Thursday, January 31, 2008

January 31

American Private Eddie Slovik was shot for desertion on this date in 1945. He had abandoned the 109th Infantry Regimen, 28th Infantry Division in October 1944, just two months after arriving in France. Because of his record of petty criminality as a youth in Detroit, Slovik was originally declared unfit for military service in 1942. As the meat-grinder of war proceeded, however, his classification was changed and Eddie Slovik was declared fit for duty in 1944. Slovik was despondent during basic training and announced his intent to “run away” from his assignment, believing that he would spend at most a few months in prison. Instead, a nine-man jury convicted him of violating the 58th Article of War in November 1944 and sentenced him to death by firing squad.

Slovik appealed to General Dwight David Eisenhower for clemency but was denied two days before Christmas; desertion had become a problem among US soldiers, and the General was eager to set a deterrent example. Sixty-two years ago today, Eddie Slovik's sentence was carried out near the French village of Ste Marie aux Mines. Of the 49 American deserters sentenced to die during the war, Slovik’s sentence was the only one not commuted. In addition to Pvt. Slovik, 21,048 American soldiers deserted their units during World War II.

Just before he was shot, Slovik was urged by one of his executioners "take it easy, Eddie. Try to make it easy on yourself -- and on us."

"Don't worry about me," Slovik responded. "I'm okay. They're not shooting me for deserting the United Stated Army -- thousands of guys have done that. They're shooting me for bread I stole when I was 12 years old."

In the last letter he ever wrote, Slovik mused to his wife that “Everything happens to me. I've never had a streak of luck in my life. The only luck I had in my life was when I married you. I knew it wouldn't last because I was too happy. I knew they would not let me be happy.”

Antoinette Slovik had never actually been told that her husband was to be shot. The army insisted afterward that the young private should have told her himself. Riven with grief and anger, Antoinette struggled to clear her husband’s name until her own death in 1979. She asked seven American presidents -- including Dwight Eisenhower -- to issue her husband a pardon. All refused.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

January 30

Today is the anniversary of the "Bloody Sunday" massacre in Derry, Northern Ireland in 1972. During a routine protest against British rule, soldiers from the British Parachute
Regimen shot 26 unarmed demonstrators in the Bogside area of Derry, which had been a nationalist stronghold for two years. When British commanders received erroneous word that Irish Republican Army snipers were among the crowd, live rounds replaced rubber bullets and thirteen people died; a fourteenth died several months later from the wounds he received that day. Most of the dead and injured were shot as they fled the paratroopers, and none were armed. General Sir Robert Ford, commander of land forces in Northern Ireland, claimed after the melee that his troops had fired only three shots.

According to the Coroner’s report, issued 20 months after the attack,
[T]he Army ran amok that day and shot without thinking what they were doing. They were shooting innocent people. These people may have been taking part in a march that was banned but that does not justify the troops coming in and firing live rounds indiscriminately. I would say without hesitation that it was sheer, unadulterated murder.

The Widgery Commission Report, which whitewashed the events of 30 January 1972, found that the army's conduct had merely "bordered on the reckless."


Oliver Cromwell, military commander of the Protestant armies during the English Civil War and Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England from 1653-1658, was executed at Tyburn gallows on this date in 1661. A decade before, following English tradition, Cromwell himself had laid waste to northeastern Ireland. After being hanged, Cromwell was decapitated; while his head was mounted on a post and displayed outside Westminster Abbey, his body was reportedly dumped into a common pit. The head remained on display until 1685. It was not buried, however, until 1960.

Oddly enough, on the day of his beheading, Oliver Cromwell had already been dead for two years, having expired from malaria and a kidney infection in September 1658. Nearly a decade before his own death, Cromwell had successfully urged Parliament to execute Charles I for treason, an execution that was carried out in public on 30 January 1649. Cromwell famously described the beheading of Charles I -- twelve years to the day before his own -- as a “cruel necessity.” When the royalists recaptured power in 1660, Cromwell was convicted posthumously of the same crime for which Charles had been dispossessed of his own head. John Bradshaw, who had presided over Charles' trial in 1649, was drawn and quartered along with Cromwell; Parliamentary generals Henry Ireton and Thomas Pride were handled in more or less the same fashion.

All three happened to be dead as well.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

January 29

President Andrew Jackson, whose legend often presents him as a friend of the commoner, called upon federal troops to suppress a labor uprising on this date in 1834 -- the first and certainly not the last time such powers would be invoked by an American president.

The conflict, which broke out along the sixth section of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, involved rival groups of Irish workers near Williamsport, Maryland. After a laborer named John Irons was beaten to death on January 16, a week of clashes between “the Corkonians” and “the Longford men” resulted in dozens killed and scores wounded in clashes that at times involved hundreds of workers. Construction along the B&O was suspended, and the Maryland legislature appealed to President Jackson to intervene.

As it turns out, the president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was a close friend of Jackson’s. Indeed, John H. Eaton was a former Senator from Tennessee and had served two years as Jackson’s Secretary of War; he was quite open about his view that American troops should remain in his company’s service for months to come. After Jackson ordered two companies of troops to suppress the disturbances on January 29, Eaton wrote a letter to his friend and wondered if the soldiers might stick around to coerce the strikers into obedience. They did. In February 1835 -- more than a year later -- a section of B&O workers struck for higher wages. As Niles’ Weekly Register reported, mounted troops and riflement “happily reduced the rioters to order, and drove them away.”


