November 30, 2007

November 30 | Oscar Wilde

October 16, 1854 – November 30, 1900: Age 46

"Most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one's mistakes."

Oscar Wilde was a poet, playwright, and celebrity — one of the few pre-20th century people who were "famous for being famous". The son of a prominent Irish doctor and a writer, Wilde determined at an early age that Art was the highest virtue, and the one's main Art form should, ultimately, be one's Life. Brilliant, witty, and very dramatic, he embraced a flamboyant aesthetic and a lifestyle that conspicuously rejected conventional hypocrisies.

One very prevalent hypocrisy of the day was the attitude toward homosexuality: privately, it was widespread, with a large proportion of men, particularly of the middle and upper classes, experimenting with it at some point in their lives. Outwardly, it was ignored, denied, and condemned as sinful. Wilde, although married with two children, eventually chose to live openly as a homosexual, deliberately drawing attention to the gap between public attitudes and private practice. By doing so, he made many enemies. One of them, the father of one of his lovers, publicly insulted him so many times that Wilde decided to sue him for libel.

The trial was a public sensation, widely reported in the media and avidly followed by a divided public. Eventually charges were dropped when it became clear that his enemy was willing to do anything to destroy him, including forcing Wilde's friends to testify under oath as to his conduct. But it didn't end there. As soon as the trial was over Wilde himself was arrested for "gross indecency" (i.e. "homosexual acts not amounting to buggery"). He was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to two years' imprisonment with hard labour.

Prison was very hard on his health, and on his finances. He was released in 1897, broke, and spent the last three years of his life outside of England. He settled in the Hotel d'Alsace in Paris, where he is famously quoted as saying "My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or other of us has got to go." A month later, he did.

He died of cerebral meningitis. His doctors stated that the source of the meningitis was an old suppuration of the right ear. On his deathbed, he converted to Catholicism, receiving baptism and extreme unction in succession. He was bured in a cemetery outside Paris, but later moved to Père Lachaise Cemetery, where his tomb can be found today, covered with lipstick kisses from admirers. The angel sculpted into it originally had genitalia, which were broken off as they were considered obscene. They were kept as a paperweight by the cemetery staff for a number of years but nobody knows where they are now.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Free Library

November 29, 2007

November 29 | George Harrison

February 25, 1943 - November 29, 2001: Age 58

"Everything else can wait, but the search for God cannot wait; and love one another."

George Harrison joined The Beatles at a time when he wasn't actually of legal age to enter the clubs they played in (he was 15). He went on to become one of the most important and influential musicians of the 20th century: his most prominent contribution being the introduction of the sitar and Indian music into rock and roll. Click here to see and hear him taking a sitar lesson with Ravi Shankar.

His interest in Hindu philosophy and Eastern culture had a profound and lasting influence on millions of people in Europe and North America. The Beatles broke up in 1970 and Harrison continued to distinguish himself musically, socially, and spiritually for the rest of his life. He was the first rock star to organize a major charity concert (Concert for Bangladesh, 1971)

Harrison battled cancer throughout the late 1990s, beginning with his throat and then his lungs. In 1999 somebody broke into his home and attacked him with a knife, stabbing him multiple times, puncturing his lung. He and his wife managed to contain the attacker until police came (the man believed Harrison was possessing him and that he had a mission from God to kill him — he was acquitted on grounds of insanity). Harrison recovered from the attack, but in 2001 his cancer recurred and this time the diagnosis was terminal — it had metastasized to his brain. He died on November 29, 2001 at his home in Hollywood Hills.

From his family: "He left this world as he lived in it: conscious of God, fearless of death and at peace, surrounded by family and friends."

Click here for a nice little clip of George's ultimately positive view of the world.

Source: Wikipedia

November 28, 2007

November 28 | Gareth Jones

June 6, 1925 – November 28, 1958: Age 33

Gareth Jones, a British actor, died during the live broadcast of a play on British television. Jones had a heart attack between two of his scenes; the rest of the cast improvised the play to its conclusion. The producer ordered the director to shoot the rest of the play "like a football match".

The play, Underground, was about survivors of a nuclear holocaust trapped in the London Underground. Ironically, his character was supposed to suffer a heart attack during the play: Jones actually had one.

(Pictured: London residents taking shelter in the London Underground during the blitz in WWII. Closest thing to relevant that I could find for this story.)

Sources: Wikipedia, IMDB, The British Telefantasy Timeline

November 27, 2007

November 27 | Ada Lovelace

December 10, 1815 - November 27, 1852: Age 36

In 1815 the poet and future revolutionary Lord Byron was in a pickle: he was getting a lot of flack for his bohemian lifestyle, including rumours (probably true) that he had fathered the illegitimate child of his half-sister Augusta. He was advised to marry to avoid scandal, so he married Annabella Milbanke, a highly intelligent but ultimately rather rigid and religious young woman he was currently infatuated with. One daughter, Augusta Ada Byron, was the result, but by the time she was born it was clear the relationship would not work. Although Byron was indeed brilliant he had no morals at all, was mentally unstable, and was in perpetual financial distress. They separated by mutual consent shortly after Ada was born.

Annabella set about raising her daughter to be as different from her ex-husband as possible, so she taught Ada mathematics at a very early age, and had her privately tutored in math, science, and music by the best minds of the day. Ada turned out to be just as brilliant, or even more so, than her parents. At the age of 13 she created a design for a flying machine. She married one of her tutors, William King, who became the Earl of Lovelace, hence the name by which she is best known. They had three children.

We probably wouldn't know anything at all about her had she not befriended Charles Babbage at a dinner party given by another of her tutors, the scientist Mary Somerville. When Babbage went on to present a paper on his "Analytical Engine" in Italy, Ada translated some notes another mathematician made on his presentation. She began a correspondence with Babbage, and with his encouragement appended her own ideas to the translation, including a specific method for calculating Bernoulli numbers with the Engine. This was the first computer program ever written.

A friendly, creative relationship between the two continued for the rest of her life. Unfortunately that life was short: she was plagued by illness and ultimately diagnosed with uterine cancer. In an attempt to treat her illness, her doctors bled her until she died. Weirdly, this is exactly what her father died of (bleeding in an attempt to cure an illness) at about the same age, 26 years before.

In those days medicinal bleeding was a catch-all cure for just about anything; it is curious that a "remedy" with absolutely no empirical track record of success persisted for so many centuries. The only conceivable beneficial effect of bleeding would be a temporary drop in blood pressure for those with hypertension, and a sedative effect that might benefit patients who were too nervous or active. And of course placebo. Since bleeding was used so widely, it got credit for all natural healing as well: if the patient was sick, he or she was bled; if he or she got better, well, it must have been the bleeding.

Sources: Wikipedia, Ada Lovelace: Founder of Scientific Computing, Ada Byron, Lady Lovelace

November 26, 2007

November 26 | Hugh le Despenser the Younger

1286 - November 26, 1326: Age 40

Hugh Despenser was a nobody, just a landless knight, until he married Eleanor de Clare. Her grandfather, Edward I, owed his father a lot of money, and her hand in marriage was intended to stand in for payment of the debt. It really paid off when the unexpected death of her brother left her an heiress. Despenser suddenly found himself one of the richest men in the kingdom. Moreover his status as the nephew-in-law to the new king Edward II, who succeeded his father in 1307, gave him personal access to the sources of power in the kingdom.

Wealth: check. Power: check. What was next? More wealth and power, and as much vicious pleasure as he could squeeze out of life. Hugh le Despenser the Younger was a complete bastard. He robbed from anyone he could: rich, poor, anyone weaker than himself was fair game. He murdered hostages who didn't pay their ransom. He even had a noblewoman tortured to force her to hand over her lands. But his worst crime, in the eyes of the English aristocracy, was that he became the King's lover. Edward II was weak, unintelligent, and gay. Hugh le Despenser took full advantage of those qualities, and made himself the most hated man in Europe.

