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April 3, 1860: Pony Express debuts

Wed, 04/02/2014 - 10:00pm

On this day in 1860, the first Pony Express mail, traveling by horse and rider relay teams, simultaneously leaves St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California. Ten days later, on April 13, the westbound rider and mail packet completed the approximately 1,800-mile journey and arrived in Sacramento, beating the eastbound packet's arrival in St. Joseph by two days and setting a new standard for speedy mail delivery. Although ultimately short-lived and unprofitable, the Pony Express captivated America's imagination and helped win federal aid for a more economical overland postal system. It also contributed to the economy of the towns on its route and served the mail-service needs of the American West in the days before the telegraph or an efficient transcontinental railroad.

The Pony Express debuted at a time before radios and telephones, when California, which achieved statehood in 1850, was still largely cut off from the eastern part of the country. Letters sent from New York to the West Coast traveled by ship, which typically took at least a month, or by stagecoach on the recently established Butterfield Express overland route, which could take from three weeks to many months to arrive. Compared to the snail's pace of the existing delivery methods, the Pony Express' average delivery time of 10 days seemed like lightning speed.

The Pony Express Company, the brainchild of William H. Russell, William Bradford Waddell and Alexander Majors, owners of a freight business, was set up over 150 relay stations along a pioneer trail across the present-day states of Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California. Riders, who were paid approximately $25 per week and carried loads estimated at up to 20 pounds of mail, were changed every 75 to 100 miles, with horses switched out every 10 to 15 miles. Among the riders was the legendary frontiersman and showman William "Buffalo Bill" Cody (1846-1917), who reportedly signed on with the Pony Express at age 14. The company's riders set their fastest time with Lincoln's inaugural address, which was delivered in just less than eight days.

The initial cost of Pony Express delivery was $5 for every half-ounce of mail. The company began as a private enterprise and its owners hoped to gain a profitable delivery contract from the U.S. government, but that never happened. With the advent of the first transcontinental telegraph line in October 1861, the Pony Express ceased operations. However, the legend of the lone Pony Express rider galloping across the Old West frontier to deliver the mail lives on today.

April 2, 2005: Pope John Paul II Dies

Tue, 04/01/2014 - 10:00pm

On this day in 2005, John Paul II, history's most well-traveled pope and the first non-Italian to hold the position since the 16th century, dies at his home in the Vatican. Six days later, two million people packed Vatican City for his funeral, said to be the biggest funeral in history.

John Paul II was born Karol Jozef Wojtyla in Wadowice, Poland, 35 miles southwest of Krakow, in 1920. After high school, the future pope enrolled at Krakow's Jagiellonian University, where he studied philosophy and literature and performed in a theater group. During World War II, Nazis occupied Krakow and closed the university, forcing Wojtyla to seek work in a quarry and, later, a chemical factory. By 1941, his mother, father, and only brother had all died, leaving him the sole surviving member of his family.

Although Wojtyla had been involved in the church his whole life, it was not until 1942 that he began seminary training. When the war ended, he returned to school at Jagiellonian to study theology, becoming an ordained priest in 1946. He went on to complete two doctorates and became a professor of moral theology and social ethics. On July 4, 1958, at the age of 38, he was appointed auxiliary bishop of Krakow by Pope Pius XII. He later became the city s archbishop, where he spoke out for religious freedom while the church began the Second Vatican Council, which would revolutionize Catholicism. He was made a cardinal in 1967, taking on the challenges of living and working as a Catholic priest in communist Eastern Europe. Once asked if he feared retribution from communist leaders, he replied, "I m not afraid of them. They are afraid of me."

Wojtyla was quietly and slowly building a reputation as a powerful preacher and a man of both great intellect and charisma. Still, when Pope John Paul I died in 1978 after only a 34-day reign, few suspected Wojtyla would be chosen to replace him. But, after seven rounds of balloting, the Sacred College of Cardinals chose the 58-year-old, and he became the first-ever Slavic pope and the youngest to be chosen in 132 years.

A conservative pontiff, John Paul II s papacy was marked by his firm and unwavering opposition to communism and war, as well as abortion, contraception, capital punishment, and homosexual sex. He later came out against euthanasia, human cloning, and stem cell research. He traveled widely as pope, using the eight languages he spoke (Polish, Italian, French, German, English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin) and his well-known personal charm, to connect with the Catholic faithful, as well as many outside the fold.

On May 13, 1981, Pope John Paul II was shot in St. Peter s Square by a Turkish political extremist, Mehmet Ali Agca. After his release from the hospital, the pope famously visited his would-be assassin in prison, where he had begun serving a life sentence, and personally forgave him for his actions. The next year, another unsuccessful attempt was made on the pope s life, this time by a fanatical priest who opposed the reforms of Vatican II.

Although it was not confirmed by the Vatican until 2003, many believe Pope John Paul II began suffering from Parkinson s disease in the early 1990s. He began to develop slurred speech and had difficulty walking, though he continued to keep up a physically demanding travel schedule. In his final years, he was forced to delegate many of his official duties, but still found the strength to speak to the faithful from a window at the Vatican. In February 2005, the pope was hospitalized with complications from the flu. He died two months later.

Pope John Paul II is remembered for his successful efforts to end communism, as well as for building bridges with peoples of other faiths, and issuing the Catholic Church s first apology for its actions during World War II. He was succeeded by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI. Benedict XVI began the process to beatify John Paul II in May 2005.

April 1, 1700: April Fools tradition popularized

Mon, 03/31/2014 - 10:00pm

On this day in 1700, English pranksters begin popularizing the annual tradition of April Fools' Day by playing practical jokes on each other.

