Monthly Archives: December 2019

Hungary declares war on Germany

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/hungary-declares-war-on-germany

The provisional government of Hungary officially declares war on Germany, bringing an end to Hungary’s cooperation—sometimes free, sometimes coerced—with the Axis power.

Miklos Horthy, the anticommunist regent and virtual dictator of Hungary, who had once hoped to keep his country a nonbelligerent in the war, had reluctantly aligned Hungary with Hitler in November 1940. While ideologically not fascist, Hungary had many radical right-wing elements at play in its politics, as well as a history of anti-Semitism. Those radical forces saw many common “ideals” with Nazism and believed the future lay with Germany. So though Horthy little admired Hitler personally, he felt the need to placate influential parties within his own country and protect his nation from Soviet domination.

When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, Hitler demanded that Hungary mobilize its military against the Soviets as well. So on June 29, 1941, Hungary declared war on the USSR. In March 1942, Horthy replaced Prime Minister Lazlo Bardossy, (a political manipulator too eager to piggyback on German territorial expansion and turn on former allies for the sake of personal gains), with Miklos Kallay, who shared the regent’s goal of regaining the favor of the Western—non-Soviet—Allies. Kallay was able to communicate to the Allies that Hungary was open to switching sides again should they make it to Hungary’s border and offer Hungary protection from German and/or Soviet occupation.

In January 1943, the Battle of Voronezh against the USSR saw Hungary’s entire 2nd Army decimated by the Soviets, rendering Hungary militarily impotent. Hitler, who learned of Kallay’s sly communiques with the West, gave Horthy an ultimatum: Either cooperate fully with the German regime or suffer German occupation. Horthy chose to collaborate, which meant the suppression of left-leaning political parties and an intense persecution of Hungary’s Jews, including massive deportations to Auschwitz, something Kallay, to his credit, had fought to prevent. (More than 550,000 Hungarian Jews—out of 750,000—would die during the war.)

As Soviet troops began to occupy more Hungarian territory, a desperate Horthy signed an armistice with Moscow. When the regent announced this on radio, he was kidnapped by the Germans and forced to abdicate. Ferenc Szalasi, leader of the fascist Arrow Cross Party, was made head of the country on October 15, 1944, though he was little more than a puppet of the Germans. His rule of terror, especially against Hungary’s Jews, would become infamous.

Soviet troops finally liberated the bulk of Hungary from German rule in December 1944. On December 31, a Provisional National Assembly, composed of Communists loyal to the USSR, officially declared war on Germany. The Assembly would go on to sign an armistice with all the Allies in January of 1945.

Panama Canal turned over to Panama

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/panama-canal-turned-over-to-panama

On December 31, 1999, the United States, in accordance with the Torrijos-Carter Treaties, officially hands over control of the Panama Canal, putting the strategic waterway into Panamanian hands for the first time. Crowds of Panamanians celebrated the transfer of the 50-mile canal, which links the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and officially opened when the SS Arcon sailed through on August 15, 1914. Since then, over 922,000 ships have used the canal.

Interest in finding a shortcut from the Atlantic to the Pacific originated with explorers in Central America in the early 1500s. In 1523, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V commissioned a survey of the Isthmus of Panama and several plans for a canal were produced, but none ever implemented. U.S. interest in building a canal was sparked with the expansion of the American West and the California gold rush in 1848. (Today, a ship heading from New York to San Francisco can save about 7,800 miles by taking the Panama Canal rather than sailing around South America.)

In 1880 a French company run by the builder of the Suez Canal started digging a canal across the Isthmus of Panama (then a part of Colombia). More than 22,000 workers died from tropical diseases such as yellow fever during this early phase of construction and the company eventually went bankrupt, selling its project rights to the United States in 1902 for $40 million. President Theodore Roosevelt championed the canal, viewing it as important to America’s economic and military interests. In 1903, Panama declared its independence from Colombia in a U.S.-backed revolution and the U.S. and Panama signed the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, in which the U.S. agreed to pay Panama $10 million for a perpetual lease on land for the canal, plus $250,000 annually in rent.

Over 56,000 people worked on the canal between 1904 and 1913 and over 5,600 lost their lives. When finished, the canal, which cost the U.S. $375 million to build, was considered a great engineering marvel and represented America’s emergence as a world power.

In 1977, responding to nearly 20 years of Panamanian protest, U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Panama’s General Omar Torrijos signed two new treaties that replaced the original 1903 agreement and called for a transfer of canal control in 1999. The treaty, narrowly ratified by the U.S. Senate, gave America the ongoing right to defend the canal against any threats to its neutrality. In October 2006, Panamanian voters approved a $5.25 billion plan to double the canal’s size by 2015 to better accommodate modern ships.