Novelist, ecologist, and anarchist Edward Abbey was born on this day in 1927. Abbey died in 1989, a little over a week after George Herbert Walker Bush was inaugurated as 41st president of the US. Abbey once wrote that “Recorded history is largely an account of the crimes & disasters committed by banal little men at the levers of imperial machines.”

On what would have been Abbey’s 75th birthday, the 43rd President of the US -- also named George Bush -- declared Iraq, Iran and North Korea to be an “axis of evil.” As The Decider explained, “I will not wait on events while dangers gather. I will not stand by as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons.”

Twenty-nine years ago today, a 16-year-old girl named Brenda Ann Spencer shot eight children and three adults — two of whom died — at Grover Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego. Asked after her arrest to explain her motive, Spencer merely told police that she didn’t like Mondays. The Boomtown Rats wrote a song about Spencer. Titled “I Don’t Like Mondays,” it was released nine months after the shooting.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

January 24

If the written accounts of Caligula's life are to be believed, his assassination on this date in anno domini 41 passed without significant mourning. The fourth of the so-called "twelve Caesars," Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus earned the nickname "Caligula" -- meaning "little boot" -- as a young boy, after the miniature soldier's uniform in which his father used to dress him. Shortly after assuming the title of Emperor in the year 37, Caligula was striken by a still-undetermined affliction and emerged from his convalescence an unparalleled monster. His reputation as a moral degenerate, already secured by the time he ascended to office, only magnified over the next four years. The Roman biographer Suetonius later described Caligula as a thin-skinned, deranged sadist. He lay in incest with his sisters; he fed criminals to the lions when raw beef was scarce; he closed the granaries merely to watch his people starve a bit. He drank pearls dissolved in vinegar and had gold cast in the shape of bread loaves. He is reported to have wished that "the Roman people had but a single neck," the better to throttle his subjects all at once.

In The Lives of the Caesars, the chapter devoted to Caligula is more or less a stomach-turning recitation of his crimes against nature and humanity. As Suetonius writes,
Many men of honourable rank were first disfigured with the marks of branding-irons and then condemned to the mines, to work at building roads, or to be thrown to the wild beasts; or else he shut them up in cages on all fours, like animals, or had them sawn asunder. Not all these punishments were for serious offences, but merely for criticising one of his shows, or for never having sworn by his Genius. He forced parents to attend the executions of their sons . . . . He had the manager of his gladiatorial shows and beast-baitings beaten with chains in his presence for several successive days, and would not kill him until he was disgusted at the stench of his putrefied brain. He burned a writer of Atellan farces alive in the middle of the arena of the amphitheatre, because of a humorous line of double meaning. When a Roman knight on being thrown to the wild beasts loudly protested his innocence, he took him out, cut off his tongue, and put him back again.
Eventually, Caligula declared himself to be a god. After less than four years of rule, Caligula was stabbed to death by Cassius Chaerea and a mob of fellow guardsmen; according to several accounts, the assassination -- though planned in advance -- was instigated when Caligula insulted Chaerea's wounded penis one too many times.

As the Roman historian Cassius Dio later quipped, in death Caligula "learned by actual experience that he was not a god."



Wednesday, January 23, 2008

January 23


In the early morning light of 23 January 1870, calvalrymen from the 2nd US Regiment attacked an encampment of South Piegan Indians along the Marias River in northern Montana. The Blackfoot Confederacy -- which included two tribes of Piegan in Canada and Montana -- had been ensnared in a low-intensity confict with the United States for a number of years, although not all bands were regarded as hostile to the US. Indeed, one of the "friendly" bands was led by Running Horse, whose people were massacred 138 years ago today.

Led by Major Eugene Baker, the American troops acted that day on orders from General Philip Sheridan, who encouraged Baker to use his own discretion in punishing the Piegan for the murder of a white trader and his family several months prior to the attack. Although it was known that "hostiles" were located downstream under the leadership of Mountain Chief, Baker was also given to understand that the ambush should be considered a preemptive strike, since -- so the logic went -- anyone killed would have posed a threat to white interests anyway. With temperatures dropping to a staggering 40 degrees below zero, Baker and his officers allegedly steeled themselves with strong drink during the night before the attack, to the point that by morning Baker was too drunk to issue orders, as several witnesses later attested.

Drunk or not, the cavalrymen of F Company descended upon the Piegan encampment and tore it to shreds. With most of the Piegan men away on a hunt, the camp was occupied almost entirely by women, children and the elderly, nearly 200 of whom perished in the unprovoked attack. Half-inch Springfield rifle shells killed many as they fled the confusion; others suffocated in their own tents, which caught fire and collapsed. A Piegan named Spear Woman -- Heavy Runner's daughter -- offered her account in the Billings Gazette in 1932:
[Just at dawn] we were aroused by barking dogs. Then someone came with word for my father, Heavy Runner, that the soldiers were coming. All was excitement and fright in the camp. But Heavy Runner told everyone to be quiet, that there was nothing to fear. He said he would show the whites his name paper.'

He walked quietly toward the soldiers with his hands uplifted. In one of them was the paper which he had been told was a pledge of safety, held where it could be seen. A shot pierced his heart and he fell, clutching the paper to his breast.