When the English barons forced Edward II to exile le Despenser, he became a pirate in the English Channel. When he returned the next year he once again became the favourite of the king and worst enemy of everyone else, especially the Queen. When she succeeded in deposing the King in 1326, le Despenser was captured.

He tried to starve himself before his trial but was unsuccessful. He was tried on a number of charges, found guilty, and sentenced to death by hanging, drawing and quartering. He was dragged to the execution site behind four horses, hung until nearly dead, then tied to a high ladder where the executioner cut off his genitals and cut out his entrails, throwing them on a fire below. Then he was taken down and beheaded. His body was cut into four pieces, each piece being displayed in a different city, and his head was mounted on the gates of London. Apparently the Queen was picnicking with her boyfriend on the execution grounds while all this was being done. It is also mentioned that le Despenser "suffered with great patience, begging forgiveness from the bystanders."

Sources: Wikipedia, Edward II (blog), Chronicle

November 25, 2007

November 25 | Elaine Esposito

December 3, 1934 - November 25, 1978: Age 43

Elaine Esposito was 6 years old when she was anesthetized for a routine appendectomy in 1941. Somehow her brain was damaged at the time of the operation. Some doctors felt she had incipient encephalitis at the time of the operation; others felt that she had not received enough oxygen during the operation.

Whatever the cause, she never regained consciousness, but lived on in a coma for 37 years. During this time she was sometimes deeply asleep, and at other times in a state of open-eyed unconsciousness. She died finally at the age of 43 in 1978.

Sources: Wikipedia, Ethics of Withdrawal of Life Support Systems

November 24, 2007

November 24 | Lee Harvey Oswald

October 18, 1939 - November 24, 1963: Age 24

Lee Harvey Oswald's most memorable action in his short life was to shoot President John F. Kennedy. Although there are many alternate theories, four separate government investigations have confirmed that he did indeed point a gun out of the window of the sixth floor at a warehouse and shoot the President (YouTube video) as he was passing by in an open convertible. The Governor of Texas and a passer-by were also wounded.

Oswald enlisted in the Marines a week after his 17th birthday, but by the time he finished his stint several "incidents" (including randomly firing his rifle into the jungle during sentry duty in the Philippines) ensured he was kept doing menial labour. Weirdly, from the age of 15 he had also been an ardent and open Marxist. In 1959 he emigrated to the Soviet Union, where he applied for citizenship. At first the Russians though they had a publicity coup, but quickly realized that Oswald was too flakey to be of use to them. He was sent to live in Minsk, working as a metal lathe operator, and by January 1961 was reconsidering his defection. From his diary: "The work is drab, the money I get has nowhere to be spent. No nightclubs or bowling alleys, no places of recreation except the trade union dances. I have had enough." Shortly after this he met and married a young Russian woman and they returned with their daughter to the United States in June 1962.

Oswald's actions over the next year and a half were increasingly irrational and erratic, including an attempt to assassinate the anti-communist General Edwin Walker (his role in it was not discovered until after the Kennedy assassination), an attempt to travel to Cuba, and an arrest for passing out pro-Castro handbills.

In November Kennedy was scheduled to visit Dallas, where Oswald worked filling book orders at the Texas School Book Depository. On Friday November 22 he left his wedding ring and $170 at home and came into work carrying a long paper bag. He was last seen by a co-worker alone on the sixth floor of the Depository half an hour before the assassination.

After the shooting he hid the rifle behind some boxes and left the building. After boarding several buses and a taxi, he was stopped by an police officer, whom he shot and killed with a revolver in front of two eyewitnesses. He was eventually arrested trying to blend in with the audience in the Texas Theater; he put up a struggle and tried to shoot but the hammer of his revolver came down on the web of skin between the thumb and forefinger of an officer's hand.

He was arraigned for both the murder of the President and of the police officer. Two days later, while being transferred to Dallas County Jail, Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner upset by Kennedy's assassination, apprached Oswald and shot him in the belly. You can view Oswald's assassination here. Oswald died in hospital, just 48 hours after the death of the President.

Source: Wikipedia

November 22, 2007

November 23 | Alexander Litvinenko

August 30, 1962 - November 23, 2006: Age 44

Anyone who believed that Russia's social and political troubles might end with the collapse of the Soviet Union has been disillusioned many times over since 1990. The death of Alexander Litvinenko last year was particularly troubling. Litvinenko was a KGB officer who had been moved into a high position in their Military Counter Intelligence department. He, along with a number of peers, spoke out publicly against the corruption and dirty dealing in the department and in the Russian government, right up to the top, including links to organised crime. He was arrested, then released, and managed to escape the Soviet Union on a false passport, his wife and son travelling out legally through Turkey. They sought and received asylum and citizenship in the United Kingdom.

Litvinenko tried to publish a book in Russia outlining Putin's rise to power as a staged campaign that included fake bombings blamed on Chechnyan rebels being used as an excuse to bring military force into Chechnya. A common enemy, whether an external state or a terrorist group, has the effect of uniting people behind a perceived strong leader.

On November 1, 2006 Litvinenko met with some Russian businessmen, then later with an Italian KGB expert. Later that day he began to feel unwell, and by November 4 was admitted to hospital. By November 19 doctors confirmed that he had been poisoned with some kind of radioactive material, although at first they were unable to accurately identify what.

Meanwhile Litvinenko's condition deteriorated very rapidly. He knew, of course, that he had been poisoned, and spoke out very frankly to journalists about it. The photograph at right was taken less than three weeks after he fell ill, and just a few days before his death. His kidneys were damaged, he was vomiting almost constantly and had lost all his hair. His bone marrow was severely damaged and he had almost no white blood cells left. By November 20 the hospital confirmed that he was in ”serious but stable“ condition, under armed guard, was struggling to speak and had only a 50 percent chance of survival. His family was taken into protective custody.

Meanwhile a media storm was in process, with public accusations against the Russian government and matching denials. The Italian associate he met on November 1 announced that he had received threats on his life just before the meeting. The exact cause of the poisoning was still unknown. On November 22 Litvinenko suffered a heart attack during the night, and on November 23 he died.

By January 2007 British police had determined the exact poison (polonium-210, a highly unstable isotope) and knew a great deal about how it was brought in to the country and administered (in a cup of tea). In May 2007 they charged Andrei Lugovoi, one of the businessmen Litvinenko met with on November 1, with his murder. Lugovoi lives free in Russia and extradition requests have been denied.

The case is extremely complex but there are plenty of sources to read more about it. I will give the last word to Litvinenko himself, who issued a deathbed statement on the case.

I would like to thank many people. My doctors, nurses and hospital staff who are doing all they can for me, the British police who are pursuing my case with vigour and professionalism and are watching over me and my family. I would like to thank the British government for taking me under their care. I am honoured to be a British citizen.

I would like to thank the British public for their messages of support and for the interest they have shown in my plight.

I thank my wife Marina, who has stood by me. My love for her and our son knows no bounds.

But as I lie here I can distinctly hear the beating of wings of the angel of death. I may be able to give him the slip but I have to say my legs do not run as fast as I would like. I think, therefore, that this may be the time to say one or two things to the person responsible for my present condition.

You may succeed in silencing me but that silence comes at a price. You have shown yourself to be as barbaric and ruthless as your most hostile critics have claimed.

You have shown yourself to have no respect for life, liberty or any civilised value.

You have shown yourself to be unworthy of your office, to be unworthy of the trust of civilised men and women.

You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life. May God forgive you for what you have done, not only to me but to beloved Russia and its people.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Litvinenko Justice Foundation, Axis News, ABC News

November 22 | Edward Teach

1680? - November 22, 1718: Age 38

Edward Teach was the notorious Blackbeard, the most famous pirate of all time. His real name is unknown, as is his precise background — it was not uncommon for professional pirates to keep their origins secret in order to protect their families at home.

