October 25

1911 The assassination of General Feng-shan

Early in the twentieth century China was in political turmoil. The Qing (or Manchu) dynasty that had ruled the country since 1644 was on its last legs, rebels and warlords were making bids for power, and rival political theories were being tried on for size. Monarchist loyalists, reformed monarchists, Ming dynsty revivalists, republicans, ethnic nationalists, Muslims, socialists, regional separatists, etc., etc., all vied for influence – and even anarchism, usually associated with Europe, played a part.

One curious anarchist expression was the Chinese Assassination Corps. This small group of revolutionaries was fiercely anti-Qing and dedicated to the overthrow of the 2,000-year-old Chinese empire. Having been unsuccessful at building a mass movement, they adopted the tactic of “propaganda by deed”, individual terrorism, and murder. They aimed, and failed, to kill the Prince Regent, various Qing officials, and military officers but in October 1911 during an uprising in Guangdong, they finally brought down their target.

General Feng Shan had been sent to southern China to replace another assassinated Qing administrator and to suppress armed uprisings but his tenure was a very short one. Five members of the Assassination Corps devised a way to penetrate the heavy cordon of Manchu guards protecting the officer. As Feng Shan’s cavalcade moved down the street toward his headquarters on a palanquin, a bomb was slid from a window on a wooden plank, landing directly in front of his chair. The explosion killed the coolies carrying the general, a dozen of his guards, and Feng Shan himself.

The Assassination Corps would soon disband itself, burning most of its documents and membership lists.

October 24

1648 The Treaty of Westphalia

The treaty (or rather treaties) of Westphalia brought a merciful finish to the worst conflicts in European history prior to the 20th-century, ending the Thirty Years War and the Eighty Years War. Historians often credit these agreements as the basis of the system of modern nation states. Significant aspects of the treaties include:

• A religious settlement which determined that the national religion of the signatory countries should be that of the ruler in place in 1624. Those not of that religion (Catholic, Lutheran, or Calvinist) were allowed to practise their own faiths in private.

• The independence of the Netherlands from Spain was recognized.

• The independence of Switzerland from the Holy Roman Empire was recognized.

• Territorial adjustments gave fortresses to France, Baltic territories to Sweden, and expanded Prussia.

Fry and Laurie explain the diplomatic difficulties:

October 23

St Theodoret’s Day

From Butler’s Lives of the Saints we learn about a highly elastic martyr.

ABOUT the year 361, Julian, uncle to the emperor of that name, and like his nephew an apostate, was made Count of the East. He closed the Christian churches at Antioch, and when St. Theodoret assembled the Christians in private, he was summoned before the tribunal of the Count and most inhumanly tortured. His arms and feet were fastened by ropes to pulleys, and stretched until his body appeared nearly eight feet long, and the blood streamed from his sides. “O most wretched man,” he said to his judge, “you know well that at the day of judgment the crucified God Whom you blaspheme will send you and the tyrant whom you serve to hell.” Julian trembled at this awful prophecy, but he had the Saint despatched quickly by the sword, and in a little while the judge himself was arraigned before the judgment-seat of God.

October 22

Time for more wisdom.

There are eras of human history in which the channels of thought have been too deeply cut and no change was possible, and nothing new ever happened, and “best” was a matter of dogma, but that is not the situation now. Now the stream of our common consciousness seems to be obliterating its own banks, losing its central direction and purpose, flooding the lowlands, disconnecting and isolating the highlands and to no particular purpose other than the wasteful fulfillment of its own internal momentum. Some channel deepening seems called for. – Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, 1974

There’s a problem when you date an older man; they’re kinda like a parking meter. He’s thinking, “How much money do I have to put into this chick?” and she’s thinking, “How much time before he expires?”. – Rhonda Shear, imdb.com

Since we cannot be universal and know all that is to be known of everything, we ought to know a little about everything. For it is far better to know something about everything than to know all about one thing. This universality is the best. If we can have both, still better; but if we must choose, we ought to choose the former. And the world feels this and does so; for the world is often a good judge. – Blaise Pascal, Pensées

