April 26

1865

The death of John Wilkes Booth

Having shot Abraham Lincoln on the night of April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth fled into hiding. While his fellow conspirators were being rounded up, Booth and accomplice David Herold headed south into territory where he might expect Confederate sympathizers to aid him. He paused at the house of Dr. Samuel Mudd to have his broken leg, suffered when he jumped to the stage at Ford’s Theatre, bound and set. (Mudd would later suffer imprisonment for this assistance.) The reward of $100,00 for his capture caused Booth and Herold to be extremely cautious because by now their identity was known and widely broadcast. Nonetheless, Booth was helped along his way by die-hard Confederates who provided shelter and horses.

On April 24, the fugitives reached the Virginia tobacco farm of Richard H. Garrett where the news of Lincoln’s death had not yet been learned; their plan was to make their way to Mexico but federal cavalry were hot on their trail. On the night of April 26, pursuers surrounded the barn where Booth and Herold slept and demanded their surrender. Herold quickly gave up but Booth announced his intention to fight on. The troops set the barn alight and fired into it, hitting Booth in the neck. He was dragged out of the barn and died on the porch of the farm house; his last words were “useless, useless!”

April 15

 

1865

The death of Abraham Lincoln

After four years of bloody civil war, America was at peace. The forces of the secessionist Confederate States had surrendered, slavery would be no more, and President Abraham Lincoln had announced that he was considering granting all African Americans the right to vote. But not all Confederate sympathizers were willing to lay down their arms: a group of plotters who had planned to kidnap Lincoln now decided to kill the president and members of his cabinet. Actor John Wilkes Booth would shoot Lincoln, ex-soldier Lewis Powell would target Secretary of State William H. Seward and carriage-maker George Antzerodt would attack Andrew Johnson, the Vice President.

On the evening of April 14, Booth entered Ford’s Theatre and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. He leapt to the stage shouting Sic semper tyrannis! (“Thus to all tyrants!”) and “The South is avenged!” Lincoln would die of his wounds the next morning. Powell entered Seward’s home and stabbed him, but the Secretary survived; Antzerodt backed out of his part and spent the night drunkenly wandering the streets. Booth died in a gunfight when surrounded by captors and the other two were hanged after a lengthy trial.

The assassination of Lincoln was undoubtedly a tragedy for the nation but particularly for the South which was deprived of the president’s moderation. As an observer said, “Those of Southern born sympathies know now they have lost a friend willing and more powerful to protect and serve them than they can now ever hope to find again.”

One final tragic note. The military officer in Lincoln’s box, Major Henry Rathbone, attempted to detain Booth but was badly stabbed in the attempt and passed out from loss of blood. His companion for the evening was his fiancée Clara Harris who helped tend to his wounds. They married and had three children but Rathbone’s mental health declined. In 1883 he attacked his children and murdered his wife who died trying to protect them; he spent the rest of his life in an insane asylum.

 

April 9

1948

Deir Yassin Massacre

It is well to remember, when contemplating the Middle East today, that terrorism has been used by every side in the struggle to carve out territory and achieve ethnic security. Muslims of every sect, Christians, and Jews have all resorted to assassination and atrocity. On this day in 1948 Jewish extremists from the Stern Gang (already infamous for its willingness to ally with Nazis in World War II in fighting the British; their assassination a U.N. envoy would come later) and the Irgun (bombers of the King David Hotel) entered the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin and killed about 150 inhabitants. After the massacre the surviving women and children of the village were paraded triumphantly through Jerusalem streets.

The village had no military significance and had in fact signalled its desire to remain neutral and on good terms with its Jewish neighbours. The murders seem designed to be part of a policy of ethnic cleansing — not just in eradicating the Palestine presence from this site but encouraging a mass flight of others to avoid a similar fate. The looting, rape, and execution of prisoners after the battle appear to be part of that plan.

Though the aftermath of the massacre was witnessed by British officers and Red Cross officials, confirmed by testimony from Jewish military sources, supporters of the Jewish extremists still claim that the Deir Yassin murders were a myth designed to discredit Zionism.