His story reads like so many movies, and that's because every piece of pirate fiction owes something to the persona he himself created. He dressed... well, like Johnny Depp, very flamboyant and wearing half a dozen pistols at a time. A large man, he cultivated a massive scraggly beard and rasta locks, in which he wove strings of hemp and cannon fuses that could be lit with a match during battle to give him a diabolically smoky appearance.

In fact he was not a sadist nor a particularly violent man. He was interested in treasure, women (he "married" 14 times), and the freewheeling combination of chaos and discipline that made up a life at sea. After apprenticing with Benjamin Hornigold, the most feared pirate of the day, he took over his "practice" when Hornigold decided to retire (just like in The Princess Bride!). His reputation was greatly enhanced when he bested the English Man o' War Scarborough in a running duel. Rather than sink or take the Scarborough, he allowed it to withdraw when it became obvious the pirates would win.

Whether or not he intended it, the stories spread by the crew of the Scarborough were a goldmine of fearsome publicity. That, combined with his eccentric appearance, meant that simply seeing Blackbeard on the deck of a marauding ship was enough to make many prey ships surrender on the spot. This, of course, was the point.

In May 1718 Teach capped off his career with a complete blockade of the port of Charleston, South Carolina, during which he took a number of high ranking citizens prisoner in exchange for medical supplies. He got his supplies and nobody was harmed.

At this point, Blackbeard decided to retire. The British government (who had after all created all the pirates by hiring them as privateers during the war with Spain) offered a blanket pardon to any pirate captain willing to give himself up. He surrendered to the governer of North Carolina and settled down in Bath, marrying his 14th wife, this time legally (the other 13 had bee on-deck ceremonies at sea). It seems, however, that retirement didn't suit Teach, and he began to pirate here and there in a quiet sort of way. The Governor of Virginia, incensed that the infamous pirate was operating unhindered so close to his border, hired two sloops and a number men to back them up on shore to hunt out Teach in his hideout on the inland side of Ocracoke Island. They succeeded in engaging with Teach's two ships there and, although outgunned, were able to trick Teach onto the deck of one ship by hiding the men below decks, making it appear that most of them had died in the preceding heavy fire. Teach fell for it and boarded the sloop with a small force. The expedition's leader, Robert Maynard, burst from below decks with his men and a duel between the two worthy of any Hollywood movie ensued. From the National Geographic:

Maynard's men swarmed out of the hatches. Blackbeard went straight for Maynard, the two men firing pistols at the same time. The pirate's shot rang wide, but Maynard hit Teach square in the chest. Still, the pirate fought on, landing a cutlass blow so fierce it broke Maynard's sword. Just then, the pirate was staggered by a sword blow to his neck from behind. He pulled his last pistol but was too weak to fire. Blackbeard collapsed on deck, in the end having been shot five times and stabbed more than 20.

Teach's head was severed and hung from the bowsprit of the sloop. His body was thrown into the sea, and it is said the headless body swam around the ship several times before sinking. Legend has it that Blackbeard's ghost can still be seen in the neighbourhood, looking for his head.

Sources: Wikipedia, National Geographic, Edward Teach

November 21, 2007

November 21 | Max Baer

February 11, 1909 - November 21, 1959: Age 50

Max Baer, made infamous by his unflattering portrayal in the film Cinderella Man, was actually a pleasant, cheerful man with an impish sense of humour. There really was a Max Baer-Jim Braddock fight, and Braddock did win by decision. Before that fight, Baer held the heavyweight title for nearly a year. He took singing lessons, learned long words, smoked, drank, and caroused. He lost his title to the much older Braddock because of overconfidence; he hardly trained for the 1934 fight. When he lost, he did so with good grace, conceding that Braddock's victory was deserved.

Baer did have a "killer" reputation: he had killed another fighter in the ring in 1930. He apparently lost his temper in a fight against Frankie Campbell, pummeling him severely against the ropes. When the referee finally stopped the fight, Campbell collapsed. He died the next day. When Baer received the news, he broke down sobbing.

On the morning of November 21, staying at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, Baer had chest pains while he was shaving. He called the front desk to ask for a doctor. The clerk said that a house doctor would be right up. "A house doctor? No, dummy, I need a people doctor." The house people doctor arrived and treated him, while a fire department rescue squad gave him oxygen. The chest pains subsided and he began to recover, but then suddenly had a second attack. Says the doctor, "Just as I was talking to him, he slumped on his left wide, turned blue and died within a matter of minutes. His last words were, 'Oh God, here I go.'"

Max Baer is the father of Max Baer Jr., a.k.a. Jethro Bodine in TV's The Beverly Hilbillies.

Click here to see him fight.

Source: Wikipedia

November 20, 2007

November 20 | Zumbi

1655 - November 20, 1695: age 40

Today is Zumbi Day in Brazil, a national holiday celebrating the revolutionary hero who died more than 300 years ago.

At the time, slaves could escape and slip into the hinterland where they established settlements called quilombos. They were a chronic problem for the Portuguese, because they not only sheltered newly escaped slaves, but even went and raided plantations to liberate more. This was not entirely a quixotic venture: those who did not come willingly were kidnapped and made slaves in the quilombos, until such time as they brought another captive to the settlement to take their place.

The people in these quilombos were experts in capoeira, the martial art developed in Brazil by African slaves a century before. Fighting skills were strictly forbidden by the white overlords, so the Africans would do it to music, disguising it as dancing. When whites approached the musicians would introduce a special beat into the music that would signal the dancers to change their style into something innocuous-looking. You can check out capoeira on YouTube.

The man known as Zumbi was born free in Quilombo dos Palmares, a self-sustaining republic the size of Portugal with a population of about 30,000. He was captured by the Portuguese at the age of 6 and given to a missionary, who tried to "civilize" him by teaching him Portuguese and Latin and converting him to Christianity. Zumbi escaped in 1670 and returned to his home, a boy of 15. He became strong and famous for his intelligence in battle strategy.

In 1678 the Portuguese governor offered a peace treaty to the leader of Palmares, including freedom to all runaway slaves. The leader wanted to agree, but Zumbi didn't trust the whites and talked the other Africans into refusing. He became the new leader. When the Portuguese finally attacked fifteen years later, they were able to destroy the republic's main settlement with artillery. Zumbi was wounded in the leg but managed to escape and elude the Portuguese for a further two years.

Eventually he was betrayed by a comrade who helped the Portuguese ambush and kill him. Zumbi was first stabbed in the stomach by his betrayer, then stabbed and shot many times before he died. His head was cut off and taken to Recife wrapped in salt to be displayed on a stick in a public place.

Source: Wikipedia, 300 Years of Zumbi, The Slave King

November 19, 2007

November 19? | Michael Rockefeller

May 18, 1938 - November 19, 1961?: Age 23

All the reports I read of Michael Rockefeller's death — or more precisely, disappearance — begin with the information that he was one of "the" Rockefellers, a member of one of the most wealthy and powerful families in the world. And so does this one. I find that a little sad. What would people write if I had died at 23? What if you died at 23?

Truth is, at 23 most people are still very much identified with their original families and indeed in most cultures that identification lasts one's whole life. But in 20th Century North America, most people like to define themselves by what they do: their dreams and accomplishments. Rockefeller had both.

After graduating from Harvard University in 1960 he served in the army for six months, then joined an expedition of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology to study the Dani tribe in western New Guinea. Rockefeller had found his passion: his desire to explore the disappearing frontiers of the known world, or at least the world known by white Europeans.

He immediately returned to New Guinea to collect artifacts for the Museum of Primitive Arts in New York, of which he was a trustee. There he and Dutch anthropogist René Wassing traded knives, tobacco, and cloth for primitive carvings. Dutch officials (who administered New Guinea) were uneasy about his desire to collect some of the decorated heads of the head-hunting tribes: apparently he was offering ten steel hatchets for one head. Head-hunting was strictly forbidden by the Dutch authorities, but one official said tribesmen had asked permission to go head-hunting again "for one evening only, please, sir."

