January 31, 2008

January 31 | Guy Fawkes

April 13, 1570 - January 31, 1606: Age 35

Guy Fawkes was a professional soldier, forever famous for his involvement in a plot to blow up the House of Lords in London. Although it is his name that is synonymous with the events, he was not the mastermind; that was someone else. But Fawkes was the first to be discovered, and something about him caught the public imagination.

Fawkes was a Catholic at a time when England's Catholics were feverishly dreaming of a national return to the Church of Rome. It was rather unpopular to be Catholic at the time, there were a lot of rules about open practice of the Faith and a great deal of informal social prejudice. Fawkes kept quiet about his convictions and spent as much time as possible out of the country. As a professional soldier he had many opportunities to do so.

The staunchly Protestant James I (the Scottish king who had succeeded Queen Elizabeth only three years previously) was seen by Catholics as the biggest obstacle to the glorious return to true Christendom. A small group of conspirators decided that by blowing up the House of Lords, with James and his family and most of the aristocracy inside, they would initiate a general uprising across the country, supported of course by foreign troops arriving from the continent. Fawkes was put in charge of the practical details of executing the plot because of his experience as a soldier. Under his management, they rented a cellar under the House of Lords and began surreptitiously filling it with vast quantities of gunpowder and firewood.

Unfortunately for the group, some of them had consciences, or a partial consciences anyway: they were concerned about the few Catholics who would be present at the opening of Parliament. One went so far as to write an anonymous letter of warning to Lord Monteagle, who promptly took it to the authorities. At least, that was his story. Many believe today that he found out about the plot through his own Catholic connections, and concocted the "anonymous" letter himself in order to gain credit for the discovery and distance himself from the conspirators.

In the early morning of November 5 he and another Lord searched the vaults under Parliament, aided by a band of stout constables, and discovered "tall and desperate fellow" skulking around — Fawkes himself, disguised as a servant. They seized and bound him. The other conspirators quickly heard of the arrest and fled London, vainly trying to raise mobs of angry Catholic sympathisers along the way.

Meanwhile, back in London, Fawkes was being tortured for information. He was very strong, calm, and a fanatical idealist; he held out for several days (earning the respect of his torturers and even the King in the process). It was only when he learned that his co-conspirators had revealed themselves by publicly taking up arms that he began to talk, but even then gave only the names that were already known or of those already dead. By this time, it was a formality. Most of the details of the plot were known, and everyone remotely involved in it had been arrested.

Fawkes was sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered on January 31, 1606, along with three other conspirators (four others had already been executed). Visibly "weak with torture and sickness" he asked forgiveness of the King and state, but maintained his Catholic faith to the end. He was barely able to mount the ladder to the scaffold, and had to be helped up by the hangman. He was able, however, to mount high enough and then leap from the scaffold, breaking his neck and dying before being taken to the quartering table.

Under the public outrage against Fawkes, which was considerable, there was always a sneaking admiration, that has come more and more to the surface, the more time passes. To this day November 5 (the date of the discovery of the plot) is Bonfire Night, when children put together an effigy of Fawkes and then burn him. But he was also voted #30 in the BBC-sponsored list of "100 Greatest Britons" in 2002. In 2006 the film V for Vendetta, set in a future British dystopia, had the mysterious protagonist take Guy Fawkes as his historical inspiration. It includes a re-enactment of his capture and execution. Kinda fun (as these things go).

Sources: Wikipedia; Fraser, Antonia, Faith and Treason, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1996

January 30, 2008

January 30 | Baroness Mary Vetsera

March 19, 1871 - January 30, 1889: Age 17

If bad judgement were consistently fatal, we would never live beyond our teenage years. Mary Vetsera, the teenaged progeny of an elderly Baron and the daughter of a low-class Greek millionaire, made a lot of silly choices just like any other teenager, but in her case they were fatal.

Encouraged by her ambitious mother, she attracted the attention of Rudolph, the Crown Prince and heir of the Austrian Empire. Had he lived today he would have been all over the tabloid press: unable to connect with his distant, narcissictic mother (see September 10 death) and rigid, conservative father; and distant from all others due to his exalted rank, he drowned his depression and frustration in champagne, ether, opium, and sex. At 30, the physical effects were beginning to tell: he had contracted syphilis (which he had passed on to his wife and, no doubt, many others as well) and suffered blinding headaches and seizures. Married and emotionally unstable, he was not a great catch.

Mary seems to have been blinded by love and by the sheer romance of the lonely, great man, desperate for her tender rescue. Their relationship was consummated in mid-January. When he proposed a suicide pact with her, she agreed, and began composing suicide notes for various family members immediately (some were even found before the death). What she probably never knew was that she was not his first choice: Rudolph had been shopping for some time for a companion in death. Previously he had asked (many times) his friend Mitzi Kaspar, a Viennese prostitute, to join him. She, sensibly, refused and reported it to the police, who did nothing.

On the evening of January 30, 1889, Rudolph and Mary met at his hunting lodge, having agreed to spend one more night together before plunging into the afterlife together. At some point during the night Rudolph shot Mary. He then stayed in the room with the body six to eight hours before shooting himself in the head.

Because of his political position, the prime directive to all involved was instantly understood to be "cover-up". Mary's body was smuggled out of the lodge and buried secretly at a nearby monastery, her relatives warned, even threatened, to keep quiet. The first official story was that Rudolf had died of a heart attack. Too many servants, however, had seen the bodies and the notes for that to hold up, however, and the story of the suicide pact quickly became widespread. A special dispensation was obtained from the Pope to bury Rudolph in the family tomb (normally suicides cannot be buried in sacred ground).

Later various stories surfaced about conspiracies, some alleging that the couple had been killed by French spies, others that the Emperor himself had ordered the deaths. It is not known for sure how Mary died; officially she was said to have been shot, but other stories state that she was strangled. Her remains were stolen in 1992; when returned they were examined and there was no evidence of a gunshot but there was evidence of a severe beating. However it cannot be known for sure if the 100-year-old skeleton was actually hers. Some reports say that only one shot was fired, killing Rudolph; others say that six shots were fired. Because the crime scene was cleared up with only brief examination, and because the Emperor spent a fortune silencing witnesses and suppressing evidence, the truth will never be known.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Mayerling Tragedy

January 29, 2008

January 29 | Ulrike Maier

October 22, 1967 - January 29, 1994: Age 26

Ulrike Maier was a two-time Super Giant Slalom World Alpine Ski champion. She on in 1989 and in 1991. She scored five World Cup race victories in her career.

During another World Cup downhill race in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, her right ski hit a patch of soft snow. She lost her balance and flipped around, her head crashing into a timing post. Her helmet flew off, she tumbled over several times and was hit by a ski that had snapped free.

She was flown by helicopter to a hospital 15 miles east but they were unable to save her, and she was pronounced dead two and a half hours after the accident. She had planned to retire at the end of the season and marry the father of her 4-year-old daughter in the fall.

Sources: Wikipedia, The New York Times

January 28, 2008

January 28 | Christa McAuliffe

September 2, 1948 – January 28, 1986: Age 37

Krista McAuliffe was selected by NASA to be part of the 25th Space Shuttle Mission. Her job would be to teach lessons to children all over the world from space. She and her backup, Barbara Morgan, took a year's leave of absence from teaching in order to train as astronauts as well as promote the Teacher in Space Project to the public.

The launch was originally scheduled for January 22, but was delayed for a number of reasons, including bad weather predictions. Challenger would have launched on January 27 but for the final delay, this time to have then-Vice President George Bush (Sr.) stop by to watch.

