1415: At the Council of Constance, called to resolve the schism of the Western Church (i.e., competing popes: Rome versus Avignon), the council also takes care of some heresy, condemning the already dead English reformer and Bible translator John Wycliffe, ordering his bones exhumed, burned, and scattered in the River Swift, running through his hometown of Lutterworth. They also call to trial the still-living Bohemian reformer Jan Hus who will end up on the stake in July.
1729: Birth of Catherine the Great (d.1796), Empress of Russia, born in Settin, Prussia.
1789: King Louis XVI of France convenes the Estates-General for the first time since 1614. The Estatesis a nominally representative, “tri-cameral” governing body answerable to the king; the First Estate representing the clergy, the Second Estate the nobility, and the Third Estate the common people. I won’t go into all the gory (but very interesting) details of the political maneuvering that accompanied the seating and voting procedures of the Estates, but the bottom line is this: for the first time, commoners had a viable voice in the French national government, and every vote both increased their political clout and decreased the heretofore absolute authority of the monarch. The proximate issue that triggered the event was a financial crisis– France’s enormous national debt- brought on by extravagant* spending, an archaic tax system, and high food costs. The sub-text was the enhanced legitimacy of the “voice of the people” in determining the direction of governmental decisions, a voice encouraged by the reigning philosophy of the Age of Reason and the recent dramatic success of the American Revolution. The political turmoil that arose at the seating of the Estates-General eventually spilled across all three Estates and into the streets of Paris, eventually undermining the very legitimacy of the monarchy and unleashing the violence that would define the French Revolution.
1796: Birth of Horace Mann (d.1859), who, in the 1830s, became one of the earliest and most prominent advocates for professionalism and state sponsorship of education, including secularizing a process that to this point had been the purview of the church. As a Congressional Representative from Massachusetts he became a strong abolitionist, engaging intellectual horns with Daniel Webster over extension of the Fugitive Slave Law. He spent the last seven years of his life as President of Antioch College.
1813: Birth of Soren Kierkegaard (d.1855). The Danish philosopher is widely regarded as the father of existentialism, with the focus of his writings on the introspection of self and its relationship to the world around. He was a strong advocate of Christian ethics, but was also a strong antagonist to the established Danish National Church. Couple pity quotes: “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” Along similar lines, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
1821: Death of Napoleon Bonaparte (b.1769) in exile on the remote British Island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic. His body is returned to France in 1840 for burial in a new memorial tomb at Les Invalides. Before his final interment, officials open his casket to confirm his identity. All who are there are shocked as they gaze on the perfectly preserved form of the emperor, complete with skin that is both correctly colored and ductile. A strong odor of almonds rises from the casket, immediately raising suspicions of arsenic poisoning, vice stomach cancer, as the cause of death.
1856: Birth of Robert Peary (d.1920), American arctic explorer and the first man to reach the North Pole.
1862: Cinco de Mayo, a local holiday in the Mexican state of Puebla, celebrates the unlikely Mexican victory over a superior invading French army. The French invasion was an attempt to force payment for Mexico’s 1861 default on its massive debt to France and other countries. Despite their defeat in this battle, and confident that the United States was too preoccupied with its own civil war to intervene south of the border, the French army went on to conquer Mexico City and install Emperor Maximilian I on the throne of Mexico in 1864.
1863: While making a nighttime inspection of his outer defense lines, Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson is shot and mortally wounded by Confederate pickets during the Battle of Chancellorsville.
1877: Chief Crazy Horse of the Oglala Sioux nation surrenders to the US Army in Nebraska. Crazy Horse built his reputation as a warrior during multiple fighting seasons against the Sioux’s traditional enemies, the Crow, Shoshone, Blackfoot, and Pawnee, among others. He first fought against the US Army in 1864 to avenge the Sand Creek Massacre of the nearby Cheyennes, and then continued to lead raids and attacks, culminating in the Great Sioux War of 1876-77, where he played a leading role in the defeat of the 7th US Cavalry at Little Big Horn (June 1876). His tribe suffered greatly through the ensuing winter. Recognizing the inevitable, he finally led them from Montanato to the Red Cloud Agency in Nebraska to surrender and settle into Reservation life. He was killed under “mysterious circumstances” in September of 1877.