Although the day, also called All Fools' Day, has been celebrated for several centuries by different cultures, its exact origins remain a mystery. Some historians speculate that April Fools' Day dates back to 1582, when France switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, as called for by the Council of Trent in 1563. People who were slow to get the news or failed to recognize that the start of the new year had moved to January 1 and continued to celebrate it during the last week of March through April 1 became the butt of jokes and hoaxes. These included having paper fish placed on their backs and being referred to as "poisson d'avril" (April fish), said to symbolize a young, easily caught fish and a gullible person.

Historians have also linked April Fools' Day to ancient festivals such as Hilaria, which was celebrated in Rome at the end of March and involved people dressing up in disguises. There's also speculation that April Fools' Day was tied to the vernal equinox, or first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, when Mother Nature fooled people with changing, unpredictable weather.

April Fools' Day spread throughout Britain during the 18th century. In Scotland, the tradition became a two-day event, starting with "hunting the gowk," in which people were sent on phony errands (gowk is a word for cuckoo bird, a symbol for fool) and followed by Tailie Day, which involved pranks played on people's derrieres, such as pinning fake tails or "kick me" signs on them.

In modern times, people have gone to great lengths to create elaborate April Fools' Day hoaxes. Newspapers, radio and TV stations and Web sites have participated in the April 1 tradition of reporting outrageous fictional claims that have fooled their audiences. In 1957, the BBC reported that Swiss farmers were experiencing a record spaghetti crop and showed footage of people harvesting noodles from trees; numerous viewers were fooled. In 1985, Sports Illustrated tricked many of its readers when it ran a made-up article about a rookie pitcher named Sidd Finch who could throw a fastball over 168 miles per hour. In 1996, Taco Bell, the fast-food restaurant chain, duped people when it announced it had agreed to purchase Philadelphia's Liberty Bell and intended to rename it the Taco Liberty Bell. In 1998, after Burger King advertised a "Left-Handed Whopper," scores of clueless customers requested the fake sandwich.

March 31, 1889: Eiffel Tower opens

Sun, 03/30/2014 - 10:00pm

On March 31, 1889, the Eiffel Tower is dedicated in Paris in a ceremony presided over by Gustave Eiffel, the tower's designer, and attended by French Prime Minister Pierre Tirard, a handful of other dignitaries, and 200 construction workers.

In 1889, to honor of the centenary of the French Revolution, the French government planned an international exposition and announced a design competition for a monument to be built on the Champ-de-Mars in central Paris. Out of more than 100 designs submitted, the Centennial Committee chose Eiffel's plan of an open-lattice wrought-iron tower that would reach almost 1,000 feet above Paris and be the world's tallest man-made structure. Eiffel, a noted bridge builder, was a master of metal construction and designed the framework of the Statue of Liberty that had recently been erected in New York Harbor.

Eiffel's tower was greeted with skepticism from critics who argued that it would be structurally unsound, and indignation from others who thought it would be an eyesore in the heart of Paris. Unperturbed, Eiffel completed his great tower under budget in just two years. Only one worker lost his life during construction, which at the time was a remarkably low casualty number for a project of that magnitude. The light, airy structure was by all accounts a technological wonder and within a few decades came to be regarded as an architectural masterpiece.

The Eiffel Tower is 984 feet tall and consists of an iron framework supported on four masonry piers, from which rise four columns that unite to form a single vertical tower. Platforms, each with an observation deck, are at three levels. Elevators ascend the piers on a curve, and Eiffel contracted the Otis Elevator Company of the United States to design the tower's famous glass-cage elevators.

The elevators were not completed by March 31, 1889, however, so Gustave Eiffel ascended the tower's stairs with a few hardy companions and raised an enormous French tricolor on the structure's flagpole. Fireworks were then set off from the second platform. Eiffel and his party descended, and the architect addressed the guests and about 200 workers. In early May, the Paris International Exposition opened, and the tower served as the entrance gateway to the giant fair.

The Eiffel Tower remained the world's tallest man-made structure until the completion of the Chrysler Building in New York in 1930. Incredibly, the Eiffel Tower was almost demolished when the International Exposition's 20-year lease on the land expired in 1909, but its value as an antenna for radio transmission saved it. It remains largely unchanged today and is one of the world's premier tourist attractions.

March 30, 1981: President Reagan shot

Sat, 03/29/2014 - 10:00pm

On March 30, 1981, President Ronald Reagan is shot in the chest outside a Washington, D.C., hotel by a deranged drifter named John Hinckley Jr.

The president had just finished addressing a labor meeting at the Washington Hilton Hotel and was walking with his entourage to his limousine when Hinckley, standing among a group of reporters, fired six shots at the president, hitting Reagan and three of his attendants. White House Press Secretary James Brady was shot in the head and critically wounded, Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy was shot in the side, and District of Columbia policeman Thomas Delahaney was shot in the neck. After firing the shots, Hinckley was overpowered and pinned against a wall, and President Reagan, apparently unaware that he'd been shot, was shoved into his limousine by a Secret Service agent and rushed to the hospital.

The president was shot in the left lung, and the .22 caliber bullet just missed his heart. In an impressive feat for a 70-year-old man with a collapsed lung, he walked into George Washington University Hospital under his own power. As he was treated and prepared for surgery, he was in good spirits and quipped to his wife, Nancy, ''Honey, I forgot to duck,'' and to his surgeons, "Please tell me you're Republicans." Reagan's surgery lasted two hours, and he was listed in stable and good condition afterward.

The next day, the president resumed some of his executive duties and signed a piece of legislation from his hospital bed. On April 11, he returned to the White House. Reagan's popularity soared after the assassination attempt, and at the end of April he was given a hero's welcome by Congress. In August, this same Congress passed his controversial economic program, with several Democrats breaking ranks to back Reagan's plan. By this time, Reagan claimed to be fully recovered from the assassination attempt. In private, however, he would continue to feel the effects of the nearly fatal gunshot wound for years.

