October 31, 2007

October 31 | Houdini

March 24, 1874 - October 31, 1926: Age 52

Ehrich Weisz was a careful man. Known as Harry Houdini (he took the name to honour Jean Robert-Houdin, a French magician he admired), he developed, practised, and performed hundreds of death-defying "escapes". In fact, he was such a meticulous and careful man that there was very little chance that any of his escapes would endanger him unduly.

A number of factors came together to cause Houdini's death. The best known is this: on October 22, after a performance in Montreal, three young McGill University students visited Houdini in his dressing room. One decided to test his well-known assertion that he could withstand any blow to the stomach, and sucker-punched Houdini in the abdomen several times. (The young man, J. Gordon Whitehead, went on to live a life of "failure and pathos", according to author Don Bell in The Man Who Killed Houdini, and died of malnutrition in 1954.)

Nobody knew it at the time, but on that day Houdini was probably already suffering from the beginning stages of appendicitis. The pain of receiving undefended blows to the abdomen masked the growing pain of the infection, and Houdini ignored it. He performed two nights later in Detroit with a temperature of 104, refusing to miss his performance in order to get medical treatment. He was hospitalized that night, and the doctors diagnosed a ruptured appendix and gave him six hours to live. In fact, he lasted another week, dying on Hallowe'en at about 1:30 in the afternoon.

Houdini had a longstanding interest in spritualism, and had made a deal with his wife, Bess, that whoever died first would try to contact the other. They had pre-arranged a series of 10 code words that would identify the ghost as genuine, because Houdini feared that spiritualists would try to capitalize on his death by "contacting" him. Spiritualist Arthur Ford did claim to contact him and somehow coerced or seduced Bess Houdini into agreeing that the code had been correctly given, but she later denied his claims. She herself held a seance every year on October 31 to try to contact her husband. After 10 years with no success, she snuffed out a candle she had kept lit since he died, saying "Ten years is long enough to wait for any man." However to this day, the tradition of holding a seance for Houdini on Hallowe'en is maintained by magicians thoughout the world.

There is one known recording of Houdini's voice. If you'd like to hear it, click here.

Sources: Wikipedia; Forbes, Malcolm, They Went That-a-Way, Simon and Shuster, 1988.

October 30, 2007

October 30 | Joseph W. Burrus

1958 - October 30, 1990: Age 32

Joseph Burrus was a magician who wished to perform an illusion in which he was buried alive in a plastic box of his own construction. The box was to be lowered into a hole and then covered in dirt and concrete. During the performance, however, the cement crushed the box. When the crew realized this they pulled him out, but he had died.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Nightly Quill

October 29, 2007

October 29 | Sir Walter Raleigh

1552 - October 29, 1618: Age 66

Walter Raleigh was the consummate Elizabethan English gentleman: poet, courtier, explorer, romantic. He was a favourite of Elizabeth I until he risked it all by secretly marrying one of her ladies in waiting, a move he knew would infuriate the Queen. It did, and they had to live away from court for many years. He did return to favour briefly near the end of the Queen's life, but she died in 1603.

Elizabeth died without a direct heir. Her cousin, James VI of Scotland, took power as James I of England, and James I didn't find Raleigh charming at all. Moreover, English Catholics were forever plotting to overthrow the Protestant government, and Raleigh was implicated in one of their plots (although he was very likely innocent). He was arrested tried and, despite the skill of his defence (which he conducted himself), was found guilty. His life, however, was spared indefinitely by the King. Now legally dead, from 1604 on Raleigh lived in the Tower of London, quite literally at the King's pleasure. Being noble, his cell was quite a bit nicer than most people's homes of that day, and his wife and friends visited him freely. His youngest son was conceived there in 1604.

In 1616 he was released in order to lead an expedition to Venezuela in search of gold. He did not succeed in finding any in the conventional fashion and, desperate for booty of some sort, his men sacked a Spanish outpost. The Spanish ambassador furiously demanded that his death sentence be reinstated and politics at the time dictated that James I grant that request.

Raleigh was beheaded on October 29, 1618. He suffered from malaria, and was worried that the daily period of fever and trembling brought about by the disease be mistaken for cowardice. "Let us dispatch," he asked his executioner. "At this hour my ague comes upon me. I would not have my enemies think I quaked from fear." He felt the edge of the axe, commenting, "This is what will cure all sorrows." When the executioner hesitated before striking, he urged him on: "What dost thou fear? Strike, man, strike!"

His embalmed head was given to his widow, who kept it in a velvet bag until she died 29 years later.

Sources: Wikipedia; Forbes, Malcolm, They Went That-a-Way, Simon and Schuster, 1988.

October 28, 2007

October 28 | Camilo Cienfuegos

February 6, 1932 - October 28, 1959: Age 27

Every year on October 28 Cuban children throw flowers into the ocean, saying "Una flora por Camilo!" This is for Camilo Cienfuegos, a charismatic revolutionary who became a deadly military leader during the Cuban struggle for reform. Unlike Castro, but like Guevara, Cienfuegos was fated to die young and stay beloved by most of his compatriots. His particular gift was his popularity: people could sense his complete sincerity and it inspired great courage on the part of the young men and women fighting at his side. It helped that he was also intelligent, of course, and led them wisely.

After the revolution Castro made Cienfuegos military leader of Havana and Chief of Staff of the revolutionary army. A few days after being sent to arrest a former comrade whom Castro suspected of counter-revolution, Cienfuegos' small aircraft disappeared during a night flight over open water to Havana. A large-scale search was carried out but no aircraft or remains were ever found. Although there has been plenty of speculation about the disappearance, no evidence has ever emerged that it was anything but an accident.

Sources: Wikipedia, History of Cuba

October 27, 2007

October 27 | Ginette Neveu

August 11, 1919 - October 27, 1949: Age 30

Ginette Niveu made her debut as a solo concert violinist with the Colonne Orchestra in Paris at the age of 7. At the age of 9, when her teacher pointed out that he would play a passage of the Bach Chaconne rather differently, she replied "I play this music as I understand it." Her career as a touring virtuoso began in earnest in her teens, with performances in Poland, Germany, Soviet Union, the US and Canada and of course her home in France.

In 1949 she was flying to the US for a concert tour with her brother, who was her accompanist and himself a virtuoso pianist. In those days transatlantic flights routinely stopped to refuel in the Azores, but her plane had difficulties landing and, after two attempts, crashed into a mountain. It is said that her body was found clutching her Stradivarius, but this mention is marked "citation needed" in Wikipedia which probably means it's an urban legend.

The plane was also carrying French boxing champion Marcel Cerdan, who was on his way to the US for a rematch with the American Jake La Motta (Raging Bull).

Sources: Wikipedia, Legendary Violinists, Everything2.com

See her perform on YouTube.

October 26, 2007

October 26 | Hattie McDaniel

June 10, 1895 - October 26, 1952: Age 57

Hattie McDaniel is best know for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, but between 1932 and 1950 she performed in nearly 100 films. Even though she was well respected by influential people in Hollywood, and her performance in Gone with the Wind would win her an Oscar, she did not attend the premier of that film in Atlanta because the laws of Georgia at the time would have required her to sit in a separate section for blacks, and she would have had to stay at a special hotel for blacks rather than with her fellow actors. Clark Gable threatened to boycott the premier for this reason, but McDaniel persuaded him to attend anyway.

