February 28, 2015

February 28, 1525: Cuauhtemoc Executed by Cortez

The Torture of Cuauhtemoc, 1892 painting by Leandro Izaguirre

After 80 days of continuous assault from the Spanish, the city-state of Tenochtitlan needed help. Their ruler, the 25-year old Cuauhtemoc, went to try and find some. On the way, he was captured by Cortez and his men. Cuauhtemoc handed Cortez his knife, and asked him to kill him.

But Cortez was chivalrous -- at least at first. "A Spaniard knows how to respect valor, even in an enemy," Cortez said. Ah, but then he found out there was gold involved.

The Aztecs were rumored to have vast stores of gold. That wasn't really true. The Aztecs didn't believe that gold had any intrinsic value; they just thought it made a nice overlay for wood. Consequently, there wasn't really a lot of gold in any one place.

Cortez didn't know this, of course, so he allowed Cuauhtemoc and few other leaders to be tortured. They put their feet into a fire, but no information was forthcoming. Finally, Cortez grew ashamed, and stopped the torture.

That doesn't mean he let Cuauhtemoc go. He thought the man was a threat, so he took him along on a trip to Honduras. Along the way, Cortez got the idea that Cuauhtemoc and a few others were plotting against him. Some say that another Aztec reported the plot. Others say that Cortez imagined the whole thing. There was also a theory that Cortez believed that he could instill fear in the natives by causing them to think he had discovered the plot by magic.

Cuauhtemoc, two other Aztec nobles, and eight other men were all hanged. It was said that afterwards, Cortez was wracked with guilt, suffered from insomnia, and sleep-walked, sometimes hurting himself while in his travels.

February 27, 2015

February 27, 1847: Born, Ellen Terry

Choosing: Ellen Terry at the age of 16. The portrait
 was painted by George Frederic Watts, whom she would
soon marry. The painting depicts a young girl making a
 choice between worldly vanities. She appears to be leaning
toward the showy but scentless camellias, and ignoring
the humble but fragrant violets in her other hand.
Born into a theatrical family, Ellen Terry was already an accomplished actress when she met artist George Frederic Watts. Watts was enchanted with her beauty, and painted her several times, including the lovely Choosing shown above. They married when Terry was just a few days shy of her 17th birthday. Watts was 46.

The marriage didn't last long, and Terry was soon back on the stage. Her marriage to Watts had granted her access to many famous and distinguished people, among them Robert Browning, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, photographer Margaret Cameron, and both William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli. The Pre-Raphaelites also found her enchanting, and Oscar Wilde wrote a sonnet in her honor.

Terry lived with architect/essayist Edward William Godwin for a while, and bore him two children. They could not marry as she was not yet divorced from Watts. Later they did divorce, however, and Terry was married twice again, both times to fellow actors.

Terry's greatest fame was achieved for the roles she did opposite Henry Irving. They may have also been lovers -- Terry apparently told an interviewer that they had been. What is certain is that they were the most famous acting couple in the world.

February 26, 2015

February 26, 1846: Born, "Buffalo Bill" Cody

Albumen print of William Cody, taken about 1875
At one time, Bill Cody was the most recognizable celebrity in the world. His Wild West shows had made him famous -- and very rich -- as he toured the United States, England, and Continental Europe. He performed before Kings, Queens, Presidents, and Popes, and gave everyone at least an inkling of what the Wild West was all about.

Long before his fame, however, Bill was just a fatherless boy, poor and without prospects. His father had died from complications of a stabbing he'd received at the hands of a pro-slavery man, leaving the family pretty hard up. Bill was only 11, but he was able to find work as a "boy extra" on a wagon train. His job was to ride up and down the train, delivering messages between the workmen.

Pretty soon he got Gold Fever, and headed off to make his fortune, but, on the way he met an agent for the Pony Express. It sounded like a good job to him, so he took it on, until he was called back home to see to his sick mother.

His mother recovered, and Bill's next idea was to join the army, but he was too young and was turned away. Instead he signed on as a teamster with the outfit that delivered supplies to Fort Laramie.

Next he took on scouting for the army. Sometimes he scouted for Indians, and at other times he hunted buffalo, for both the Army and the Railroad. The Army gave him a medal for his service, then took it away, then reinstated it.

