This Day in History...from The History Channel

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May 10, 1869: Transcontinental railroad completed

Fri, 05/09/2014 - 10:00pm

On this day in 1869, the presidents of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads meet in Promontory, Utah, and drive a ceremonial last spike into a rail line that connects their railroads. This made transcontinental railroad travel possible for the first time in U.S. history. No longer would western-bound travelers need to take the long and dangerous journey by wagon train, and the West would surely lose some of its wild charm with the new connection to the civilized East.

Since at least 1832, both Eastern and frontier statesmen realized a need to connect the two coasts. It was not until 1853, though, that Congress appropriated funds to survey several routes for the transcontinental railroad. The actual building of the railroad would have to wait even longer, as North-South tensions prevented Congress from reaching an agreement on where the line would begin.

One year into the Civil War, a Republican-controlled Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act (1862), guaranteeing public land grants and loans to the two railroads it chose to build the transcontinental line, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific. With these in hand, the railroads began work in 1866 from Omaha and Sacramento, forging a northern route across the country. In their eagerness for land, the two lines built right past each other, and the final meeting place had to be renegotiated.

Harsh winters, staggering summer heat, Indian raids and the lawless, rough-and-tumble conditions of newly settled western towns made conditions for the Union Pacific laborers--mainly Civil War veterans of Irish descent--miserable. The overwhelmingly immigrant Chinese work force of the Central Pacific also had its fair share of problems, including brutal 12-hour work days laying tracks over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. On more than one occasion, whole crews would be lost to avalanches, or mishaps with explosives would leave several dead.

For all the adversity they suffered, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific workers were able to finish the railroad--laying nearly 2,000 miles of track--by 1869, ahead of schedule and under budget. Journeys that had taken months by wagon train or weeks by boat now took only days. Their work had an immediate impact: The years following the construction of the railway were years of rapid growth and expansion for the United States, due in large part to the speed and ease of travel that the railroad provided.

May 9, 1950: L. Ron Hubbard publishes Dianetics

Thu, 05/08/2014 - 10:00pm

On this day in 1950, Lafayette Ronald Hubbard (1911-1986) publishes Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. With this book, Hubbard introduced a branch of self-help psychology called Dianetics, which quickly caught fire and, over time, morphed into a belief system boasting millions of subscribers: Scientology.

Hubbard was already a prolific and frequently published writer by the time he penned the book that would change his life. Under several pseudonyms in the 1930s, he published a great amount of pulp fiction, particularly in the science fiction and fantasy genres. In late 1949, having returned from serving in the Navy in World War II, Hubbard began publishing articles in the pages of Astounding Science Fiction, a magazine that published works by the likes of Isaac Asimov and Jack Williamson. Out of these grew the elephantine text known as Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health.

In Dianetics, Hubbard explained that phenomena known as "engrams" (i.e. memories) were the cause of all psychological pain, which in turn harmed mental and physical health. He went on to claim that people could become "clear," achieving an exquisite state of clarity and mental liberation, by exorcising their engrams to an "auditor," or a listener acting as therapist.

Though discredited by the medical and scientific establishment, over 100,000 copies of Dianetics were sold in the first two years of publication, and Hubbard soon found himself lecturing across the country. He went on to write six more books in 1951, developing a significant fan base, and establishing the Hubbard Dianetics Research Foundation in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

Despite his fast-growing popularity from books and touring, strife within his organization and Hubbard's own personal troubles nearly crippled his success. Several of his research foundations had to be abandoned due to financial troubles and he went through a divorce from his second wife.

By 1953, however, Hubbard was able to rebound from the widespread condemnation beginning to be heaped upon him, and introduced Scientology. Scientology expanded on Dianetics by bringing Hubbard's popular version of psychotherapy into the realm of philosophy, and ultimately, religion. In only a few years, Hubbard found himself at the helm of a movement that captured the popular imagination. As Scientology grew in the 1960s, several national governments became suspicious of Hubbard, accusing him of quackery and brainwashing his followers. Nonetheless, Hubbard built his religion into a multi-million dollar movement that continues to have a considerable presence in the public eye, due in part to its high profile in Hollywood.

May 8, 1945: V-E Day is celebrated in America and Britain

Wed, 05/07/2014 - 10:00pm

On this day in 1945, both Great Britain and the United States celebrate Victory in Europe Day. Cities in both nations, as well as formerly occupied cities in Western Europe, put out flags and banners, rejoicing in the defeat of the Nazi war machine.

The eighth of May spelled the day when German troops throughout Europe finally laid down their arms: In Prague, Germans surrendered to their Soviet antagonists, after the latter had lost more than 8,000 soldiers, and the Germans considerably more; in Copenhagen and Oslo; at Karlshorst, near Berlin; in northern Latvia; on the Channel Island of Sark--the German surrender was realized in a final cease-fire. More surrender documents were signed in Berlin and in eastern Germany.

The main concern of many German soldiers was to elude the grasp of Soviet forces, to keep from being taken prisoner. About 1 million Germans attempted a mass exodus to the West when the fighting in Czechoslovakia ended, but were stopped by the Russians and taken captive. The Russians took approximately 2 million prisoners in the period just before and after the German surrender.