Like many successful members of oppressed groups, she found herself dealing with prejudice from the white community on one side while being criticized by "progressive" blacks on the other for taking roles as maids and other black stereotypes. Her comment was, "I'd rather play a maid for $700 a week than be one for $7 a week."

She died of breast cancer in 1957. She wanted to be buried at Hollywood Memorial Park with her peers, but was denied by the owner, who maintained a whites-only policy. She was buried elsewhere. Years later a more progressive owner offered to have her remains moved to what is now called the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, but her family declined. Instead a large memorial was build at Hollywood Forever Cemetery commemorating her achievements.

Sources: Wikipedia, Noteable Biographies, Internet Movie Database

October 25, 2007

October 25 | Sadako Sasaki

January 7, 1943 - October 25, 1955: Age 12

Sadako Sasaki was only 2 years old when the Americans dropped an atom bomb on her home city of Hiroshima. It blew her right out of her house, which later burned in the fires, but her mother picked her up and started running away from the destruction. As they were running they were caught in the "black rain" that followed the explosion.

Sadako and her mother survived the explosion, and she grew up healthy. She was the fastest runner in her school and dreamed of becoming a phys ed teacher when, in late 1954 at the age of 11, she caught a cold and developed small lumps in her neck. By January purple spots had appeared on her leg, and in February she was diagnosed with leukemia, the "atom bomb disease". Her doctor said she had a year at most.

During that summer, the people of Nagoya sent 1,000 origami cranes to the hospital to cheer patients up. Inspired by the cranes, and the saying that anyone who folded 1,000 cranes would be granted a wish, Sadako started folding her own cranes. When she ran out of paper, she scrounged more from medicine wrappings and labels, and gift paper from other patients. By late October she had folded more than 1,300 paper cranes. She died on the morning of October 25, 1955. Her last words were about some food her family had persuaded her to eat: "It's good."

The young people of Japan were deeply affected by the story of the young girl who folded cranes. They raised enough money to create a monument for her, and for all the other children who had been killed by the bombs. A large monument was built in the Hiroshima Peace Park, where to this day children bring folded paper cranes as an offering. At the foot of the statue is a plaque which reads, "This is our cry. This is our prayer. Peace in the world."

Sources: Wikipedia, World Peace Project for Children, Hiroshima Virtual Museum

October 24, 2007

October 24 | Tycho Brahe

December 14, 1546 - October 24, 1601: Age 54

Tycho Brahe is known today as an astronomer and alchemist, but there were many other interesting things to know about him. He was a nobleman, and was born a twin, but his brother died before they were baptized. He had a metal nose of his own design, as he’d lost the real one in a duel. He was immensely rich and kept a clairvoyant dwarf who sat under his table during dinner (I am not making this up!). He married a commoner for love, a difficult thing as it meant his children were commoners and could not inherit his name, title or property. He also owned a tame moose, who died on a visit to a friend. During dinner, the moose drank a lot of beer and fell downstairs. “Despite the best care, the moose had died shortly thereafter.“ (Again, I am not making this up!)

A banquet was also Brahe’s undoing. He was having supper at a friend’s house and, although he drank plenty of wine, he was too polite to get up to pee. When he finally left the table he found he could not pee; his bladder was blocked from waiting too long. For days after that he could only let out small dribbles of water, and suffered from pain and dizziness. Finally he died. Traditionally it’s believed he died from urine poisoning, but a 1996 analysis of hair taken from his remains shows that he must have ingested a large dose of mercury about 20 hours before his death, possibly as a medicine for his illness or perhaps he was poisoned - some believe by Johannes Kepler, who worked for him at the time and was appointed his successor as imperial mathematician. We’ll never know. During his final illness Brahe is said to have told Kepler "Ne frustra vixisse videar!", "Let me not seem to have lived in vain”.

Source: Wikipedia

October 23, 2007

October 23 | Soong May-Ling

1897 - October 23, 2003: Age 106

She was born in Shanghai in Imperial China, one of six children in the family of a Chinese Methodist minister and Bible salesman. She was educated in America, a young Chinese woman graduating with honours during the First World War. Through her husband she ruled China, then Taiwan, before retiring at his death. Her experience spanned three centuries and two millenia.

Soong May-Ling was the wife, muse, advisor, goad, and best friend of Chiang Kai-Shek, the man who ruled China until his defeat at the hands of Mao Tse-Tung in 1949. Soong and Chiang went to Taiwan, where he became President. Between then and 1975, when Chiang died, Soong gained more and more influence both in Taiwan and internationally.

When Chiang died, he was succeeded by his eldest son by a previous marriage, who was not friendly to Soong. She moved to Long Island, where her family had an estate, and then in 2000 to an apartment in Manhattan, where black-suited bodyguards cleared the lobby every time she went through. She was popularly known as "The Dragon Lady". She died peacefully in her apartment on October 23, 2003, at age 106.

Source: Wikipedia

October 22, 2007

October 22 | Pretty Boy Floyd

February 3, 1904 - October 22, 1934: Age 30

Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd was one of the most romanticized bank robbers of depression era America. The subject of songs, books, and at least five films, Floyd began robbing at the age of 18 when he stole $350 in pennies from a local post office. He earned his nickname when a witness at one of his early heists described him as "a pretty boy." Floyd hated the name, but it stuck.

He quickly graduated from post offices to banks, supposedly robbing dozens of them throughout the midwest over the next three years. At the age of 21, he was arrested for a payroll robbery in St. Louis and sentenced to five years in prison. He was paroled after three and vowed he would never see the inside of a prison again. As it turned out, he was right.

Floyd quickly returned to the only career he knew, robbing banks and payrolls throughout the midwest. He was caught once and sentenced to fifteen years, but escaped while being transported to the pen.

He was probably blamed for many more robberies than he actually committed. As Woody Guthrie wrote, "Every crime in Oklahoma was added to his name." By 1930, he was branded a "public enemy" by the FBI, but to many who had lost or were afraid of losing their farms or homes to bank foreclosures, he was a hero. He was protected and sheltered by locals almost everywhere he went.

Floyd was shot down on October 22, 1934 near East Liverpool, Ohio. According to the FBI report, he was ambushed in a cornfield, drew his .45 caliber pistol, and began firing and cursing at the police. When they returned fire, Floyd yelled "I'm done for; you've hit me twice." He died fifteen minutes later. Another account, by Chester Smith, a retired East Liverpool Police Captain, claims Floyd was only wounded in the shootout and that he was then shot at point-blank range — effectively executed — by FBI agent Melvin Purvis.

Floyd's body was embalmed and shipped to Oklahoma. His funeral was attended by between twenty and forty thousand people. It remains the largest funeral in Oklahoma history.

Sources: Wikipedia, Crime Library

This entry was composed by my husband Tim Hurson. Thanks Tim!

October 21, 2007

October 21 | Horatio Nelson

September 29, 1758 - October 21, 1805: Age 47

Anyone who has been to Trafalgar Square in London has seen Nelson... or at least his statue. He's the one up at the top of the column in the centre of the square. He's also the most popular war hero in Britain.

Nelson embodied a number of the qualities essential to heroism in his time: he was an excellent seaman, a brilliant strategist, a charismatic and inspiring leader, and a beloved comrade. Two people contributed greatly to his success: Lady Emma Hamilton, the love of his life, with whom he carried on an open affair although she was married to someone else, and Napoleon. His living openly with Lady Hamilton made people uncomfortable enough that he got sent into the field a lot to reduce national embarrassment. And Napoleon provided the perfect enemy.

