1605: Discovery, with only hours to spare, of The Gunpowder Plot– an audacious conspiracy by leading British Catholics to blow up the Houses of Parliament and King James I himself, in hopes of leading a violent restoration of Catholicism in Great Britain. The thirteen conspirators spent months coordinating- in addition to strategic kidnappings, escape routes and proclamations- access to a large basement storeroom located directly beneath the House of Lords and filling it with multiple barrels of gunpowder, which remained hidden behind firewood and coal. On the night of 4-5 November, the point man for the detonation, Guy Fawkes, worked his way toward the storeroom, disguised as a firewood delivery man. He was stopped and questioned by a watchman but was allowed to continue his work. Late into the evening, alerted by concerned (ironically, Catholic) Parliamentarians, a renewed search of the Parliament “above and below” the chambers found Fawkes in the room directly below the Lords, carrying a slow match and a pocket-watch, dressed in black and wearing riding spurs. He was arrested on the spot, and when news of the arrest was made public, the Gunpowder conspirators vainly scattered into hiding. They were systematically arrested, tortured, confessed, were tried and found guilty of treason, and executed by hanging, drawing and quartering, with their limbs sent to the far corners of the realm, and the rest of their mortal remains burned into ash. The successful discovery and destruction of the plot led to immediate celebrations throughout England. One year later, Parliament passed the Observance of 5th November 1605 Act, which called for sermons and services remembering the salvation of England from the plot, complete with the ringing of church bells and celebratory bonfires. The Act remained on the books as law until 1859, but the day remains a major holiday in Great Britain, known variously as Guy Fawkes’ Day, Bonfire Night, or Fireworks Night. As part of the tradition, boys will make up an effigy of Fawkes, and after parading the “guy” through town, place it atop the pyre where it is burned .
1783: The final public execution is held at London’s Tyburn Gallows. The place played a significant role in 18th century popular culture, with permanent grandstands set up for the regular spectacle. A number of popular catch phrases were coined to describe the happenings: a Tyburn dance or jig (i.e., the post-drop twitching); take a drive to Tyburn (i.e., in the gaol wagon); the Lord Manor of Tyburn (the executioner). According to the estimable Wikipedia, the condemned were expected to put on a good show, being both well-dressed for the hanging, and displaying no fear. Those that failed to live up to the crowd’s standards were jeered. All in all, it was a pretty coarse time, I’d say. The site is now covered by the traffic roundabout at Marble Arch.
1831: Leader of the August slave uprising (DLH 8/21) over in Surrey County, Nat Turner, is tried, convicted and hanged by the neck until dead.
1860: Illinois lawyer and former Congressman Abraham Lincoln is elected President of the United States.
1861: Mississippi Congressman and Senator Jefferson Davis is elected to a six year term as President of the Confederate States of America in an uncontested election.
1865: Seven months after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the Confederate commerce raider CSS Shenandoah, under Captain James Waddell, surrenders to the government of Great Britain after completing a year-long, 58,000 mile circumnavigation of the globe. During the voyage, Shenandoah captured or destroyed 38 ships, mostly Yankee whalers, took over a thousand prisoners, and earned more than $1,400,000 in prize money. She has the distinction of having fired the last shot in the Civil War (against a whaler in the Gulf of Alaska), and being the last Confederate unit to surrender active operations.
1872: The brigantine Mary Celeste, under command of Captain Benjamin Briggs, sets sail from New York City enroute to Genoa, Italy. In a letter to his mother before getting underway, Briggs wrote, “Our vessel is in beautiful trim and I hope we shall have a fine passage but I have never been in her before and can’t say how she’ll sail…”
1899: Death of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (b.1840), prolific Russian composer The Nutcracker Suite.
1903: The Colombian province of Panama stages a revolt and declares its independence. The United States immediately recognizes the new nation, and guarantees its defense. Conveniently, the United States also has plans to build a canal across the isthmus, and the new government of Panama graciously cedes the Canal Zone to the U.S. to ensure the security and successful administration of the project. [Contemporary map of the Canal Zone.
1911: Birth of the King of the Cowboys, Roy Rogers .
1917: After three months of continuous and brutal combat in the thick mud of western Flanders, Canadian Commonwealth troops capture the town of Passchendaele from the occupying Germans. The battle, also known as 3rd Ypres, was British Field Marshall Haig’s third attempt to evict the Germans from their hold on the ports and coastline of Belgium. The taking of Passchendaele, although considered a success, came at the cost of 140,000 combat deaths, or a ratio of two inches of ground per dead soldier, to say nothing of the remaining 300,000 non-fatal casualties on the Allied side alone. The slaughter and misery of the Ypres salient remains unimaginable. [Before and after aerial shots of Passchendaele; close-up of the terrain; the Menin Gate memorial near Ypres, shown on its opening day in 1927.
