On September 30, 1955, Hollywood star James Dean was driving his Porsche 550 Spyder racing car that he nicknamed “Little Bastard.” At an intersection near Cholame, California on Route 466, Dean’s car crashed head-on with an oncoming car. The young star was killed in the wreck. To hear all about the life of this “too fast to live, to young to die” star, check out this episode of “Remarkable Lives, Tragic Deaths.”
On September 22, 1598, in the Fields of Shoreditch in London, England, two of the kingdom’s small circle of theatre-men met. One was Ben Jonson, a playwright and poet, whose works would be overshadowed by his contemporary, one William Shakespeare, but who was certainly an accomplished master of the theatre. The other man was an actor, Gabriel Spencer, about whom little is known. What we do know is that these two met at the Fields to fight a duel. By the end of that morning, Spencer was dead, run through by Jonson’s blade. The cause of the confrontation was never clearly explained, but Jonson claimed that Spencer started the dispute and then broke the terms of the duel by using a sword 10-inches longer than what was agreed upon. Conveniently, however, we don’t have Spencer’s side.
Jonson was tried for murder at the Old Bailey in London and was found guilty. He escaped hanging by pleading “benefit of clergy,” meaning that he was spared since he was educated in Latin. Ben Jonson did spend about 10 years in prison and was branded on his left thumb as a felon. In addition, all his property was forfeit to the crown. He certainly made the most of his narrow escape from the gallows – writing numerous successful plays until his death in 1637 – so 39 years after that fateful morning.
Featured Image: “Ben Jonson.” By After Abraham van Blyenberch (ca. 1575–1624) – National Portrait Gallery: NPG 363, Public Domain.
Source: Jokinen, Anniina. “The Life of Ben Jonson.” Luminarium. 9 September 2003.
On September 5, 1921, Hollywood funnyman Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle rented a hotel room in the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco to relax and have some fun with friends. By the end of the night one of those friends, actress Virginia Rappe, fell ill from bootlegged liquor (it was the time of Prohibition) and a previous medical condition. Two days later, Rappe was dead and Arbuckle’s career was in shambles as he was charged with manslaughter. Over the next year, Arbuckle would face three trials over the case and charges of killing the young woman and of sexual perversion. Though he was never convicted, his career was effectively over. Check out this excellent article in Smithsonian Magazine by Daniel Eagan to learn more about this “first Hollywood sex scandal.”
Featured Image: “Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle.” By Photographer uncredited – https://archive.org/stream/starsofphotopla00phot#page/n25/mode/2up, Public Domain.
On August 25, 1835, the New York Sun newspaper featured a seemingly benign headline that read “Great Astronomical Discoveries Lately Made by Sir John Herschel, L.L.D.” This article talked at length about a purported new invention made by respected astronomer John Herschel of an incredibly powerful telescope that allowed him to see the surface of the moon clearly and in great detail. The problem with this story was that Herschel had made no such invention, in fact he played no part in the story and those that would follow over the next five days. For the next week, the Sun ran stories that became more and more fantastical detailing amazing discoveries of not only life, but advanced civilization on the moon. Days 2 and 3 detailed the animal and plant life purported to be on the moon – including a biped beaver that had master the art of fire. Day 4 proved to be the high point of the hoax when the paper described what they called Vespertilio-homo or the “Bat-men” who inhabited the moon and had established a civilization and lived in a “universal state of amity.”
The elaborate story met with a mixed reception with many people believing the story, but many others being skeptical about the wild claims. The owner of the Sun, Benjamin Day, was looking to increase his paper’s circulation and in that he succeeded wildly. Despite increased readership, the hoax was exposed less than a week later when New York Herald journalist James Gordon Bennett disclosed the true author of the piece, Sun reporter Richard Adams Locke. Locke and his boss, Day, denied their role in the hoax until 1836 when Locke finally caved and admitted to being the hoax’s author.
Featured Image: “The Ruby Amphitheatre.” By http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/images/moonprint2.jpg Originally from en.wikipedia; description page is/was here., Public Domain.
Image 1: “Vespertilio-homo.”By Lock (?) Naples – The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats ISBN: 0465002579 page 228, Public Domain.
Source: “The Great Moon Hoax.” The Museum of Hoaxes.
On August 21, 1911, a very low-tech and unsophisticated art heist of a popularly obscure painting (at the time) from the Louvre. On that Monday morning, three men rushed out of the museum having been hidden all night. With them, they carried Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa! At the time, the Mona Lisa was little known outside the artistic community. In fact, it was so little known that it was not noticed as missing for over 24 hours after it walked out the front door. The brazen nature of the crime shocked the world and the Mona Lisa became a household name almost overnight.
Suspicion initially fell on prominent members of the art community – both artists and collectors alike. In particular, both banking magnate J.P. Morgan and renowned artist Pablo Picasso were questioned about perhaps hiring thieves to bring the da Vinci masterpiece into their private collections. In fact, the actual thief was one of the three men there that night – Vincenzo Perugia, a handyman who worked for the Louvre and had helped to install the glass box that protected the painting. Perugia meant to sell the painting immediately, but the press coverage was much more than he expected and, as such, the Mona Lisa was “too hot.”
Perugia hid his prize in a false bottom of a trunk in his Paris apartment. In late 1913, Perugia decided it would now be alright to try to sell the painting and brought it to an art dealer in Florence, Italy. The dealer looked over the painting and called the authorities who promptly arrested Perugia. The thief claimed patriotic motives for stealing the Mona Lisa saying that he was returning it to its Italian homeland after it had been stolen by Napoleon Bonaparte. In fact, the Mona Lisa’s residence in France long predated Napoleon – it was purchased by the Sun King, Louis XIV who added it to his amazing collection at his palace at Versailles. After Perugia’s arrest, the Mona Lisa was returned to its gallery in the Louvre on January 4, 1914.
Featured Image: “Mona Lisa.” By C2RMF: Galerie de tableaux en très haute définition: image page – Cropped and relevelled from File:Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci, from C2RMF.jpg. Originally C2RMF: Galerie de tableaux en très haute définition: image page, Public Domain.
Image 1. “Mona Lisa Stolen.” By Unknown – “The Two Mona Lisas” by Walter Littlefield, article from Century Magazine, Vol. 87, N° 4 (Feb 1914). Published by The Century CompanyDirect link to article, Public Domain.
Image 2. “Vincenzo Perugia.” By Unknown – http://www.yourbrushwiththelaw.com/_pictures/csac/perugia_mugshot.jpg, Public Domain.
Source: “The Theft That Made The ‘Mona Lisa’ A Masterpiece.” NPR: All Things Considered. 30 July 2011.
This week, in the town of Nitra, Slovakia, the annual World Esperanto Congress is being held. About 1,400 people from 60 countries are expected to descend upon this city of 80,000 in the western part of the country. The representatives are coming together to bring attention to Esperanto and to mark the anniversary of the publication of the movement’s seminal work, Unua Libro. This “First Book” was published on July 26, 1887 in Warsaw, Poland by L.L. Zamenhof who is considered the founder of Esperanto.
So, I’ve thrown around this term “Esperanto” several times, but what is it? Esperanto is the name of the world’s largest constructed language, that is a language designed for a specific purpose. Think Klingon in Star Trek or Elfish in the Lord of the Rings. But Esperanto was not meant for sci-fi or fantasy use. It was meant for the real world. Zamenhof hoped to create a universal language that would bridge the eternal “lost in translation” problem. While Esperanto has failed to allow us to overcome the cultural differences that different languages bring, it hangs on until today as a symbol of hope and human universality.
If you are interested, everything I have read on Esperanto claims that it is quite easy to learn – and no, I have not tried!
“Flag of Esperanto.” By Gabriel Ehrnst GRUNDIN – Own work, Public Domain.
Image 1. “Nitra, Slovakia.” CC BY-SA 3.0.
Sieg, Stina. “Esperanto Is Not Dead: Can The Universal Language Make a Comeback?” NPR. 13 June 2015.
“World Esperanto Congress Nitra expects 1,400 visitors from 60 countries.” The Slovak Spectator. 21 July 2016.
Most of us know Harvard University as one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in the world. A degree from Harvard opens doors like those from few other schools. And while this has long been true, early in its history Harvard was much more limited than it is today – focusing primarily on preparing young men for careers in the ministry of the Unitarian Church. On July 15, 1838, one of their most successful alumni returned to deliver a speech to the new graduates. This man was the up-and-coming literary figure, Ralph Waldo Emerson. He had been a Unitarian minister, like most of his classmates, but unlike many of them, he resigned from his position because he could not carry out Holy Communion in “good faith.” He went on to become a renowned writer in the newly emergent Transcendentalist movement.
Emerson’s “Divinity School Address” proved to be not at all what the conservative Harvard faculty had expected and, thus, caused immense controversy. In his speech, Emerson railed against dogma and instead argued for the importance of “religious sentiment,” or what we would call spirituality today. His speech questioned the emphasis placed on Jesus Christ’s authority as a religious figure and called for a stress to be placed on moral virtue and reverence for nature. Needless to say, the powers-that-be at Harvard were not pleased by what their alumnus had said. In fact, Emerson would not set foot on the campus of his alma mater for another 30 years.
Emerson’s speech, however, would have lasting impact both on its author and its audience. For Emerson, the speech launched him to a leadership role within the New England Transcendentalist movement much to the dismay of generations of American high school students who have had to read Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” or Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.” For Harvard, Emerson’s speech started a slow-moving push towards secularizing parts of the University and led to the founding of numerous schools that focused on educating men and women for the many careers, not just the Unitarian ministry.