January 28 was an unusually cold morning, and concerns were expressed about the effects of the cold on the rubber O-rings that sealed the rocket boosters. Those who did so were overruled, and the launch went ahead.

One minute after launch, a small plume of flame appeared on one of the boosters. Nobody noticed at the time, and 68 seconds after launch the final air-to-ground communication from Challenger was heard: "Roger, go at throttle up." At 72 seconds, one of the boosters pulled away from the shuttle, and probably caused a sudden sideways movement. The cabin recorder has the voice of Pilot Michael Smith saying "Uh oh" a half-second after this. A second later, the breakup of Challenger began. It veered from its course and was torn apart by the abnormal aerodynamic forces.

The crew cabin detached in one piece and slowly tumbled and within 10 seconds was free-falling toward the earth. The "post-breakup trajectory" was nearly three minutes, and oxygen consumption (calculated by the unused air supply) indicates that the cres were probably still alive. How long they remained conscious is not known; If the cabin lost pressure, they would have passed out in a few seconds. The cabin hit the ocean surface at 207 mph (337 kph), creating deceleration of more than 200g. If they were still alive before it hit, they were not alive after.

The report of a biomedical specialist, released in July of the same year, stated:
The findings are inconclusive. The impact of the crew compartment with the ocean surface was so violent that evidence of damage occurring in the seconds which followed the explosion was masked. Our final conclusions are:

* the cause of death of the Challenger astronauts cannot be positively determined;
* the forces to which the crew were exposed during Orbiter breakup were probably not sufficient to cause death or serious injury; and
* the crew possibly, but not certainly, lost consciousness in the seconds following Orbiter breakup due to in-flight loss of crew module pressure.

There was no possibility of crew escape; the shuttle had not been designed with that need in mind.

McAuliffe's backup, Barbara Morgan, watched as the shuttle took off, cheering and clapping for her friends. You can see a clip of this on YouTube. At about 1:40 into the clip you hear a male voice say "That's not right". Gordon reacts, her hands flying up under her chin, and in a few seconds she leaves the shot. Those few seconds tell a story in body language.

Morgan continued to work with NASA on educational projects. Twelve years later, in 1998, Morgan became a full-time professional astronaut, and flew on a space shuttle mission to the International Space Station in August 2007. One need not imagine her thoughts at that time; they are available on YouTube.

January 27, 2008

January 27 | Gus Grissom

April 3, 1926 - January 27, 1967: Age 40

Gus Grissom was one of the first humans to fly in space. Originally a military pilot who served in Korea, he was chosen as one of the seven astronauts in Project Mercury back in the early 1960s. As part of the program, he flew into space in July 1961, becoming the second American in space.

During the mutual Soviet-American hostilities known as the Cold War, the average American simply assumed that American technology was superior, and that Americans were ahead of the whole world in everything. The successful Soviet launch and orbit of the satellite Sputnik was a rude shock. The US government, then under Eisenhower, formed NASA among other things, with a view to achieving/regaining technical superiority over the Soviets, and four months after Sputnik an American satellite, Explorer, was launched.

The Soviets were again first in launching a living being into space: the little dog Laika, celebrated elsewhere in this blog. They were also first with a human space traveller: Yuri Gagarin entered orbit in April 1961. Again, the Americans were several months behind.

What they did not know, and what most Russians also did not know, was that the Russian space program was plagued by accidents and setbacks due to rushing engineering ideas into production before fully testing them, then covering up the accidents and occasional fatalities that resulted. The rapid progress that resulted pushed the Americans hard, although they cannot be said to have been guilty of taking unreasonable risks intentionally. There were fewer American accidents. Gus Grissom, however, was killed by one of them.

Apollo was the American space program that was to culminate with putting a man on the moon. Apollo 1 was designed simply to take a crew into orbit. It was much bigger and more complex than any previous design. The craft was delivered with many unresolved flaws, including the question of whether the hatch to the command module should open outward or inward, and whether it should have exploding bolts for a quick exit. Some, including the astronauts, felt that it should open outward, but others feared that might lead to an accidental opening. The issue was still unresolved on the afternoon of January 27, 1967 when Grissom and his two colleagues, Ed White and Roger Chafee, entered the module fully suited for a series of launch simulations. The afternoon was plagued with problems and delays, many due to difficulty in communications between the crew, control room, and the operations building. At 6:30pm the simulated countdown was still being held at T minus 10 minutes.

The crew were in their seats running tests when Chaffee was heard to say "Hey...". There were scuffling sounds, and then White shouted "Fire! We've got a fire in the cockpit." After 10 seconds of sounds of movement Chaffee yelled, "We have a bad fire! We're burning up!" Ed White was seen on television monitors reaching for the hatch release handle while flames were spreading in the cabin. The transmission ended a few seconds later. The cabin had ruptured due to the heat and rapidly expanding gases.

Ground crew had a hard time getting control of the fire. Toxic smoke was leaking from the module, and it took five minutes to open the hatch (no exploding bolts!). It is likely that the three astronauts died quickly. Their bodies were badly burned, and their spacesuits, made of a nylon-based material, melted.

After this, the unresolved design issues were addressed: the hatch, the material for the space suits, using pure pressurized oxygen, and in general the gradual increase of flammable materials that had crept into the design. In July 1969, a little over two years after the accident and eight years after Grissom's pioneering Mercury flight, Apollo 11 reached the moon and Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon's surface. According to NASA's head astronaut Deke Slayton, had Grissom been alive, he would very likely have taken that first step, as he was one of the original Mercury astronauts during the first orbits in the early 1960s.

In 1998 an extraordinary miniseries about the Apollo program called From the Earth to the Moon was released. You can see the segment dramatizing the actual fire in Apollo 1 here, on YouTube. I strongly recommend viewing the whole series, if you have a chance; it should be possible to rent it or you might be lucky enough to catch a re-broadcast.

Source: Wikipedia

January 26, 2008

January 26 | Chinese Gordon

January 28, 1833 - January 26, 1885: Age 51

Major General Charles "Chinese" Gordon was an extremely popular and influential figure in the British Empire. He served in the Crimea, China, South Africa, India, and the Sudan. Brave to a fault, he often rode ahead of his troops, swinging his sword and engaging the opposition in hand-to-hand combat. This made him popular, but one wonders at his judgment.

In 1884 he was sent to Sudan to evacuate occupying Egyptian troops in the face of a rising tide of angry Moslems, who did not fancy British overlordship. Instead of evacuating, Gordon fortified their position and demanded that the British government send reinforcements. "I shall hold out here as long as I can, and if I can suppress the rebellion I shall do so," he wrote. "If I cannot, I shall retire to the equator and leave you the indelible disgrace of abandoning the garrisons."

Knowing the cause to be lost, the government was reluctant to agree, but public opinion eventually forced them to send relief. It came too late. By December 1884 both of Gordon's aides had died, leaving him the last British official in Khartoum. "I think the game is up. We may expect a catastrophe." The leader of the Moslem forces sent word to him that if he surrendered, he would be spared and sent back to England. Gordon characteristically refused. On January 26 the rebels swarmed into Khartoum, and Gordon's remaining forces lasted only 30 minutes.
Gordon himself stood outside his quarters in the palace, dressed in his white uniform, with his left hand on his sheathed sword and his right hand holding a revolver. He used neither as a Moslem fighter shoved a spear through Gordon's breast. Gordon fell forward on the palace floor as other rebels jabbed their spears into his body. He was decapitated and his head delivered to the Moslem leader.*

The British reinforcements arrived two days later, on what would have been Gordon's birthday. Seeing the city in ruins, they turned back without a fight.