The soldiers then began firing at everyone. Everywhere was confusion, everyone looked for cover. All the warriors and able-bodied men had left some days before on a hunt; only some old and sick men were there.,

I rushed into another tent where there were some sick and dying people. I hid under a back rest on one of the beds. While there, I saw a knife cut a hole in the teepee and then a soldier thrust himself through the opening. He fired at every moving body. When he figured no one was alive, he left. I was small and quiet, so he didn't notice me.
In the end, the US Army counted 173 dead and 300 Piegan horses stolen; F Company lost a single unfortunate soldier. More than a hundred other Piegan were captured and released with no food, supplies or horses -- all of which were pilfered or burnt by Baker's men. Many of the survivors died during a frigid, 90-mile walk to Ft. Benton.

Although Major Baker did not report the encounter until nearly two weeks had passed, his ruthless attack on a defenseless camp posed no more than a temporary inconvenience to his career. General Sheridan -- who himself oversaw similar atrocities in the Red River, Black Hills and Ute Wars -- blocked any investigation of the Baker Massacre, noting that he "preferred to believe" his officers' highly dubious accounts.

A ferocious alcoholic, Major Eugene Baker expired from cirrhosis of the liver in 1885.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Janaury 22

Today marks the 21st anniversary of the death of Robert Budd Dwyer. A former Republican state senator, Dwyer served the Pennsylvania as Treasurer from 1980 until 22 January 1987, when he blew the top of his head off during a mid-day press conference at the capitol building in Harrisburg.

At the time, Dwyer was facing a possible 55-year prison sentence for mail fraud, perjury, conspiracy to commit bribery, and interstate transportation in aid of racketeering. The charges stemmed from a $300,000 kickback he was alleged to have arranged for the state Republican party -- money offered up by a California-based company that received a no-bid state contract from Dwyer's office. Proclaiming his innocence, he had actually refused prosecution offer for a plea bargain that would have sent him away for a comparatively short five-year sentence. After his conviction, the 47-year-old Dwyer grew understandably despondent over the possibility that he might live out the rest of his days in a cell. On January 21, 1987, Ronald Reagan turned down Dwyer's appeal for a presidential pardon. Calling a late morning press conference the next day to "update" reporters on "the situation," Dwyer read a long, rambling statement that reiterated his innocence. He vowed, moreover, not to spend the remainder of his days in "an American gulag."

Dwyer thanked his supporters, expressed gratitude to his wife and children, then pulled a .357 magnum revolver from a manila envelope. Warning everyone to "stay away" because, "this thing might hurt someone," Budd Dwyer dutifully took his place in the macabre folklore of American politics. Television stations in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia aired complete footage of the suicide during their mid-day broadcasts. As a result, thousands of young children -- home from school thanks to a major snowstorm -- watched the State Treasurer trepanate himself with a single shot.

Over the past two decades, Budd Dwyer has become something of a fixture in the world of sub-popular music. Odes to Dwyer have been recorded by such bands as Mr. Yukk and Poison Control; Ion Dissonance; Tijiuana Car Wash; and Camp Kill Yourself. More well-known artists such as Marilyn Manson, Filter, Ministry and Faith No More have also given Budd Dwyer everlasting life.



Monday, January 21, 2008

January 21

Today is the Feast of St. Agnes, when Roman Catholics honor the most important of the virgin martyrs. According to legend, Agnes of Rome, a young Christian girl twelve or thirteen years of age, was executed on this date sometime in the third or fourth century anno domini. Agnes' transgression, evidently, was to refuse an offer of marriage from the son of a Roman prefect; when she refused, the prefect ordered her to be raped, tortured and burnt at the stake. In one account by the fourth-century Roman Catholic poet and hymnist Aurelius Prudentius Clemens, one of her would-be violators was stricken blind and comatose when he cast a lewd eye upon her. Thus, while her virginity was spared, Agnes' life was not. At her execution, the wood surrounding her body failed to ignite. According to the fourth-century account by St. Ambrose -- included in his three-part meditation de virginis ("Concerning Virgins") -- Agnes greeted her death without hesitation:
She stood, she prayed, she bent down her neck. You could see the executioner tremble, as though he himself had been condemned, and his right hand shake, his face grow pale, as he feared the peril of another, while the maiden feared not for her own. You have then in one victim a twofold martyrdom, of modesty and of religion. She both remained a virgin and she obtained martyrdom.
Although the conventional accounts of her execution are ghastly, little is actually known of Agnes' life aside from its brevity. Traditionally, her execution was believed to have occurred during the Diocletian persecutions, sometime around the year 304 or 305; other evidence, however, suggests that her martyrdom may have occurred some years before during the reign of Gaius Decius, a half century or more prior to Diocletian. Regardless of her date of death, Agnes came to be known as the patron saint of young girls. He body was placed in sepulchre, and during the reign of Constantine St. Agnes was honored with a basilica constructed around her final resting place. She remains there to this day.