He shot so many buffalo in his day that he earned the nickname of Buffalo Bill. At one point, he had to defend it. He was challenged by Billy Comstock, another buffalo scout known for his prowess with the gun. They had a contest to see who could kill the most buffalo. There was $500 at stake, plus, more importantly, the name. Cody won, 69 to 48, and got to keep his nickname. Comstock had to settle for "Medicine Bill", a title that he'd already earned when he'd bitten off the finger of an Arapaho who'd been bitten by a rattlesnake.

Buffalo Bill didn't have the first Wild West show, but it certainly grew to be the most famous. His entertainers were legendary: Annie Oakley and Frank Butler, Sitting Bull and Wild Bill Hickok were just a few of his performers. There were reenactments of Indian attacks, trick riding, and even Custer's Last Stand. He performed before the Prince of Wales, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and the future George V. He met the Pope. He had two command performances before Queen Victoria. And he was a hit everywhere he went.

Buffalo Bill was largely responsible for the founding of the town of Cody, Wyoming, and, when he died, the folk of Cody wanted their hero buried there. But Bill had expressed his desire to be buried at Lookout Mountain, Colorado, and so his wife and family buried him there. In 1948 the American Legion chapter in Cody offered a reward for the "return" of his body. The Denver chapter mounted a guard over Bill's burial spot until he could be buried deeper.

February 25, 2015

February 25, 1336: The "Defense of Margiris" Takes Place

Margiris mound in Punia, Lithuania, one of the possible locations
of the Pilenai fortress. Photograph by " Wojsyl", published under the
 GNU Free Documentation License on Wikimedia Commons.
In 14th century Lithuania, the fortress of Pilenai, defended by the Duke Margiris, found itself besieged by the Teutonic Knights. The inhabitants realized that defeat was imminent, but they did not wish to be surrender themselves to the enemy. Instead, they burned all their possessions, then the castle, and then every man, woman, and child in the fortress took their own life.

No one knows today exactly where the fortress stood, but there are several possibilities. The photograph is of a hill in Punia, and the inscription reads, in translation:

This is the grave of Margis' giants!
Though six ages passed,
Like them - just a handful of ashes!..
But tell more than the living.

February 24, 2015

February 24, 1836: Born, Winslow Homer

Breezing Up (A Fair Wind) by Winslow Homer

The American artist Winslow Homer was a man of many talents. Beginning his career as a commercial artist, he moved easily into oil painting, and later into watercolors. His subjects ranged from seascapes, to rural scenes to hunting and war.

The painting shown is his Breezing Up (A Fair Wind), an oil painting done in the years 1873-1876. It depicts a man and three boys in a catboat, calm and relaxed amid the choppy waters. It now hangs in the National Gallery in Washington, DC, and was featured on a commemorative postage stamp in 1962.

February 23, 2015

February 23, 1778: Baron von Steuben Arrives at Valley Forge

 Baron von Steuben training the troops at Valley Forge
Baron von Steuben must have cut a strange figure at Valley Forge. He wore full military dress as he trained the soldier, and always had his faithful greyhound, Azor at his side. (The men themselves, of course, were barely clothed.) When displeased, he would swear at them, first in German, and then in French. If that wasn't enough, he would call his translator over. "Over here!" he would shout. "Swear at them for me!"

Steuben had gotten the post -- initially unpaid -- through an introduction to Benjamin Franklin by the French Minister of War. Franklin had sent a letter of introduction to General George Washington, stating that Steuben had been "Lieutenant General in the King of Prussia's service." It wasn't true. Steuben had actually been an aide-de-camp to the King. The error had been caused by a mistranslation of Steuben's military record. It was an honest mistake, but Steuben didn't jump to correct it.

He wasn't actually a Baron, either. That claim was based on a lineage that his father had prepared, and it wasn't true. It certainly didn't hurt with the introductions, however.

Regardless of his credentials, he was just what the Revolutionary forces needed. He started a systematic course of training, with the soldiers learning to fight with and without arms before being assigned to a regiment. He made sure that specific sergeants were responsible for the training, and that they were the best teachers available.

Steuben also taught the men to use bayonets. Up until then, they'd been relying on ammunition. The bayonets had been used as tools, and especially as cooking skewers.

He also set up a system of camp sanitation. Before he arrived on the scene, the camps were a mess. Huts and tents were everywhere, with human waste and animal carcases strewn everywhere. Steuben set up a system of rows and streets, and established the kitchen and the latrines on opposite sides of the camp. The latrines were on the downhill side.