Meanwhile, more than 13,000 British POWs were released and sent back to Great Britain.

Pockets of German-Soviet confrontation would continue into the next day. On May 9, the Soviets would lose 600 more soldiers in Silesia before the Germans finally surrendered. Consequently, V-E Day was not celebrated until the ninth in Moscow, with a radio broadcast salute from Stalin himself: "The age-long struggle of the Slav nations...has ended in victory. Your courage has defeated the Nazis. The war is over."

May 7, 1994: Munch's The Scream recovered

Tue, 05/06/2014 - 10:00pm

On May 7, 1994, Norway's most famous painting, "The Scream" by Edvard Munch, was recovered almost three months after it was stolen from a museum in Oslo. The fragile painting was recovered undamaged at a hotel in Asgardstrand, about 40 miles south of Oslo, police said.

The iconic 1893 painting of a waiflike figure on a bridge was stolen in only 50 seconds during a break-in on February 12, the opening day of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. Two thieves broke through a window of the National Gallery, cut a wire holding the painting to the wall and left a note reading "Thousand thanks for the bad security!"

A few days after the theft, a Norwegian anti-abortion group said it could have the painting returned if Norwegian television showed an anti-abortion film. The claim turned out to be false. The government also received a $1 million ransom demand on March 3, but refused to pay it due to a lack of proof that the demand was genuine.

Eventually, police found four pieces of the painting's frame in Nittedal, a suburb north of Oslo, and what may have been a cryptic messages that the thieves wanted to discuss a ransom. Finally, in January 1996, four men were convicted and sentenced in connection with the theft. They included Paal Enger, who had been convicted in 1988 of stealing Munch's "The Vampire" in Oslo. Enger was sentenced this time to six-and-a-half-years in prison. He escaped while on a field trip in 1999, and was captured 12 days later in a blond wig and dark sunglasses trying to buy a train ticket to Copenhagen.

In August 2004, another version of "The Scream" was stolen along with Munch's "The Madonna," this time from the Munch Museum in Oslo. Three men were convicted in connection with that theft in May 2006. Police recovered both works in August with minor marks and tears. Yet another version of "The Scream" remained in private hands and sold on May 2, 2012, for $119.9 million, becoming the most expensive work of art to sell at auction.

Munch developed an emotionally charged style that served as an important forerunner of the 20th century Expressionist movement. He painted "The Scream" as part of his "Frieze of Life" series, in which sickness, death, fear, love and melancholy are central themes. He died in January 1944 at the age of 81.

May 6, 1994: English Channel tunnel opens

Mon, 05/05/2014 - 10:00pm

In a ceremony presided over by England's Queen Elizabeth II and French President Francois Mitterand, a rail tunnel under the English Channel was officially opened, connecting Britain and the European mainland for the first time since the Ice Age.

 

The channel tunnel, or "Chunnel," connects Folkstone, England, with Sangatte, France, 31 miles away.  The Chunnel cut travel time between England and France to a swift 35 minutes and eventually between London and Paris to two-and-a-half hours.


As the world's longest undersea tunnel, the Chunnel runs under water for 23 miles, with an average depth of 150 feet below the seabed. Each day, about 30,000 people, 6,000 cars and 3,500 trucks journey through the Chunnel on passenger, shuttle and freight trains.

 

Millions of tons of earth were moved to build the two rail tunnels--one for northbound and one for southbound traffic--and one service tunnel.   Fifteen thousand people were employed at the peak of construction.  Ten people were killed during construction.

 

Napoleon's engineer, Albert Mathieu, planned the first tunnel under the English Channel in 1802, envisioning an underground passage with ventilation chimneys that would stretch above the waves.  In 1880, the first real attempt was made by Colonel Beaumont, who bore a tunnel more than a mile long before abandoning the project. Other efforts followed in the 20th century, but none on the scale of the tunnels begun in June 1988.

 

The Chunnel's $16 billion cost was roughly twice the original estimate, and completion was a year behind schedule.  One year into service, Eurotunnel announced a huge loss, one of the biggest in United Kingdom corporate history at the time.  A scheme in which banks agreed to swap billions of pounds worth of loans for shares saved the tunnel from going under and it showed its first net profit in 1999. 

 

Freight traffic was suspended for six months after a fire broke out on a lorry in the tunnel in November 1996.  Nobody was seriously hurt in the incident.

 

In 1996, the American Society of Civil Engineers identified the tunnel as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.

May 5, 1961: The first American in space

Sun, 05/04/2014 - 10:00pm

From Cape Canaveral, Florida, Navy Commander Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr. is launched into space aboard the Freedom 7 space capsule, becoming the first American astronaut to travel into space. The suborbital flight, which lasted 15 minutes and reached a height of 116 miles into the atmosphere, was a major triumph for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

NASA was established in 1958 to keep U.S. space efforts abreast of recent Soviet achievements, such as the launching of the world's first artificial satellite--Sputnik 1--in 1957. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the two superpowers raced to become the first country to put a man in space and return him to Earth. On April 12, 1961, the Soviet space program won the race when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was launched into space, put in orbit around the planet, and safely returned to Earth. One month later, Shepard's suborbital flight restored faith in the U.S. space program.

