February 29, 2008

February 29 | Patrick Hamilton

1504 - February 29, 1528: Age 24

Patrick Hamilton came from good stock: he was the great-grandson of King James II of Scotland. He joined the clergy and set off for Paris to study, the first step on the way to a comfortable life in the Church, but it didn't work out that way. In Paris, the writings of Martin Luther were being discussed, and it was here that the young man first heard the Protestant doctrine. After Paris, he went to Leuven, Erasmus' hotbed of heresy.

When he returned to Scotland he attended the University of St. Andrews, where he began communicating these amazing new ideas to his peers. Soon he attracted the attention of the Archbishop of St. Andrews, who ordered his trial. Hamilton wisely fled the country, going first to Germany (visiting Luther there) and then to France.

After a few months in exile, however, he convinced himself that he should return to Scotland and enlighten his countrymen, and this he did. At first he was protected by his noble connections, but the Archbishop craftily invited him to a conference, purportedly to debate his ideas. Hamilton, however, knew his chances well enough, and went along with it because he felt that his martyrdom would do more for the true doctrine than anything else.

His prediction proved true. After letting Hamilton preach publicly for a month in order to gather evidence against him, the Archbishop had him seized and tried for heresy. He was burned at the stake: apparently it took him six hours to incinerate. His last words were "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." The spot where he was burned is marked with a monogram of cobblestones; this helps prevent the unwary from incurring bad luck by stepping on it.

It is uncertain whether it was his ideas or his death that did more for the Reformation in Scotland; it is certain they both did much. The Scottish people took readily to Protestantism. Little more than 30 years later, Scottish Parliament approved a Reformed Confession of Faith and repudiated Papal jurisdiction in the country.

Sources: Wikipedia, Protestant History

February 28, 2008

February 28 | Cuauhtémoc

1502 - February 28, 1525: Age ±23

It's good to be the king... except when you're an Aztec king at the time of the Spanish conquest of Mexico. While the Spanish were besieging Mexico City the previous king, Cuitlahuac, died of smallpox, along with a sizable proportion of the population. Cuauhtémoc took power as one of the few captains left eligible for the job (he was Moctezuma II's son in law). When he went to call for reinforcements from a neighbouring people, he fell into the hands of the Spanish, namely Hernán Cortés, offering him his knife and asking to be killed.

Cortés experienced an uncharacteristic bout of chivalry, declaring pompously that "a Spaniard knows how to respect valor even in an enemy". He respected Cuauhtémoc's valor until the royal treasurer pointed out that the brave Aztec might know the whereabouts of hidden treasure. As always, the idea of gold drove out all other ideals, and Cuauhtémoc was tortured by having his feet put to a fire. He stood up under the ordeal, perhaps because he was a brave Aztec but perhaps also because the Spanish notion of mountains of Aztec gold was largely a fantasy.

Cortés kept Cuauhtémoc around for a while, possibly hoping he would suddenly develop some expertise on finding hiding places for gold, but in 1525 two men told Cortés that Cuauhtémoc was conspiring to kill him. Cortés had Cuauhtémoc and two other Aztec lords hanged. When Cuauhtémoc learned of his sentence, he said the following to Cortés (as recorded by a conquistador serving under Cortés):
"Oh Malinche [Cortés]! Now I understand your false promises and the kind of death you have had in store for me. For you are killing me unjustly. May God demand justice from you, as it was taken from me when I entrusted myself to you in my city of Mexico!"

The same conquistador reports that Cortés suffered from a guilty conscience afterwards, being unable to sleep and injuring himself badly while wandering around at night.

Source: Wikipedia

February 27, 2008

February 27 | Alexander Borodin

November 12, 1833 - February 27, 1887: Age 53

Alexander Borodin was a chemist, but also a musician and composer, one of "The Five" or "The Mighty Handful", top-notch composers dedicated to producing distinctively Russian art music in the 19th century (the other four were Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui, and Balakirev).

As a chemist Borodin was quite famous and respected; his work took up much of his time and he composed as a hobby, for pleasure and companionship with fellow musicians. His musical output was small, but excellent: three symphonies, three string quartets, an opera (finished by Rimsky-Korsakov), and a handful of piano music, songs, and other bits and pieces.

There are some famous tunes in Polovetsian Dances, scored for the opera Prince Igor. That's because Robert Wright and George Forrest adapted Borodin's works for the musical Kismet. Borodin is credited as the main composer and even got a Tony Award for this show in 1954, more than 60 years after his death. Ironically when Kismet premiered in 1953 there was a newspaper strike which allowed it to become a hit by word of mouth; when the papers reappeared the reviews were bad and might have caused the show to flop. One critic panned the show as "a lot of borrowed din". Someone should have written a bad review of his pun.

In 1887 he had already had heart trouble, as well as a bout with cholera. He attended a fancy dress ball wearing a nationalist costume — a red shirt and high boots — and joined in the dancing with vigour and high spirits. At midnight, he fell back, and died within a few seconds of heart failure.

Do listen to the lovely recording of the first movement of his string quartet No. 2, played by the quartet of the La Scala orchestra. It's been filmed very well, with (gratifyingly to me as a string player) care in the editing to ensure that cutaways to the musician's hands and arms match what is actually being played. Once you watch this all kinds of related links come up with other groups performing movements from same piece; all disappointingly bad, unfortunately. But for some good fun, check out the Polovetsian Dances in the excerpt of the 1969 movie Prince Igor on YouTube... Listen for, and enjoy, the tune used for "Stranger in Paradise".

Sources: Wikipedia, Biography of classical composer Alexander Borodin

February 26, 2008

February 26 | Bill Hicks

December 16, 1961 - February 26, 1994: Age 32

“Today a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves. Here’s Tom with the weather.”

Bill Hicks had the same problem that all open-hearted geniuses have had throughout history: his natural compassion and love for humankind clashed with his towering rage at the cruelty and foolishness of the species. Thus in his early career, although he was immediately recognized as brilliant, he sometimes lost it and went way over the line. The line being, in some cases, his physical safety: During the 80s when he performed in a drunken rage, a couple of military veterans beat him up after the show, breaking one of his legs and cracking a rib.

By the 1990s he had stopped drinking and drugs, and found enough equilibrium to deliver his best stuff without getting in the way of the material. In 1993, while touring in Australia, he experienced pains in his side. In June he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and started chemo while still on tour. He only told his family and close friends, and continued to work.

In October he made what would have been his last TV appearance, a guest spot on the Letterman Show. Although his material had been approved by the network twice, censors pulled his routine in its entirety at the last minute: Hicks was incensed. In his routine he had made a pro-life joke; one of the sponsors was a pro-life lobby organization.

His last performance was in January 1994. He spent time with his parents, playing them the music he loved and showing them documentaries about his interests. He called friends to say goodbye and re-read J.R.R. Tolkein’s Fellowship Of The Rings. He stopped speaking on February 14. His parents were with him when he died on February 26.

First of all, I did not know Bill Hicks before researching his death. He was AWESOME. Do follow these YouTube links if you aren't already familiar with him. The first link is to Part 1 of a roughly 1/2 hour video of one of his shows, for my money it gives the best overview. Just follow the links to Parts 2 and 3 as they come up. However if you don't have time, this link will take you to a 5-minute mashup of one of his greatest routines. This same routine appears at the end of the longer video; it also appears (or rather is heard) in the movie Zeitgeist.