Of the victims of the assassination attempt, Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy and D.C. policeman Thomas Delahaney eventually recovered. James Brady, who nearly died after being shot in the eye, suffered permanent brain damage. He later became an advocate of gun control, and in 1993 Congress passed the "Brady Bill," which established a five-day waiting period and background checks for prospective gun buyers. President Bill Clinton signed the bill into law.

After being arrested on March 30, 1981, 25-year-old John Hinckley was booked on federal charges of attempting to assassinate the president. He had previously been arrested in Tennessee on weapons charges. In June 1982, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. In the trial, Hinckley's defense attorneys argued that their client was ill with narcissistic personality disorder, citing medical evidence, and had a pathological obsession with the 1976 film Taxi Driver, in which the main character attempts to assassinate a fictional senator. His lawyers claimed that Hinckley saw the movie more than a dozen times, was obsessed with the lead actress, Jodie Foster, and had attempted to reenact the events of the film in his own life. Thus the movie, not Hinckley, they argued, was the actual planning force behind the events that occurred on March 30, 1981.

The verdict of "not guilty by reason of insanity" aroused widespread public criticism, and many were shocked that a would-be presidential assassin could avoid been held accountable for his crime. However, because of his obvious threat to society, he was placed in St. Elizabeth's Hospital, a mental institution. In the late 1990s, Hinckley's attorney began arguing that his mental illness was in remission and thus had a right to return to a normal life. Beginning in August 1999, he was allowed supervised day trips off the hospital grounds and later was allowed to visit his parents once a week unsupervised. The Secret Service voluntarily monitors him during these outings. If his mental illness remains in remission, he may one day be released.

March 29, 1973: U.S. withdraws from Vietnam

Fri, 03/28/2014 - 10:00pm

Two months after the signing of the Vietnam peace agreement, the last U.S. combat troops leave South Vietnam as Hanoi frees the remaining American prisoners of war held in North Vietnam. America's direct eight-year intervention in the Vietnam War was at an end. In Saigon, some 7,000 U.S. Department of Defense civilian employees remained behind to aid South Vietnam in conducting what looked to be a fierce and ongoing war with communist North Vietnam.

In 1961, after two decades of indirect military aid, U.S. President John F. Kennedy sent the first large force of U.S. military personnel to Vietnam to bolster the ineffectual autocratic regime of South Vietnam against the communist North. Three years later, with the South Vietnamese government crumbling, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered limited bombing raids on North Vietnam, and Congress authorized the use of U.S. troops. By 1965, North Vietnamese offensives left President Johnson with two choices: escalate U.S. involvement or withdraw. Johnson ordered the former, and troop levels soon jumped to more than 300,000 as U.S. air forces commenced the largest bombing campaign in history.

During the next few years, the extended length of the war, the high number of U.S. casualties, and the exposure of U.S. involvement in war crimes, such as the massacre at My Lai, helped turn many in the United States against the Vietnam War. The communists' Tet Offensive of 1968 crushed U.S. hopes of an imminent end to the conflict and galvanized U.S. opposition to the war. In response, Johnson announced in March 1968 that he would not seek reelection, citing what he perceived to be his responsibility in creating a perilous national division over Vietnam. He also authorized the beginning of peace talks.

In the spring of 1969, as protests against the war escalated in the United States, U.S. troop strength in the war-torn country reached its peak at nearly 550,000 men. Richard Nixon, the new U.S. president, began U.S. troop withdrawal and "Vietnamization" of the war effort that year, but he intensified bombing. Large U.S. troop withdrawals continued in the early 1970s as President Nixon expanded air and ground operations into Cambodia and Laos in attempts to block enemy supply routes along Vietnam's borders. This expansion of the war, which accomplished few positive results, led to new waves of protests in the United States and elsewhere.

Finally, in January 1973, representatives of the United States, North and South Vietnam, and the Vietcong signed a peace agreement in Paris, ending the direct U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam War. Its key provisions included a cease-fire throughout Vietnam, the withdrawal of U.S. forces, the release of prisoners of war, and the reunification of North and South Vietnam through peaceful means. The South Vietnamese government was to remain in place until new elections were held, and North Vietnamese forces in the South were not to advance further nor be reinforced.

In reality, however, the agreement was little more than a face-saving gesture by the U.S. government. Even before the last American troops departed on March 29, the communists violated the cease-fire, and by early 1974 full-scale war had resumed. At the end of 1974, South Vietnamese authorities reported that 80,000 of their soldiers and civilians had been killed in fighting during the year, making it the most costly of the Vietnam War.

On April 30, 1975, the last few Americans still in South Vietnam were airlifted out of the country as Saigon fell to communist forces. North Vietnamese Colonel Bui Tin, accepting the surrender of South Vietnam later in the day, remarked, "You have nothing to fear; between Vietnamese there are no victors and no vanquished. Only the Americans have been defeated." The Vietnam War was the longest and most unpopular foreign war in U.S. history and cost 58,000 American lives. As many as two million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians were killed.

March 28, 1979: Nuclear accident at Three Mile Island

Thu, 03/27/2014 - 10:00pm

At 4 a.m. on March 28, 1979, the worst accident in the history of the U.S. nuclear power industry begins when a pressure valve in the Unit-2 reactor at Three Mile Island fails to close. Cooling water, contaminated with radiation, drained from the open valve into adjoining buildings, and the core began to dangerously overheat.

The Three Mile Island nuclear power plant was built in 1974 on a sandbar on Pennsylvania's Susquehanna River, just 10 miles downstream from the state capitol in Harrisburg. In 1978, a second state-of-the-art reactor began operating on Three Mile Island, which was lauded for generating affordable and reliable energy in a time of energy crises.

