October 19th 1781: Cornwallis surrenders
On this day in 1781 in Yorktown, Virginia, during the American Revolutionary War, British commander Cornwallis formally surrendered to George Washington. Thus, the Siege of Yorktown was a decisive victory for the American forces and their French allies, and was the last major battle of the war. Cornwallis’s surrender led to the opening of peace negotiations and the Treaty of Paris was reached in 1783, which ended the war between Britain and the United States and preserved American independence.
October 15th 1860: Bedell’s letter to Lincoln
On this day in 1860 an eleven year old girl from Westfield, New York, wrote a famous letter to Republican candidate for President, Abraham Lincoln. In the letter the young girl suggested the candidate grow a beard as "all the ladies like whiskers" and it would improve the appearance of his thin face. She also tells Lincoln that she hopes he wins the election and "if I was a man I would vote for you to but I will try to get every one to vote for you that I can". Lincoln, then an Illinois Senator, replied to Bedell on the 19th, expressing his concern that people will consider it a "piece of silly affection" if he grows a beard now. However he took Bedell’s advice to heart and in the last weeks of the campaign Lincoln grew his now iconic beard. On February 16th, when Lincoln was on his way to the White House for his inauguration after having won the election, the train stopped in Westfield. While there, Lincoln called out for Grace and he greeted her as she came forward, showing her that he had taken her advice. Lincoln’s story from that moment on is well known - he led the Union to victory over the seceded Southern states during the Civil War and pushed for the emancipation of America’s slaves, before being assassinated in 1865. Bedell wrote another letter to Lincoln when she was fifteen, after her family had fallen on hard times, asking for help in getting a job with the Treasury, but this time the President did not reply. She later married a veteran Civil War sergeant and moved to Kansas where she raised a family. Grace Bedell died in 1936 just before her 88th birthday.
“‘He climbed down and sat down with me on the edge of the station platform,’” she recalled. ‘Gracie,’ he said, ‘look at my whiskers. I have been growing them for you.’ Then he kissed me. I never saw him again.”
- Grace’s account of when she met Lincoln in 1861
October 12th 1492: Columbus lands in the Americas
On this day in 1492 the Genoese explorer Christopher Columbus landed in the Bahamas, thus ‘discovering’ the Americas, though he believed he had found India. He claimed the land for Spain, as his voyage had been sponsored by the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, and in his next three voyages claimed more areas of South America. His arrival ushered in a new era of European exploration and colonisation of the Americas, which included the expeditions of Spanish conquistadors in Mexico and Puritan settlers in New England. This day is celebrated in America as ‘Columbus Day’, though many now consider the day a distasteful celebration of an event that was followed by persecution and attempted genocide of indigenous Americans. Columbus’s arrival in America marked a major turning point in world history, as it set the stage for the expansion of European empires and trading routes through ruthless colonisation.
October 10th 1973: Agnew resigns
On this day in 1973 the Vice President of the United States Spiro Agnew resigned. Agnew served under President Richard Nixon until he was formally charged with bribery and income tax evasion. Agnew was the second Vice President in history to resign from office after John C. Calhoun in 1832. He was replaced by Gerald Ford, who later became President upon Nixon’s resignation over the Watergate scandal. Thus Ford is the only American President to have not been elected either Vice-President or President.
October 4th 1970: Janis Joplin dies
On this day in 1970, American singer Janis Joplin died from a drug overdose aged just 27. She was known for her stage presence and psychedelic music, which earned her a spot at Woodstock festival. She rose to fame as lead singer of psychedelic band Big Brother and the Holding Company and later went solo. Her music and persona was, and continues to be, very influential in the music world. In 1995 she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
September 30th 1955: James Dean dies
On this day in 1955, the American film star James Dean died in a car crash aged just 24. His famous roles include Jim Stark in ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ and Cal Trask in ‘East of Eden’. Dean, a keen motoring enthusiast, died in a car accident which occurred on the way to a motor racing event in Salinas, California. The car he was driving at the time of the incident was his Porsche 550 Spyder which he named ‘Little Bastard’. After his death he became the first person to receive a posthumous Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. James Dean’s legend only grew upon his death and he remains a prominent cultural icon. In 1991 the American Film Institute ranked him the 18th best male movie star of all time.
September 22nd 1827: Smith finds the golden plates
On this day in 1827, Joseph Smith Jr. claimed to have found the golden plates on which the third book of the Bible is written. Smith said he was visited by an angel called Moroni who told him where they were buried. He then supposedly translated the golden plates and had them published as ‘The Book of Mormon’ and thus founded the Latter Day Saint movement. Mormons believe that Jesus came to America and the Book tells the history of an ancient Judeo-Christian civilisation in America. Smith never allowed anyone to see the golden plates, and so many question whether they ever existed. Smith led his followers West, but along the way encountered much hatred from Christians and Smith was eventually killed by a mob in 1844 aged 38.