When the Revolution was over, Steuben became a US citizen, and the grateful nation awarded him a pension of $2500 a year. It wasn't enough to cover his debts, but fortunately, the State of New Jersey also offered him an estate -- confiscated from a British Loyalist -- and he was able to sell that to pay off what he owed. Steuben retired to a small estate in Rome, New York, another gift in return for his military service. He had no wife or children, and, when he died his estate when to two men who had served as his aides-de-camp. They had been like sons to him.

February 22, 2015

February 22, 1892: Born, Edna St. Vincent Millay

Publicity photograph of Edna St. Vincent Millay, taken about 1914

A critic once described Edna St. Vincent Millay as "a frivolous young woman, with a brand-new pair of dancing slippers and a mouth like a valentine."

She was quite an original character, and had been all her life. As a child, she demanded to be called "Vincent", and got away with it -- most of the time. Her grade school principal, however, refused, and would call her any woman's name he could think of that started with a "V". Her poetry was first published in her teens, and before she started college, she had already had affairs with several women.

Edna died in 1950, but her home is now the site of the Millay Colony for the Arts, established by her sister in her honor in 1973.

February 21, 2015

February 21, 1947: Edwin Land Demonstrates the Polaroid Land Camera

This is the Polaroid Highlander Model 80A,
manufactured from 1957 to 1959. Photograph
 is by John Kratz, and is released under the
Creative Commons Attribution-Share
Alike 2.0 Generic license. 
It was quite an innovation, a camera that could develop its own film while you waited. In fact, Edwin Land and his staff weren't quite sure it would take off. The first production run was of only 60 units, and 57 of them were offered at the Jordan Marsh department store in Boston, just before Christmas.

It was incorrectly supposed that those 57 units would be in stock for a long time -- at least long enough for them to figure out how many to manufacture for the second run.

The cameras sold out on the first day.

February 20, 2015

February 20, 1547: Edward VI Coronated

Portrait of Edward VI, by Circle of William Scroetes,
created sometime before 1554
Young Edward was only nine years old when he inherited the throne of England from his father, King Henry VIII. The ceremony took place at Westminster Abbey, and were somewhat shortened, because of the age of the King and the demands of the Protestant Reformation.

The night before, Edward had riden from the Tower (where, as was traditional, he spent the days prior to his coronation as monarch) to the Palace at Westminster, and had been delighted by the crowds and pagentry. He especially enjoyed the antics of a tightrobe dancer, according to contemporary reports.

After the coronation ceremony he banqueted at Westminster Hall, where, he later recalled, he was allowed to dine with his crown on his head.

February 19, 2015

February 19, 1847: First Rescue Group Reaches the Donner Party

James and Margaret Reed of the Donner Party.
Photo was taken sometime before 1862.
Nearly everyone has heard of the Donner Party, that group of 87 pioneers who set off for California and became trapped in the Sierra Nevadas. Their disaster was the result of following an unexplored shortcut, and the results were terrible. Madness, exposure, starvation, and cannibalism was the fate of the Donner Party.

I won't tell you the story of the entire expedition. It's easy enough to look up if you're interested. It's enough to say that due to a series of unfortunate and catastrophic events, they caught in the November snows and unable to cross the pass, just 3 miles short of the summit.

They thought perhaps a small party on foot would be able to navigate the pass and go for help. 17 souls started out, taking 6 days rations and wearing snowshoes. They camped in 12 feet of snow and fell down in hunger. One of them went mad. Some of them died. Some of them were eaten.

The party was called the "Forlorn Hope". Out of those 17 people, 2 children were turned back early, 8 died, and 7 made it to the Sacramento Valley. Now it was time to go back for the others.

Also in California was James Reed, who had been exiled from the group because he had killed a man. He was frantic to arrange a party to go and find his family and friends. He even promised to enlist in Fremont's forces to fight the Mexican-American War if only Fremont would send a party to rescue them. Reed took a small party and attempted to reach those left behind, but was stopped by the snow, only 12 miles from the summit. He had to turn back.

Reed spent his time publicizing the plight of the Donner Party, however, speaking to everyone, and creating a petition to the Navy. The newspapers got ahold of the story -- including the salacious details of cannaibalism -- and support for the rescue project grew. Another rescue party set out. On February 18th they scaled Fremont Pass.

When they reached the cabins, one of the women popped out of a hole in the snow and asked, "Are you men from California or do you come from heaven?" It was a little of both, it seemed. They doled out food -- small portions, so as not to kill the starving pioneers.

They couldn't take everyone back with them -- some of the party were too weak or sick to walk. They chose 23 to make the trek to California, leaving 17 behind. Two of the children turned out to be too weak to plow through the snow, so they were sent back. Their mother continued on, with her older children. When the youngsters got back to the camp, at first no one would take them in.

