1937: When the entomologist Oscar Scheibel acquired a specimen of a previously undocumented blind cave beetle, found in only a few caves in northern Yugoslavia, he demonstrated his admiration for Germany’s leader by naming it Anophthalmus hitleri.
1936: Boris III of Bulgaria had his hands on the levers of power in more than one sense. Figuratively, he was absolute monarch of his country; literally, his favourite pastime was driving locomotives. His brother, Kyril, was also a railway enthusiast, and when Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson visited Bulgaria, the two brothers squabbled over who should drive the train.
Source: Duke of Windsor, A King’s Story: The Memoirs of H.R.H. the Duke of Windsor K.G. (1951), pp. 308–9
1935: In Germany, special schools were set up as the SS was expanded from a personal bodyguard into a fighting force. Training was rigorous. At the Bad Tölz school, an officer cadet might be ordered to pull the pin out of a grenade, balance it on his helmet and stand to attention while it exploded.
Source: Gerald Reitlinger, The SS: Alibi of a Nation 1922–1945 (1956), p. 78
1934: Charles Johnson’s Shadow of the Plantation laid bare the poverty of black people in rural Alabama. Seventy years after the abolition of slavery, many still lived in ramshackle cabins (“Do it leak in here? No, it don’t leak in here, it jest rains in here and leak outdoors”), many endured ill-health (“All my chillen is fond of having fevers”) and many despaired of anything better (“Ain’t make nothing, don’t speck nothing no more till I die”).
Source: Charles S. Johnson, Shadow of the Plantation (1934), pp. 99, 126, 194
1933: When the Nazi Party organised a plebiscite in November to demonstrate nationwide support for Germany’s withdrawal from the League of Nations, 99.5 per cent of the inmates of Dachau concentration camp voted in favour.
Source: Ian Kershaw, Hitler 1889–1936: Hubris (1998), pp. 495, 740
1932: Ralph Bagnold was a pioneer of motorised desert travel who later, during the Second World War, founded the British Army’s Long Range Desert Group. In Sand, Wind, and War, he recalled an incident from a peacetime expedition in the eastern Sahara.
Bagnold and his companions were driving across the Selima Sand Sheet. Their immediate destination was a small, uninhabited oasis, where they anticipated finding a petrol dump guarded by a policeman and his camel. They had driven hundreds of kilometres on a compass bearing. In the early morning, as they neared the oasis, Bagnold “distinctly smelt camel” on the breeze. He decided to follow his nose. “We drove for eight miles, and there, in a small depression out of sight from any distance, was the little oasis, the petrol, the policeman, and his camel.”
Source: Ralph A. Bagnold, Sand, Wind, and War: Memoirs of a Desert Explorer (1990), pp. 88–9
1931: Like most Western mothers in China, Lucy Soothill hired an amah to care for her baby. The amah was generally reliable, but not always. On one occasion Soothill discovered that her daughter’s skin was “irritable and red”, and when she kissed her, she noticed a “salty sharp taste”. On a hunch, Soothill checked the puff box in the baby’s basket and found that the contents had the same distinctive taste. Instead of powdering the baby’s skin with talcum, the amah had been using “extra strong American baking-powder”.
Source: Lucy Soothill, A Passport to China: Being the Tale of Her Long and Friendly Sojourning amongst a Strangely Interesting People (1931), p. 55
1930: Photographer Lawrence Beitler was in Marion, Indiana, on the night of 7 August, when a mob of whites lynched two black men, Abram Smith and Thomas Shipp. Beitler made a tidy sum from selling souvenir photos of the spectacle at 50 cents each. It was probably one of these keepsakes that provoked Lewis Allan’s searing condemnation:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Source: Dora Apel and Shawn Michelle Smith, Lynching Photographs (2007), pp. 11–25; David Margolick, Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights (2000), pp. 15, 33–7
1929: “Black Tuesday”, 29 October, when the New York Stock Exchange lost an eighth of its value, was also the day the Casa Loma Orchestra recorded “Happy Days Are Here Again”.
Source: Richard M. Sudhalter, Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz, 1915–1945 (1999), p. 342
1928: The War of the Hoe Handle took its name – Kongo Wara in the Gbaya language of central Africa – from the hoe handles, or kongo, that the messianic leader Karnu distributed to his adherents to protect them against European bullets.
Karnu attracted followers in western Ubangi-Shari by claiming to have the power to get rid of the detested French colonisers and, for good measure, the ability to turn them into gorillas.
Source: Canadian Journal of African Studies, 1984
1927: “Adieu, mes amis, je vais à la gloire!” the dancer Isadora Duncan shouted from the passenger seat of her car – “Farewell, my friends. I go to glory!”
The car was an Amilcar Grand Sport – low and fast. The driver was a young garage owner from Nice named Bénoit Falchetto.
Duncan sat with a red shawl draped round her neck. The shawl was the size of a tablecloth; its fringe slipped over the side of the car and dangled dangerously close to the rear wheel. “Isadora, ta châle! Ramasse ta châle!” shouted a friend – “Isadora, your shawl! Pick up your shawl!”
Falchetto revved the engine and put it in gear. The car surged forward. The fringe caught in the spokes. The shawl wrapped round the wheel, yanked back Duncan’s head and snapped her neck.
Source: Peter Kurth, Isadora: The Sensational Life of Isadora Duncan (2002), pp. 553–6
1926: In West Dallas, 16-year-old Clyde Barrow had his first tangle with the law when he was picked up for chicken theft. The Texas neighbours doubtless shook their heads and predicted: “That boy will come to no good end.”