NASA continued to trail the Soviets closely until the late 1960s and the successes of the Apollo lunar program. In July 1969, the Americans took a giant leap forward with Apollo 11, a three-stage spacecraft that took U.S. astronauts to the surface of the moon and returned them to Earth. On February 5, 1971, Alan Shepard, the first American in space, became the fifth astronaut to walk on the moon as part of the Apollo 14 lunar landing mission.

May 4, 1994: Rabin and Arafat sign accord for Palestinian self-rule

Sat, 05/03/2014 - 10:00pm

On May 4, 1994, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat reached agreement in Cairo on the first stage of Palestinian self-rule.

 

The agreement was made in accordance with the Oslo Accords, signed in Washington, D.C. on September 13, 1993.   This was the first direct, face-to-face agreement between Israel and the Palestinians and it acknowledged Israel's right to exist. It was also designed as a framework for future relations between the two parties.

 

The Gaza-Jericho agreement signed on this day in history addressed four main issues: security arrangements, civil affairs, legal matters and economic relations. It included an Israeli military withdrawal from about 60 percent of the Gaza Strip (Jewish settlements and their environs excluded) and the West Bank town of Jericho, land captured by Israel during the Six-Day War of 1967. The Palestinians agreed to combat terror and prevent violence in the famous "land for peace" bargain. The document also included an agreement to a transfer of authority from the Israeli Civil Administration to the newly created Palestinian Authority, its jurisdiction and legislative powers, a Palestinian police force and relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

 

The Israeli Defense Forces withdrew from Jericho on May 13 and from most of the Gaza Strip on May 18-19, 1994.  Palestinian Authority police and officials immediately took control.  During the first few days there was a spate of attacks on Israeli troops and civilians in and near the Strip. Arafat himself arrived in Gaza to a tumultuous, chaotic welcome on July 1.

 

As time went on, timetables stipulated in the deal were not met, Israel's re-deployments were slowed and new agreements were negotiated.  Israeli critics of the deal claimed "Land for Peace" was in reality "Land for Nothing."

 

The momentum toward peaceful relations between Israel and the Palestinians was seriously jolted by the outbreak of the 2000 Palestinian uprising, known as "Second Intifada."  Further strain was put on the process after Hamas came into power in the 2006 Palestinian elections.

 

May 3, 1469: Niccolo Machiavelli born

Fri, 05/02/2014 - 10:00pm

On this day in 1469, the Italian philosopher and writer Niccolo Machiavelli is born. A lifelong patriot and diehard proponent of a unified Italy, Machiavelli became one of the fathers of modern political theory.

Machiavelli entered the political service of his native Florence by the time he was 29. As defense secretary, he distinguished himself by executing policies that strengthened Florence politically. He soon found himself assigned diplomatic missions for his principality, through which he met such luminaries as Louis XII of France, Pope Julius II, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, and perhaps most importantly for Machiavelli, a prince of the Papal States named Cesare Borgia. The shrewd and cunning Borgia later inspired the title character in Machiavelli's famous and influential political treatise The Prince (1532).

Machiavelli's political life took a downward turn after 1512, when he fell out of favor with the powerful Medici family. He was accused of conspiracy, imprisoned, tortured and temporarily exiled. It was an attempt to regain a political post and the Medici family's good favor that Machiavelli penned The Prince, which was to become his most well-known work.

Though released in book form posthumously in 1532, The Prince was first published as a pamphlet in 1513. In it, Machiavelli outlined his vision of an ideal leader: an amoral, calculating tyrant for whom the end justifies the means. The Prince not only failed to win the Medici family's favor, it also alienated him from the Florentine people. Machiavelli was never truly welcomed back into politics, and when the Florentine Republic was reestablished in 1527, Machiavelli was an object of great suspicion. He died later that year, embittered and shut out from the Florentine society to which he had devoted his life.

Though Machiavelli has long been associated with the practice of diabolical expediency in the realm of politics that was made famous in The Prince, his actual views were not so extreme. In fact, in such longer and more detailed writings as Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy (1517) and History of Florence (1525), he shows himself to be a more principled political moralist. Still, even today, the term "Machiavellian" is used to describe an action undertaken for gain without regard for right or wrong.

May 2, 1933: Loch Ness Monster sighted

Thu, 05/01/2014 - 10:00pm

Although accounts of an aquatic beast living in Scotland's Loch Ness date back 1,500 years, the modern legend of the Loch Ness Monster is born when a sighting makes local news on May 2, 1933. The newspaper Inverness Courier related an account of a local couple who claimed to have seen "an enormous animal rolling and plunging on the surface." The story of the "monster" (a moniker chosen by the Courier editor) became a media phenomenon, with London newspapers sending correspondents to Scotland and a circus offering a 20,000 pound sterling reward for capture of the beast.

