December 31, 1986: Three disgruntled employees set a fire that kills 97 and injures 140 more at the Dupont Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Local 901 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters was in negotiations with the hotel for a raise in wages for the union member employees. Three employees started a fire on the ground floor outside the Ballroom and Casino areas at around 3:30 PM. Intense heat blew out the plate glass window, causing a flashover. Within twelve minutes almost 100 were dead.
Flammable liquid was placed in a storage area with plastic covered furniture. The furniture was mostly made of synthetic, petroleum-based materials. Both the plastic and the furniture released an intense heat and poisonous gases as they burned. Most of the dead suffered from smoke inhalation, many burned beyond recognition. In the week prior to this fire, three other fires had been set and contained. Management had employed an extra 30 security guards to patrol the hotel. Surviving guests tell of a work slowdown and many knew of the union-management discord but they were unable to move because other hotels in the area were fully booked.
Guests had heard gossiping among the employees. There had been radio commercials and handbills passed out from the union stating that those who were thinking of celebrating New Year’s Eve at the penthouse party at the hotel should know that the party would be inadequately staffed and guests may wish to party elsewhere. These were not intimidating commercials. Ten minutes before the fire broke out, the union turned down management’s last offer prior to a strike that was to begin at midnight.
Guests told of workers leaving their posts thirty minutes before the fire. Union official report that they were coming to a union meeting held in the ballroom. Union officials deny any fore-knowledge of the fire. It is thought that those setting the fire were hoping to damage the building but did not mean to cause mass murder. The hotel is now under the Marriott name.
“The essence of trade unionism is social uplift. The labor movement has been the haven for the dispossessed, the despised, the neglected, the downtrodden, the poor.” – A. Phillip Randolph
“With all their faults, trade unions have done more for humanity than any other organization of men that ever existed. They have done more for decency, for honesty, for education, for the betterment of the race, for the developing of character in men, than any other association of men.” – Clarence Darrow
“You can’t do it unless you organize.” – Samuel Gompers
“We must learn to live together as brothers or we are going to perish together as fools.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Also on this day, in 1960 the British stopped honoring the farthing (a quarter of a penny) as legal tender.
December 30, 1982: The only total lunar eclipse of a Blue Moon in the last century occurs. A “blue moon” is not about color, but about the rarity of the event. It is the second full moon in a calendar month. There were 41 Blue Moons in the 20th century. There were four eclipses during Blue Moons in the same 100 year period, but this date produced the only Total Eclipse of a Blue Moon.
The lunar cycle, or the time it takes for the moon to travel through its phases, is 29 days, 12 hours, and 44 minutes. The phases of the moon are based on what we can see in the night sky. The Moon is non-luminous, only reflecting sunlight, not producing light on its own. What we see, whether a New Moon [no Moon at night], a crescent shape, or even a Full Moon, is created by the triangulation of the Sun, Moon, and Earth.
The Moon is always half lit, but we can only see portions of it because of the relation of the three bodies. A New Moon means that the half that is lit by the Sun faces away from Earth. A Full Moon means just the opposite, the Sun is behind the Earth and fully illuminating the face toward us. The orbit of the Moon is 5º tilted from the orbit of the Earth around the Sun. If this were not so, there would always be eclipses.
An eclipse occurs when the shadow of the Earth [Latin term – umbra] passes over the illuminated face of the Moon. The bodies line up 2-4 times each year. About 35% of the time there is a penumbral [Latin term – almost shadow] eclipse that is difficult to see even with a telescope. Another 30% of eclipses are partial while the last 35% are total eclipses. The first lunar eclipse was recorded in 721 BC by Ptolemy in Almagest. Lunar eclipses, unlike solar eclipses, can be seen anywhere on Earth during the nights they occur.
“It’s only during an eclipse that the Man in the Moon has a place in the sun.” – unknown
“When a finger points to the moon, the imbecile looks at the finger.” – Chinese proverb
“The moon is nothing / But a circumambulating aphrodisiac / Divinely subsidized to provoke the world into a rising birth-rate.” – Christopher Fry
“I don’t know if there are men on the moon, but if there are they must be using the earth as their lunatic asylum.” – George Bernard Shaw
Also on this day, in 1610 the Blood Countess was finally stopped.
