1916: New York City struggled to control an epidemic of poliomyelitis. Nine thousand cases of the infectious disease, also called infantile paralysis, were reported; 2,343 people died. Most of the victims were children.
Tag archive: United States
1910: The black American essayist W.E.B. du Bois exposed the absurdity of white racism with a simple piercing question: “What on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?”
Source: W.E. Burghardt du Bois, Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil (1920), pp. 29–30
1903: One month after it opened to great fanfare, the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago was gutted by fire. A floodlight ignited drapery during an afternoon performance of Mr. Bluebeard. The fire curtain at the front of the stage was probably not fireproof, and anyway, it got stuck. Theatre staff dithered; the audience panicked; emergency doors jammed. Result: 602 members of the audience died, many of them children. Burned, trampled, suffocated.
Carl Prinzler, a hardware salesman, had a ticket for the show, but cancelled at the last minute. The one benefit to emerge from the disaster was that Prinzler and two colleagues devised a panic-release bar for emergency exit doors.
Source: Joanna Bourke, Fear: A Cultural History (2005), pp. 51–2, 58
1901: Americus Callahan of Chicago filed a patent application for an “envelop” with “a section of transparent material” covering a hole cut in the front “through which the sending address upon the inclosure may be readily observed”. In other words, a window envelope.
1900: An outbreak of plague in the Chinatown district of San Francisco was seized on by Organized Labor as an excuse to print racist vitriol. “The almond-eyed Mongolian is watching for his opportunity,” the journal warned its readers, “waiting to assassinate you.”
Source: Robert Sullivan, Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants (2004), p. 156
1994: Wright Laboratory in Ohio suggested an unconventional addition to America’s military arsenal: “strong aphrodisiacs, especially if the chemical also caused homosexual behavior”. Sprayed on hostile positions, the chemical was intended to arouse affection between enemy personnel rather than aggression towards their American opponents. (“Make love, not war.”) The so-called “gay bomb”, however, appears not to have progressed beyond a written proposal; it never made it on to the drawing board.
1990: Between 1945 and 1999, 712 fatalities were recorded in the United States among professional, recreational, college and high-school players of American football. In just over half a century there was only one year, 1990, when there were no football-related deaths.
Source: Journal of Athletic Training, September 2001
1987: Andy Warhol thought his tombstone should be blank. “No epitaph, and no name,” he wrote in America. On second thoughts, though, perhaps it should bear a single word: “figment”.
Source: Andy Warhol, America (2011), p. 129
1974: When Peter Benchley finished his story about an enormous shark terrorizing a beach resort on the East Coast of the United States, he was stuck for a title. His father, the novelist and children’s writer Nathaniel Benchley, suggested What’s That Noshin’ on My Laig?. Thanks, dad. In the end, Peter decided to call it Jaws.
Source: André Bernard, Now All We Need Is a Title: Famous Book Titles and How They Got That Way (1995), p. 15
1972: Death Valley in California can at times be almost literally boiling hot; on 15 July the ground temperature at Furnace Creek exceeded 93C.
Source: Ruth Kirk, Exploring Death Valley (1977), p. 26
1963: Soon after President John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Charles de Gaulle predicted that the president’s widow would end up on the yacht of an oil tycoon. In 1968, Jacqueline Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis. Onassis had made his money in shipping, not oil, but he did have a very large yacht.
Source: André Malraux, Fallen Oaks: Conversation with De Gaulle (1972), p. 55
1962: Timmie Jean Lindsey became the first woman to have sacs of silicone gel implanted in her breasts. The 29-year-old Texan happened to visit a hospital in Houston at the same time that cosmetic surgeons were recruiting young women to try out the new implants. “I was okay with what I had,” Lindsey later recalled, although she admitted, “After six children I guess they were kind of saggy.” The cosmetic surgeons tried to convince her that a perkier bosom would boost her confidence, but she already had plenty of confidence. What she really wanted, Lindsey said, was to have her ears pinned back. In the end, the surgeons persuaded her to have the implants. “Yeah, we’ll fix your ears too,” they promised.