After the cooling water began to drain out of the broken pressure valve on the morning of March 28, 1979, emergency cooling pumps automatically went into operation. Left alone, these safety devices would have prevented the development of a larger crisis. However, human operators in the control room misread confusing and contradictory readings and shut off the emergency water system. The reactor was also shut down, but residual heat from the fission process was still being released. By early morning, the core had heated to over 4,000 degrees, just 1,000 degrees short of meltdown. In the meltdown scenario, the core melts, and deadly radiation drifts across the countryside, fatally sickening a potentially great number of people.

As the plant operators struggled to understand what had happened, the contaminated water was releasing radioactive gases throughout the plant. The radiation levels, though not immediately life-threatening, were dangerous, and the core cooked further as the contaminated water was contained and precautions were taken to protect the operators. Shortly after 8 a.m., word of the accident leaked to the outside world. The plant's parent company, Metropolitan Edison, downplayed the crisis and claimed that no radiation had been detected off plant grounds, but the same day inspectors detected slightly increased levels of radiation nearby as a result of the contaminated water leak. Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh considered calling an evacuation.

Finally, at about 8 p.m., plant operators realized they needed to get water moving through the core again and restarted the pumps. The temperature began to drop, and pressure in the reactor was reduced. The reactor had come within less than an hour of a complete meltdown. More than half the core was destroyed or molten, but it had not broken its protective shell, and no radiation was escaping. The crisis was apparently over.

Two days later, however, on March 30, a bubble of highly flammable hydrogen gas was discovered within the reactor building. The bubble of gas was created two days before when exposed core materials reacted with super-heated steam. On March 28, some of this gas had exploded, releasing a small amount of radiation into the atmosphere. At that time, plant operators had not registered the explosion, which sounded like a ventilation door closing. After the radiation leak was discovered on March 30, residents were advised to stay indoors. Experts were uncertain if the hydrogen bubble would create further meltdown or possibly a giant explosion, and as a precaution Governor Thornburgh advised "pregnant women and pre-school age children to leave the area within a five-mile radius of the Three Mile Island facility until further notice." This led to the panic the governor had hoped to avoid; within days, more than 100,000 people had fled surrounding towns.

On April 1, President Jimmy Carter arrived at Three Mile Island to inspect the plant. Carter, a trained nuclear engineer, had helped dismantle a damaged Canadian nuclear reactor while serving in the U.S. Navy. His visit achieved its aim of calming local residents and the nation. That afternoon, experts agreed that the hydrogen bubble was not in danger of exploding. Slowly, the hydrogen was bled from the system as the reactor cooled.

At the height of the crisis, plant workers were exposed to unhealthy levels of radiation, but no one outside Three Mile Island had their health adversely affected by the accident. Nonetheless, the incident greatly eroded the public's faith in nuclear power. The unharmed Unit-1 reactor at Three Mile Island, which was shut down during the crisis, did not resume operation until 1985. Cleanup continued on Unit-2 until 1990, but it was too damaged to be rendered usable again. In the more than two decades since the accident at Three Mile Island, not a single new nuclear power plant has been ordered in the United States.

March 27, 1998: FDA approves Viagra

Wed, 03/26/2014 - 10:00pm

On this day in 1998, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves use of the drug Viagra, an oral medication that treats impotence.

Sildenafil, the chemical name for Viagra, is an artificial compound that was originally synthesized and studied to treat hypertension (high blood pressure) and angina pectoris (a form of cardiovascular disease). Chemists at the Pfizer pharmaceutical company found, however, that while the drug had little effect on angina, it could induce penile erections, typically within 30 to 60 minutes. Seeing the economic opportunity in such a biochemical effect, Pfizer decided to market the drug for impotence. Sildenafil was patented in 1996, and a mere two years later–a stunningly short time compared to other drugs–it was approved by the FDA for use in treating "erectile dysfunction," the new clinical name for impotence. Though unconfirmed, it is believed the drug was invented by Peter Dunn and Albert Wood.

Viagra's massive success was practically instantaneous. In the first year alone, the $8-$10 pills yielded about a billion dollars in sales. Viagra's impact on the pharmaceutical and medical industries, as well as on the public consciousness, was also enormous. Though available by prescription only, Viagra was marketed on television, famously touted by ex-presidential candidate Bob Dole, then in his mid-70s. Such direct-to-consumer marketing was practically unprecedented for prescription drugs (now, sales and marketing account for approximately 30 percent of the pharmaceutical industry's costs, in some cases more than research and development). The drug was also offered over the internet–customers needed only to fill out an "online consultation" to receive samples.

An estimated 30 million men in the United States suffer from erectile dysfunction and a wave of new Viagra competitors, among them Cialis (tadalafil) and Levitra (vardenafil), has blown open the market. Drug companies are now not just targeting older men like Dole, but men in their 30s and 40s, too. As with many drugs, the long-term effects of Viagra on men's health are still unclear (Viagra does carry warnings for those who suffer from heart trouble), but its popularity shows no signs of slowing. To date, over 20 million Americans have tried it, and that number is sure to increase as the baby boomer population continues to age.

March 26, 1979: Israel-Egyptian peace agreement signed

Tue, 03/25/2014 - 10:00pm

In a ceremony at the White House, Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin sign a historic peace agreement, ending three decades of hostilities between Egypt and Israel and establishing diplomatic and commercial ties.

Less than two years earlier, in an unprecedented move for an Arab leader, Sadat traveled to Jerusalem, Israel, to seek a permanent peace settlement with Egypt's Jewish neighbor after decades of conflict. Sadat's visit, in which he met with Begin and spoke before Israel's parliament, was met with outrage in most of the Arab world. Despite criticism from Egypt's regional allies, Sadat continued to pursue peace with Begin, and in September 1978 the two leaders met again in the United States, where they negotiated an agreement with U.S. President Jimmy Carter at Camp David, Maryland. The Camp David Accords, the first peace agreement between the state of Israel and one of its Arab neighbors, laid the groundwork for diplomatic and commercial relations. Seven months later, a formal peace treaty was signed.

For their achievement, Sadat and Begin were jointly awarded the 1978 Nobel Prize for Peace. Sadat's peace efforts were not so highly acclaimed in the Arab world--Egypt was suspended from the Arab League, and on October 6, 1981, Muslim extremists assassinated Sadat in Cairo. Nevertheless, the peace process continued without Sadat, and in 1982 Egypt formally established diplomatic relations with Israel.

March 25, 1911: Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City

Mon, 03/24/2014 - 10:00pm

In one of the darkest moments of America's industrial history, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory in New York City burns down, killing 145 workers, on this day in 1911. The tragedy led to the development of a series of laws and regulations that better protected the safety of factory workers.

The Triangle factory, owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, was located in the top three floors of the 10-story Asch Building in downtown Manhattan. It was a sweatshop in every sense of the word: a cramped space lined with work stations and packed with poor immigrant workers, mostly teenaged women who did not speak English. At the time of the fire, there were four elevators with access to the factory floors, but only one was fully operational and it could hold only 12 people at a time. There were two stairways down to the street, but one was locked from the outside to prevent theft by the workers and the other opened inward only. The fire escape, as all would come to see, was shoddily constructed, and could not support the weight of more than a few women at a time.

Blanck and Harris already had a suspicious history of factory fires. The Triangle factory was twice scorched in 1902, while their Diamond Waist Company factory burned twice, in 1907 and in 1910. It seems that Blanck and Harris deliberately torched their workplaces before business hours in order to collect on the large fire-insurance policies they purchased, a not uncommon practice in the early 20th century. While this was not the cause of the 1911 fire, it contributed to the tragedy, as Blanck and Harris refused to install sprinkler systems and take other safety measures in case they needed to burn down their shops again.

Added to this delinquency were Blanck and Harris' notorious anti-worker policies. Their employees were paid a mere $15 a week, despite working 12 hours a day, every day. When the International Ladies Garment Workers Union led a strike in 1909 demanding higher pay and shorter and more predictable hours, Blanck and Harris' company was one of the few manufacturers who resisted, hiring police as thugs to imprison the striking women, and paying off politicians to look the other way.

On March 25, a Saturday afternoon, there were 600 workers at the factory when a fire broke out in a rag bin on the eighth floor. The manager turned the fire hose on it, but the hose was rotted and its valve was rusted shut. Panic ensued as the workers fled to every exit. The elevator broke down after only four trips, and women began jumping down the shaft to their deaths. Those who fled down the wrong set of stairs were trapped inside and burned alive. Other women trapped on the eighth floor began jumping out the windows, which created a problem for the firefighters whose hoses were crushed by falling bodies. Also, the firefighters' ladders stretched only as high as the seventh floor, and their safety nets were not strong enough to catch the women, who were jumping three at a time.

Blanck and Harris were on the building's top floor with some workers when the fire broke out. They were able to escape by climbing onto the roof and hopping to an adjoining building.

The fire was out within half an hour, but not before 49 workers had been killed by the fire, and another 100 or so were piled up dead in the elevator shaft or on the sidewalk. The workers' union organized a march on April 5 to protest the conditions that led to the fire; it was attended by 80,000 people.

Though Blanck and Harris were put on trial for manslaughter, they managed to get off scot-free. Still, the massacre for which they were responsible did finally compel the city to enact reform. In addition to the Sullivan-Hoey Fire Prevention Law passed that October, the New York Democratic set took up the cause of the worker and became known as a reform party.

March 24, 1989: Exxon Valdez runs aground

Sun, 03/23/2014 - 10:00pm

The worst oil spill in U.S. territory begins when the supertanker Exxon Valdez, owned and operated by the Exxon Corporation, runs aground on a reef in Prince William Sound in southern Alaska. An estimated 11 million gallons of oil eventually spilled into the water. Attempts to contain the massive spill were unsuccessful, and wind and currents spread the oil more than 100 miles from its source, eventually polluting more than 700 miles of coastline. Hundreds of thousands of birds and animals were adversely affected by the environmental disaster.

It was later revealed that Joseph Hazelwood, the captain of the Valdez, was drinking at the time of the accident and allowed an uncertified officer to steer the massive vessel. In March 1990, Hazelwood was convicted of misdemeanor negligence, fined $50,000, and ordered to perform 1,000 hours of community service. In July 1992, an Alaska court overturned Hazelwood's conviction, citing a federal statute that grants freedom from prosecution to those who report an oil spill.

Exxon itself was condemned by the National Transportation Safety Board and in early 1991 agreed under pressure from environmental groups to pay a penalty of $100 million and provide $1 billion over a 10-year period for the cost of the cleanup. However, later in the year, both Alaska and Exxon rejected the agreement, and in October 1991 the oil giant settled the matter by paying $25 million, less than 4 percent of the cleanup aid promised by Exxon earlier that year.

March 23, 1839: OK enters national vernacular

Sat, 03/22/2014 - 10:00pm

On this day in 1839, the initials "O.K." are first published in The Boston Morning Post. Meant as an abbreviation for "oll correct," a popular slang misspelling of "all correct" at the time, OK steadily made its way into the everyday speech of Americans.

During the late 1830s, it was a favorite practice among younger, educated circles to misspell words intentionally, then abbreviate them and use them as slang when talking to one another. Just as teenagers today have their own slang based on distortions of common words, such as "kewl" for "cool" or "DZ" for "these," the "in crowd" of the 1830s had a whole host of slang terms they abbreviated. Popular abbreviations included "KY" for "No use" ("know yuse"), "KG" for "No go" ("Know go"), and "OW" for all right ("oll wright").