A man of considerably less sanctity than Agnes, Howard Unruh, turns 87 today in the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital. He has been there since 1949, when the unemployed World War II tank soldier shot up his pleasant Camden, New Jersey neighborhood on September 6 of that year. Unruh believed his neighbors were talking about him behind his back, and he soon began to compile a hit list of local enemies. When someone stole a new gate he had installed at his mother's house -- where he still lived -- Unruh at last snapped and decided to shoot everyone on his roster. He carried out his plan the next morning after a breakfast of fried eggs, although he did not exactly stick to the list. In twelve minutes, he managed to shoot 26 people, half of whom died. And so it was that Howard Unruh became the first single-episode mass murderer in United States history.

"I'm no psycho," he told an investigator. "I have a good mind. I'd have killed a thousand if I had bullets enough."

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

January 20

On this date in 2001, George Walker Bush formally ascended to the office of President of the United States. In that day's inaugural address, speechwriter Michael Gerson -- addressing the nation via the new president -- announced that
America remains engaged in the world by history and by choice, shaping a balance of power that favors freedom. We will defend our allies and our interests. We will show purpose without arrogance. We will meet aggression and bad faith with resolve and strength. And to all nations, we will speak for the values that gave our nation birth.
Toward the conclusion of the address, Gerson added that President Bush would "live and lead by these principles: to advance my convictions with civility, to pursue the public interest with courage, to speak for greater justice and compassion, to call for responsibility and try to live it as well."

"In all these ways," Bush continued, "I will bring the values of our history to the care of our times."

A mere 352 years earlier, Charles I of England -- an insufferable, arrogant prick whose rule was an endless national catastrophe -- was hauled before a special Parliamentary court. There, he faced charges of developing "a wicked design to erect and uphold in himself an unlimited and tyrannical power" and "to overthrow the Rights and Liberties of the People[.]" The indictment continued:
All which wicked designs, wars, and evil practices of him, the said Charles Stuart, have been, and are carried on for the advancement and upholding of a personal interest of will, power, and pretended prerogative to himself and his family, against the public interest, common right, liberty, justice, and peace of the people of this nation, by and from whom he was entrusted as aforesaid.

By all which it appeareth that the said Charles Stuart hath been, and is the occasioner, author, and continuer of the said unnatural, cruel and bloody wars; and therein guilty of all the treasons, murders, rapines, burnings, spoils, desolations, damages and mischiefs to this nation, acted and committed in the said wars, or occasioned thereby.
The week-long trial did not go well for the king.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

January 18

On this date 145 years ago, Mangas Colorado -- known to his fellow Beonkohes Apache as Red Sleeves -- was shot to death near Pinos Altos, New Mexico, while in the custody of a detachment of California Volunteers. Colorado, a towering warrior who had battled Mexicans and Anglo miners for decades, became an especially important target during a brutal conflict between the Apache and the United States Army that erupted during the early years of the American Civil War. In July 1862, Mangus Colorado and his son-in-law Cochise engaged the California Volunteers under Colonel James H. Carleton at the Battle of Apache Pass; only when a howitzer was unlimbered did the skirmish turn in favor of the Americans. Over the next six months, the California Volunteers conducted a ruthless campaign against the Apache, sacking villages and killing whomever they could manage.

By early 1863, the aging and wounded warrior -- who was indeed nearing 72 years old -- sought to arrange a peace. He was asked to come to Ft. McLane for consultation with US officials, who offered blankets, flour, beef and other supplies to Mangus Colorado and his people if they would resettle near the white settlement of Apache Tejo. The chief agreed to the arrangement, which turned out to be merely a pretext for taking him into custody on January 17, 1863.

In a letter written two years later, Joseph G. Knapp, a judge in New Mexico’s third district, described the events that followed just after midnight, January 18.
[Mangus Colorado was confined in the guardhouse; that night he was aroused from his sleep, some say that a soldier threw something and hit him, and others that he was punched with a pole, and because he raised himself up to see what had disturbed his sleep, he was instantly perforated with bullets and killed. Next morning at day dawn his lodge was attacked, and his wife and daughter shared the fate of husband and father. Not content with having killed a prisoner of war, without cause, your soldiers tore the scalp from his head and severed his head from his body, and after boiling the flesh, they exhibited the skull as a badge of honor, while the scalps of himself, his wife and daughter are worn as ornaments.
Cochise led reprisal attacks against the Union army and white settlers in New Mexico for years to come. The Cochise War, as it came to be known, raged for nearly a decade longer. The broader Apache resistance continued until 1886, when Geronimo surrendered with a mere 16 warriors at his side.

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

January 17

Seventeen years ago tonight, the United States led a coalition of nations into war to liberate a tiny, undemocratic emirate from the temporary clutches of a larger undemocratic dictatorship located along its northern border. By the end of the conflict little more than a month later, more than 100,000 Iraqis had been killed -- adding incrementally to the hundreds of thousands who had perished in their ill-advised eight-year war with Iran. In addition, the nation's electrical grid, water treatment systems, sewers, bridges, railroads, dams and hospitals had been obliterated, virtually assuring the deaths of many more over the coming decade. In the wake of the conflict, untold thousands of tons of depleted uranium dust remained to contaminate the air, water and soil for the roughly the next four billion years. By 2001, rates of leukemia in Basra -- an area of Southern Iraq heavily targeted with DU weapons as Saddam Hussein's army retreated from Kuwait -- had risen nearly 400%, while birth defects had increased to more than six times their rate from 1990.