Sources: Wikipedia, Bill Hicks Official Site

February 25, 2008

February 25 | Tennessee Williams

March 26, 1911 - February 25, 1983: Age 71

Thomas Lanier Williams, known as "Tennessee", was one of the greatest American playwrights of the 20th century. He won the Pulitzer Prize twice, once for Streetcar Named Desire and once for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Williams used eyedrops, and had a habit of putting the bottle cap in his mouth and then leaning back to put the drops in his eye. One day in 1983, while staying at the Hotel Elysee in New York, the cap dropped into his throat. He choked on it, and died.

Source: Wikipedia

February 24, 2008

February 24 | Catherine Noe

December 3, 1964 - February 24, 1966: Age 1

Catherine Ellen Noe died suddenly and unexpectedly at a little over one year. The death certificate gave the cause as SIDS, sudden infant death syndrome. This is not uncommon, sadly; about 1 in 2,000 babies born in the US die like this. What was uncommon is that Catherine had 9 brothers and sisters, 7 of whom died of SIDS, one who was stillborn, and one who died in the hospital. Of all 10 children, Catherine lived the longest.

Marie Noe and her husband were the most famous bereaved parents in the country during the 1960s. Between 1949 and 1968, they had ten children, all of whom died within a year. There was speculation about a "death gene", some kind of inherited disorder to account for the streak. "We just weren't meant to have children" and "The Lord needed angels" was Marie Noe's verdict.

In the late 1990s a journalist became interested in the case and interviewed the Noes. When he was through he was pretty sure something was wrong, and handed over his findings to the authorities. The autopsy reports of the babies were examined and concluded that it was likely the babies were smothered. When questioned by the police, Marie Noe (by that time she was 70) confessed to killing four of them. She couldn't remember how the other four suspicious deaths had occurred.

In the end, she pleaded guilty for all eight murders. Perhaps there would have been more, but she had a hysterectomy for medical reasons in 1968.

Sources: findagrave.com, Women Who Kill

February 23, 2008

February 23 | Carlos Hathcock

May 20, 1942 – February 23, 1999: Age 56

"Certainly there is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and like it, never really care for anything else thereafter." — Ernest Hemingway

Carlos Hathcock's comment on Hemingway's words were, "He got that right." By the time he was 27, it is estimated that Hathcock had killed nearly 400 people, all during the years 1966-69. His first was a man laying landmines, whom he spotted while on patrol about 400 yards away.

Fourteen kills later he was assigned to the Marine sniper corps, and began a career that would see the North Vietnamese bounty on his head go from the standard 8 dollars for an ordinary US sniper to $30,000. He was legendary on both sides, known to the Vietnamese as Long Tra'ng du'Kich, or the "White Feather Sniper" (because of the white feather he wore in his hat, see above).

One day he was hunting a man who had already killed several Marines, and had probably been sent specifically to kill him. When Hathcock saw the flash of light reflecting off the man's scope, he fired at it. The bullet went through the man's scope and entered his head through the eye, killing him. This incident spawned many literary and film imitations, as well as two episodes of Mythbusters.

During one mission, he was "inserted" into enemy territory in order to shoot a North Vietnamese general. He had to crawl over a thousand meters of field, and it took four days and three nights, without sleep, of constant inch-by-inch crawling. At one point one soldier nearly stepped on him as he lay camouflaged with vegetation in a meadow. He was also approached by a bamboo viper, who fortunately did not choose to bite him. Unfortunately for the general who, when he came into the field to stretch his legs, was hit in the head by a single shot. Hathcock then had to slowly crawl back instead of running, while the camp was in an uproar and soldiers were searching for him.

Hathcock said that he survived in his work because he could "get in the bubble" — that is, move into a state of "utter, complete, absolute concentration," first with his equipment, then his environment, in which every breeze and every leaf meant something, and finally on his quarry.

In 1969 he was badly burned when the vehicle he was riding on hit an anti-tank mine. He pulled seven other men out of the flaming wreck before being evacuated to hospital with burns over 90 per cent of his body. The injuries were such that he could not resume active duty, so he turned to training, first fellow soldiers, then later on police counter-snipers. He loved teaching as much as he loved shooting.

In the 1970s he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and had to retire just 55 days short of his full 20 years in the service. He died of complications from the disease in 1999.

"I like shooting, and I love hunting. But I never did enjoy killing anybody. It's my job. If I don't get those bastards, then they're gonna kill a lot of these kids we got dressed up like Marines. That's just the way I see it."

And hooray! there is an extended interview with him viewable on YouTube. Hathcock appears after the first minute. When he uses the word "hamburger" he is referring to the enemy soldiers. The camera stays very steady on his face, I find it fascinating to watch it while he talks about his art. You will also learn a lot about sniping.

Sources: Wikipedia, Tribute to Gunny Hathcock

February 22, 2008

February 22 | Andy Warhol

August 6, 1928 - February 22, 1987: Age 58

"What's great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coca Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca Cola, and just think, you can drink Coca Cola, too. A coke is a coke and no amount of money can get you a better coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the cokes are the same and all the cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it."

Andy Warhol was a groundbreaking American artist, philosopher, photographer, filmmaker, and celebrity from the 1960s until his death. He had a gift for attracting interesting people and putting them in the spotlight; also for making anyone who wandered into the glare near him interesting. He was famous, for example, for his difficult interviews. His monosyllabic responses had the effect of putting the interviewer (and all the assumptions behind his or her questions) into the spotlight, making the interview much more interesting in a way than a convenional interview would be. Check out this interview to see what I mean.

Warhol was fascinated by the cultural impact of technology and mass production. He experimented with this fascination through his iconic pop art images, including painstaking reproductions of mass-market products, his insistence on mass producing his own work, and his intriguing manipulation of the growing culture of celebrity. He was vividly aware of the shallowness of celebrity, yet did not hesitate to show and act out his own fascination with meeting and being associated with famous people. His quirky blend of irony, honesty, and canny manipulation attracted, on the whole, two types of people: other brilliant people, and crazies.

The first time Andy Warhol died was on June 3, 1968, when a writer came to his studio, waited for him, and shot him when he arrived there. She also shot one of the people he was with. Warhol's injuries were profound, and doctors had to cut his chest open and massage his heart to restart it. This experience changed him. Whereas before his studio had been a 24/7 open house, it became much more exclusive. His friends felt he closed himself off more, and the delicate balance between the warts-and-all clarity of vision and his naturally open and curious mind began to tilt further toward cynicism and depression.

I was surprised to learn that he was very religious. He kept this side of his life private. He was a practicing Byzantine Rite Catholic, attended church almost daily, and volunteered regularly at homeless shelters.

His final death came in 1987. While recovering from minor gall bladder surgery he died in his sleep from a sudden heart attack. Staff had overloaded him with fluids, causing him to develop water intoxication, in which the body's sodium and magnesium levels drop. This creates a number of risks, including the risk of heart attack.

Two years after his death friends Lou Reed and John Cale developed a body of songs called Songs for Drella. "Drella" was a name for Andy coined by another friend, a combination of Dracula and Cinderella. The songs drew from Warhol's own point of view, using his diaries, as well as from that of others. The whole album is worth listening to closely, but there are at least three unmissable songs on it. The first, Nobody But You (very strange French translation on this clip), was also released as a single. The second, A Dream, uses excerpts from Warhol's diary. If you have time for only one, let it be this one. Really listen to the lyrics, you can follow them here. Finally, Hello It's Me is a straight-up address to Warhol himself. All worth listening to.