Ships pay tolls to use the canal, based on each vessel’s size and cargo volume. In May 2006, the Maersk Dellys paid a record toll of $249,165. The smallest-ever toll–36 cents–was paid by Richard Halliburton, who swam the canal in 1928.

READ MORE: 7 Fascinating Facts About the Panama Canal

Thomas Edison demonstrates incandescent light

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/edison-demonstrates-incandescent-light

In the first public demonstration of his incandescent lightbulb, American inventor Thomas Alva Edison lights up a street in Menlo Park, New Jersey. The Pennsylvania Railroad Company ran special trains to Menlo Park on the day of the demonstration in response to public enthusiasm over the event.

Although the first incandescent lamp had been produced 40 years earlier, no inventor had been able to come up with a practical design until Edison embraced the challenge in the late 1870s. After countless tests, he developed a high-resistance carbon-thread filament that burned steadily for hours and an electric generator sophisticated enough to power a large lighting system.

Born in Milan, Ohio, in 1847, Edison received little formal schooling, which was customary for most Americans at the time. He developed serious hearing problems at an early age, and this disability provided the motivation for many of his inventions. At age 16, he found work as a telegraph operator and soon was devoting much of his energy and natural ingenuity toward improving the telegraph system itself. By 1869, he was pursuing invention full-time and in 1876 moved into a laboratory and machine shop in Menlo Park, New Jersey.

Edison’s experiments were guided by his remarkable intuition, but he also took care to employ assistants who provided the mathematical and technical expertise he lacked. At Menlo Park, Edison continued his work on the telegraph, and in 1877 he stumbled on one of his great inventions–the phonograph–while working on a way to record telephone communication. Public demonstrations of the phonograph made the Yankee inventor world famous, and he was dubbed the “Wizard of Menlo Park.”

Although the discovery of a way to record and play back sound ensured him a place in the annals of history, the phonograph was only the first of several Edison creations that would transform late 19th-century life. Among other notable inventions, Edison and his assistants developed the first practical incandescent lightbulb in 1879 and a forerunner of the movie camera and projector in the late 1880s. In 1887, he opened the world’s first industrial research laboratory at West Orange, New Jersey where he employed dozens of workers to investigate systematically a given subject.

Perhaps his greatest contribution to the modern industrial world came from his work in electricity. He developed a complete electrical distribution system for light and power, set up the world’s first power plant in New York City, and invented the alkaline battery, the first electric railroad, and a host of other inventions that laid the basis for the modern electrical world. One of the most prolific inventors in history, he continued to work into his 80s and acquired 1,093 patents in his lifetime. He died in 1931 at the age of 84.

U.S.S. Monitor sinks

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/u-s-s-monitor-sinks

On December 30, 1862, the U.S.S. Monitor sinks in a storm off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Just nine months earlier, the ship had been part of a revolution in naval warfare when the ironclad dueled to a standstill with the C.S.S. Virginia (Merrimack)off Hampton Roads, Virginia, in one of the most famous naval battles in American history–the first time two ironclads faced each other in a naval engagement.

After the famous duel, the Monitor provided gun support on the James River for George B. McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign. By December 1862, it was clear the Monitor was no longer needed in Virginia, so she was sent to Beaufort, North Carolina, to join a fleet being assembled for an attack on Charleston, South Carolina. The Monitor served well in the sheltered waters of Chesapeake Bay, but the heavy, low-slung ship was a poor craft for the open sea. The U.S.S. Rhode Island towed the ironclad around the rough waters of Cape Hatteras. Since December is a treacherous time for any ship off North Carolina, the decision to move the Monitor could be considered questionable. As the Monitor pitched and swayed in the rough seas, the caulking around the gun turret loosened and water began to leak into the hull. More leaks developed as the journey continued. High seas tossed the craft, causing the ship’s flat armor bottom to slap the water. Each roll opened more seams, and by nightfall on December 30, the Monitor was in dire straits.

The Monitor’s commander, J.P. Bankhead, signaled the Rhode Island that he wished to abandon ship. The wooden side-wheeler pulled as close as safety allowed to the stricken ironclad, and two lifeboats were lowered to retrieve the crew. Many of the sailors were rescued, but some men were terrified to venture onto the deck in such rough seas. The ironclad’s pumps stopped working and the ship sank before 16 crew members could be rescued.

Although the Monitor’s service was brief, it signaled a new era in naval combat. The Virginia’s arrival off Hampton Roads terrified the U.S. Navy, but the Monitor leveled the playing field. Both sides had ironclads, and the advantage would go to the side that could build more of them. Northern industry would win that battle for the Union.

READ MORE: Faces of Drowned Civil War Sailors From USS Monitor

An anti-abortion activist goes on a murder spree

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/an-anti-abortion-activist-goes-on-a-murder-spree

John Salvi III walks into two separate abortion clinics in Brookline, Massachusetts, and shoots workers with a rifle, killing two receptionists and wounding five other employees. He was captured the next day after firing 23 shots at a Norfolk, Virginia, medical clinic.

