1521: Concluding the process of the Imperial Diet (the general assembly of the Imperial Estates of the Holy Roman Empire) that began in mid-April, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V issues the Edict of Worms, formally declaring Martin Luther a heretic and outlaw, subject to arrest and punishment. The edict reads in part: “For this reason we forbid anyone from this time forward to dare, either by words or by deeds, to receive, defend, sustain, or favor the said Martin Luther. On the contrary, we want him to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic, as he deserves, to be brought personally before us, or to be securely guarded until those who have captured him inform us, whereupon we will order the appropriate manner of proceeding against the said Luther. Those who will help in his capture will be rewarded generously for their good work.” Disregarding prior negotiations that promised safe passage, Luther’s friend and mentor Prince Frederick III, Elector of Saxony captured him enroute to his home and spirited him away to safe haven in Wartburg Castle, where he began work on his German translation of the Bible. The Edict was temporarily suspended in 1526 but was put back in force in 1529. Although it was never enforced against Luther himself, it was used as justification for arrests of Lutheran agitators in the Low Countries under Charles’ direct control.
1588: The Spanish Armada, a fleet of 130 ships loaded with over 30,000 men, sets sail from Lisbon enroute to the English Channel on a mission to invade Britain, de-throne Elizabeth I, and restore a Catholic monarchy on the island. Under King Philip II, Spain was the unquestioned superpower of its day, having grown rich exploiting the gold and silver of the New World. For its part, England had recently welcomed back the explorer and privateer Francis Drake from his Spanish-bashing circumnavigation, and between him and Sir Walter Raleigh (with an assist from the weather), the Armada was not long for the world.
1618: The Second Defenestration of Prague sets up conditions that trigger the Thirty Years’ War. So what was this all about? Background: the first defenestration occurred in the summer of 1419, when a Bohemian priest named Jan Zelivsky led a group of communicants past the city hall in protest of growing inequality between the peasantry and the nobility and high priests of the Church. From the third story window of the town council, someone threw a large rock at Zelivsky. This enraged the crowd, and a group of them seized the hall, surged up the stairway and threw the judge, the burgomaster, and thirteen others out the window, where they either died from the fall or were killed by the mob below. Not surprisingly, this event triggered a war- The Hussite Wars- that lasted until 1436. The second defenestration was the result of what on the surface appears to be a somewhat arcane dispute over land ownership and the authority of the state, but was in reality a proxy for the long-simmering Catholic-Protestant schism that roiled central Europe for nearly a hundred years. A group of Protestant landowners bribed their way into the Prague Castle, but found only four Regents and their secretary meeting. Intent on making the “traditional” Bohemian point of order, they threw two of the Regents and the secretary out the third floor window. They landed in a large manure pile, and all three of them survived. Catholic propagandists declared that this was clearly the work of angels and that God was on the Catholic’s side; to the Protestant propagandists this proved that the Catholics were in league with horse dung. This affair became the catalyst for the 30 year war that followed.
1626: Director-General of the New Netherlands division of the Dutch West Indian Company, Peter Minuit, purchases Manhattan Island from the local indigenous tribe for items valued at 60 Guilders, often mis-represented as $24 of wampum. In order to both help perpetuate tradition (the $24 story), while still propagating something resembling truth, here is a little context: records also exist of Minuit negotiating for similar ownership rights on Staten Island in trade for “duffle cloth, iron kettles and axe heads, hoes, drilling awls, Jew’s Harps and other divers items…” Historians Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace in 1999 put this into modern terms: “…the Dutch were engaged in high-end technology transfer, handing over equipment of enormous usefulness in tasks ranging from clearing land to drilling wampum.”
1701: Death of Scottish-American privateer Captain William Kidd (b.1655), hanged by the neck until dead after his conviction for murder and piracy in a London court. His corpse is put into a gibbet on the Execution Dock, where it remains on display for thirty years (yes) as a warning to other potential pirates. Kidd’s story is the basis for many tales of buried treasure and other themes from the “golden age” of piracy. There remains to this day something of a cottage industry engaged in clearing his name by establishing his bone fides as an authorized privateer, betrayed by his sponsors in England.
1738: Christian conversion of John Wesley, who went on to lead the Methodist movement in Great Britain.
1738: The English colonies of Pennsylvania and Maryland sign a peace treaty, ending Cresap’s War, also known as the Conojocular War. The boundary dispute arose out of an imprecise description of Pennsylvania’s southern boundary in its 1681 charter- or more exactly, a very precise description based on incorrect geography: the start point was the town of New Castle, Delaware, and from thence “…a circle drawn at twelve miles distance from New Castle Northward and Westward unto the beginning of the fortieth degree of Northern Latitude, and then by a straight Line Westward..” Without going into gory detail, the dispute reared up in 1730 when Maryland began to enforce its territorial claims after ten years of settlements and counter-settlements by Pennsylvanians in the lands west of the Susquehanna River. The flash point became dueling ferry services (no joke) established by the two colonies. In 1730 two Pennsylvanians attacked the Maryland ferry run by Thomas Cresap. No-one was injured, but Cresap began a harassment campaign against Pennsylvania settlers, eventually leading sporadic violence against both parties, and ultimately to the militias of both colonies marching across each others’ claims. King George II ordered the Royal Committee for Plantation Affairs to settle the dispute, and the agreement was signed on May 25th. The territorial definition was conclusively settled after the 1767 survey completed by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, giving us the Mason/Dixon Line.