Sources: Wikipedia, Songs for Drella

February 21, 2008

February 21 | Tim Horton

January 12, 1930 - February 21, 1974: Age 44

Tim Horton was generally acknowledged to be one of the strongest defencemen in hockey in the 60s and 70s; some say he was the strongest. When players tried to fight him or check him, he simply hugged them. One player bit him when he did this; when asked why, he replied, "I felt one rib go, and I felt another rib go, so I just had — to, well, get out of there." Horton was patient and calm on the ice, keeping opposing players in check through strength and skill rather than through aggressive behaviour.

Canadian readers will recognize the name immediately from the multi-billion dollar doughnut chain "Tim Hortons". It was indeed begun by Horton in 1964 along with investor/partner Ron Joyce. Today Tim Hortons is Canada's largest food service operator, surpassing even McDonald's with nearly twice as many Canadian outlets. If you have a Canadian friend, mention "Tim Hortons" and they will be dazzled by your intimate knowledge of their country.

Back to Tim Horton, the man: in the early morning of February 21, 1974, he lost control of his car while negotiating a curve on a highway. He hit a cement culvert and flipped over; he was not wearing a seatbelt and was thrown from the car. The results were predictable: dead on arrival at hospital. Blood tests revealed a high alcohol level and the residue of painkillers, possibly for a jaw injury.

One tidbit perhaps not known even to Canadian readers: Tim Horton is a distant relative of US Presidents George Bush and George W. Bush.

Source: Wikipedia

February 20, 2008

February 20 | Zachary Breaux

June 26, 1960 - February 20, 1997: Age 36

Zachary Breaux, a New York-based jazz guitarist, was building sandcastles on a beach in Miami with his wife and daughters when he heard Eugenie Poleyeff calling for help. She had been swimming along the shore when she was suddenly caught in a riptide. A riptide or rip current is a relatively narrow "slice" of water that has a strong current away from the shore. It's nearly impossible to spot, and many swimmers are imperilled when they are caught and dragged far from shore while they exhaust themselves trying to escape. It is as though the sea inexplicably decides to snatch them away.

Breaux rushed to the woman's aid while his wife ran to find a lifeguard. He was a vigorous man and an excellent swimmer, having already saved a man from drowning in Italy ten years before, and probably confident he could help her. Both swimmers, however, were overcome by the current, and thrashed helplessly while it carried them farther from shore. A number of other men rushed to their aid, but some of them, too, to be rescued when lifeguards fetched from another beach some distance away finally arrived. Breaux and Poleyeff were given CPR on shore, but it was too late: both were dead.

Sources: Wikipedia, Reader's Digest

February 19, 2008

Humanist Martyr | Hypatia of Alexandria

?350 - 415: Age 65?

"Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fancies. To teach superstitions as truths is a most terrible thing. The child mind accepts and believes them, and only through great pain and perhaps tragedy can he be in after years relieved of them. In fact, men will fight for a superstition quite as quickly as for a living truth — often more so, since a superstition is so intangible you cannot get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable." — Hypatia of Alexandria

Hypatia was a mathematician, philosopher, and astronomer. Despite the intense misogyny of the times, she rose to prominence on the basis of her intellect and her excellent teaching, attracting students from all over the civilized world. At a time of intense religious sectarianism, she was a humanist, studying everything with equanimity, believe fervently in — and preaching — the importance of freedom of thought.

She had friends in powerful places, and this certainly protected her but also made her a target. The Christian Archbishop was a fanatic, and believed that her influence over the city's leaders was blocking the proper flourishing of Christianity. He and his supporters spread rumours about her, claiming she was involved in black magic and an instrument of the devil — all the usual things. Bishop John of Niku, writing two centuries later, claimed that "She was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through her Satanic wiles." Yup, if anyone comes at you with an astrolabe, it's a safe bet they're using their Satanic wiles.

During Lent in 415 Hypatia was in her carriage on her way home from teaching when she was waylaid by a mob of Christian zealots. They dragged her from her carriage into a local church, where they tore off her clothes and attacked her with sharp shards of pottery and shells. They literally scraped and tore her skin off, eventually pulling her apart limb from limb and then burning her body.

Nobody was ever arrested for the crime, and no charges were every laid. The Archbishop, who was widely believed to have been behind the murder, was canonized after his death by the Catholic Church. He was praised three centuries later by Bishop John of Niku for "he had destroyed the last remains of idolatry in the city."

Hypatia is the only female included in Raphael's famous painting The School of Athens.

Three more quotes by Hypatia, who really was extraordinary:

"Life is an unfoldment, and the further we travel the more truth we can comprehend. To understand the things that are at our door is the best preparation for understanding those that lie beyond."

"All formal dogmatic religions are fallacious and must never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final."

"Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all."

Sources: Skyscript, The Life and Legacy of Hypatia

February 18, 2008

February 18 | George Plantagenet

October 21, 1449 - February 18, 1478: Age 28

George Plantagenet seems to have been a rather ordinary man, with ordinary weaknesses, plunged into an extraordinary situation — that is, the dynastic mess already referred to on these pages recently with his great-great-great uncle, Richard II, and his neice, Elizabeth of York. Seems like February was a bad time to be royalty in Britain in the 15th century.

George Plantagenet, a.k.a. the Duke of Clarence, was the younger brother of Edward IV, the guy who deposed Henry VI, who was the grandson of the guy who deposed Richard II. In fact the only person who got the throne by direct inheritance during the 15th century who wasn't deposed and/or murdered was Henry V, who died of dysentery 9 years after he became king. And of the seven monarchs who ruled Britain in that century, a majority — Henry IV, Edward IV, Richard III, and Henry VII — got the throne by means other than conventional inheritance. (Given the quality of life of those who had it... why?)

Back to George. It's very simple really, he got embroiled in some kind of plot against his brother Edward. Edward had him imprisoned and condemned to death. Legend has it that he was given his choice of execution methods, and he famously chose to be drowned in a butt of malmsey, that is, a giant keg of wine. Apparently he was fond of the stuff. It sounds like urban legend, but Shakespeare knew a good story when he saw one (as do I) and wrote it into Richard III. In fact Plantagenet's body was exhumed many years later and although not even the CSI guys can prove drowning from a skeleton, it was clear he had not been beheaded, the usual method of execution for those of noble birth.

By the way, I have a little souvenir booklet purchased in Britain many years ago that shows all the lines of succession of Britain's monarchs. I have had to refer to it so frequently in this past two weeks that it now practically falls open at the page showing the line between Edward III (Richard II's grandfather) and Henry VII.

Sources: Wikipedia; Montague-Smith, Patrick, The Royal Line of Succession

February 16, 2008

February 17 | Molière

January 15, 1622 – February 17, 1673: Age 51

Born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, he took Molière as a stage name, possibly drawn from the name of a small village in southern France of the same name. He probably did so to spare his parents the shame of having an actor for a son; they were prosperous bourgeois merchants with ambitions for him that were never to be realized.

Molière was active during the time of Louis XIV. He had all the right stuff for his genius to flower: he was a brilliantly talented actor and dramaturge, and was also a competent administrator and quite capable of moving in society circles, charming people with his wit and warmth. Like Shakespeare, he liked to write tragedy, but was often constrained to churn out comedies to please the public. He targeted the highly affected social customs of the times with deadly accuracy, but he was equally good at conveying he absurdity of universal human qualities such as greed, vanity, and hypocrisy, which is why his plays are still enjoyed today.

Molière suffered from tuberculosis. His last performance was as the lead in Le Malade Imaginaire (The Hypochondriac), where he collapsed on stage in a fit of coughing. The King, who was present, urged him to rest, but Molière insisted on completing his performance. Once he had done so, he collapsed again, coughing up blood. He died a few hours later, unshriven, as two priests refused to visit him and the third arrived too late: they disapproved of the barbs he had directed toward the Church in his lifetime. He was wearing green, which led to the tradition that green brings bad luck to actors.