1903: Birth of Dr. Benjamin Spock (d.1998). Much of what you don’t like about the Baby Boom generation you can attribute directly to his wide-spread “teachings” on child-rearing. He was an expert. A psychologist.
1904: Boston Americans pitcher Cy Young pitches the first perfect game in the modern era of baseball; the fall guys for this feat were the Philadelphia Athletics.
1904: The United States begins work on the long-planned Panama Canal. The decades prior to this witnessed the technical and organizational failure of a French canal company (on whose board engineer Gustav Eiffel served as advisor) and a U.S.-fomented revolution of Colombia’s Panama province against the central government. The canal finally opened for business on 15th August, 1914, but whatever hoopla might have accompanied this event was far overshadowed by the concurrent opening guns of the Great War.
1933: First modern sighting of the Loch Ness monster.
1937: After a spectacular trans-Atlantic flight from Europe, including a photo fly-over of Manhattan, the hydrogen-filled German zeppelin Hindenburg bursts into flame and is completely destroyed in less than a minute as it makes its initial mooring in Lakehurst, NJ. Death toll was 36, including 35 of the 97 on board and one on the ground. Controversy over the disaster continues to this day, with no fewer than 10 competing theories about the ignition source.
1942: After six months of nearly continuous siege and direct combat with the invading Japanese army, LTG Jonathan Wainwright surrenders the remaining U.S. forces on Corregidor Island in Manila harbor. In a final radio message to President Roosevelt, Wainwright stated, “There is a limit to human endurance, and that point is long past.”
1945: German armies in Italy accept unconditional surrender to the Allies.
1948: Birth of Hurley Haywood, legendary Porsche race car driver. Three-time winner at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (1977, 1983, 1994); five-time winner of 24 Hours of Daytona (1973, 1975, 1977, 1979, 1991); twice winner at 12 hours of Sebring (1973, 1981); IMSA GT Champion 1971. He currently is Chief Driving Instructor at the Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama.
1952: First commercial flight of the world’s first commercial jetliner, the Comet, built in the United Kingdom. The London to Johannesburg flight was a public relations sensation, but within a year the Comet fleet suffered three high profile air disasters that ruined its reputation and led to its eventual commercial failure. With its design flaws analyzed and fixed, the aircraft continued to fly through June, 2011 as the RAF Nimrod anti-submarine patrol plane.
1953: Ernest Hemingway is awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, The Old Man and the Sea.
1961: Commander Alan Shepherd, USN, becomes the first American into space, three weeks after Yuri Gagarin’s historic orbital flight. Shepherd’s Freedom-7 Mercury capsule achieves 115 miles altitude during the 15 minute sub-orbital (i.e. ballistic) flight and experiences 11G’s on re-entry. “What a ride!” Shepherd declares.
1982: The British nuclear powered submarine HMS Conqueror (S48) torpedoes and sinks the Argentine cruiser ANA General Belgrano (ex-USS Phoenix (CL-46)) off the coast of the Falkland Islands. Although the sinking occurred outside the British declared 200 mile total exclusion zone, British forces recognized the ship as a legitimate threat and took action to eliminate it. Despite the fact that the UK and Argentina were at war, the sinking of the 1938 vintage vessel triggered an inordinate amount of moral preening and controversy over whether it was “legal” and necessary in Britain’s recovery of the islands.
1982: HMS Sheffield, a Royal Navy Type 42 destroyer operating in support of the re-capture of the Falkland Islands, is struck by a single Argentine Exocet missile. The ship caught fire and immediately lost electrical power. The primary fire main was also ruptured, dooming the ship. It sank under tow on May 10th, becoming the first RN ship to be lost to enemy action since WWII. Of her crew of 287, twenty were killed in the attack.
1992: Death of Marlene Dietrich (b.1901). The German actress, who defined the genre of “platinum blonde,” became an American citizen in 1939 after publicly rejecting Nazi attempts to bring her back to Germany, and making a particular point of her disgust with their anti-Semitism.