September 30, 2007

September 30 | Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes

November 27, 1843 - September 30, 1888: Age 44
? - September 30, 1888: Age unknown

Elizabeth Stride was born in Sweden, and worked there as a domestic servant and a prostitute before coming to London in the late 1860s. There she met and married carpenter John Thomas Stride. The marriage seems to have lasted 10 or 15 years, but the couple were definitely separated when Stride died in 1884. During the 1880s she took in sewing and did domestic work, with some prostitution on the side to supplement what must have been a tiny income. She had been arrested a couple of times for drunk and disorderly behaviour, but overall was described as having a calm temperament and was liked by her friends.

Catherine Eddowes (right) had a more difficult life. She had had a couple of children by a common-law husband, but had left the family due to severe drinking problems. She had a boyfriend, with whom she went out into the country to do harvest work; they had just returned to London and were broke. At 8:30 on the evening of her death she was arrested by police for public drunkenness; once the pubs had closed they released her, thinking she would go home.

Around 1:00 in the morning on Sunday September 30, a steward of a club in Whitechapel (a district of London) drove his cart into a square and discovered a woman's body. It appeared that she had just been murdered, as blood was still gushing from her slashed throat. This was Elizabeth Stride.

Meanwhile, about a 20 minute walk away, police were releasing Catherine Eddowes from custody. She walked to the poorly lit Mitre Square, about a ten-minute walk from the Bishopsgate Police Station. At 1:44 a police constable discovered her second body lying in Mitre Square. This time, the murder had not been interrupted. Although, like Stride, she had been killed quickly with a slashed throat, her body had been horribly disfigured and mutilated after death. It was determined she had died about 15 minutes before her body was found; thus about 30 minutes after Elizabeth Stride. They were the 3rd and 4th victims of Jack the Ripper, the only two to be killed on the same day. It is thought that because the murder of Elizabeth Stride had been interrupted, the killer had sought a second victim to meet his needs.

People who feel compelled to kill multiple victims, secretly, in a cruel manner seem to have always been part of humankind, but industrialized society, with the technology to communicate forensic information and public alarm, has given the phenomenon a public face. Jack the Ripper was not the first serial killer by any means, but he was the first one whose name became known worldwide. He was never caught.

Sources: Find-a-Grave (1) and (2), Wikipedia. I am not providing the links to the Wikipedia article as they show autopsy photographs, which you may not like to see.

September 29, 2007

September 29 | Carson McCullers

February 19, 1917 - September 29, 1967: Age 50

"The mind is like a richly woven tapestry in which the colors are distilled from the experiences of the senses, and the design drawn from the convolutions of the intellect."
— Carson McCullers

Born Lula Carson Smith, the girl who would become Carson McCullers dreamed of becoming a concert pianist. An early childhood bout of rheumatic fever deprived her of the stamina needed for practising, but she nonetheless went to New York as a teenager, ostensibly to study at the Julliard School. By then, however, her real ambition was to write, and she never attended any classes.

The early illness was the first of many health problems that always prevented McCullers from anything like a carefree existence. She appeared, and was, fragile and frail physically, but had a tough spirit that carried her through 50 years of strokes, paralysis, pneumonia, alcoholism, and depression. She never closed her heart to life: she wrote about the inner lives of social misfits and outcasts with passionate honesty.

At the age of 20 she married the writer James Reeves McCullers. The marriage ended quickly; both parties were bisexual and pursued extramarital relationships and in 1940 there was a triangle in which she and Reeves fell in love with the same man. Perhaps the greatest stress on the marriage was the fact that Reeves never achieved any recognition as a writer. They remained emotionally attached, remarrying in 1945. In the early 1950s, living in Paris, Reeves tried to convince her to commit suicide with him. She declined, and he ended his life in November 1953.

A series of strokes left McCullers paralyzed on the left side by the age of 31. She continued to write and enjoy critical success, although her popularity even among intellectuals was never unmixed: her subjects, the misfits and outcasts, always made people feel uncomfortable. In 1967, bedridden for years, she suffered a final stroke and brain hemmhorrage, which left her comatose for more than six weeks. She finally died on September 29.

"The theme is the theme of humiliation, which is the square root of sin, as opposed to the freedom from humiliation, and love, which is the square root of wonderful."
— Carson McCullers, describing her 1957 play

Sources: Wikipedia, The Carson McCullers Project

September 28, 2007

September 28 | Pompey the Great

September 29, 106 BCE - September 28, 48 BCE: Age 57

Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus earned his "the Great" in many, many respects. He was a great general, an outstanding administrator, a compassionate man, a loving husband and father, and a loyal friend. However he happened to be a contemporary of somebody who was smarter, less scrupulous, and very ambitious: Caesar. They were for many years close friends; Pompey was even married to Caesar's daughter Julia. But the death of Julia took the last restraint off, and Caesar's ambition to rule Rome dragged the relationship into deadly enmity.

There were many traditional safeguards in Republican Rome against the rise of a tyrant; one of them was effectively smashed when Caesar illegally entered Rome with his own battle-hardened army. It was a clear declaration of Caesar's intention to hold absolute power. Pompey, who championed the Republican cause, fled to the East, intending to raise an army and retake the city. He never came close; in fact the rest of his life was spent between humiliating defeats and running away. It was an unequal contest, although it didn't seem so at a time. Pompey was an able general who lived his life based on traditional values; Caesar was a military genius with an eye to the future and an instinctive grasp of the social changes that were rocking Rome. After a final defeat at the Battle of Pharacelsus, Pompey fled with his family to Egypt, where his friendship with the previous Pharoah would, he felt confident, ensure him the protection of the young Ptolemy XIII.

Ptolemy was only 13 at the time. His counsellors advised him that the friendship of the powerful Caesar was more important than old ties to a vanquished man who had lost his army. Pompey was waiting in a ship offshore for Ptolemy's answer. It came in the form of two old comrades, Romans who had fought beside him in the old days, now serving the Egyptian government. They invited him ashore to meet with the Pharoah, but once in the small boat and away from Pompey's ship they stabbed him in the back. They then cut off his head, stripped his body, and took these things to the Pharoah, insultingly leaving the body naked and unattended on shore. (One of his servants managed to gather some timber and cremate him there.)

When presented with the head of his old friend and enemy, Caesar "turned away from him with loathing, as from an assassin; and when he received Pompey's signet ring on which was engraved a lion holding a sword in his paws, he burst into tears" (Plutarch, Life of Pompey 80). Ptolemy's advisers had misjudged the Roman sense of honour completely. Caesar demanded the assassins be executed, and had Pompey's head cremated with honour. Ptolemy was later deposed in favour of his sister, Cleopatra.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Life of Pompey

September 27, 2007

September 27 | Babe Zaharias

June 26, 1911 - September 27, 1956: Age 45

"She is beyond all belief until you see her perform...Then you finally understand that you are looking at the most flawless section of muscle harmony, of complete mental and physical coordination, the world of sport has ever seen."
– sportswriter Grantland Rice, quoted by ESPN.