The laws of the time did not allow actors to be buried on sacred ground, so he was interred in a special corner of a cemetery reserved for unbaptized infants. Although the funeral was supposed to be secret and was held at night, over 800 people showed up. Later his remains were exhumed and transferred to Le Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Source: Wikipedia

February 16 | Félix Faure

January 30, 1841 - February 16, 1899: Age 58

Félix Faure was President of the French Republic at the time of the Dreyfus affair, but is today probably best known for the manner of his death. He was receiving oral sex at the time from his lover, Mme. Marguerite Steinheil. One day Faure telephoned her to ask her to the palace at the end of the afternoon. Shortly after her arrival the servants found the president lying, unconscious, on the couch, while Marguerite was adjusting her clothing. The president died several hours later; the cause of death was stroke.

The rumour was that "his stiff hands were entangled in her hair", and the jokes started immediately: he died of "trop sacrifié à Vénus". Steinheil acquired the nickname "Pompe Funèbre", and a famous journalist quipped that "Il voulait être César, il ne fut que Pompée". The puns work in French, trust me.

Her career as a woman of the world blossomed, and she became the mistress of many famous men. In 1908 she was the subject of a mysterious scandal when her stepmother and husband were found murdered in their apartment, Steinheil herself being gagged and tied to the bed. She claimed that they had been attacked by black-robed strangers, but the police were made very suspicious by many inconsistencies in the evidence and in her story. When she attempted to frame one of her servants, she herself was arrested and had a sensational trial. Many prominent admirers spoke in her favour, including even the King of Cambodia. In the end, she was acquitted, although the judge called her stories "tissues of lies".

She remarried, moved to England, and wrote her memoirs. She died in 1954, an old lady of 85.

Source: Wikipedia (English), Wikipedia (French)

February 15, 2008

February 15 | Kevin Smith

March 16, 1963 - Feburary 15, 2002: Age 38

Kevin Smith was a New Zealand actor best known to most people for his role as Ares on Xena and Young Hercules.

On February 6, 2002 he was in China working on a martial arts fantasy called Warriors of Virtue 2. He decided to explore the Central China Television studio while waiting for a ride back to his hotel. He climbed up on a prop tower of another film set, lost his footing, and fell three stories, suffering head injuries on the way down.

He was rushed to the local hospital, then transferred to a hospital in Beijing. He lapsed into a coma and never regained consciousness. His family discontinued life support and he died on February 15.

Source: Wikipedia

February 14, 2008

February 14 | Richard II

January 6, 1367 - February 14, 1400: Age 33

Richard II was actually not a horrible king, but he lacked one essential quality: the ability to understand how to compromise among competing concentrations of power. He naively believed that absolute power should, and therefore did, lie with the King, i.e., himself. It did not. In England and in anywhere else, any leader rules by consent of multiple social and economic power bases. Piss off enough of those bases, and you're out.

In 14th century England those bases were the established nobles, many of whom he sidelined in favour of his friends. When they pushed back, he pushed harder, and the ultimate crisis came when he imprisoned and murdered the most powerful lord of the realm, the Duke of Gloucester, and exiled two more. He was childless at the time (his wife was just 13). The putative heir to the throne was a great-nephew, but the real threat was another nephew, Henry Bolingbroke, whom he also exiled.

Exiling a group of powerful nobles to a wealthy foreign country not entirely devoted to your interests is a very bad idea. Bolingbroke gathered a force, returned to England, and deposed Richard without encountering any resistance: nobody would lift a sword in favour of the King. Richard was captured and taken to London, where crowds threw garbage at him. He renounced his crown before Parliament and was imprisoned in Pontefract Castle, where he died around the second week of February, 1400, either by starvation or murder. Henry Bolingbroke became Henry IV.

In some versions of the tale, including that of Raphael Holinshed, a chronicler of the 16th century and source for Shakespeare's play, Richard II is murdered, and very dramatically at that:
"Sir Piers entered the chamber, well armed, with eight tall men likewise armed, every of them having a bill in his hand. King Richard perceiving this, put the table from him, and stepping to the foremost man, wrung the bill out of his hands, and so valiantlie defended himselfe, that he slue foure of those that thus came to assaile him. Sir Piers being half dismayed herewith, lept into the chaire where king Richard was wont to sit, while the other foure persons fought with him, and chased him about the chamber. And in conclusion, as king Richard traversed his ground, from one side of the chamber to another, and comming by the chaire, where Sir Piers stood, he was felled with a stroke of a pollar, which Sir Piers gave him upon the head, and therewith rid him out of life, the 14th of February, 1399. It is said that Sir Piers of Exton, after he had thus slain him, wept right bitterlie, as one stricken with the pricke of a giltie conscience, for murthering him whom he had so long time obeied as king."

And here is why I've included Richard II's death here: Sir Piers of Exton is my ancestor. The name "Exton" is given to many of the men in my family on my mother's side in commemoration of this.

Sources: Wikipedia; Fox, George, The History of Pontefract, in Yorkshire, 1827.

February 13, 2008

February 13 | Catherine Howard

1523? 1525? - February 13, 1542: Age between 17 and 19

Catherine Howard was another of those poor misplaced characters. Pretty, sexy, romantic, full of vitality, she might have had a happy life as a middle-class householder. She was, however, a pawn of a ruthlessly ambitious family, and made some pretty foolish choices. But then what teenager doesn't?

Her mother died when she was very young, and she was cared for by a step-grandmother, who paid little attention to her. She hung out with the other unmarried women of grandma's household, who all slept together in a kind of dormitory. It seems the sexual education available in that dorm was rich and extensive, and by the time Catherine was 12 she was enjoying the pleasures of womanhood with at least two male household employees.

If she was unlucky in losing her mother so young, her next bit of bad luck came when she attracted the attention of the King. Her family had obtained for her a position in the household of Anne of Cleves, then (briefly) Queen of England. Anne's marriage with the King was clearly not going to last, and the entire court was in the throes of the familiar game of "Who Can Get a Woman in the King's Bed Fastest?" Her family, the Howards, won.

Catherine was foolish, but the King should have known better. He was nearly 50 years old had already been married four times, and had slept with countless other women. However he was in the grip of an elaborate fantasy about his "English rose without a thorn", and despite all evidence to the contrary (including the fact that Catherine slept with him before the annulment of his marriage) he was convinced that she was a pure and chaste as she appeared. It was rumoured that she was pregnant when they married, but that proved untrue.

Once married, Catherine discovered she was unable to keep up the pretense of being attracted to her new husband. He weighed about 300 pounds and had a smelly festering sore on one of his thighs, and in fact his wily previous wife had convinced him to annul their marriage on the grounds of non-consummation (pretending of course that she was too ugly for him). With her appetite for sex, her eye began to wander, and she began an affair with one of the courtiers.

This was not as stupid as it appears. Despite many marriages and pregnancies, the King had only one living male heir; it was imperative that a "spare" be produced. The King himself had been a "spare"; it was his older brother who had been brought up to rule, but he died before their father. Tongues were already wagging about Catherine's licentious past; the cost of bribes to keep them still was escalating and the Howards were aware that their position was getting fragile. If Catherine could become pregnant and produce a son, she (and the family) would be safe from any gossip.

By 1541 she had not become pregnant, and the truth about her conduct was known to everyone in the realm except her husband. He was finally informed, delicately, that Catherine had be "precontracted" to someone else before her marriage to him; this would invalidate the marriage legally, and she could safely be removed from court with minimal loss of face all round. All she needed to do was confirm the precontract.

