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 26, 1983, in the midst of heightened Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, the USSR’s Oko early warning system for nuclear strikes went off, indicating that the US had fired five nuclear missiles. Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov was the ranking officer on duty at the time and could have made a call to his superiors that would likely have triggered a nuclear war. Instead, he recognized that the one-year old Oko system had bugs and could be mistaken. He also thought it odd that the United States only launched five missiles. If this was nuclear war, one would think that they would launch many more. Petrov held off for a few minutes and was able to confirm that it was a false alarm. The retired lieutenant colonel downplays his heroism, stating “I was in the right place at the right moment.”
Featured Image: “Stanslav Petrov.” By Petrow_semperoper2.JPG: Z thomasderivative work: Hic et nunc – This file was derived from Petrow semperoper2.JPG:, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Source: Thomson, Iain. “30 years on: The day a computer glitch nearly caused World War III.” The UK Register. 27 September 2013.
In 1868, two American financiers, Jay Gould and James Fisk came up with a plan to corner the gold market in the United States. Their goal was to use the access they had to new president, Ulysses S. Grant, to make a lot of money. Gould and Fisk looked upon the war-hero president as a political novice and planned to use that to their advantage. The two conspirators brought Grant’s brother-in-law, Abel Rathbone Corbin, into their plans to gain even more access to the president to influence policy decisions.
Gould and Fisk wanted to prevent Grant from buying back wartime greenbacks with American gold as an attempt to help the struggling post-Civil War economy. Grant, however, eventually decided to sell government gold. However, the two robber barons had hints that this was going to happen before it became public knowledge and bought up as much gold as they could – raising the price as supply went down. On September 24, 1868, the United States government started selling their gold supply causing panic and a plummet it the price of gold. Many investors were ruined by this sudden fall in gold prices – Abel Corbin among them, as he did not start selling off his gold soon enough. The two masterminds of the plot escaped the panic without so much as a scratch. In fact, Jay Gould would go on to control mammoths such as the Union Pacific Railroad and Western Union within five years. Fisk, however, didn’t make it five years – he was shot dead by another financier over a dispute over Josie Mansfield, a Broadway showgirl. Fisk, at least, got some level of comeuppance.
Featured Image: “Jay Gould.” By Bain News Service, publisherRestoration by Adam Cuerden – Public Domain.
Image 1: “James Fisk.” By Unknown photographer – http://affordablehousinginstitute.org/blogs/us/2009/03/when-and-where-modern-housing-was-born.html, Public Domain.
Source: “Black Friday, September 24, 1869.” PBS American Experience.
On September 21, 1976, a car bomb rocked central Washington, DC only about a mile away from the White House. The bomb had been placed under the driver’s seat of the car owned by a Chilean national living and working for the Institute of Policy Studies named Orlando Letelier. He had been the foreign minister of Chile under former President Salvador Allende. When the Socialist Allende was overthrown in a military coup by General Augusto Pinochet, Letelier was one of the first men arrested and tortured by the new regime.
Letelier left Chile and arrived in the United Sates in 1975 and quickly took up an anti-Pinochet mantle. He became one of the leading voices calling for economic sanctions against the regime in Chile. General Pinochet was concerned that Letelier’s actions would lead to the fall of his government. As such, on Pinochet’s direct orders, the Chilean intelligence services planted the bomb to kill the troublesome former minister. While the assassination of any individual is a tragedy, what makes this attack even more sad is that Letelier gave a ride to a colleague, Ronni Moffitt, and her husband that morning since the couple was having car troubles. The explosion killed both Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt. Michael Moffitt, who was sitting in the back seat, survived, but suffered severe injuries in the bombing.
Details of responsibility for the bombing remained hidden for decades after the attack until US intelligence documents were unclassified by the Obama administration. These documents show the direct role played the General Pinochet and also seem to imply a possible role by United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The role of Kissinger seems to be limited to blocking a communique from being sent to the South American countries warning against perpetrating assassinations on United States soil. This communique was to be sent a mere few days before Letelier’s death.
Featured Image: “Orlando Letelier.” By Unknown – Museum of Memory and Human Rights, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Image 1. “Ronni Moffitt.” By Moffitt family/Institute for Policy Studies, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Sources: Franklin, Jonathan. “Pinochet directly ordered killing on US soil of Chilean diplomat, papers reveal.” The Guardian. 8 October 2015.
Hidalgo, Louise. “Orlando Letelier: Murdered in central Washington DC.” BBC World Service. 21 September 2011.
On September 20, 1737, Pennsylvania colonist Edward Marshall completed a grueling 65-mile “walk” in a day and a half. This was no ordinary stroll – Marshall’s walk would expand the ever-growing Pennsylvania colony. William Penn, the founder of the colony, had died back in 1718 and his reputation for fair dealing with the Native Americans had died with him. His sons did not share his scruples. After Richard, John, and Thomas Penn consolidated their influence over Pennsylvania, they evoked an old, conveniently vague, and probably forged “treaty” between their father and the Lenape tribe in which the Lenape “agreed” to sell land to the colonists. The exact area of land that would be sold would be the land that a man could walk in one and a half days from the confluence of the Lehigh and Delaware Rivers. The point that the man reached would then be traced back to the Delaware and the Lenape would leave that land. Colonists coveted the Forks of the Delaware region and would need someone to cover at least 60-miles to claim this land. On top of that, they would need to take full advantage of the vagueness of the treaty language. Instead of measuring across the line of latitude that was reached, the colonial surveyors would draw the line from the point to the Delaware River at a right angle. So combining a dubious treaty, a particularly fleet-of-foot individual, and some questionable surveying practices, the Penns succeeded in adding an area of almost 1,100 square miles to their territory.
Featured Image: “Map of the Walking Purchase.” Public Domain.
Source: Gilbert, Daniel. “What Ye Indians Call ‘Ye Hurry Walk’.” Fall 2009.
On September 17, 1692, the court of Salem, Massachusetts brought forth an 81-year old man named Giles Corey to question him about accusations of witchcraft. Corey had been in prison since April when several confessed “witches” accused him of being one of their number. Corey had lived a long life in Salem and refused to recognize the “legitimacy” of these girls’ claims. Instead, he refused to enter any plea before the court. In response to this, the prison guards led the old man into the prison yard and laid him on the ground and placed a wooden plank on his body. Slowly, they added heavy stones onto the planks pressing Corey into the ground to try to get him to confess. Giles Corey refused to give in to the torture. After almost two days of torture, Giles Corey died of September 19, 1692. He was the only person killed by the practice known as pressing in the New World.
Featured Image: “The Pressing of Giles Corey.” By Original by Ridpath? Restoration by User:Equazcion. – Print From John Clark Ridpath (1840-1900): “Cyclopedia of Universal History”, 1923 found on http://www.hampton.lib.nh.us/hampton/biog/pooroldgoodycole.htm and image at http://www.hampton.lib.nh.us/hampton/biog/gilecory.jpg.
Source: Schiff, Stacy. The Witches: Salem, 1692. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2015.
On September 13, 1899, a 69 year old New Yorker Henry H. Bliss stepped off a trolley and was struck by a motorized taxi along the edge of Central Park. Bliss, thus, became the first automobile related death in the Americas when he was “fatally hurt” with injuries including a crushed skull and abdomen. The accident caused great scandal around the United States and resulted in the taxi driver being charged with manslaughter. He was acquitted, however, since it was found that no negligence occurred. One interesting aspect of this case was that the taxi involved was electric! Living today, where efficient electric cars are the cutting edge of automobile technology this seems quite unbelievable that they had electric cars way back in 1899.