Of all the abbreviations used during that time, OK was propelled into the limelight when it was printed in the Boston Morning Post as part of a joke. Its popularity exploded when it was picked up by contemporary politicians. When the incumbent president Martin Van Buren was up for reelection, his Democratic supporters organized a band of thugs to influence voters. This group was formally called the "O.K. Club," which referred both to Van Buren's nickname "Old Kinderhook" (based on his hometown of Kinderhook, New York), and to the term recently made popular in the papers. At the same time, the opposing Whig Party made use of "OK" to denigrate Van Buren's political mentor Andrew Jackson. According to the Whigs, Jackson invented the abbreviation "OK" to cover up his own misspelling of "all correct."

The man responsible for unraveling the mystery behind "OK" was an American linguist named Allen Walker Read. An English professor at Columbia University, Read dispelled a host of erroneous theories on the origins of "OK," ranging from the name of a popular Army biscuit (Orrin Kendall) to the name of a Haitian port famed for its rum (Aux Cayes) to the signature of a Choctaw chief named Old Keokuk. Whatever its origins, "OK" has become one of the most ubiquitous terms in the world, and certainly one of America's greatest lingual exports.

March 22, 1765: Stamp Act imposed on American colonies

Fri, 03/21/2014 - 10:00pm

In an effort to raise funds to pay off debts and defend the vast new American territories won from the French in the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), the British government passes the Stamp Act on this day in 1765. The legislation levied a direct tax on all materials printed for commercial and legal use in the colonies, from newspapers and pamphlets to playing cards and dice.

Though the Stamp Act employed a strategy that was a common fundraising vehicle in England, it stirred a storm of protest in the colonies. The colonists had recently been hit with three major taxes: the Sugar Act (1764), which levied new duties on imports of textiles, wines, coffee and sugar; the Currency Act (1764), which caused a major decline in the value of the paper money used by colonists; and the Quartering Act (1765), which required colonists to provide food and lodging to British troops.

With the passing of the Stamp Act, the colonists' grumbling finally became an articulated response to what they saw as the mother country's attempt to undermine their economic strength and independence. They raised the issue of taxation without representation, and formed societies throughout the colonies to rally against the British government and nobles who sought to exploit the colonies as a source of revenue and raw materials. By October of that year, nine of the 13 colonies sent representatives to the Stamp Act Congress, at which the colonists drafted the "Declaration of Rights and Grievances," a document that railed against the autocratic policies of the mercantilist British empire.

Realizing that it actually cost more to enforce the Stamp Act in the protesting colonies than it did to abolish it, the British government repealed the tax the following year. The fracas over the Stamp Act, though, helped plant seeds for a far larger movement against the British government and the eventual battle for independence. Most important of these was the formation of the Sons of Liberty--a group of tradesmen who led anti-British protests in Boston and other seaboard cities--and other groups of wealthy landowners who came together from the across the colonies. Well after the Stamp Act was repealed, these societies continued to meet in opposition to what they saw as the abusive policies of the British empire. Out of their meetings, a growing nationalism emerged that would culminate in the fighting of the American Revolution only a decade later.

March 21, 1871: Stanley begins search for Livingstone

Thu, 03/20/2014 - 10:00pm

On this day in 1871, journalist Henry Morton Stanley begins his famous search through Africa for the missing British explorer Dr. David Livingstone.

In the late 19th century, Europeans and Americans were deeply fascinated by the "Dark Continent" of Africa and its many mysteries. Few did more to increase Africa's fame than Livingstone, one of England's most intrepid explorers. In August 1865, he set out on a planned two-year expedition to find the source of the Nile River. Livingstone also wanted to help bring about the abolition of the slave trade, which was devastating Africa's population.

Almost six years after his expedition began, little had been heard from Livingstone. James Gordon Bennett, Jr., editor of the New York Herald, decided to capitalize on the public's craze for news of their hero. He sent Stanley to lead an expedition into the African wilderness to find Livingstone or bring back proof of his death. At age 28, Stanley had his own fascinating past. As a young orphan in Wales, he crossed the Atlantic on the crew of a merchant ship. He jumped ship in New Orleans and later served in the Civil War as both a Confederate and a Union soldier before beginning a career in journalism.

After setting out from Zanzibar in March 1871, Stanley led his caravan of nearly 2,000 men into the interior of Africa. Nearly eight months passed--during which Stanley contracted dysentery, cerebral malaria and smallpox--before the expedition approached the village of Ujiji, on the shore of Lake Tanganyika. Sick and poverty-stricken, Livingstone had come to Ujiji that July after living for some time at the mercy of Arab slave traders. When Stanley's caravan entered the village on October 27, flying the American flag, villagers crowded toward the new arrivals. Spotting a white man with a gray beard in the crowd, Stanley stepped toward him and stretched out his hand: "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"

These words--and Livingstone's grateful response--soon became famous across Europe and the United States. Though Stanley urged Livingstone to return with him to London, the explorer vowed to continue his original mission. Livingstone died 18 months later in today's Zambia; his body was embalmed and returned to Britain, where he was buried in Westminster Abbey. As for Stanley, he returned to Africa to fulfill a promise he had made to Livingstone to find the source of the Nile. He later damaged his reputation by accepting money from King Leopold II of Belgium to help create the Belgian-ruled Congo Free State and promote the slave trade. When he left Africa, Stanley resumed his British citizenship and even served in Parliament, but when he died he was refused burial in Westminster Abbey because of his actions in the Congo Free State.

March 20, 1965: LBJ sends federal troops to Alabama

Wed, 03/19/2014 - 10:00pm

On this day in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson notifies Alabama's Governor George Wallace that he will use federal authority to call up the Alabama National Guard in order to supervise a planned civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery.

Intimidation and discrimination had earlier prevented Selma's black population--over half the city--from registering and voting. On Sunday, March 7, 1965, a group of 600 demonstrators marched on the capital city of Montgomery to protest this disenfranchisement and the earlier killing of a black man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, by a state trooper. In brutal scenes that were later broadcast on television, state and local police attacked the marchers with billy clubs and tear gas. TV viewers far and wide were outraged by the images, and a protest march was organized just two days after "Bloody Sunday" by Martin Luther King, Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). King turned the marchers around, however, rather than carry out the march without federal judicial approval.

After an Alabama federal judge ruled on March 18 that a third march could go ahead, President Johnson and his advisers worked quickly to find a way to ensure the safety of King and his demonstrators on their way from Selma to Montgomery. The most powerful obstacle in their way was Governor Wallace, an outspoken anti-integrationist who was reluctant to spend any state funds on protecting the demonstrators. Hours after promising Johnson--in telephone calls recorded by the White House--that he would call out the Alabama National Guard to maintain order, Wallace went on television and demanded that Johnson send in federal troops instead.

Furious, Johnson told Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach to write a press release stating that because Wallace refused to use the 10,000 available guardsmen to preserve order in his state, Johnson himself was calling the guard up and giving them all necessary support. Several days later, 50,000 marchers followed King some 54 miles, under the watchful eyes of state and federal troops. Arriving safely in Montgomery on March 25, they watched King deliver his famous "How Long, Not Long" speech from the steps of the Capitol building. The clash between Johnson and Wallace--and Johnson's decisive action--was an important turning point in the civil rights movement. Within five months, Congress had passed the Voting Rights Act, which Johnson proudly signed into law on August 6, 1965.

March 19, 2003: War in Iraq begins

Tue, 03/18/2014 - 10:00pm

On this day in 2003, the United States, along with coalition forces primarily from the United Kingdom, initiates war on Iraq. Just after explosions began to rock Baghdad, Iraq's capital, U.S. President George W. Bush announced in a televised address, "At this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger." President Bush and his advisors built much of their case for war on the idea that Iraq, under dictator Saddam Hussein, possessed or was in the process of building weapons of mass destruction.

Hostilities began about 90 minutes after the U.S.-imposed deadline for Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq or face war passed. The first targets, which Bush said were "of military importance," were hit with Tomahawk cruise missiles from U.S. fighter-bombers and warships stationed in the Persian Gulf. In response to the attacks, Republic of Iraq radio in Baghdad announced, "the evil ones, the enemies of God, the homeland and humanity, have committed the stupidity of aggression against our homeland and people."

Though Saddam Hussein had declared in early March 2003 that, "it is without doubt that the faithful will be victorious against aggression," he went into hiding soon after the American invasion, speaking to his people only through an occasional audiotape. Coalition forces were able to topple his regime and capture Iraq's major cities in just three weeks, sustaining few casualties. President Bush declared the end of major combat operations on May 1, 2003. Despite the defeat of conventional military forces in Iraq, an insurgency has continued an intense guerrilla war in the nation in the years since military victory was announced, resulting in thousands of coalition military, insurgent and civilian deaths.

After an intense manhunt, U.S. soldiers found Saddam Hussein hiding in a six-to-eight-foot deep hole, nine miles outside his hometown of Tikrit. He did not resist and was uninjured during the arrest. A soldier at the scene described him as "a man resigned to his fate." Hussein was arrested and began trial for crimes against his people, including mass killings, in October 2005.

In June 2004, the provisional government in place since soon after Saddam's ouster transferred power to the Iraqi Interim Government. In January 2005, the Iraqi people elected a 275-member Iraqi National Assembly. A new constitution for the country was ratified that October. On November 6, 2006, Saddam Hussein was found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to death by hanging. After an unsuccessful appeal, he was executed on December 30, 2006.

No weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq.

March 18, 1852: Wells and Fargo start shipping and banking company

Mon, 03/17/2014 - 10:00pm

On this day in 1852, in New York City, Henry Wells and William G. Fargo join with several other investors to launch their namesake business.

The discovery of gold in California in 1849 prompted a huge spike in the demand for cross-country shipping. Wells and Fargo decided to take advantage of these great opportunities. In July 1852, their company shipped its first loads of freight from the East Coast to mining camps scattered around northern California. The company contracted with independent stagecoach companies to provide the fastest possible transportation and delivery of gold dust, important documents and other valuable freight. It also served as a bank--buying gold dust, selling paper bank drafts and providing loans to help fuel California's growing economy.

In 1857, Wells, Fargo and Co. formed the Overland Mail Company, known as the "Butterfield Line," which provided regular mail and passenger service along an ever-growing number of routes. In the boom-and-bust economy of the 1850s, the company earned a reputation as a trustworthy and reliable business, and its logo--the classic stagecoach--became famous. For a premium price, Wells, Fargo and Co. would send an employee on horseback to deliver or pick up a message or package.

Wells, Fargo and Co. merged with several other "Pony Express" and stagecoach lines in 1866 to become the unrivaled leader in transportation in the West. When the transcontinental railroad was completed three years later, the company began using railroad to transport its freight. By 1910, its shipping network connected 6,000 locations, from the urban centers of the East and the farming towns of the Midwest to the ranching and mining centers of Texas and California and the lumber mills of the Pacific Northwest.

After splitting from the freight business in 1905, the banking branch of the company merged with the Nevada National Bank and established new headquarters in San Francisco. During World War I, the U.S. government nationalized the company's shipping routes and combined them with the railroads into the American Railway Express, effectively putting an end to Wells, Fargo and Co. as a transportation and delivery business. The following April, the banking headquarters was destroyed in a major earthquake, but the vaults remained intact and the bank's business continued to grow. After two later mergers, the Wells Fargo Bank American Trust Company--shortened to the Wells Fargo Bank in 1962--became, and has remained, one of the biggest banking institutions in the United States.