Source: Florence Williams, Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History (2012), pp. 66–9
1956: Sir Winston Churchill’s son, Randolph, appeared on the American TV show The $64,000 Question. He shouldn’t have bothered. Although he cleared the first hurdle, for $64, he came a cropper at the second. He was asked which word in the English language derived from the name of “the land agent of the Earl of Erne in County Mayo in 1880 [who] was so tyrannical that the people banded together and refused to have any social or commercial dealings with him”. Churchill raised his hand to his temple, rocked on his heels and bit his finger a couple of times, but the answer eluded him. “How humiliating,” he said, and went home with empty pockets. The word was “boycott”.
Source: Winston S. Churchill, His Father’s Son: The Life of Randolph Churchill (1996), pp. 343–5
1955: Q: Which hit song was originally the B side to “Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town)”, a fantasy about a bevy of female survivors from a hydrogen bomb pampering the solitary surviving male?
A: Bill Haley and His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock”.
Source: Derek Thompson, Hit Makers: How Things Become Popular (2018), chap. 7
1951: James Thurber asserted that Harold Ross, editor of The New Yorker, never read anything except manuscripts for the magazine. According to Thurber, Ross’s personal library consisted of three books: “One is Mark Twain’s ‘Life on the Mississippi’; the second is a book by a man named Spencer . . . and the third is a treatise on the migration of eels.”
Source: H.L. Mencken, The Diary of H.L. Mencken, ed. Charles A. Fecher (1989), p. 136
1937: On 24 October, while riding in wooded country on Long Island, in New York State, Cole Porter’s horse shied and fell on him, crushing both his legs. For the rest of his life, Porter was crippled and in constant pain. Typically, the composer of a host of light-hearted lyrics invented names for his severely damaged limbs: Josephine and Geraldine. Josephine, the left leg, was sweet and obliging; Geraldine, the more painful of the two, was “a bitch, a psychopath”.
Source: William McBrien, Cole Porter: The Definitive Biography (1999), pp. 210–13
1930: Not a word about bronchitis, emphysema or lung cancer, but a Lucky Strike advert assured smokers that:
say LUCKIES are
1926: Writing in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Florence Goodenough established a rough correlation between the amount of English spoken in immigrant households in the United States, and the intelligence of children from those households. Correlation and causation are not the same thing, however, and Goodenough cast doubt on the possibility that “the use of a foreign language in the home” might be “one of the chief factors in producing mental retardation as measured by intelligence tests”.
Source: Journal of Experimental Psychology, October 1926
1925: Shortly after immigrating to the United States, Inagaki Etsu witnessed something she had never seen in Japan – a man kissing a woman. In A Daughter of the Samurai, she described how her train had come to a halt, and a man had rushed on board, thrown his arms around a passenger and kissed her several times. “And she did not mind it, but blushed and laughed, and they went off together.” The young Japanese traveller, nonplussed, had recalled her mother’s words: “I have heard, my daughter, that it is the custom for foreign people to lick each other as dogs do.”
Source: Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto, A Daughter of the Samurai (1933), p. 184
1909: Did Robert Peary lead the first expedition to reach the North Pole? Did he really get there?
Many believed Peary’s claim that he and a party of five reached the Pole on 6 April, but others were sceptical. Doubters pointed out that Peary’s expedition notes were scanty and slapdash; none of his companions during the final attempt on the Pole was capable of making navigational observations; and some of the distances Peary claimed to have covered across the Arctic pack ice were frankly incredible.
1905: Richard Creedon was employed as a “sandhog” – one of the labourers who constructed the tunnels for New York’s subway system. On 27 March, while he was working in a pressurised air chamber beneath the bed of the East River, the roof of the chamber sprang a leak. Creedon attempted to plug the hole, but it suddenly widened into a blowout, and the pressurised air forced him through the hole, like a cork out of a champagne bottle. Creedon was propelled through 8 metres of silt and water, flung high into the air, then dumped in the river. Although dazed, he was unhurt, and claimed, with a touch of bravado: “I was flying through the air, and before I comes down I had a fine view of the city.”