Back in England, the public reacted to his death with rage. No matter that the cause was hopeless, and that the whole endeavour of colonialism was becoming more and more obviously untenable. Gordon was a hero: if anything had gone wrong, it was the government's fault. By the summer, the government had fallen, and Gordon had a statue in Trafalgar Square.

*Forbes, Malcolm, They Went That-A-Way, Simon and Shuster, New York, 1988

January 25, 2008

January 25 | Marjan the Lion

1976? - January 25, 2002: Age approx. 25

Marjan was a famous lion in Kabul, Afghanistan, who lived through the Soviet invasion, numerous coups d'état, the rule of the Taliban, and the War on Terror.

In about 1978, he was given to the Kabul zoo as a gift from the Cologne Zoo. He was two at the time. Soon afterward he was joined by a lioness, Chucha. Just a year later, in 1979, the Soviet Army invaded Afghanistan: fortunately for Marjan and Chucha, Kabul was not badly damaged. However when the Soviets left, civil war broke out between rival factions. Kabul, being a major point of control, was hit hard. Gunfire and rocket fire became a routine occurence at the zoo.

But it was not until 1993 that Marjan nearly met his end: an Afghan soldier, eager to show off his valour, entered the lion cage and began to stroke Chucha. She ignored him, but Marjan mauled him to death. The man's brother came to the zoo the next day and threw a grenade into Marjan's cage. Marjan jumped on it, and was horribly wounded. After several surgeries the doctors were able to limit the damage to losing an eye, his hearing, and all his teeth. They also adapted the enclosure to help him move around, as he needed a ramp to get into his den.

His troubles were not over. When the Taliban took control of Kabul, they began to torment few surviving animals at the zoo until it was pointed out that Mohammed had loved animals and kept pets.

In 2000 Chucha died, leaving Marjan in deep grief: he did not eat for a week. With the "War on Terror", US attacks commenced in 2001: there was no money to pay the zoo staff but they continued to work, and a local butcher made sure Marjan was supplied with food.

Finally in November 2001 the plight of Marjan and the other zoo animals became known outside of Afghanistan, and donations poured in. At the time Marjan was weak and thin but, thanks to his stalwart keepers, in good health. In January, however, after a parasite treatment, he suddenly declined, and died sometime during the night of January 25, 2002. At 25, he was nearly 90 in lion years.

Sources: Wikipedia, Find-a-Grave

January 24, 2008

January 24 | Horace Wells

January 21, 1815 - January 24, 1848: Age 33

Next time you visit the dentist, spare a thought for Horace Wells, the young American dentist who had the bright idea that people should not be in pain while having their teeth fixed. Wells witnessed a demonstration of the effects of nitrous oxide, and immediately connected it with the notion of painless surgery, or at least distress-free surgery. The very next day he had himself put under and himself became the first dental patient to have a tooth removed painlessly.

At the time, other dentists were also experimenting with other kinds of anaesthesia, but Wells was determined to prove that nitrous oxide was the best. Unfortunately he staged a demonstration in front of medical students during which the gas was incorrectly administered, and the patient cried out in pain. He never lived it down.

Unfortunately he was prone to experimenting on himself in comparing the effects of various pain-killing drugs. Soon he became addicted to nitrous oxide, and on his birthday in 1848, January 21, he was arrested for causing a disturbance in a public place while high on chloroform. When he sobered up he wrote a letter confessing that he had provided sulfuric acid to a friend, who then went and throw on a local prostitute in revenge. He was so distraught that he dosed himself with chloroform, got high as a kite, and in a state of complete exhileration took the remainder of the sulfuric acid, ran out into the street, and threw it on some passing women.

"I cannot proceed," he wrote. "My hand is too unsteady and my whole frame is convulsed in agony. My brain is on fire."

He was allowed to go home for some personal items, on his promise to return to jail. An honourable man, he did just that, but the personal items he retrieved included more chloroform and a razor. In a note to his wife, he stated, "I feel that I am fast becoming a deranged man, or I would desist from this act. I can not live and keep my reason, and on this account God will forgive the deed. I can say no more."

He inhaled some chloroform to dull the pain, then cut his leg to the bone, slitting an artery. He was found dead in his cell the next morning, the empty bottle of chloroform by his side.

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

January 23, 2008

January 23 | Anna Pavlova

February 12, 1881 - January 23, 1931: Age 50

Anna Pavlova was arguably the greatest dancer of her time. "Arguably" only because she was a contemporary of Nijinsky and Duncan, both also contenders. But where Nijinsky favoured the avant-garde and Duncan invented her own unique style of dance, Pavlova stuck with the classics.

She trained in Russia under the greatest teachers of the day, and rose quickly to become a soloist in the Imperial Ballet. She went on to form her own company and tour the world, becoming indisputably the world's first ballet superstar. Her most famous role was that of the Dying Swan, choreographed to Saint-Saëns' "The Swan". Although she hated film as an art form, regarding it as toxic to all "true" art, she did allow herself to be filmed dancing this famous role, and today you can see it here, on YouTube.

While touring in the Netherlands her train had a slight accident, derailing and being delayed for 12 hours. She went outside dressed only in pyjamas and a light scarf to see what was happening. As a result of this she caught a cold, which developed into pneumonia. She died three weeks later. At the end, she asked to hold her Dying Swan costume. Her last words were, "Play that last measure very softly."

Sources: Wikipedia, New York Times

January 22, 2008

January 22 | R. Budd Dwyer

November 21, 1939 - January 22, 1987: Age 47

Budd Dwyer was the Treasurer of the State of Pennsylvania in the 1980s when a scandal emerged relating to bids for a government contract. One firm, owned by a local Pennsylvania man, used a series of personal connections and bribes in order to obtain the contract. Among the evidence found on the business owner's computer was a list of names and amounts, including the name of Budd Dwyer beside a figure of $300,000. Dwyer was convicted on the strength of this, and on testimony from the business owner and other indictees, all obtained as a result of plea bargains. Unindicted co-conspirators also testified against him, but the government refused to release their names, making it difficult for Dwyer to defend himself.

Dwyer himself was offered a plea bargain, but refused it, vehemently protesting his innocence. He was found guilty, and was facing the possibility of more than 50 years in prison and a large fine, although it is unlikely he would have received that, as his co-defendant was given just a year in prison and later returned to politics, getting elected in 1999.

Dwyer was still State Treasurer, under law, until his sentencing on January 23. The day before that he called a press conference to "provide an update on the situation". There were many cameras present, both still and television. He began by reaffirming his innocence and stating that he would not resign. He then went on to give a rather long statement, during which some of the press began to pack up and leave. He asked them to stay, and apparently skipped a number of pages, ending with the following final words:
I thank the good Lord for giving me 47 years of exciting challenges, stimulating experiences, many happy occasions, and, most of all, the finest wife and children any man could ever desire.

Now my life has changed, for no apparent reason. People who call and write are exasperated and feel helpless. They know I'm innocent and want to help. But in this nation, the world's greatest democracy, there is nothing they can do to prevent me from being punished for a crime they know I did not commit. Some who have called have said that I am a modern day Job.

Judge [Malcolm] Muir is also noted for his medieval sentences. I face a maximum sentence of 55 years in prison and a $300,000 fine for being innocent. Judge Muir has already told the press that he, quote, "felt invigorated" when we were found guilty, and that he plans to imprison me as a deterrent to other public officials. But it wouldn't be a deterrent because every public official who knows me knows that I am innocent; it wouldn't be a legitimate punishment because I've done nothing wrong. Since I'm a victim of political persecution, my prison would simply be an American gulag.