September 18th 1837: Tiffany and Co. founded
On this day in 1837, the jewelry retailer Tiffany and Co. was founded by Charles Lewis Tiffany and Teddy Young in New York City. The first Tiffany store was marketed as a “stationery and fancy goods emporium”. In 1862 during the American Civil War, Tiffany supplied the Union army with swords, flags and surgical equipment. From then onwards Tiffany continued to make a name for itself as a high quality retailer, especially after winning accolades at the 1867 Paris World’s Fair. Due to its popularity the company received several notable commissions, including designing the New York Yankee’s ‘NY’ logo, revising the Seal of the United States in 1885 and the Navy’s Medal of Honor in 1919, and designing the White House china in 1968. Tiffany is today best known for its diamond jewelry and is based at 727 Fifth Avenue, New York City.
October 18th 1679: Ann Putnam Jr. born
On this day in 1679 Ann Putnam Jr. was born to parents Thomas Putnam and Ann Carr in Salem Village, Massachusetts. 13 years later, Ann Putnam Jr. imprinted her mark on history by becoming one of the chief accusers during the Salem witch trial crisis of 1692. Putnam, along with Betty Parris, Mary Walcott and Abigail Williams, were the most prominent of the ‘afflicted girls’ who claimed they were being tortured by witches. The girls accused many local people of being witches, and in the ensuing panic twenty people were executed for witchcraft. It has been suggested that Putnam’s parents may have told her who to accuse in order to resolve personal vendettas. In 1706, Ann Putnam apologised to her local community for her role in the trials.
"it was a great delusion of Satan that deceived me in that sad time, whereby I justly fear I have been instrumental, with others, though ignorantly and unwittingly, to bring upon myself and this land the guilt of innocent blood”
October 14th 1912: Roosevelt shot
On this day in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt was shot while making a campaign speech in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Roosevelt, who served as President from 1901 to 1909 was attempting to run for a third term for his Bull Moose Party. He lost the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. He was shot by John Schrank, a mentally disturbed saloon keeper, who claimed he was told to kill Roosevelt by the ghost of former President William McKinley. When Schrank shot Roosevelt, the bullet lodged in his chest after hitting his eyeglass case and a copy of his speech he was carrying in his jacket. Roosevelt decided to continue the speech, as he could tell from the lack of blood when he coughed that the bullet had not pierced his lung. He spoke for ninety minutes after being shot. Doctors concluded the wound was not serious and the bullet remained in Roosevelt until his death.
"I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose."
October 11th 1884: Eleanor Roosevelt born
On this day in 1884 Eleanor Roosevelt was born in New York City. She married her cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt, the future President, in 1905. Eleanor was actively involved in her husband’s political career, and encouraged him to continue in politics after his partial paralysis from polio in 1921. Franklin was elected President of the United States in 1932 and served as President from 1933 until his death in 1945. Eleanor was a very active First Lady, openly campaigning for greater rights for women and African Americans. After FDR’s death, Eleanor was a US delegate to the United Nations, and chaired the UN Commission on Human Rights. In this capacity she oversaw the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eleanor Roosevelt died in 1962 aged 78.
October 5th 1947: First televised White House address
On this day in 1947, US President Harry S. Truman gave the first televised address from the White House. He and his cabinet used the address to ask Americans to refrain from eating meat on Tuesdays and poultry and eggs on Thursdays to stockpile food for starving people in postwar Europe. At this time there were only around 44,000 TV sets in American homes. The speech was the first of the now regular presidential addresses on television.
October 2nd 1919: Wilson’s stroke
On this day in 1919 the President of the United States Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke at the White House. Wilson became President in 1913 and during his tenure pushed several progressive reforms through Congress, including the Federal Reserve Act, and laws curtailing child labor and pushing for female suffrage. However, despite being considered a liberal Democrat in his day, Wilson held deeply racist views and implemented segregation. Wilson also oversaw America’s role in the First World War and at the end of the war advocated for the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations, which Congress later rejected. It was his frenzied effort to win public support for the Versailles Treaty that led him to travel extensively promoting the treaty, and the exhaustion of this caused the stroke that left him paralyzed on the left side and blind in his left eye. His wife and his chief of staff essentially took over the office after this, and arranged as few meetings as possible with the President and fake interviews in order to hide the severity of his condition. The Republicans won by a landslide in 1920 and Wilson left office. He died on February 3rd 1924 aged 67, and only after his death did the public learn the full extent of his incapacity.
September 26th 1960: First televised debate
On this day in 1960 the first televised debate took place in Chicago between US presidential candidates Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy. The debate drew an audience of 66 million viewers and is one of the most widely watched broadcasts in US history. The debate arguably determined the outcome of the election, and signified a shift to more image-centred politics. Radio listeners thought the Republican Nixon had won the debate on the substance of his arguments, but television viewers believed it to be the young, attractive Democrat Kennedy, rather than the sweaty and uncomfortable Nixon. Kennedy went on to win the 1960 election and televised debates are now a central part of presidential campaigns.
September 20th 1973: ‘Battle of the Sexes’
On this day in 1973 female tennis player Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ tennis match. She defeated him 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 before a crowd of over 30,000. The match, the second in the ‘Battle of the Sexes’, took place in Houston, Texas. King was the No. 2 female tennis player and Riggs a retired male Wimbledon champion. Riggs had defeated Margaret Court in the first match and proceeded to taunt female players as he was expected to win. King challenged him to a nationally televised match and defeated him, thus cementing her status in the history of tennis.