December 29, 1993: The Tian Tan Buddha – tallest outdoor, seated, bronze statue of Buddha, is consecrated. In 624 BC, Siddhartha Gautama was born a prince into the Shakya family. At age 29, he left his family’s palace and retreated to the forest to meditate. He spent six years seeking truth and enlightenment, often accompanied by self-deprivation and sacrifice. Sitting under the Bodhi Tree he attained enlightenment and became Buddha. He is sometimes called the 28th Buddha.
The term buddha means “to know” or “to become aware.” Anyone who reaches this state without outside teaching is Buddha. After his awakening, Buddha taught others the way to awareness, the Dharma. Buddha is not a God and Buddhism is a non-theistic belief system. With help any can, and indeed it is said that all will, eventually reach awakening.
There are many artistic depictions of Buddha. The statues can be seated, standing, or reclining. There is an obese and laughing Buddha as well as an emaciated ascetic depiction. Statues are made with a protuberance on the head to signify his great mental acuity and with long ear lobes to symbolize his perception. The position of the hands adds meaning and often also lets the viewer know where the statue was created.
Buddha is carved into the Lingyun Mountain in China, the largest stone Buddha. That statue is 233 feet high. The tallest copper, standing Buddha resides in Jiangsu, China and is 289 eef] tall. The Tian Tan Buddha, in Ngong Ping, Lantau Island, in Hong Kong is built of 202 pieces of bronze over an infrastructure of steel for strength. The sitting Buddha, built atop a hill, is 115 feet tall. One climbs 268 steps to reach the 250 ton statue. The lotus on which the Buddha sits is a three tiered platform with eight bronze statues that represent the immortals circling Buddha. The cost of building this beautiful icon was $68 million.
“There is Buddha for those who don’t know what he is, really. There is no Buddha for those who know what he is, really.” – Zen proverb
“All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become.” – Buddha
“You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.” – Buddha
“Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.” – Buddha
“An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an idea that exists only as an idea.” – Buddha
Also on this day, in 1876 the Ashtabula Bridge disaster took place.
December 28, 1973: Akron, Ohio’s Chamber of Commerce terminates its association with the All-American Soap Box Derby World Championship race, stating the race was a “victim of cheating and fraud.” Soap Box Derby is an unpowered race using cars built by the contestants. The race was designed for children.
Myron Scott, a photographer working for a Dayton, Ohio newspaper, was given the assignment of filming some boys racing home made cars. It looked like such fun, that Myron worked to expand the idea. A race was held in Dayton in 1934. The next year, the race moved to Akron because it is a more hilly region. The cars race downhill with gravity as the sole means of power for locomotion.
The original cars were made of orange crates and roller skate wheels. Today’s cars are usually made of wood, but can be constructed of aluminum or fiberglass. The rear wheels are on a fixed axle while the front axle moves to steer, using either the feet or rope to shift the axle’s direction. Speeds of up to 35 mph [55 km/h] can be reached. Brakes are not normal equipment. Today, racers come from across the globe. Qualifying races are held in 38 states and several other countries.
In the 1950s and 60s, Soap Box Derby racing was at its peak. Chevrolet sponsored the World Championship race, TV and movie stars watched along with 70,000 fans. By the 70s and 80s, overeager adults ruined the purity of the child centered race. In 1973, 14-year-old Jimmy Gronen from Boulder, Colorado was stripped of his title two days after the race. His car was x-rayed and found to contain an electromagnet in the nose. This helped accelerate the car when the steel paddle used to start the race pulled it forward. Robert Lange, the boy’s uncle and legal guardian, was a wealthy engineer. He was indicted for contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
“I think there’s a little child in all of us and we all to often forget to let the child out to play.” – Donna A. Favors
“For truly it is to be noted, that children’s plays are not sports, and should be deemed as their most serious actions.” – Michel de Montaigne
“A child who does not play is not a child, but the man who doesn’t play has lost forever the child who lived in him and who he will miss terribly.” – Pablo Neruda
“Men deal with life as children with their play,
Who first misuse, then cast their toys away.” – William Cowperd
Also on this day, in 1612 Galileo first found Neptune hiding among the stars.