March 30

1949

Icelanders riot over NATO

The savage Viking heart that slumbers in every Icelander’s breast was awakened to near-violent action in March, 1949 when its government announced that the island nation would join the anti-Communist North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Left-wing parties, already resentful at the presence of an American airbase, wanted nothing to do with the Cold War, opposition to Russia, or any military spending. A crowd of protesters gathered outside the Alþingishús, (the Parliament building), harsh words were spoken, and rocks were hurled (note the damage above). Someone was almost hit by a stone. Fortunately, the bloodthirsty mob was dispersed by the police before further atrocities could occur.

Today Iceland remains a member of NATO but has no standing military except its Coast Guard.

The Ides of March

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44 BC

The Ides of March conspirators assassinate Caesar

The Roman republic was a state formed around 500 BC after the overthrow of an early monarchy. It rose from a collection of towns in the Tiber valley to become a Mediterranean empire but its military successes eroded its political culture. Instead of self-sacrifice and service to the “res publica”, Roman leaders now vied to command armies and battle each other. The first century BC saw civil wars with dictators carrying out massacres of fellow Romans and the state degenerating into a rivalry of gangsters.

The most successful of these gang leaders was Gaius Julius Caesar, who had defeated rivals such as Pompey and added Gaul and Egypt to Roman control. Many of his fellow senators saw his power growing to such an extent that they feared the republic would once more become a kingship. Caesar had recently been named “dictator for life” and had been hailed in the streets as “rex”, though he made a show of refusing kingly honours.

On the Ides of March 44 BC, a group of senators calling themselves “the Liberators” accosted Caesar on his way to the Senate and stabbed him 23 times, leaving him to bleed to death. Their proclamation that they had delivered Rome from tyranny was not well-received and Rome again fell into civil war. The armies of the conspirators led by Brutus and Cassius were defeated by those of Marc Antony, Marcus Lepidus and Octavius Caesar — the so-called Second Triumvirate. In time Antony and Octavius would fall out out and make war, which resulted in Octavian ending the republic and becoming the first Roman emperor, Augustus Caesar.

February 25

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1956

Khrushchev’s Secret Speech

“On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences” was a speech given to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. It denounced the enormities of the rule of Joseph Stalin, criticizing the former leader for violating the principle of “collective leadership”, fostering a cult of personality, repressing artists, exaggerating his role in World War II, and murderously purging innocent Party members. It did not take Stalin to task for many other of his crimes and the failure of his ideologically-motivated economic disasters.

The speech, which lasted four hours, was read to a closed session but word of it soon leaked out, causing dismay and wonderment in the Communist world. Some, particularly in Stalin’s home region of Georgia, reacted with violence, others were disheartened to learn of the feet of clay of their idol, others reacted with delight that truth had finally been disclosed. It marked the beginning of a relaxing of Soviet rule under Khrushchev (who, of course, had been a willing servant of Stalin in many of his crimes.)

60th anniversary of a national disaster

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1959

Diefenbaker cancels the Arrow

Certainly the most beautiful warplane ever built, the CF-105 Avro Arrow was to be the jet fighter of the 1960s but it ended up a heap of scrap and a national aerospace disaster.

In the early Cold War period the main Soviet threat to North American airspace was deemed to be the long-range bomber coming over the Arctic and strategies were devised to counter these fleets. Some advocated high-speed fighter interceptors while others argued for anti-aircraft missiles armed with nuclear warheads that would explode in the midst of the bomber swarm over northern Canada.

Industrialized nations all sought to build their own military  aircraft rather than rely on foreigners for them. Canada had built their CF-100 Canucks in the 1950s but the Arrow was expected to greatly outdo those, and, indeed, every other fighter of the era. Power by the Orenda Iroquois engines, Arrow could reach speeds twice the speed of sound and carry air-to-air missiles. Tests were highly encouraging; the aviation firsts of the fly-by-wire control system were ready to go; the Arrow was expected to enter mass production in 1959 and dazzle the world.