Salvi, who worked in a beauty salon in New Hampshire before his murderous rampage, was described by acquaintances as a “very odd” man. Despite his increasingly erratic behavior, Salvi’s parents resisted getting professional treatment for him. As his mental state deteriorated, he became a zealous anti-abortion activist.

In March 1996, Salvi’s trial jury rejected his insanity defense and convicted him of murder. After receiving two life sentences, he killed himself in prison in November 1996.

However, the fallout from Salvi’s attack did not end there. Richard Seron, one of the shooting victims, filed a lawsuit against the clinic’s landlord for failing to provide security measures Seron claimed would have prevented the attack. After losing that suit, Seron enraged abortion providers by lobbying against a law that would establish a buffer zone outside clinics. He further antagonized pro-choice activists by filing a lawsuit against Planned Parenthood, claiming that he was entitled to a $100,000 reward for assisting in the capture of John Salvi.

But even Richard Seron did not inspire as much public ire as Deborah Gaines, who was scheduled to have an abortion at one of the clinics on the day of the shooting. After the incident, she couldn’t go through with the abortion and decided to have the child. She later sued the clinic for wrongful life, arguing that the clinic should pay the costs of raising the child since their alleged negligence prevented her abortion. The case, however, was dismissed before trial.

Fire breaks out in Chicago theater

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/fire-breaks-out-in-chicago-theater

A fire in the Iroquois Theater in Chicago, Illinois, kills more than 600 people on December 30, 1903. It was the deadliest theater fire in U.S. history. Blocked fire exits and the lack of a fire-safety plan caused most of the deaths.

The Iroquois Theater, designed by Benjamin Marshall in a Renaissance style, was highly luxurious and had been deemed fireproof upon its opening in 1903. In fact, George Williams, Chicago’s building commissioner, and fire inspector Ed Laughlin looked over the theater in November 1903 and declared that it was “fireproof beyond all doubt.” They also noted its 30 exits, 27 of which were double doors. However, at the same time, William Clendenin, the editor of Fireproof magazine, also inspected the Iroquois and wrote a scathing editorial about its fire dangers, pointing out that there was a great deal of wood trim, no fire alarm and no sprinkler system over the stage.

During the matinee performance of December 30, while a full house was watching Eddie Foy star in Mr. Bluebeard, 27 of the theater’s 30 exits were locked. In addition, stage manager Bill Carlton went out front to watch the show with the 2,000 patrons while the other stage hands left the theater and went out for a drink. It was a spotlight operator who first noticed that one of the calcium lights seemed to have sparked a fire backstage. The cluttered area was full of fire fuel–wooden stage props and oily rags.

When the actors became aware of the fire, they scattered backstage; Foy later returned and tried to calm the audience, telling them to stay seated. An asbestos curtain was to be lowered that would confine the fire but when it wouldn’t come fully down, a panic began. It later turned out to be made of paper so it wouldn’t have helped in any case. Soon, all the lights inside the theater went out and there were stampedes near the open exits. When the back door was opened, the shift of air caused a fireball to roar through the backstage area.

The teenage ushers working the theater fled immediately, forgetting to open the locked emergency exit doors. The few doors that were able to be forced open were four feet above the sidewalk, which slowed down the exiting process. Most of the 591 people who died were seated in the balconies. There were no fire escapes or ladders to assist them and some took their chances and jumped. The bodies were piled six deep near the narrow balcony exits. In fact, some people were knocked down by the falling bodies and were eventually pulled out alive from under burned victims.

In the aftermath of the disaster, Williams was later charged and convicted of misfeasance. Chicago’s mayor was also indicted, though the charges didn’t stick. The theater owner was convicted of manslaughter due to the poor safety provisions; the conviction was later appealed and reversed. In fact, the only person to serve any jail time in relation to this disaster was a nearby saloon owner who had robbed the dead bodies while his establishment served as a makeshift morgue following the fire.

Led Zeppelin filmed live for the first time

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/led-zeppelin-captured-live-for-the-first-time-in-spokane-gym

Within a year, they’d be big. Within two, they’d be huge. And within three, they’d be the biggest band in the world. But on December 30, 1968, the quartet of British rockers preparing for their fifth-ever gig in the United States were using propane heaters to keep themselves and their equipment warm while they waited to go on as the opening act for Vanilla Fudge at a concert in a frigid college gymnasium in Washington State. A few serious rock fans in attendance had at least heard about the new band formed around the former guitarist from the now-defunct Yardbirds, but if those fans even knew the name of this new group, they might not have recognized it in the ads that ran in the local newspaper. The Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Washington, ran an advertisement on this day in 1968 for a concert at Gonzaga University featuring “The Vanilla Fudge, with Len Zefflin”—a concert of which a bootleg recording would later emerge that represents the first-ever live Led Zeppelin performance captured on tape.