Nelson's greatest and last triumph was the Battle of Trafalgar.* Before the battle, Nelson had this famous message conveyed to his fleet by means of signal flags: "England expects that every man will do his duty." In fact, he had wanted to say "Nelson confides that every man will do his duty" but the signalman asked to change "confides" to make it easier to translate into flag language, and another officer suggested "England" instead of "Nelson".

The strategy in those days was to get alongside an enemy ship in such a relationship with the wind and currents that your ship had more manoevrability than theirs. Nelson was renowned for his ability to come up with creative and unpredictable tactics; this Flash animation shows what he had the fleet do at Trafalgar and it's easy to see why it worked. The fleet approached from the lee — the weak side — then suddenly cut through the enemy line and engaged the ships from the windward or stronger side. It worked beautifully, however, during the battle the masts and sails of Nelson's ship Victory became entangled with those of the French Redoutable, and snipers in the topmasts of Redoubtable began firing down onto the deck.

A bullet entered his left shoulder, pierced his lung, and came to rest at the base of his spine. He stayed conscious for about four hours. He asked not to be thrown overboard (the normal burial for a soldier at sea) and that those present ensure Lady Hamilton was taken care of. To his comrade Captain Thomas Hardy, he said "Kiss me, Hardy". Hardy kissed him twice. After the first, Nelson said "Now I am satisfied". After the second, he said "Who is that?" and, when he saw it was Hardy, "God bless you, Hardy." Later, he said, "Thank God I have done my duty," words that brought tears to the eyes of millions when they were reported to the nation. Finally, "Drink, drink. Fan, fan. Rub, rub." These, his actual last words, referred to relief of the various discomforts he was suffering: a drink for thirst, then a fan for the heat (even in October it was warm below decks), then for someone to rub near his wound. He died at 16:30.

Nelson's body was preserved in a cask of brandy. It was always difficult to keep sailors away from any kind of spirits, but apparently it was managed this time through 24 hour armed guard. There was a rumour that sailors had drained the cask, and for years "tapping the Admiral" was naval slang for having a drink. However the barrel arrived, sealed, with no appreciable reduction in volume. The bullet that killed him was removed from his body and is now on public display in Windsor Castle. He was buried a coffin made from the mast of a ship he had defeated in another famous battle, inside a sarcophagus originally created for Thomas Cardinal Wolsey at the time of Henry VIII. When Wolsey fell from favour, Henry had confiscated but never used it.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Battle of Trafalgar

* I happen to know that my own great-great-great grandfather also died in that battle, fighting on the English side.

October 20, 2007

October 20 | Ronnie Van Zant

January 15, 1948 - October 20, 1977: Age 29

Lynrd Skynrd were one of the most popular US bands during the 70s. Nobody who was alive during that time can fail to recognize and continue from the opening bars of "Sweet Home Alabama". Their music appealed to a demographic range that included hardcore rock enthusiasts as well as country fans.

On October 20, 1977, the band was travelling in a chartered plane from Greenville, South Carolina to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The crew had been running one engine on a slightly richer fuel mixture in order to correct some problems they'd been having with it. Evidently they did not include that in their fuel calculations, because although they took on an appropriate amount of fuel at each stop in their travels for regular engine performance, they actually ran out of gas while still in the air. When they became aware of the potential problem they contacted air traffic controllers to get permission to land at McComb Airport in Mississippi. They were on their way there when the engines stopped and the plane went down in a heavily wooded area near Gillsburg, Mississippi.

Ronnie Van Zant, the band's founder, frontman, and main lyricist, was killed outright in the crash, as was guitarist Steve Gaines, backup singer Cassie Gaines, their assistant road manager and the two pilots. All of the remaining band members were injured, most of them critically. Two interesting points: one, the plane and crew were on a long-term lease to the band. Before being hired by Lynrd Skynrd they had been considered and rejected by the band Aerosmith, who didn't feel either the crew or plane were up to standard, and were somewhat put off by seeing the two co-pilots passing a bottle of Jack Daniels back and forth while the plane was being inspected. Two, another backup singer (who was not on the flight) had dreamed of a crash and begged one of the band members not to use the plane.

Although Lynrd Skynrd were extremely successful it was impossible to continue, and they went into a 10-year hiatus. In 1987 the survivors reunited with several new members, including van Zant's younger brother Johnny as frontman, and they continue to record and tour today.

Sources: Wikipedia, NTSB Accident Report

October 19, 2007

CPR Annie | L'inconnue de la Seine

Late 19th Century: Age <20

At the end of the 19th century, the body of a young girl was pulled from the Seine. She appeared healthy and there were no marks of violence on her, so it was assumed she had drowned herself. The custom in those days was to put unidentified bodies on display at the Paris morgue, and the public were invited to come by to view them in the hope that somebody might recognized one of the corpses. Nobody did. But a morgue worker was impressed enough by her beauty that he made a plaster cast of her face.

Weirdly enough, word of her beauty spread. Many copies of the cast were produced, and it caught the public imagination. Although her identity was never discovered, Camus, Rilke, and Nabokov were three of at least a dozen writers who wrote her or her mask into their novels, plays, and short stories. It became the "thing" to have a cast of her face, presumably to hang on the wall, stare at, and sigh romantically about the cruelty of life and the mysteriousness of her smile. According to one critic, "a whole generation of German girls modeled their looks on her." Another says, "The Inconnue became the erotic ideal of the period, as Bardot was for the 1950s."

If the face looks familiar, perhaps you have taken a First Aid course. A commonly-used CPR teaching dummy, "Rescue Annie" (also called "CPR Annie" and "Resusci Anne"), was developed in 1958 using her face as the model.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Girl from the Seine

October 18, 2007

October 18 | Jon-Erik Hexum

November 5, 1957 - October 18, 1984: Age 26

Jon-Erik Hexum was an actor and model. His good looks branded him as a "hunk", much to his dismay: he wanted a more interesting career than the one that a sex-symbol reputation tends to yield.

In 1984 he was filming a show called Cover Up, where he played a leading role as a fashion model who was really an undercover CIA agent. His co-star Jennifer O'Neill chewed him out on-set at one point because he was constantly fiddling with guns, playing with them as though they were toys. She would know: she had accidentally shot herself in the abdomen two years earlier while checking if a gun were loaded.

After finishing a scene in which he fired a revolver with blank rounds, there was a long delay. Bored by the delay, as a lark, he put the gun to his temple and said "Let's see if I get myself with this one." He didn't know that the blanks used on film sets are actually dangerous at close range. The paper wadding that seals the gunpowder into the shell is fired out of the barrel at a velocity that can injure at close range. The wadding struck him in the temple with enough force that a piece of his skull was shattered and propelled into his brain. After five hours of surgery and six days on a respirator, he was pronounced brain dead.

Source: Wikipedia

October 17, 2007

October 17 | Frederic Chopin

March 1, 1810 - October 17, 1849: Age 39

Chopin was the greatest composer for piano of all time, and was also a brilliant performer. He lived at a time when professional musicians could write and perform music for audiences that were larger than ever. Thanks to newspapers he was world-famous from a very early age: as a tyke he was known as a "second Mozart". He also showed great promise in sketching and writing.