After the formal cessation of hostilities on 28 February 1991, more than 400,000 people were expelled from Kuwait, mostly Palestinians on whose labor the economy of the emirate had come to rely; millions of Kurds, fearing the predictable reprisals from the government of Saddam Hussein, fled into Turkey and Iran from northern Iraq; and thousands of Shi'as in southern Iraq were relentlessly slaughtered by their government, many of them shot from helicopters manufactured in and purchased from the United States.

On the night the Gulf War began, it happened to be the 30th anniversary of Dwight David Eisenhower's farewell address to the nation. In that televised speech, he famously warned that "we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex . . . . Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together."

At the end of the war, President George Herbert Walker Bush jovially remarked that "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all," adding that the United States had at last fought a war without "one hand tied behind [its] back."



Wednesday, January 16, 2008

January 16

Ivan IV Vasilyevich -- otherwise known as Ivan Grozny or "Ivan the Terrible" -- formally assumed the title of tsar on this date in 1547. The 17-year-old had technically become Russia's ruler at the age of three when his father Ivan III died, but a series of regents conducted the nation's affairs until the young Vasilyevich asserted his authority over the boyars, the Slavic feudal aristocracy. During the period of his regency, Ivan was often beaten and molested by the two families of boyars -- the Shuiskys and Belskys -- who fought one another for the power to rule in his stead. By his teenage years, Ivan was known as a prolific drinker and a torturer of small animals. In 1543, Ivan ordered the arrest of one of the boyars, a prince named Andrew Shuisky who was then, according to legend, tossed into a pit with starving dogs. Ivan was a renowned rapist and an avid reader of books about history and religion. He beat up farmers and purged his sins while banging his head against the altar. As a result of his bizarre confessional style, he developed a callus on his forehead.

After assuming the title of Russia's first tsar, Ivan's early years were marked by impressive degrees modernization and territorial consolidation; during his nearly 40 years in power, Russia's legal code was revised and the printing press was introduced, and the country's first standing army was developed, in part to check the expansion of nomadic tribes from Asia. Less happily for the fate of millions, Tsar Ivan also restricted the movement of peasants, setting into motion a process of that would virtually enslave the propertyless classes of Russia. From 1558 to the early 1580s, the Livonian War -- which pitted Russia against Sweden, Poland, Denmark and Lithuania -- exacted a heavy toll upon the Russian people as Ivan waged a reckless and ultimately unsuccessful campaign to control Greater Livonia (modern day Estonia and Latvia). Famine and disease killed perhaps hundreds of thousands during the 1570s, while the Tsar's thuggish Oprichniki -- a black-robed regional security force that oversaw much of northeastern Russia -- massacred thousands of people in Novgorod, where the archbishop was sewn into a bearskin and hunted by a pack of hounds. The town of Pskov was offered similar treatment, though the fate of their clergy is unclear.

Near the end of his life, Ivan the Terrible beat his pregnant daughter-in-law for wearing what he regarded as provocative clothing; she subsequently miscarried. When his son (also named Ivan) confronted the Tsar over the beating, he was bludgeoned to death with a metal rod. The elder Ivan, wracked with grief and remorse, banged his head repeatedly on his son's coffin and foamed at the mouth like a horse, according to eye-witnesses.

Tsar Ivan himself eventually succumbed during a friendly chess match in 1584, quite likely the victim of poisoning by mercury, which he was ingesting to offset the effects of tertiary syphilis.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

January 15

The Spanish conquistador Vasco Nunez de Balboa was beheaded with an axe 489 years ago in Santa Maria la Antigua del Darien, a settlement he had founded nine years before in present-day Panama. He received the punishment for allegedly seeking to usurp the power of the Pedrarias Davila, who was Balboa's successor as Governor of Veragua. Pedrarias was also his father-in-law, although the two men shared no warm feelings toward one another. Among his other accomplishments, Balboa founded the first permanent Spanish settlement on the mainland of the Americas; more famously, Balboa is credited with being the first European to reach the Pacific Ocean -- which he named the "South Ocean" -- in 1513.

Illiterate and uneducated, Balboa was a relentless pursuer of gold and slaves. Like most of his kind, Balboa believed his governorship had been marked by a special humanitarian vision, although he was known to deal with recalcitrant tribes in all the customary, grotesque ways. When an indigenous alliance formed to challenge Balboa's authority in Darien, the Spaniard torched their villages and executed their chiefs. When members of a tribe under his authority were accused of practicing "male love" he ordered them to be torn apart by bloodhounds, which he had introduced to the region from Haiti. Balboa's favorite dog, Leoncillo, received a soldier's salary for his work.

Balboa's arrest, interestingly enough, was administered by his colleague Francisco Pizarro, another illiterate who would later subdue the Incan Empire. After a swift trial, the former governor and a quartet of his friends were decapitated in the town of Acla, which means "bones of men" in one of the region's indigenous languages. It took several swings of the axe to separate Balboas head from his body; the head was displayed on a post, while the body was left at the spot of the execution for more than half a day.