"It would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up and waited for the phone to ring."
— sportswriter Joe Williams, New York World-Telegram.

In 1932 Mildred "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias entered eight events in the Amateur Athletic Union championships. She won five outright and tied first for a sixth. That year she went on to represent the US in the Olympics, entering three events and medalling gold in two (her winning high jump was disqualified because the judges didn't like her style of diving head first over the bar).

By 1935 she had become interested in golf, and went on to become the most celebrated and beloved golfer of all time. She was the Tiger Woods of her day. Both Associated Press and Sports Illustrated voted her "Female Athlete of the 20th Century" and she was ranked #10 in ESPN's list of the top 50 athletes of all time, the first woman on the list.

"It's not enough just to swing at the ball. You've got to loosen your girdle and really let the ball have it."
— Babe Zaharias

In 1953 she was diagnosed with colon cancer. In 1954 she won a major title (the Vare Trophy) one month after cancer surgery. In 1955 her cancer re-emerged, but she managed to win two titles before succumbing to the disease in September 1956, at 45 years old, still among the top rank of female golfers.

Sources: Wikipedia, US Olympic Committee

September 26, 2007

September 26 | Emperor Tai-Chang (Zhu Chanluo)

August 28, 1582 - September 26, 1620: Age 38

In the late 16th century the heir presumptive of the reigning Emperor Wanli was Zhu Chanluo, the eldest son of an unimportant serving girl. Unfortunately for little Chanluo, his father greatly favoured his younger brother, Zhu Changxun, the son of the wily Imperial Consort Lady Zheng. Changxun was named Crown Prince while Chanluo was ignored; they didn't even bother starting to educate him until he was 13.

Nevertheless the Imperial ministers, devout Confucians, were distressed by the promotion of the younger son, which they regarded as upsetting the proper balance of things as mandated by Heaven. In Ming law at the time, the eldest son should succeed, regardless of the personal wishes of the Emperor. After many years of maneuvering the Emperor gave in and named Chanluo Crown Prince.

In 1615 a man armed with nothing but a wooden staff managed to fight his way into the Palace, right into the Prince's living quarters with the intent to kill him. He did not succeed — interesting, though, to note that those dramatic Chinese historical epics really do hold a grain of truth (think: barely-armed kung fu masters fighting through hundreds of guards). Although the affair was hushed up it was well known that the assassin had been hired by Lady Zheng.

The old Emperor died in August 1620 and Chanluo, now a middle-aged man, ascended the throne as Emperor Tai-Chang. His reign lasted little more than a month. He fell ill after a night of carousing with eight young ladies sent to him as a peace offering by Lady Zheng. An attending eunuch prescribed a laxative, which gave the new Emperor terrible diarrhea. Finally a minor court official named Li Kezhuo, an amateur pharmacist, offered him a red pill. It seemed to make him better, and Li Kezhuo was praised and exalted by the recovering monarch, who asked for, and received, a second dose. The next morning Emperor Tai-Chang was found dead in his bed. Although the general opinion was that the Emperor had died of too much sex, poor Li Kezhuo, whose future had seemed so bright the day before, was exiled, and the Emperor's son ascended the throne.

Source: Wikipedia

September 25, 2007

September 25 | Oliver Loving

December 4, 1812 - September 25, 1867: Age 54

In 1866 the Civil War had all but destroyed the US cattle industry. Although both armies needed to be supplied with beef, the overall disruption in supply lines had meant a population explosion in the Texas herds. Moreover, those who supplied the Confederate army were left with a lot of worthless IOUs at the end of the war.

Oliver Loving was one of those men: the Confederate Army owed him more than $100,000 which he had no hope of collecting. Originally a farmer born in Kentucky, Loving was a cowman who considered himself a Texan. He is thought to be the first man to trail cattle out of Texas. In 1866 he and his partner Charles Goodnight began driving cattle northwest, to the new Indian reservations, mining camps, and railway crews working their way across the country. These new markets were further west than ever before, and Loving and Goodnight were able to earn $12,000 in gold for their efforts that year.

The following year they set out again. In June, Goodnight stayed with the herd while Loving went ahead with one companion to get to Denver in time to bid on the lucrative government contracts that were to be offered in July. Although Loving promised Goodnight that he would not travel by day (the territory was full of hostile Indians) he got impatient after a couple of days and struck out in daylight. By the afternoon they were being chased by a band of several hundred Comanches. They made for a nearby river where the banks were more than 100 feet high, left their horses, and hid themselves among sand dunes and reeds.

The Indians had them pinned, but it is extremely difficult to deal with two well-armed men in a strong position. During an attempt at a parley Loving was wounded in the side and sustained a broken arm. Thinking that he would die from his wounds, he asked his companion to sneak away.

The companion, leaving most of the guns and ammunition with Loving, managed to slip away by swimming down the river with no supplies, wearing only his underwear. He holed up in a cave a day's journey back toward the herd and waited for the herd to arrive. Within three days they found him, starving, and heard his tale. Goodnight took a party of men to the spot where Loving was last seen, but he could not be found and they supposed the Indians had killed him and thrown his body into the river. In fact Loving, when the wound in his side hadn't killed him after a day, managed to slip out the same way his companion did and made it to a road. After five days with no food, he was picked up by a party of Mexicans and taken to Fort Sumner for medical attention.

The broken arm had to be amputated, but the doctor there was reluctant to do so. When Goodnight and his men found him there the mortification was clearly gaining and they sent to Santa Fe for a doctor to do it. The arm was amputated, but the gangrene had already reached his body. Loving died September 25.

Before he died he expressed sadness at being buried in a "foreign country". Goodnight promised to take the body back to Texas. He had the body temporarily buried while he completed the drive, then returned, had it exhumed, and put his wooden coffin into a casket made of flattened tins. The long journey back to Texas inspired the story, Lonesome Dove.

Sources: PBS — The West, Trail Drivers of Texas, Wikipedia

September 24, 2007

September 24 | Branwell Brontë

June 26, 1817 - September 24, 1848: Age 31

Branwell Brontë was the male Brontë; younger brother to Maria, Elizabeth, and Charlotte (author of Jane Eyre) and older brother to Emily (author of Wuthering Heights) and Anne (author of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall). The girls were sent to a horrible sadistic boarding school (read Jane Eyre for the descriptions it inspired). Within a year the two eldest girls died "in ill-health" and the surviving three girls were sent home. Meanwhile, Branwell was being educated at home by their father. The four surviving siblings became closer than ever, developing a rich, imaginative world together.

