May 14

1610 Assassination of Henri IV

Frenchmen spent the last half of the 16th century persecuting each other over the question of religion. The last stage of these conflicts was known as The War of the Three Henri’s because each of the factions was led by (you guessed it) someone named Henri. The last of the Valois dynasty, which pursued a variable middle course, that of the so-called “Politiques”, was Henri III. Henri, Duc de Guise, led the ultra-Catholic League, while Protestant forces were under Henri of Navarre. In 1588 Henri III had Guise murdered and in the next year a Catholic partisan took revenge by knifing the king to death. This left Navarre next in line to the throne but he only won nation-wide acceptance when he converted to Catholicism, becoming Henri IV, first of the Bourbon dynasty.

But old hatreds died hard. In 1610, François Ravaillac approached the coach of Henri IV as it was stuck in a Parisian traffic jam and plunged his dagger into the king. Though he swore, under hideous torture, that he had no accomplices and was motivated by a desire to punish someone who was no true Catholic, a recent historian has speculated that he was aided by a noblewoman, the Marquise de Verneuil, who was a spiteful discarded royal mistress, and the Duc d’Epernon who had never reconciled himself to Henri’s rule.

Ravaillac was executed in a gruesome fashion which the loathsome Michel Foucault recounted in some detail in Discipline and Punish. Suffice it here to say only that he was, after much other unpleasantness, torn apart by six horses. The standard text on the affair is Roland Mousnier, The Assassination of Henry IV.

May 11

1812 The Assassination of Spencer Perceval

The only assassination of a British Prime Minister took place on this date when Spencer Perceval was gunned down outside the House of Commons. For some reason, political murders are rare in the British Commonwealth, much less frequent than in presidential systems. Yet another advantage of a constitutional monarchy.

A near-contemporary account reveals the fate of the assailant and his motives.

A weak ministry, under a premier of moderate abilities, Mr. Spencer Percival, was broken up, May 11, 1812, by the assassination of its chief. On the evening of that day, Mr. Percival had just entered the lobby of the House of Commons, on his way into the house, when a man concealed behind the door shot him with a pistol. He staggered forward with a slight exclamation, and fell expiring. The incident was so sudden, that the assassin was at first disregarded by the bystanders. He was at length seized, and examined, when another loaded pistol was found upon him. He remained quite passive in the hands of his captors, but extremely agitated by his feelings, and when some one said, ‘Villain, how could you destroy so good a man, and make a family of twelve children orphans?’ he only murmured in a mournful tone, ‘I am sorry for it.’ It was quickly ascertained that he was named John Bellingham, and that a morbid sense of some wrongs of his own alone led to the dreadful deed. His position was that of an English merchant in Russia: for some mercantile injuries there sustained he had sought redress from the British government; but his memorials had been neglected.

Exasperated beyond the feeble self-control which his mind possessed, he had at length deliberately formed the resolution of shooting the premier, not from any animosity to him, against which he loudly protested, but ‘for the purpose,’ as he said, ‘of ascertaining, through a criminal court, whether his Majesty’s ministers have the power to refuse justice to [for] a well-authenticated and irrefutable act of oppression committed by their consul and ambassador abroad.’ His conduct on his trial was marked by great calmness, and he gave a long and perfectly rational address on the wrongs he had suffered, and his views regarding them. There was no trace of excitable mania in his demeanour, and he refused to plead insanity. The unhappy man, who was about forty-two years of age, met his fate a week after the murder with the same tranquillity. He probably felt death to be a kind relief from past distresses, for it was his own remark on his trial, ‘Sooner than suffer what I have suffered for the last eight years, I should consider five hundred deaths, if it were possible for human nature to endure them, far more to be preferred.’ He had left a wife of twenty years, with a babe at her breast, in St. Petersburg, waiting to be called to England when his affairs should be settled. A more affecting image of human misery can scarcely be conceived.

May 7

1915 Sinking of the Lusitania

If you wonder whether “the Hun”, the popular nickname for Germans in the First World War, was justified, you have only to look at the behaviour of their armed forces over a six-week period in 1915. 