On November 18 the two men set out with two native guides in a 40-foot catamaran to visit a village. The boat was top-heavy and the motor very small given the tides and currents of the coast. Three miles offshore, the engine was swamped, leaving the boat heaving in the rough seas with no meals of steering or stabilization. The boat capsized. The two guides decided to swim for shore, but Rockefeller and Wassing held on to the boat for the night. The next morning Rockefeller, a strong swimmer, decided to strike out for shore. Stripping down to his underwear, he tied his glasses around his neck, strapped on two gas cans as floats, and dove in. "I think I can make it," were his last words.

He did not, of course. Nobody knows what happened to him, although the mostly likely thing is that he drowned or was taken by a crocodile or shark. The two guides made it to shore but it took them all day to walk the 11 miles through the jungle to the village to raise the alarm. Wassing was rescued by a Dutch patrol boat 20 miles offshore 8 hours after Rockefeller left. The massive search efforts included helicopters, ships, and more than 1,000 native canoes, and the personal presence of his father Nelson and Michael's twin sister Mary. After 10 days, his father called the search off. There was nothing more they could do.

There were reports... In 1972 a book told the story of a sailor who claimed to have seen Michael alive in 1968, held captive by a tribe and suffering intense pain from never-treated broken legs. Given the rich rewards offered anyone who found the young man, this seems unlikely. Later another book (The Search for Michael Rockefeller by Milt Machlin) claimed that there was some evidence to support the theory that he was killed by natives in revenge against the "white tribe" for killing some village leaders three years earlier. Another author (Paul Toohey in Rocky Goes West) claims that a private investigatore hired by Rockefeller's mother traded a boat engine for the skulls of three men that a tribe claimed were the only white men they had ever killed. The family has never confirmed this story, and none of this speculation has ever been borne out by actual evidence.

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

November 18, 2007

November 18 | Malcolm Carter

August 10, 1977 - November 18, 1978: Age 1

Malcolm Carter was the son of Tim Carter and Gloria Rodriguez, members of the Peoples Temple, led by the Reverend Jim Jones. They lived in Jonetown, a special compound in Guyana to which Jones had led his followers to escape unwanted media attention in the US. A number of former cult members had given extensive interviews to the media about some of the weird things going on in the group.

The weirdness came from Jim Jones. Charismatic (obviously) and passionate about issues relating to social justice, Jones attracted a large following of idealistic, educated, hard working people who believed in creating a better world, one without racism, greed, and social injustice. As his following grew, Jones relied more and more on underhanded methods of social control such as faking "healings", controlling the sexual lives of his followers, and extreme social censure, even punishment, for people who stepped out of line. Personally he relied more and more on drugs and alcohol to maintain the level of energy needed to control such large numbers of people and to feed his own delusions.

After a disasterous visit by a US Senator that ended in a shootout on the tarmac of the airport as the Congressional party was leaving, Jones persuaded his entire congregation to commit "revolutionary suicide" as a protest against the inhumane world. Most of them did. This was done by drinking a flavoured drink laced with cyanide. The children were dispatched first, some by their own parents. Infants like baby Malcolm were given the drink with a needle-less syringe in the mouth.

Malcolm's father, Tim Carter, was paralysed with shock as he saw his baby dead in his wife's arms, and then felt his wife die in his arms. Carter himself did not die. He was given a special job to do that took him out of the compound. In his own words:
It was about this time that Christy Miller is standing up and saying, "You know, I don't want to die." I'm just thinking, "Buy time, buy time, buy time." Then Maria Katsaris approached me from the radio room, and she said, "Come here. I think I have something for you to do." She said, "Mike Prokes has a mission. He has some suitcases that have to be delivered to the Soviet Embassy in Georgetown, but they're too heavy. He can't take them all by himself." It turned out to be a million and a half dollars.

She said, "If you make it that far," she goes, "Take what you need to live on, and have a good life." She says, "But under no circumstances are you to be caught." She goes, "If you are caught, then you are to kill yourself." Mike Prokes said, "You need to go ask Jim if he wants the truck to take us to the front gate."

As I walked up to the back of the pavilion, I looked to my right, and I saw my wife with our son in her arms, and poison being injected into his mouth. I felt, "This isn't happening. This can't be happening. This is unreal. I don't know to how to even process this. They're murdering my son."

And I took a step up on stage, and I asked the question that I was supposed to ask, "Do you want the truck to take us to the front gate?" I had a gun. I thought about shooting Jim Jones. He might die. I definitely will die. Will it stop everything that's going on?

And I just thought of Gloria and Malcolm. I stepped off the stage, and she was kneeling down. Malcolm was dead, and I held her and said, "I love you. I love you. I love you so much. I love you so much. I love you so much." And she died in my arms. And after she died, I really didn't care about anything at all, except I wasn't going to die there.

When I left Jonestown with those suitcases, my only goal was to get out alive. We dumped the money on the way to Port Kaituma. My days with Peoples Temple and Jim Jones were done. I wasn't going to carry out any mission.

More than 900 people, including Malcolm and his mother, died in the "revolutionary suicide". Most died of poisioning but some of gunshots, including Jim Jones, who was found dead of a single gunshot wound. It is not known whether he shot himself or not. Because of the unusual circumstances, most of the deaths were ruled murder, not suicides.

Click here to read some perspectives from Jonestown survivors. This is an extremely interesting and worthwhile site to visit as it seems to reflect in part the ongoing healing process of many of the survivors.

Click here for a YouTube excerpt from a PBS documentary about the cult. There are 5 parts uploaded on YouTube; this is Part 1. I encourage you to watch all 5 parts. You can see and hear Tim Carter speaking about his family's death in Part 5, but I suggest you watch the other parts first in order to have a larger sense of the story.

Sources: Wikipedia, NPR, PBS site about the documentary,, Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple

November 17, 2007

November 17 | Catherine the Great

May 2, 1729 - November 17, 1796: Age 67

Catherine the Great was a German princess who married the heir to the Russian throne. In time, her husband ascended the throne as Tsar Peter III.

Catherine was a brilliant woman in many respects, but above all a brilliant politician. Her husband, on the other hand, was not, and in 1762 she initiated a bloodless coup. He was sent to retire in comfort on a country estate, but was killed soon after by conspirators fearing his return to power.

Although she was not Russian her son, Paul, was the legitimate heir, and she was accepted by the Russian people as their ruler. Catherine ruled Russia pretty much unchallenged for the remaining 34 years of her life. During that time she ruled competently, mediated foreign disputes, corresponded with the greatest minds of the era, took countless lovers, and brought Russia into closer alignment with the principles of the Enlightenment.

On November 16, 1796 she woke up in the morning, had her morning coffee, dismissed her lover and went into her bathroom. When she didn't come out for half an hour, her attendants called for her secretary. When his knock didn't get an answer, he went in, and found her unconscious on the floor. Doctors tried to revive her by bleeding her and raising blisters on her feet, but to no avail. She died the next evening.

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

November 16, 2007

November 16 | Clark Gable

February 1, 1901 - November 16, 1960: Age 59

"His ears are too big and he looks like an ape." — Daryl Zanuck after testing Clark Gable for the lead in Little Caesar.

During the 1930s and 1940s Clark Gable was the biggest male star in Hollywood. Although he claimed that he was just a guy from Ohio who stumbled upon some lucky breaks, Clark Gable (whose name really was Clark Gable, or rather William Clark Gable) worked very hard for his success. As a kid he had a loud, high-pitched voice. He trained many years with acting coach (also his manager and wife) Laura Dillon in Oregon, working on lowering his voice, improving his resonance, posture, body movements and facial expressions.