Every human creature is deeply interested not only in the conduct, but in the thoughts, feelings, and opinions of millions of persons who stand in no other assignable relation to him than that of being his fellow-creatures. A great writer who makes a mistake in his speculations may mislead multitudes whom he has never seen. The strong metaphor that we are all members one of another is little more than the expression of a fact. A man would be no more a man if he was alone in the world than a hand would be a hand without the rest of the body. – James Fitzpatrick Stephen, Liberty , Equality, Fraternity, 1873

There is surely evil that no repentance can redeem. And Tolstoy, like many men of giant ego, was not really capable of true religious belief or feeling. When Tolstoy found God, it was God that was honoured, not Tolstoy. – Theodore Dalrymple, The Terror of Existence

October 21

1777 Death of Samuel Foote


The tastes of one age are not necessarily the tastes of another and this particularly applies to humour. What has the audience rolling in the aisles one year is yawned at the next. Dubbed the “English Aristophanes”, Samuel Foote (1720-1777) was once accounted the wittiest man of his age but now seldom merits even a footnote in the history of British literature.

Foote trained for the legal profession but he was a man of a light and careless disposition, more eager to spend money than to make it, preferring the pleasures of the tavern to those of the law courts. He soon ran through his inheritance and that of his wife, winding up for a spell in debtor’s prison. For lack of a better alternative he turned to the stage and after discovering that he had no talent for tragedy began a career in comedy. His satires such as An Englishman in Paris, Diversions of the Morning, and Taste won him a contemporary reputation but not always financial success.

What tickled the ribs of 18th-century London may be seen in this collection of Foote’s more famous bon mots:

While present one evening at the Lectures on the Ancients, adventured on by Charles Macklin, the lecturer hearing a buzz of laughter in a corner of the room, looked angrily in that direction, and perceiving Foote, said pompously: ‘You seem very merry, pray, do you know what I am going to say?’ ‘No,’ replied Foote, ‘do you?’

On another occasion, while dining at Paris with Lord Stormont, the host descanted volubly on the age of his wine, which was served out in rather diminutive decanters and glasses. ‘It is very small for its age,’ said Foote, holding up his glass.

‘Why do you hum that air?’ he said one day to a friend. ‘It for ever haunts me,’ was the reply. ‘No wonder,’ he rejoined, ‘you are for ever murdering it.’

A mercantile friend, who imagined he had a genius for poetry, insisted one day on reading to him a specimen of his verses, commencing with, ‘Hear me, O Phoebus and ye Muses Nine;’ then perceiving his auditor inattentive, exclaimed, ‘Pray, pray, listen.’ ‘l do,’ replied Foote, ‘nine and one are ten, go on.’

Having made a trip to Ireland, he was asked, on his return, what impression was made on him by the Irish peasantry, and replied that they gave him great satisfaction, as they settled a question which had long agitated his own mind, and that was, what became of the cast-off clothes of the English beggars. 

October 20

1951 The Johnny Bright Incident

The integration of African American players into professional and university sports was a long and painful struggle. One of the ugliest moments in this story took place on this date in 1951 in Stillwater, Oklahoma during a football game between the Bulldogs of Drake University and Oklahoma A&M College Aggies (now the Oklahoma State Cowboys).

Johnny Bright was a superb black athlete who had come to Drake on a track scholarship but who would eventually also star in basketball and football. During the 1951 season Bright, playing halfback and quarterback, was leading the nation in both rushing and passing, when they met the Aggies. It was no secret that the Oklahoma team meant to target Bright in some nasty way and within the first seven minutes of the game Bright had been knocked down by defensive lineman Wilbanks Smith, the last time with a clearly illegal blow to the face lwell behind the play and long after Bright had handed the ball off. Despite a broken jaw, Bright continued for a while, completing a touchdown pass before leaving the game.

The play was not penalized and nothing more may have been heard of the incident had not photographers from the Des Moines Register captured it on film. The Pulitzer Prize-winning shots caused a national scandal but neither Oklahoma A&M, the Mississippi Valley Conference or the NCAA took any action, causing Drake and Bradley University to withdraw from the league. 