Exactly four centuries after Balboa's execution, a 50-foot tall vat of molasses collapsed in the North End of Boston, sending a tidal wave of syrup into the streets. More than two million gallons of dark brown sweetness rushed forth at 35 miles per hour, carrying a force of 2 tons per square foot. The Boston Post, mixing several culinary metaphors, described the horrific scene the next day:
Like eggshells it crushed the buildings of the North End yard of the city's paving division… To the north it swirled and wiped out practically all of Boston's only electric freight terminal. Big steel trolley freight cars were crushed as if eggshells, and their piled-up cargo of boxes and merchandise minced like so much sandwich meat.
In the wave of molasses and the vacuum created in its wake, a section of Boston's elevated train track was destroyed and a train car thrown into the air; several buildings were wrecked. A firefighter named George Leahy was trapped underneath the firehouse -- although he managed to keep his head above the molasses for several hourse, he eventually lost consciousness and drowned. In the end 21 people perished, crushed or asphyxiated by the most common form of sweetener in the United States at the time. Several of the bodies were too battered and glazed to be properly identified. Nearly 200 other Bostonians were injured in the catastrophe. Of the 20 horses who died in the molasses wave, several had to be shot because they could not be extracted from the goo.

United States Industrial Alcohol, the company that owned the faulty vat, tried to blame the accident on anarchist saboteurs but eventually settled lawsuits totaling more than $600,000.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

January 14

On this date in 1963, George Corley Wallace announced his triumphant arrival into the Alabama governor's office in Montgomery. In a loathsome ode to herrenvolk democracy, Wallace stoked the fires of white resentment against the modest gains of the civil rights movement, which had entered perhaps its most critical year to date:
Today I have stood, where once Jefferson Davis stood, and took an oath to my people. It is very appropriate then that from this Cradle of the Confederacy, this very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland, that today we sound the drum for freedom as have our generations of forebears before us done, time and time again through history. Let us rise to the call of freedom-loving blood that is in us and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South. In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny . . . and I say . . . segregation today . . . segregation tomorrow . . . segregation forever. . . .

Hear me, Southerners! You sons and daughters who have moved north and west throughout this nation . . . . we call on you from your native soil to join with us in national support and vote . . and we know . . . wherever you are . . away from the hearths of the Southland . . . that you will respond, for though you may live in the fartherest reaches of this vast country . . . . your heart has never left Dixieland.

And you native sons and daughters of old New England's rock-ribbed patriotism . . . and you sturdy natives of the great Mid-West . . and you descendants of the far West flaming spirit of pioneer freedom . . we invite you to come and be with us . . for you are of the Southern spirit . . and the Southern philosophy . . . you are Southerners too and brothers with us in our fight.
By the end of 1963, the March on Washington would take place; police officers in Birmingham would unleash German shepherds and fire hoses against unarmed men, women, and children; four young girls would be obliterated in a church bombing in that same city; Medgar Evers would be gunned down outside his home in Jackson, Mississippi; and John Kennedy -- who watched all of this with mounting dismay -- would have his brains scattered across the seats of a limousine in Dallas.



Friday, January 11, 2008

January 11

On this date 51 years ago, the state of Colorado asphyxiated John Gilbert Graham with hydrogen cyanide gas. The execution occurred a little more than a year after the death of his mother in a horrific explosion over the sugar beet fields of northern Colorado. Daisie King and 43 others died on November 1, 1955, in the wreckage of United Air Flight 629, which was obliterated by a bomb. As it happened, Graham himself had placed the device in his mother’s suitcase.

Though investigators, the press and prosecutors assumed Graham’s motive was financial -- he stood to collect a large insurance settlement and inhereit a substantial commercial estate -- it turned out that Jack Gilbert Graham simply hated his mother. The bomb itself was gift-wrapped for the upcoming Christmas holiday.

Just before he entered the gas chamber on January 11, 1957, Gilbert offered a few words to the warden, Harry Tinsley. “As far as feeling remorse for those people,” he explained, “I don't. I can't help it. Everybody pays their way and they take their chances. That's just the way it goes.”

Thursday, January 10, 2008

January 10

According to their creation narrative, the Chinook people were the offspring of a thunderbird who nested her eggs on a mountain occupied by an ogress. The ogress threw the eggs from the mountain side, but the hatchlings survived and took their wives in the valley below.

By the beginning of the 19th century of the Christian calendar, the Clackamas -- one of the numerous Chinook tribes -- flourished in the area around Willamette Falls, located in what would soon be known to Americans as Oregon Territory. A salmon- and cedar-based society, the Clackamas inhabited several large settlements along the banks of the river; they were one of many smaller divisions of the Upper Chinook culture that dominated the region stretching from the mouth of the Columbia eastward to the Dalles River. The Clackamas enjoyed the wealth and regional power that flowed from their easy access to salmon and their extraordinary skill at fishing it from the Willamatte. Dominated by large cedar-plank houses, Clackamas villages became trading posts, where neighboring tribes came to trade beads, shells, coastal seafood, furs and horses. The Clamackas were a hierarchical society with a small aristocratic class and a somewhat larger stratum of middling sorts; the hereditary, ruling elites relied on Klamath and Molalla warriors to capture Northern California Indians who were absorbed into the villages as slaves.

When Lewis and Clark's expedition happened upon the Clackamas in 1805, they were esimated to number around 1500, although other estimates from the period place their numbers closer to 2500. By that point, diseases like smallpox had already begun to reduce the coastal population, including other Upper Chinook tribes. The turning point for the Clackamas came in 1829, when a New Englander named John Dominis attempted to found a fishery at the Clackamas Rapids. His efforts were rebuffed, but his deseased sailors infected the local population with the "cold sick," which eviscerated the tribe, killing 90% of its people that winter. By 1830, the Clackamas was no longer viable as an independent group.