The nickname initially sprang from Kaiser Wilhelm II’s instructions to his troops departing for the Boxer Rebellion in China. He licensed their atrocities by urging them to act in the same way that the real Hunnic horde had and to make sure that the Chinese would remember the Germans a thousand years hence. By the time World War I broke out, his country — which had given the world Dürer, Handel, Bach, Beethoven, Heine and Goethe – had a well-deserved reputation for militarism and brutality.

The unprovoked German invasion of neutral Belgium in August 1914 was marked by the usual outrages that attend such affairs – rape, looting, and murder of civilians – but the Kaiser’s High Command hoped that this surprise attack would bring a swift victory. Instead, the war on the Western Front bogged down in static trench warfare which produced massive casualties but no breakthrough. Seeking solutions to this stalemate led the German military to undertake decisive actions in contravention of the rules of warfare.

The first of these steps was to use poison gas against Allied troops. On April 22, 1915 waves of phosgene gas billowed around Canadian and French troops at Ypres. This “higher form of killing”, as a German scientist called it, caused a panic which just about succeeded in affording the desired collapse of the line. It encouraged the Germans to try even more deadly gases and encouraged the British and French to employ their own poisonous aerosols.

The second step was to declare a “maritime exclusion zone” around the British Isles and to warn that any ships, neutral or hostile, venturing into it would be subject to submarine attack. A notice was sent to American newspapers:

TRAVELLERS intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.

Washington, D.C., 22 April 1915.

R.M.S. Lusitania, a Cunard ocean liner, set sail from New York for Liverpool nine days later. On May 7, off the coast of Ireland, Lusitania was spotted by submarine U-20 of the Imperial German Navy which fired one torpedo at the passenger vessel. It struck the Lusitania on the starboard bow and precipitated a second explosion within the ship. Within 18 minutes the liner had sunk, taking almost 1,200 passengers and crew with it, mostly British and Canadians but 128 Americans as well, including some prominent public figures.

There was wide-spread outrage on both sides of the Atlantic but Germany maintained that the vessel was carrying munitions (it was, despite British denials) and that passengers had been warned. Nonetheless, the publicity caused the Germans to forbid any further attacks on passenger vessels until the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in January 1917. One historian has described the ultimate consequence of the sinking of the Lusitania: it had failed to bring two hundred American civilians to Liverpool in 1915 but had brought 2 million American troops in 1917.

Germany followed up this outrage with another innovation in May 1915, the aerial bombardment of civilians. German dirigible balloons, dubbed Zeppelins, began attacks on London and coastal cities, the forerunner of the hideous bombardments 25 years later that began with the Blitz, and led to the incineration of Hamburg, Berlin, Dresden, Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

May 5

Bicentenary of the death of Napoleon

Two hundred years ago, a great (but definitely not good) man died. Napoléon Bonaparte (15 August 1769 – 5 May 1821) was a military leader of great success, a reformer, a visionary, a rapist, and a mass murderer. Since the fall of the Roman Empire, Western Civilization had seen nothing like him, someone who rose from obscurity to grab destiny by the scruff the neck, win an imperial crown, and dictate the fortunes of a continent. Since his death, the world has been plagued by swarms of such would-be imitators: V.I. Lenin, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Jean-Bédel Bokassa, Mao Tse-tung, Saddam Hussein, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Juan Peron, Benito Mussolini, Kwame Nkrumah, “Papa Doc” Duvalier, etc., ad nauseam.

From his 1799 coup to his defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Napoléon had kept Europe in turmoil, overthrowing ancient dynasties, establishing new republics, settling his relatives on various thrones from Sweden to Spain, modernizing laws and bureaucracies, and killing millions of soldiers and civilians with the incessant wars prompted largely by his planetary-sized vanity. The crowned heads whose armies had finally brought him low were averse to killing a fellow monarch. This had resulted in an 1814 comic exile to the Italian island of Elba but Napoléon’s escape from there had taught a lesson — now he was to be sent to a speck of land over a thousand miles off the African coast. On the island of St Helena he would spend six uncomfortable years, constantly complaining about his food and lodgings, attended by a scruffy but mostly loyal band of retainers, and gradually growing sicker. 

