October 20th 1632: Christopher Wren born
On this day in 1632, famous British architect Christopher Wren was born in East Knoyle, Wiltshire. The son of a rector, Wren received a top education at Westminster School and then the prestigious Oxford University. Wren’s initial intellectual interest was in astronomy and physics but this eventually developed into architecture during the 1660s. When the Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed a large portion of the city, Wren seized the opportunity and became a chief architect of the rebuilt capital. He designed fifty-two new churches for London, most famously St. Paul’s Cathedral. St. Paul’s was London’s tallest building until 1962, having survived the Blitz during World War Two. The cathedral remains a major British landmark and is used for state services including the funeral of Winston Churchill (and more recently Margaret Thatcher), monarch’s jubilee celebrations, and the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer. Wren’s work in London caught the attention of the crown and he received multiple royal commissions including designing the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, the front facade of Hampton Court Palace and several hospitals. Christopher Wren died on February 25th 1723 aged 91 after having caught a bad chill. His gravestone in St Paul’s Cathedral features the Latin inscription "Reader, if you seek his memorial - look around you."
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 16th 1793: Marie Antoinette executed
On this day in 1793 the widow of French King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, was executed by guillotine. Her husband was executed as part of the abolition of the monarchy during the French Revolution in 1793. Marie was subsequently tried and convicted for treason to the principles of the revolution and then executed. Antoinette was initially liked by the French people, but they came to dislike her as the tide turned against the monarchy. There is a common misconception that her last words were “let them eat cake”, however there is no evidence for this.
"Pardon me sir, I meant not to do it"
- Antoinette’s last words to the executioner after she stepped on his foot
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 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 8th 1967: Clement Attlee dies
On this day in 1967, former British Prime Minister Clement Attlee passed away aged 84. He was Deputy Prime Minister under Conservative Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the wartime coalition government. Attlee’s Labour Party then defeated the Conservative Party in the 1945 election. He led the country in post-war recovery, with a focus on promoting social services, most famously creating the National Health Service (NHS), for which he is still celebrated today. The Attlee government also undertook massive nationalisation and oversaw decolonisation and the breakup of the British Empire. Attlee left office in 1951 after narrowly losing to Churchill and the Conservatives. The former Prime Minister died of pneumonia at Westminster Hospital in 1967; he remains one of the most popular British political leaders in the nation’s history.
October 6th 1892: Alfred, Lord Tennyson dies
On this day in 1892, the famous British poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson died aged 83. Tennyson was Poet Laureate under Queen Victoria from 1850 until his death. His poems include ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ and ‘In Memoriam’. The latter poem coined the famous phrase “‘Tis better to have loved and lost, Than never to have loved at all”. The poet also had the opportunity to record himself reading his poem ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ on a phonograph cylinder - one of the earliest devices for recording sound - in 1890 (recording found here). Upon his death he was buried in Westminster Abbey in Poets’ Corner alongside notable figures like Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and Rudyard Kipling.
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 17th 1905: October Manifesto issued
On this day in 1905 Russian Tsar Nicholas II issued the October Manifesto. The manifesto was mainly the brainchild of Count Sergei Witte as a response to the Russian Revolution of 1905. The ‘revolution’ was a period of mass unrest against the government and due to general frustration with working conditions and poverty. The tsar’s manifesto promised civil liberties and an elected Duma (parliament). However, the provisions were not enough for many and civil liberties were still limited. This contributed to the success of the 1917 Communist Revolution.
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 13th 54 AD: Claudius dies
On this day in 54 AD the Roman Emperor Claudius died in Rome aged 63. Claudius was the fourth emperor after the Empire was consolidated by the first emperor Augustus. Tiberius, the second emperor, was Claudius’s uncle, and the young Claudius came to power after Tiberius’s successor, the insane Caligula, was assassinated by his own guard. Claudius proved a much more moderate and even-tempered leader than his predecessor despite having previously been excluded from power due to his health problems. The new emperor had a strained relationship with the Roman Senate, who felt they did not have enough power under Claudius. However the fourth emperor is responsible for several notable achievements, perhaps most importantly the Roman conquest of Britain, which greatly added to the territorial power of the Roman Empire. After his wife Messallina was executed for plotting against him, Claudius married his niece Agrippina. However Agrippina had ambitions and supporters of her own and feared Claudius would name his own son as his heir rather than her son Nero. Emperor Claudius died the day after holding a sumptuous banquet, and Roman opinion believed he was poisoned by Agrippina herself in order to secure her son’s succession. She was successful and Nero became Roman Emperor, thus beginning the brutal rule of one of Rome’s most infamous emperors.
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 9th 1967: Che Guevara executed
On this day in 1967, Marxist revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara was executed age 39. Guevara played a major role in the Cuban Revolution which put Fidel Castro in power. He continued to study Marxism and decided that colonialism and capitalism were mainly to blame for problems in the Third World and that global revolution was the answer. When he tried to initiate revolution in Bolivia he was captured by Bolivian forces, who had CIA help, and was executed the next day. He continues to be a powerful symbolic figure, as for many he embodies rebellion.
"I know you’ve come to kill me. Shoot me you coward! You are only going to kill a man!"
- Guevara’s last words
October 7th 1931: Desmond Tutu born
On this day in 1931 the future Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Mpilo Tutu, was born in Klerksdorp, South Africa. Tutu grew up during apartheid, when racial segregation was rigidly enforced and black Africans were denied their basic rights. After almost dying from tuberculosis aged 12, the exceptionally intelligent Tutu resolved to become a doctor. However, unable to afford medical school tuition, he studied education and became a teacher. Tutu became increasingly frustrated with the racism that discriminated against and stifled himself and his students. In 1957 he left education, and in 1960 was ordained as an Anglican deacon. Tutu studied theology in London and taught in universities before becoming the first black Anglican dean of Johannesburg in 1975, a position he used as a platform to articulate the plight of blacks in the apartheid system. He continued to rise through the South African church and received increased international attention for his anti-apartheid efforts, including receiving a Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. The 1993 end of South African apartheid was received with joy around the world and many credited Tutu’s advocacy as an important contributor to this outcome. In 1994 Tutu introduced South Africa to its newly elected President Nelson Mandela, who appointed Tutu to lead a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Desmond Tutu officially retired from public life in the late 1990s but continues to be an advocate for social justice, equality and humanitarian causes around the world. Some of the issues he has championed since his retirement include the fight against HIV/AIDS, battling homophobia, and protecting the environment.
Today, Desmond Tutu turns 83 years old.