March 11th 1864: The Great Sheffield Flood
On this day in 1864 the Dale Dyke Dam in Sheffield broke, causing one of the largest floods in English history. 650 million gallons of water swept down Loxley Valley and through areas of Sheffield. The flood destroyed 800 homes and killed around 293 people, thus making it the largest man-made disaster to befall England, and one of the deadliest floods in history. Individual stories from the disaster are particularly tragic. For example Joseph Dawson found the currents too strong and was unable to save both his wife and two day old baby boy - the Dawsons’ unnamed child became the first victim of the floods. The destruction afterwards led one observer to remark that Sheffield was "looking like a battlefield". Today marks the 150th anniversary of this tragedy, which is often forgotten in English history, and many Sheffielders will take this day to remember what once happened to their city.
150 years ago today
March 9th 1945: Bombing of Tokyo begins
On this day in 1945, the bombing of Tokyo by the United States Air Forces began; the raid is one of the most destructive in history. There had been raids by B-29 bombers since November 1944. The raid on the night of March 9th saw 334 B-29s take off in Operation Meetinghouse, with 279 of them dropping around 1,700 tons of bombs. 16 square miles of the Japanese capital were destroyed, around a million were left homeless and around 100,000 people died as a result of the firestorm. Tokyo saw many raids such as this, with over 50% of Tokyo being destroyed by the end of the Second World War. However the firebombing on the night of March 9/10th was the single deadliest air raid of the war; the immediate deaths were higher than seen at Dresden, Hiroshima or Nagasaki as single events.
"Killing Japanese didn’t bother me very much at that time… I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal…. Every soldier thinks something of the moral aspects of what he is doing. But all war is immoral and if you let that bother you, you’re not a good soldier.
- Curtis LeMay, the American general behind the firebombing campaign
March 7th 1875: Ravel born
On this day in 1875 the French composer Maurice Ravel was born in Ciboure, France, not far from the Spanish border. He was born into a Catholic household to a Swiss father and Basque mother. Ravel’s father imparted onto his son his love of music, which shaped the young Maurice’s future. His musical talents led him to the Paris Conservatoire, and whilst he was not academically successful there he was acknowledged as a gifted musician. Ravel went on to enjoy an illustrious career as a composer, especially known for his piano pieces like ‘Gaspard de la nuit’ and ‘Jeux d’eau’. However Ravel’s most famous work is probably the orchestral piece 'Boléro' which premiered in 1928. Always a Ravel classic, this piece especially rose to prominence after it was used by British ice dancers Torvill and Dean for their gold medal winning performance at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympic Games. Maurice Ravel died after undergoing brain surgery on December 28th 1937, aged 62.
March 5th 1946: ‘Iron Curtain’ speech
On this day in 1946, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill made his famous ‘Iron Curtain’ speech at Westminster College, Missouri. The term had been used prior to 1946, but this was the most public use of it. In the ‘Sinews of Peace’ address, Churchill used the term ‘iron curtain’ to reference a Soviet dominated Eastern Europe. At the time, the West still saw the Soviet Union as an ally after the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War Two, but Churchill’s speech heralded the onset of the Cold War tensions between the capitalist West and communist Russia. As the Cold War took hold, the phrase became popular as a reference to repressive Communist domination of Europe which hid Soviet actions and set a clear divide in Europe.
"From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the continent”
March 3rd 1931: ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ adopted
On this day in 1931, the United States formally adopted 'The Star-Spangled Banner' as its national anthem. The song was written by Francis Scott Key, who was inspired after witnessing the defence of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. He was particularly moved by the sight of an American flag being raised over the fort in defiance of the British; this image inspired the poem which provides the lyrics to ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. The tune came from a well-known 18th century British song. The anthem was a popular patriotic American song for many years, and was commonly used by the armed forces prior to its official adoption. In 1931, at the urging of many patriotic organisations, a congressional resolution was signed by President Hoover which affirmed Key’s song as America’s national anthem.
March 1st 1692: The Salem Witch Trials begin
On this day in 1692, three women were brought before local magistrates in Salem Village, Massachusetts, thus beginning the infamous Salem Witch Trials. The women were Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne and Tituba and all three had been accused of witchcraft after local girls began experiencing strange fits. Given the lack of medical knowledge at the time and the preponderance of beliefs in the supernatural, witchcraft was the only logical explanation for their condition. The accused women matched the description of the stereotypical witch: Good was a beggar, Osborne rarely went to church and Tituba was a slave of different ethnicity. The women were interrogated by magistrates John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin and Tituba eventually confessed to witchcraft, claiming Good and Osborne were her co-conspirators. The three were then sent to jail; Osborne died in jail, Good was hanged and Tituba (as a useful confessor) was kept alive and eventually released after the trials ended. This initial interrogation was followed by many more accusations of witchcraft throughout the village and the surrounding area, fueled perhaps by local rivalries, poisoned grain or just mass fear. The manhunt resulted in 19 ‘witches’ being hanged, one pressed to death and hundreds more imprisoned in horrendous conditions. The event is a famous example of mass hysteria and has become a cautionary tale for religious extremism and false accusations.
February 27th 1892: Louis Vuitton dies
On this day in 1892 the French businessman Louis Vuitton, founder of the namesake fashion brand, died aged 70. From a working class French family, Vuitton had ambitions beyond his small hometown of Anchay. He famously spent two years traveling to Paris on foot between 1835 and 1837. Once there he had great success as a box maker, eventually becoming Emperor Napoleon III’s wife’s personal box maker. He established the Louis Vuitton company in 1854, and passed the business to his son George upon his death in 1892. Louis Vuitton remains one of the world’s leading high-fashion brands.
February 25th 1870: Hiram Rhodes Revels inaugurated
On this day in 1870 Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first African-American to sit in Congress, was inaugurated into the Senate. Before he was elected to the Senate, Revels was a Methodist minister and led black Union regiments during the Civil War. Revels gained his post after the Mississippi state legislature voted for Revels to fill one of the state’s Senate seats which had been vacant since Mississippi seceded. His appointment was initially resisted by the United States Senate, and his legitimacy was debated for several days. On February 25th, the Senate voted to allow Revels to take up his seat, with only Republicans voting for him and Democrats against. His inauguration that day received a standing ovation as the Senate witnessed the first African-American member of Congress joining their ranks. Revels served one term in the Senate, consistently pushing for racial equality, until he resigned in 1871 to become a college president.
March 10th 1876: First telephone conversation
On this day in 1876 the first telephone conversation took place between Alexander Graham Bell and his lab assistant Thomas Watson. Bell had recently secured the patent for his new invention - the telephone - and three days later succeeded in making a call. He summoned Watson from the next room thus making the first, albeit very brief, telephone call. Controversy surrounds the invention of the telephone, as there have been claims that the credit for the invention in fact rests with another inventor: Elisha Gray. Gray had also been working on a device for transmitting voice messages and both filed the patent the same day, leading to speculations about who got there first. However, whether erroneously or not, Bell is the one credited for the invention of the telephone, and he and Watson share the fame as the people who made the first telephone call.
"I then shouted into M [the mouthpiece] the following sentence: "Mr. Watson, come here — I want to see you." To my delight he came and declared that he had heard and understood what I said"
- Bell’s diary entry from March 10th 1876
March 8th 1911: International Women’s Day launched
On this day in 1911, International Women’s Day was launched in Copenhagen by Clara Zetkin. Zetkin, a German socialist activist, led the Women’s Office of the Social Democratic Party. The official commemoration of the day began in an attempt to draw attention to the struggle for female suffrage and women’s rights. Activists organised demonstrations and protests for March 8th in order to have more far-reaching impact. Initially only celebrated in Europe, it soon became a global phenomenon, spreading to Russia, Australia and the United States. Ever since 1996, the UN has established official themes for International Day; this year’s theme is 'Inspiring Change'.
March 6th 1981: Cronkite signs off
On this day in 1981 the legendary anchor of CBS Evening News, Walter Cronkite, signed off for the last time. Cronkite had been presenting the news for nineteen years and became known as ‘the most trusted man in America’. He is known for his departing catchphrase “And that’s the way it is”, followed by that day’s date. Cronkite reported on some pivotal moments in history including the Nuremberg trials, the moon landing and the Watergate scandal. He also got involved in the politics of the day, and is known for his denunciation of the Vietnam War which led President Johnson to bitterly remark “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America”. Cronkite is also remembered as the anchor who broke the story of the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22nd 1963. After his retirement, Cronkite continued to be an active figure in the American media and as a political activist. He died in 2009 in New York City, aged 92.
"This is my last broadcast as the anchorman of The CBS Evening News; for me, it’s a moment for which I long have planned, but which, nevertheless, comes with some sadness. For almost two decades, after all, we’ve been meeting like this in the evenings, and I’ll miss that…And that’s the way it is: Friday, March 6, 1981. I’ll be away on assignment, and Dan Rather will be sitting in here for the next few years. Good night”
March 4th 1678: Vivaldi born
On this day in 1678, the Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi was born in Venice. He was baptised immediately after birth, a very rare event, most likely because he seemed to be in poor health and his mother wanted him baptised in case he died. Vivaldi is often considered one of the greatest Baroque musicians. Perhaps his most famous work is the series of violin concertos 'The Four Seasons'. His red hair and position as a Catholic priest earned him the nickname ‘il Prete Rosso’ or ‘The Red Priest’. During his lifetime Vivaldi was active in his community, helping in a local orphanage where he supported their music programmes for the children. Antonio Vivaldi died in Vienna in 1741 aged 63, after moving there hoping for employment by Emperor Charles VI.
March 2nd 1657: Great Fire of Meireki
On this day in 1657 a fire ravaged the Japanese capital city of Edo (which is now Tokyo). The fire burned for three days, destroying two thirds of the city and claiming 100,000 lives. Edo Castle, a mighty testament to Edo’s rising prosperity and home of the shogun, was lost to the flames. The event is sometimes called the Furisode Fire, in reference to a legend about the cause of the fire. A furisode is the best kimono for an unmarried woman, and as legend has it the fire was ignited by the ceremonial burning of a supposedly cursed kimono which had been owned by several young women who had died soon after receiving the item. Edo was particularly susceptible to fire, as the buildings were made mostly of wood and paper and stood very close together. The buildings were also very dry due to a recent drought, providing prime conditions for a fire to spread. The fire forever changed the face of Edo, with new firebreaks installed, streets widened and plaster roofs the norm.
February 28th 1525: Cuauhtémoc executed
On this day in 1525, the Aztec ruler of Tenochtitlán Cuauhtémoc was executed by Hernán Cortés’s Spanish forces. Cuauhtémoc began his reign in 1520 soon after his relative Moctezuma II died in battle with the Spanish. Becoming ruler at the young age of 25, he came to power over a land besieged. He faced the threat of the Spanish invasion and a smallpox epidemic, and battled bravely to save Tenochtitlán. However Cuauhtémoc was captured on August 13th 1521, along with his family and most of the remaining Tenochtitlán nobles. The king asked Cortés to kill him, but the conquistador refused and initially let him go. However, lust for the fabled Aztec gold was too much, and Cortés’s forces eventually recaptured and tortured Cuauhtémoc to find its whereabouts. In 1525, Cortés ordered Cuauhtémoc executed for supposedly plotting to kill leading Spaniards, Cortés included. This claim has never been verified, but Cuauhtémoc is remembered in Mexico as a brave warrior who fought to save his country from the invaders.
February 26th 1993: World Trade Center bombing
On this day in 1993 a truck bomb was detonated below the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. The bomb was intended to knock the North Tower into the South Tower to destroy them both but failed. The attack still killed six (including a pregnant woman) and injured over one thousand. The terrorist attack was planned by a group of conspirators and masterminded by Ramzi Yousef. In 1994, four men were convicted of carrying out the bombing and two more in 1997. The group were funded by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who would go on to be the principal architect behind the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11th 2001. The memorial to the victims of the 1993 attack was destroyed on 9/11 but they are currently memorialised at the North Pool of the National 9/11 Memorial, opened in 2011.
"It felt like an airplane hit the building"
- eye-witness Bruce Pomper on the 1993 attack