Great things were expected of Branwell; he had a reputation in their town for being a brilliant boy. He painted and wrote poetry, and chatted with the patrons of the local pub. It was expected that he would go on to Oxford or Cambridge or some other great endeavour. He took a few art lessons, but a plan for him to attend the Royal Academy in London came to nothing. After a couple of attempts at employment, his sister Anne managed to secure him a post as tutor to the son of the family who employed her as a governess. He was dismissed from the family in 1845 under murky circumstances, which almost certainly included an affair with the boy's mother (whose name, interestingly, was Mrs Robinson).

During the next three years the three sisters were engaged in writing and publishing poetry and novels, while also trying to establish a school of their own in order to escape the need to live and work in other households as governesses, the only respectable post available for unmarried women of their class. Branwell painted and wrote poetry, but sunk deeper into depression, turning to alcohol and possibly also laudanum for solace. The portrait shown in this entry of the three Brontë sisters was painted by Branwell. He originally included himself, but later painted himself out, although his shape can clearly be seen. By the summer of 1848 it became clear that in addition to his addictions and depression he had contracted tuberculosis. On September 24, 1848 he died.

In Salmon of Doubt Douglas Adams makes the intriguing statement that Branwell "died standing up and leaning on a mantelpiece, just to prove it could be done". There is no way to consult Adams on his sources (he's dead too now) but it is mentioned in an early biography of Charlotte Bronte, "I have heard, from one who attended Branwell in his last illness, that he resolved on standing up to die. He had repeatedly said, that as long as there was life there was strength of will to do what it chose; and when the last agony came on, he insisted on assuming the position just mentioned." (Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Bronte, 1857). UPDATE: I am assured by a student of things Bronte that this tidbit is not true, and I rather suspect they are right. Awaiting a confirmation of source to refute Mrs. Gaskell in a suitably scholarly manner.

His sisters Anne and Emily also contracted the disease. Emily died that December, and Anne the following May. Charlotte lived on to 1855, dying in the first trimester of pregnancy, possibly from excessive vomiting from morning sickness.

Sources: Wikipedia, Brontë Parsonage Museum

September 23, 2007

September 23 | Sigmund Freud

May 6, 1856 - September 23, 1939: Age 83

Freud loved a good cigar (whether just a cigar, or nothing more), and he smoked a lot of them: 20 a day. In 1923 he was diagnosed with mouth cancer, but he continued to smoke, even though he knew they were killing him (although the first breakthrough medical study linking tobacco smoking with health damage didn't come out until 1948, the link had been suspected since the 17th century).

The tumours started on his hard palate and metastasized to the upper part of the lower jaw and his cheek. He underwent more than 30 operations to try to halt the cancer and replace some of the affected tissue with prosthetics, but they seemed only to increase his discomfort.

In March 1938 the Nazis annexed Austria, and anti-Semitism in Vienna (including visits from the Gestapo and the cancellation of his passport) drove Freud and his family to flee to London in June 1938. His cancer advanced, and in March 1939, he wrote to Arnold Zweig, "There is no longer any doubt that we are dealing with a new outbreak of my dear old carcinoma with which I have shared my existence for the past 16 years. Who would turn out to be the stronger could not, of course, have been predicted." In June he wrote to Marie Bonaparte, "...the radium has once again begun to eat away at something...and my world is what it was previously, a small island of pain floating on an ocean of indifference."

In September he asked his friend, Dr. Max Schur, who had fled with him to London, to help him die. “My dear Schur, you certainly remember our first talk. You promised me then not to forsake me when my time comes. Now it is nothing but torture and makes no sense any more.” Schur administered three large doses of morphine in the space of several hours, and Freud died, an assisted suicide.

There is an interesting article on the website of the Freud Museum about Freud's attitude. A quote: “Freud did not just 'have' cancer, he formed a relationship with it which echoed the structure of numerous others in his life - from childhood playmates to later friends and colleagues.” Click here to read more, it’s worth your time.

Sources: BBC History, Jewish Virtual Library, Freud Museum

September 22, 2007

September 22 | Mary Easty

August 1634 - September 22, 1692: Age 68

In early 1688 a 13-year-old girl named Martha Goodwin began behaving strangely after having an argument with a laundress, Goody Glover. A few days later the girl's brother and two sisters started behaving strangely too. Goody Glover was arrested and tried for bewitching them, and when she refused to repent for her witchcraft, she was hanged. This was the first of the Salem witchcraft trials.

Four years later, in January 1692, some other young girls, including the nine-year-old daughter of a minister, began behaving in the same way the Goodwin children did four years earlier. The minister's daughter, when asked who was causing the behaviour, accused a family slave. Later she and the other girls accused two other women in the community, a beggar and a bedridden old women. The slave confessed and implicated the other two women.

Soon other young women in the community started exhibiting symptoms and accusing various community members, including a four-year-old child and her mother. Soon the jails were filled with people accused of witchcraft. Among the accused was Mary Easty, a well-liked woman of a neighbouring community. During the trials, if the accused admitted to practising witchcraft, they were freed. If they did not, they were condemned to death.

Mary Easty was accused on April 21 and examined the next day. Her convincing manner and community standing caused doubt in the judge's mind, and she was released on May 18. After this, one of the accusers redoubled her suffering and insisted that she was being tormented by Mary's "spectre". Mary returned to jail and was tried on September 9 and, denied her own counsel and not allowed to plead her case, was condemned to hang. Her final petition was written, not to save her own life, but as a plea that "no more innocent blood may be shed". It acknowledged the good intentions of the court but made a couple of practical suggestions: that the accusers be kept separate from one another to prevent influence and collusion, and that all the accused should be tried, not just the ones claiming innocence.

Easty was hanged on September 22. According to writer Robert Calef, "when she took her last farewell of her husband, children and friends, was, as is reported by them present, as serious, religious, distinct, and affectionate as could well be exprest, drawing tears from the eyes of almost all present."

In October the judges decided to stop admitting spectral evidence, and in January, 49 of the 52 surviving accused were released. In summary, between February 1692 and May 1693 more than 150 people were arrested, with even more accused. Thirty people were convicted and 20 of them executed (14 women, six men), 19 by hanging, and one by being pressed to death by rocks. At least five more died in prison.