1759: In the opening battle of the French and Indian War, the Virginia Militia, under the leadership of 22 year old Lieutenant Colonel George Washington, defeats a French surveying party in western Pennsylvania.
1787: The Constitutional Convention, under the leadership of General George Washington, convenes in Philadelphia to write a new governing document to replace the inadequate Articles of Confederation.
1803: Birth of prolific English author Edward George Bulwer-Lytton (d.1873), whose original prose includes such current clichés as: “the pen is mightier than the sword” and “the great unwashed” and “the pursuit of the almighty dollar” and perhaps most famously, “It was a dark and stormy night…”
1856: Abolitionist John Brown leads a group that murders five pro-slavery settlers in Pottawatomie, Kansas. Before the secessionist movement took root in the South, “Bleeding Kansas” became the violent first battleground between pro- and anti-slavery forces.
1863: The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the nation’s first all-black regiment, leaves Boston to begin fighting for the Union.
1878: Opening night of Gilbert and Sullivan’s crazy, kind of rock and roll opera, HMS Pinafore.
1883: After 14 years of highly technical and complex construction, the Brooklyn Bridge opens for traffic.
1896: In Moscow, the thirty year old Nikolay Alexandrovich Romanov is crowned Czar Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias.
1896: In New York, James Dow publishes his first index of key industrial stocks, 12 companies with an index value of 40.94.
1914: Bosnian Serb anarchist Gavrillo Princip leaves Belgrade on a conspiratorially secret 10 day journey to Sarajevo.
1921: Opening day in the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, in Boston. The two immigrant Italian anarchists, usually described sympathetically as a shoe-maker and a fish monger, were arrested for robbery and murder, and after a internationally sensational trial were sentenced to death. The trial gained notoriety not only for the lurid twists and turns promulgated by both the prosecution and the defense (“someone changed the barrel of his gun!”), but also by the two’s unrepentant status as international anarchists. Further controversy followed as the presiding judge Webster Thayer refused to grant five motions for new trials, later confronting a colleague with, “Did you see what I did with those anarchistic bastards the other day? I guess that will hold them for a while…” Sacco and Vanzetti’s case became a cause célèbre with leftists world-wide, and even non-leftists grew increasingly uncomfortable with the court’s seeming disregard for normal evidentiary rules and appeal procedures. With the wheels of justice inexorably moving forward, Sacco and Vanzetti were electrocuted on August 23rd, 1927. To no one’s surprise, anarchist riots and bombings broke out in response as far away as Buenos Aires.
1923: First running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in Sarthe, France.
1934: After a four year spree of robbery and murder, Bonnie Parker (b.1910) and Clyde Barrow (b.1909) are gunned down by a posse in rural Black Lake, Louisiana.
1937: Opening Day of the Golden Gate Bridge, linking San Francisco with my actual hometown in Marin County.
1940: Opening of the 9-day Battle of Dunkirk, where British and other Allied forces were surrounded on the French beach by two German armies which swept across the Low Countries and burst out of the “un-passable” Ardennes Forest to overwhelm the defenses of France. Inexplicably, rather than destroying or capturing the fleeing forces, Hitler ordered a ceasefire that lasted three days, during which the British were able to establish a defensible perimeter and set conditions for a somewhat orderly evacuation under fire, which rained down primarily from the Luftwaffe. The eventual evacuation of 338,226 men via a flotilla of “the little ships of Dunkirk” became the stuff of legend, and the nucleus of the army that would return to the Continent at Normandy four years later.
“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.” -Winston Churchill, June 4, 1940; speech to Parliament after the completion of the Dunkirk evacuation.
1940: Completely overrun by the Wehrmacht, the Belgian King Leopold III capitulates to the Germans after 18 days of bitter fighting. Rather than fleeing to lead the government-in-exile, he remains in Belgium under house arrest for five years, including a forced deportation into Germany in 1944. The split between the king and his government remained bitter, even after the war ended, leading to his abdication in 1951 in favor of his son Baudouin, who reigned until his death in 1993.
1941(a): On her breakout cruise into the North Atlantic, the German battleship Bismarck engages and sinks HMS Hood, which goes to the bottom with the loss of all hands save three.
1941(b): Birth of Bob Dylan. How does that feel? Like a rolling stone?
1945: Nazi chief of the SS Heinrich Himmler commits suicide in his Allied cell, thus avoiding public responsibility for his war crimes.
1948: Birth of Stevie Nicks of band Fleetwood Mac.
1961: President John F. Kennedy gives his famous speech committing the United States to land a man on the moon and bring him safely back by the end of the decade.
1972: President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Leonoid Brezhnev sign the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The landmark agreement limited the parties to a single fixed site (Moscow and Grand Forks, ND) and for practical purposes enshrined Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) as a viable basis for the relationship of the two nuclear superpowers. The United States withdrew from the treaty in December, 2002, per the provision requiring six months notice.
1982: British forces on the Falklands “yomp” their way across the island to defeat Argentine defenders in the Battle of Goose Green.
1987: 19 year old German pilot Mathias Rust flies a Cessna 172 unscathed through hundreds of miles of Soviet air defenses and lands the machine in Moscow’s Red Square.
2016 – 17-year-old silverback gorilla Harambe was killed in his enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo.