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.”
On September 25, 1911, the French battleship Liberte was sitting in harbor in Toulon. Seemingly out of nowhere, a massive explosion rocked the ship, killing some 250 sailors and officers and sending the massive ship to the bottom of the harbor. In the previous five years, the French navy had suffered a series of major naval disasters – ending in the deaths of over 400 French sailors. These explosions eventually tied to a degraded gunpowder known as Poudre B which was prone to blowing up accidentally when improperly stored. During this stretch, the biggest adversary of the French navy was, far and away, the French navy. More men were lost in in-harbor accidents than in any other way.
Featured Image: “French Battleship Liberte.” Public Domain.
Source: “French Battleship Blown Up in Toulon Harbor.” Popular Mechanics. November 1911.
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 23, 1641, an English merchant ship the Merchant Royal was returning home laden with an estimated 100,000 pounds of gold from Mexico. As the ship neared Land’s End in Cornwall, the weather rapidly degraded and the Merchant Royal began taking on water. Shortly after this, the ship went down killing 18 of the crew with the captain and most of the rest of the crew escaping in lifeboats. The 100,000 pounds of gold would have been worth close to $1.5 billion in 21st century currency.
In 2007, the Odyssey Marine Exploration company found a massive treasure trove off of Land’s End during a project code named “Black Swan.” It has been speculated that they had finally found the Merchant Royal, though there is no proof of this. Odyssey, however, thinks they found another shipwreck, the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes from Spain. Despite claiming the treasure was found in international waters, and was thus, open for salvage, a court in the United States required Odyssey to turn the gold back over to Spain.
Featured Image: “Gold from the ‘Black Swan’ Wreck.” By Hispalois – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.
Source: “Record wreck ‘found off Cornwall’.” BBC News. 19 May 2007.
““Black Swan” Project Overview.” Odyssey Marine Exploration.
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 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.