Sources: Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project,, Wikipedia's Timeline of the Salem Witch Trials, Salem Witchcraft Trials

September 21, 2007

September 21? | King Edward II

April 25, 1284 - September 21?, 1327: Age 43

The son and heir of the brilliant and ruthless Edward I, Edward II was “strong and handsome in body, weak and foolish in character” (Ronald Hamilton). He ruled in difficult times, but did it badly and, perhaps more important, tactlessly. Being openly gay is not in itself a game-ender when you are powerful, but heaping honours and titles on your palace squire boyfriend is pushing it. Edward and his homies didn’t bother hiding their contempt for various nobles, making fun of them with stupid names. Edward was equally foolish in his domestic and foreign policy, and his report card includes an ignoble defeat at the hands of the much smaller army of the Scots rebel Robert Bruce.

By 1324 there was an effective conspiracy that included the Queen and her boyfriend, who had possession of the Crown Prince. With plenty of baronial support, they seized power and deposited the King, imprisoning him in a filthy dungeon in the hope that he would die “naturally” of some disease. When he didn’t, they had him murdered. The date of death was uncertain, but it was announced officially on September 21.

It is not certain how he died, but a writer who knew someone who lived at the castle at the time claimed some years later he was “ignominiously slain with a red-hot spit thrust into his anus”. This horrible account, whether true or not, at least expresses the deep hatred and resentment Edward’s homosexuality aroused. It would also have ensured a clean corpse for display at the funeral.

Sources: Hamilton, Ronald, Now I Remember, The Hogarth Press, London, 1983; and Forbes, Malcolm, They Went That-A-Way, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1988.

September 20, 2007

September 20 | Charlie King

April 1849 - September 20, 1862: Age 13

At 13, Charlie King was the youngest official military casualty of the US Civil War. It was not unusual to have very young "drummer boys" in both armies: the very youngest combatant appears to have been a nine-year-old kid named Johnny Clem, although Clem was too young to be officially a soldier.* King, however, was old enough to be on the army payroll.

Generally youngsters were kept behind the battle lines, helping out with the wounded and making themselves useful wherever they could. His commanding officer, Capt. Benjamin Sweeney, had convinced King's father that he would keep him out of danger. However during the battle of Antietam, the boy was wounded by an artillery shell that made it over the lines. King, "shot through the body", was carried back to a field hospital, where it took him three painful days to die.

*Johnny Clem survived the war and lived to be 85.

Sources: From the Picket Line, Find-a-Grave

September 19, 2007

September 19 | James Garfield

November 19, 1831 - September 19, 1881: Age 49

James A. Garfield was the 20th President of the United States. He served as a general for the Union in the Civil War, and was elected President in 1880. He took office on March 4, 1881, but would serve only a little over six months.

A religious fanatic named Charles Junius Guiteau shot him twice as he was walking through a railroad station in Washington. It turned out that Guiteau was upset at not being given the US consulship in Paris despite repeated attempts to apply for the job. He shot Garfield twice, once in the arm and then again somewhere near his spine. The second bullet stayed in his body until he died; all attempts to find it and remove it failed. Alexander Graham Bell even invented a metal detector to try to find it, but the machine was foiled by the metal bed frame and nobody realized the cause of the malfunction. As infection set in, Garfield became sicker and sicker, confined to his bed with fevers and pain. He died of a heart attack and blood poisoning 80 days after he was shot.

People now believe his death was hastened or even precipitated by bad medical care. Several doctors attempted to get the bullet out by sticking their (non-sterile) fingers into the would, and one punctured his liver in the process. It may be that this introduced bacteria deadly enough to kill him.

Guiteau was sentenced to death and hanged the following June.

Source: Wikipedia

September 18, 2007

September 18 | Jimi Hendrix

November 27, 1942 - September 18, 1970: Age 27

Hendrix was a brilliant guitarist, singer, songwriter, and record producer whose musical output and lifestyle continue to amaze, delight, offend, and bewilder people. Knowing the magnitude of his influence on the history of rock and roll, it is suprising to remember that he was only 27 when he died. Rolling Stone put him at the top of their list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of all time in 2003.

His breakthrough performance was at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, when he played an incredible, groundbreaking set, ending it by burning his guitar on stage, smashing it to bits, and tossing the pieces out to the audience. He was the headline act at the 1969 Woodstock music festival, considered a bigger attraction than The Who, Santana, Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane.

Artistically he was amazing; personally and professionally things were chaotic. He had huge problems with his manager. He took a lot of drugs, although not heroin, apparently, as many have assumed, because he was afraid of needles. His drug of choice was LSD. When he drank alcohol he would get angry and violent.

His death was caused by asphyxiating on his own vomit in his sleep after taking nine sleeping pills in combination with wine. There is some confusion about exactly when he died, as his girlfriend maintained he was alive when he went into the ambulance but the attendants reported that he had been dead for some time when they got there. Hendrix died in London; when the news got out thieves broke into his New York apartment and stole personal items, tapes, and lyrics.

Sources: Wikipedia, Official Jimi Hendrix Website

September 17, 2007

September 17 | Len Koenecke

January 18, 1904 - September 17, 1935: Age 31

Len Koenecke was a Major League Baseball player for the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants. Already in trouble with the team for his drinking, he got kicked off a commercial flight for being too inebriated. Needing to get to Buffalo, he chartered a plane for himself and a friend.

Koenecke sat up front with the pilot. At first he was quiet, but soon began to get restless and started nudging the pilot. The pilot sent him to sit in the back with his companion but, after a short time, he started poking the pilot from behind. When the companion tried to stop him, they got into a fight.

In the scuffle, the companion tried to hit Koenecke with a small fire extinguisher, which got dropped. Then Koenecke "made for" the pilot, who picked up the fire extinguisher in one hand while holding the controls with the other, hit Koenecke two or three times. "He kept on fighting so I hit him again." The struggle went on for 10 or 15 minutes, during which the plane was veering wildly. "Then I had to come to a decision. It was either a case of the three of us crashing or doing something to Koenecke. I watched my chance, grabbed the fire extinguisher and walloped him over the head."

By the time Koenecke had been "quieted" the pilot had no idea where they were. He steered toward the nearest open field, which happened to be a race track in Toronto, and made an emergency landing. Koenecke died of a brain hemorrhage.


September 16, 2007

September 16 | Maria Callas

December 2, 1923 - September 16, 1977: Age 53

One of the greatest opera singers of the 20th century, Maria Callas grew up in America but spent her youth in Greece. She had an unusual voice and a very strong personality, and experienced great success during the 50s and early 60s. Naturally a heavy woman, Callas undertook to lose 80 pounds in 1953-54, and her resulting slim, graceful figure ensured her status as a superstar outside of the opera world as well as within it. It was rumoured that she had lost the weight by use of a tapeworm, but there’s no evidence to support that, and she herself said she lost it through a judicious diet of chicken and salad greens.