Loch Ness, located in the Scottish Highlands, has the largest volume of fresh water in Great Britain; the body of water reaches a depth of nearly 800 feet and a length of about 23 miles. Scholars of the Loch Ness Monster find a dozen references to "Nessie" in Scottish history, dating back to around A.D. 500, when local Picts carved a strange aquatic creature into standing stones near Loch Ness. The earliest written reference to a monster in Loch Ness is a 7th-century biography of Saint Columba, the Irish missionary who introduced Christianity to Scotland. In 565, according to the biographer, Columba was on his way to visit the king of the northern Picts near Inverness when he stopped at Loch Ness to confront a beast that had been killing people in the lake. Seeing a large beast about to attack another man, Columba intervened, invoking the name of God and commanding the creature to "go back with all speed." The monster retreated and never killed another man.

In 1933, a new road was completed along Loch Ness' shore, affording drivers a clear view of the loch. After an April 1933 sighting was reported in the local paper on May 2, interest steadily grew, especially after another couple claimed to have seen the beast on land, crossing the shore road. Several British newspapers sent reporters to Scotland, including London's Daily Mail, which hired big-game hunter Marmaduke Wetherell to capture the beast. After a few days searching the loch, Wetherell reported finding footprints of a large four-legged animal. In response, the Daily Mail carried the dramatic headline: "MONSTER OF LOCH NESS IS NOT LEGEND BUT A FACT." Scores of tourists descended on Loch Ness and sat in boats or decks chairs waiting for an appearance by the beast. Plaster casts of the footprints were sent to the British Natural History Museum, which reported that the tracks were that of a hippopotamus, specifically one hippopotamus foot, probably stuffed. The hoax temporarily deflated Loch Ness Monster mania, but stories of sightings continued.

A famous 1934 photograph seemed to show a dinosaur-like creature with a long neck emerging out of the murky waters, leading some to speculate that "Nessie" was a solitary survivor of the long-extinct plesiosaurs. The aquatic plesiosaurs were thought to have died off with the rest of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Loch Ness was frozen solid during the recent ice ages, however, so this creature would have had to have made its way up the River Ness from the sea in the past 10,000 years. And the plesiosaurs, believed to be cold-blooded, would not long survive in the frigid waters of Loch Ness. More likely, others suggested, it was an archeocyte, a primitive whale with a serpentine neck that is thought to have been extinct for 18 million years. Skeptics argued that what people were seeing in Loch Ness were "seiches"--oscillations in the water surface caused by the inflow of cold river water into the slightly warmer loch.

Amateur investigators kept an almost constant vigil, and in the 1960s several British universities launched expeditions to Loch Ness, using sonar to search the deep. Nothing conclusive was found, but in each expedition the sonar operators detected large, moving underwater objects they could not explain. In 1975, Boston's Academy of Applied Science combined sonar and underwater photography in an expedition to Loch Ness. A photo resulted that, after enhancement, appeared to show the giant flipper of a plesiosaur-like creature. Further sonar expeditions in the 1980s and 1990s resulted in more tantalizing, if inconclusive, readings. Revelations in 1994 that the famous 1934 photo was a hoax hardly dampened the enthusiasm of tourists and professional and amateur investigators to the legend of the Loch Ness Monster.

May 1, 1931: Empire State Building dedicated

Wed, 04/30/2014 - 10:00pm

On this day in 1931, President Herbert Hoover officially dedicates New York City's Empire State Building, pressing a button from the White House that turns on the building's lights. Hoover's gesture, of course, was symbolic; while the president remained in Washington, D.C., someone else flicked the switches in New York.

The idea for the Empire State Building is said to have been born of a competition between Walter Chrysler of the Chrysler Corporation and John Jakob Raskob of General Motors, to see who could erect the taller building. Chrysler had already begun work on the famous Chrysler Building, the gleaming 1,046-foot skyscraper in midtown Manhattan. Not to be bested, Raskob assembled a group of well-known investors, including former New York Governor Alfred E. Smith. The group chose the architecture firm Shreve, Lamb and Harmon Associates to design the building. The Art-Deco plans, said to have been based in large part on the look of a pencil, were also builder-friendly: The entire building went up in just over a year, under budget (at $40 million) and well ahead of schedule. During certain periods of building, the frame grew an astonishing four-and-a-half stories a week.

At the time of its completion, the Empire State Building, at 102 stories and 1,250 feet high (1,454 feet to the top of the lightning rod), was the world's tallest skyscraper. The Depression-era construction employed as many as 3,400 workers on any single day, most of whom received an excellent pay rate, especially given the economic conditions of the time. The new building imbued New York City with a deep sense of pride, desperately needed in the depths of the Great Depression, when many city residents were unemployed and prospects looked bleak. The grip of the Depression on New York's economy was still evident a year later, however, when only 25 percent of the Empire State's offices had been rented.

In 1972, the Empire State Building lost its title as world's tallest building to New York's World Trade Center, which itself was the tallest skyscraper for but a year. Today the honor belongs to Dubai’s Burj Khalifa tower, which soars 2,717 feet into the sky.

April 30, 1945: Adolf Hitler commits suicide

Tue, 04/29/2014 - 10:00pm

On this day in 1945, holed up in a bunker under his headquarters in Berlin, Adolf Hitler commits suicide by swallowing a cyanide capsule and shooting himself in the head. Soon after, Germany unconditionally surrendered to the Allied forces, ending Hitler's dreams of a "1,000-year" Reich.