December 27, 537: The Hagia Sophia, translated as Holy Wisdom, is dedicated by Emperor Justinian in Constantinople, today called Istanbul, Turkey. The Church was first built by Constantine’s son, Emperor Constantius and opened in 360. The building was rectangular with a rounded apse and timbered roof. The emperor donated gold, silver, and religious objects to the construction and decoration efforts. The church was vandalized in 381 and much of the artwork taken.
In 404, John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople, was sent into exile. Mobs rioted and destroyed the church. It was rebuilt by 415 in a basilica-style with five naves. Then with the rebellion of Monophysites in 532, the church was again destroyed. Emperor Justinian vowed to rebuilt and make it the most spectacular church in the world. Construction materials were brought from the four corners of the empire.
The new, improved church was rectangular with a huge dome. Construction of the dome used a new technique called pendentives. They used angled supports that allowed for the building of a round dome over a square room. Forty windows were placed around the base of the dome, giving the interior a special, ethereal illumination. The interior was also decorated with mosaics depicting: Jesus and Mary, many portraits including Emperor Justinian, some with Jesus and past emperors, and other saints.
The new architectural technique was not without faults. The methods used for construction caused overall weaknesses in the supporting walls. The church has been damaged often by earthquakes. The building began as a Byzantine Eastern Orthodox Church. During the Latin Occupation from 1204-61, it was a Roman Catholic Church. The Turks invaded in 1453 and turned it into a mosque. Islam does not tolerate pictures of humans and many of the mosaics were destroyed. Others were simply plastered over. In 1935, the building became a museum and was refurbished, revealing once again, the beautiful mosaics.
“Oh, Solomon, I have surpassed thee.” – Emperor Justinian at dedication of Hagia Sophia
“I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
“A Church is God between four walls.” – Victor Hugo
“I have no objections to churches so long as they do not interfere with God’s work.” – Brooks Atkinson
Also on this day, in 1703 the Methuen Treaty gave special treatment to port wines from Portugal to thirsty citizens in England.
December 26, 1966: The first Kwanzaa celebration begins, lasting for seven days until January 1. Graduate student, Ron Karenga, was dismayed by the race riots in Watts the previous year and sought a way to unite Americans of African descent. He established this holiday season to reconnect African-Americans with their African past.
Karenga was leader of the United Slaves Organization, a group which had seven children in its membership. He used the Swahili term, “matunda ya kwanza” meaning “first fruits” and added an extra “a” to the word in order to get to seven letters. He felt the need for that number of letters so that each child in the US Organization would have a letter, and then there would be a letter for each day of the week-long celebration.
The “Seven Principles of Blackness” include: Umoga [Unity]. Kujichagulia [Self Determination], Ujima [Collective Works and Responsibility], Ujamaa [Cooperative Economics], Nia [Purpose], Kuumba [Creativity], and Imani [Faith]. These words are Swahili, an East African nation. Most of the Americans of African descent are from the West Coast of Africa. Each day of the season is dedicated to celebrating one of the concepts.
Karenga has never claimed that the holiday is an authentic African season, but rather that it is a construct of his own built to offer the community another venue for celebration of the African experience and it is based on African values. In 1967, Karenga stated, “Jesus was psychotic” and proclaimed that Christmas was the white man’s holiday. Thirty years later, in a book he authored about Kwanzaa he notes a shifted position saying that Kwanzaa was not meant to replace the religious holyday, but rather it was created to give the African-American experience a voice all its own.
“…it was chosen to give a Black alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.” – Ron Karenga
“Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday. And it is not an alternative to people’s religion or faith but a common ground of African culture…Kwanzaa is not a reaction or substitute for anything. In fact, it offers a clear and self-conscious option, opportunity and chance to make a proactive choice, a self-affirming and positive choice as distinct from a reactive one.” – Ron Karenga
“We have religious holidays and we have secular holidays. I see Kwanzaa as an opportunity for African-Americans to reaffirm ourselves if we choose to, a chance to rebuild and renew our focus. I see Kwanzaa as a holiday of the spirit.” – Jessica Harris
“Kwanzaa is neither political nor religious and, despite some misconceptions, it is not a substitute for Christmas.” – Randy Taylor
Also on this day, in 1986 Search for Tomorrow went off the air after the day’s show.