When he was thought ready to try Hollywood, he impressed some but not others and returned to theatre in the 20s after a few film roles. In 1931 he returned to Hollywood and a good agent, good publicity management, Gable's native talent and looks, and his hard work gained him key roles that rocketed him to fame. His most famous role, that of Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind, was one he resisted strongly, fearing that the combination of public pressure to cast him with the probability (in his mind) that the movie would be a giant flop would destroy his career.

It did not, the movie was a hit, and every time his career showed signs of flagging afterwards there would be a re-release of Gone with the Wind and it would revive. Click here for a clip.

His personal life was complicated. He married 5 times and had a number of high-profile affairs. His happiest time was when he married the brilliant Carole Lombard, a witty, down-to-earth woman who although many years younger was a good match for him in strength of character. Unfortunately Lombard died in a plane crash during the war. He was never the same.

His role as Gay Langdon in The Misfits is considered his best ever, but it was a stressful shoot. Marilyn Monroe was a difficult co-star; Gable's life-long tobacco smoking, drinking, and more recent diet pill binges were affecting his health. The role required a lot of hard physical work, pulling and being pulled around by horses. Gable had a heart attack (his fourth) 3 days after the movie wrapped and died eleven days later.

Source: Wikipedia stories on Clark Gable, The Misfits, and Marilyn Monroe.

November 15, 2007

November 15 | Dalai Lama VI

1683 - November 15, 1706: Age 23

Tsangyang Gyatso was one of those men you can't put in a box, figuratively speaking. He was recognized at the age of 5 as the reincarnation of the Fifth Dalai Lama, but immediately put into hiding. The political situation in Tibet was deemed too unstable to announce the death of the old Dalai Lama, and in medieval Tibet it was not impossible to hide someone's death from much of the country and the outside world for some years. In 1697 the death of the Fifth was announced, as was the news that the Sixth had been found. Thus began Tsangyang Gyatso's short career as a public figure.

In 1701 the Regent, who had been protecting him, was the victim of a Mongol-ordered assassination (Tibet, China, and the Mongols have a long history of mutual influence and interference). The young Dalai Lama left his studies and renounced his monk vows, and embarked on a life of booze and romance. He continued to function as Dalai Lama, but insisted on wearing layman's clothes and refused to ride in a special palanquin and other spiritual perks. The love songs he wrote for his paramours are very highly regarded in Tibetan literature.

Using this behaviour as an excuse, in 1706 a Mongol king deposed Tsangyang Gyatso and declared a 25-year-old Lama the "real" Dalai Lama. The Tibetans would not accept him. Another Mongol tribe was invited in to oust the one that had deposed him — this is classic Tibetan history, there's always another Mongol tribe to invite in for an invasion. By 1717 the unwanted Mongols had been defeated, but it was way too late — Tsangyang had died mysteriously in 1706 while being spirited out of the country.

Sources: Wikipedia, BBC News

Note: I can't resist pointing out that at around the time Tsangyang was being kidnapped, Johann Sebastian Bach was walking 400 miles to Lübeck to study organ with Dietrich Buxtehude. Music nerd stuff.

November 14, 2007

November 14 | Nell Gwyn

February 2, 1650 - November 13, 1687: Age 37

The restoration of the monarchy in England, after years of straight-laced Puritan parliamentary rule, included the restoration of the theatre. Charles II established two royal theatrical companies in London. This furnished a job for young Nell Gwyn, then the brothel-raised bastard daughter of a whore. She worked as an "orange girl", one of a handful of young girls who moved among the audience selling oranges and sweets. In fact these girls served as go-betweens for assignations between male audience members and the actresses backstage.

As a young teenager Gwyn caught the eye of the manager, who gave her a part in a play. Although illiterate her whole life, she was somehow able to learn her lines and impress the company enough to get more parts. She was a talented comedian, and caught many more eyes as the months went by. Soon she was working both as an actor and as a high-end mistress. In 1667 she caught the eye of the King.

King Charles II had many mistresses, but Gwyn was a favourite until the end of his life. She had enormous freedom: her own house on Pall Mall, an income, the ability to continue to work on stage, which she did until 1671, retiring at age 21. She bore the King two sons, one of whom died as a youngster. The story of how the other was made Earl of Burford, unverifiable, shows her character: When the King came to visit, she called to her son, "Come here, you little bastard, and say hello to your father." When the King objected to her referring to the boy that way, she sweetly replied "Your Majesty has given me no other name by which to call him." He made the boy the Earl of Burford.

Another story: her coachman was fighting with another man who had called her a whore. She broke up the fight, saying, "I am a whore. Find something else to fight about."

Charles died in 1685, and among his last words were the instruction, "Let not poor Nelly starve." She did not. James II paid off her debts and gave her a couple of houses and a generous pension. She drew it, however, for less than three years: in March 1687 a stroke left her paralysed on one side. A second stroke in May left her completely bedridden. She lasted until November 14. She is buried at the Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields near Trafalgar Square, and the Archbishop of Canterbury preached at her funeral, "Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance."

Source: Wikipedia

November 13, 2007

November 13 | Karen Silkwood

February 19, 1946 - November 13, 1974: Age 28

Karen Silkwood worked for the Kerr-McGee corporation as a chemical technician. Kerr-McGee, although primarily involved with oil and gas, also made plutonium for nuclear fuel rods. As a member of the labor union Silkwood became concerned about safety procedures at the plant and testified at a hearing of the Atomic Energy Commission, alleging that safety standards were slipping as a result of production speedups.

On November 5, 1974, a routine test for plutonium contamination revealed 40 times the legal limit. She underwent decontamination, but the next day tested positive again, despite having only done paperwork that day. On November 7 she was found to be dangerously contaminated, and a team checked her home — only to find plutonium on various surfaces in her house. Kerr-McGee has since alleged that she contaminated herself in order to blacken the company's reputation, but the type of plutonium present in the contamination was not from the part of the plant Silkwood worked in.

Silkwood decided to go public with the story and contacted a New York Times reporter. She was headed for Oklahoma City to meet with this reporter with a stack of documents when her car left the road and rolled into a culvert. No documents were found in the car, but the police did find marijuana and some sedatives. Her blood revealed a high dose of Quaaludes, more than twice the recommended dose to induce drowsiness. Her death was ruled an accident.

Public suspicions forced an investigation of the Kerr-McGee plant, which was found to have numerous safety violations. Kerr-McGee closed its nuclear operations in 1975. The site was still being decontaminated 25 years later. Silkwood's family sued Kerr-McGee for damages. During the trial the corporation tried to paint Silkwood as a troublemaker who had contaminated herself to damage the company. The jury didn't buy it, and awarded the family $10 million in punitive damages. On appeal, the amount was reduced to a bizarre $5,000, but the Supreme Court restored the original verdict in 1984. The suit was going to retrial when the corporation settled out of court for $1.38 million with no admission of liability.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Karen Silkwood Story (Los Alamos report)

November 12, 2007

November 12 | Cameron Duncan

April 20, 1986 - November 12, 2003: Age 17

Cameron Duncan was a filmmaker from New Zealand, but he only made a few short films and clips because he died so early: age 17. He had osteosarcoma, the same cancer that Terry Fox had. He died on November 12, 2003 in Texas while receiving treatment.

As a youngster (was he ever anything but?) Duncan won awards for his short films and ads. Toward the end of his life he attracted the attention of Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, and they became friends. Composer Fran Walsh wrote the end title song of Return of the King, "Into the West", for Duncan, and it was publicly performed for the first time at his funeral.

Click here to see Strike Zone, a really neat 10-minute film that includes a haka, softball, a re-enactment of Duncan getting the news from his doc that there was no hope, and his funeral. Another short, DFK6498, describes the experience of his illness. Have Kleenex on hand.

Sources: Wikipedia, New Zealand Herald. His official website,, is not working today but maybe it will be up again later.