Source: Jeff Guinn, Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie & Clyde (2009), p. 34
1924: Christopher Hollis amused his friend Evelyn Waugh with a story he must have heard from someone in the legal world:
“Mr Justice Phillimore was trying a sodomy case and brooded greatly whether his judgement had been right. He went to consult [the former Lord Chancellor, Lord] Birkenhead. ‘Excuse me, my lord, but could you tell me – What do you think one ought to give a man who allows himself to be buggered?’ ‘Oh, 30s or £2 – anything you happen to have on you.’ ”
Source: Evelyn Waugh, The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, ed. Michael Davie (1976), p. 168
1923: On 11 January, French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr region on the pretext that Germany had defaulted on the payment of reparations: specifically that it had failed to deliver a shipment of telegraph poles and cut timber on time.
Source: Conan Fischer, The Ruhr Crisis, 1923–1924 (2003), p. 28
1921: Gormless book title of the year: Handbook for the Limbless, edited by Geoffrey Howson with a foreword by John Galsworthy, published by the Disabled Society in London.
Source: Handbook for the Limbless, ed. Geoffrey Howson (1921)
1920: Bizarre royal death of the year: that of Alexander, king of the Hellenes. On 2 October, the king and his dog Fritz encountered two pet monkeys playing in a garden on the royal estate at Tatoi, near Athens. The monkeys scampered over, screaming, and one of them attacked Fritz. The king tried to separate the animals, whereupon the second monkey intervened, and in the ensuing scrimmage the king was severely bitten on the legs and belly. The wounds were not properly cleaned, infection set in, and on 25 October the king died of sepsis.
Source: John van der Kiste, Kings of the Hellenes: The Greek Kings 1863–1974 (1994), pp. 122–4
1919: The Boston molasses flood of 1919 would have been comical, were it not for the resulting deaths, injuries and destruction. Shortly after midday on 15 January, a huge molasses storage tank near the Boston waterfront burst. One might have expected the viscous liquid to have oozed from the tank and to have slowly spread out to form a gooey brown lake. In fact, the molasses surged out in a wave almost as high as a house, moving faster than a man could run. Nearby buildings were swept off their foundations. People were crushed or smothered. Twenty-one died and 150 were injured.
1918: The epitaph to Second Lieutenant W.L. Smart of the Lancashire Fusiliers consoles us that “to live in the hearts of those left behind is not to die”. Subaltern Smart was killed on 29 August 1918 and is buried at the Mory Street cemetery south of Arras. Personal inscriptions in the British military cemeteries of France and Belgium convey immense grief and tenderness. The inscription on the nearby grave of Private T.M. Finn of the Irish Guards, killed two days earlier, reads: “I loved him in life how I love him in death”. Serjeant S. Bates of the Manchester Regiment, who died on 29 March 1917 at the age of 20, is remembered simply and touchingly as “one of the best”.
Source: Personal diary
1917: “When all is said and done,” Siegfried Sassoon later reflected, “the War was mainly a matter of holes and ditches.”
Source: Siegfried Sassoon, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930), p. 235
1916: War correspondent William Beach Thomas churned out patriotic mush for the Daily Mail. In a dispatch on 22 November, he asserted that the way the body of a British soldier lay on the ground was evidence of an innate moral superiority: “As he lies on the field he looks more quietly faithful, more simply steadfast than others.” Thomas even detected a certain modesty, “as if he had taken care while he died that there should be no parade in his bearing, no heroics in his posture.”
Source: Daily Mail, 22 November 1916
1915: Generations of Russian tsars marrying German or Danish princesses had reduced the proportion of Russian blood in the imperial veins close to vanishing point. Maurice Paléologue, the French ambassador in Petrograd, calculated that for Nicholas II the figure was one part in 128, and for the tsarevitch, Alexis, one part in 256.
Source: Maurice Paléologue, An Ambassador’s Memoirs (1923), vol. I, pp. 324–5
1914: Passenger pigeons once accounted for two-fifths of land birds in the United States: between 3 and 5 billion birds. The wildlife artist John James Audubon, who in 1813 witnessed their autumn migration, marvelled at the “countless multitudes” that crowded the skies above Kentucky for three days in a row. “The air was literally filled with Pigeons;” he wrote, “the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse.”
1913: Kaiser Wilhelm bristled at the popularity of the tango. He dismissed it as the “child of the gutter” (“das Rinnsteinkind”) and from 20 November German officers in uniform were forbidden to dance it.
1912: Of the nine dogs on board the Titanic, three survived – two Pomeranians and a Pekinese.
Source: John D.T. White, The RMS Titanic Miscellany (2011), pp. 25, 137
1911: On the morning of 28 June, a shower of stones that fell from the sky near Alexandria, in Egypt, turned out to be fragments of a meteorite from Mars. An Arabic newspaper reported that one of the stones struck and killed a dog. Hmm. Yes. I wonder.
1910: New Zealand legislators banned the employment of women in bars. The only exceptions were members of licensees’ families and barmaids employed before the law came into force.
Source: Conrad Bollinger, Grog’s Own Country (1959), p. 71
1909: A year after his last-gasp victory and disqualification in the London Olympics, the Italian runner Dorando Pietri returned for another marathon. On 18 December, in a race run on a coconut-matting track around the interior of the Royal Albert Hall, Pietri retired after almost 500 circuits, leaving C.W. Gardiner to win in just over 2 hours and 37 minutes.
Source: John Richard Thackrah, The Royal Albert Hall (1983), p. 152
1908: Violet Asquith was on holiday in Italy when her father, Herbert, succeeded Campbell-Bannerman as prime minister. She dashed off a telegram:
“How dare you become prime minister when I’m away great love constant thought Violet.”
Source: Violet Bonham Carter, Lantern Slides: The Diaries and Letters of Violet Bonham Carter 1904–1914, ed. Mark Bonham Carter and Mark Pottle (1996), pp. 150, 151