May 22, 2015

It Happened on May 22nd

Congressman Brooks Beats Senator Sumner, 1856

Tempers ran hot in the years preceding the Civil War, and no issue raised more wrath than the subject of slavery. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 had been designed to ease tensions between the North and South by allowing the residents of the newly created territories of Kansas and Nebraska to determine for themselves whether or not they would allow slavery. It had almost the opposite effect: opponents of the Act regarded it as an unnecessary concession to the South.

Senator Sumner
On May 19, 1856, Charles Sumner, a Senator from Massachusetts, denounced the Kansas-Nebraska Act in a speech entitled "Crime Against Kansas." The speech took three hours and ran over into the next day's business. He particularly attacked the authors of the bill, Senators Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina. He called Douglas a noise-some, squat, and nameless animal...not a proper model for an American Senator." Douglas, who was present at the time, remarked to a colleague, "This damn fool is going to get himself shot by some other damn fool."

Butler was not present at the session, and Sumner devoted even more attention to him. He said that Butler had "chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him...I mean the harlot, Slavery." He also mocked the man personally: "With incoherent phrases discharged the loose expectoration of his speech." Butler had recently suffered a stroke.

Congressman Brooks
Butler may not have been present for the speech, but his relative, Preston Brooks, a Congressman from South Carolina, was. He was furious. His first impulse was to challenge him to a duel, but, after consulting with a colleague about duel etiquette, decided that it would be inappropriate. After all, a duel may only be fought between social equals, and Brooks felt that Sumner had amply demonstrated his lower social class.

On the afternoon of May 22nd, Brooks found Sumner sitting alone in the almost deserted Senate Chamber, busily mailing out copies of his Senate speech. Brooks was accompanied by Representatives Laurence M. Keitt (Brooks's expert on dueling etiquette) and Henry A. Edmundson. Brooks attacked him with his cane, a heavy item made of gutta-percha with a gold head. The heavy desk was bolted to the floor, and Sumner could not escape at first, but finally managed to free himself. Several other Senators attempted to intervene, but Keitt held them off with a pistol. Sumner staggered away from Brooks, blinded by his own blood, and collapsed into unconsciousness. Brooks continued to beat him until his cane broke, and then left.

The walking cane is now in the Old State House Museum, Boston.
Sumner was reelected the following November, but was unable to attend Senate sessions for the next three years. He suffered from severe headaches, nightmares, and probably from post-traumatic stress disorder. His detractors accused him of cowardice for not returning, but his (Northern) supporters felt that his empty chair spoke eloquently to the brutality of the South.

A motion to expel Brooks from the House failed, but Brooks resigned. He was immediately reelected. Supporters from all over the South sent him new canes to replace the one that had broken.

Northerners, of course, condemned Brooks's actions. One particularly vehement critic was Representative Anson Burlingame of Massachusetts. He, too, delivered a speech on the floor of the Senate, denouncing Brooks as "the vilest sort of coward." Evidently Burlingame's social standing met Brooks's requirements, for Brooks challenged Burlingame to a duel. Burlingame, unexpectedly for Brooks, enthusiastically accepted. As the challenged party, Burlingame had the choice of weapons and location. He chose rifles, being known as an excellent marksman. Since duels were illegal in the United States, he chose a location on the Canadian side of the border at Niagara Falls. Brooks didn't show up for the duel, saying that he would be placing himself in danger by crossing the "hostile country" of the Northern states.

Fire at L'Innovation Department Store, 1967

The L'Innovation Department Store, in Brussels, Belgium, was an 1897 structure, five stories tall, with an atrium in the center. The atrium was open to all five stories and had a skylight at the top. The floors and walls were all made of wood. There were no fire alarms or sprinklers in the store.

Beginning on May 5th, the store had been advertising a special exhibit of American-made merchandise -- blue jeans, barbeque equipment, and paper dolls were the most prominent items advertised. American flags were used throughout the store as decoration. The exhibit had attracted the attention of a group called "Action for Peace and Independence of Peoples." The group, a pro-China faction, had been demonstrating and distributing pamphlets outside the store for several days. As part of their demonstration, they sometimes set off fireworks.

L'Innovation soon after it opened in 1901.
No one knows exactly what started the fire. Some initially believed that the demonstrators were responsible. Others claimed that it started as a kitchen fire on the fourth-floor restaurant. To add to the confusion, at least one person claimed that someone yelled, "I'm giving my life for Viet Nam!" right after the fire started.

It is now believed that it was probably an electrical fire at the beginning. At some point, butane canisters in the store's camping department caught fire and exploded. The flags displayed throughout the floor also helped spread the fire. The atrium acted as a chimney, providing a steady supply of oxygen to the burning structure. The entire store was engulfed in less than ten minutes.

The fire took place at 1:30 pm, when the store was swamped with lunch-hour shoppers. Some estimate that 1,000 people were in the store; some estimates go as high as 2,500. The streets were also congested, making it difficult for fire engines to get through. The main stairway was filled with smoke, so most shoppers tried to get to the windows, causing panic and stampeding. A few managed to get out the windows and escape over the roofs of neighboring buildings, but many jumped to their deaths. The final death toll was 322, making it one of the worst 20th century disasters.

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