On 10 January 1855, after two decades of struggle, the 88 remaining Clackamas Indians ceded land in the Willamette, Sandys and Clackamas Valleys to the United States in exchange for a $2500 annual annuity that was, pedictably enough, never actually paid. Relocated to the Grand Ronde Reservation with remnants of the Molalla, Kalapuya, Chasta, Rogue River and Umpqua tribes, the Clackamas had entirely disappeared by the 1920s.



Wednesday, January 09, 2008

January 9

On January 9, 1964, a century of US arrogance in Latin America backfired, as several days of violence lit up the Panama Canal Zone.

The skirmish on January 9 was prompted by a dispute over a flagpole. Although the United States did not formally possess any part of Panama, the terms of a 1903 treaty enabled it to claim control “in perpetuity” over the strip of territory on which the canal would eventually be constructed. Panamanians had always objected to the unequal terms of the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, which was in fact negotiated by a French engineer and not by any actual Panamanians; their resentments toward the United States intensified after World War II, as US officials continued to behave as if Panama had no sovereign rights whatsoever over the canal or the zone surrounding it. Protests during the late 1940s and 1950s had chastened the US to some degree, and Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy offered a few, mostly cosmetic nods toward Panamanian sovereignty. Truman and Eisenhower dismantled several bases constructed during World War II (all of which were intended to be temporary in the first place), and the so-called "Kennedy Doctrine" toward Latin America offered further hope to Panamanian nationalists that a more balanced relationship might emerge in the news decade.

But for the “Zonians” -- Americans living within the fenced-in column of land bracketing the canal itself -- there was no question but that they were living on American soil. When President Kennedy ordered that Panama’s flag should be flown at all nonmilitary sites within the Canal Zone, Americans gargled and yelped in anger. When Kennedy’s brains were scattered across the back of his limousine, his instructions regarding flag protocol in the Canal Zone died as well.

When a group of Panamanian students attempted on January 9, 1964 to raise their nation’s flag outside Balboa High School, they were rebuffed by their American peers. The Americans had lofted a flag of their own two days earlier and were determined not to share their school’s pole with anyone else, least of all the people in whose country they were actually living. When the Panamanian flag was torn -- participants offered conflicting explanations as to how this happened -- street demonstrations were organized in protest. Thousands of Panamanians stormed across the “Fence of Shame” that separated the Canal Zone from the rest of the country; American-owned businesses were torched in Panama City; and when the police forces within the Canal Zone were overwhelmed, the US Army opened fire with rifles, shotguns, and grenades of tear gas. Many Panamanian demonstrators returned the fire, though guns were less plentiful than stones and Molotov cocktails.

Twenty-five people -- all but four of them Panamanians -- died over the next three days, while hundreds sustained injuries and more than $2 million worth of property was destroyed. Among the dead was Maritza Avila Alabarca, a six-month-old infant who suffocated when her house filled with tear gas. American political commentators blamed Fidel Castro for inciting the violence. Harry Truman, in a moment of gross condescension, grumbled that “The children you do the most for are the ones who cause you the most trouble, and Cuba and Panama are perfect examples of that.”

The 1964 uprisings led eventually to the complete withdrawal of the United States from the Canal Zone, a process that many American conservatives like Ronald Reagan regarded as a national humiliation.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

January 8

Seven years after the United States acquired the massive Louisiana territory from France, the population of New Orleans consisted of more than 18,000 enslaved and free people of color who lived in subjection to the 8000 whites who also lived within the city walls. Louisiana was a horrific place for enslaved people, who died nearly as fast as they could be replaced, worn down by the building of levees, the clearing of fields, and the tending of sugar cane. Moreover, New Orleans hosted the most abominable slave market in North America.

Inspired by Haiti's recent successes against the Napoleonic armies, the slaves who lived in southern Louisiana's rural parishes hoped that a sudden insurrection -- assisted by the black majority of New Orleans -- might wrest control of the city away from its white minority. Like all slave uprisings in North America, previous ventures along these lines -- most recently in 1795 in Pointe Coupe -- had been brutally crushed and the conspirators executed swiftly. However, with US forces preoccupied with the Spanish in Florida at the time, the winter of 1811 seemed a more auspicious moment than most to revive the dream of a tiny black republic at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

After concocting their plot in the swamplands near Maupe, the rough militia embarked from the Aubry plantation, nearly 40 miles from the city, late in the afternoon of January 8. They were led by a man named Charles Deslondes, who organized the army into neat formations and marched them with flags aloft. As their ranks swelled to more than 500 men armed with small arms and farm tools, the rebels arrived the next morning at the home of Jean Francois Trepagnier, six miles away. There, one of Trepagnier's slaves -- a young man named Gustav who had escaped shortly after his 21st birthday -- hacked his former master to death.