She was arrested in November. Upon her arrest she pulled away from her guards and rushed to the church where the King was taking Mass. She pounded on the doors and screamed his name, but was ignored, and the guards caught up to her and dragged her away.

At this point she completely lost it. She became continuously incoherent and hysterical, steadfastly denying the precontract, desperately trying to hang on to her position as Queen. Repeated gentle questioning, hints, and outright stern advice didn't move her... her family, who should have supported and helped her, completely abandoned her at this point, feigning shock and outrage at her "deception" and otherwise trying to lie low and not be noticed. (It didn't help most of them, so many of them were arrested the Tower became overcrowded.) This brought about the unpleasant necessity of proving she had committed adultery after her marriage. Her two lovers confessed under torture and were executed for treason.

She was summarily convicted of intent to commit treason (Parliament had to be hastily summoned to pass a law making this a capital offence) and sentenced to death. On the night before her execution, the poor kid spent hours practising how to lay her head up on the block with dignity. When she approached the scaffold, pale and terrified, she had to be helped up the steps. There she gave a little prepared speech about her "worthy and just punishment" and begged for mercy for her family (who hardly deserved it). Her head came off with one stroke.

And I have reached the end of this story without once mentioning the fat bastard's name.

Sources: Wikipedia, Catherine Howard

February 12, 2008

February 12 | King Adolf Frederick

May 14, 1710 - February 12, 1771: Age 60

The King (or Queen) of Sweden has never had much power. In ancient times, monarchs were elected, but their position largely ceremonial. With the advent of Christianity in the 11th century the monarch gained more power, and since the 1500s the monarchy became inherited, but King Adolf Frederick, who reigned from 1751 until his death, was still largely a figurehead. In fact he was elected from among a number of candidates, since the previous king had no direct legitimate heir.

By all accounts he was a nice man who loved family life, was kind to his servants, and made snuff boxes for a hobby. His other hoby was eating. In those days of unheated palaces people ate prodigiously, but even by the standards of the day Adolf Frederick's last meal was impressive: lobster, caviar, sauerkraut, kippers, and champagne, topped off with 14 servings of his favourite dessert: buns served in a bowl of hot milk. He died that day of digestive troubles, and he is now known to posterity as the king who ate himself to death.

He's not the only one in this blog who ate himself to death: for the other, see November 11.
Source: Wikipedia

February 11, 2008

February 11 | Elizabeth of York

February 11, 1466 - February 11, 1503

Elizabeth was at the centre of one of the stickiest dynastic tangles England ever experienced. She was one of eleven children of Edward IV of England; you'd think that having 11 children would make a throne secure in a culture of inherited kingship. But this was not so, for a number of reasons: one, Edward died when his eldest son was still just a boy. Two, Edward's own claim to the throne was not direct, but merely in preference to his mad cousin, Henry VI, whom he deposed. Three, he had a very able and powerful brother who was hungry for the kingship himself: Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who became Richard III.

The means by which Richard III came to the throne is still in dispute. Legitimate inheritance depended on disinheritance of Edward's two preteenaged sons. This could be accomplished in a number of ways: either they could be declared bastards, or they could disappear. Both occurred: Richard had Parliament pass a bill declaring his brother's second marriage to be invalid, thus turning all 11 of his children into bastards and making Richard the legitimate heir. The young princes also disappeared after a period of "protection" in the Tower of London.

All this took place when Elizabeth was a teenager. Obviously, as the eldest child of the previous King, she was a key figure in the political contests of the day, but personally seems to have been a gentle, private person who wanted no part of the struggle. She was also famous for her beauty. When Henry Tudor killed Richard during a rebellion, he secured his own somewhat tenuous claim to the throne by marrying Elizabeth.

The marriage seems to be been a success. She was 20 when they married, and the union produced seven children (or possibly eight). Henry VII was an able king who brought peace to the kingdom and time for much-needed social and economic healing after decades of civil strife. In 1501, however, the couple's eldest son and heir, Arthur, died suddenly at the age of 15. They were devastated. They had only one surviving son (a couple of others had died in infancy) and Elizabeth became pregnant again, in hopes of strengthening the succession. In early February 1503 she gave birth to a daughter, who died the same day. Elizabeth herself developed childbed fever, a postpartum infection very common in cultures where women give birth in unsanitary conditions. Nine days later, Elizabeth herself died: it was her 37th birthday.

Henry was deeply sad at her death and, despite being famous for his miserliness, gave her a splendid funeral. Elizabeth of York is the only English Queen to have been a wife, daughter, sister, niece, and mother to English kings. She's also the model for the Queen of Hearts in the traditional deck of cards.

Source: Wikipedia, Tudor History

February 10, 2008

February 10 | Alexander Pushkin

June 6, 1799 - February 10, 1837: Age 37

Pushkin published his first poem at the age of 14, and by the time he finished high school he was widely known to be among the greatest Russian literary figures. He moved in the highest and most avant-garde circles in St. Petersburg, soaking in the vibrant atmosphere of social reform and becoming a key literary radical. He annoyed the government sufficiently to be "transferred" out of the capital and into the sticks, where the bureaucrats hoped he would become obscure.

Far from sinking into obscurity, Pushkin joined a number of secret societies and wrote a couple of poems that brought him international acclaim. The government responded by exiling him still further into the sticks, this time to his mother's rural estate in northern Russia. He lobbied successfully with the Tsar himself for his release, and returned to St. Petersburg, but soon found himself under suspicion again as copies of his poems kept turning up amongst the papers of rebels and other intellectual troublemakers.

Now strictly censored, he wrote one of his greatest works, Boris Godunov, a powerful drama about the Russian ruler who took power from 1598 to 1605, but riffing dangerously on themes of corruption and regicide. It took him five years to get it published, and then only in a heavily censored form. The play was not performed in its uncensored form until 2007, 182 years after it was written.

It is interesting that this stubborn and difficult man, treated with utmost suspicion by the government, was known to the Tsar and in fact admitted to court life. Tsar Nicholas I was no intellectual and in fact one of the most reactionary rulers in Russian history. It was a strange time: Russian society was experiencing an intense flowering of artistic and intellectual creativity at the same time as the Russian government was at its most repressive.

In 1831 he married a renowned beauty from a wealthy family of manufacturers. They became regulars in court circles. The Tsar gave Pushkin the lowest court title, and Pushkin (perhaps rightly) assumed that this was so that his wife could be ogled by her many admirers at court balls. The cost of living in society was very high, and he fell into debt. Moreover, among his wife's admirers was her sister's dashing and handsome fiancé, a French nobleman named Georges d'Anthès. Rumours of a scandalous liaison enraged Pushkin, and an anonymous letter circulated in society nominating him "Deputy Grand Master and Historiograph of the Order of Cuckolds" pushed him beyond the brink. He wrote an insulting, non-anonymous letter to d'Anthès' father and, when urged to withdraw his remarks, he challenged d'Anthès to a duel.

Dueling was illegal in Russia at the time but in fact a fairly common occurrence: Pushkin had already dueled several times. One party would demand "satisfaction" from the other, then both parties would select trusted "seconds" (assistants) and a "field of honour" (a place where they could get on with it uninterrupted). Many details would have to be negotiated: time and place, the distance apart from one another, the weapons chosen, who would fire the first shot, and when the duel would be considered finished.