In 1830, age 20, he left Poland to give concerts in Western Europe. In November of that year Poland went into revolt against the hegemony of Imperial Russia. The revolt was crushed, and Chopin remained in France, to be joined by thousands of Polish exiles. He was briefly engaged to a Polish girl, whose family called it off. Later he became involved with the writer Amandine-Aurore-Lucile Dupin, Baroness Dudevant, better known as George Sand.

In those days a journey was an ordeal, with no central heating either in conveyances or in hotels and slow progress on poor roads. During a journey in 1835 Chopin had his first severe bronchial attack. In the winter of 1838-39 Chopin stayed in Mallorca with Sand and her children. They were unable to find comfortable accommodations and the dank monastery where they did stay caused his health to deteriorate. Over the next 10 years his health and his relationship with Sand were both rocky, and she left him in 1847. By 1848 it was clear he had tuberculosis, and by 1849 he was unable to teach or perform. On October 17, he died in the very early morning. His friend made a death mask and casts of his hands, which can be viewed at the Polish Museum in Rapperswil, Switzerland (or by clicking here and here).

Chopin had a fear of being buried alive, so he requested that his heart be removed before burial. It was given to his sister in Warsaw, who had it sealed into a pillar of the Holy Cross Church. Chopin had also requested Mozart's Requiem be sung at his funeral, but it required female singers and the Church of the Madeleine did not permit them. It took two weeks of negotiations for them to relent, provided the females stayed behind a black curtain.

Sources: Wikipedia articles on Chopin, Sand, and Death Masks

October 16, 2007

October 16 | Marie Antoinette

November 2, 1755 - October 16, 1793: Age 38

Marie Antoinette was born as an Archduchess of Austria. Her mother, the Empress of the Holy Roman Empire and Queen of Hungary, was a formidable woman who read and signed state papers while in labour with Marie Antoinette, who was her 15th child.

The main job of a young royal female in those days was to get married as advantageously as possible, but since Antoinette had 10 sisters she didn't receive much attention until 1767, when a smallpox epidemic reduced the number of eligible sisters by two. Other sisters were already married (except one who was crippled and ineligible) so plans began for a marriage between the young Antoinette and the Dauphin of France. She was married by proxy in April 1770 (age 14) and was handed over to the French in May. She became Queen four years later, when her father-in-law died of smallpox.

Then came the French Revolution. 1989, with the storming of the Bastille, marked the end of any real royal power in France. Popular hatred for the aristocracy gradually and inevitably extended to hatred for the King and Queen, and by 1792 their legal power was abolished and they became known as "Louis and Antoinette Capet" and imprisoned. In December of that year Louis was put to trial for "undermining the Repulic" and condemned to death, which followed by guillotine in January. Antoinette, became known as "Veuve Capet" (Widow Capet). Imprisoned with her surviving son and daughter (two children had died in infancy), she fell into a deep depression.

Her 8-year-old son, Louis Charles, by rights the King of France, was taken away from her in July and given into the "care" of a cobbler. There he was mistreated and coached to hate his parents. In October Antoinette was put on trial for various crimes for which there was not a shred of real evidence, including the allegation that she had sexually abused and masturbated her son. The boy was brought into court and coached into accusing his mother, causing her great distress. The conclusion was pre-ordained: she was found guilty on all counts.

Early on the morning of her execution her hair was cut and her hands bound. She was put in a open cart and carried through the streets of Paris to the Place de la Révolution. When she stepped down from the cart and looked up at the guillotine, the priest whispered, "This is the moment, Madame, to arm yourself with courage." She replied, "Courage? The moment when my troubles are going to end is not the moment when my courage is going to fail me."

When she mounted the platform she accidentally stepped on the executioner's foot, and said, "Monsieur, I ask your pardon. I did not do it on purpose." These were her last words. She was executed shortly after noon. Her head was displayed to a cheering crowd; and her body was dumped in an unmarked mass grave in the Rue d'Anjou. (In 1815 it was retrieved and reburied at St. Denis Cathedral.)

Sources: The Free Republic, Wikipedia

October 15, 2007

October 15 | Mata Hari

August 7, 1876 - October 15, 1917: Age 41

Mata Hari is remembered as the embodiment of espionage and wartime double-dealing — and in a way, she was. But she had no particular interest in spying either for the Germans or the French. She was interested in surviving.

Born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in a middle-class family in Holland, Mata Hari slept with her headmaster at the age of 16 and got expelled. Two years later she married a soldier 22 years her senior, but her equal in sexual promiscuity. They had two children before separating (the boy died at a young age and the girl lived only to the age of 21). The split was not amicable, and her husband vindictively cut off all her funds and took out an ad proclaiming himself not responsible for her debts.

Cut off from legitimate means of support, Zelle turned to other means of support. She moved to Paris and set herself up as an exotic dancer and courtesan, and lived very well indeed. Her admirers were numbers; her patrons rich and powerful. At the outset of the First World War she was living and performing in Berlin. In the belligerent and reactionary atmosphere public opinion turned against her, and she moved back to Amsterdam.

There, broke and with an uncertain future, she was approached by the German consul with a proposal to spy for the Germans. He gave her 20,000 francs and some invisible ink. According to biographer Pat Shipman she didn't take him seriously, simply accepted the money as recompense for the money and furs that had been confiscated from her in Berlin, and threw away the invisible ink.

The French government were aware of her supposed role with German intelligence, and were determined to unmask and punish her. They offered her espionage work, but turned her efforts into evidence of her spying for the Germans, arresting her in February 1917. At the time the French were under a lot of public pressure to "do something" about spies, and Zelle was a perfect scapegoat. She was convicted and sentenced to face a firing squad.

Mata Hari's whole life was a performance. She pretended to like certain men, to know sacred exotic Eastern dances, to spy for the Germans. When she really did try to spy for the French, she was betrayed. She had one more performance left. On September 29 she dressed in her best clothes, fixed her hair and makeup, was driven to Vincennes and strode out into the damp woods with her executioners. She refused to be tied or blindfolded, and blew a kiss to her lawyer (an ex-lover) and priest while waiting for the order to fire. "The sun was coming up when the shots rang out. Zelle slumped to the ground. The officer in charge marched forward and fired a single bullet into her brain, the coup de grace. An extraordinary life was over." (Tony Rennell, The Daily Mail, August 10, 2007)

Sources: First World War.com, Daily Mail

October 14, 2007

October 14 | Erwin Rommel

November 15, 1891 - October 14, 1944: Age 42

He was known as "The Desert Fox", and is considered the most skillful military commander of desert warfare during WWII. He is responsible for thousands of deaths on both sides of the conflict, but they were inflicted under his philosophy of Krieg ohne Hass - War without Hate. He was considered chivalrous and honourable by the Allied commanders.

However two events took place in July 1944 that sealed his fate. First, On July 17, he was strafed by a British plane and was hospitalized with major head injuries. During his convalescence he was heard to criticize the Nazi leadership as incompetent. Second, on July 20, a Nazi officer brought a bomb concealed in a briefcase into a high-level meeting that included Hitler. When the bomb went off, it killed four people and demolished the room, but as it happened someone had inadvertantly moved the briefcase further away from Hitler, and he was protected by the heavy oak table they were using.