Since at least 1943, it was becoming increasingly clear that Germany would fold under the pressure of the Allied forces. In February of that year, the German 6th Army, lured deep into the Soviet Union, was annihilated at the Battle of Stalingrad, and German hopes for a sustained offensive on both fronts evaporated. Then, in June 1944, the Western Allied armies landed at Normandy, France, and began systematically to push the Germans back toward Berlin. By July 1944, several German military commanders acknowledged their imminent defeat and plotted to remove Hitler from power so as to negotiate a more favorable peace. Their attempts to assassinate Hitler failed, however, and in his reprisals, Hitler executed over 4,000 fellow countrymen.

In January 1945, facing a siege of Berlin by the Soviets, Hitler withdrew to his bunker to live out his final days. Located 55 feet under the chancellery, the shelter contained 18 rooms and was fully self-sufficient, with its own water and electrical supply. Though he was growing increasingly mad, Hitler continued to give orders and meet with such close subordinates as Hermann Goering, Heinrich Himmler and Josef Goebbels. He also married his long-time mistress Eva Braun just two days before his suicide.

In his last will and testament, Hitler appointed Admiral Karl Donitz as head of state and Goebbels as chancellor. He then retired to his private quarters with Braun, where he and Braun poisoned themselves and their dogs, before Hitler then also shot himself with his service pistol.

Hitler and Braun's bodies were hastily cremated in the chancellery garden, as Soviet forces closed in on the building. When the Soviets reached the chancellery, they removed Hitler's ashes, continually changing their location so as to prevent Hitler devotees from creating a memorial at his final resting place. Only eight days later, on May 8, 1945, the German forces issued an unconditional surrender, leaving Germany to be carved up by the four Allied powers.

April 29, 2004: World War II monument opens in Washington, D.C.

Mon, 04/28/2014 - 10:00pm

On April 29, 2004, the National World War II Memorial opens in Washington, D.C., to thousands of visitors, providing overdue recognition for the 16 million U.S. men and women who served in the war. The memorial is located on 7.4 acres on the former site of the Rainbow Pool at the National Mall between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. The Capitol dome is seen to the east, and Arlington Cemetery is just across the Potomac River to the west.

The granite and bronze monument features fountains between arches symbolizing hostilities in Europe and the Far East. The arches are flanked by semicircles of pillars, one each for the states, territories and the District of Columbia. Beyond the pool is a curved wall of 4,000 gold stars, one for every 100 Americans killed in the war. An Announcement Stone proclaims that the memorial honors those "Americans who took up the struggle during the Second World War and made the sacrifices to perpetuate the gift our forefathers entrusted to us: A nation conceived in liberty and justice."

Though the federal government donated $16 million to the memorial fund, it took more than $164 million in private donations to get it built. Former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, who was severely wounded in the war, and actor Tom Hanks were among its most vocal supporters. Only a fraction of the 16 million Americans who served in the war would ever see it. Four million World War II veterans were living at the time, with more than 1,100 dying every day, according to government records.

The memorial was inspired by Roger Durbin of Berkey, Ohio, who served under Gen. George S. Patton. At a fish fry near Toledo in February 1987, he asked U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur why there was no memorial on the Mall to honor World War II veterans. Kaptur, a Democrat from Ohio, soon introduced legislation to build one, starting a process that would stumble along through 17 years of legislative, legal and artistic entanglements. Durbin died of pancreatic cancer in 2000.

The monument was formally dedicated May 29, 2004, by U.S. President George W. Bush. Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it received some 4.4 million visitors in 2005.

April 28, 1945: Benito Mussolini executed

Sun, 04/27/2014 - 10:00pm

On this day in 1945, "Il Duce," Benito Mussolini, and his mistress, Clara Petacci, are shot by Italian partisans who had captured the couple as they attempted to flee to Switzerland.

The 61-year-old deposed former dictator of Italy was established by his German allies as the figurehead of a puppet government in northern Italy during the German occupation toward the close of the war. As the Allies fought their way up the Italian peninsula, defeat of the Axis powers all but certain, Mussolini considered his options. Not wanting to fall into the hands of either the British or the Americans, and knowing that the communist partisans, who had been fighting the remnants of roving Italian fascist soldiers and thugs in the north, would try him as a war criminal, he settled on escape to a neutral country.

He and his mistress made it to the Swiss border, only to discover that the guards had crossed over to the partisan side. Knowing they would not let him pass, he disguised himself in a Luftwaffe coat and helmet, hoping to slip into Austria with some German soldiers. His subterfuge proved incompetent, and he and Petacci were discovered by partisans and shot, their bodies then transported by truck to Milan, where they were hung upside down and displayed publicly for revilement by the masses.

April 27, 4977: Universe is created, according to Kepler

Sat, 04/26/2014 - 10:00pm

On this day in 4977 B.C., the universe is created, according to German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler, considered a founder of modern science. Kepler is best known for his theories explaining the motion of planets.

