420 A.D: Death of Saint Jerome (b.347 A.D.), an early Christian scholar and one of the Doctors of the Church, who is best known for his seminal work of translating Hebrew and Greek biblical texts into a standardized Latin version, known as the Vulgate, in addition to a huge number of incisive commentaries on various books and letters contained in therein. He is recognized as a Saint by all the major High Church denominations. You’ll recognize his iconography as the wizened man pulling a thorn from the lion’s paw, or struggling with temptation in the desert, or most likely, writing in the midst of a pile of books while being attended by angels.
1187: After three weeks of siege (DLH 9/20), the Saracen warlord Saladin captures Jerusalem, ending 88 years of Crusader rule over the Holy City. In contrast to the Crusaders’ bloodletting and mayhem when they entered the city in 1092, Saladin permitted the option of an orderly departure of its citizens, or a hefty dhimmi tax. Thirty days after the fall, Jerusalem’s gates were opened and the vast majority of the city left under Saladin’s guarantee of safe passage for Antioch and other Christian strongholds along the Levant coast.
1226: Death of the monk Francis of Assisi (b.1181), who renounced a life of wealth and soldiering in favor of a life of pious poverty and prayer. His Franciscan Order grew to be one of the most influential in Europe, with its ministry structured on the simple precept: “To follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in his footsteps,” the injunction being drawn from Francis’ reading of Matthew 10:9. The current Bishop of Rome took Francis’ name when he ascended to the papacy in 2013.
1535: French explorer Jacques Cartier lays claim to the area now known as Montreal, Canada.
1574: Six years into what would become the Eighty Years War (also known as the Dutch War of Independence) a flat-bottomed fleet of boats and ships, collected and led by Prince William the Silent of the House of Orange, and manned by the Watergeuzen*, lifts the Siege of Leiden, and saves the university city from certain desolation from the hand of the Spanish Duke of Alva. The dynastic ebbs and flows of the 16th and 17th Centuries provide much fodder for our lingering cultural sense of what is good and what is not. It always struck me as odd that the 17 provinces of the Netherlands were under Spanish rule, unless you remember that Spain was, itself, ruled by princes from the Austrian House of Hapsburg. The economic power of this tiny region provided an unusually lucrative income for the Spanish throne, and they took great pains to keep it under the Spanish thumb, both politically and economically. William of Orange tapped into the stirrings of Dutch nationalism and led a rebellion against Spanish rule that would eventually lead to the independence of the Netherlands in 1648, but that’s another story. Back to the Siege of Leiden: this beautiful and strategically located city was a hotbed of independent thinking and support for the rebellion, and Alva was especially ruthless in his attempts to beat them down. The city’s outstanding defensive dispositions- walls and moats- protected it from Alva’s first investment a couple years earlier, and again during this siege. But the city’s situation also made them terribly isolated from William’s relieving force. William finally sent a carrier pigeon into the city, telling them to hang on for three more months, at which point he would arrive by boat with a relieving force. To do so, he broke the dykes between the North Sea and Leiden, and systematically sailed his fleet across the flooded polderland, driving Alva’s forces from the field and relieving the city, unloading tons of herring and white bread for the starving citizens. The event remains a Big Deal in the Dutch psyche, and includes those odd little bits that you sometimes wonder about. For example, if Dutch children are bad at Christmastime, they are threatened with being fed to the Black Prince (Alva always wore black), or they are threatened with being sent off to Spain, which would have been a terrifying proposition in 1574. The day is celebrated today with meals of herring and white bread, and a carrot & onion stew called “Hutspot,” which was actually a Spanish meal, abandoned hot by the defending army at the sudden appearance of the rising waters that carried in the watergeuzen.
1770: Death of Christian evangelist and founder of Methodism, George Whitfield (b.1714), whose open-air sermons in the fields of England sparked a significant spiritual revival in that country. He first came over to the New World in 1738 and continued his custom of preaching the Gospel to huge crowds in outdoor venues. In 1740 he began a preaching a series of revivals that lasted continuously for several months, beginning in New England and ending in Charleston, South Carolina. His work during this period, and the explosive growth of churches throughout the colonies are now known as The Great Awakening. Whitfield’s voice, his crossed eyes, his charisma and his message made him one of the most recognized and celebrated men in the English colonies, widely admired by even the worldly Benjamin Franklin, who considered him a lifelong friend. He is buried in the Old South Church in Newburyport, Massachusetts.
1780: British spy John Andre is hanged by the neck until dead. You’ll remember that he was closely aligned with Benedict Arnold’s plan to turn over West Point to the British. Although he proclaimed his innocence of espionage, his plea was undone by the plans for West Point tucked into his socks, which did not go over well with the military tribunal who sentenced him. Interestingly, everyone associated with him between his arrest and his hanging agreed that he remained the consummate gentleman, facing death like a true soldier, despite not being allowed a soldierly death by firing squad.
