Wednesday, July 11, 2007

July 11

Until Dick Cheney peppered Harry Whittington’s face with birdshot a year and a half ago, July 11 was the only date on which someone had been shot by an American Vice President. On that morning in 1804, Alexander Hamilton took a bullet in the abdomen from Aaron Burr, who fired the fatal slug during their famous duel at Weehawken, New Jersey. Burr, who blamed Hamilton for his assorted political woes -- including Burr’s loss in the recent New York gubernatorial election -- had challenged the former treasury secretary to the chivalrous contest after Hamilton refused to disavow the many public and private insults he’d lobbed against Burr’s character.

A month after the affair, Dr. David Hosack, Hamilton’s physician and professor of medicine and botany at Columbia College, described the aftermath of the duel in a letter to William Coleman, a former law partner of Burr’s and a friend of the deceased:
When called to him upon his receiving the fatal wound, I found him half sitting on the ground, supported in the arms of Mr. Pendleton. His countenance of death I shall never forget. He had at that instant just strength to say, “This is a mortal wound, doctor;” when he sunk away, and became to all appearance lifeless. I immediately stripped up his clothes, and soon, alas! ascertained that the direction of the ball must have been through some vital part.
Indeed, the ball had pierced Hamilton’s liver and spine. The pain, one surmises, must have been excruciating.

John Quincy Adams, whose father happened to be one of Alexander Hamilton’s greatest political enemies, happened to turn 37 years old that day, but the wounded duellist did not actually give up the ghost until the next day.

Less than a century later, on 11 July 1897, a Swedish engineer named Salomon August Andrée lifted off from the Arctic island of Spitzbergen in a hydrogen balloon named the Ornen (“Eagle”). Amazingly, Andree hoped to float his way across the geographic North Pole on his way to either Russia or Canada; polar expeditions were all the rage during the latter decades of the 19th century, and by joining the pointless quest, the Swede hoped to earn individual fame while plumping his nation’s self-esteem.

Two days after ascending into the air, Andee and his two companions (Nils Strindberg and Knut Fraenkel) crashed, their insufficient supplies scattering across the ice pack. For the next three months, the men trudged southward. Suffering from dehydration, vitamin deficiencies and possible trichinosis -- which would have been contracted from eating undercooked polar bear meat -- the three men perished sometime in early October, having reached the island of Kvitoya. Their bodies, diaries and photographs of the doomed expedition were not recovered for more than three decades.

Celebrated during his era as a national hero, S. A. Andree is now widely regarded as a vainglorious fool.