Kepler was born on December 27, 1571, in Weil der Stadt, Germany. As a university student, he studied the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus' theories of planetary ordering. Copernicus (1473-1543) believed that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the solar system, a theory that contradicted the prevailing view of the era that the sun revolved around the earth.

In 1600, Kepler went to Prague to work for Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, the imperial mathematician to Rudolf II, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Kepler's main project was to investigate the orbit of Mars. When Brahe died the following year, Kepler took over his job and inherited Brahe's extensive collection of astronomy data, which had been painstakingly observed by the naked eye. Over the next decade, Kepler learned about the work of Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), who had invented a telescope with which he discovered lunar mountains and craters, the largest four satellites of Jupiter and the phases of Venus, among other things. Kepler corresponded with Galileo and eventually obtained a telescope of his own and improved upon the design. In 1609, Kepler published the first two of his three laws of planetary motion, which held that planets move around the sun in ellipses, not circles (as had been widely believed up to that time), and that planets speed up as they approach the sun and slow down as they move away. In 1619, he produced his third law, which used mathematic principles to relate the time a planet takes to orbit the sun to the average distance of the planet from the sun.

Kepler's research was slow to gain widespread traction during his lifetime, but it later served as a key influence on the English mathematician Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) and his law of gravitational force. Additionally, Kepler did important work in the fields of optics, including demonstrating how the human eye works, and math. He died on November 15, 1630, in Regensberg, Germany. As for Kepler's calculation about the universe's birthday, scientists in the 20th century developed the Big Bang theory, which showed that his calculations were off by about 13.7 billion years.

April 26, 1954: Polio vaccine trials begin

Fri, 04/25/2014 - 10:00pm

On this day in 1954, the Salk polio vaccine field trials, involving 1.8 million children, begin at the Franklin Sherman Elementary School in McLean, Virginia. Children in the United States, Canada and Finland participated in the trials, which used for the first time the now-standard double-blind method, whereby neither the patient nor attending doctor knew if the inoculation was the vaccine or a placebo. On April 12, 1955, researchers announced the vaccine was safe and effective and it quickly became a standard part of childhood immunizations in America. In the ensuing decades, polio vaccines would all but wipe out the highly contagious disease in the Western Hemisphere.

Polio, known officially as poliomyelitis, is an infectious disease that has existed since ancient times and is caused by a virus. It occurs most commonly in children and can result in paralysis. The disease reached epidemic proportions throughout the first half of the 20th century. During the 1940s and 1950s, polio was associated with the iron lung, a large metal tank designed to help polio victims suffering from respiratory paralysis breathe.

President Franklin Roosevelt was diagnosed with polio in 1921 at the age of 39 and was left paralyzed from the waist down and forced to use leg braces and a wheelchair for the rest of his life. In 1938, Roosevelt helped found the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, later renamed the March of Dimes. The organization was responsible for funding much of the research concerning the disease, including the Salk vaccine trials.

The man behind the original vaccine was New York-born physician and epidemiologist Jonas Salk (1914-95). Salk's work on an anti-influenza vaccine in the 1940s, while at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, led him, in 1952 at the University of Pittsburgh, to develop the inactivated polio vaccine (IPV), based on a killed-virus strain of the disease. The 1954 field trials that followed, the largest in U.S. history at the time, were led by Salk's former University of Michigan colleague, Dr. Thomas Francis, Jr.

In the late 1950s, Polish-born physician and virologist Albert Sabin (1906-1993) tested an oral polio vaccine (OPV) he had created from a weakened live virus. The vaccine, easier to administer and cheaper to produce than Salk's, became available for use in America in the early 1960s and eventually replaced Salk's as the vaccine of choice in most countries.

Today, polio has been eliminated throughout much of the world due to the vaccine; however, there is still no cure for the disease and it persists in a small number of countries in Africa and Asia.

April 25, 1983: Andropov writes to U.S. student

Thu, 04/24/2014 - 10:00pm

On this day in 1983, the Soviet Union releases a letter that Russian leader Yuri Andropov wrote to Samantha Smith, an American fifth-grader from Manchester, Maine, inviting her to visit his country. Andropov's letter came in response to a note Smith had sent him in December 1982, asking if the Soviets were planning to start a nuclear war. At the time, the United States and Soviet Union were Cold War enemies.

President Ronald Reagan, a passionate anti-communist, had dubbed the Soviet Union the "evil empire" and called for massive increases in U.S. defense spending to meet the perceived Soviet threat. In his public relations duel with Reagan, known as the "Great Communicator," Andropov, who had succeeded longtime Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in 1982, assumed a folksy, almost grandfatherly approach that was incongruous with the negative image most Americans had of the Soviets.

Andropov's letter said that Russian people wanted to "live in peace, to trade and cooperate with all our neighbors on the globe, no matter how close or far away they are, and, certainly, with such a great country as the United States of America." In response to Smith's question about whether the Soviet Union wished to prevent nuclear war, Andropov declared, "Yes, Samantha, we in the Soviet Union are endeavoring and doing everything so that there will be no war between our two countries, so that there will be no war at all on earth." Andropov also complimented Smith, comparing her to the spunky character Becky Thatcher from "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" by Mark Twain.