I ask those that believe in me to continue to extend friendship and prayer to my family, to work untiringly for the creation of a true justice system here in the United States, and to press on with the efforts to vindicate me, so that my family and their future families are not tainted by this injustice that has been perpetrated on me.

We were confident that right and truth would prevail, and I would be acquitted and we would devote the rest of our lives working to create a justice system here in the United States. The guilty verdict has strengthened that resolve. But as we've discussed our plans to expose the warts of our legal system, people have said: "Why bother?" "No one cares." "You'll look foolish." "60 Minutes, 20/20, the American Civil Liberties Union, Jack Anderson and others have been publicizing cases like yours for years, and it doesn't bother anyone."

At this point he stopped, and asked several staff members to approach him — his office was arranged so that there was a large table between him and the rest of the room. He gave them several envelopes, which later turned out to include organ donor information, a letter to his wife, and a letter to the State governor.

He then pulled a gun out of a manila envelope, advising the people in the room to "please leave the room if this will offend you". Then, amid cries of shock, he put the gun barrel in his mouth, pulled the trigger, and slid to the ground in a seated position against the wall, blood pouring from his nose. All this was filmed by several television cameras.

There ensued a debate among the television stations as to whether to broadcast the footage or not. In the end, many did: some simply broadcast stills from the conference but did not show his body; others ran the tape right up to just before he pulled the trigger; others froze the picture just before the shot but let the audio run. In the end, two stations showed the actual suicide.

Because Dwyer died while technically still in office, his widow was able to collect full survivor benefits, including a pension. Since the family had been financially ruined by legal bills, this was a major motivator for Dwyer. Once sentenced he would be automatically taken out of office, and his family would no longer have been entitled to the benefits. To this day, the family and others still maintain his innocence.

It is possible to view his death on the Internet. I've looked at it a few times, and decided not to offer the link here, as it is very graphic. If you're determined to watch it, however, it's not hard to find.

Sources: Wikipedia, R. Budd Dwyer Tribute Site

January 21, 2008

Fatal Insomnia | Michael Corke

1951 - 1992: Age 42

Michael Corke was a music teacher in Chicago. Shortly after he turned 40, he began to have trouble falling asleep. The insomnia grew worse and worse, until he finally could not sleep at all.

Corke had Fatal Familial Insomnia, a rare genetic disorder that doesn't emerge until the person is an adult, somewhere between the ages of 30 and 60. There is no known trigger. If one parent has the gene, each child has a 50% chance of inheriting it. The person simply becomes less and less able to go to sleep. Sufferers may survive up to three years, but they always do die. Michael Corke lasted less than one year: he died after being hospitalized and going without sleep for six months.

It is very rare: about 40 families worldwide have been identified with the gene (most of them in Italy). It was medically identified in the 1970s, but family stories of people gradually becoming totally sleepless and then dying of it go back many generations in at least one of the families studied. Research has linked the mutation to disruption of the activity of prions in the brain, linking the disease with other prion diseases like scrapie, mad cow disease, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

It is odd that I was unable to find much information about Michael Corke; there are a number of mentions of his case on the web but they are always worded similarly and never include more information that what you see above: no date of birth or death, and no pictures. There is an exhibition on right now in London at the Wellcome Collection an exhibit about sleep that includes video footage of Corke. If any of you have seen it or are willing to go see it (it ends March 2008), please bookmark this page and add a comment about it.

Sources: Wellcome Museum, Fatal Familial Insomnia, The Man Who Never Slept

January 20, 2008

January 20 | George V

June 3, 1865 - January 20, 1936: Age 70

"I pray to God my eldest son will never marry and have children, and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lillibet and the throne."

George V was the grandson of Queen Victoria and the grandfather of our current monarch (those of us who are British subjects). He ascended the throne in 1910 and ruled during the First World War, although it cannot be said that an English monarch actually "rules", given that he or she has no executive powers. Nevertheless the symbolic importance of the monarchy was, and is, critical.

Thus when the King's health suddenly deteriorated, it was a matter of international interest and importance. A heavy smoker, he suffered from chronic lung problems including emphysema and pleurisy. He took to bed with a cold on January 15, and within a few days was clearly dying. "The King's life is moving peacefully toward its close," wrote his physician, Lord Dawson of Penn, in a note to the Queen and her children on January 20.

In fact Dawson, recognizing that the King had reached an irreversible state, decided to hasten his end. In a private set of notes not published until 1986, he noted,
"At about 11pm, it was evident that the last stage might endure for many hours, unknown to the patient but little comporting with the dignity and serenity which he most richly merited and which demanded a brief final scene. I therefore decided to determine the end."

This decision was supported, he continued, by the family. (Euthanasia was and is illegal in England, but it was commonplace, although not openly discussed, in cases where the patient was beyond hope.)

The official story is that the King's last words were, "How is the Empire?" Another tale (never substantiated) is that, when the King was told he might soon be well enough to visit the seaside resort of Bognor Regis, he said, "Bugger Bognor!" In fact Dawson's notes reveal a different ending. As the nurse was giving the King a sedative that night, he mumbled, "God damn you!" He never woke up. Later, Dawson administered a lethal injection of cocaine and morphine. George V died at 11:55pm, in time for news of his death to make the morning edition of The Times.

Evidently God was listening to the King when he prayed that "nothing come between Bertie and Lillibet and the throne". The "eldest son" was of course the future Edward VIII, a handsome, popular man who flirted both with older married women and with facism. Within a year of ascending the throne, Edward VIII forced a constitutional crisis by proposing to marry an American divorcée, Wallis Simpson. When it became clear that the government would never accept the marriage, he chose to abdicate. His brother, "Bertie", became King George VI, who ruled until his death in 1952, when "Lillibet" ascended the throne as Queen Elizabeth II.

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

January 19, 2008

January 19 | Thomas Hart Benton

April 15, 1889 - January 19, 1975: Age 85

Thomas Hart Benton was supposed to be a politican, like his great-uncle, after whom he was named, and his father, Congressman Maecenas Benton. He did not turn out that way. His first job was as a cartoonist for a newspaper in Joplin, Missouri. He began his training as a serious artist at the Art Institute of Chicago, then moved to Paris, where he studied and met some of the greatest artists of the day.

During the First World War he worked as a draftsman for the navy, and his artistic style gained a realism that it never lost. But it was anything but superficial. According to Malcolm Forbes, a governor's beautiful wife asked him to paint her. "No," he said. "Your beauty is only skin deep. You wouldn't like it if I painted you."

His work was not fashionable; it was too realistic for the critics of the day, but the public loved it: so, too, does posterity. He is recognized today as one of America's greatest artists. If you have a chance to visit any of his works, the experience of seeing them in life is vastly richer than seeing them in a book or on the web. The largest collection is at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City (Benton was from Missouri) but there are works at many of the major galleries, including the Met in New York. Look for them, and visit them if you can.

His last work, a commission for the Country Music Foundation in Nashville, was called "The Sources of Country Music". He completed it ahead of schedule: being 85, he was worried he might die before finishing it. After dinner on January 19, 1975 he told his wife that he was going to go in and sign it. She found him collapsed on the floor of the studio, dead of a heart attack, paintbrush in hand. The work was unsigned.



Sources: Wikipedia; Forbes, Malcolm, They Went That-A-Way, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1988.