Only 3 of the rescued party died on the way back. There would be 2 more rescue parties -- in fact, they passed #2 on their way out. When they arrived at the Sutter's Fork, 12-year-old Virginia Reed, ragged and starving, was surprised and amused when one of the men at the fort proposed to her. She turned him down.

February 18, 2015

February 18, 1478: George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence Privately Executed

Stained glass portrait of George, Duke of Clarence, and his wife Isabelle Neville, at Cardiff Castle, Wales. Photograph is by Wolfgang Sauber and has been licensed by its creator under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License. 

In Shakespeare's Richard III Clarence is drowned by his wicked brother Richard in a butt of Malmsey. Truth? Or legend?

George was the brother of two kings -- Edward IV and Richard III. He seems to have had somewhat of a problem with loyalty. He was supportive of Edward in the beginning, but when his father-in-law, Richard Neville, the Duke of Warwick (known as the "Kingmaker") changed his allegiance to support Henry VI, George went with him. In gratitude, Henry put George in line for the throne, right after his son.

Then Neville married another daughter to that son of Henry's and George began to rethink the whole proposition. George went back to support his brother. All was forgiven -- at least for the time being.

Then George either changed his mind again, or Edward grew just a little too suspicious of his brother. At any rate, he was tried for treason and "privately executed." But was there really wine involved?

It may have been a joke -- George had quite a reputation as a drinker. It could also have been true: a butt was about 477 liters, and that's plenty big enough to drown in. Or, he may have been executed, and then put into the alcohol for preservation. We don't really know.

What we do know, however, is that the usual method of execution in cases like this was beheading, and George wasn't beheaded. A body believed to be his was exhumed, and his head was still on his shoulders. So the story could be true.

Shakespeare got a lot of history wrong, either intentionally or not, but he may have been accurate about George's death. As for his characterization of the evil brother Richard -- well, that's an entirely different matter.

February 17, 2015

February 17, 1600: Giordano Bruno Burned at the Stake

Bronze statue of Giordano Bruno by Ettore Ferrari, Rome.
 Photograph is by "Jastrow", and has been released into
the Public Domain by its creator on Wikimedia Commons.
Filippo Bruno was an Italian Dominican friar who was tried and found guilty by the Roman Inquisition, and burned at the stake. What were his offenses?

According to contemporary sources, Bruno's sins included holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith about the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Virginity of Mary, Transubstantiation and the Mass. He was also charged with dealing with magick and the occult arts. And, most interestingly to me, at least, he claimed the existence of a plurality of worlds.

Like Copernicus (whom he credited and praised), Bruno believed that the Earth resolves around the sun. He also thought that the stars were actually suns like our own, and that they had their own planets revolving around them. He thought that everything -- not just the things on Earth -- were made up of the four elements, and that space and time were both infinite, and that comets were part of the whole system, not heavenly messengers from God.

Was Bruno condemned for his Science, or for his Faith? No doubt his scientific views had a great deal to do with it, but it should be remembered that his religious views were pretty heretical, too. When he refused to recant, he was sentenced to death and burned at the stake. His ashes were thrown into the Tiber.

As recently as 2000, then-Cardinal Secretary of State Angelo Sodano defended the actions of the Inquisition. They "had the desire to serve freedom and promote the common good and did everything possible to save his life," he said.

February 16, 2015

February 16, 1852: The Studebaker Brothers Go into Business

The Five Studebaker Brothers. Left to right, standing: Peter and Jacob. Sitting: Clem, Henry, and John.

I know that when I think of "Studebaker", I think of cars. The Studebakers actually got their start long before the horseless carriage ever appeared on the scene.

Henry and Clem were blacksmiths who specialized in making metal parts for wagons, and then went on to build the entire wagon. When Gold Rush fever hit the country in 1849, they were in exactly the right place to cash in on it. In fact, for awhile half the wagons used by settlers to move West were made by the Studebakers. They also got a lot of contracts from the US Army.

From stylish carriages to sturdy vehicles for the long haul, Studebaker had it all covered. It really came as no surprise when they developed an automobile in 1897. The Age of the Automobile had arrived.

February 15, 2015

February 15, 1493: Columbus Writes a Letter

The cover of the 1494 Basil edition of Columbus's letter
Columbus was on board the Nina, on his way back from his first voyage to the New World, on this day in 1492. When he got back to Lisbon, he added a postscript and sent two copies off to the Court in Spain.

Columbus knew the value of a good press release, and that's exactly what this letter was. No sooner did he get to Spain than printed versions -- one in Spanish and another in Latin -- began to circulate.

What did he say? He said that he had discovered and claimed a series of islands in Asia, probably very near to mainland China. The islands were lush and arable, he said, and abounded in precious spices and gold. The natives were primitive but timid, and ripe for converting to Catholicism. He glossed over his loss of the Santa Maria and seemed to imply that he'd left it behind with the colonists. (It ran aground near Haiti and was stripped for timbers for another ship.)

Columbus also wrote another version of the letter to be sent to Ferdinand and Isabella. It contained a lot more detail, especially the parts about the "gold without measure."

February 14, 2015

February 14, 1849: James Polk Has His Photograph Taken

Daguerrotype of President Polk by Matthew B. Brady, 1845-1849.
Today it's no big deal for a President to be photographed, but that wasn't always the case. It's generally believed that Polk was the first sitting President to be photographed.

This Presidential daguerreotype was taken by the famous photographer Matthew Brady sometime during the years 1845-1849, during a period when he was photographing and displaying many well-known Americans.

Brady actually photographed 18 of the 19 Presidents in the range starting with John Quincy Adams and ending with William McKinley. (He didn't get Harrison, who died 3 years before he started his project.) His photos of Van Buren and Jackson were both taken in 1845, probably earlier than Polk, but they were no longer in office. He also photographed Lincoln in 1846 or '47, but that was long before he was elected.

James K. Polk has another historic first, too. He was the President who installed gas lights in the White House.

February 13, 2015

February 13, 1542: Catherine Howard Executed

Portrait (Miniature) of Catherine Howard
 by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1541
Henry called her his "rose without a thorn", but the marriage lasted less than two years.

Catherine was Henry VIII's fifth wife, and was a first cousin of Anne Boleyn. Like her cousin, she was beheaded, but, unlike Anne, there may have been a little bit of truth to the accusations.

Long before Catherine ever met her future husband, she grew up in a household where the supervision was, to say the least, lax. She apparently had a sexual relationship with her music teacher before she was sixteen. And she had a rather serious relationship with a young man named Francis Dereham. She may have married him or been betrothed to him, or they may have simply been playing house. At any rate, they called each other "husband" and "wife" and he let her hold his money when he was out of town.

Catherine's biggest problem, after she had become Queen of England, was that she had never told Henry about her past. Her other problem was that way too many people knew about it. She had to provide a lot of favors to keep people quiet. She even gave her ex-"husband" a job as her personal secretary. Boy, was that a big mistake.

Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, got wind of these rumors, along with the story that she was currently having an affair with Thomas Culpeper, a favored courtier of Henry's and a distant relative of Catherine's. Henry didn't really believe any of it was true, but he gave Cranmer permission to investigate. When both Dereham and Culpeper confessed under torture, Catherine's goose was cooked.

Dereham and Culpeper were executed, and Catherine and a lot of her kin were sent to the Tower, but Catherine steadfastly denied any infidelity to the King. She claimed that she had never been unfaithful with Culpeper, and that Dereham had raped her. In the end, it didn't make any difference.

Parliament passed a bill making it a capital crime for a queen to fail to disclose her sexual history to the king within 20 days of their marriage, and Catherine was definitely guilty of that.

The night before her execution, Catherine requested a block, and spent the night practicing how to lay her head on it. She died with dignity, although she appeared terrified and needed help climbing the scaffold. According to folklore, he last words were, "I die a Queen, but I would rather have died the wife of Culpeper."

February 12, 2015

February 12, 1554: Lady Jane Grey Beheaded

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche, 1833

She was only 18 years old, and she was Queen of England for only nine days.

Lady Jane Grey had almost nothing to do with her ascent to the throne. She had been married to Lord Guildford Dudley, son of the Duke of Northumberland, one of the most powerful men in the realm. And Northumberland had ideas of his own.

Jane was, in a vague sort of way, a legitimate contender for the throne. Henry VII's will had stipulated the succession of his three children first (even though the girls had been ruled illegitimate) and if none of them had heirs, the throne would pass to his sister, Mary Tudor's, line. Jane was the daughter of Mary's daughter Frances.

On his deathbed, Henry's son, Edward VI, had tried to overturn all that. He named his cousin Jane has his heir. He may have been influenced by his chief minister, the Earl of Northumberland, Jane's new father-in-law.