Over the next few months a furious hunt for the conspirators swept up far more people than can possibly have been involved: 5,000 were arrested and 200 executed. It is thought that the Gestapo used the conspiracy to settle old scores. Among them was Rommel. Although there was no direct evidence of Rommel's involvement, his remarks in hospital were remembered, someone who had been arrested pointed a finger at him, and there was evidence the conspirators themselves had considered him a candidate to replace Hitler as leader after the assassination.

Rommel was extremely popular in Germany. Thus on October 14, 1944 two of Hitler's staff officers came to his home and offered him a choice: honourable suicide, or trial before the "People's Court" and public execution. In the former instance his wife and family would receive full pensions and he would receive a state funeral, dying a hero. After a few moments' thought he chose suicide. He was given time to explain his decision to his wife and son (who was 15). The son, Manfred, later wrote about those moments:

He was standing in the middle of the room, his face pale. 'Come outside with me,' he said in a tight voice. We went into my room. 'I have just had to tell your mother,' he began slowly, 'that I shall be dead in a quarter of an hour.' He was calm as he continued: 'To die by the hand of one's own people is hard. But the house is surrounded and Hitler is charging me with high treason. ' "In view of my services in Africa," ' he quoted sarcastically, 'I am to have the chance of dying by poison. The two generals have brought it with them. It's fatal in three seconds. If I accept, none of the usual steps will be taken against my family, that is against you. They will also leave my staff alone.'

'Do you believe it?' I interrupted. 'Yes,' he replied. 'I believe it. It is very much in their interest to see that the affair does not come out into the open. By the way, I have been charged to put you under a promise of the strictest silence. If a single word of this comes out, they will no longer feel themselves bound by the agreement.'

I tried again. 'Can't we defend ourselves...' He cut me off short. 'There's no point,' he said. 'It's better for one to die than for all of us to be killed in a shooting affray. Anyway, we've practically no ammunition.' We briefly took leave of each other. 'Call Aldinger, please,' he said.

Aldinger had meanwhile been engaged in conversation by the General's escort to keep him away from my father. At my call, he came running upstairs. He, too, was struck cold when he heard what was happening. My father now spoke more quickly. He again said how useless it was to attempt to defend ourselves. 'It's all been prepared to the last detail. I'm to be given a state funeral. I have asked that it should take place in Ulm. In a quarter of an hour, you, Aldinger, will receive a telephone call from the Wagnerschule reserve hospital in Ulm to say that I've had a brain seizure on the way to a conference.' He looked at his watch. 'I must go, they've only given me ten minutes.' He quickly took leave of us again. Then we went downstairs together.

We helped my father into his leather coat. Suddenly he pulled out his wallet. 'There's still 150 marks in there,' he said. 'Shall I take the money with me?'

'That doesn't matter now, Herr Field Marshal,' said Aldinger.

My father put his wallet carefully back in his pocket. As he went into the hall, his little dachshund which he had been given as a puppy a few months before in France, jumped up at him with a whine of joy. 'Shut the dog in the study, Manfred,' he said, and waited in the hall with Aldinger while I removed the excited dog and pushed it through the study door. Then we walked out of the house together. The two generals were standing at the garden gate. We walked slowly down the path, the crunch of the gravel sounding unusually loud.

As we approached the generals they raised their right hands in salute. 'Herr Field Marshal,' Burgdorf said shortly and stood aside for my father to pass through the gate...

The car stood ready. The S.S. driver swung the door open and stood to attention. My father pushed his Marshal's baton under his left arm, and with his face calm, gave Aldinger and me his hand once more before getting in the car.

The two generals climbed quickly into their seats and the doors were slammed. My father did not turn again as the car drove quickly off up the hill and disappeared round a bend in the road. When it had gone Aldinger and I turned and walked silently back into the house...

Twenty minutes later the telephone rang. Aldinger lifted the receiver and my father's death was duly reported.

It was not then entirely clear, what had happened to him after he left us. Later we learned that the car had halted a few hundred yards up the hill from our house in an open space at the edge of the wood. Gestapo men, who had appeared in force from Berlin that morning, were watching the area with instructions to shoot my father down and storm the house if he offered resistance. Maisel and the driver got out of the car, leaving my father and Burgdorf inside. When the driver was permitted to return ten minutes or so later, he saw my father sunk forward with his cap off and the marshal's baton fallen from his hand.

That evening all of Germany heard that Field Marshall Rommel died of a heart attack. He was given a hero's funeral, with Hitler one of the chief mourners.

Sources: Eyewitness to History, Wikipedia

October 13, 2007

October 13 | The Emperor Claudius

August 1, 10 BC - October 13, 54: Age 64

Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus was the grandson of Mark Anthony and Octavia (Augustus Caesar's sister) on his mother's side, and of Livia (Augustus' third wife) on his father's side. His strong connections with the imperial family of Rome would have marked him for untimely death but for one thing: he was considered an idiot and a cripple.

Claudius had some kind of physical ailment — it may have been cerebral palsy, Tourette's syndrome, or polio — but there was nothing whatever wrong with his intellect. His knees were weak, his head shook, he stammered and slobbered when excited, and he had a peculiar voice. In materialistic Rome, beauty was thought to reflect inner virtue and intelligence, and physical defects reflected moral and intellectual lacks. This certainly saved Claudius from the many purges of eligible and well-connected males undertaken by Augustus, Tiberias, and Caligula and their allies. His own mother despised him, and made no secret of it. As a youngster his family hired a mule-driver to babysit him, on the assumption that his afflictions were the result of a stubborn and dull temperament.

But Claudius was by no means an idiot. In later life he admitted to having exaggerated his defects as the perfect disguise to defend himself; he could not, however, hide his intelligence from everyone: the historian Livy and the philosopher Athenodorus tutored him as a teenager. He undertook to write a history of the Civil Wars, and this nearly undid him: they were a bit too accurate. Fortunately his mother and his grandmother Livia saw the danger and put a stop to it. This incident presumably confirmed their assumption that he was unfit for public office.

Augustus died when Claudius was 24. The succeeding emperors, Tiberius (his uncle) and Caligula (his nephew), set about destroying every other male member of the imperial family in their purges — except Claudius. In 41, Caligula was assassinated, and the conspirators began to search Rome in order to kill members of the imperial family. Claudius took refuge in the palace, hiding behind some curtains, where a guard named Gratus found him and spirited him away to safety. After some debate, the Senate agreed to accept him as the new Emperor.

Then followed, contrary to nearly everyone's expectations, 13 years of sober and conscientious rule and a period of peace and expansion that must have been a great relief after the chaotic years of Caligula's mad rule. It would have been longer, but Claudius died, probably poisoned, in 54.

Accounts of the time agree that it was likely a dish of mushrooms that delivered the fatal dose. It is generally accepted that the instigator of the poisoning was his wife, Agrippina, whose son Nero was poised to succeed his stepfather. For several months before his death Claudius and Agrippina had argued a lot, and Claudius had been showing signs of raising his own 13-year-old son Britannicus to a status higher than that of Nero (in ancient Rome it was not uncommon for stepchildren to be favoured over natural children, particularly if there were residual bad feelings about the natural child's mother). To Agrippina and Nero, it was important that Claudius die before Britannicus grew any older.

