September 11

1862 Birthday of O. Henry

William Sydney Porter, who wrote under the pen-name O. Henry, was born in North Carolina where he trained as a pharmacist. He spent time in Texas and worked in various jobs, some agricultural, and some clerical before he landed a position at a bank in Austin. There he was discovered to have embezzled some $854 and, fearing conviction, he fled to to Central America before returning to see his dying wife. Porter spent three years in prison; upon being freed he moved to New York where his writing career flourished. He died in 1910 of alcohol abuse leaving behind hundreds of stories and an enduring reputation, Here are some representative snippets of his writing:

His necktie was the blue-gray of a November sky, and its knot was plainly the outcome of a lordly carelessness combined with an accurate conception of the most recent dictum of fashion. – O. Henry, “From Each According to His Ability”, The Voice of the City, 1908

Suppose you should be walking down Broadway after dinner, with ten minutes allotted to the consummation of your cigar while you are choosing between a diverting tragedy and something serious in the way of vaudeville. Suddenly a hand is laid upon your arm. You turn to look into the thrilling eyes of a beautiful woman, wonderful in diamonds and Russian sables. She thrusts hurriedly into your hand an extremely hot buttered roll, flashes out a tiny pair of scissors, snips off the second button of your overcoat, meaningly ejaculates the one word, “parallelogram!” and swiftly flies down a cross street, looking back fearfully over her shoulder. That would be pure adventure. Would you accept it? Not you. You would flush with embarrassment; you would sheepishly drop the roll and continue down Broadway, fumbling feebly for the missing button. This you would do unless you are one of the blessed few in whom the pure spirit of adventure is not dead. – O. Henry, “The Green Door”, 1906

He had just come from a feast that had left him of his powers barely those of respiration and locomotion. His eyes were like two pale gooseberries firmly imbedded in a swollen and gravy-smeared mask of putty. – O. Henry, “Two Thanksgiving Gentlemen”, 1907

His raiment was splendid, his complexion olive, his mustache fierce, his manners a prince’s, his rings and pins as magnificent as those of a traveling dentist. – O. Henry, “A Philistine in Bohemia”, 1908

“What’s the matter, Bob, are you ill?”

“Not at all, dear.”

“Then what’s the matter with you?”


Hearken, brethren. When She-who-has-a-right-to-ask interrogates you concerning a change she finds in your mood answer her thus: Tell her that you, in a sudden rage, have murdered your grandmother; tell her that you have robbed orphans and that remorse has stricken you; tell her your fortune is swept away; that you are beset by enemies, by bunions, by any kind of malevolent fate; but do not, if peace and happiness are worth as much as a grain of mustard seed to you — do not answer her “Nothing.” – O. Henry, “The Rubaiyat of a Scotch Highball”, 1918

September 10

1419 The Assassination of John the Fearless

Pity France in the early 1400s. Off and on, King Charles VI was (as the English say) barking mad — he believed he was made of glass and that his court was out to shatter him and ran howling like a wolf down the corridors of his palace. His wife was suspected of adultery and made wildly extravagant purchases. When the king was mad, the country was run by one of the great princes, John the Fearless of Burgundy, a nasty, greedy little fellow who poured the national treasury into his own. When the king had moments of lucidity, he was controlled by Charles of Orléans, just as much a bloodsucker as Burgundy and one suspected of sorcery.

In 1407, Burgundy solved the problem of rival dukes by ordering Orléans to be assassinated on a dark Paris street. He wept at his cousin’s funeral but soon blurted out that he was guilty – “I did it; the Devil tempted me”, he cried –  and fled the capital. In an amazing trial, his lawyer successfully argued that Burgundy had killed a tyrant, a deed applauded throughout history, and this won him a pardon from the king. France however was torn asunder by this conflict. When Henry V of England invaded the country in 1415, he made easy progress in a nation on the brink of civil war and succeeded in winning Burgundy’s support for his claim to the French throne.

Charles the Dauphin, the son of the mad king and heir to the French crown, relied on the support of the Orleanist (or Armagnac) faction, and tried to woo John the Fearless away from the English alliance. Or so it seemed. In fact Charles was out for revenge. On September 10 at a meeting on a bridge, as Burgundy knelt before Charles, the Dauphin gave a signal and the duke was hacked to pieces. A century later a Carthusian monk, who was showing François I the mausoleum of the Dukes of Burgundy, picked up John’s broken skull and commented, “This is the hole through which the English entered France.”