He died on this date in 1821, probably of stomach cancer (his father had similarly suffered), though for two centuries rumours have circulated about his being poisoned by one of his own entourage or the British. On his deathbed he returned to the Catholic Church he had done so much to manipulate during his reign.

May 4

1728 Benefit Performance of The Beggar’s Opera

John Gay’s musical treatment of the London underworld was the sensation of 1728’s theatre season. The star of the show was 20-year-old Lavinia Fenton who played the heroine Polly Peachum. Though not a striking beauty she was a good actress and singer who seemed to radiant attractiveness. Her picture became a London pin-up, her songs were printed on ladies, crowds flocked to hear her sing, and a special benefit performance of the opera was held in her honour.

Certainly one frequent attender in the audience found her irresistible. This was Charles Powlett, the third Duke of Bolton, older than Lavinia by over 20 years, but possessed of huge tracts of land, deep pockets, and political clout. He was unhappily married, separated from his wife, and was determined that the fair Lavinia should be his. A print by Hogarth shows a scene from The Beggar’s Opera with a portrait of the actress in white, kneeling, and the smitten Duke seated in the box at the far right.

By the end of the theatre season Bolton had persuaded Miss Fenton to leave the stage for good and become his mistress. Their relationship was a long and happy one. She was treated well by society and bore him three sons out of wedlock. In 1751 Bolton’s wife died and he promptly married Lavinia, making her a Duchess. She was the first of a long line of actresses who married into the aristocracy; a model, perhaps, for Meghan Markle. 


May 3

The birthday of a plethora of popular culture luminaries:

1903 Bing Crosby. Harry Lillis “Bing” Crosby was more than the quintessential crooner whose career coincided with the introduction of the microphone that suited his intimate baritone. He was an Academy Award winning actor; he dominated record sales for decades; he was star on radio and television. Sadly his last public appearance was a bizarre Christmas duet with David Bowie.

1906 Mary Astor. The gorgeous Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke was a splendid actress with a tawdry personal life. She won eternal fame for playing villainess Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon, and an Oscar for The Great Lie. Her parents were leeches and a constant source of embarrassment while Astor herself enjoyed a string of husbands and lovers. Her diary, in which she kept details of her amorous encounters, proved a scandal during one of her divorces but she died a faithful Catholic and a recovered alcoholic. 

1919 Pete Seeger. A splendid folk singer and an engaging personality, Seeger never quite shook off his association with Stalinism in the 1930s. Following the Moscow line, Seeger and his fellow American Marxists opposed any war against Hitler until mid-1941 and the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Seeger quit the Communist Party in 1949 but continued to have trouble with Washington who viewed his progressive politics as being subversive. He supported every conceivable left wing cause in his music, from Republican Spain, unionism, the Hollywood Ten, the Rosenbergs, the death penalty, the Vietnam War, Occupy Wall Street, Obama, and environmentalism. He professed communism until the day he died but, late in life, did express misgivings about the Gulags. I love his banjo-only versions of some traditional Christmas music.

1928 Dave Dudley. David Darwin Pedruska became a big cross-over star in 1963 with his truck-driving ballad,”Six Days on the Road”. The song set the fashion for a new genre of country music and provided a decent living for Dudley who found that his popularity lingered in Europe for decades after his star had faded at home.

1933 James Brown. “Mr. Dynamite.” “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.” “The Godfather of Soul”. “Soul Brother No. 1.” No more need be said. 

1938 Napoleon XIV. In 1966 Jerrold “Jerry” Samuels gave us the definition of a one-hit wonder and a testimony to the debased taste of a lost generation with the immortal cry of existential angst that was “They’re Coming to Take Me Away”. With great sensitivity, he further examined the hilarious side of mental illness with such other gems as “Bats in My Belfry”, “The Nuts on My Family Tree”, and “Photogenic, Schizophrenic You”.