November 11, 2007

November 11 | Julien Offray de La Mettrie

December 25, 1709 - November 11, 1751: Age 41

Julien Offray de La Mettrie was one of the first influential scientists to notice the link between mind and body, and to interpret that link, not as evidence of the "power of spirit", but as evidence that physical phenomena were to be accounted for as the effects of organic changes in the brain and nervous system. Trained as a physician, he played out what were for him the logical conclusions to this reasoning: that the meaning of life can be found in sensory pleasure, and that virtue is a form of self-love. He also publicly stated his case for atheism.

His views were so controversial that he had to move to a new country several times to avoid the possible violent consequences of the public ill-feeling he aroused. He was welcome, however, in the court of Frederick the Great. There he cured the French ambassador of an illness and the ambassador, in gratitude, threw a great feast for him. At the feast, de La Mettrie consumed a large quantity of paté aux truffes and, as a result, developed a fever, became delirious, and died.

"When death comes, the farce is over, therefore let us take our pleasure while we can."

Source: Wikipedia

November 10, 2007

November 10 | Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

1881 - November 10, 1938: age 57

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was one of those extraordinary men who indisputably changed the course of history. The end of World War I in 1918 saw the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, and the victorious Allies set about partitioning the whole Middle East in a way that ensured maximum advantage for them, and minimum possibility of any kind of world power or influence for the Middle Eastern peoples. This did not go too well for anyone, and by 1919 a Turkish resistance movement had emerged with Atatürk as a key player. The Sultan had assigned him overall responsibility for demobilizing the army; this was a perfect position from which to organize the smaller resistance groups that had sprung up all over Anatolia. After contacting local leaders and encouraging them to cooperate with one another, he called for a national election. The election took place and the new Parliament met and declared a National Pact. Alarmed, the occupying British forces dissolved Parliament.

Atatürk had the gift of all great leaders: he was unpredictable, and he had a knack for turning every action of his enemies to the advantage of his cause. The dissolution of Parliament was his opportunity form a new government in Ankara. The British continued to deal with the Sultan in Istanbul, signing a final treaty partitioning Turkey in May 1920, but the real power lay in Ankara. The inevitable military conflicted ended in complete victory for Ankara, led by Atatürk. The Sultanate was abolished and the New Turkish Republic properly began.

Here a true miracle occurred: Atatürk, who had proved himself a brilliant leader in war, turned out to be a truly visionary peacetime leader. Over the next decade and a half he led Turkey through a series of reforms that were unimaginable before the War: separation of religion from politics and the judiciary system, establishment of a democratic government, economic and educational reform, freedom of religion, and political enfranchisement of women. His adopted daughter, Sabiha, was the world's first female combat pilot. He even issued decrees on dress, forbidding religious attire and promoting Western-style suits, hats, and dresses.

He was a heavy drinker. This is soft-pedalled in many sources; the Turks still adore him. But the facts are indisputable: by 1938 he was suffering from the effects of a lifetime of heavy smoking, drinking, too little sleep and too much travel. He died of cirrhosis of the liver on November 10.

Sources: Wikipedia,, Kemal Ataturk: Founder of the modern Turkish Republic

November 9, 2007

November 9 | Dylan Thomas

October 27, 1914 - November 9, 1953: Age 39

Dylan Thomas was justly known as "the modern Keats". Wales' most famous poet took the artistic world by storm with his astonishing poems and his dramatic readings. Although his output was relatively small compared to others, his powerful voice and delivery were perfectly matched to broadcast radio culture.

Thomas embodied a defiant cynical bohemianism that suited the postwar world. Curly-haired and green-eyed, he grew into a chubby, slouching adult who dangled a cigarette from his lips, drank heavily, and offered outrageous quotes for the papers. He had a knack for sound bites: he came to America, he said, "to continue my search for naked women in wet mackintoshes."

He arrived in New York in October 1953 for his fourth American tour, checking in as usual to the Chelsea Hotel with his American girlfriend. His health was obviously suffering from his excesses, and at the time he referred to his wife (who was back in England) as his "widow". During a night of drinking on November 4, he said, "I've had 18 straight whiskies. I think that's the record." He woke up the next morning and returned to the pub, but after a couple of beers began to feel ill and left. Back at the Hotel Chelsea, he began to vomit and experience violent stomach spasms. During that day, he told his girlfriend, "I love you, but I am alone" — a statement thought by some to be his last words. By 2 a.m. the following morning he was unconscious. He died in St. Vincent's hospital four days later, his wife (who had arrived from London) by his side. The official cause of death was pneumonia and a damaged liver.

Sources: Wikipedia, BBC Audio, Under Milk Wood

This entry would not be complete without a link to Thomas reading "Do not go gentle into that good night." Although Thomas was celebrated for his readings, I personally find his style too much. See what you think. Click here to listen to the BBC recording of Under Milk Wood. The first section is Richard Burton, absolutely feasting on his role of "First Voice".

I would like to nominate the following as the Official Quote of A Death A Day: "Hold me, Captain, I'm Jonah Jarvis, come to a bad end, very enjoyable." — Third Voice in Under Milk Wood

November 8, 2007

November 8 | Doc Holliday

August 14, 1851 – November 8, 1887: Age 36

We know about Doc Holliday because of tuberculosis. It's also what killed him. John Henry Holliday was born in Georgia, received a good education (Latin, Greek, and dental school), and opened a dental practice in Atlanta. Shortly after that he was diagnosed with tuberculosis (by his uncle, a doctor) and advised that living in a warmer, drier climate would be good for his health.

He moved to Texas and, although he opened a dental practice, soon realized that gambling was a more lucrative and fun profession. He had a hot temper and got into a few gunfights around gambling issues, and this suited him, possibly because of the alcohol he took to control his cough, and possibly because he felt it was better to die of a gunshot than of tuberculosis. He acquired a reputation as someone willing to stand up and use force, and fell in famously with Wyatt Earp and his brothers. Together they moved to Arizona, and made history in the gunfight at the OK Corral in October 1881.

Holliday moved to Colorado in April 1882 and spent the rest of his short life there. In 1887, prematurely grey and sickly, he checked into a hotel with some hot springs hoping the waters would provide relief. They did not. From the website, Outlaws and Gunslingers:
On 8 November 1887, Doc awoke clear-eyed and asked for a drink of whiskey, which he drank with enjoyment. He looked at this bare feet and said, "This is funny." He then drew his last breath from the disease his uncle fourteen years earlier had said would kill him within two years. He had died in the winter, and the ground was frozen solid and covered in ice, preventing the hearse from making it up the steep narrow road to the graveyard on the mountaintop overlooking the town. The well-intentioned citizens of Glenwood Springs laid Doc to rest in an unmarked grave at the foot of the mesa until he could be transferred to the cemetery after the Spring thaws. According to the townsfolk, he never was.

As the years went by, Glenwood Springs grew outward, and today, Doc most likely lies buried in someone’s back yard. Although his grave has been lost, his tombstone rests in the Linwood Cemetery for all to see. It doesn’t even have his full name on it. It says simply "Doc Holliday."

Sources: Wikipedia, Outlaws and Gunslingers

November 6, 2007

November 7 | Steve McQueen

March 24, 1930 - November 7, 1980: Age 50

Steve McQueen is one of those resilient people who survived a difficult childhood to become an intelligent, healthy, kind and decent man. Abandoned by his parents as a child, he was raised by an Uncle until his mother "reclaimed" him and took him to live in Los Angeles with a new, abusive stepfather. He ran with street gangs as a young teenager and ended up in reform school. At 17 he joined the Marines, and served for 3 years.

In 1952 he auditioned along with 2,000 others for Lee Strasbourg's prestigious acting school in New York. He was one of two people chosen (the other was Martin Landau). By the mid-50s he was was a working actor; by the early 1960s he was starring in films like The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven. In addition to considerable acting skills, he had the rare quality of being equally appealing to male and female audiences. Part of his appeal to male fans was his interest in racing cars and motorcycles; McQueen did most of his own stunts if they involved a vehicle.