As word of the revolt spread throughout the sugar plantations, whites raised a militia of their own and were quickly assisted by US troops from Baton Rouge as well as the Free Black Militia of New Orleans, whose offers to help quell the insurgency were accepted. The enslaved rebels failed to reach the city arsenal, leaving them at the mercy of the much more capably armed free soldiers, who slaughtered them with canon fire at the Fortier Sugar Works, 18 miles from their' destination. Those who were not killed in battle were quickly tried and executed by hanging or firing squad at Saint Louis Cathedral. In the customary fashion, the heads of the slaves were cut off and placed along major roads as a warning to others. Samuel Hambleton, a naval agent stationed in New Orleans, wrote to a friend and described the trophies as looking "like crows sitting on long poles." As for Charles himself, his hands were cut off and was shot in both legs and the torso; before he died, he was rolled into a bundle of straw and "roasted" alive.

Later, the Trepagnier plantation was renamed "Diamond." Today Diamond remains a predominantly black community, where descendants of slaves reside nearly 200 years after their ancestors witnessed the largest revolt in North American history.

By the end of the 20th century, Diamond had become a toxic swamp, as pollutants from incinerators, petrochemical and cement plants left the town's poorest residents suffering from chronic health problems.

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Monday, January 07, 2008

January 7

Just past 2:00 a.m. on this date in 1950, a fire destroyed the St. Elizabeth’s wing of Mercy Hospital in Davenport, Iowa, where more than five dozen mental patients -- nearly all of whom were women -- resided behind wire mesh and bars. Within minutes, a tornado of fire had raced uninhibited through elevator and dumbwaiter shafts, consuming much of the three-story, 81-year-old building. By the time more than a hundred firefighters arrived at the hospital complex, there was little to be done for those trapped inside; the initial body count of 37 rose of the next few days to a final death toll of 41. One of the victims, Alice James, had been admitted to the hospital a mere six hours earlier.

Davenport’s assistant fire chief Harry Lang described the scene as “horrible,” in no small degree because the patients -- imprisoned for what would have been described as their own security -- were unreachable.
We couldn’t get into the building because of the intense heat, so we put up every ladder we could. But those windows were barred.

Even as firemen stood on ladders, hacking frantically with axes at the window gratings, the heat cracked the glass and people inside disappeared into the flames before our eyes.
One firefighter described the building -- which lacked a sprinkler system -- as having “burned like paper.”

Investigators soon discovered that a young patient named Elnora Epperly had set the fire. Believing that her husband had died and that she needed to escape, Epperly used a cigarette lighter to set fire to the curtains in her room. Initially charged with murder, Elnora Epperly never faced trial after an inquest ruled that she was insane and thus not responsible for her actions.

After spending the next several months in an Illinois hospital, Epperly was released into the custody of her husband, whom she may have been pleased to discover was still very much alive.



Thursday, January 03, 2008

January 3

Today is the 47th anniversary of the first nuclear reactor accident in United States history. On 3 January 1961 the three-megawatt SL-1 facility, an experimental reactor located about 40 miles west of Idaho Falls, was destroyed in roughly four milliseconds as a power surge vaporized the water surrounding the reactor core. Army specialists John Byrnes and Richard McKinley and Navy Electrician's Mate Richard Legg were killed; elements from the reactor core were blown into their bodies, which were horribly disfigured and pulsing with radiation. One of the men was impaled and pinned to the ceiling by a reactor shield plug, while the other two were blown sideways against a shielding block. Clean-up crews discovered that the bodies of the men -- one of whom survived for a brief period of time after the explosion -- were emitting at least 500 roentgens per hour even after their clothing had been cut away.

After much dispute over the final disposition of their bodies, Byrnes, McKinley and Legg were buried in lead-lined caskets, encased with concrete. The reactor itself received a similar farewell.


On 3 January 1924, a shower of red worms descended on the Swedish town of Halmsted. As described by Charles Fort in his 1931 chronicle of the bizarre, Lo!,
They were red worms, from one to four inches in length. Thousands of them streaking down with the snowflakes -- red ribbons in a shower of confetti -- a carnival scene that boosts my discovery that meteorology is a more picturesque science than most persons, including meteorologists, have suspected.
The "worms of heaven," he concluded, "seem to be a jolly lot."

Had Benito Mussolini been living in Halmsted, we can be assured that the jolly red worms would have been lined up against a wall and shot. One year after the Swedish deluge, Il Duce dissolved the Italian Parliament and rescinded all democratic liberties, bringing the force of the state to bear in subsequent years upon communists, socialists, trade unionists, and anarchists among others. As he explained in La Dottrina del fascismo, which he wrote with Giovanni Gentile in 1932,
Fascism wants man to be active and to engage in action with all his energies; it wants him to be manfully aware of the difficulties besetting him and ready to face them. It conceives of life as a struggle in which it behooves a man to win for himself a really worthy place, first of all by fitting himself (physically, morally, intellectually) to become the implement required for winning it. As for the individual, so for the nation, and so for mankind. . . .

This positive conception of life is obviously an ethical one. It invests the whole field of reality as well as the human activities which master it. No action is exempt from moral judgment; no activity can be despoiled of the value which a moral purpose confers on all things. Therefore life, as conceived of by the Fascist, is serious, austere, and religious; all its manifestations are poised in a world sustained by moral forces and subject to spiritual responsibilities. The Fascist disdains an "easy" life.
The Fascist would, we presume, hold January 3 in special contempt. Today, in addition to everything else, is the Festival of Sleep.

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