The problem was that Henry had made his ideas about succession legal through an Act, and Edward had only pronounced a "Declaration." It's not clear that it could actually supercede an Act. In the end, though, it all boils down to who has the most power.

When Mary rode into London, Jane was already ensconced in the Tower, the traditional residents of monarchs awaiting their coronation. It was an easy matter to change her status to that of prisoner. Everyone connected with the coup was charged with high treason and found guilty. Jane was sentenced to either be burned alive or beheaded, at the new Queen's pleasure. Jane's chief treasonist act was that she had signed several documents as "Jane the Queen."

At first it appeared that Jane's life would be spared, but a new rebellion soon put an end to that. Jane was scheduled for a beheading, but given a few days to prepare. Mary hoped that she could still be converted to Catholicism before her death.

Jane remained faithful to her Protestant faith, and on the morning of February 12th was taken to her place of execution. She gave a short speech asserting her innocence (in intention, if not in act) and recited Psalm 51. She forgave her executioners and asked them to allow her to lay herself down before beheading her. She blindfolded herself. Once blindfolded, she had trouble finding the block, and panicked a little. Her last words were "Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit!"

February 11, 2015

February 11, 1752: Benjamin Franklin Founds First Hospital in the American Colonies

Engraving of Pennsylvania Hospital by William Strickland, 1811

Is there anything Benjamin Franklin couldn't do?

Patriot, philosopher, author, printer, and politician. Scientist, inventor, and civic leader. He invented the bifocals, the Franklin stove, the odometer, and the lightning rod. He helped establish the University of Pennsylvania. He served as the Minister to France, the Governor of France, and the British Postmaster to the colonies. He established the first German newspaper in America. He was a Grand Master of the Masons. And, in 1952, he opened the first hospital in america.

His co-founder in this venture was Thomas Bond, a physician who had attended to Franklin's wife, Deborah, during her final illness. Franlin and Bond were close friends, and it was to Franklin that Bond turned with his idea about a hospital. Bond had the ideas and the professional knowledge, but he couldn't figure out how to get his project funded. Franklin was good at that sort of thing.

The hospital was established as a place to treat both the physically and the mentally ill, and especially those who couldn't pay for their own treatment. The hospital seal, chosen by the two men, depicts the story of the Good Samaritan. "Take care of him and I will repay thee," is the inscription.

February 10, 2015

February 10, 1567: Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, Found Murdered

Portrait of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, by Adrian Vanson
Lest you've been grieving too deeply over the unfortunate end of Mary, Queen of Scots (February 8, above), I'd like to remind you that her hands were not exactly free of blood. In particular, she may have been involved in the murder of her second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley.

Darnley was Mary's first cousin on the paternal side, being descended from Margaret Tudor, the sister of Henry VIII. He was also related on his father's side, and was, in fact, a sort of claimant to both the throne England and that of Scotland.

He had some interaction with Mary in the French court, but it wasn't until he joined her court at Fife that things really got going. Mary thought he was the "lustiest and best proportioned long man that she had seen." Mary gave him some titles and a small entourage, and pretty soon the wedding banns were announced.

Mary and Henry were both Catholics, and were married in a Catholic ceremony. But Henry's faith was of the wavering kind, and he left after the wedding, letting Mary go to the wedding mass alone. It wasn't exactly a good start for a marriage.

Pretty soon after the wedding, Darnley's true character started manifesting itself. He had planned on the Crown Matrimonial, a device that would make him co-ruler of Scotland and given him the right to succeed Mary, should anything happen to her before she provided an heir. Mary didn't think that was such a good idea.

But Darnley wouldn't let go of the idea, and pretty soon he got on everybody's nerves. Not only was he constantly whining about his royal status, but he had a streak of violence in him, that got worse when he drank -- which was often.

Despite their marital problems, Mary soon found herself pregnant with Darnley's child. Or was it? Mary had been pretty cozy with her private secretary, a man named David Rizzio, and there were whispers that he was the father.

One night, Mary was having a cozy supper with her secretary when a group of armed men burst in, tore Rizzio away from the Queen (he was trying to hide behind her skirts), and stabbed him 56 times. He was then stripped of his jewels and finery and thrown down the stairs. Two hours later he was in the ground.

Rumor had it that Darnley was behind the murder. Mary was 7 months pregnant at the time, and it is thought that he believed that the shock of her lover's violent death might have resulted in a miscarriage, and impaired Mary's health -- perhaps fatally. A long, slow death for the Queen would have played right into Darnley's plans.

