1865: Shots are fired at Ford’s Theatre. The US Civil War was coming to a close with the Union troops bringing a victory. Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Union troops five days earlier effectively ending the War. The proclamation to end the war was still in the future, but close at hand and was signed on May 9. Because news was not instantaneous, the last shots of the War were fired on June 22. Easter was two days hence and on Good Friday, President Abraham Lincoln and his wife went to see Our American Cousin being presented at Ford’s Theatre.
It was thought that General Ulysses S Grant and his wife would be joining the President and Mrs. Lincoln in the booth, but the two women were not on good terms. Others were issued an invitation and declined. The box was filled with Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris. Lincoln had been plagued by bad dreams and had wished to stay away from the theater that night, but he had promised his wife an outing and they left to enjoy an evening out. The party arrived late but settled into the Presidential Box. The performance was stopped briefly while the orchestra played “Hail to the Chief” and the audience gave Lincoln a standing ovation. The theater was full with about 1,700 people watching the play.
The box was to have been guarded by a policeman, John Frederick Parker. Parker left during the intermission and went to nearby tavern with Lincoln’s footman and coachman. He was not at his post when John Wilkes Booth entered the box. Booth was a famous actor and may have been able to persuade the policeman even if he had been present, but without impedance, he was able to enter and then barricaded the first door from the inside. Booth had never starred in Our American Cousin, but knew the play and waited for the precise moment when the funniest line was delivered. He opened the second door and fired a shot into the laughing President’s head behind his left ear. The bullet traversed the brain and exited just above his right eye. The President slumped, Mary caught him and screamed.
Rathbone, having heard the shot, attempted to catch Booth. The two men struggled and Booth dropped his gun to the floor and drew a knife with which he stabbed his opponent in the arm. Rathbone was able to recover and again tried to capture the assailant. Rathbone grabbed at Booth as he attempted to vault over the Box wall to the stage below. Because of the interference, Booth’s boot caught and when he landed, he broke his leg. Booth held the bloody knife over his head as he made his way from the theater. Lincoln never regained consciousness and died the next day. Booth was killed while trying to elude capture on April 26.
Mary Todd Lincoln: What will Miss Harris think of my hanging on to you so? (as she held his hand)
Abraham Lincoln: She won’t think anything about it. (his last words)
Our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done. – John Wilkes Booth diary entry for April 14, 1865
About 10:25 pm, a man came in and walked slowly along the side on which the “Pres” box was and I heard a man say, “There’s Booth” and I turned my head to look at him. He was still walking very slow and was near the box door when he stopped, took a card from his pocket, wrote something on it, and gave it to the usher who took it to the box. In a minute the door was opened and he walked in. – eyewitness account by Dr. George Brainerd Todd
I am a slow walker, but I never walk back. – Abraham Lincoln
April 14, 1828: Noah Webster copyrights his dictionary. Webster was born in West Hartford, Connecticut on October 16, 1758. Both his parents were descendants of provincial governors. His father was a deacon in the local church, a farmer, the captain of the town’s militia, and the founder of the local book society, a precursor to modern libraries. Although his father did not receive a college education, Noah and his siblings were schooled both at home and at the local one room primary school, something the young boy hated. This early dislike prompted him to attempt educational reform in the colonies and later in the newly freed US. Noah entered Yale University just before his 16th birthday. This coincided with the Revolutionary War and many of the classes were held elsewhere. Noah also served with the Connecticut militia.
His liberal education left him with few skills and he taught school and continued his studies in law, hoping to increase his earning potential. He passed the bar in 1781 but still could not find employment as a lawyer. He opened a private school in Connecticut which was a success. He began writing as a way to increase his income. He wrote political treatises as well as his own speller, grammar book, and reader for elementary schools. These sold remarkably well and enabled the author to spend time writing his famous dictionary. His Blue-Backed Speller became a staple in American classrooms. He felt the British aristocracy had corrupted the mother tongue and set out to standardize American spelling and pronunciation.
With the work done on his speller, arranged in such a way as to help children learn, he went on to help standardize American English even further. He published his first dictionary in 1806, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. It boasted an addition of 5,000 words to the number found in the best English dictionaries with a number of improvements, at least from his perspective. Even this was not good enough and the next year, he began work on an expanded work. He hoped to have a fully comprehensive book. It took him 26 years to complete An American Dictionary of the English Language. He learned 28 languages in order to help with his great opus. He wanted to standardize speech and because many different parts of the large country used different languages, they also spelled and pronounced words differently.