January 18, 2008

January 18 | Bruce Chatwin

May 13, 1940 - January 18, 1989: Age 48

Bruce Chatwin wrote the best first paragraph in the history of essay writing. It goes like this:
"The Emperor Wu-ti (145-87 BC) was the most spectacular horse-rustler in history. He craved the possession of a few mares and stallions which belonged to an obscure ruler at the end of the known world, and in getting them he nearly engineered the collapse of China."

When I first encountered this paragraph, I was awestruck by its raw power to fill me with an intense desire to know more about a man, a place and time in which, 5 minutes before, I had no interest whatsoever. I also wanted to hear more from Bruce Chatwin. He had that effect on people.

(That first paragraph is from an essay in a book called What Am I Doing Here?, a collection of essays about Chatwin's travels. I wholeheartedly recommend it, and indeed any of his books, to you.)

Chatwin started out working as a porter in the art department at Sotheby's in London in 1958. He developed very sharp eye for visual detail in general, and fine art in particular; a sensitivity that greatly enhances his writing. His eyes, however, began to fail in the mid-1960s, and a doctor recommended a rest, suggesting that travel might be a good distraction. The subsequent trip to Africa changed Chatwin's life.

From 1966, when he resigned from Sotheby's, to his death in 1989, Chatwin travelled the world, supporting himself by writing about his experiences. He had a talent for finding and connecting with interesting people, both famous and obscure, and conveying his passionate interest in their worlds through his essays.

In the late 1980s he contracted AIDS. At the time the disease was "the gay plague", and public knowledge of it would have quickly ruined him, so he pretended that his symptoms were the result of fungal infections, or the effect of the bite of a Chinese bat. The very odd thing is, he seemed to actually believe the lie. Even in his final months, he would say things like, "I don't understand why I'm not getting better." The word "AIDS" was never mentioned in his household or among his friends. His symptoms included periods of mania during which he toured the auction houses of London, making extravagant purchases which his wife then quietly returned.

When his condition became worse, they moved to the south of France, where they spent his final months living in the house of a friend. At the very end, his denial, combined with the intolerance and ignorance in France at the time, greatly added to his suffering, as it was difficult to get medical care and although Chatwin was bisexual he refused to draw on the resources of the gay community, who knew a lot about caring for AIDS patients.

He was afraid of dying, but in his lucid moments was aware that it was at hand. He lost consciousness for the last time on January 15, reduced to a skeleton, unable to speak clearly because of the fungus in his mouth, in great pain. When his nails started turning blue, his wife and friends took him to hospital in Nice, where he was kept alive a few more days by machines. On January 18, his wife ordered that he be taken off life support. He died a few hours later.

Sources: Wikipedia; Shakespeare, Nicholas, Bruce Chatwin, The Harvill Press, London, 1999.

January 17, 2008

January 17 | Robert Eads

December 18, 1945 - January 17, 1999: Age 53

Robert Allen Eads was a female-to-male transsexual. Born "Barbara", he really gave being female a go, even getting married twice and bearing three children. After the birth of his third child he divorced his husband and began to live as a lesbian, but at the time always felt that he was a heterosexual man, rather than a gay woman.

In the late 1980s he began to make the transition from female to male with testosterone therapy and a double mastectomy. Because he was already approaching menopause, he was advised not to have an operation to remove his reproductive organs. That is unfortunate, given the cause of his death.

In 1996 he began to experience abdominal pain and vaginal bleeding, which was diagnosed as ovarian cancer. It had metastasized but he was unable to find a doctor willing to treat him: being in rural Georgia, they were afraid that taking Eads on would harm their practice. The cancer went unchecked until 1997. After more than a year of painful and aggressive treatment, Robert died in the arms of his partner, a male-to-female transgender woman.

During that last year, he agreed to appear in Southern Comfort, a documentary film about transgender individuals. You can hear some of his words from the film (but no footage) here, on YouTube.

Sources: Wikipedia, Gender Public Advocacy Coalition, Transgender Tapestry

January 16, 2008

January 16 | Hatshepsut

c. 1508 BCE — January 16, 1458 BCE: Age 50 (approx.)

Hatshepsut was unusual: she was a woman, but ruled as a man: she was pharaoh in ancient Egypt. She was a successful ruler, too, remaining in power nearly 22 years until her death, longer than any other female ruler (there were only a handful in several thousand years) until Cleopatra. Although her reign was the beginning of a long, peaceful period in Egypt, she was successful in warfare when necessary. Her most important accomplishment was to re-establish the trade routes disrupted by previous conflicts, creating an ongoing source of wealth for Egypt.

She had one sister and a couple of younger half-brothers, but according to the official records of her reign her father, Thutmose I, named her as his direct heir. She married her half-brother, Thutmose II, and they ruled together until he died a few years after his father. He in turn left one son (Thutmose III) by a lesser wife, but because the boy was still too young Hatshepsut simply assumed the male ruling role and their daughter, Neferure, assumed the role of queen. During this time Thutmose III gradually grew into the role of pharaoh, and assumed the role of absolute monarch when Hatshepsut died.

Hatshepsut's mummy was believed lost until recently. A molar engraved with her name had been found in a cache of royal mummies in the late 1800s, and in June 2007 was found to fit perfectly into the socket of an unidentified female mummy on the third floor of the Cairo museum. CAT scans of the mummy revealed that she died of a blood infection while she was in her 50s, and that she had arthritis, bad teeth, and probably diabetes as well.

Toward the end of her nephew's reign, attempts were made to remove her from certain historical records, leaving Hatshepsut-shaped blanks on public walls. Nobody knows why. For a long time it was assumed that Thutmose III resented his aunt, but the truth is probably more complex than that, as many of her images on private walls (e.g., inside his own tomb) are left intact. The most common assumption today is that it enhanced his own reputation to be able to claim royal succession directly from his father; conversely, that the unconventional presence of a female king in the public records was a dangerous and inconvenient precedent. It is unlikely we will ever know for sure.

Sources: Wikipedia

January 15, 2008

January 15 | Galba

December 24, 3 BC – January 15, 69: age 70

Nobody liked Galba. He succeeded Nero as Emperor of Rome, primarily by dint of showing up in Rome with an army shortly after Nero's death. There was a considerable anti-Nero faction that called for Galba to become emperor, and forced Nero to commit suicide, but it was Galba's arrival at the crucial time that made all the difference.

Unfortunately for Galba, he inherited a huge mess, and politicians who inherit messes are almost always unpopular, regardless of how relieved people are to get rid of the incumbent (US presidential candidates take note). Galba's first priority was to try to restore order to the imperial finances, and he managed to make himself extremely unpopular in the process. It didn't help that he was old, either. Within a couple of months legions began to refuse to swear allegiance to him. When he went out to punish the rebels (in a litter, he was so weak) he was killed. In his final moment he offered his neck, saying, "Strike, if it be for the good of the Romans!"

About 120 different people claimed credit for killing Galba, hoping to capitalize on his unpopularity. It backfired though; when the next emperor (Otho) was replaced by Vitellus, the 120-name list fell into his hands and he had every one of them executed.

Source: Wikipedia

January 14, 2008

January 14 | Terje Bakken

September 3, 1978 - January 14, 2004: Age 25

Terje Bakken was Valfar, lead singer and founder of the Norwegian Black Metal band Windir (which means "warrior"). An accordion player as a youngster, he turned to Black Metal in his teens, and began incorporating the folk hymns and tunes he knew into the music he was making. He found folk tales a rich source of lyrics, as the stories are often filled with war, love, death, violence, etc.

On January 14, 2004 he started to walk to his family's cabin in Norway. The weather turned ugly and, when he didn't arrive, the community organized a search. He was found on January 17, frozen to death. Surprised by the bad weather and deep snow, he had started back toward home but never made it.