Claudius was immediately deified by Nero. Seneca, an enemy whom Claudius had banished in 41, wrote the satire, Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii (The Pumpkinification of the Divine Claudius) a few months after his death ("apocolocyntosis" is a mangling of the word "apotheosis", meaning deification). Seneca writes of his last words as follows: "This was the last utterance of his to be heard among men, after he let out a sound from that part with which he found it easier to communicate, 'Oh I think I have shit myself.'" Seneca goes on to remark, "He certainly shat up everything else." On the whole, however, most of his contemporaries and virtually all historians judge Claudius to have been a popular and competent ruler.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine

October 12, 2007

October 12 | Audrey Mestre

August 11, 1974 - October 12, 2002: Age 28

Audrey Mestre was a French world record-setting free diver who died in an attempt to set a world record of 171 metres.

In the sport of freediving, the diver descends vertically under water as far as possible, then reascends to the surface, on just one breath. This is achieved using a weighted sled tethered to a strong line. Holding on to the sled, the diver shoots downward to a give depth. At the bottom the diver uses a small air tank to inflate a balloon and, holding the balloon, shoots back up to the surface. Safety divers in scuba equipment are positioned at regular intervals and at the bottom to assist in case of mishap.

Nitrogen narcosis, the condition that makes deep diving risky for scuba divers, is not a problem because descending and ascending on one breath leaves no time for nitrogen to build up in the bloodstream. However training for the sport is necessary to make it possible for go without air for three minutes, and to survive surviving high ambient pressure that would normally cause permanent damage to the lungs.

The first part of the dive went as expected, but at the bottom of the dive Mestre discovered that the small tank that was to be used to fill the balloon for the ascent was nearly empty. The safety diver used some of his own air to partially fill the balloon, allowing her to leave the bottom, but it wasn't enough to get her all the way back up, and she lost consciousness about 100 feet below the surface. Safety divers positioned part way up managed to get her the rest of the way, but not before she had been without oxygen for nearly nine minutes. She never regained consciousness. Her death was ruled an accident.

A year after her death one of her friends and team members came out publicly to accuse her husband, also a free diver and in charge of the team, of negligence at best and, at worst, deliberately planning his wife's death. Nobody seems be clear whose responsibility it was to fill the tank for the ascent balloon. Other safety measures that might have saved her life — a doctor at the surface, spare air tanks at stations on the way up — were not in place. The husband and the team member have published competing books, each with their own version of events. The dispute is emotional, rancorous, rather sad, and quite interesting.

Sources: Wikipedia, US News, The Last Attempt

October 11, 2007

October 11 | Meriwether Lewis

August 18, 1774 - October 11, 1809: Age 35

Meriwether Lewis is best known for co-leading the expedition (with William Clark) that did more to open up the American West than any other. On this two-year expedition, begun in 1803 when he was 28 years old, Lewis catalogued hundreds of new plants and animals, made friendly first contact with a number of native groups, and laid the groundwork for the trade economy that ultimately turned the United States into an economic empire. During this arduous journey — the intention was to find a workable route to the West coast — only one of the 11 men who accompanied them died, and that man died of appendicitis. The expedition was so successful that Thomas Jefferson, then President, appointed him Governor of the Louisiana Territory.

Lewis proved to be far less able as a politician and administrator than as an expedition leader. He quarreled with the local authorities and made enemies. He couldn't keep his accounts straight. Washington refused to cover some large expenses he had paid himself, leaving him deeply in debt, and he left for Washington in 1809 to try to straighten things out.

Today the journey from St. Louis to Washington is a 13-hour drive. In 1809 it was actually easier to take a boat down the Mississippi to New Orleans and then board a ship to go through the Gulf of Mexico, around the Florida panhandle, and up the East coast — and this is what Lewis set out to do. On the way downriver, however, he seems to have suffered a mental breakdown and was put ashore at Chickasaw Bluffs (now Memphis) to recover. After a couple of weeks of recuperation, he borrowed some money and set out on an overland trail.

On the night of October 10 he stayed at a home 72 miles from Nashville. There were two log cabins on the property: Lewis stayed in one and the owner in the other, and his servants stayed in a barn some distance away. During the night the owner was alarmed by Lewis' agitated behaviour — he stayed up into the morning hours pacing and mumbling about the unfairness of his situation. Then she heard a gunshot, a thud, and Lewis' voice saying "Oh Lord!" There was another shot, and Lewis stumbled over to her cabin and banged on the door, saying "Oh Madam! Give me some water, and heal my wounds!" She was alone with her children; her husband was away. Already spooked by his strange behaviour, she was too terrified to open the door. After two hours she sent one of her children to fetch his servants.

They found Lewis lying on his bed, shot in the side and in the head. Part of his forehead was shattered and his brain was exposed, but he was alive. He begged them to kill him. His last words were, "I am no coward, but I am so strong. It is so hard to die."

The general consensus in Washington was that he had committed suicide. He had tried to kill himself on two previous occasions, he had made a will during the river journey from St. Louis, and his behaviour during the last week of his life was definitely strange. Yet his wounds as described were not exactly consistent with that notion. Who shoots themself in the side? He had many enemies, and the $100 he had borrowed for the overland journey was never found.

Sources: Forbes, Malcolm, They Went That-a-Way, Simon and Schuster 1988; Wikipedia

October 10, 2007

October 10 | Jack Daniel

September 5?, 1846? - October 10, 1911: Age 65?

Jasper Newton Daniel, the founder of the American whiskey distillery, was one of 13 children, which might explain why there is so much uncertainty as to the date, and even the year, of his birth. Some sources have it as late as 1850, but that would have the distillery founded when he was 16, which seems unlikely.

One day, coming to work early, he was unable to open his safe, having trouble remembering the combination. In frustration he kicked it, injuring his toe. The toe became infected and he died of blood poisoning.

Source: Wikipedia

October 9, 2007

October 9 | Paul Hunter

October 14, 1978 - October 9, 2006: Age 28

Paul Hunter was an international snooker champion whose good looks and popularity earned him comparisons with David Beckham. He showed promise at a very young age, and by his early 20s had gained world attention by beating higher ranked and more experienced players in national tournaments. His high point came in 2004 with his third Masters win in 4 years. "Masters" is one of the most prestigious international snooker competitions.

Toward the end of that year he began to feel pains in his side. In early 2005 an abdominal scan showed several cysts, which subsequent biopsy proved to be tumours caused by a rare form of stomach cancer. Two days before the start of chemotherapy, he and his wife found out that she was pregnant. Their baby was born December 26, a blessing after a painful year of chemotherapy and uncertainty.

By January it was clear that the chemotherapy wasn't working any more, although the doctors continued to try. By the end of the summer he was dying. In early October he was admitted to a hospice where, 5 days before his 29th birthday, he died, surrounded by his family. His wife Lindsay wrote, "No one cried. There was this spooky calm. I carefully removed his diamond stud earring. I'd been wearing the other one of the pair since the day he went into hospital. I also put on the white dressing gown he'd been wearing for the past few months because it still smelled of him."

Sources: Wikipedia, Daily Mail article by Lindsay Hunter

October 8, 2007

October 8 | Kathleen Ferrier

April 22, 1912 - October 8, 1953: Age 41

Kathleen Ferrier, born in Lancashire, UK, was a brilliant contralto. She is particularly remembered for her Bach Passions, her Orfeo, but most of all for her beautiful renditions of English folk songs. Unassuming, funny, and personable, she was easily the greatest and most beloved British opera singer of her time, and perhaps of all time.