Smith, born June 29, 1972, accepted Andropov's invitation and flew to the Soviet Union with her parents for a visit. Afterward, she became an international celebrity and peace ambassador, making speeches, writing a book and even landing a role on an American television series. In February 1984, Yuri Andropov died from kidney failure and was succeeded by Konstantin Chernenko. The following year, in August 1985, Samantha Smith died tragically in a plane crash at age 13. 

April 24, 1916: Easter Rebellion begins

Wed, 04/23/2014 - 10:00pm

On this day in 1916, on Easter Monday in Dublin, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret organization of Irish nationalists led by Patrick Pearse, launches the so-called Easter Rebellion, an armed uprising against British rule. Assisted by militant Irish socialists under James Connolly, Pearse and his fellow Republicans rioted and attacked British provincial government headquarters across Dublin and seized the Irish capital's General Post Office. Following these successes, they proclaimed the independence of Ireland, which had been under the repressive thumb of the United Kingdom for centuries, and by the next morning were in control of much of the city. Later that day, however, British authorities launched a counteroffensive, and by April 29 the uprising had been crushed. Nevertheless, the Easter Rebellion is considered a significant marker on the road to establishing an independent Irish republic.

Following the uprising, Pearse and 14 other nationalist leaders were executed for their participation and held up as martyrs by many in Ireland. There was little love lost among most Irish people for the British, who had enacted a series of harsh anti-Catholic restrictions, the Penal Laws, in the 18th century, and then let 1.5 million Irish starve during the Potato Famine of 1845-1848. Armed protest continued after the Easter Rebellion and in 1921, 26 of Ireland's 32 counties won independence with the declaration of the Irish Free State. The Free State became an independent republic in 1949. However, six northeastern counties of the Emerald Isle remained part of the United Kingdom, prompting some nationalists to reorganize themselves into the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to continue their struggle for full Irish independence.

In the late 1960s, influenced in part by the U.S. civil rights movement, Catholics in Northern Ireland, long discriminated against by British policies that favored Irish Protestants, advocated for justice. Civil unrest broke out between Catholics and Protestants in the region and the violence escalated as the pro-Catholic IRA battled British troops. An ongoing series of terrorist bombings and attacks ensued in a drawn-out conflict that came to be known as "The Troubles." Peace talks eventually took place throughout the mid- to late 1990s, but a permanent end to the violence remained elusive. Finally, in July 2005, the IRA announced its members would give up all their weapons and pursue the group's objectives solely through peaceful means. By the fall of 2006, the Independent Monitoring Commission reported that the IRA's military campaign to end British rule was over.

April 23, 1564: William Shakespeare born

Tue, 04/22/2014 - 10:00pm

According to tradition, the great English dramatist and poet William Shakespeare is born in Stratford-on-Avon on April 23, 1564. It is impossible to be certain the exact day on which he was born, but church records show that he was baptized on April 26, and three days was a customary amount of time to wait before baptizing a newborn. Shakespeare's date of death is conclusively known, however: it was April 23, 1616. He was 52 years old and had retired to Stratford three years before.

Although few plays have been performed or analyzed as extensively as the 38 plays ascribed to William Shakespeare, there are few surviving details about the playwright's life. This dearth of biographical information is due primarily to his station in life; he was not a noble, but the son of John Shakespeare, a leather trader and the town bailiff. The events of William Shakespeare's early life can only be gleaned from official records, such as baptism and marriage records.

He probably attended the grammar school in Stratford, where he would have studied Latin and read classical literature. He did not go to university but at age 18 married Anne Hathaway, who was eight years his senior and pregnant at the time of the marriage. Their first daughter, Susanna, was born six months later, and in 1585 William and Anne had twins, Hamnet and Judith. Hamnet, Shakespeare's only son, died 11 years later, and Anne Shakespeare outlived her husband, dying in 1623. Nothing is known of the period between the birth of the twins and Shakespeare's emergence as a playwright in London in the early 1590s, but unfounded stories have him stealing deer, joining a group of traveling players, becoming a schoolteacher, or serving as a soldier in the Low Countries.

The first reference to Shakespeare as a London playwright came in 1592, when a fellow dramatist, Robert Greene, wrote derogatorily of him on his deathbed. It is believed that Shakespeare had written the three parts of Henry VI by that point. In 1593, Venus and Adonis was Shakespeare's first published poem, and he dedicated it to the young Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd earl of Southampton. In 1594, having probably composed, among other plays, Richard III, The Comedy of Errors, and The Taming of the Shrew, he became an actor and playwright for the Lord Chamberlain's Men, which became the King's Men after James I's ascension in 1603. The company grew into England's finest, in no small part because of Shakespeare, who was its principal dramatist. It also had the finest actor of the day, Richard Burbage, and the best theater, the Globe, which was located on the Thames' south bank. Shakespeare stayed with the King's Men until his retirement and often acted in small parts.