I have had a couple of occasions to look at the Norwegian Metal scene, and it's a lot like the age group and gender it attracts: perplexing, violent, creative, frustrating, at times surprisingly tenderhearted. I encourage you to check out their music here — this is Bakken's band, Windir, who disbanded a few months after he died. If you're not used to this kind of music, you may be shocked (I was!) but keep an open mind. Lots of people love it — take some time to wonder why. Then check out this interview with Bakken, sans makeup, on YouTube. He was 21 at the time of the interview and he seems like a shy, intelligent, polite young man.

Sources: Wikipedia, Windir homepage

January 13, 2008

January 13 | Harold Shipman

January 14, 1946 - January 13, 2004: Age 57

Dr. Harold Shipman was one of the most successful serial killers in history. He was an English doctor who dispatched an estimated 250 of his patients by giving them overdoses of heroin, and then forging medical records to make it seem they were already in poor health.

In 1998, a colleague became uneasy at the number of cremation forms he was asking her to countersign. She felt sure that he was somehow killing his patients, but she didn't know how, so she approached the district coroner with her suspicions. An initial police enquiry did not produce enough evidence for charges. A few months later he killed a woman for whom, bizarrely, he produced a will cutting out her own children and leaving a tidy sum to him. Her daughter went to the police, who had the dead woman's body exhumed: it showed traces of heroin. When Shipman was arrested it emerged that his own personal typewriter was used to make the fake will.

In January 2000 he was convicted of killing 15 of his patients; a further inquiry after he was sentenced to prison for life concluded that he was probably responsible for about 250 deaths, including that of a four-year-old girl. Because he was usually the only doctor to sign the death certificates, and because many of the patients were cremated, it would be difficult to know for certain. He never spoke about his actions and although in one case there was a will, in most of the other cases there was no clear motive. He did steal jewelry from some of his victims, but not systematically.

On January 13, 2004, Harold Shipman was found dead in his cell, hanged using bed sheets tied to the window bars of his cell. He had told his probation officer that he was considering suicide so that his wife could receive a pension; she would not have been entitled to one if he had died after the age of 60. January 14, 2004 would have been his 58th birthday.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Sun

January 12, 2008

January 12 | Ramón Sampedro

January 5, 1943 – January 12, 1998: Age 55

"Living is a right, not an obligation."

Ramón Sampedro was the man portrayed in The Sea Inside: a living head on a dead body, or at least that is how he saw himself. As a young man he dove into the sea, misjudging the depth, and struck his head on the bottom. From that day until he died 29 years later he lived in a high bed, depending on others for eating, sleeping, washing — everything.

He read voraciously, invented little devices to make things easier on those caring for him (for example a device to answer the phone), had a rich personal and social life. However some years ago he decided that he wanted to stop. Unable to do it himself, and wanting to protect others from the legal consequences of assisting him, he applied to the Spanish courts the right to a voluntary death.

He never got it. Frustrated by five years of legal procrastination, he devised a way to do it while minimizing the legal risk to those involved: 11 people each performed a single, legally meaningless task in a chain of actions that made it possible for him to drink cyanide. None of the individuals were told what any of the other actions were (although the significance cannot have escaped them). The only person who witnessed the whole thing was the one who videotaped it. He made a statement on the tape, directed to "Your Honors, Political and Religious Authorities", which was sent to a Spanish TV station and broadcast at least in part.

From his statement:
As you can see, beside me, I have a glass of water containing a dose of potassium cyanide. When I drink it, I will be renouncing — voluntarily — the most legitimate and private possession I own — that is to say, my body. I will also have freed myself from a humiliating slavery — being a quadriplegic.

Click here to see Sampedro himself. This item from Spanish TV give a sense of the man, and you do see a tiny clip of him drinking from a small cup at the end. I believe is from his actual final tape, based on what he was wearing and the setup. Then click here to watch the reenactment, with Javier Bardem as Sampedro, of the complete suicide. It is very beautiful. Alas, it's in Spanish with Italian subtitles, but you can read a more complete text of his testament translated into English here.

The friend who videotaped it, Ramona Maneiro, was charged a few days after his death, but released due to lack of evidence. Seven years later, once the statute of limitations had expired, she admitted on a Spanish talk show that she had provided the actual poisoned drink to him and done the videotaping.

Sources: Wikipedia, TIME

January 11, 2008

Attila the Hun

406 - 453: Age 47

Attila was the Khan of the Huns, who conquered most of Asia and much of Europe during the 5th century. He very nearly destroyed the Roman Empire, but died before doing too much damage. The empire, divided among his three sons, fell apart by 469, just 16 years after his death.

The traditional story is that Attila died of a nosebleed at a feast celebrating his latest marriage. He is said to have choked to death on his blood due to intoxication. An alternative theory is that he succumbed to internal bleeding after heavy drinking. Some believe he was assassinated, either by his new wife or someone else, and it was hushed up with the nosebleed-drinking story.

His men galloped on horseback in circles around the tent where he lay in state, then had a huge wake with feasting and singing. He was buried in a triple coffin of gold, silver, and iron, along with some of the spoils of his conquests. His men diverted a section of a river, buried him under the riverbed, and then the diggers were killed to keep it safe from tomb robbers. (Even the funeral business was dangerous in those days.) Not surprisingly, his sons and successors fought among themselves and the empire broke up within a year.

How can we end without Monty Python's Attila the Hun Show?

Source: Wikipedia

January 10, 2008

January 10 | Spalding Gray

June 5, 1941 - ca. January 10, 2004: Age 62

Spalding Gray was an actor, screenwriter, and playwright who is best known for his film Swimming to Cambodia, a film version of a monologue he wrote based on his experiences as an actor in the film Killing Fields.

The interesting thing about Gray was that he was an actor, and then he wrote a monologue about being an actor playing a real person, and then he made a film about him presenting a monologue about being an actor playing a real person. Later he wrote a novel that was based on his real life experiences growing up, and then wrote and performed a monologue about his experiences writing the novel based on his experiences growing up.

Check out a clip from Swimming to Cambodia here.

In June 2001 he was in a car crash while on holiday in Ireland. His injuries were severe, and he began to from depression. In January 2004 he went missing. Because of his state of mind, and a previous suicide attempt in 2002, the presumption was that he was dead. In March, the body showed up in the East River. He had apparently jumped off the side of the Staten Island Ferry.

Find out what it feels like to find Spalding Gray's body by reading this brief article in Esquire magazine, written by the young man who found him. I particularly like the last paragraph, which I will quote here:
I got in touch with his wife, and I mentioned that I'd never try to exploit my discovery. She said, "No, please, do whatever you like. You don't have to be tasteful. This is Spalding Gray. All he ever talked about was his own death."

Sources: Wikipedia, Esquire

January 9, 2008

January 9 | Anne de Bretagne

January 25, 1477 – January 9, 1514: Age 36

Anne de Bretagne was the only surviving daughter of the Duke of Brittany, at that time an independent kingdom, constantly threatened by the imperialist schemes of France. Although the legality of a woman inheriting the title was murky at best, her father recognized her as the official heir when she was nine. And not a moment too soon: he died two years later after a fall from his horse. In late 1490, when she was 13, she was married by proxy to Maximilan of Hapsburg, King of the Romans. The King of France, however, didn't take kindly to the ruler of Brittany marrying an enemy of France, and forced the Pope to annul the marriage so that he could marry Anne himself.