Webster finally completed his dictionary in 1825 while he was in Cambridge, England. His new and improved dictionary contained 70,000 words with 12,000 of them never having been included in a published dictionary prior to this. He preferred spellings to match pronunciation and while it is sometimes thought he was the author of the new spellings, he was actually just the most vocal advocate of established alternative spellings. He also included words that were quintessentially American such as skunk and squash, neither of which were part of the British vernacular. He was also a champion of copyright law and on this day, received the copyright for his book which in the first edition only sold 2,500 copies.
If the citizens neglect their duty and place unprincipled men in office, the government will soon be corrupted; laws will be made not for the public good so much as for the selfish or local purposes.
Language is the expression of ideas, and if the people of one country cannot preserve an identity of ideas if they cannot retain an identity of language.
When the will of man is raised above law it is always tyranny and despotism, whether it is the will of a bashaw or of bastard patriots.
There iz no alternativ. Every possible reezon that could ever be offered for altering the spelling of wurds, stil exists in full force; and if a gradual reform should not be made in our language, it wil proov that we are less under the influence of reezon than our ancestors. – all from Noah Webster
Also on this day: “I’m the King of the World!” – In 1912, RMS Titanic strikes an iceberg.
Westward, Ho! – In 1846, the Donner Party began their trek west.
Black Sunday – In 1935, the dust bowl got a lot dustier.
Too Early for July Fourth – In 1944, the SS Fort Stikine exploded.
Four Dead in Five Seconds – In 1881, a shoot out took place is El Paso, Texas.
April 14, 1846: George and Jacob Donner and James Frazier Reed begin a journey westward. Each man and his family had three wagons as well as hired teamsters to run the oxen. They left Springfield, Illinois and headed first for Independence, Missouri. The first leg of the journey was about 250 miles and they arrived safely on May 10. The entire 2,500 mile trip to California was planned to begin after the spring rains and end before the winter snows blocked passage through the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Wagon trains were not static entities and people joined or left the group throughout the journey. The successful farmer and his friends joined in the rush westward across the Great Plains, two mountain ranges, and the desert of the Great Basin. Accounts differ, but about 36 people are thought to have been in the original group leaving from Springfield. The date is also sometimes given as two days later. However, by May 19, this group joined up with another wagon train about 100 miles west of Independence.
The party had difficulty crossing swollen waterways and by June 18, William Russell handed over leadership of the group to George Donner. Russell left the group to buy mules to hasten his journey. The Donner Party heard of “Hastings cutoff,” a shortcut supposed to lessen the journey by hundreds of miles. They rushed to join, but missed Hastings who was leading others across the mountains. They could, however, follow his tracks. It was now August.
September 1 found the group in the desert and without water. They finally got across but lost 36 head of cattle. On October 11, they were attacked by Paiutes, a tribe of Native Americans, who killed 21 oxen, stole 18, and injured several more. Tempers flared and there were several confrontations between the men of the wagon train with some of the party dying violently and others being sent from the group. The entire group straggled apart as they moved into the mountains. By early November, the snow was already 5 feet deep in places. By the end of November, the group was trapped. Rather than backtrack, they set up camp at Alder Creek and eventually a second stop at Lake Camp. Many starved to death and some were cannibalized to ensure the survival of the rest. Of the 89 members of the Donner Party, only 48 survived. The Donner brothers were not among them.
“The Donner Party’s experience was bad, but it wasn’t as bad as everybody’s been told.” – Julie Schablitsky
“The ability to delude yourself may be an important survival tool.” – unknown
“Every stress leaves an indelible scar, and the organism pays for its survival after a stressful situation by becoming a little older.” – Dr. Hans Selye
“Life is an error-making and an error-correcting process, and nature in marking man’s papers will grade him for wisdom as measured both by survival and by the quality of life of those who survive.” – Jonas Salk
This article first appeared at Examiner.com in 2010. Editor’s update: George Donner was born in 1784 near Salem, North Carolina. He was the third child and eldest brother in his family. Jacob was born in 1789. George was married three times. The children from his first marriage remained in Illinois when the family went westward. The children from his second and third marriages were with the travelers as they headed for California. Elitha and Leanna were from his second marriage and Francis, Georgia, and Eliza were from his third. All five children survived the trek to California and lived until the 20th century. Georgia was the first child to die in 1911 and Leanna was the last to die. She lived to be about 90 years old and died in 1930. All five children lived the rest of their lives in California, settling there after their rescue.