Pushkin and d'Anthès dueled with pistols, and d'Anthès fired first. He hit Pushkin, wounding him in the stomach. Pushkin struggled to his feet and managed to get a shot off at d'Anthès, wounding him lightly on the right arm. Two days later, Pushkin died of his wound; d'Anthès of course did not, but he was arrested briefly, then pardoned (considering the gravity of Pushkin's abuses), stripped of rank, and escorted to the border. He returned to France with his wife and embarked on a successful political career, living to a ripe old age of 83.

Sources: Wikipedia, Alesandr Pushkin

February 9, 2008

February 9 | Murad IV

June 16, 1612 - February 9, 1640: Age 27

Murad IV was the quintessential oriental despot. His father, also a Sultan, died when he was five, leaving the throne to his elder brother Osman. Six years later Murad himself ascended the throne "after the second dethronement of his insane uncle, Mad Mustafa" who had murdered and replaced his brother. It was a conspiracy led by his Greek mother that put him there, and she ruled the country from behind the throne. Fully aware of the level of intrigue and danger that existed in the women's world of the harem, she encouraged him to develop a taste for boys, but succeeded only in instilling in him a toxic combination of lust, suspicion and hatred toward women. Come to think of it, suspicion and hatred where part of his attitude toward men, too.

The political situation in the Empire was in crisis, with corruption rife, revolts breaking out all over, and the Persians invading. When he was about 20 he set about the hard work of taking control: banning coffee shops (people might talk politics in there), murdering the rest of his brothers, having 500 military officers strangled, and patrolling the streets in civilian clothing and providing on-the-spot executions for people who looking like they might be breaking the law.

Very proud of his strength, he used to wrestle two or three opponents at once, often lifting them right off the ground. He was big, but also willful and cruel. He had a courier impaled for bringing him news of his new child: the courier mistakenly said the child was a boy, when it was actually a girl. He had a musician beheaded for playing a Persian song. Once he came across a group of women singing, and ordered them all to be drowned for disturbing the peace. "Murad's cruelty became legendary and his approach created a terrified silence everywhere." Over the course of his rule it is estimated that he ordered the deaths of tens of thousands of his own subjects.

Although he banned alcohol, tobacco, and coffee, he partook liberally of all three, and eventually developed liver disease, to which he succumbed in 1640 at the age of 27. His mother had succeeded in persuading him to let one of his brothers live: Ibrahim, who was considered too crazy to be a threat. Although Murad ordered him killed as he himself lay dying, the order was not carried out, and Ibrahim succeeded him as Sultan, known to posterity as Ibrahim the Mad.

Sources: Wikipedia, Murad IV of Turkey

February 8, 2008

February 8 | Mary I of Scotland

December 8, 1542 - Februry 8, 1587: Age 44

Mary Stuart became Queen of Scotland at just six days old. Her father died of cholera, leaving no male heirs. She was just nine months old at her coronation; someone had to prop her up while the heavy crown was lowered onto a velvet circlet on her head.

She was by nature impulsive, clever, kind, friendly, and compassionate; few of these qualities would be useful to her as a monarch. In another time, or another station in life, she would probably have lived to be a great and wise old lady, benefitting countless people with her warmth and intelligence. It was not to be.

She peaked early. Sent to France at five to marry the Dauphin, she had a happy childhood, getting the best education available and being a great favourite with the French court. At 16, her father-in-law died, making her Queen of France, but only for one year: her husband died in 1560, and she returned to Scotland, where she was still Queen. As the great-granddaughter of Henry VII of England, she was also next in line to the English throne after Elizabeth I, and here lay her greatest peril: as a Catholic, she was regarded by other Catholics as someone who would return England to the True Church if Elizabeth were to die without heir. This made her an enemy of the Queen of England, whether she liked it or not.

Meanwhile the Scotland she returned to was a dangerous and complicated place. She tried to make friends with her cousin Elizabeth, but was unsuccessful. Elizabeth, the canny politician, was infuriated by her bad decisions, which included marrying twice for love, both terrible men who abused and betrayed her, as well as abdicating the throne in favour of her three-year-old son, James. A virtual prisoner in her own country, she fled to England, throwing herself on Elizabeth's mercy. Elizabeth had none to spare: her presence was an acute danger to the Queen and to the stability of the country, and an embarrassment as well. She was immediately imprisoned, and for nearly 18 years Elizabeth fretted about what to do with her.

In the end, Elizabeth's own secret service were able to entrap Mary into plotting, or at least appearing to plot, to escape and take the throne. She was tried, found guilty, and condemned to death.

She took it all with grace and calm. When she mounted the scaffold, her executioners knelt before her and asked forgiveness, to which she replied "I forgive you, for you are about to end my troubles!" They helped her remove her black outer gowns, revealing a deep red chemise underneath, a dramatic reference to the liturgical colour of martyrdom in the Catholic Church. She smiled a little and joked, "never have I had such assistants to disrobe me, and never have I put off my clothes before such a company."

She was blindfolded, knelt down, positioned her head on the block, and stretched out her arms behind her. It took two strokes of the ax to behead her; the first blow missed her neck and hit her on the back of her head, and she was heard to whisper "Sweet Jesus". The second blow severed her neck, but the executioner had to saw back and forth a bit to cut the last bit of sinew. Then, as tradition dictated, he grasped her head by her hair to hold it aloft, but he was left holding a wig while the head itself fell back down and rolled away. Mary's auburn tresses had been fake for years; her actual hair was short and gray. It is said that as her head lay on the stage after this, the lips were still moving in prayer for 15 minutes after it was severed.

At this point, to everyone's great surprise, her little dog suddenly emerged from under her skirts and circled her head, crying anxiously. Covered in blood, he refused to be parted from her, and had to be taken away forcibly by her maids.

In a very real way, Mary was a martyr, but she was killed by Catholics as well as Protestants. Although she herself probably harboured no ambitions for the English throne, her existence made her a flashpoint for Catholic fanaticism, whose interest in her guaranteed that her death become a political necessity for the English sovereign and government.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots

February 7, 2008

February 7 | Josef Mengele

March 16, 1911 - February 7, 1979: Age 67

Mengele was the notorious physician at the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. He was among the physicians who supervised the selection of prisoners arriving, deciding who would die quickly, who would be a slave, and who would be selected for human experiments. He was known as the "Angel of Death" ("Mengele" contains "Engel", the german word for "angel". He used his work at Auschwitz to continue his research on heredity, and had a special interest in twins, trying to prove that various diseases were caused by racial inferiority. Those selected for "special work detail" with Mengele were better housed and fed than the others, and temporarily safe from the gas chambers, but most of his victims died due to the experiments he performed or of later infections. According to his assistant/slave, a prisoner with a medical degree and was an experienced pathologist, Mengele simply did not consider his subjects to be fellow human beings.

At the end of the war he was captured by Americans, but gave his name as "Fritz Hollman" and worked as a farmhand. Eventually a friend helped him escape to Argentina, where he worked as a construction worker. Soon he came into contact with influential German expatriates there and began to enjoy a good life. By 1960, however, fear of capture drove him to Paraguay just a few weeks before the Israeli Mossad captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and took him to Jerusalem for trial as a war criminal. They had intended to capture Mengele as well, but he had already fled. Run by a dictator of German heritage (Alfredo Stroessner), Paraguay was safer.

He was already infected, however, with a sense of anxiety, and this anxiety haunted him for the rest of his life. He crossed into Brazil and went into hiding under an assumed name, living with a Neo-Nazi admirer there. He moved out into the country and worked as a manager of a farm. His mental state deteriorated; he became depressed, angry, and self-centred. Always fearing capture, he rejected a proposal to relocate in Bolivia in 1974 and moved instead to a bungalow in a suburb of São Paolo, where his son Rolf visited him in 1977. According to his son (who was anti-Nazi and had never known his father), Mengele was unrepentant, claiming he "had never personally harmed anyone in his whole life."