Source: New York History, January 1999
1903: From 1903 onwards, Coca-Cola no longer contained cocaine.
Source: Mark Pendergrast, For God, Country and Coca-Cola: The Unauthorized History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It (1993), pp. 90–1
1901: Uncle Sam arrived in the Philippines as a liberator and stayed on as a coloniser. Filipinos resisted, of course, but they were no match for the U.S. Army. One of the few Filipino successes was at Balangiga, on the island of Samar. On 28 September, armed only with machetes, guerrillas surprised the American garrison at breakfast, killing 54 and wounding 20 out of 78. American retribution was brutal. General Jacob Smith promised to turn Samar into a “howling wilderness” and ordered his troops to kill all islanders aged 10 or over.
1999: New York City hospitals recorded 1,791 deaths in the first week of 2000, an increase of 50.9 per cent from the 1,187 deaths during the corresponding period of January 1999 and 46.1 per cent more than the figure of 1,226 for the final week of December 1999. In the absence of bitterly cold weather, an influenza epidemic or some other explanatory factor, experts on ageing surmised that very sick people had simply clung on to life so that they could see in the new millennium.
Source: The New York Times, 15 January 2003
1993: The Black Bible Chronicles translated the scriptures into the language of contemporary black America. “You shouldn’t diss the Almighty’s name,” because, “It ain’t cool and payback’s a monster.” That was the Commandment warning against taking the Lord’s name in vain. “Thou shalt not kill,” became, in the idiom of Detroit and Harlem, “Don’t waste nobody,” and, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” became, “Don’t mess around with someone else’s ol’ man or ol’ lady.”
Source: P.K. McCary, Black Bible Chronicles: Book One: From Genesis to the Promised Land (1993)
1989: Where would you hear “The Electric Spanking of War Babies”, by Funkadelic, Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It”, and “Heaven’s on Fire”, by Kiss, played at maximum volume, 24 hours a day? At the Vatican’s diplomatic mission in Panama City.
When the deposed Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega fled to the safety of the Apostolic Nunciature, American forces brought in loudspeakers and bombarded him and the hapless papal nuncio with non-stop hard rock and heavy metal.
Source: Garret Keizer, The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise (2010), p. 126
1987: The high point of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to Washington was the signing, with his American counterpart, Ronald Reagan, of a treaty on intermediate-range missiles. The ceremony took place on 8 December, at quarter to two in the afternoon. The White House was strangely insistent about the timing; it transpired that a Californian astrologer had advised Nancy Reagan (star sign Cancer) of the precise time that her husband (Aquarius) and Gorbachev (Pisces) should sign the agreement.
Source: Christopher Andrew, For the President’s Eyes Only: Secret Intelligence and the American Presidency from Washington to Bush (1995), p. 498
1984: Phyllis Penzo had worked at Sal’s Pizzeria, in the Yonkers suburb of New York, for 24 years. Since the late 1970s, police detective Robert Cunningham had been a regular customer. They were good friends.
One night, after his usual meal of linguine with clam sauce, Cunningham got Penzo to help him pick the numbers for a $1 state lottery ticket. Instead of tipping the waitress, Cunningham promised her half the prize money if they won.
When the lottery was drawn on 31 March, theirs were the only winning numbers: 7, 9, 21, 28, 29 and 43, with 35 as a supplementary number.
Penzo’s “tip” turned out to be worth $3 million.
Source: The New York Times, 3 April 1984
1981: Despite doubting the veracity of “last sayings”, which he regarded as mostly “inventions of the survivors, members of the family, exploiters of truth and falsity”, the American author William Saroyan offered his own contribution shortly before prostate cancer killed him: “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case.”
Source: Lawrence Lee and Barry Gifford, Saroyan: A Biography (1984), p. 307