May 2

1920 Foundation of the Negro Baseball Leagues

Racial laws and hostile social attitudes in early-twentieth-century America precluded the integration of most professional sports. In the case of baseball, this had led to African Americans forming their own teams and leagues as early as the 1880s. In 1920 under the aegis of the National Association of Colored Professional Base Ball Clubs, the Negro National League was founded with eight teams (three of them named Giants and two named Stars): the Chicago American Giants, the Chicago Giants, the St. Louis Giants, the Cuban Stars, the Dayton Marcos, Detroit Stars, Indianapolis ABC’s, and the Kansas City Monarchs. The NACPBBC was augmented the next year by the addition of the Negro Southern League but competition was fierce and player raiding was common when it came to rival associations such as the Eastern Colored League and the American Negro League.

Teams folded frequently, whole leagues went under, but the 1930s might be considered the Golden Age of Negro Baseball with players such as Cool Papa Bell, Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. The switch-hitting Bell was reckoned the fastest man in the sport; it was said that he could switch off the light and be under the bed covers before the room was dark. Another story had him hitting a pitch up the middle and being struck by the ball as he slid into second base. Paige was an astonishing picture who toiled for a host of clubs, among them the Chattanooga Black Lookouts, the Birmingham Black Barons, the Baltimore Black Sox  and the Pittsburgh Crawfords — one of them, the Bismarck Churchills of North Dakota, was integrated. He would often invite his infielders to take a break on the field while he struck out the side. Catcher Josh Gibson was one of the greatest hitters — for power or average — in history. He retired with a .441 batting average and hit close to 800 home runs.

The post-war integration of baseball, led by Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers spelled the beginning of the end for Negro Leagues. A few of the stars at the end of their careers found employment in the majors — Satchel Paige pitched into his late 50s for the Cleveland Indians, St Louis Browns, and Kansas City Athletics — and various teams lingered as barnstorming propositions. In 2020 Major League Baseball announced that it would acknowledge the Negro Leagues as fully professional and recognize their statistics.




April 30

1770 Birthday of David Thompson

A tip of the beaver hat today to the man dubbed the “greatest practical land geographer that the world has produced”.

David Thompson was born in London to a poor Welsh family and was given a practical education in mathematics and surveying by a charity foundation. At the age of 14 he was indentured to the Hudson’s Bay Company and sent to the northern port of Churchill in what is now Manitoba, Canada. After serving as a clerk at several of the company’s trading posts, he became a fur trader and surveyor, mapping routes deep into the interior, despite a limp and the loss of vision in one eye. He became fluent in four native languages, compiling dictionaries of these tongues, and was almost always on excellent terms with tribes he encountered.

In 1797, frustrated because the HBC wanted him to abandon surveying and concentrate on the acquisition of furs trapped by native hunters, he switched his allegiance to the North West Company which was then involved in a heated rivalry with his old employers. There, his surveying skills were more highly valued. He worked along the disputed American border, Lake Superior, up the Mississippi River, and into the Rocky Mountains. His contributions were so valuable to the NWC that he was made a full partner of the firm.

In 1799 he married a 16-year-old (some say 13-year-old) Métis woman, Charlotte Small, with whom he enjoyed a 58-year marriage and 11 (some say 13) sons and daughters. She and their children often accompanied him on his travels.

With American explorers such as the Lewis and Clark expedition  pushing farther west, the North West Company commissioned Thompson to find a way to the Pacific Ocean. From 1807 to 1812 Thompson explored territories in what is now British Columbia, Washington, Montana, and Idaho, claiming vast swaths for Great Britain as he went.