It is possible the the large loss of weight led to vocal problems. When the body changes radically, the singer must compensate; because of Callas’ high profile, any difficulties, real or imagined, were made much of in the press. That, combined with personality clashes and accusations (not always justified) of difficult behaviour, led to the decline of her singing career. She lost confidence, and her vocal problems increased. Her last public performance was in 1974 and was described as “an artistic failure”.

She spent her final years a virtual recluse in Paris. On September 16, 1977 she doed, ostensible of heart failure, but there were rumours that her assistant murdered her in order to gain control of her considerable estate (she had no children). Nothing was ever proven, and the assistant did benefit greatly from her death (he was in her will and already had control of her estate before she died). However the accusation of murder was never taken seriously. It is likely that her heart failure was precipitated by overuse of sleeping aids.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Maria Callas Official Web Site

September 15, 2007

September 15 | Harry K. Daghlian, Jr.

1921 - September 15, 1945: Age 24

Harry Daghlian was a physicist working on the Manhatten Project at Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico. On the evening of August 21, 1945, he was slowing adding tungsten to an apparatus containing a sphere of plutonium, using the audible clicks of a monitor to avoid adding them too quickly. When at one point he heard the clicks speed up, he pulled back his hand, but lost his grip on the brick, which fell into the center of the apparatus. Instinctively he knocked the brick away, avoiding a meltdown, but his hand was inside the blue glow of the plutonium and began to tingle. He dismantled the apparatus to something more stable and was driven to hospital.

Daghlian immediately experienced swelling and numbness, and within 90 minutes acute nausea set in. He vomited almost continually for a day, but after a couple of days of nausea and hiccups his appetite returned. Within 3 days blisters started to apear on his hands. Over the next two weeks these spread all over his body, inside and out. He died just over three weeks after the accident, in great pain.

A security guard who was in the same room about 12 feet away during the accident had no acute symptoms of radiation sickness, but his blood pressure went up and he felt a bit tired for a couple of days. He lived on in apparent good health, even having two children, however he died of leukemia at the age of 62, probably a long-term result of his exposure 33 years before.

Although the accident took place six days after Japan’s surrender, the activities at Los Alamos were still a deep secret, so it was reported he had died of “chemical burns”.

Sources, America’s First Peacetime Atom Bomb Fatality, Wikipedia.

September 14, 2007

September 14 | Isadora Duncan

May 27, 1877 - September 14, 1927: Age 50

Isadora Duncan was one of the greatest dancers in history. Her individualism and free style changed cultural history. Born in America, she lived most of her life in France.
I say that she changed cultural history – not just the history of dance, but much more. Here is what she wrote in 1903: "I shall not teach the children to imitate my movements, but to make their own, I shall not force them to study certain movements, I shall help them to develop those movements which are natural to them.

There will always be movements which are the perfect expression of that individual body and that individual soul: so we must not force it to make movements which are not natural to it but which belong to a school.

The dancer of the future will be one whose body and soul have grown so harmoniously together that the natural language of that soul will have become the movement of the body.”

In 1927 while touring in Europe, she was visiting friends in Nice, France. As she was being driven off in a sports car in Nice, France, by a young Italian mechanic, her last words were, “Adieu, mes amis. Je vais à l’amour.” (Originally her friend, Mary Desti, reported that she had said "Je vais à la gloire" in order to avoid the embarrassment of the implication that she was on her way to a date with the handsome mechanic. What she actually said was revealed later.) Her scarf, long enough to wind around her neck and trail dramatically out of the car, got caught in one of the car’s wheels. Duncan was dragged out of the car, hit the pavement, and died.

Sources: Wikipedia, Women in History

September 13, 2007

The Liar Paradox | Philetas of Cos

330? BCE - 270? BCE: Age 60?

Philetas of Cos was poet and critic in Alexandria during the 4th century BCE. We don't know much about him, but one story is that he was always getting teased for being thin. He was so thin, people said, that he put lead in his shoes to avoid getting blown away.

According to Athenaeus of Naucratis, Philetas worried so much about the Liar paradox that he died of insomnia. His epitaph was: "Philetas of Cos am I; It was the Liar who made me die, and the bad nights caused thereby." — in Greek, of course.

To understand the Liar Paradox, cast your mind back to the original Star Trek: Captain Kirk and Harry Mudd use the Liar Paradox to defeat Norman the evil android.

Kirk: Everything Harry tells you is a lie — remember that! Everything Harry tells you is a lie!

Mudd: Now listen to me carefully, Norman laddie: I - am - lying!

Norman: You lie, but if everything you say is a lie then you must be telling the truth, but you cannot be telling the truth because everything you say is a lie... you lie, you tell the truth, you– Illogical! Illogical! Please explain! You are human! Only humans can explain their behavior! Please explain!

Sources: Wikipedia, Memory Alpha, the Star Trek Wiki

September 12, 2007

September 12 | Steve Biko

December 18, 1946 - September 12, 1977: Age 30

Stephen Bantu Biko was a medical student in South Africa who co-founded the South African Students' Organization (SASO) in response to apartheid. One of the most prominent and inspiring voices in South African resistance to injustice, Biko was targeted by the South African security forces for harassment and detention. On August 18, 1977 he was arrested for violating an order banning him from travel outside his home town. During his detention he was tortured and beaten, resulting in a brain hemhorrage. On September 11 he was transported to Pretoria central prison, a 12-hour journey endured naked in the back of a police Land Rover. He died on the floor of an empty cell in the Pretoria Central Prison on September 12.

At first police claimed his death was the result of a hunger strike, but the obvious head injuries on the body made it clear Biko had been beaten and clubbed while imprisoned and that he had died of head injuries. During a 1978 investigation the police claimed that his head injuries were the result of a suicide attempt. The Minister of Police, Jimmy Kruger, was quoted as saying, "Biko's death leaves me cold."

Alive, Biko was just another player, albeit an outstanding one, in a movement weakened by quarreling and fragmentation. Dead, he was a martyr: the horror and outrage at his murder and the pathetic attempt to gloss it over united the many factions fighting South African oppression. To a great extent his death opened the eyes of the world to the brutality of the regime. His white friend Donald Woods, another journalist, got access to his body in the morgue and took photographs that were transmitted all over the world. Nobody who was an adult at the time will forget them. His funeral was attended by hundreds of people, including notable public figures and diplomats from all over the world.

It was not until 13 years later, in 1990, that the South African government began removing apartheid legislation from the statute books. In 1997 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported that five former members of the South African security forces admitted to killing him and had requested amnesty. In 2003 the South African Justice Ministry announced that they would not be prosecuted because of insufficient evidence and the long time span that had elapsed.