His health deteriorated, Mengele died two years later while swimming in the sea. He either drowned accidentally or as a result of a stroke. He was buried under the name "Wolfgang Gerhard", the identity he had used since 1976.

He did manage to elude his enemies, at least the external ones. In 1985 police found evidence of his hiding place and death at the house of one of his friends in Germany. His body was exhumed in 1985 and positively identified by forensic experts. Later, in 1992, a DNA test confirmed the identification beyond a doubt.

Sources: Wikipedia, Mengele: The Complete Story

February 6, 2008

The Boy King | Tutankhamun

1341 BC - 1323 BC: Age 18

Tutankhamun is the most famous pharaoh today, but this is so by virtue of his obscurity: his tomb was robbed only two or so times before being forgotten. It was buried by stone chips from subsequent tombs, either dumped there or washed there by floods, and eventually some workers built their huts over the entrance, oblivious to the riches beneath. Within two hundred years, at a time when all the tombs in the Valley of the Kings were being dismantled, his was overlooked, and possibly even his name was forgotten.

In 1922, more than 3,000 years after his death, Howard Carter discovered the tomb, setting off a mania for all things Egyptian that has continued to this day. By post-20th Dynasty standards the tomb was in fantastic shape, still full of treasure and many things in their proper place, relatively undisturbed. He was able to photograph things like a tiny wreath of olive leaves and flowers on one of the king's sarcophagi: flowers that had bloomed three millenia before. It took eight years to clean out the tomb, carefully recording every detail.

Tutankhamun was only nine when he became pharaoh. His parentage is uncertain, as it's not specified exactly in the writings ("king's son" — pretty vague) but it seems likely he was the son or grandson of Akhenaten. He was married to his half-sister or aunt, and they had two babies who died very young, probably stillborn. During his short rule, the spiritual innovations of Akhenaten were being reversed (they centred around elevating a single minor deity, Aten, to one-god status).

Well-fed teenagers don't generally just drop dead, even 3,000 years ago. His remains have been X-rayed three times since the tomb was opened: in 1968, 1978 and 2005 (when a CT scan was also performed). Notable findings included a great deal of physical information, especially from the CT scan, leading to the National Geographic-sponsored recreation of his face and head (shown above). He had a "slightly" cleft palate and an elongated head, both family traits, and he was 5 feet 11 inches tall, taller than originally supposed. Initial speculation was that he was murdered, as the first set of X-rays seemed to reveal a dense spot at the lower back of his skull, the spot that normally only gets knocked by bad guys with coshes sneaking up from behind. This theory is doubted now as the CT scan revealed no such spot.

So what killed him? The most likely theory is based on evidence of a severe fracture to his left leg. It was initially thought to have been caused either by embalmers or by Carter and his team (they had to do some pretty hairy things to peel that gold mummy-form sarcophaguss off him, including sawing the body into sections. The CT scan confirmed that the fracture happened before death, probably just a few or hours before. The consensus at the moment seems to be that he died of an infection after severely fracturing his leg, falling from a height. A likely cause would be a chariot accident. Which would mean that, like so many tragic teenagers today, Tut died in a car crash.

The new National Geographic exhibition "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" is in London now, and will be in Dallas in October.

Lots of fun extras here. Now that the tomb is open to the public, the small amounts of humidity and warmth finding their way into the tomb have been accelerating the decomposition of Tut's body. On November 4, 2007, 85 years to the day since Carter discovered the tomb, Egyptian curators lifted the linen-wrapped mummy from its sarcophagus to put it on display in a climate-controlled glass box. And YouTube has it for you to view.

The Boy King has inspired a lot of fun in recent years. When a large exhibition of his artifacts toured the world 30 years ago, it was a sensation. The brilliantly funny Steve Martin did a classic routine on it on Saturday Night Live, and you can see it...you know where.

Finally, here is Adam West as Batman, his mind destroyed by torture, forced to dance for the evil supervillain King Tut. He does the Batusi, of course. The music is fabulous, and it all ends with a classic Batman and Robin fist fight...well, have a look.

Sources: Wikipedia pages on Tutankhamun and his tomb

February 5, 2008

February 5 | Violette Szabo

June 26, 1921 - c.February 5, 1945: Age 23

Violette Szabo was an Allied secret agent in France during the Second World War. She was born in Paris, her mother being French and her father English. When she was 19, she met and married a French soldier of Hungarian descent, who was killed in battle shortly after the birth of their daughter in 1942.

She offered her services to the British Special Operations Executive, based on her fluency in French and her knowledge of the country. After extensive training she was sent into France to research munitions factories in order to establish efficient targets for Allied bombs. After one successful mission, she returned to France in June 1944, but was wounded by a German patrol. She insisted that her companions escape while she provided covering fire, which they did. Once she ran out of ammunition, she was captured.

She was tortured and interrogated but revealed nothing. She was transferred to eight different prisons during her incarceration; when she was in one lightly guarded prison her comrades organized a rescue mission but arrived just two hours after she had been sent away to Ravensbruck, a notorious concentration camp for women, where nearly 100,000 women were killed. Violette, ultimately, was among them. After enduring hard labour and malnutrition there, and later in a labour camp on the Russian front, she was returned to Ravensbruck and executed by firing squad in February 1945.

Sources: Wikipedia, findagrave.com, The Violette Szabo Museum

February 4, 2008

February 4 | Franz Reichelt

Died February 4, 1912: Age unknown

And now, from the sublime to the... well, you know.

Franz Reichelt was an Austrian tailor who designed an overcoat that would act as a parachute, floating its wearer gently to the ground. To demonstrate his invention, he planned to send it off the first deck of the Eiffel Tower, using a dummy. Having obtained the correct permissions, however, and invited the gentlemen of the press, he decided at the last minute to test it in person, himself, possibly in response to the presence of newsreel cameras.

He strapped himself in and, after modelling his invention on the ground for the cameras and assembled crowds, climbed to the the first deck. There he hesitated several moments, poised on the rail of the deck, looking down at the ground. Finally, with a little thrust forward, he launched himself. With a 60 metre drop, the results were predictable. They were also caught on film, which can be viewed on YouTube, of course.

On the film, a title in French appears: "Comme s'il eut pressenti l'horrible sort qui l'attendait, le malheureux inventeur hesita longuement avant de se lancer dans le vide." It means "As though he sensed the horrible fate that awaited him, the unfortunate inventor hesitated long before throwing himself into the void." At the end you see them take his body away, and then the police measuring the depression in the ground made by his impact.

Sources: Wikipedia, Damn Interesting

February 3, 2008

February 3 | Roger Peterson

May 24, 1937 - February 3, 1959: Age 21

Roger Peterson, all of 21 years of age, was a pilot who worked for Dwyer Flying Service in Mason City, Iowa. He had earned his commercial pilot's licence the year before, and had married his high school sweetheart in September 1958 and settled down near his place of work.

On February 2, he was approached by the manager of the local dance hall to fly someone to Fargo, North Dakota, in a 1947 single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza. It turned out to be Buddy Holly, who was sick of the tour bus and wanted to get to Fargo faster in order to do his laundry. He'd run out of clean undershirts, socks, and underwear.