Before retiring to Montreal in 1812 so that his children could get an education, Thompson had walked or paddled over 55,000 miles and charted 1.9 million square miles of wilderness. His later years were marked by ill health, poor finances, and neglect by the companies he had worked so hard for. He died in poverty in 1857 and was buried in an unmarked grave. Only in the 20th century was his massive contribution to history recognized. Thompson’s journals, enormously valuable for geographical, botanical and sociological observations, were finally published; statues and memorials were erected to him in Britain, Canada, and the United States; an exploration vessel, an astronomical observatory, a highway, and a university were named after him.

April 29

1252 The death of Peter of Verona

Butler’s Book of Saints gives a very laudatory account of this Dominican:

In 1205 the glorious martyr Peter was born at Verona of heretical parents. He went to a Catholic school, and his Manichean uncle asked what he learnt. “The Creed,” answered Peter; “I believe in God, Creator of heaven and earth.” No persuasion could shake his faith, and at fifteen he received the habit from St. Dominic himself at Bologna. After ordination, he preached to the heretics of Lombardy, and converted multitudes. St. Peter was constantly obliged to dispute with heretics, and although he was able to confound them, still the devil took occasion thence to tempt him once against faith. Instantly he had recourse to prayer before an image of Our Lady, and heard a voice saying to him the words of Jesus Christ in the Gospel, “I have prayed for thee, Peter, that thy faith may not fail; and thou shalt confirm thy brethren in it.” Once when exhorting a vast crowd under the burning sun, the heretics defied him to procure shade. He prayed, and a cloud overshadowed the audience.

In spite of his sanctity, he was foully slandered and even punished for immorality. He submitted humbly, but complained in prayer to Jesus crucified. The crucifix spoke, “And I, Peter, what did I do?” Every day, as he elevated at Mass the precious blood, he prayed, “Grant, Lord, that I may die for Thee, Who for me didst die.” His prayer was answered. The heretics, confounded by him, sought his life. Two of them attacked him as he was returning to Milan, and struck his head with an axe. St. Peter fell, commended himself to God, dipped his finger in his own blood, and wrote on the ground, “I believe in God, Creator of heaven and earth.” They then stabbed him in the side, and he received his crown.

Despite Butler’s assertion, the heretics in question were not, strictly speaking, Manicheans, but rather Catharites (aka Albigensians), members of a dualist sect with deep support in northern Italy and southern France. They appeared to the casual observer to be Christians but rejected the God of the Old Testament, believing that material Creation was evil. Their goal was to escape the world of flesh and be reincarnated — thus they rejected eating meat and having sex. They were pacifists at first, but persecution led them first to targeted assassination of priests and then to outright rebellion.

Peter of Verona was an Inquisitor (in fact the Chief Inquisitor for northern Italy) and thus a suitable victim for Catharite assassins. He became known as Peter the Martyr and the name “Pietro Martire” became a popular one for boys in the late Medieval period.

April 27

If you have lost your keys, or if you are a domestic worker, particularly an abused one, I advise you to have recourse to the saintly powers of  Zita of Lucca.

At the age of 12, Zica became a servant in the Fatinelli household where she laboured for the rest of her life. Despised at first by her employers and her fellow servants (who found her too industrious) she eventually overcame their opposition by unfailing kindness and dutifulness.

Zita was known for giving her own food (or that of her master) to the poor. One day, when she had neglected her baking in order to care for someone in need, one of her spiteful colleagues ratted on her to the Fatinellis. However, when they came to investigate they found angels in the kitchen, baking the bread for her.

By the time of her death, she had become venerated by the family she served and revered in her town. Her fame spread so quickly and widely that Dante, in his Inferno, referred to Lucca as “Santa Zita”. After 150 miracles had been attributed to Zita’s intercession and recognized by the church, she was canonized in 1696. Her body was exhumed in 1580 and discovered to be incorrupt. Saint Zita’s mummified remains are currently on display in the Basilica di San Frediano in Lucca.

On this, her feast day, Italian families bake a loaf of bread in celebration of her career of service and piety. She is the patron of servants of all sorts, those who have lost their keys, and the city of Lucca. Zita is a model for those who live lives of little outward distinction but of great devotion to their tasks and integrity.