The marriage began badly, with Anne pointedly arriving at her new home with two beds. She was just turning 15. She became pregnant seven times by the King, but only four of the babies were born alive, and three of them died in infancy. Their son, Charles, survived longer than the others; but he died of measles at the age of three.

The King himself died in 1498, leaving Anne a widow at 21. Although there was an agreement that, should the King die before her, she would marry his heir, said heir was already married. Anne agreed that she would marry him provided he had his current marriage annulled, and returned to Brittany to rule as Duchess. It may be that she didn't think he would do it, but he did, and once again Anne became Queen of France in early 1499. This husband, however, was much less restrictive, allowing her to continue to live in Brittany and rule as Duchess, accepting for himself the title of Duke Consort.

She ruled well until 1514. When she died that year of a kidney stone attack, she was just 36, but had been pregnant 14 times, with seven children stillborn. Of the seven who were born alive, only three survived infancy, and only two survived childhood. Her funeral lasted 40 days.

She wished her heart to be encased in a reliquary, and so it was: a beautiful gold one, which was taken to her parents' tomb and then later moved to Saint-Pierre Cathedral. In 1792, during the First French Republic, it was exhumed, emptied, and seized to be melted down. Somehow it was saved, and in 1819 was returned to Nantes. It has remained in Brittany ever since.

Anne was very probably the person who commissioned the beautiful Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries, now on display at the Cloisters Museum in New York City. You can explore them here.

Sources: Wikipedia

January 7, 2008

January 7 | Shiva the tiger

August 1981 - January 7, 2000: Age 18

Shiva the tiger was famous for one thing in his life: in January 1996 he struck a blow for zoo animals everywhere when he lashed out at two drunk men who had crossed into his zoo enclosure. According to a witness, "I was shocked to see the two young men weaving about in front of a tiger with garlands in their hands." They apparently intended to put the garlands around the tiger's neck: they were said to be devotees of the goddess Durga, and wanted to worship the animal.

When one threw the garland around Shiva's neck, the tiger attacked him. His friend kicked the tiger in the face, causing it to release the first man and attack him. "I saw it all; the tiger turned and jumped on the other young man and put its head on the man's neck, and within moments, the man was apparently dead, his head dangling."

Shiva died of old age on January 7, 2000. He was 18 years and 5 months, considered a rather long life for a tiger. He had lived at the zoo since the age of two.

I selected this story months ago: it is a sad coincidence that just this Christmas a similar incident happened, although it is not clear yet whether or not alcohol or bad behaviour on the part of the humans was involved.

January 6, 2008

Daisy and Violet Hilton

February 5, 1908 - January 4(?), 1969: Age 60

The Hilton sisters were conjoined twins: technically what that means is that they were identical twins whose bodies were joined in utero. Daisy and Violet were fused at the pelvis and lower spine and share blood circulation, but did not share any organs.

They were born to a single barmaid named Kate Skinner. The birth must have been extremely difficult, as they were joined at the buttocks (think about it -- ouch!), and according to their biographer Kate believed their condition was God's punishment on her for adultery. She was so horrified by them that she willingly gave them to her employer, Mary Hilton, who saw commercial potential in the girls.

Their childhood was interesting, to say the least, but not pleasant. Hilton strictly controlled the girls using threats and physical abuse. There were taught to sing and dance and were on display from birth. At the age of three they began touring: first England, where they were born, and then Germany, Australia, and finally the USA. Hilton had a daughter, Edith, and acquired a husband in Australia. When she died in the 1920s she "willed" the girls to her husband and daughter.

In 1931 Daisy and Violet sued their "managers", winning only $100,000 (a fraction of what they had earned for the family) and, more important, gaining their independence. They left the sideshow world, became American citizens, and moved to vaudeville. Daisy dyed her hair blond and they began to wear different outfits. They also smoked, drank, had affairs, and starred in two Hollywood films, Freaks and Chained for Life.

When Violet became engaged, they travelled all over the US to try to find a clerk who would grant them a marriage license: they were denied on the grounds that, because Daisy was not also engaged, it would be immoral. Eventually Daisy found a husband as well and both twins married. Neither marriage lasted.

In the 1950s they opened a snack bar in Miami, but it didn't survive. They continued to make public appearances and it was during one of these in 1962 that their agent abandoned them with absolutely no money in Charlotte, North Carolina. A grocery store manager hired them to work as clerks, and they settled in to life in Charlotte very comfortably, working in the store until their death, and renting a house across from the church they attended.

In the winter of 1968 Violet caught the Hong Kong flu, a virulent strain that infected an estimated half million people that season. Just as she got better, Daisy caught it. They were off work, but their boss called every day to check on them. One day they didn't answer, and he and his wife went over to their house to check on them. Police were called to pry the door open and the twins, now 60, were found dead inside. They were lying on a heating grate on the hall floor.

You can see Violet and Daisy performing here, on YouTube.

You can see a clip from a documentary about present-day conjoined twins, Abby and Brittany Hensel, here. Abby and Brittany are 16, and dicephalic, meaning they have two heads, share many major organs, and each have one leg and one arm. The girls are quite sweet and the life they lead, thanks to a sensible and supportive family and community, quite normal.

Sources: Wikipedia, Sideshow World, Daisy and Violet Hilton

January 5, 2008

January 5 | Alessandro de' Medici

July 22, 1510 - January 6, 1537: Age 26

Alessandro de' Medici was the Duke of Penne and the Duke of Florence. He ruled Florence from 1930 until his death in 1537, making him one of the most powerful men in Europe. An illegitimate son of the powerful Medici family, he was one of the last males of the "elder branch" of the powerful family. Acknowledged by Lorenzo II de' Medici, many scholars today believe that he was in fact the son of Giulio de' Medici, who became Pope Clement VII in 1523. His mother was an African servant named Simonetta da Collavechio.

Until recently, stories about Alessandro generally centred around his licentious lifestyle. According to Malcolm Forbes in They Went That-a-Way, he "organized sexual orgies, raided convents and invaded private homes in search of new women, and murdered those he considered to be his opponents." Today, views have shifted. Current evaluations of his career emphasize the political difficulties he was facing (a powerful republican faction opposed him in Florence) and present his sexual adventures as something not far out of the norm for his class and his times.

Why? I believe it is because he was half black. He is recognized today as the first African who held high office in Europe. It makes sense to re-evaluate his career in a way that makes him seem less...diabolical. The portrait at top is the typical portrait used to illustrate articles about him....but the image at right is being used more and more. Google his image using this link, and you'll see the range of colour tones visible in his portrait — often the same portrait is presented in darkened or lightened form.

I really don't know who to believe. Reading about Alessandro de' Medici is a bit like reading about two different people. Was his father Lorenzo, or Giulio? Was he black, or white? Was he a bastard, or does his acknowledgement make him legitimate? Was he a wicked libertine, or an energetic young man sowing his wild oats?

What I do know is that he had an interesting death. His best buddy was a poor and distant cousin named Lorenzino. Intensely jealous of his powerful cousin, Lorenzino got as close to him as possible, plotting to kill him and seize his power.

His opportunity came during the New Year's carnival in 1537. He persuaded Alessandro to come to his rooms without a bodyguard, in order to meet a certain beautiful woman. While Alessandro was waiting alone, he got rather drunk and passed out. Lorenzino returned with a paid assassin and plunged his sword into his cousin's back. Alessandro jumped up, yelling, and grabbed Lorenzino, who tried to stop his cries by pushing his fingers into his mouth. Alessandro bit his fingers to the bone. The accomplice rushed forward and tried to intervene, but accidentally wounded Lorenzino slightly instead. Then Lorenzino managed to sink a dagger deep into Alessandro's side, and the accomplice slit his throat.