Holly had good reason to be dissatisfied with the bus (laundry notwithstanding). It was a 24-city tour lasting just three weeks, and the bookings had been made in such a way that there was sometimes hundreds of miles of driving between each. Shortly into the tour the bus's heating system broke, making the bus rides a torment.

The deal was set for $36 per person, the plane holding three people in addition to the pilot. When the musicians arrived at the airport Peterson learned that the other two passengers were to be Richie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson.

How they ended up on the plane was pure chance. Holly's two bandmates, Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup, were to fly with him, but Valens had never flown on a small plane before and asked Allsup for the seat. Allsup agreed to flip a coin for his seat, and Valens won the toss. Meanwhile Richardson had developed the flu and asked Jennings for his seat, to which Jennings kindly agreed. When Holly found out Jennings had given his seat up, he joked "Well, I hope your ole bus freezes up!", to which Jennings replied, "Well, I hope your damn plane crashes!"

In fact Dion DiMucci of Dion and the Belmonts, the fourth headliner on the tour, had been approached to join the flight, but couldn't bring himself to pay $36 for it. He had heard his parents argue for years over their rent of $36, and couldn't bring himself to pay a whole month's rent for a plane ride.

At 1am February 3 the plane took off in a light snowstorm. The owner, Jerry Dwyer, said later that he could see the lights of the plane start to descend 5 minutes into the air, but thought it was an illusion caused by the curvature of the earth.

Peterson was supposed to radio in and file his flight plan from the air but never did. Dwyer tried to contact him repeatedly and unsuccessfully, and reported the plane missing at 3:30am. The next morning he took off to fly the intended rout, and quickly spotted some wreckage in a cornfield five miles away.

Investigations showed that the plane was pointing down and banked to the right when it hit the ground at about 170mph. It cartwheeled and skidded across the ground and finally piled against a fence at the edge of the property. All four were dead, Peterson inside the plane, the three passengers thrown outside. From the extent of their injuries it was obvious they had been killed instantly. The conclusions of the Civil Aeronautics Board about the crash were as follows:
At night, with an overcast sky, snow falling, no definite horizon, and a proposed flight over a sparsely settled area with an absence of ground lights, a requirement for control of the aircraft solely by reference to flight instruments can be predicated with virtual certainty...Because of fluctuation of the rate instruments caused by gusty winds [the pilot] would have been forced to concentrate and rely greatly on the attitude gyro, an instrument with which he was not completely familiar. The pitch display of this instrument is the reverse of the instrument he was accustomed to; therefore, he could have become confused and thought that he was making a climbing turn when in reality he was making a descending turn. The fact that the aircraft struck the ground in a steep turn but with the nose lowered only slightly, indicates that some control was being effected at the time. The weather briefing supplied to the pilot was seriously inadequate in that it failed to even mention adverse flying conditions which should have been highlighted.

Last year (March 2007) Richardson's son decided to exhume his father for a number of reasons. He wanted to move both his parents' bodies to another part of the cemetery. And he wanted to see his dad: he had never seen him, having been born three months after his death. This was done, there is a slide show about it here.

Here's The Big Bopper singing Chantilly Lace. He's great!

Sources: Wikipedia, findagrave.com

February 2, 2008

February 2 | Sid Vicious

May 10, 1957 - February 2, 1979: Age 21

Born John Simon Ritchie, he was one of the best known artists of the punk rock movement. He began playing music publicly in 1976 with The Flowers of Romance, along with Keith Levene (who later co-founded both The Clash and Public Image Limited). John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) of the Sex Pistols asked him to join the band in 1977.

The band brought punk into mainstream consciousness. For one thing, they were canny; Lydon and their manager, Malcolm McLaren, were both extremely sensitive to the Zeitgeist of the day and knew just what buttons to push to ensure maximum public reaction. At the time, popular music had reached an apogee of self-indulgent, commercial crappiness, young people were frustrated (as usual) by the lies being told them and wanted something truly new. Punk rock was it. It was new, it was real, raw, very creative, and it delivered a satisfyingly profound shock to the previous generation.

Six months later Ritchie met an American named Nancy Spungen, a groupie who introduced him to a heroin habit. Their relationship was passionate, violent, and not particularly healthy for either of them, and Ritchie deteriorated a lot during their 1978 tour of America. The band broke up in San Francisco, and Ritchie embarked on a solo career. He was very successful because he had an amazing attitude: he raised not giving a shit to high art. He never did learn to play the bass properly.

In October 1978 he and Spungen were staying at the Chelsea Hotel in New York (already famous for so many deaths, including Dylan Thomas). He woke up to find her dead on the bathroom floor, with a single stab wound in her abdomen. She had bled to death. He was arrested and charged with murder, although he had no memory of doing it. His mother posted bail for him and plans were in place for him to record an album to raise money for his defence.

During his time in prison he had cleared his system of drugs, but once bailed out he obtained some heroin from his mother (who was a dealer). He overdosed and, despite being revived once by his girlfriend, died at about 10am the morning of February 2, 1979. Lab tests revealed that the heroin was 80% pure, rather than the more usual 5% of the day.

According to Lydon: "Poor Sid. The only way he could live up to what he wanted everyone to believe about him was to die. That was tragic, but more for Sid than anyone else. He really bought his public image."

Here are the Sex Pistols performing Pretty Vacant on YouTube. Enjoy!

And just for fun, check out the top 100 hits of 1977 here. This is what the record companies were pushing down our throats, what was playing everywhere in cars, in malls, on the telly. It's enough to make you want to go throw up on an old lady.

Source: Wikipedia

February 1, 2008

February 1 | Fleetwood Lindley

1888? - February 1, 1963: Age 75

Fleetwood Lindley is pictured here as a 13-year-old boy, because that is when he looked upon the face of Abraham Lincoln. It was 1901 at the time.

At various times after Lincoln's death in 1865, crooks were coming up the bright idea to steal his body and hold it for ransom. By 1900, Lincoln's son Robert was fed up: he decided to build a permanent crypt for his father. Plans were to encase the coffin in several feet of concrete, surround it with a cage, and bury it beneath a rock slab. It was to this end that Lincoln's body was exhumed in order to be reburied in the new crypt.

On September 26, it was decided that the coffin should also be opened, just to be sure that the body in the box was Lincoln and that it hadn't already been stolen. Two men chiseled a piece out of the top of the coffin just over Lincoln's head and shoulders. When it was opened, the 23 witnesses present, withstanding the horrible smell, came forward and peered into the coffin. Fleetwood Lindley was one of them. He was 13 years old at the time.

All agreed that it was Lincoln, his face was instantly recognizable, with its black beard, thick hair, and the wart on his cheek. His eyebrows had disappeared. His clothing was covered with yellow mold, and the American flag that had been buried with him had rotted completely, leaving a few bits of red fabric on his chest. Said one man, "Anyone who had ever seen his pictures would have known it was him. His features had not decayed. He looked just like a statue of himself lying there."

The piece of the lid was soldered back into place, and the coffin lowered into the cage. Two tons of cement were poured over the cage and the casket. Lincoln's remains were now permanently at rest.

Fleetwood was the only child present. He himself lived to be 75 years, and enjoyed the distinction, at the end, of being the last living person to view Abraham Lincoln's face. He was interviewed about it three days before he died in 1963. Here is what he said:
“Yes, his face was chalky white. His clothes were mildewed. And I was allowed to hold one of the leather straps as we lowered the casket for the concrete to be poured. I was not scared at the time but I slept with Lincoln for the next six months.”

Below: the coffin is broken out of its pine casing, ready for opening. The coffin is at centre, the pine casing to the right.

Sources: Wikipedia, Abraham Lincoln's Assassination