Also on this day : “I’m the King of the World!” – In 1912, RMS Titanic strikes an iceberg.
Black Sunday – In 1935, the dust bowl got a lot dustier.
Too Early for July Fourth – In 1944, the SS Fort Stikine exploded.
April 14, 1944: The SS Fort Stikine explodes. The ship was at Victoria Dock of Bombay (now Mumbai) in India. She was a freighter built in 1942 in British Columbia and named for an outpost of the Hudson Bay Company (now located in Wrangell, Alaska). She sailed from Birkenhead on February 24 and arrived at Bombay on April 12. She carried a mixed bag of goods: Spitfires, raw cotton, timber, scrap iron, gold bullion (valued at £1-2 million or £100-200 million today), explosives and munitions.
At around 2 PM the crew of the freighter was called to put out a fire in the No. 2 hold. They were helped in their fire suppression efforts by dockside fire teams and fireboats. Even with pumping over 900 tons of water into the ship, the fire burned. Thick smoke prevented the men aboard ship from finding the exact source. They were ordered to abandon ship at 3:50 PM. At 4:06 a great explosion cut the ship in two and broke windows in buildings up to 7.5 miles from the site. A second explosion followed at 4:34 and the two explosions were so powerful they showed up on seismographs at the Colaba Observatory. The blasts spread into a half-mile arc and destroyed eleven other vessels in the area.
It took three days to get the fires under control. It took a further seven months with 8,000 men working to restore the docks and remove ≈ 500,000 tons of debris. The waters of the bay were initially solid with floating detritus. The Victoria and the Prince Docks were both heavily damaged.
The official death toll for the Bombay Explosion was listed at 740 – 476 of them military personnel and there were also about 1,800 people injured. However, unofficial tolls are much higher. Twenty-seven other vessels were sunk or damaged in the explosion or resulting fires. Many families living near the docks lost everything in the disaster. The British government took full responsibility and paid monetary compensation to all who made a claim for lost or damaged property. The dock areas need dredging to maintain adequate depth for ships. As late as the 1970s, bars of gold bullion would sporadically turn up as they dredged. These were returned to the British government.
A small spark neglected has often kindled a mighty conflagration. – Quintus Curtius
From little spark may burst a mighty flame. – Dante Alighieri
Fire and gunpowder do not sleep together. – proverb
Your own property is concerned when your neighbor’s house is on fire. – Horace
Also on this day:
April 14, 1935: The largest dust storm hits the US Great Plains. This storm was part of the phenomenon we call the Dust Bowl. It is also known as the Dusty Thirties. These storms caused devastating agricultural and ecological damage. They struck both the US and Canadian prairies. Today’s storm was only one of many. However, this monster storm combines winds up to 60 miles per hour with the drought dried topsoil. As the winds blew through, it is now estimated 300,000 tons of topsoil was removed.
Early European settlers dubbed this region of the country as the Great American Desert. There was a lack of surface water and timber making the area less suitable for farming. With increased populations and the enactment of the Homestead Act after the US Civil War, people flocked to the region despite the poor suitability to farming. And they began to farm. The new transcontinental railroads brought settlers to the region and it was believed that “rain follows the plow” meaning that if you farmed, the rains would come.
As people settled the land, a period of unusually wet weather followed, confirming the above postulate. As greater automation came to farming, more lands were farmed and more food was produced. With World War I, food prices rose and more intense farming followed, providing food for the US and to export to warring allies. The amount of farmland doubled between 1900 and 1920 and more than tripled between 1925 and 1930. The farming methods used were not ecologically sound and the land was eroded.