1935: First flight of the Hawker Hurricane fighter. Although it was overshadowed by the more glamourous Spitfire, the Hurricane accounted for over 60% of the fighter victories in the Battle of Britain.
1935: Parker Brothers acquires the patent for the board game Monopoly.
1944: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is elected to a fourth term in office.
1957: The Soviet Union launches the first living being into orbit, the dog Laika, who survives the launch and initial orbit, but dies within two hours. There was no plan for a de-orbit recovery, and the Soviets announced she died by being automatically euthanized prior to oxygen deprivation. Recently opened archives indicate she actually died from overheating due to a critical component of the booster system failing to detach.
1879: Birth of American humorist Will Rogers (d.1935), whose wry quips, homespun humor and incisive newspaper columns gave voice to the American heartland during the boom and bust period of the 1920s-30s. He died in a plane crash flying with the pioneer aviator Wiley Post.
1918: After four years of bitter fighting in the southern Alps, Austria-Hungary surrenders to Italy, thus closing the Great War’s Italian front. You may remember that this was the area where Earnest Hemingway was wounded as a Red Cross ambulance driver, and which later became the setting for his novel A Farewell to Arms. The Italian front also served as the backdrop for one of my all-time favorite novels, Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War (1991), whose descriptions of Alpine combat vividly juxtapose the mute grandeur of the mountains with the chaotic brutality of armies clashing below. November 4th is now celebrated in Italy as Armed Forces Day.
1918: Spurred on by communist agitators, and triggered by the issuance of an order to sortie the High Seas Fleet for combat against the Royal Navy, over 40,000 German sailors mutiny in support of a smaller cadre of earlier mutineers who were already imprisoned. Chanting the slogan, “Peace and Bread!” (Frieden und brot!), the sailors surge through the city, overwhelming the police and taking control of key government buildings. News of the mutiny spreads throughout Germany, catapulting the Social Democrat Party (SPD) from a rump of left-wing radicals into a powerful force suddenly at the head of a communist revolution. With the real possibility of a devastating social revolution compounding German losses on the Western Front, the government convinces the Kaiser to abdicate the monarchy, thereby permitting the formation of an interim constitutional government. Although the SPD did not plan on completely overthrowing the existing order, the revolutionary and political turmoil continued to ferment throughout the major German cities but never proceeded to the level of violence or political angst duplicating the Bolshevik takeover of Russia. The German revolution fizzled out concurrent with the announcement of the Weimar Republic in August of 1919.
1939: President Franklin Roosevelt orders the U.S. Customs Service to allow cash & carry sales of armaments to belligerents in the European war, Great Britain in particular. In the context of the earlier quid of the old four-piper destroyers (DLH 10/30), one might wonder about the quo demanded by the President Roosevelt, a quo demanded from an ally whose territory was under direct attack; an ally whose army on the Continent was on its heels and in desperate need of supplies; an ally whose food shipments from the United States were being torpedoed to the bottom of the Atlantic… for our help, Roosevelt demanded money for today’s purchases, and indefinite “lease” agreements to such British colonial holdings as Bermuda, Diego Garcia, the Virgin Islands, unlimited access to Canadian harbors, etc. Quid pro quo has a long, long history in diplomatic circles; it’s pretty much how diplomacy works.
1942: German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, having had his North African armored juggernaut stopped at the gates of Alexandria, is forced to begin his withdrawal back toward Tunisia as a result of British Field Bernard Montgomery’s armoured breakout at the seam between the German and Italian forces. The advancing British not only split the Axis force, they also threatened to completely encircle the Germans. Rommel ignored a direct order from Hitler to fight to the last man, deciding instead to save his forces and make a strategic withdrawal to a position where he could counter-attack the soon-to-be overextended British tanks. Rommel’s withdrawal today was the turning point for the Battle of El Alemain.
1979: Under the direction of the Ayatollah Khomeini, Iranian University “students” storm the United States Embassy in Tehran and take 90 hostages, 53 of whom are American citizens. Despite a few releases, the Americans are held hostage for 444 days, released by the Iranian government at the hour of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration as President at noon on January 20th, 1981. One of those “student” thugs bears an uncanny resemblance to the thug who recently served as “President” of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mohammed Ats-a-dinner-jacket.
1980: Death of Steve McQueen.