He was diagnosed in December 1979 with mesothelioma, a type of lung cancer associated with exposure to asbestos. Advised by American doctors that conventional treatments would be ineffective, he travelled to Mexico to receive unconventional treatments that included coffee enemas and the drug laetrile, a "natural" drug not sanctioned by the USFDA. Following surgery to remove a tumour in his lung, McQueen had a heart attack and died on November 7, 1980.

Sources: Wikipedia

November 6 | Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

May 7, 1840 - November 6, 1893: Age 53

Tchaikovsky was arguably the greatest Russian composer of all time, and one of the greatest composers in history. Whether or not you realize it, you are probably quite familiar with many of his melodies: famous themes from ballets like Swan Lake, the Nutcracker, and Sleeping Beauty, for example, or the incredible finale of his 1812 Overture (the one that features live cannons). Going deeper into his oeuvre — symphonies, concerti, operas, and other pieces — many of his themes are instantly recognizable.

He was a hero of Russia. When news of his death reached the Tsar, he immediately offered to pay for the funeral. 60,000 people applied for tickets to Tchaikovsky's funeral (capacity was only 8,000) and many more lined the streets of St. Petersburg to pay respects to the procession.

But Tchaikovsky was a gay man living in a society that hated homosexuals. Tchaikovsky himself struggled with his orientation, attempting a marriage and then trying to kill himself by jumping into the cold Moscow River two weeks after the wedding. The marriage ended in six weeks.

The official cause of Tchaikovsky's death was cholera. There were outbreaks all over Russia at the time, and people were warned to boil their water before drinking it or even washing with it. According to reports, he asked for a glass of water in a restaurant and, informed they had no boiled water available, requested it unboiled. Two weeks later he was dead.

Even at the time there were doubts: a number of people noticed that his illness, treatment, and the handling of his body did not quite match the putative cause. In the 1970s a very different account was published, a story that had been kept secret for 80 years. According to this account, he was threatened by a secret "court of honour" with terrible reprisals, and was advised to kill himself as punishment for his homosexuality. Apparently he had fallen in love with his nephew, and the network of school alumni felt that any exposure would result in disgrace for the whole school. Here is biographer David Brown's version:

"The incident took place in the autumn of 1893. Tchaikovsky was threatened with terrible misfortune. Duke Stenbok-Fermor, disturbed by the attention which the composer was paying to his young nephew, wrote a letter of accusation to the Tsar and handed the letter to Jacobi. Through exposure Tchaikovsky was threatened with the loss of all his rights, with exile to Siberia, with inevitable disgrace. Exposure would also bring disgrace upon the School of Jurisprudence and upon all the old boys of the school, Tchaikovsky's fellow students. To avoid publicity Jacobi decided upon the following. He invited all Tchaikovsky's former schoolmates [he could trace in St. Petersburg], and set up a court of honour which included himself. Altogether there were eight people present. Elizveta Karlovna sat with her needlework in her usual place alongside her husband's study. From time to time from within she could hear voices, sometimes loud and agitated, sometimes dropping apparently to a whisper. This went on for a very long time, almost five hours. Then Tchaikovsky came headlong out of the study. He was almost running, he was unsteady, and he went out without saying a word. He was very white and agitated. All the others stayed a long time in the study talking quietly. When they had gone Jacobi told his wife, having made her swear absolute silence, what they had decided about the Stenbok-Fermor letter to the Tsar. Jacobi could not withhold it. And so the old boys [of the school] had come to a decision by which Tchaikovsky had promised to kill himself. A day or two later news of the composer's mortal illness was circulating in St. Petersburg."

As it happens his symptoms match arsenic poisoning much more closely than cholera. The day after the "glass of water" his brother found him in bed suffering from diarrhea and stomach pains. Tchaikovsky refused to call a doctor, and tried to carry on with his day, taking cod liver oil in an attempt to ease his stomach. Within days he was much worse, and a doctor diagnosed him with cholera. The mortality rate for cholera at that time was more than 40%, but he seemed to get better, then he would get worse again with more pains and cramps. Eventually his kidneys failed, a priest was called, and he died at 3am on November 6, 1893.

The movie, V for Vendetta, used the finale to the 1812 Overture to great effect. The Adagio from the Sixth Symphony is one of the most beautiful pieces of romantic music ever written: enjoy a rehearsal of it here.

Sources: Wikipedia article on Tchaikovsky, Wikipedia article on his death, Brown, David, Tchaikovsky: The Man and His Music (New York: Pegasus Books, 2007)

November 5, 2007

November 5 | Texas Guinan

January 12, 1884 - November 5, 1933: Age 49

Texas Guinan was one of those amazing Americans who redefined womanhood for generations to come. She was a singer, actor, saloon keeper and entrepreneur who ended up in the movies when a producer saw her on stage riding a horse. But she is best remembered for recognizing the entrepreneurial opportunities afforded by Prohibition, and opening a speakeasy in New York, a couple of blocks west of the present-day site of the Museum of Modern Art. The speak was a hangout for the greatest names in entertainment of the day, including Pola Negri, Al Jolson, Gloria Swanson, John Gilbert, Clara Bow, Irving Berlin, John Barrymore, and George Gershwin. Ruby Keeler and George Raft were "discovered" as dancers there. Guinan used to greet her customers with the cheery cry, "Hello, suckers!"

(Yes, Guinan of the Star Trek: TNG series was named after her. Completely different personality, but a nice homage.)

In the late 1920s Texas returned to films, playing herself as a night club owner in several. Click here to see her doing the intro to a number by Frances Williams in Broadway Through a Keyhole.

The Depression hit her hard, financially, and she took her show on the road. She tried to tour Europe, but her reputation ensured she was denied entry at every European sea port. Of course she turned it to her advantage, naming one of her shows "Too Hot For Paris". In 1933 she contracted amoebic dysentery in Vancouver while touring, and died, just one month before Prohibition was repealed.

Sources: Wikipedia,

November 4, 2007

November 4 | Wilfred Owen

March 18, 1893 - November 4, 1918: Age 25

Though failing twice to win a scholarship to University College in Reading, Owen is now considered to be among the greatest of war poets.

Prior to enlisting in the British army in late 1915, to fight in what was then called The Great War, he had worked as a tutor for the Berlitz School of Languages. In January 1917, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant with the Manchester Regiment. He led his troops in several battles, but after a being trapped for three days in a fox hole with the remains of a good friend who had been blown apart, he was diagnosed with shell shock (now called PTS or post-traumatic syndrome) and sent to recuperate at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. There he met poet Siegfried Sassoon who was to have a profound influence on his work. Through Sassoon, Owen was introduced to a sophisticated, and largely gay, literary circle including Oscar Wilde's friend Robbie Ross, poet Osbert Sitwell, and C. K. Scott-Moncrieff, the translator of Proust.

Owen returned to the front in October 1, 1918. Five weeks later, at 5:40am, on November 4, while trying to bridge a river near the village of Joncourt, Owen was shot dead. He died just seven days before the war ended. For his courage and leadership in the Joncourt action, he was posthumously awarded the Military Cross.

Only five of his poems were published prior to his death. His brother, Harold, arranged for many of his poems and letters to be published posthumously, removing what he considered discreditable passages in Owen's letters and diaries referring to Owen's homosexuality. After a modest critical reception, Owen's poems faded into obscurity until the 1960's when they spoke eloquently about the horrors of war to a generation of young Americans struggling with the War in Vietnam.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Sources: Wikipedia, Fyne Times

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

If you're interested in Owen, you will enjoy Pat Barker's trilogy Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road. I strongly recommend them. They are novels but based on actual people, including Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and William Rivers.

November 3, 2007

November 3 | Laika

1954? - November 3, 1957: Age 3?

Laika was a stray dog found wandering in the street in Moscow. She was one of several dogs chosen and trained to be part of Soviet attempts to send a living being into space.