By 1596, the company had performed the classic Shakespeare plays Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, and A Midsummer Night's Dream. That year, John Shakespeare was granted a coat of arms, a testament to his son's growing wealth and fame. In 1597, William Shakespeare bought a large house in Stratford. In 1599, after producing his great historical series, the first and second part of Henry IV and Henry V, he became a partner in the ownership of the Globe Theatre.

The beginning of the 17th century saw the performance of the first of his great tragedies, Hamlet. The next play, The Merry Wives of Windsor, was written at the request of Queen Elizabeth I, who wanted to see another play that included the popular character Falstaff. During the next decade, Shakespeare produced such masterpieces as Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, and The Tempest. In 1609, his sonnets, probably written during the 1590s, were published. The 154 sonnets are marked by the recurring themes of the mutability of beauty and the transcendent power of love and art.

Shakespeare died in Stratford-on-Avon on April 23, 1616. Today, nearly 400 years later, his plays are performed and read more often and in more nations than ever before. In a million words written over 20 years, he captured the full range of human emotions and conflicts with a precision that remains sharp today. As his great contemporary the poet and dramatist Ben Jonson said, "He was not of an age, but for all time."

April 22, 1970: The first Earth Day

Mon, 04/21/2014 - 10:00pm

Earth Day, an event to increase public awareness of the world's environmental problems, is celebrated in the United States for the first time. Millions of Americans, including students from thousands of colleges and universities, participated in rallies, marches, and educational programs.

Earth Day was the brainchild of Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, a staunch environmentalist who hoped to provide unity to the grassroots environmental movement and increase ecological awareness. "The objective was to get a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy," Senator Nelson said, "and, finally, force this issue permanently onto the national political agenda." Earth Day indeed increased environmental awareness in America, and in July of that year the Environmental Protection Agency was established by special executive order to regulate and enforce national pollution legislation.

On April 22, 1990, the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, more than 200 million people in 141 countries participated in Earth Day celebrations.

Earth Day has been celebrated on different days by different groups internationally. The United Nations officially celebrates it on the vernal equinox, which usually occurs about March 21.

April 21, 0753: Rome founded

Sun, 04/20/2014 - 10:00pm

According to tradition, on April 21, 753 B.C., Romulus and his twin brother, Remus, found Rome on the site where they were suckled by a she-wolf as orphaned infants. Actually, the Romulus and Remus myth originated sometime in the fourth century B.C., and the exact date of Rome's founding was set by the Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro in the first century B.C.

According to the legend, Romulus and Remus were the sons of Rhea Silvia, the daughter of King Numitor of Alba Longa. Alba Longa was a mythical city located in the Alban Hills southeast of what would become Rome. Before the birth of the twins, Numitor was deposed by his younger brother Amulius, who forced Rhea to become a vestal virgin so that she would not give birth to rival claimants to his title. However, Rhea was impregnated by the war god Mars and gave birth to Romulus and Remus. Amulius ordered the infants drowned in the Tiber, but they survived and washed ashore at the foot of the Palatine hill, where they were suckled by a she-wolf until they were found by the shepherd Faustulus.

Reared by Faustulus and his wife, the twins later became leaders of a band of young shepherd warriors. After learning their true identity, they attacked Alba Longa, killed the wicked Amulius, and restored their grandfather to the throne. The twins then decided to found a town on the site where they had been saved as infants. They soon became involved in a petty quarrel, however, and Remus was slain by his brother. Romulus then became ruler of the settlement, which was named "Rome" after him.

To populate his town, Romulus offered asylum to fugitives and exiles. Rome lacked women, however, so Romulus invited the neighboring Sabines to a festival and abducted their women. A war then ensued, but the Sabine women intervened to prevent the Sabine men from seizing Rome. A peace treaty was drawn up, and the communities merged under the joint rule of Romulus and the Sabine king, Titus Tatius. Tatius' early death, perhaps perpetrated by Romulus, left the Roman as the sole king again. After a long and successful rule, Romulus died under obscure circumstances. Many Romans believed he was changed into a god and worshipped him as the deity Quirinus. After Romulus, there were six more kings of Rome, the last three believed to be Etruscans. Around 509 B.C., the Roman republic was established.

Another Roman foundation legend, which has its origins in ancient Greece, tells of how the mythical Trojan Aeneas founded Lavinium and started a dynasty that would lead to the birth of Romulus and Remus several centuries later. In the Iliad, an epic Greek poem probably composed by Homer in the eighth century B.C., Aeneas was the only major Trojan hero to survive the Greek destruction of Troy. A passage told of how he and his descendants would rule the Trojans, but since there was no record of any such dynasty in Troy, Greek scholars proposed that Aeneas and his followers relocated.

In the fifth century B.C., a few Greek historians speculated that Aeneas settled at Rome, which was then still a small city-state. In the fourth century B.C., Rome began to expand within the Italian peninsula, and Romans, coming into greater contact with the Greeks, embraced the suggestion that Aeneas had a role in the foundation of their great city. In the first century B.C., the Roman poet Virgil developed the Aeneas myth in his epic poem the Aeneid, which told of Aeneas' journey to Rome. Augustus, the first Roman emperor and emperor during Virgil's time, and Julius Caesar, his great-uncle and predecessor as Roman ruler, were said to be descended from Aeneas.