December 25, 1801: The first complete skeleton of a mastodon found in the US is placed on display at the Philadelphia Museum, located next door to Independence Hall in the old US capital. Charles Willson Peale, a true Renaissance Man, was the owner of the museum as well as the man who supervised the excavation of the skeleton found in the Hudson River Valley. He placed the newly mounted bones in the “Mammoth Room” in his museum and it was an instant success.
Peale was also an artist and loyal American. He painted portraits of John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and of course, George Washington. In fact, using sketches from seven different sittings, Peale painted around 60 portraits of the Father of our Country. Peale married for the first time at the age of 21 and he and his wife had ten children before she died. He married again the next year, and he and his second wife had another six children.
Besides portraiture and procreation, Peale was also interested natural sciences. He opened his museum with his paintings and with specimens from the natural world. He was also involved with carpentry, dentistry, optometry, shoemaking, taxidermy, and authored several books. His museum was renamed Peale Museum and moved from Philadelphia to Baltimore, Maryland where it still stands.
Mastodons resembled but were distinct from the wooly mammoth. They first lived in the North American region about 4 million years ago and became extinct about 10,000 years ago. Ice age man hunted the mastodon and may have contributed to its demise. The beast resembled a furry elephant with both tusks and a trunk. The animal was about 8-10 feet tall at the shoulder and weighed in at about 4-6 tons. There is some evidence that tuberculosis was also a causative factor in its extinction.
“An ideal museum show would be a mating of Brideshead Revisited with House & Garden provoking intense and pleasurable nostalgia for a past that none of its audience has had.” – Robert Hughes
“I never can pass by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York without thinking of it not as a gallery of living portraits but as a cemetery of tax-deductible wealth.” – Lewis H. Lapham
“I seldom go into a natural history museum without feeling as if I were attending a funeral.” – John Burroughs
“We don’t just want the blue-haired old ladies as members of the museum. We want new, young people, younger than me, in their 20s, to pay attention to history.” – Jim Robinson
Also on this day, in 1950 the Stone of Scone was stolen.
December 24, 1865: A group of six educated Confederate Army veterans form a private club in Pulaski, Tennessee – called the Ku Klux Klan. After the South fell ending the Civil War, the southern states were inundated with “help” from the North. The Reconstruction was a time of upheaval. The southern whites were disenfranchised. Their lands were overrun with Yankees. These men were displaced with their lands and belongings stolen and their women and children defiled. They were adrift.
The KKK was first formed as a social club. It was an outlet for soldiers to have a place to belong, once again. The carpetbaggers – Yankees who moved south carrying cheap luggage and forming a new way of life – and the scalawags – white Southerners who joined the Republicans responsible for the Reconstruction’s mismanagement – were both groups that needed to be shunned. The KKK lost its original goal of meeting for the enjoyment of practical jokes and instead began a reign of terror including lynching and cross burning.
In the spring of 1866, the KKK was parading in the street wrapped in sheets and wearing masks and the uneducated, freed slaves thought they were the ghosts of dead Confederate soldiers. With this misconception, many KKK members left the group, but others capitalized on the terrorizing effect. Within two years, the group was already in decline and was further hampered by President Grant’s signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1871. It eventually ceased to exist.
However, in 1915, after the film The Birth of a Nation hit the screens, a second incarnation of the Klan came into being. These men were rabidly anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, anti-Communist racists. Their ranks swelled until in the 1920 about 15% of the eligible US population belonged to the KKK. Their behavior embraced egregious and wanton violent acts and their popularity declined. With the coming of WWII there was a further decline as the KKK supported the Nazis, not a popular sentiment to the millions of Americans with family members in the European theater. Sadly, the group continues to exist.
“It was just a matter of survival…of existing from one day to the next. I remember going to sleep as a girl and hearing the Ku Klux Klan ride at night and hearing a lynching and being afraid the house would burn down.” – Rosa Parks
“When you hear a man say, “I hate,” adding the name of some race, nation, religion, or social class, you are dealing with a belated mind.” – unknown
“Often times I have hated in self-defense; if I were stronger I would not have used such a weapon.” – Kahlil Gibran
“Racism is man’s gravest threat to man – the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.” – Abraham J. Heschel
Also on this day, in 1777 Captain James Cook discovered Christmas Island.
