May 4, 2015

It Happened on May 4th

Highwayman John Nevison Executed, 1684

John Nevison was a gentleman-robber of 17th century England. He was said to have been courtly to the ladies, generous to the poor, and to have never harmed his robbery victims. He was a true Royalist, and Charles II was amused by his exploits. Charles called him "Swift Nick," a tribute to one of his most famous exploits.

One summer morning in 1676, at about 4 am, Nevison robbed a sailor in Gads Hill, Kent. The man recognized him and Nevison, fearing capture, began establishing his alibi. He rode all day along the Great North Road, the main highway stretching north from London, and arrived in Kent just after sundown. It was a distance of about 200 miles. After stabling his horse at an inn and washing and changing his clothes, he strolled over to the green where he found the mayor playing bowls (a game similar to bocce.) He entered into a conversation with the mayor, and then made a bet on the outcome of the game. He made sure that the mayor would remember his presence and the time that he had been there.

When Nevison was arrested for the Gad's Hill robbery, he produced the mayor as a witness to his presence in Kent the same day. The court didn't believe that he could have made the trip in a single day and Nevison was acquitted.

On another occasion, Nevison had been jailed for robbery in the Leicester Jail and made a clever escape. He feigned illness and sent for several of his friends, including a doctor. The doctor told the jailer that Nevison was ill of a "pestilential fever" and unless he was given fresh air to recover and isolated from the other inmates, the entire jail would soon be ill. Nevison's fetters were removed, and he was placed in a separate chamber. There, the doctor called on him several times a day, but the prison authorities stayed as far away from him as possible. Nevison and his friends painted blue spots all over Nevison's body, imitating the symptoms of the plague. Nevison then "died". Prison officials, frightened by the prospect of the plague, made an inspection of the body from the doorway of his cell and then allowed Nevison's friends to carry him away in a coffin.

In 1684 Nevison was arrested for the murder of Darcy Fletcher, a constable who had been sent to arrest him. He was hanged on May 4, 1684 and buried in an unmarked grave.

Flamsteed House, 1824

Royal Greenwich Observatory Commissioned, 1675

The idea of a Royal Observatory was suggested to King Charles II by Sir Jonas Moore, Charles's Surveyor General and Ordnance Officer. (In those days, ensuring adequate supplies of guns and ammunition was part of the Surveyor's duties.) Charles went for the idea. The Ordnance Office was responsible for the building of the site. Sir Christopher Wren designed the building, known as the Flamsteed House. Moore himself donated much of the equipment.

The Observatory was the first facility in England built for the purpose of scientific discovery. Flamsteed House was named after the astronomer John Flamsteed, whom Charles appointed as the first Astronomer Royal. Moore had long been a patron of Flamsteed's, and recommended him to the king. In his lifetime, Flamsteed catalogued over 300 stars.

Today the Observatory is recognized primarily as the site of the Prime Meridian, the basis of Greenwich Mean Time. The Observatory is now chiefly used as a museum for astronomical and navigational artifacts, since most of the research facilities have been moved to other locations.

William Walker

William Walker Sets Out to Conquer Nicaragua, 1855

William Walker was a lawyer, doctor, journalist, and adventurer. He was also -- briefly -- the President of Nicaragua.

On May 4th, 1855, Walker left San Francisco with about 60 men. He intended to conquer Nicaragua. To be more accurate, he had been hired by the Democratic (also called the Liberal) Party of Nicaragua to support them in their Civil War. The Democrats had been challenging the Legitimist (or Conservative) Party since the previous year. The United States had strict neutrality laws, of course, and in order to get around them Walker had received a contract to bring "colonists" to Nicaragua.

It wasn't Walker's first brush with world domination. In 1853 he had taken 45 men to Mexico with the intent of acquiring the territories of Baja California and Sonora. His intent was to obtain new territories for the United States that could then be admitted to the Union as slave states.

All this was patently illegal, of course. The United States had passed the Neutrality Act of 1794, which made it illegal for a private citizen to wage war on any country which was not at war with the United States. Still, this kind of thing was popular at the time, especially in the South, where additional slave states would have made a big difference. The whole country was pretty much caught up in the whole "Manifest Destiny" era -- the idea that American interests were destined -- and entitled -- to engulf the whole hemisphere.

Walker's Mexican expedition failed and when he returned to the United States he was put on trial for waging an illegal war. The jury took eight minutes to acquit him.

Nicaragua was another story, however. When he arrived there, his 60 men were joined by about 170 locals and another 100 Americans. They were successful in defeating the Legitimist army, and Walker soon took control of the country. US President Franklin Pierce recognized the Walker regime as the legitimate government in 1856.

Walker was not a popular President. He made changed the official language to English and reinstated slavery, which had previously been outlawed for 32 years. He made enemies of the surrounding countries by making forays into their territories. The Accessory Transit Company, owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt, was seized by the new government, ostensibly for charter violations, and handed over to Vanderbilt's rivals, C. K. Garrison and Charles Morgan, who had supported Walker's cause. The company was an enormously lucrative venture, as it was then the easiest and most popular route to travel from the Caribbean to the Pacific Ocean.

Vanderbilt was outraged and used his influence to persuade the US to withdraw its recognition of the new regime. He also contributed financially to the militaries of the surrounding Central American countries.

Walker's army was weakened with cholera and desertions when it was surrounded by a coalition of Central American forces, including Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Walker surrendered to the US Navy, who had been sent to the Nicaraguan coast to protect US economic interests, and was returned to the United States. He was tried for violating US neutrality, but again was acquitted.

Walker returned to Central America yet again in 1860. Landing in Honduras, he hoped to make his way to Nicaragua, but his men began deserting him, and his situation became intenable. He surrendered to British authorities. Rather than returning him to the United States, the British turned him over to the Honduran government. He was executed by firing squad on September 12, 1860.

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