1871: Birth of Nobel Laureate Cordell Hull (d.1955), who carries the distinction of being the nation’s longest-serving Secretary of State- 11 years- during the administration of Franklin Roosevelt. He is credited with being the “Father of the United Nations,” a role for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1945. In my mind, his best moment occurred on the morning of December 7th, 1941, when he received word about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor at the very moment two Japanese diplomats were in his anteroom awaiting an audience regarding continuing negotiations. What happened then is deliciously described in the estimable Wikipedia:
“Roosevelt advised him not to tell them about the raid but ‘to receive them formally and coolly bow them out’. After he had glanced at their copy of the fourteen-part message [Japan’s declaration that negotiations were at an end], Hull’s anger burst forth. ‘In all my fifty years of public service,I have never seen such a document that was more crowded with infamous falsehood and distortion.’ Nomura and Kurusu, who had not been told of the attack, bowed themselves out in an embarrassed fluster. A department official overheard Hull muttering under his breath as the door closed, ‘Scoundrels and piss-ants.’”
1882: American inventor Thomas Edison, creating the market infrastructure for his electrical inventiveness, opens his first commercial hydroelectric power station on the Fox River near Appleton, Wisconsin.
1919: President Woodrow Wilson suffers a massive stroke that paralyzes the left side of his body, rendering him essentially incapacitated for the remainder of his Presidency. His wife Edith completely controlled his schedule and access to anyone outside the immediate White House circle, particularly the Vice President, the entire Cabinet, and visiting Members of Congress. After several months, she arranged for journalist Louis Sibold to write a false account of his health. Toward the end of his term, he would be wheeled into the Cabinet Room, where he would preside but only make the most perfunctory remarks.
1921: Birth of North American Aviation test pilot Scott Crossfield (d.2006), who alternated with fellow test pilot Chuck Yeager in setting altitude and speed records in increasingly spectacular and dangerous test aircraft during the 1950s. He was the first to reach Mach 2.0. He was intimately involved in the design and test flights of the X-15 rocket plane, flying the machine 14 times to verify systems and procedures, without making any record-breaking flights himself. His own X-15 records are Mach 2.97, and an altitude of 91,800 feet; not too shabby in any pilot’s logbook (FYI: my own records are Mach 1.87 (in an F-16N), 805 knots indicated airspeed at sea level (F-16N), and 58,900 feet (in a double-bubble (i.e. two drop tanks) FA-18 trying to intercept a U-2 who was flying at 68,000 feet (until I finally started to think about what I was doing at that altitude (the air is pretty dark up there (and there’s not much of it)))).
1927: Outfielder Babe Ruth of the New York Yankees smacks his 60th home run of the season, a record that will stand until 1961.
1928: Birth of Nobel Laureate, Holocaust survivor and relentless Nazi-hunter, Elie Wiesel (d.2016).
1935: Fascist Italy, under the Progressive reformer Benito Mussolini, opens its invasion of Abyssinia, an eight month conflict that ended with the region’s annexation into the Italian Empire of Italian East Africa. The glory days were brief, as the colonies were stripped away from Italy by the Allies of World War II, and granted independence as Ethiopia and Somalia. As if more evidence were needed, this war also underlined the futile efforts of the League of Nations to create a viable forum for settling international disputes. And for us language mavens, the independence of these two new countries (of itself a good thing) also foreclosed on two more of those East African place-names that are so entertaining to pronounce: Somaliland and Abyssinia.
1938: The League of Nations, perhaps sensing the true import of yesterday’s Munich Pact, unanimously passes a resolution that outlaws “intentional bombing of civilian populations.” Very helpful, this resolution, I’m sure.
1947: First television broadcast of the World Series, the contest that year being between the New York Yankees (there they are again!) and the Brooklyn Dodgers.
1950: First installment of the Peanuts cartoon strip, written and drawn by Charles Schultz.
1955: First television broadcast of Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club.
1962: Navy Commander Wally Schirra blasts into orbit aboard Sigma-7 the fifth flight of the Mercury space program. The six-orbit mission lasted a little over 9 hours. The Sigma-7 mission was distinctive from the engineering perspective as it tested the suitability of spacecraft systems for progressively longer duration missions. The tests did not make for much drama (other than the fact of orbiting in space), as Schirra spent much of the mission doing essentially nothing, either permitting the spacecraft automated flight controls to maintain its positioning, or shutting down the system entirely for hours at a time, and then seeing what happened when it was re-engaged. It provided proof-of-concept for the remaining Mercury flight (22 orbits) and the much more ambitious planning for the Gemini program. Schirra was the only one of the original astronauts to fly on all three of the United States’ original space programs.
1966: The former British Protectorate of Bechuanaland declares its independence and changes its name to Botswana. It’s a shame about the name change, as it is one of those historic place-names, like Zanzibar and Tanganyika, that just feel good to pronounce out loud.
1968: At their plant in Everett, Washington, the Boeing Company rolls out the astonishing 747 airliner. 1,533 of them have been built to date, in no fewer than seven variants. This is probably the place to add that the machine’s wingspan (211 feet) is longer than the Wright Brothers first flight in (120 feet) in 1903.
1990: The final day of existence for the not-to-be lamented German Democratic Republic.
1995: The blood-soaked and shrunken leather glove didn’t fit, so Heisman Award winner O. J. Simpson is acquitted of murdering his wife and houseguest, freeing him to find the “real killer” on golf courses and memorabilia shows all around the warmer tier of the country.