September 9

1513 A Scottish Catastrophe

Generally speaking, the Scots, for all their martial valour, do not do well fighting against the English. This is why they still yammer on about William Wallace and Robert Burns (treacherous murderers both) 700 years later. When I was living in London the Scots and English still played an annual soccer match and, more than once, I lived through mobs of half-naked, drunken Celts in tams waving their glorious lion rampant banner inscribed with “Bannockburn 1314”. Their record since, from Solway Moss to Pinkie to Preston to Culloden, has not been enviable. A nineteenth century English historian gives James IV the gears for his behaviour at Flodden Field.

On the 9th of September 1513, was fought the battle of Flodden, resulting in the defeat and death of the Scottish king, James IV, the slaughter of nearly thirty of his nobles and chiefs, and the loss of about 10,000 men. It was an overthrow which spread sorrow and dismay through Scotland, and was long remembered as one of the greatest calamities over sustained by the nation. With all tenderness for romantic impulse and chivalric principle, a modern man, even of the Scottish nation, is forced to admit that the Flodden enterprise of James IV was an example of gigantic folly, righteously punished.

The king of Scots had no just occasion for going to war with England. The war he entered upon he conducted like an imbecile, only going three or four miles into the English territory, and there dallying till the opportunity of striking an effective blow was lost. When the English army, under the Earl of Surrey, came against him, he, from a foolish sentiment of chivalry, or more vanity, would not allow his troops to take the fair advantages of the ground. So he fought at a disadvantage, and lost all, including his own life. It is pitiable, even at this distance of time, to think of a people having their interests committed to the care of one so ill qualified for the trust; the Many suffering so much through the infatuation of One.

September 8

601 Birthday of a Kentish princess

One of the ways in which Christianity spread among the barbarian tribes that had overrun the western Roman Empire was the conversion of the king. Often this was brought about as a result of a marriage into a Christian royal family from another realm.

In the seventh century, the Kingdom of the Franks was the dominant state in western Europe and many lesser nations wished to be allied with it. One way to secure this was to marry one of the Merovingian dynasty’s princesses but the Franks always insisted that the young woman be allowed to bring along a bevy of priests and that they be given the right to proselytize. In such a way, pagan Kent became Christianized. King Aethelberht married the Frankish princess Bertha, converted along with a host of his followers, and, in turn, produced a Christian princess of his own, daughter Aethelburh, to marry off to a pagan neighbour. 

After marrying Aethelburh in 627, Edwin of Northumbria  adopted his wife’s faith. The Venerable Bede has a memorable passage describing the debate preceding this conversion. In the end, Edwin will be killed in battle by the Mercians, be made a saint by the Catholic Church, and his wife will flee back to Kent. There she will found an abbey, one of the first Benedictine nunneries in England. She will die in 647.

September 7

As a historian specializing in the late-medieval and early-modern periods, and particularly the celebration of Christmas, I run across a myriad of superstitions collected by folklorists for centuries. Today I offer a selection of clothing-related beliefs from England:

It is lucky to put on any article of dress, particularly stockings, inside out: but if you wish the omen to hold good, you must continue to wear the reversed portion of your attire in that condition, till the regular time comes for putting it off—that is, either bedtime or ‘cleaning yourself.’ If you set it right, you will ‘change the luck.’ It will be of no use to put on anything with the wrong side out on purpose.

It is worthy of remark, in connection with this superstition, that when William the Conqueror, in arming himself for the battle of Hastings, happened to put on his shirt of mail with the hind-side before, the bystanders seem to have been shocked by it, as by an ill omen, till William claimed it as a good one, betokening that he was to be changed from a duke to a king. The phenomenon of the  hind-side before’ is so closely related to that of ‘inside out,’ that one can hardly understand their being taken for contrary omens.

The clothes of the dead will never wear long – When a person dies, and his or her clothes are given away to the poor, it is frequently remarked: Ah, they may look very well, but they won’t wear; they belong to the dead.’