Sources: Steve Biko Foundation, Wikipedia, ZAR.CO.ZA

September 11, 2007

September 11 | Beatrice Cenci

February 6, 1577 - September 11, 1599: Age 22

Beatrice Cenci was the daughter of an Italian Count named Francesco Cenci. He had a dubious reputation, and kept Beatrice and her mother virtually prisoners in his country castello while he amused himself with the vicious pleasures of Rome. His visits home were no picnic for the women, as he was said to have abused both of them physically and sexually.

One day in 1598 a great commotion was heard in the castle. The locals rushed over to find Beatrice's mother screaming, Beatrice "strangely silent", a splintered wooden balcony, and the Count's bloody body 30 meters below it in a gully of rocks and shrubs. He was definitely dead. In fact, oddly enough, he was cold. Moreover, when the body was washed, it was discovered that he had somehow acquired several stab wounds in the head that were not quite consistent with the notion of a fall.

A year of investigations revealed that the Count had been drugged and then two men had entered the castle and driven an iron spike into his head. They pushed the body off the balcony and made a hole in the balcony floor to make it look like an accident, but neglected to get rid of the bloody sheets and mess inside. Extensive confessions (obtained under torture) revealed that the men had been hired for this purpose by the Count's family. Both murderers died during the investigation: one ran away but got his head cut off by a bounty-hunter's hatchet, the other died under torture. Although Beatrice never confessed, it was believed that she had been the most determined of the conspirators, urging the men on when they hesitated at the last minute. The whole family was found guilty.

Alhtough Beatrice never confessed, nobody doubted her culpability. The Count was extremely unpopular and the common people had no trouble believing he had abused Beatrice. That, combined with her youth and beauty — she was thought to be about 17 — made her a cause célèbre. Widespread protest of the verdict did bring about a brief stay of execution, but in the end the Pope ordered that the sentences be carried out. (The family estate reverted to the Church.)

On September 11, 1599, one year and two days after the murder, the sentence was carried out. The elder brother, Giacomo, was publicly tortured to death. Beatrice and her mother were beheaded. The other brother, being only 12, was considered by the judges to have been too young to have had anything to do with it. Even so, he was sentenced to be present on the scaffold with his family to witness their executions before being sent to the galleys for a life of slavery. Today, Beatrice's ghost can be seen every year on the night of the eve of her execution, walking the Sant'Angelo Bridge where the scaffold was built, carrying her severed head.

Over the years the story of the desperate innocent girl driven to murder by her father's abuse seized the imagination of artists, playwrights, poets, and filmmakers. The portrait by Reni (shown here) was a big part of that continuing interest; many wrote about its inspiring effect. Mary Shelley, writing of her husband's interest in the legend (he wrote a play about it), said that the portrait's "beauty cast the reflection of its own grace over her appalling story; Shelley's imagination because strangely excited." Stendhal wrote of "a poor girl of 16 who has only just surrendered to despair. The face is sweet and beautiful, the expression very gentle, the eyes extremely large; they have the astonished air of a person who has just been surprised at the very moment of shedding scalding tears." Dickens foudn it "a picture almost impossible to be forgotten", full of "transcendent sweetness" and "beautiful sorrow". Hawthorne found it "the very saddest ever painted or conceived: it involves an unfathomable depth of sorrow", and further wrote, "She is a fallen angel — fallen and yet sinless."

Modern historical research is such a buzzkill. Reni was Bolognese and didn't even paint in Rome before 1608, nine years after her death. It's much more likely the portrait is one of the Muses, and the link with Beatrice is a based on pure speculation ("probably the Cenci girl" written in a catalogue in the late 18th century). Moreover, documentary research has turned up a record of her birth and shown that "the poor girl of 16" was 22 when she was executed. Finally, there is some suggestion that she had an illegitimate child — a plausible explanation for her "imprisonment" in the castle.

It is obvious that the Cenci family was dysfunctional, even abusive; there is plenty of evidence supporting that. However this story, that grew into a rather simplistic drama laced with sex and violence, is deeper and more complicated than the myth.

Sources: Beatrice Cenci: Storia del secolo XVI (Francesco Domenico Guerrazzi), Screaming in the Castle (Charles Nicholl), Wikipedia

September 10, 2007

September 10 | Elizabeth of Austria

December 24, 1837 - September 10, 1898: Age 60

Empress Elizabeth of Austria was the third child of a Duke. Her elder sister, Helene, was chosen to be the wife of the young Emperor Franz Josef, but when the family was taken to meet the young monarch he fell in love with Elizabeth. Against everyone's wishes (except hers), they were married. She was 16; he was 23.

Elizabeth's life was as interesting as her personality. Her mother-in-law was a powerful and wily politician who ruled the empire through her son; they never saw eye-to-eye but Elizabeth was one of the very few people in Europe capable of standing up to her. Strong, independent, rich, dazzlingly beautiful, popular, adored by her subjects — even so, Elizabeth was often deeply unhappy. She hated the tedious responsibilities of the role she had married into. She became obsessed with preserving her beauty, and was anorexic, starving herself to maintain a 20-inch waist throughout her life. She traveled obsessively and constantly, becoming more and more restless as she grew older. When in 1889 she lost her son to suicide, she withdrew into deep depression.

On September 10, 1898, 25-year-old Luigi Lucheni, an Italian anarchist, was in Geneva with the intention to kill an aristocrat. His original target was a french Duke, but when that individual changed his itinerary he fixed on the other royal who happened to be in town: the Empress Elizabeth. He actually had no idea who she was, he just knew she was important. While she was boarding a steamship, he rushed up to her and stabbed her with a needle file. She didn't realize she was hurt at first. She had fallen to the ground but got up immediately and proceeded to board the boat. Once on the boat, the wound was discovered, and she was rushed back to land to be seen by a doctor. The wound was small but fatal: it had punctured her heart. She died before receiving medical attention. Her last words were, "What has happened to me?"

Lucheni was sentenced to life in prison. In 1910, 12 years later, he was found hanged in his cell, an apparent suicide. Physicians and psychiatrists, eager to "fathom the secrets of the criminal mind", removed Lucheni's head, preserving it in a jar of formaldehyde. Described as "yellowing" and "sleepy-eyed", it was kept in a closet in Geneva's Institute of Legal Medicine for 66 years. In 1986 the Swiss sent the head to the Anatomical Institute of the University of Vienna, where presumably it remains today.