In the 1950s and 1960s one of the results the mutual hostility between the USSR and USA (the Cold War) was a passionate competition to be first into space. The Soviet Union got an early start with Sputnik in October 1957: the first successful launch and orbit of a satellite in space. The event shocked the USA inspired the world. Eager to follow up this early success with another "first", Russian leader Kruschev ordered that a second satellite be launched to coincide with the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution just one month later. The second satellite, Sputnik 2, was to carry a dog in order to measure the effects of space travel on a living being. Sputnik 2 was rushed into production.

Laika is in fact the name of a group of Russian husky breeds; Laika herself was a mongrel (husky and terrier, probably) and called various nicknames by her human friends: Kudryavka (Russian for Little Curly), Zhuchka (Little Bug) and Limonchik (Little Lemon). Three dogs were trained for the flight, and their training included long confinement progressively smaller cages, centrifuges, and a diet of high-nutrition gel. Laika was chosen for the mission and placed into the capsule three days prior to launch. Her bodily functions were to be carefully monitored. Just before liftoff, she was carefully groomed. It was the last living contact she would experience.

During launch itself, her heart rate more than doubled and her respiration tripled. After launch the nose cone separated successfully but another section of the rocket did not, and this prevented the heating system from operating correctly. Her pulse rate did not return to normal for three hours after launch, showing how much stress she was under. She was agitated but eating her food. However her life signs disappeared in a few hours. She probably died from stress and overheating.

The Russians had never planned to retrieve Laika from space; the idea was to euthanize her with a poisoned serving of food once her experiments were over. For years some of them insisted that this is how she died; other Russians stated that she had suffocated. The truth of her death was not made public until 2002, and in the excitement of the "success" of the mission it seemed as though few humans cared. There were a few protests in the West, virtually none in Russia. In 1998, more than 40 years later, the scientist to chose and trained Laika publicly expressed regret for his actions: "The more time passes, the more I'm sorry about it. We shouldn't have done it... We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog."

Click here to read the original article in the New York Times reporting on Sputnik 2, reproduced in a 2002 article. Click here to read about all the space dogs and their fates.

Sources: Wikipedia, New York Times

Note: Yes, today I have reported two deaths (see also Olympe de Gouge). That is because for some reason yesterday I started thinking about Laika, and decided to find out her death date in order to write about her. After completing the entry on de Gouge, I looked up Laika and was surprised to see that her death date is today! Having already published a good post on de Gouge I decided to simply add another entry for Laika. Given de Gouge's passionate defence of the oppressed and vulnerable, I believe she would have approved.

November 3 | Olympe de Gouge

December 31, 1745 - November 3, 1793: Age 47

In French law during the 17th century women had no legal right to declare the paternity of their children. So Olympe de Gouge, in a strange way, had the freedom to define herself: she was denied by her natural father, a marquis, and her washerwoman mother had no legal say in the matter.

We may not find it surprising that Olympe grew up to be a passionate defender of the rights of the oppressed, but in fact it occurred to very few people that anybody who wasn't a white male should have any rights at all. At the time that the whole country, indeed the whole of Europe and the New World, was in a intellectual ferment over the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, the rights of women, slaves, and children were considered ridiculous (when considered at all).

During the events leading up to the French Revolution and the Revolution itself, Olympe de Gouge supported herself by finding male patrons willing to protect her while she wrote plays and essays proposing and defending universal human rights. She wrote a play attacking slavery in 1774 (L'Esclavage des Nègres) but it went unpublished until 1789, the year of the Revolution, and even then she could not get it staged because, among other obstacles, she couldn't find actors willing to play negro parts.

She became involved and tried to speak out about any injustice: "A woman has the right to mount the scaffold. She must possess equally the right to mount the speaker's platform." She opposed the execution of Louis XIV. The year that Déclaration des droits du Homme et du Citoyen was published, she published Déclaration des droits de la Femme et de la Citoyenne. She was combative, outspoken, difficult, and hated. Even a century after her death, the historian Jules Michelet commented, "She allowed herself to act and write about more than one affair that her weak head did not understand."

Eventually she paid for her views with her "weak head". In 1793 she was arrested for publishing an essay that demanded a plebiscite on a choice of three potential forms of government: an indivisible Republic, a federalist government, or a constitutional monarchy. On November 3 her "right to mount the scaffold" trumped her right to mount the speaker's platform, and she was guillotined.

Source: Wikipedia

November 2, 2007

November 2 | Thomas Midgley, Jr.

May 18, 1889 - November 2, 1944: Age 55

Thomas Midgley had more impact on the ozone layer than any other single organism on the planet. That's because, as a scientist in the 1930s, he discovered dichlorodifluoromethane, a chlorinated fluorocarbon (CFC) which he named Freon. This substance was to become widely used in heat pumps, refrigerators, and aerosol sprays, and to set up a cycle of ozone depletion. Ozone is a molecule consisting of three oxygen atoms. Its presence in the upper atmosphere filters harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun. Since 1980 the ozone in the upper atmosphere has depeleted, resulting in overall thinning of the ozone layer year-round, as well as drastic thinning of the ozone layer over the polar regions during the spring (called the "ozone hole"). The depletion is caused by CFCs that have been steadily pouring into to atmosphere since the 1930s. CFCs are not banned in many countries, and plans are to ban them worldwide by 2010.

That wasn't Midgley's only contribution to the atmosphere: he also discovered that adding ethyl (tetra-ethyl lead) to gasoline made engines run more efficiently. This discovery resulted in the rapid development of better engines which, among other things, gave the US a decisive advantage in air combat during WWII. Workers who had extensive contact with the compounds often suffered from health effects: even Midgley himself had to take a leave of absence when his lungs became affected by working with lead. However it wasn't until the 1970s, many years after his death, that wider public concerns about air pollution surfaced, and in the 1990s leaded gasoline was banned in America for many (but not all) uses. Plans are to ban it completely by 2008, however it is still widely sold and used in the Third World.

Midgley contracted polio when he was 51, resulting in severe disability. Ever the scientist, he developed a system of ropes and pulleys to lift himself out of bed. On November 2, 1944 he became entangled in the ropes and died of suffocation.

Sources: Wikipedia, Invent Now Hall of Fame

November 1, 2007

November 1 | Carl McCunn

1946 - November 1981: Age 35

Carl McCunn arranged to be dropped by plane in the Alaskan wilderness in March 1981 with supplies for the summer and 500 rolls of film. He planned to spend the season photographing wildlife. What he didn't plan, however, was his trip out again. He forgot to arrange for a plane to come and pick him up.

Strangely, his whole ordeal is meticulously recorded through the diaries he kept on loose-leaf paper over 8 months. He planned to leave by mid-August, but as the date approached he realized that he might not have made his arrangements clear enough. It was with great relief that he spied a plane circling overhead; he flagged it down, or so he thought. The pilot, who had been sent by concerned friends, noticed McCunn waving casually, giving the all-OK signal, then walking slowly toward his tent. From this he surmised there was no problem and left. It was only after the plane disappeared that McCunn realized he had given the wrong hand signal.

He was camped 225 miles north of Fairbanks, 75 miles from Fort Yukon. Rather than try to walk back to civilization, he decided to sit tight and hope someone would come back and get him. He stopped dating his diary entries, as he had to spend most of his time and energy looking for food and keeping warm. By October he had run out of food, and was competing with the local foxes for game. He saved one bullet, however, for himself. Toward the end, he wrote, "Am burning the last of my emergency Coleman light and just fed the fire the last of my split wood. When the ashes cool, I'll be cooling along with them." When the rangers found his body the following February, emaciated and frozen, his last diary entry read, "Dear God in Heaven, please forgive me my weakness and my sins. Please look over my family." He added a separate note asking that his personal items be returned to his father, and he said that the person who found him should keep his rifle and shotgun.

Sources: Wikipedia, New York Times