Bright was named to the All-America team in 1951 and went on to a stellar career in Canadian football, playing an important part in the Edmonton Eskimos dynasty of the mid-1950s. Bright became a Canadian citizen and was a repected teacher and coach in Alberta before dying in 1983. Twenty-two years later Oklahoma State officially apologized to Drake for the incident.


October 19

1216 Death of King John

If there were a vote for England’s Most Unpopular King, the sure winner would be John (1167-1216). Other monarchs of that land have been crueller, more profligate, or unsuccessful, but none have combined high levels of nastiness, pettiness, and bumbling in the fashion of John. He was the youngest son of Henry II, founder of the Angevin empire, and Eleanor of Aquitaine, both significant political figures but failures as parents.  

In the constant warfare between his father, brothers, and mother, John remained loyal to Henry who came to consider him his favourite child and who tried to find territory for him to inherit. Late in Henry’s life as the king battled his oldest surviving son Richard Lionheart, John switched sides and betrayed his father.

During the reign of Richard (r. 1189-99) John proved equally duplicitous. While Richard was absent on the Third Crusade, John, who had been bribed into loyalty by Richard’s gift of a wealthy bride and considerable land holdings, quarrelled with royal officials and conspired with the wily Philip Augustus of France. When Richard, on his way home from the crusade, was held for ransom in Germany, John allied himself with the French and rebelled against his brother but was stripped of all his lands by Richard when the king was released.

On Richard’s death in 1199 and after a tussle with his nephew Arthur of Brittany, John assumed the throne of England. He was also ruler of that significant part of France that had been acquired by his father and brother but it required considerable military and diplomatic skills to keep that makeshift empire intact and John conspicuously lacked those abilities. Through a series of defeats in battle and political blunders, John proceeded to lose Normandy, and place the rest of his French holdings in jeopardy. At home, he feuded with the great barons, developing a reputation for lechery, greed, irreligion, and untrustworthiness.

In 1205 he initiated a quarrel with the Church by a disagreement over the choice of the next Archbishop of Canterbury. Innocent III, the most lordly of medieval popes, responded by placing England under the interdict, essentially excommunicating the entire country. Because Innocent had also personally excommunicated John, canon law permitted the pope to declare John deposed and turn the realm over to another Christian  king, in this case Philip of France. This encounter ended with John’s surrender, acceptance of the papal candidate, and surrender of his kingdom to Innocent III as a papal fief.

Equally humiliating for John was his forced signature on the Magna Carta, a charter of traditional English rights, presented to him by a coalition of his barons. This 1215 document is seen as the foundation of liberty in the English-speaking world. Though John later repudiated the Magna Carta and continued his war against his own political class, he was unsuccessful at everything in 1216. Dubbed “Lackland” and “Soft Sword”, John was so infamous that no English king in the past 800 years has borne his name.

October 18

A potpourri of historical events on this autumn day.


1081 Battle of Dyrrhachium

Normans under Robert Guiscard defeat a  Byzantine army under Alexios I Komnenos near modern-day Durrës, Albania. Guiscard, a mercenary and bandit, had made himself powerful in southern Italy and had carved himself a duchy out of lands won from Lombards, Byzantines and Muslims. His ambition of placing a son on the throne of Constantinople received a boost when his lance-wielding cavalry smashed the larger Byzantine force

1405 Birth of Enea Silvio Bartolomeo Piccolomini, later Pope Pius II

Pius II served as pope from 1458 to 1464. Before his election he was noted for his dissolute life and humanist scholarship but he underwent a moral conversion. His reign was marked by a call for a renewed crusade against the Turks, a letter to the Sultan refuting Islamic doctrine, and quarrels with the French.

1646 Martyrdom of Isaac Jogues

A Jesuit missionary to the natives of America, Jogues was captured by the Iroquois and mutilated before being rescued by Dutch merchants. He returned to France to recover and was granted a dispensation to continue administering the Eucharist despite his wounded hands. When he went back to Quebec continue his work he was captured again by the Mohawks and murdered. He and seven fellow Jesuit martyrs were canonized in 1930.