At the end of the now widely available recording known as Gonzaga ’68, Robert Plant can be heard introducing himself and his bandmates—John Paul Jones on bass, Jimmy Page on guitar and John Bonham on drums—to a smattering of applause. But some of those who were in attendance that day remember their reaction as being stronger. In a Spokesman-Review article published 29 years after the night in question, Bob Gallagher, a teenage record-store employee at the time, recalled the show’s opening number: “”Bonham came out and started drumming on ‘Train Kept a-Rollin’,” Gallagher said, “and everybody went, ‘Holy crap.’”

“What I mostly remember is when Jimmy Page took out a violin bow and began bowing his double-neck guitar,” said another concertgoer, Jeff Nadeau. “The house was universally mind-blown. It was the most stunning and awesome sound ever.”

There is nothing raw or un-Led Zeppelin-like about the sound captured by an unknown Gonzaga student on a small, portable tape recorder that day. The Gonzaga ’68 bootleg features the band performing tight and thrilling versions of some songs that are now considered classics but were then unknown to those in attendance. Indeed, halfway through the set, Robert Plant introduces one number as follows: “This is off an album that comes out in about three weeks time on the Atlantic label. It’s called Led Zeppelin. This is a tune called ‘Dazed and Confused.’”

Rasputin is murdered

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/rasputin-is-murdered

Sometime over the course of the night and the early morning of December 29-30, 1916, Grigory Efimovich Rasputin, a self-proclaimed holy man, is murdered by Russian nobles eager to end his influence over the royal family.

Rasputin, a Siberian-born muzhik, or peasant, who underwent a religious conversion as a teenager and proclaimed himself a healer with the ability to predict the future, won the favor of Czar Nicholas II and Czarina Alexandra through his ability to stop the bleeding of their hemophiliac son, Alexei, in 1908. From then on, though he was widely criticized for his lechery and drunkenness, Rasputin exerted a powerful influence on the ruling family of Russia, infuriating nobles, church orthodoxy, and peasants alike. He particularly influenced the czarina, and was rumored to be her lover. When Nicholas departed to lead Russian forces in World War I, Rasputin effectively ruled the country through Alexandra, contributing to the already-existing corruption and disorder of Romanov Russia.

Fearful of Rasputin’s growing power (among other things, it was believed by some that he was plotting to make a separate peace with the Germans), a group of nobles, led by Prince Felix Youssupov, the husband of the czar’s niece, and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, Nicholas’s first cousin, lured Rasputin to Youssupov Palace on the night of December 29, 1916.

First, Rasputin’s would-be killers gave the monk food and wine laced with cyanide. When he failed to react to the poison, they shot him at close range, leaving him for dead. A short time later, however, Rasputin revived and attempted to escape from the palace grounds, whereupon his assailants shot him again and beat him viciously. Finally, they bound Rasputin, still miraculously alive, and tossed him into a freezing river. His body was discovered several days later and the two main conspirators, Youssupov and Pavlovich were exiled.

Not long after, the Bolshevik Revolution put an end to the imperial regime. Nicholas and Alexandra were murdered, and the long, dark reign of the Romanovs was over.

READ MORE: Could Anyone Have Saved the Romanovs?

British capture Savannah, Georgia

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/british-capture-savannah-georgia

On December 29, 1778, British Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell and his force of between 2,500 and 3,600 troops, which included the 71st Highland regiment, New York Loyalists, and Hessian mercenaries, launch a surprise attack on American forces defending Savannah, Georgia.

American Major General Robert Howe and his paltry force of between 650 and 900 men were severely outnumbered. Campbell also outflanked the Continental forces by locating a path through the swamp to the right of the American position. Howe ordered the city to be evacuated and the army to withdraw from combat. During the process, the Georgia Brigade took heavy losses when it was cut off from Howe’s other forces. The Patriots lost 83 men and another 483 were captured, while the British lost only 3 men and another 10 were wounded.

Savannah remained in British control until the Redcoats left of their own accord on July 11, 1782. French and American forces held Savannah under siege from September 23 to October 18, 1779, but failed to reclaim the city.

The French troops included 500 free Haitians of African descent, calling themselves the Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Dominigue. Soldiers of African descent fighting for the Patriots was an anomaly during the southern campaign–most American slaves attempted to flee and join British forces, as they had no desire to defend their Patriot masters’ right to enslave them. Many of the Volontaires themselves later went on to rebel against French control of Haiti. In fact, the Volontaires’ twelve year old drummer, Henri Christoph, commanded Haiti’s revolutionary army and later became king of Haiti.