Sources: Wikipedia, Empress of Austria (Her British Journeys), "Relic of an 1898 Crime Goes Home to Vienna" (New York Times, August 31, 1986)

September 9, 2007

September 9 | Mao Tse Tung

December 26, 1893 - September 9, 1976: Age 82

"Long Live Chairman Mao for ten thousand years!" — a traditional Chinese praise for the reigning Emperor, this was frequently heard toward the end of Mao's long life. Mao Tse Tung died in 1976 at the age of 82. The cause of death was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig's Disease; Stephen Hawking has it too) as well as breathing problems caused by smoking. His death came at the end of a long decline (perhaps 5 years) during which various factions vied to win the power struggle that his death would catalyze.

Mao publicly declared in 1956 that he wished to be cremated, but when he died the politburo issued an emergency order to temporarily preserve his body for two weeks. Soon after, it was decided the body should be preserved indefinitely, like Lenin's, in a crystal casket and on view to the public. Unfortunately the Chinese at the time didn't have the technology either to preserve the body or to construct a crystal casket. The Russians did, but China wasn't on good terms the USSR at the time. The embalming problem was relatively easily solved, as the Russians had shared their technology with Vietnam for the preservation of Ho Chi Minh's body, and the government of Vietnam was happy to share it with China.

As to the coffin, they did have a Russian-made coffin created for Sun Yat-sen in 1925 but never used (Sun was entombed in a more traditional manner in Nanjing), but it was too small for Mao's 1.8-meter height. Chinese Embassy employees in Moscow were sent to covertly photograph Lenin's remains and fax the picture back to Beijing. Several different factories were secretly charged with designing and building a suitable casket of crystal.

Two-meter pieces of crystal aren't just lying around waiting to be made into a coffin; the Chinese had to invent a special method of fusing separate plates together. Because the melting point of crystal is more than 2,000 degrees Celsius, the special protective gear worn by the technician fusing the plates together began to smoke in the high temperature, so colleagues had to pour water on him to cool him down while he worked.

Today the body is on view to the public for 4 hours a day; the rest of the time it is stored in a cool basement to promote preservation. Visitors stand in line for long periods, even hours, to view the body. Many report that it looks "waxy", and the guards ensure no more than 15 seconds of viewing, leading to speculation that a) it's a fake or b) it's decaying despite the attempt at preserving it.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Significance of Remembering Mao Zedong, moreorless : heroes & killers of the 20th century

September 8, 2007

September 8 | Gesualdo

March 8, 1566? - September 8, 1613: Age 47?

Don Carlo Gesualdo was the Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza. He was a brilliant musician and composer. He was also a sexual sado-masochist, manic depressive, and murderer. He was really nuts.

He married a young widow whose first husband’s untimely death was said to have been caused by too much sex. Gesualdo was her fourth husband. After four years of marriage, he surprised her in bed with another man and murdered them both on the spot, stabbing them repeatedly and then displaying their naked bloody corpses on the steps of his palazzo as a lesson in morality for passers-by. Some say he also murdered his own child by this woman, but this is disputed.

As a nobleman, Gesualdo could not be prosecuted; but as an in-law, he was vulnerable to revenge at the hands of his wife’s family, so he turned over a new leaf, moving to another city and marrying his cousin. Unfortunately he couldn’t escape from the intense remorse he felt for his violent behaviour, and his life degraded into a cycle of sexual excess, sado-masochism (he insisted on being beaten three times daily), and ill-health (he was asthmatic). He died in 1613.

His music, however, is brilliant, and he wrote a lot of it, most famously many madrigals (songs) that are intensely sad and disturbing yet strangely beautiful. The most famous is Moro lasso:

Moro, lasso, al mio duolo,
E chi può dar mi vita,
Ahi, che m'ancide e non vuol darmi aita!

O dolorosa sorte,
Chi dar vita mi può,
Ahi, mi dà morte!


I die, alas, in my suffering,
And she who could give me life,
Alas, kills me and will not help me.

O sorrowful fate,
She who could give me life,
Alas, gives me death.

Sources: Musicweb-International, Wikipedia, Choral Public Domain Library

September 7, 2007

September 7 | Karen Blixen

April 17, 1885 - September 7, 1962: Age 77

Better known today by her pen name Isak Dinesen, Karen Blixen contracted syphilis from her first husband, Baron Blixen, whom she married in Africa in 1914. Syphilis was at the time widely considered an incurable disease, although it wasn’t really, and for the rest of her life Blixen attributed her considerable health problems to it, although her doctors could find no trace of it in her after the 1920s.

The treatments for syphilis in early 20th century Africa included mercury and arsenic. It is likely that these treatments are what caused a permanent mild loss of sensation and reflex in her legs. She also suffered from chronic, intense abdominal pain. Nobody really knew or knows to this day what was causing the pain, but it plagued Blixen for her entire life. Her pain was so intense and frequent that by 1945 she had some of her spinal nerves severed surgically. It didn’t help; her symptoms returned.

In 1953 Blixen’s most famous short story, Babette’s Feast, was published in the Ladies Home Journal. It’s beautiful story whose climax describes in deep, sensuous, loving detail the preparation and consumption of an extraordinary meal, and the profound, magical effect the meal has on a community. It is a beautiful story and if you haven’t read it, go find it now and do so, or at least watch the 1986 film — best do both. This story the most vivid and soulful description food I have ever read.

By 1955 she had a third of her stomach removed to treat an ulcer. She visited America in 1959 and spent part of her 3 months there having in intravenous infusions. In her final years she was able to eat almost nothing, and weighed less than 80 pounds. She died of malnutrition.

Sources: Karen Blixen - Isak Dinesen Information Site, Wikipedia

September 6, 2007

September 6 | John Raymond Rice

April 25, 1914 - September 6, 1950: Age 36

Sergeant John Raymond Rice was an American soldier killed in action in Korea in 1950. His body wasn't shipped home to Nebraska until the following August, and his wife Evelyn prepared to have him buried at the Memorial Park Cemetery in Sioux City. During the funeral on August 28 a cemetery employee noticed there were a lot of Native Americans among the mourners. When cemetery officials discovered that Rice himself was native, they made the family take the body home without burying it.

According to the cemetery officials, they weren't being prejudiced, just enforcing a policy based on people's wish to be with their own kind. They insisted they had legal obligation to the rest of plot owners in the cemetery.

After a big firefight in the press, then-President Harry Truman publicly reprimanded the cemetery and the Sioux City town leaders. Rice's family were invited to bring him to be bured at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington. Sergeant Rice (who was also a WWII veteran) was buried with full military honors on September 5, 1951, nearly a year to the day after he died, in Arlington National Cemetery between a couple of generals.

Sources: Find-a-Grave, Sioux City History

September 5, 2007

September 5 | Sarah Winchester

September 1839 - September 5, 1922: Age 83

I begin this entry with a picture of a house because this is what makes Sarah Winchester interesting. Heiress to the family fortune of the gun manufacturer, Sarah's only daughter died as a baby and her husband died of tuberculosis 15 years later. Sarah consulted a medium who advised her that the spirits of all the people killed with Winchester rifles were angry at her family, that her daughter and husband were taken in revenge, but that she herself would be protected if she bought a house and expanded it continually. So long as construction continued, she would not die.