The unusually wet period ended in 1930 and droughts followed. Crops began to fail and field were left unplanted and bare. The soil covering the Great Plains is fine in nature and easily picked up by strong winds. A particularly brutal storm on November 11, 1933 stripped most of the topsoil from South Dakota. On May 9, 1934, a two day dust storm blew through and deposited topsoil in Chicago where it was said dirt fell like snow. On this day, the worst storm hit. Dubbed “Black Sunday” there were at least twenty different “Black Blizzards” raging across the Plains and limiting vision to only five feet. By the end of the Dust Bowl years, more than a half million Americans were left homeless. While diminishing by 1936, the effects lasted longer. By 1940, 2.5 million people had left the Plains States.
“Houses were shut tight, and cloth wedged around doors and windows, but the dust came in so thinly that it could not be seen in the air, and it settled like pollen on the chairs and tables, on the dishes.” – John Steinbeck
“On the fourteenth day of April in 1935
There struck the worst of dust storms that ever filled the sky…
From Oklahoma City to the Arizona Line
Dakota and Nebraska to the lazy Rio Grande
It fell across our city like a curtain of black rolled down,
We thought it was our judgment, we thought it was our doom…” – Woody Guthrie
“Merciless winds tore up the soil that once gave the Southern Great Plains life and hurled it in roaring black clouds across the nation. Hopelessly indebted farmers fed tumbleweed to their cattle, and, in the case of one Oklahoma town, to their children. By the 1930s, years of injudicious cultivation had devastated 100 million acres of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico.” – Timothy Egan
“In other periods of depression, it has always been possible to see some things which were solid and upon which you could base hope, but as I look about, I now see nothing to give ground to hope—nothing of man.” – Calvin Coolidge
April 14, 1912: RMS Titanic strikes an iceberg at 11:40 PM. It was a Sunday night and the temperatures were close to freezing. The seas were calm. There was a clear sky but the moon was no out. Days before Captain Smith altered course to avoid reported icebergs. Earlier on this day, the steamer Amerika had warned of large icebergs in the path of the luxury ship. A second ship, Mesaba, also warned of numerous large icebergs in the path. Jack Phillips and Harold Bride were manning the wireless radio and paid to deliver messages to and from the passengers. They were not concerned with these “non-essential” messages and did not relay them to the bridge. Two hours and forty minutes after striking the berg, at 2:20 AM she sunk – 1,523 people died.
The Titanic was one of three luxury ships built by the White Star Line – all of which met with ignominious ends. She was 882.5 ft long and 92.5 ft at the beam. Gross tonnage was 46,328. She majestically rose up 175 feet, from keel to the top of the funnels. She was unsurpassed in luxury at the time. The forward first-class grand staircase was the coup de grace on this opulent ship.
On April 10 the ship left Southampton, England making two more stops before finally crossing the Atlantic for New York. Cherbourg, France was the first stop and Queensland [now Cobh], Ireland was the second. The final tally for people on board during the crossing was 2,223. The ship had a total of 840 staterooms, 416 if them First Class. If she had been fully loaded with passengers and crew the ship would have been moving 3,547 people.
Fredrick Fleet and Reginald Lee spotted a large iceberg directly ahead of the racing liner. They rang the ship’s bell three times and telephoned the bridge, yelling “Iceberg, right ahead!” The ship was immediately turned hard to the left and the engines were reversed. An impact was inevitable. So, south of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland she struck an iceberg. Lifeboats could have held 1,178 people if properly filled and lowered. There were not enough boats available because double hanging them would have ruined the look of the elegant ship. Only 700 people survived that freezing night at sea. At 4:10 AM the RMS Carpathia picked up the first lifeboat passengers.
“Professionals built the Titanic, amateurs the ark.” – Frank Pepper
“When you have a population that is immobile, no matter how you plead for them to leave no matter how early you get a start they can’t leave! It’s like the Titanic is sinking. They couldn’t just say, ‘Everyone off!’ There’s no place to go. You’re stuck!” – Jeremy Davenport
“Just think of all those women on the Titanic who said, ‘No, thank you,’ to dessert that night. And for what!” – Erma Bombeck
“When anyone asks me how I can best describe my experience in nearly forty years at sea, I merely say, uneventful. Of course there have been winter gales, and storms and fog and the like. But in all my experience, I have never been in any accident… or any sort worth speaking about. I have seen but one vessel in distress in all my years at sea. I never saw a wreck and never have been wrecked nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort.” – E. J. Smith, Captain, RMS Titanic in 1907
Also on this day, in 1846 the Donner Party set off from Springfield, Illinois to meet their doom.