In March 1951 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Surgery in April proved that the cancer had spread to her bones. Extensive radiotherapy and its side effects caused her to cancel most of her performances that year, including a tour of North America. By mid 1952 she was in almost constant pain. It was during that year that she made her famous recording of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde — the composition of a dying man. Most of the people involved knew she was very ill, and she herself may have realized that she was dying. It is recognized as one of the greatest performances of that piece ever recorded.

Her last challenge was a production of Orfeo and Eurydice in early 1953. By now she certainly knew she was dying, and that this would be her last role. The first night was brilliant. On the second night, partway through the second act, "a dull crack was heard" and Ferrier flinched. Her left femur had broken spontaneously. Holding on to a piece of scenery for support, she continued to sing. The other performers, taking their cue from her, continued the opera, improvising the movement around her, and the performance was completed. After the curtain, when asked what she needed, she replied "Get me a stretcher."

There were two more surgeries in May and in July, but it was futile. Ferrier died on October 8, 1953.

Sources: bbc.co.uk, Wikipedia

October 7, 2007

October 7 | Edgar Allan Poe

January 19, 1809 - October 7, 1849: Age 40

Born in Boston, the writer Edgar Poe was orphaned at a young age and raised by an unrelated family, the Allans. He made an attempt at a career in the military, but problems with alcohol and gambling ensured his failure. He became estranged from the Allans and moved to Philadelphia and then New York to work as a journalist. Poe had a reasonably successful career as a journalist and writer of poems, short stories, and novels; his poem The Raven in 1845 brought him wider recognition.

Poe married his 13-year-old cousin in 1835 (he was 26 at the time). In 1842, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and died in 1845. Maintaining a normal life became ever more difficult for the already-eccentric Poe. His use of alcohol and opium increased, and his behaviour became even more erratic. He began pursuing women, determined to marry again, and after a couple of failed attempts he courted and became engaged to a childhood sweetheart in Richmond, where he had grown up. He left to tie up some business in New York, but a few days later an acquaintance found him lying in a street in Baltimore, disoriented, mumbling and shouting occasionally.

Poe was taken to hospital but never revived enough to tell anybody what had happened. It was generally assumed that alcohol was the cause of his death, but some believe he may have had other health problems such as diabetes or a brain tumour. He died on October 7. Only four mourners showed up for his funeral, as his family considered him an alcoholic and thus not worthy of mourning, and his erratic behaviour had alienated most of his friends and colleagues.

Sources: Forbes, Malcolm, They Went That-a-Way; Wikipedia

October 6, 2007

Mistaken Identity | Aeschylus

524BCE? - 455BCE?: Age 69?

Aeschylus was the first Greek playwright to produce tragedies as we would know them today. Rather than having a few characters orating on stage, interacting through a Chorus, he had many characters, and elaborate sets, costumes, props, and sound effects. The Chorus was still there, of course, but much less prominent.

Several of his surviving plays refer to the Battle of Marathon, in which he and his brother participated as soldiers. His brother died in the battle. (It was in this battle against invading Persians that the feat of a professional courier named Pheidippides inspired the tradition of marathons.)

According to legend, Aeschylus died when an eagle, mistaking his bald head for a stone, dropped a tortoise on it.

His epitaph refers, not to his 70+ plays, but to his participation in the Battle of Marathon more than 30 years before he died.

This tomb the dust of Aeschylus doth hide,
Euphorion's son and fruitful Gela's pride
How tried his valor, Marathon may tell
And long-haired Medes, who knew it all too well.

Sources: Wikipedia, Perseus Encyclopedia

October 5, 2007

October 5 | Timothy Treadwell & Amie Huguenard

April 29, 1957 - October 5, 2003: Age 46
1966 - October 5, 2003: Age 37

Timothy Treadwell was a naturalist who raised a fair amount of controversy due to his unorthodox methods of dealing with bears, in particular grizzlies. He got very good at getting very, very close to them, approaching them boldly and speaking to them in a singsong voice. He had a great deal of self-confidence in this approach and seemed to be knowledgable enough about their ways that he could get away with it for many years.

In October 2003 Tim Treadwell and his friend Amie Huguenard were camping in Katmai National Park, Alaska, studying and filming the bears. They were staying a little later than usual that year, but had made plans to be picked up (it was a fly-in area, no roads of course) on October 5.

Sometime during their last night at the campsite Tim became aware of a bear approaching their camp. This was not in itself an usual occurrence, and Tim went out to meet it, choosing as usual to meet the approach boldly. At this point somehow their video camera was turned on, but the lens cap was not removed. Some believe that Amie turned it on (why didn't she remove the lens cap?) and others believe that Tim had a remote on him that got accidentally triggered. Whatever the reason, the camera captured audio of the next 6 minutes before running out of tape. Although the recording has not been made public (and probably never will be), investigators who listened to it have relayed its contents to interviewers.

Amie, still in the tent, asks if the bear is still out there. Suddenly Tim yells, "Get out here! I'm getting killed out here!" There is the sound of a zipper opening and the tent flap being opened. Amie's appearance seems to briefly drive the bear away, and they have a short conversation trying to determine whether it is coming back. It does, very quickly, and drives Amie back toward the tent. She yells at Tim to "play dead". Tim, perhaps realizing that this is no ordinary attack, and cries out for her to hit the bear with a frying pan. This causes the bear to drag Tim away from the campsite. Amie begins to scream, either in panic or in an attempt to scare off the bear. She may have followed it some distance, hitting it with the pan. The tape ends.

The pickup flew in the next day, but when he called out to the campsite he received no response, and noticed several bears in the site behaving aggressively. He went to get help, and when he returned with some rangers they discovered Tim and Amie's partially eaten remains and their possessions, including the videotape.

There is a lot of speculation about what exactly happened and what level of responsibility Tim and Amie bear for their own demise (and the death of the two bears). If you're interested, follow the source links to read in more detail.

Sources: Wikipedia, Night of the Grizzly, The Myth of Timothy Treadwell

October 4, 2007

October 4 | Graham Chapman

January 8, 1941 - October 4, 1989: Age 48

Graham Chapman is most famous for being one-sixth of Monty Python's Flying Circus. His characters include Hegel in the International Philosophy football match; Mrs. Conclusion, who discusses philosophy with Jean-Paul Sartre; Arthur, King of the Britons in Holy Grail; and Brian in Life of Brian. He went to Cambridge University and qualified as a medical doctor, but never practiced. Instead he began writing comedy with fellow student John Cleese.

Chapman was also one of the first gay celebrities to come out publicly: he did so on a television talk show in the mid-1970s.

In 1988 Chapman's dentist noticed a growth on his tonsils. It was diagnosed as throat cancer. It had spread to his neck and spine, and within a year of diagnosis he died of pneumonia. It was one day before the 20th anniversary of the first broadcast of Flying Circus: "The worst case of party-pooping in history," according to Terry Jones. His old friends John Cleese and Michael Palin were with him when he died.