While they were cleaning the blood from their hands and arms Lorenzino told the assassin who it was he had just killed. Terrified, the man ran away to confess. Lorenzino panicked and ran away too; away from Florence, all the way to France, where he lived safe from reprisal another 12 years (he was murdered in Venice in 1547 by another cousin, Cosimo).

Sources: Wikipedia; Great People of Color; Forbes, Malcolm, They Went That-a-Way, Simon & Schuster, 1988.

January 4, 2008

January 4 | Donald Campbell

March 23, 1921 – January 4, 1967: Age 45

Donald Campbell was born to speed. His father, Sir Malcolm Campbell, held 13 world speed records. Donald himself set seven water speed records and one land speed record, becoming the first person to set both water and land speed records in the same year (1964). Had he lived, he might have equaled his father's achievements in terms of numbers of records set.

In January 1967 he tried for his 8th water speed record at Coniston Water in Cumbria, England in Bluebird K7, a boat he designed himself and in which he had set four previous records. He completed a perfect run at over 300 mph, then decided to return down the lake without refuelling, and without waiting for his wake to subside. On this second run he achieved a speed of more than 320 mph, which would have been enough to set the record, but when he reached the stretch for the official measurement he met his own wake from the outbound journey. He was in touch with his team by radio, and his last words were recorded:
"Pitching a bit down here...Probably from my own wash...Straightening up now on track...Rather close to Peel Island...Tramping like mad...er... Full power...Tramping like hell here... I can't see much... and the water's very bad indeed...I can't get over the top... I'm getting a lot of bloody row in here... I can't see anything... I've got the bows up... I'm going...oh...."

His bow lost contact with the water and the boat pitched up suddenly, did a complete somersault, and broke up on hitting the water again. Campbell was killed immediately. Poignantly, his teddy bear mascot "Mr. Whoppitt" was found right away, but Campbell's body and indeed the wreck of the Bluebird were not recovered until 2001, nearly a quarter century after the accident.

Footage of his final run can be found here, on YouTube.

Source: Wikipedia, Donald Campbell CBE, BBC News

January 3, 2008

January 3 | George Woolf

May 31, 1910 - January 4, 1946: Age 35

The name may sound familiar: George Woolf was played by real-life jockey Gary Stevens in the 2003 film Seabiscuit. Woolf is the Canadian jockey who became Seabiscuit's main rider after Red Pollard, the Tobey Maguire character, was injured.

Woolf was nicknamed "The Iceman" because his nerves were so steady that he would often take a nap before a race, instead of pacing and fretting. The most famous race he won was between Seabiscuit and triple-crown champion and favourite, War Admiral, in 1938.

Dubbed the "Match of the Century", it was discussed for many months in the media before it actually took place. Woolf and Seabiscuit's trainer approached the race strategically. Head-to-head races are usually run by fast starters, and Seabiscuit was known as a "pace stalker", sticking with the pack before a late acceleration. War Admiral, a much larger and stronger horse, was known as a fast starter. The trainer, knowing this, chose to secretly condition him to run against type, instilling an automatic burst of speed at the sound of the start bell.

With Woolf riding him, Seabiscuit burst ahead and led for the first half of the race. War Admiral slowly narrowed the lead, and for a long time they were head to head, to the great excitement of the crowds. In fact, Woolf was easing up on the horse, allowing him to see his opponent. In the final stretch, he asked for more, and got it: Seabiscuit won that race by four lengths, an unimaginable lead against such a formidable rival. You can see the whole race right now, here, on YouTube.

Woolf was a diabetic, and suffered greatly from the constant rapid dieting necessary to meet the weight requirements of his profession. While in a race in 1946, he slipped from his saddle head first on the ground. The other jockeys and track stewards reported that nothing happened that would cause such a fall; it is likely it resulted from dizziness or fainting spell due to the diabetes. He was taken to hospital with a concussion and died the following day at the age of only 35.

Sources: Wikipedia, Find-a-Grave

January 2, 2008

Diagnosis of Death | Ambrose Bierce

June 24, 1842 – 1914(?): Age 71

"War is God's way of teaching Americans geography."

Ambrose Bierce was a soldier, journalist, writer, and misanthrope — the kind of misanthrope who hates humans because he loves humans, and cannot ignore our propensity to inflict cruelty on one another.

Bierce was born 10th of 13 children. His father indulged a peculiar whim of giving each of his 13 children names starting with the letter "A": Abigail, Amelia, Ann, Addison, Aurelius, Augustus, Almeda, Andrew, Albert, Ambrose, Arthur, Adelia, and Aurelia.

Bierce was a brilliant writer, with a clear and direct style. He worked as a journalist for many years, but today he is remembered most for his many short stories. He wrote in three genres, roughly: war stories, based on his (horrific) experiences in the Civil War; ghost stories; and grotesque humour. Almost all of his stories have to do with death — my kind of writer! His style was clear and very direct, but the most remarkable thing about his writing is that, underneath the cynicism (and it is very cynical) there shines, unmistakably, a deeply compassionate heart. Don't take my word for it; read him for yourself. I include links to three of his stories below. (Another writer like this is Dorothy Parker; read her work, too, if you get the chance.)

He was repelled by charm. Here is what he had to say about Oscar Wilde, who most intellectuals were crazy about: "The ineffable dunce has nothing to say... embroidering it with reasonless vulgarities of attitudes, gestures and attire. There was never an impostor so hateful... a crank so variously stupid and dull. He makes me tired." Interesting, in that Wilde was another literary figure whose cynical exterior hosted a genuinely compassionate heart. But Bierce would have none of it.

By the time Bierce was 70 he was well-known for his bitterness and his complete disgust with human nature. He traveled to Mexico, then in the middle of a revolution, and toured with the army of Pancho Villa as an observer. In one of his last letters he wrote:
"Good-bye — if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico — ah, that is euthanasia!"

It is certain he was with Villa's army in Chihuahua. His last letter, to a friend, was dated December 26, 1913. After that, he was never heard from again. Some believed he had simply shot himself. All investigations led nowhere, and to this day nobody knows what happened to him.

Three Short Stories by Bierce
War: Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, probably his most famous story.
Supernatural: A Diagnosis of Death
Grotesque Humour: My Favourite Murder

Source: Wikipedia

January 1, 2008

January 1 | Charles the Bad

October 10, 1332 - January 1, 1387: Age 54

Full disclosure: this picture is not of Charles the Bad. It is of John the Good, ordering his arrest. Really.

Charles II of Navarre earned the title Charles the Bad mainly by being an inconvenience to his father-in-law and cousin, King John II of France ("John the Good"), whose throne he felt entitled to. He also felt entitled to a lot of other things: the fiefdoms of Champagne, Brie, and Angoulême, and the Duchy of Burgundy. He pursued all these claims in the usual way: double-dealing, intrigue, war, pillage, etc. He was unable to realize any of these claims.

In 1387 he became ill and consulted doctors (often a mistake in those days). The prescription resulted in a particularly horrific death. He was to be wrapped completely in a linen cloth impregnated with brandy. The remedy was administered at night, and the attendant charged with sewing up the cloth that enclosed him...
"...having come to the neck, the fixed point where she was to finish her seam, made a knot according to custom; but as there was still remaining an end of thread, instead of cutting it as usual with scissars, she had recourse to the candle, which immediately set fire to the whole cloth. Being terrified, she ran away, and abandoned the king, who was thus burnt alive in his own palace.

Source: Wikipedia