December 23, 1823: A Visit From St. Nicholas is first published in the Troy, New York paper, the Sentinel. The poem is a tribute to a yearly visit from one of the world’s favorite guests. There is a second name for the poem that is more familiar – ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. Authorship is contested but is usually given to Clement Moore, a professor at Columbia College [now University] over claims made by Henry Livingston, Jr.’s family.
Saint Nicholas was Bishop from the area that today is known as Turkey. He lived in the 4th century and was a wealthy man. He was also generous and was fond of children. Legend states that he took bags of money and tossed it into the windows of the poor. He was canonized, or made a saint, by the Catholic Church and his feast day was celebrated on December 6.
St. Nicholas’s fame spread across Europe. In the Netherlands his name was rendered as Sinter Nikolass which got shortened into Sinter Klass. During his move from Asia Minor to Europe, other stories were added to the myth. He was given a horse to ride through the night skies. He was also given a helper, an elf named Black Peter. After the Reformation, St. Nicholas’s sharing of gifts was moved from his feast day to another famous day in December. Instead of honoring just the saint, it was thought to be better to honor an important Christian birthday, Jesus’ – celebrated on December 25.
As the Dutch settled in New Amsterdam or as known today, New York, they brought their celebrations with them. Sinter Klass was one of the traditions enjoyed by families. The American slurring of the name changed it to Santa Claus. Washington Irving wrote a detailed story about his excursions in 1809. More details were added to Santa’s legacy by this poem. Thomas Nast, a famous cartoonist, literally fleshed out our picture of Santa, giving him his girth as well as his toyshop at the North Pole. Santa sat in a sleigh, pulled by eight reindeer, right up until 1939 when Rudolph was needed to get through a thick fog.
“Santa Claus has the right idea: visit people once a year.” – Victor Borge
“When we were children we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmas time. Why are we not grateful to God for filling our stockings with legs?” – G.K. Chesterton
“The Church does not superstitiously observe days, merely as days, but as memorials of important facts. Christmas might be kept as well upon one day of the year as another; but there should be a stated day for commemorating the birth of our Saviour, because there is danger that what may be done on any day, will be neglected.” – Samuel Johnson
“But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
‘Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!’” – from the poem
Also on this day, in 1972 the Andes flight disaster finally comes to an end.
December 22, 1864: William Tecumseh Sherman captures Savannah, Georgia in the US Civil War. Ulysses S. Grant had two main objectives for the year 1864: his own leadership to the capture of Richmond, Virginia – the capital of the Confederacy and Sherman’s capture of Atlanta, Georgia.
On May 6 Sherman left the Chattanooga, Tennessee area on his march to Atlanta with nearly 100,000 men. Prior to the Atlanta campaign, Sherman was asked what his objective was and he caustically replied, “Salt water.” He captured Atlanta on September 2. Sherman sent wounded men and excess supplies back north intending to live off the land on his march to Savannah, on the Atlantic Ocean.
His armies left on November 12 arranged in two columns, one led by General Howard and the second led by General Slocum. Without supplies, men called “bummers” were to obtain supplies from the countryside. Sherman ordered that these men should not enter dwellings, insult the people, and they were not to leave the residents destitute but leave some food. These orders were not enforced. In his memoirs, Sherman estimated the damage to property, willfully destroyed without need, to be about $80,000,000. It is noted that his destruction of supplies may have hastened the end of the war. Although many Confederate soldiers were starving, it was not because of lack of food, but because of the destruction of the rail system and the inability to move the food to the front lines. Sherman’s destruction of crops and livestock exacerbated this problem.
Sherman reached the Savannah area on December 10 and began his siege. His 62,000 veterans were no match for the 10,000 mostly untrained men left to defend the area. The distance from Atlanta to Savannah is 255 miles by today’s highway system. Sherman’s march destroyed a 60 mile wide swath of land. Savannah’s fall was the last stop before Sherman entered the Carolinas, sweeping North to victory.
“I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty guns and plenty of ammunition, also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.” – telegram to President Lincoln from Sherman
“War is cruelty. There’s no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.”
“It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.”
“You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace.”
“Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other.” – all by William Tecumseh Sherman
Also on this day, in 1885 Ito Hirobumi became Japan’s first Prime Minister.