At the memorial service in December, John Cleese delivered a eulogy. I won't spoil it by telling you much, just that the first few words are "Graham Chapman, co-author of the parrot sketch, is no more." It's on YouTube: just go there now and enjoy it. Here is the link.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

October 3, 2007

October 3 | Kintpuash

1837 - October 3, 1873: Age 36

Kintpuash, commonly known as "Captain Jack", was a leader of the Modoc people, a small band of Indians whose traditional home was on the California/Oregon border. In the 1820s an explorer for the Hudson's Bay Company established first contact with them, trading with their neighbours to the north, the Klamath people. In the 1840s settlers began to move through the area on their way to western Oregon. The Modocs, numbering at the time about 600, began to raid the settlers, and in 1852, after a massacre of a 65-person caravan (only 3 survived), the cycle of vengeance unfolded in its usual way.

In 1864 a treaty with the US Government moved the Modocs north to share territory with several other tribes in an area dominated by the Klamath. The land ceded did not provide enough food for the combined tribes, and poverty and sickness increased racial tensions. Since the US Government wanted to deal with one leader, the tribe was required to choose a single individual to lead all the bands (a form of government completely alien to them); the individual chosen was from the Klamath tribe and the Modoc in general were treated as intruders. The Modoc applied to the US Government for territory nearer their ancestral home but were rejected. In 1870 Kintpuash led a group of Modocs back to reestablish a village in their ancestral home.

The general outcome was inevitable. Both the US Government and the Modoc repeatedly attempted to negotiate some kind of settlement over several years of struggle and intermittent violence. After 3 years, Kintpuash's comrades began to doubt his leadership. In a complete misunderstanding of white people's culture and intentions, they believed that if the white generals were killed, the army would go away. During a negotiation, Kintpuash made yet another plea for a reservation to be established for his people on their ancestral land. As he spoke about their grievances, he suddenly shouted Utwih-kutt! ["Let's do it!"] and fired at one of the white negotiators, a US general. The warriors fled back to their camp and prepared to die in the fighting that would follow.

They did not — not right away. They held out until May, when Kintpuash and his lieutenants turned over their guns and gave themselves up. They were sentenced to hang. Kintpuash refused to name a successor, and the Modoc who had followed him were forced to witness his execution. After burial, Kintpuash's head was severed from his body and sent to the collections of the Army Medical Museum in Washington along with the heads of other warriors. The skulls were later transferred to the Smithsonian Institution. In 1984 the Smithsonian returned the remains to Kintpuash's relatives.

The remaining Modoc who had followed Kintpuash back to their ancestral land were sent to live on Shawnee land in Oklahoma, where many died of hunger and disease. Today about 200 Modoc live in Oklahoma. 600 Modoc live in Klamath County, Oregon, the descendants of those who did not follow Kintpuash. The ancestral language of the Modoc, the Klamath-Modoc Indian Language, has only one truly fluent speaker (of the Klamath dialect) left, and a few dozen other elders who remember something.

Sources: Answers.com, Wikipedia article on Kintpuash, Wikipedia article on the Modoc, Native Languages of the Americas

October 2, 2007

October 2 | Rock Hudson

November 17, 1925 - October 2, 1985: Age 59

Born Roy Harold Scherer, Jr., Rock Hudson was never a great actor. He failed drama school, and in his first movie part he had one line of dialogue, which required 38 takes for him to get right. He eventually became a passable actor, but never better than average. He had, however, two things indispensable to becoming an American screen star: good looks and screen presence. Somehow, when his image is on screen, you want to look at him, and you want to like him.

With his looks and likable personality he easily fit into the ideal of American manhood. But he was gay. This, amazingly, was kept from the public for almost 40 years, although it was fairly well known in certain Hollywood circles. There were a few scandals, but overall Hudson was reasonably discreet, and he was just so darned nice that nobody wanted to ruin his career by going public. After all, he wasn't hurting anybody. Even Kenneth Anger agreed to keep Hudson's name and story out of Hollywood Babylon for a paltry $10,000 bribe from Universal Studios.

In 1981 he had emergency quintuple bypass surgery. From that time on, he never looked "well" again. By 1984, it was clear something was wrong: during a stint on Dynasty he forgot his lines, mumbled, and lacked even the modest acting ability he had in his prime. In 1985 he appeared on "Doris Day's Best Friends", a cable show, and his gaunt appearance and incoherence shocked the nation. Under pressure to release some kind of information, it was announced first that he had liver cancer. Later his publicity people admitted that he had AIDS, but claimed he had contracted it during a blood transfusion. Finally, on July 25, 1985, he issued a formal statement that he was gay, and he had AIDS.

(This reminds me of a joke that my mom, who worked as a palliative care nurse at an AIDS hospice, told me. It goes like this: "Mom, Dad? I have good news and bad news." "What's the good news, son?" "I have AIDS.")

Today it may be difficult to grasp how shocking that announcement was. The public hadn't suspected a thing. At the time, AIDS was known as "the gay plague", and was something that happened only to some kind of sinful underclass: plenty of "respectable" people still brushed it off as divine retribution against homosexuals. Hudson's public statement changed everything. Suddenly it became OK for Hollywood types to talk about AIDS and campaign for a cure. Although it didn't exactly become OK to be a gay actor in Hollywood, it's fair to say Hudson's coming out at least brought us a step closer to that. Most of all, a lot of people who had previously dismissed AIDS as irrelevant to them started paying attention.

A month after his announcement he publicly donated $250,000 to the National AIDS Research Foundation. His popularity and charisma didn't fail him: people were genuinely sympathetic and most of his fans continued to love and admire him to the end. Shortly before his death Hudson stated, "I am not happy I am sick. I am not happy I have AIDS. But if that is helping others, I can at least know my own misfortune has had some positive worth."

Sources: The Secret Life (and Death) of Rock Hudson, Wikipedia

Bonus page: Stag Night at the Steam Baths - a for-real 1950 magazine piece about a spa for men, featuring a half-naked Hudson cavorting with Tony Curtis and others. Hilarious!

October 1, 2007

October 1 | Rose O'Neal Greenhow

1817 - October 1, 1864: Age 47

Rose O'Neal Greenhow was a passionate secessionist. She was also a spy for the Confederate cause. Her status in pre-war Washington as a popular hostess in society positioned her beautifully to gather information on government plans, troop movements, and even Washington city fortifications send them to the Confederate government. She was particularly good at this work because she lived in a society where women were assumed to be ineffective and unintelligent.

When the Union became aware of her activities (she is credited with winning the Battle of Manassas and helped the South win the Battle of Bull Run) she was placed under arrest and send to the the Old Capitol Prison, where her youngest daughter was allowed to stay with her. The picture at the bottom of this entry shows them in prison. However, even in prison she was able to pass messages, so the Union government deported her to Virginia.

There she was greeted as a heroine. President Jefferson Davis sent her to Europe on a diplomatic mission. There she met with various aristocrats, was received at the court of Napoleon III, met Queen Victoria, and became engaged to an English Earl. She also wrote and sold her memoirs, amassing a considerable sum for them. Returning home was dangerous: all the southern ports were blockaded by the Union Navy. The ship she sailed on was chased by a Union gunboat, and ran aground at the mouth of the Cape Fear river.

Greenhow took her money — $2,000 in gold, intended to aid the Confederate cause — and two companions into a rowboat and escaped. However a wave capsized the little boat and, weighed down by the gold, Greenhow drowned. Her body washed ashore a few days later and was found by a Confederate soldier, who stole the gold; but when he realized whom he had stolen it from he handed it over to the Confederate government. She received full military burial, and her grave is still decorated every year on Confederate Memorial Day, which is May 10 in North Carolina.

Sources: Wikipedia, americancivilwar.com