Anatolia against the Russians. After the war, he served as Aide-de-Camp in the Sublime Porte during the Allied occupation of Constantinople and Izmir as the British and French worked to divide up the outer reaches of the Ottoman Empire. By June of 1919, he had had enough of external meddling, and began a two-pronged Army revolt- both militarily and politically- that eventually led to the establishment in October, 1923 of the explicitly secular Turkish state as we know it today, or at least as we knew it until the current demi-Islamist party got voted into power a few years back. Ataturk is constitutionally the only person who will ever be permitted to assume that title, which means, “Father of Turkey.”
1896: Providing yet more proof that the U.S. Supreme Court is capable of error, the Court issues on this day a decision in Plessy v. Ferguson that “separate but equal” facilities for different races is legal.
1897: Birth of Phoenix. Arizona native Frank Luke (d.1918). World War I American fighter Ace and Medal of Honor winner, he was second only to the great Eddie Rickenbacker for the number of confirmed kills by an American pilot. Luke’s fearlessness and airmanship led him to focus on destroying German observation balloons, and earned him the moniker of “The Balloon Buster.” One would think that diving a screaming fighter in towards a huge, immobile gasbag would not be much of a challenge, but one would be gravely mistaken in that assumption: the balloons were not only surrounded by dozens of pre-loaded light artillery pieces aiming straight up, each one of their ascents was also covered by a flight of German fighter planes flying high cover overhead. Luke and his wingman perfected the technique of diving out of the sun and making repeated passes at the balloon until its hydrogen finally burst into flames and plunged to earth. His total count was 14 balloons and four aeroplanes, all shot down in the course of only 10 sorties over 8 days. Rickenbacker himself called Luke the “…the most daring aviator and the greatest fighter pilot of the entire war.” Luke Air Force Base in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale is named for him.
1918: As a companion bill to its recently passed Espionage Act, Congress passes, and President Wilson signs, the Sedition Act. It makes it illegal to criticize, e.g.: to“…willfully utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the U.S. government during time of war. In addition to a $10,000 fine and 20 years in prison, the Postmaster General was tasked to halt mail deliveries to and from any person convicted or associated with a person convicted of the act. Over 1500 were charged and more than 1000 were convicted. Wilson’s Attorney General sought to keep a peacetime version in place after the war, but Congress repealed it in December, 1920.
1920: Birth of the late Polish theologian Karol Wojtyla (d.2005).
1921: The US Congress passes the Emergency Quota Act, limiting legal immigration to a small percentage of the current nationalities then residing in the country. The act effectively shut off the flow of immigrants who were streaming into the country from southern Europe and the Balkans.
1927: With pressure building from competitors, Charles Lindbergh takes off from Roosevelt Field in Long Island in his heavily laden, custom-built Ryan aircraft, the Spirit of St. Louis, in an attempt to become the first to fly solo across the Atlantic, New York to Paris. After only a few hours of fitful sleep last night, he carries a thermos of coffee and two sandwiches into the drippy New York sky. The country holds its collective breath to see if the young daredevil will make it…
1932: American aviatrix Amelia Earhart takes off from Newfoundland, enroute to Ireland, in an attempt to become the first female to solo across the Atlantic. The country again holds its collective breath, wondering if the young daredevil will make it…
1940: The end of the “Sitzkrieg.” Eight months after Germany’s invasion of Poland and the immediate declaration of war that followed by the western Allied powers, neither Germany nor the Allies have made any significant military moves against each other. The period is known by many different names: Sitzkrieg was the German’s pun on their Blitzkrieg strategy; Churchill called it the Twilight War; Brits in general called it the Bore War (pun on the relatively recent Boer War in South Africa); the Poles, who were on the receiving end of it, called it the Strange War; and the French, anticipating what was to come, referred to it as the drole du guerre, the Bizarre War. All this uncomfortable humor came to a sudden stop on the 10th of May when Chamberlain resigned, Churchill became Prime Minister, and Germany began its advance west into the Low Countries. The Nazi armies enter and occupy Brussels, Belgium, and concerns grow about the impending invasion of France.
1940: The first prisoners arrive at the new Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz, Poland.
1941: German paratroopers invade Crete. The Brits evacuate to fight another day.
1943(a): The B-17 Memphis Belle flies its 25th combat mission over occupied Europe, a bomb run against German submarine pens at L’Orient, France. A documentary camera crew recorded the mission and the crew celebrations afterward, which became part of a full-length feature film. The aircraft and crew returned to the States and began a publicity tour around the country in support of War Bonds.
1943(b): A dramatic RAF raid by “The Dam Busters” smashes three dams in Germany’s industrial heartland. The crews trained in secret for three months perfecting the technique of “skip bombing” to get through German defenses.
1944: After four months of bitter battle and near-continuous bombing and shelling that obliterated the medieval mountaintop monastery, the German redoubt at Monte Cassino is captured by the Allies. Polish forces lead the climb to the shattered Italian hilltop and raise their flag.
1954: The Supreme Court hands down its decision in Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, overturning the separate-but-equal doctrine previously codified by the Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessey vs. Ferguson decision.
1980: At 0832PDT, Mount St. Helens detonates with an eruption that lasts over 10 hours. The pyroclastic flow, landslides, ash, fire and earthquakes destroy 210 square miles of southwest Washington state wilderness. 57 people are killed, including Mr. Harry Randall Truman, 84 year old denizen of Spirit Lake, who refused repeated entreaties to leave his lodge in the months before the mountain blew. “If the mountain goes, I’m going with it…” It did, and he did; his lodge was buried under 150 feet of ash and landslide debris.
1987: USS Stark (FFG-31) is struck by an Iraqi Exocet missile while monitoring shipping in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war. 37 sailors are killed, 21 wounded.