Then politics interfered. The Russian successes in their space program heightened the fear of attack from space, leading to the decision by John Diefenbaker’s Conservative Defence Minister George Parkes that Canada could not afford both a fighter program and a missile-defence program. The Arrow would have to go. On this date in 1959 the project was cancelled putting thousands of highly-skilled technicians out of work and ending any future for advanced aerospace industrial research in the country. Many of these specialists moved to the United States to take part in the American space program.

February 14: Just a miserable day all throughout history

 

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Hundreds of Jews are burnt to death in Strasbourg as people blame them for the Black Plague. This is despite the decree from the pope absolving Jews of any such responsibility and urging authorities to protect them.

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The deposed King of England Richard II dies, probably of starvation and mistreatment in prison, on the orders of the usurper Henry IV.

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Despite a treaty granting them religious toleration the Muslims of Granada are ordered to convert or face expulsion.

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Archbishop Thomas Cranmer is declared a heretic; he will be burnt at the stake within a month.

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1779

Captain James Cook and four Royal Marines are murdered by natives on a beach in Hawaii.

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Seven members of Bugs Moran’s North Side Gang are shot to death by gunmen from Al Capone’s Chicago Outfit in the St Valentine’s Day Massacre.

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The R.A.F. and the American air force starts the fire-bombing of Dresden. 25,000 German civilians will die.

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Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issues a fatwa urging the murder of the author Salman Rushdie.

A bad day for the Abbasids

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1258

Mongols take Baghdad

For 500 years Baghdad had served as the capital of the Abbasid caliphate and the centre of Islamic culture. Though in the 13th century the city and empire were in decline, Baghdad was still rich and populous with a million inhabitants, the site of many architectural marvels and impressive libraries.

The eruption of massive Mongol armies early in the 1200s completely change the geopolitical arrangements in Asia. The mighty Chinese empire fell and the borders of the caliphate crumbled as old Islamic conquests now were in Mongol hands. In the 1230s raids came closer and closer to Baghdad and it was clear that paying tribute to the hordes was a shrewd policy. The coming to power of a new more aggressive set of Mongol warlords altered the equation: they demanded that the Abbasid caliphate now pledge allegiance to the khans and that the Caliph himself come in person to their capital in Karakoram in Mongolia to submit. This was refused and Baghdad’s days were numbered.

In January 1258 the city was besieged by 150,000 Mongols under Hulagu, aided by Chinese artillery, disgruntled Shiites, and detachments from various Christian kingdoms who had long fought against the Caliphs: crusader knights from Palestine and troops from Georgia and Armenia. The walls were soon breached and on February 10 the city surrendered, leading to an epic sack and orgy of killing and destruction. The Caliph was wrapped in a carpet, beaten with clubs and trampled to death by Mongol horses. Casualties were in the hundreds of thousands; priceless palaces, mosques and libraries were burnt; and vast amounts of treasure were taken away. The dams on the Tigris and the Euphrates that the Abbasids had built up over a period of five centuries were demolished. The destruction of dams throughout Central Asia depressed agriculture and slowed population and economic recovery for many centuries. Baghdad, which was once the premier city of the world, became a ghost town.

For many historians this sack marked the end of the Islamic Golden Age. The caliphate ceased to matter for centuries and Muslim learning and science suffered a great setback.

 

Accession Day

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1952 Elizabeth II becomes queen

George VI of the House of Windsor, the last Emperor of India, and By the Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas King, Defender of the Faith, had long been in ill health but his sudden death of a heart attack took the world by surprise. His daughter, Elizabeth (b. 1926), heir to the throne, was on an African tour at the time, up a tree in Kenya. She returned home with her husband, Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, to assume the duties of Queen and prepare for her coronation.

On her 21st birthday in a radio message to the Commonwealth she had said, “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.” She has kept that promise for 67 years. God save the Queen.