Whatever Darnley's involvement in the murder, Mary seemed to bear him a grudge. She started looking into ways to disolve the marriage, and Darnley didn't spend a lot of time in court.
In February of 1567, Darnley was at his family home, recuperating from a bout of smallpox (or possibly syphilis) and Mary invited him to her estate at Kirk o' Field, with the intention of getting him back into the life of the court again.

On the morning of February 10, while Mary was away at a wedding, there was a violent explosion at Kirk o' Field, caused by two barrels of gunpowder, which had been conveniently stored beneath Darnley's sleeping quarters. Darnley's body -- and that of his valet -- were found outside. Darnley was dressed in his nightshirt.

Neither body had been damaged by the explosion, but it appeared that both had been strangled. suspicion fell on the Earl of Bothwell and on Queen Mary herself, especially since they immediately fled to Dunbar Castle. Some say Bothwell kidnapped the Queen and raped her; some say that she went willingly. In any case, they married soon after. Mary miscarried Bothwell's twins.

Both Bothwell and Mary were charged with Darnley's murder, and were given separate trials in England. Bothwell was acquitted. Mary's trial was inconclusive, but she was still being held in prison when she was charged in the plot against Elizabeth. And that was the end of Mary.

February 9, 2015

February 9, 1450: Agnes Sorel Dies

Detail of Madonna Surrounded by
Seraphim and Cherubim by Jean Fouquet.
The model is believed to have been
Agnes Sorel
Agnes Sorel was a young, beautiful woman when she first met Charles VII of France, and she quickly enchanted him. So much so that she became his mistress, the first royal mistress ever to be officially recognized.

Agnes bore the King three children, and was pregnant with the fourth when she suddenly died. Her death, at the time, was attributed to dysentery, but it is now believed that she died of mercury poisoning, a death that was not unusual in a time when mercury was used for everything from cosmetics to medicine.

Some believe that she may have been deliberately poisoned -- either by Charles son, the future King Louis XI, or by the nobleman and minister Jacques Coeur. Since she had a great deal of influence with the King, and was wildly resented, it's not really such a far-fetched idea.

The king was desolated by her loss and built two tombs, one for her heart and one for her body. But life goes on, and Charles quickly replaced her with a new mistress, Antoinette Maignelais, a beautiful young cousin of Agnes's who somewhat resembled her.

February 8, 2015

February 8, 1587: Mary, Queen of Scots, Executed

Mary on the way to her execution. Painting by scipione Vannutelli, created about 1861.
Mary claimed that she had no knowledge or participation in the Babington Plot. She said that the letters had been forged, that she had never written to Babington about the assasination of Queen Elizabeth. In the end, it didn't really matter.

Since 1584, there had been a law on the books allowing the execution of anyone on who's behalfanyone plotted against the Queen. It was a move to try to protect Elizabeth from the countless plots against her.

Mary was convicted of treason, and sentenced to education, but it still didn't sit well with Elizabeth. She had a horror of killing an annointed monarch, and was fearful of the precendent set, especially if Mary's son James allied himself with the Catholic powers of Europe. She asked Sir Amias Paulet, who was then serving as Mary's jailer, if he could find a way to "shorten the life" of her rival. Sir Amis would have nothing to do with such a clandestine operation.

On the morning of the execution, there were 300 witnesses present. The scaffold was about 2 feet high and was draped in black. Mary put off her cloak, and revealed that she was dressed all in dark red, the color of martyrdom. Her executioners asked her forgiveness, and she said, "I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end to all my troubles." She was blindfolded with a white cloth embroidered in gold.

The first blow of the axe missed her neck and hit her on the back of her head. The second one found her neck, but didn't quite sever it -- a bit of sinew had to be sawed through with the axe. The executioner held her head aloft, and found he was holding only her beautiful auburn hair. She'd been wearing a wig -- her own hair was grey and cut short.

A Skye terrier, Mary's pet, had gone with her to the scaffold and hidden among her skirts. After her death, the little animal, now bloody with its mistresses blood, refused to leave her until taken away by force.

It was the end of Mary, Queen of Scots.

February 7, 2015

February 7, 1964: The Beatles Arrive in U.S.

If you're old enough to remember the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, you probably also remember the day the Beatles came to America.

In fact, it was just 77 days after the tragic event, and country needed a change of mood. The Beatles provided it. They were already a phenomenon in Europe, of course, and "I Want to Hold Your Hand" had already become a #1 hit in the U.S. But even the Beatles were amazed at the reception they got.