March 17, 0461: Saint Patrick dies

Sun, 03/16/2014 - 10:00pm

On this day in 461 A.D., Saint Patrick, Christian missionary, bishop and apostle of Ireland, dies at Saul, Downpatrick, Ireland.

Much of what is known about Patrick's legendary life comes from the Confessio, a book he wrote during his last years. Born in Great Britain, probably in Scotland, to a well-to-do Christian family of Roman citizenship, Patrick was captured and enslaved at age 16 by Irish marauders. For the next six years, he worked as a herder in Ireland, turning to a deepening religious faith for comfort. Following the counsel of a voice he heard in a dream one night, he escaped and found passage on a ship to Britain, where he was eventually reunited with his family.

According to the Confessio, in Britain Patrick had another dream, in which an individual named Victoricus gave him a letter, entitled "The Voice of the Irish." As he read it, Patrick seemed to hear the voices of Irishmen pleading him to return to their country and walk among them once more. After studying for the priesthood, Patrick was ordained a bishop. He arrived in Ireland in 433 and began preaching the Gospel, converting many thousands of Irish and building churches around the country. After 40 years of living in poverty, teaching, traveling and working tirelessly, Patrick died on March 17, 461 in Saul, where he had built his first church.

Since that time, countless legends have grown up around Patrick. Made the patron saint of Ireland, he is said to have baptized hundreds of people on a single day, and to have used a three-leaf clover--the famous shamrock--to describe the Holy Trinity. In art, he is often portrayed trampling on snakes, in accordance with the belief that he drove those reptiles out of Ireland. For thousands of years, the Irish have observed the day of Saint Patrick's death as a religious holiday, attending church in the morning and celebrating with food and drink in the afternoon. The first St. Patrick's Day parade, though, took place not in Ireland, but the United States, when Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through New York City in 1762. As the years went on, the parades became a show of unity and strength for persecuted Irish-American immigrants, and then a popular celebration of Irish-American heritage. The party went global in 1995, when the Irish government began a large-scale campaign to market St. Patrick's Day as a way of driving tourism and showcasing Ireland's many charms to the rest of the world. Today, March 17 is a day of international celebration, as millions of people around the globe put on their best green clothing to drink beer, watch parades and toast the luck of the Irish.

March 16, 1802: U.S. Military Academy established

Sat, 03/15/2014 - 10:00pm

The United States Military Academy--the first military school in the United States--is founded by Congress for the purpose of educating and training young men in the theory and practice of military science. Located at West Point, New York, the U.S. Military Academy is often simply known as West Point.

Located on the high west bank of New York's Hudson River, West Point was the site of a Revolutionary-era fort built to protect the Hudson River Valley from British attack. In 1780, Patriot General Benedict Arnold, the commander of the fort, agreed to surrender West Point to the British in exchange for 6,000 pounds. However, the plot was uncovered before it fell into British hands, and Arnold fled to the British for protection.

Ten years after the establishment of the U.S. Military Academy in 1802, the growing threat of another war with Great Britain resulted in congressional action to expand the academy's facilities and increase the West Point corps. Beginning in 1817, the U.S. Military Academy was reorganized by superintendent Sylvanus Thayer--later known as the "father of West Point"--and the school became one of the nation's finest sources of civil engineers. During the Mexican-American War, West Point graduates filled the leading ranks of the victorious U.S. forces, and with the outbreak of the Civil War former West Point classmates regretfully lined up against one another in the defense of their native states.

In 1870, the first African-American cadet was admitted into the U.S. Military Academy, and in 1976, the first female cadets. The academy is now under the general direction and supervision of the department of the U.S. Army and has an enrollment of more than 4,000 students.

March 15, 1965: Johnson calls for equal voting rights

Fri, 03/14/2014 - 10:00pm

On this day in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress to urge the passage of legislation guaranteeing voting rights for all.

Using the phrase "we shall overcome," borrowed from African-American leaders struggling for equal rights, Johnson declared that "every American citizen must have an equal right to vote." Johnson reminded the nation that the Fifteenth Amendment, which was passed after the Civil War, gave all citizens the right to vote regardless of race or color. But states had defied the Constitution and erected barriers. Discrimination had taken the form of literacy, knowledge or character tests administered solely to African-Americans to keep them from registering to vote.

"Their cause must be our cause too," Johnson said. "Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome."

The speech was delivered eight days after racial violence erupted in Selma, Alabama. Civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King and over 500 supporters were attacked while planning a march to Montgomery to register African-Americans to vote. The police violence that erupted resulted in the death of a King supporter, a white Unitarian Minister from Boston named James J. Reeb. Television news coverage of the event galvanized voting rights supporters in Congress.

A second attempt to march to Montgomery was also blocked by police. It took Federal intervention with the "federalizing" of the Alabama national guard and the addition of over 2,000 other guards to allow the march to begin.

The march to Montgomery finally began March 21 with over 3,000 participants under the glare of worldwide news publicity.

The violence, however, continued. Just after the march was successfully completed on March 25, four Klansman shot and killed Detroit homemaker Viola Liuzzo as she drove marchers back to Selma.

On August 6, 1965, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which made it illegal to impose restrictions on federal, state and local elections that were designed to deny the vote to blacks.

While state and local enforcement of the act was initially weak, mainly in the South, the Voting Rights Act gave African-American voters the legal means to challenge voting restrictions and vastly improved voter turnout. In Mississippi alone, voter turnout among blacks increased from 6 percent in 1964 to 59 percent in 1969.

In 1970, President Richard Nixon extended the provisions of the Voting Rights Act and lowered the eligible voting age for all voters to 18.