If a mother gives away all the baby’s clothes she has (or the cradle), she will be sure to have another baby, though she may have thought herself above such vanities.

If a girl’s petticoats are longer than her frock, that is a sign that her father loves her better than her mother does—perhaps because it is plain that her mother does not attend so much to her dress as she ought to do, whereas her father may love her as much as you please, and at the same time be very ignorant or unobservant of the rights and wrongs of female attire.

While upon the subject of clothes, I may mention a ludicrous Suffolk phrase descriptive of a person not quite so sharp as he might be: he is spoken of as ‘short of buttons,’ being, I suppose, considered an unfinished article.

September 6

A day when strangely-named people were born

Not every date in history can witness decisive battles, the signing of constitutions, or the invention of life-saving medicines. Some dates just happen to have spawned folks who have been given or adopted odd monikers. 

1944 Swoosie Kurtz American actress Kurtz was named after a bomber. During World War II, her father’s B-17 Flying Fortress was called “Swoose” – half swan, half goose. Her middle name is Trust.

1958 Buster Bloodvessel Born Douglas Woods, he stole the name of a character in the Beatles’ movie Yellow Submarine, and became a recording artist. Having struggled with obesity himself, he opened a hotel dubbed “Fatty Towers” catering to the ultra-chubby.

1958 The Barbarian Sione Havea Vailahi, a professional wrestler born in Tonga has had a number of noms de guerre during his career. He started off in the sumo world as Sachinoshima but after migrating to the rings of the USA, he fought as Seone, Headshrinker Seone, Super Assassin #1, King Konga, Tonga John, and Konga the Barbarian before finally settling on The Barbarian.

1979 Foxy Brown If you are born Inga DeCarlo Fung Marchand and you wish to make it big in the exciting world of rap music, you are going to have find a better name. Thus Ms Marchand became Fox Boogie, Ill Na Na, and finally Foxy Brown.

1979 Low Ki Upon entering the world of professional wrestling, Brandon Silvestry adopted the name Low Ki, apparently derived from the song “Hot Diggety”. But his restless nature and the vagaries of the sport also led him to term himself Kavai, Kawai, Loki, Lo-Ki, Quick Kick, and Senshi before returning to his original nomenclature.

September 5

1945 The Igor Gouzenko Case

In early September 1945, an intelligence officer from the Russian embassy, Igor Gouzenko, and his family tramped around Ottawa for 2 days trying to get the Canadian police, journalists, and officials to believe that he was attempting to defect with proof of a Soviet spy ring operating in Canada.

Igor Gouzenko was born in 1919 at the start of the Russian Revolution and was drafted  into the Red Army during the Second World War. He became a cypher clerk for the GRU, the Soviet military intelligence agency, with a posting in Ottawa where he was to assist in a spy operation led by Colonel Nikolai Zabotin. Gouzenko and his wife were impressed by the freedom and prosperity of Canada and, when summoned back to Moscow, began to think of defecting. With a bundle of documents stolen from the embassy, and his wife carrying their small child, he made the rounds of the RCMP, the Ottawa Journal, and a magistrate’s court in an attempt to win sanctuary. The Mackenzie King government was suspicious and not interested in causing trouble with the Soviets but eventually agreed to take him in.

Gouzenko and his purloined files were able to convince the government that Russian intelligence had penetrated Canadian political and scientific circles in an attempt to gain atomic secrets. The resulting investigation saw 12 suspects, including a Montreal Progressive Labour member of Parliament (Fred Rose, Canada’s only Communist MP), a scientist, bureaucrats (some in the National Film Board) and some army officers arrested. In retaliation, Canada expelled Russian diplomats and removed our ambassador from Moscow until 1953.

Rose was sentenced to 6 years in jail and died eventually in Poland where he had been born; Gouzenko was given a new identity (in public appearances such as the television quiz show Front Page Challenge he always wore a hood) and police protection. He eventually became an author and won a Governor-General’s prize for a 1954 novel. He died in a Toronto suburb in 1982.

The Gouzenko revelations led to further investigations of Soviet spying in the USA and Britain and helped to begin the period of frosty relations known as the Cold War.