"We got off the plane, and we were used to ten, twelve thousand people, you know," Ringo later said in an interview. "It must have been four billion people out there. I mean, it was just crazy!"

In truth, there were nowhere near 4 billion in the crowd. But even 3,000 fans can make quite a ruckus, especially when they're teenagers who are simply mad for the Fab Four.

Two days later, the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and performed to an estimated TV audience of 73 million -- a full 34% of the American population. The Nielson people said it was the largest television audience ever recorded. A week later they appeared on Sullivan again, and again garnered an impressive audience.

It was the beginning of The British Invasion.

February 6, 2015

February 6, 1838: Sir Henry Irving Born

Photograph of Henry Irving, taken about 1878
 by Lock and Whitflield, London
He was the most notable actor of his age. He was, in fact, the first British actor ever to be knighted. Yet most of his fame today is due to the writings of his humble biographer and business manager, a fellow by the name of Bram Stoker.

Irving was actually born with the name John Henry Brodribb. He became fascinated by the theater at a young age, and took the name Henry Irving. He joined the Lyceum Theatre when it was at its lowest ebb, but soon brought it back to life with his startling and memorable performances. In time, he became theater manager as well as actor, and was responsible for much of the theater's success.

Stoker made Irving's acquaintance after writing a favorable review of Irving's performance inHamlet. Irving appreciated the review and invited Stoker to dinner. The two were soon good friends, and Stoker became Irving's business manager at the Lyceum, where he stayed for 27 years.

In addition to his theater duties, Stoker found time to write. His most famous work, of course, isDracula. It is generally believed that Stoker's depiction of the title character -- with his charismatic presence, elegant manners, and cold aristocratic demeanor -- was modeled after Irving.

February 5, 2015

February 5, 1784: Nancy Hanks Lincoln Born

Artist's depiction of Nancy Hanks Lincoln
Nancy Hanks was born poor and illegitimate, but she grew up to be the mother of one of the greatest Presidents in our nation's history.

We don't know much about Nancy Hanks. She was an expert seamstress, we're told, and she had a sweet disposition -- a trait she later passed on to her son. She married Thomas Lincoln at the age of 22, and died when she was 34, leaving behind a 9 year old son (Abraham) and an 11 year old daughter (Sarah). Some think she died of tuberculosis; more say it was "milk sickness." Milk sickness was an ailment that occurred when settlers drank the milk of a cow who has eaten white snakeroot. It happened fairly often in these times, simply because settlers weren't familiar with the plant.

Young Abraham helped to build his mother's coffin. He was cared for by his older sister for about a year, until his father remarried.

February 4, 2015

February 4, 1703: 47 Ronin Commit Suicide

The Loyal 47 Ronin, a modern-ish retelling
of the tale. Available at Amazon.com.
The tale of the 47 Ronin is a popular Japanese legend, but it appears to have been based in actual events. And, it reaffirms what I have always believed about Party Planning -- it can be a nightmare.

This is the story in brief:

Two Japanese nobles were charged with arranging a reception for the Emperor, and a court official was assigned to them to teach them the finer points of court etiquette. He didn't do his job and was rude and arrogant to them, possibly because they weren't bribing him properly. Finally, one of the nobles lost his temper and assaulted him. The official's injuries were minor, but the offense had been committed in an area where any kind of violence was taboo. The hot-tempered fellow was ordered to commit seppuku (ritual suicide.)

All of his goods were confiscated, of course, and his family was ruined. His 300 or so retainers were all now ronin, or masterless.

47 of them decided to avenge their master. After a long and complicated plan was carried out, they were finally successful. They killed the official and hauled themselves off to the authorities.

Now, the ronin had been expressly prohibited from seeking revenge in this matter, so they were in a lot of trouble. On the other hand, they were abiding by the Samurai Code in taking their revenge. There was also a whole lot of public support for their actions. What to do, what to do?

The shogun finally resolved the affair in a manner that was satisfactory to all. The ronin were notexecuted as criminals, but they were allowed to commit seppuku. There you go, happy ending for all.

Oh, and the other 253 ronin were employable again.

Pictured above: <a href="http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B001PCNZJU/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B001PCNZJU&linkCode=as2&tag=selshps-20">The Loyal 47 Ronin</a><img src="http://ir-na.amazon-adsystem.com/e/ir?t=selshps-20&l=as2&o=1&a=B001PCNZJU" width="1" height="1" border="0" alt="" style="border:none !important; margin:0px !important;" />