1977 Mysterious deaths of Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin

Baader and Ensslin were lovers and German leftist terrorists, leaders of the Red Army Faction which tormented West Germany with a series of arson attacks, murders, kidnappings and hijackings.  After their capture and conviction they were placed in strict isolation and confinement but somehow they and two other RAF militants managed (according to authorities) to kill themselves the same night in different prisons. The suspicion that they were murdered to prevent yet more attempts by their comrades to free them does not seem unlikely.

2007 Karachi bombing

Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s return to Pakistan from exile threatened the military regime of General Pervez Musharraf, so when a suicide bomber attacked a Bhutto rally, killing 180 and wounding 500 more, it was natural to blame the ruling junta. Later investigations pinned the blame on al-Qaeda. Bhutto would be assassinated by a similar attack two months later.

October 17

401 BC  Xenophon sneezes

If anyone tries to tell you that the ancient Greeks were a people governed by reason and that rationality fled the world when Christianity began to dominate western civilization, refer them to the events described here by Xenophon in his Anabasis.

Xenophon, a young aristocratic Athenian and student of Socrates, joined a Spartan-led army in the pay of the Persian prince Cyrus the Younger who was attempting to seize the throne from his brother Artaxerxes II. When that attempt failed with the death of Cyrus and the murder of the Greek generals, Xenophon urged his fellow mercenaries to fight their way home rather than submit to the humiliating and dangerous terms offered by the Persians.

Xenophon in particular, having armed himself with a splendor becoming his present rank, endeavored to inspire sentiments of honor; and fortunately the favorable omen of sternutation occurred in the midst of his speech; on which the soldiers, all with one accord, worshipped Jupiter the Preserver, from whom the omen was reputed to proceed; and Xenophon breaking off his harangue, proposed a sacrifice to the god, desiring those who approved of the motion to hold up their hands: the show of hands being unanimous, the sacrifice was formally vowed, and a hymn sung; after which he resumed his discourse, and at great length set before the army, now full of hope and cheerfulness, the system which they must adopt to insure a safe and honorable return to their native country.

Thus, an inadvertent sneeze was perceived as having been sent from the gods, and was taken as an omen which helped Xenophon persuade the Greeks to follow his proposals. It should also be noted that when Xenophon had asked Socrates whether he should agree to serve against Artaxerxes, the philosopher did not use reasoned argument  to come to a conclusion but recommended that his student consult the oracle at Delphi.




October 16

1854 Birth of Oscar Wilde

The Irish playwright and novelist Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born on this date to a prosperous upper-middle class family in Dublin. After a brilliant apprenticeship at Oxford, Wilde launched himself into London society, becoming  famous for his wit and barbed attacks on social conventions.

Though a loving father and husband, Wilde entered the demimonde of gay culture, taking his pleasure with lower-class boys and the corrupt son of aristocrats. These associations brought him down, robbed of his place in society and sentenced to two years hard labour in Reading Gaol. In De Profundis Wilde describes the humiliation of his journey to prison:

Everything about my tragedy has been hideous, mean, repellent, lacking in style; our very dress makes us grotesque. We are the zanies of sorrow. We are clowns whose hearts are broken. We are specially designed to appeal to the sense of humour. On November 13th, 1895, I was brought down here from London. From two o’clock till half-past two on that day I had to stand on the centre platform of Clapham Junction in convict dress, and handcuffed, for the world to look at. I had been taken out of the hospital ward without a moment’s notice being given to me. Of all possible objects I was the most grotesque. When people saw me they laughed. Each train as it came up swelled the audience. Nothing could exceed their amusement. That was, of course, before they knew who I was. As soon as they had been informed they laughed still more. For half an hour I stood there in the grey November rain surrounded by a jeering mob.

For a year after that was done to me I wept every day at the same hour and for the same space of time. That is not such a tragic thing as possibly it sounds to you. To those who are in prison tears are a part of every day’s experience. A day in prison on which one does not weep is a day on which one’s heart is hard, not a day on which one’s heart is happy.