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, 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.
1469: Birth of Niccolo Machiavelli (d.1527), observer of the machinations of the Borgia crimino-politico-religio family mafia, and author of the definitive treatise on governance: The Prince.
1494: On his second voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus sights the island of Jamaica. He names it St. Iago. The British re-name it Jamaica when they take the island in 1655.
1664: Louis XIV, France’s “Sun King,” opens the Palais du Versailles, originally the site of a small royal hunting lodge about 20 km (99.419 furlongs (3,976.79 rods (10.7991 nautical miles))) outside of Paris. May 7th was the first day of a week-long fete that doubled as not only a fund-raiser but also foreshadowed the opening moves in Louis’ concentration of political power by bringing the regional nobility quite literally under his roof.
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.
1802: Washington, DC is incorporated as a city. Both Virginia and Maryland cede to the federal government several hundred acres of swampy bottom land to create the District of Columbia– not the “State” of Columbia, you’ll notice- a non-sovereign federal district designed to be administered by Congress.
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: Napoleon Bonaparte (b.1769) dies 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.
1824: World premiere of Ludwig von Beethoven’s masterpiece, Symphony Number 9, in Vienna.
1840: Birth of the great Russian composer Pytor Ilych Tchaikosvsky (d.1893).
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 I 1864. Cinco de Mayo is more widely observed as a celebration of Mexican culture and food in the United States than in Mexico.
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.
1898: Following up the spectacular naval victory at Manila Bay, US Marines storm ashore and capture Cavite Station, raising the American Flag for the first time on soon-to-be American territory.
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. If you’re interested in this story (and I think you should be), may I recommend the long, but very readable, Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914, by David McCullough.
1919: Birth of Maria Eva Duarte de Peron, better known as Eva Peron.
1933: Birth of Johnny Unitas (d.2002), often regarded as the greatest NFL quarterback of all time, although with you-know-who retiring after the the 2017 season, it might be fun to compare and contrast some records. Unitas’ record of throwing TD passes in 47 straight games (1956-60) stands to this day.
1936: Wearing Yankee pinstripes, Joe DiMaggio plays his first major league ballgame. He gets three hits.
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. The dramatic newsreel footage of the crash is highlighted by announcer Herbert Morrison’s running commentary as it burns and falls to earth, punctuated by his plaintive cry, “Oh, the humanity!”
1939: Margaret Mitchell wins the Pulitzer Prize for her novel “Gone With the Wind.”
1942: First day of the Battle of Coral Sea. This engagement represents the first full-strength American attempt to halt the Japanese juggernaut in the South Pacific. It also becomes the first naval battle in history where the combatant ships are not within visual range of each other. After four furious days of aerial combat the Japanese forces cancel their planned attack on Port Moresby, New Guinea. From the bean-counting perspective the battle is a tactical win for Japan but in reality it is a strategic victory for the United States. Although the U.S. lost an aircraft carrier (USS Lexington (CV-2)) a destroyer, an oiler and 70 aircraft, the force took its toll on the Japanese with the destruction of 60 aircraft, sinking of a light carrier and major damage to two fleet carriers, which, because they were not included in the Midway campaign the following month, led to the massive American naval victory there.
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 Field Marshall Alfred Jodl signs unconditional surrender documents in Reims, France, formally ending the Second World War in Europe.
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.
1953: Ernest Hemingway is awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, The Old Man and the Sea.
1954: Final day of the 8 week Battle of Dien Bien Phu, a catastrophic French defeat that sealed the loss of their colonial holdings in Indo-China.
1961: Commander Alan Shepherd, USN, becomes the first American into space, three weeks after Yuri Gagarin’s historic orbital flight. Shepherd’sFreedom-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.
1970: Troops from the Ohio National Guard fire 67 live rounds into a group of anti-war protesters on the Kent State campus, killing four and wounding nine students.
1979: Margaret Thatcher becomes Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
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.
2002: Death of Dutch parliamentarian Pim Fortuyn (b.1948), a staunch critic of the corrosive effect of Islam on Dutch society.
2007: Death of Wally Schirra (b.1923), Naval Academy class of 1945, test pilot, and one of the original 7 Mercury astronauts. He is the only astronaut to fly in all three of America’s first space programs: Sigma-7, the fifth Mercury flight (6 orbits, 9 hours in space); Gemini-6A with Tom Stafford, making the first in-orbit rendezvous with Gemini-7; and Apollo-7 , an eleven day earth-orbital flight, the first flight of the program after the fatal Apollo-1 fire.