The spirits misled her: she did die — 38 years after she bought the house and started construction. You can get a lot of building done in 38 years: in this case a really weird house with 160 rooms and some very odd construction details (stairs that go nowhere, windows in floors, a door that leads to an 8-foot drop into a sink, etc.). Needless to say she designed it all herself. She believed that spider webs and the number 13 were lucky and so both those motifs are prominent in the decor — an odd choice for someone afraid of spirits.

She died in her sleep at the age of 85 in 1922. When the workers heard she was dead, they stopped, "even to the extent of leaving nails hammered in part way". Her safe contained locks of her daughter's and husband's hair, copies of their obituaries, and her will, written in 13 parts and signed 13 times. She left all her furniture to her niece, most of which was sold: it took eight truckloads a day for six and one half weeks to remove it all. The house was then sold and turned into a tourist attraction: see the website here for more pictures.

Sources: Find-A-Grave, About Famous People, Winchester Mystery House

September 4, 2007

September 4 | Steve Irwin

February 22, 1962 - September 4, 2006: Age 44

“Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin, a popular Australian naturalist and TV personality, was killed at 44 by a stingray’s barb piercing his chest and heart. He was snorkeling in shallow water at the Great Barrier Reef, filming some scenes for a segment in a television show he was co-hosting with his daughter. His colleagues, who witnessed and filmed the accident, explain that the ray probably felt threatened by Steve’s proximity, but that it was a “one-in-a-million thing” that he was stung.

Although the film of the accident was never released to the public, his colleague John Stainton described it, stating, "Steve came over the top of the ray and the tail came up, and spiked him here [in the chest], and he pulled it out and the next minute he's gone." He was pronounced dead by medical staff when they arrived shortly after.

From Wikipedia: “It is thought, in the absence of a coroner's report, that a combination of the toxins and the puncture wound caused Irwin to die of cardiac arrest, with most damage being inflicted by tears to arteries or other main blood vessels. A similar incident in Florida a month later in which a man survived a stingray barb through the heart showed that Irwin may have caused his own death by removing the barb.”

Sources: Wikipedia, Australia Zoo

September 3, 2007

September 3 | Jean Wilson

July 19, 1910 - September 3, 1933: Age 23

Born in Glasgow, Jean Wilson came to Canada as a baby. She didn’t learn to skate until she was 15 but by 18 was beating world champions. She represented Canada in the North American championship and won every event she entered. She competed in the 1932 Olympics and medaled with silver. In the 1K event she was in the lead but fell just before the finish line. Her comment: “Falling before the tape will be done again and by others beside myself.”

In fact, it would be done only by others besides herself. A few months after the Olympics she was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a disease in which the immune system attacks the muscles. The muscles become weaker during periods of activity, but improve during periods of rest. There is no cure, although today, as with many autoimmune diseases, it can be controlled with drugs. In the 1930s, it was fatal. Over the few months after her diagnosis Wilson would have experienced drooping eyes, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, unstable gait and, ultimately, difficulty breathing. Wilson died within a year of her diagnosis.

Sources: Find-A-Grave, Canadian Sports Hall of Fame

September 2, 2007

September 2 | Russ Columbo

January 14, 1908 - September 2, 1934: Age 26

Russ Columbo, born Ruggiero Eugenio di Rodolpho Colombo in New Jersey, was the son of Italian immigrants. By his early 20s he was a famous crooner, on a par with Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee. He was a famous radio presence and beginning to get top billing in films. He is quoted in a press release as saying, "At 26, I find that I have just about everything I want from life and am pretty happy the way things have turned out for me."

On September 2, 1934, still 26 years old, he was visiting a close friend who had a pair of antique dueling pistols. The friend liked to use the pistols to strike matches, but this time trick went disastrously wrong. The pistol used still had some gunpowder and an antique bullet in it. The bullet ricocheted off the desk and hit Columbo in the left eye, lodging in the back of his brain. Although he lost consciousness immediately he lived another six hours.

One of the strangest things about Columbo's death is that his family were able to hide it from his mother for the remaining ten years of her life. She was 68 at the time and had a heart condition; her doctors advised the family not to give her the bad news for fear of sending her off as well. She was told he had married Carole Lombard (who really was his girlfriend) and had left for Europe for a honeymoon. Thus began a bizarre conspiracy of fake postcards and telegrams and an elaborate story about a European tour that kept getting extended. Newspapers that reported Lombard's marriage to Clark Gable were carefully edited before being brought into the home. As Mrs. Colombo was aging, nearly blind, and English was not her first language, the charade seems to have worked. She died in 1944, ten years after her son, without ever having been given the news.

On a completely different note, there is an excellent movie, made in Georgia (the former Soviet Republic, that is) called "Since Otar Left" that tells a similar story about a family keeping the news of a death secret. It's a great film and worth renting if you can find it.

Sources: Classic Images, Wikipedia, Sicilian Culture

Click here to watch and listen to Columbo in Broadway Through A Keyhole, released in 1933

September 1, 2007

September 1 | Louis XIV

September 5, 1638 - September 1, 1715: Age 66

Louis XIV of France, also known as The Sun King, began feeling unwell in early 1715. As King of France, a great superpower, at 66 he was arguably the most powerful man in the world. Various diagnoses and treatments didn't improve the situation and by early August he began to experience severe pain in his leg. By late August he was diagnosed with gangrene and ordered to bathe his leg in burgundy and ass's milk. Two days later the doctors were recommending incisions but, knowing he was going to die anyway, Louis refused. He asked how much time he had: it was a Monday, and the doctor replied "Sire, we may hope until Wednesday." In fact Louis lived until the following Sunday.

Needless to say his last days were not pleasant, but they were made worse by the intrigues that flowed around him. In the previous few years, Louis XIV lost nearly all of his legitimate heirs: his son, two grandsons, his brother, and two great-grandsons. He was succeeded by his youngest great-grandson, Louis XV, who was 5 when he died, and whoever served as Regent would have many years to mold the new young King and place his friends and relations in positions of importance. (His wife, Madame de Maintenon, bullied him into naming her favourite as Regent.)

He spent his last days saying goodbye and giving last minute advice. In response to the weeping and wailing going on around him, at one point he said, "Why do you weep — did you imagine that I was immortal?" At the end, he was left to the priests and his room was filled with religious music and prayers. On 1 September he died.

Source: Mitford, Nancy, The Sun King, 1966.