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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