September 4

1928 Birth of the First Darrin

Richard “Dick” York was an Indiana lad who became a juvenile radio and film star in the 1940s. He appeared in numerous productions including Inherit the Wind, The Twilight Zone, and The Untouchables before winning television immortality as Darrin Stevens in Bewitched. For five seasons, starting in 1964, he played the hapless mortal suburban husband alongside the gorgeous Elizabeth Montgomery as his witch wife Samantha and the less than gorgeous Agnes Moorhead as his irritating mother-in-law Endora.

In 1959 while filming the western They Came to Cordura with Gary Cooper and Rita Hayworth, York had suffered a permanent and painful back injury, which he treated with ever-higher doses of prescription painkillers. York lived with the pain during the production of the first few seasons of Bewitched with the studio building him a slanted wall that he could lean against between takes but by the fourth season he could scarcely stand and had to be filmed seated or in bed. During filming in 1969 he collapsed and decided that he could no longer continue. He was replaced by Dick Sargent (always known as “the second Darrin”).

York battled pain, addiction, and emphysema, managing a brief comeback in 1983 and establishing Acting for Life, a charity for the homeless. He died in 1992.

September 3

1879 The Assault on the Kabul Residency

Given the current brouhaha in Afghanistan it may be worthwhile to consider the events taking place in Kabul on this date in 1879.

The British Raj never felt secure in its hold on northwest India unless it had made a satisfactory arrangement in Afghanistan from which, for uncounted centuries, tribal raiders had emerged to feast on their peaceful neighbours. The East India Company and its armies made numerous forays into the country, some successful, some disastrous. In 1842 a 16,000 man army under General Elphinstone was massacred in the first Retreat from Kabul. Bribery was often a more effective to buy peace on the border.

In 1879 an Anglo-Indian army took Kabul and won humiliating concessions in the Treaty of Gandamak. The British established a “residency”, effectively an embassy in the capital, headed by Sir Louis Cavagnari and guarded by 75 members of the Corps of Guides, a regiment of Indian Muslims. This was a small force meant to show trust in the Afghan leader Amir Yakub Khan and not provoke the locals.

Unfortunately, a mutinous unit of the Afghan army demanded its overdue back pay and when the Amir couldn’t come up with it they decided to insist that the British provide the cash. When this was not forthcoming, they attacked the residency with cannons and overwhelming force. Eventually all of the British officers were killed, including Lt. Walter Hamilton (pictured above) who died covering the withdrawal of some of his men. The Afghans offered to spare the Muslim Guides but they refused to surrender and were duly wiped out. 

The attack prompted the British to invade again. They retook Kabul, exiled Yakub Khan, and executed 100 Afghans for their part in the attack on the residency. Posthumous awards were made to Lt. Hamilton and the entire Guides unit.



August 29

1657 Death of a bold pamphleteer

John Lilburne was born in 1614 to an English family of the squirearchy. In the turbulent 1630s when the rule of Charles I was growing odious to many, Lilburne adopted a number of radical stances and, at one point, had to flee to the safety of Holland. In 1637 he was whipped, pilloried, and jailed in chains for publishing a tract without the approval of the Stationer’s Company, which governed legal printing. He began to style himself “Freeborn John” and got into more trouble for opposing the Church of England.

When the Civil War broke out, Lilburne fought for the forces of Parliament and rose to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. He was captured by the king’s army after the Battle of Brentford but, when exchanged for a royalist officer, he rejoined his regiment where he was wounded and suffered the los of his property.

A man of high principle, he quarrelled with his superior officers, refused to sign the Solemn League and Covenant, and disputed with fellow radical William Prynne on the question of freedom of religion. His supporters came to be known as Levellers because of the social equality they demanded. He asserted that Englishmen had “freeborn rights”, granted by God, and that the Parliamentarian rule was even more tyrannical than that of the king. Lilburne was imprisoned, this time by the Parliamentary government, but was acquitted of a charge of high treason. Finally in 1652 his disputatious wrangling resulted in a forced exile from England.

When Lilburne returned without permission from Holland he was imprisoned again, tried again, and again acquitted. Nonetheless, the Puritan government considered him such a nuisance that he was kept in jail regardless of habeas corpus. In 1656 he was allowed out on parole, having convinced the authorities that his conversion to Quakerism meant that he was no longer a menace. He died the next year and was buried in the churchyard next to Bedlam.