Monthly Archives: February 2020

Two ships sink in North Sea battle

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/two-ships-sink-in-north-sea-battle

On the afternoon of February 29, 1916, both the British armed merchant ship Alcantara and the German raider Grief sink after engaging each other in a close-range battle on the North Sea.

The German raider Grief was in disguise, flying under the Norwegian flag and with Norwegian colors displayed on its sides, when it attempted to run a British blockade. The Alcantara, still under the impression that the Grief was a Norwegian shipping vessel, was sent to investigate. The Grief did not respond to repeated attempts at communication from Captain Thomas E. Wardle of the Alcantara and continued heading northeast. When Captain Wardle ordered the ship to stop in order to be inspected, the crew of the Grief quickly lowered the Norwegian colors and raised the German flag before it opened fire on the surprised crew of the Alcantara, who quickly returned fire.

The battle raged for 12 agonizing minutes at close range. The Alcantara lost 74 men in the battle; the Grief lost nearly 200. By the time a second British armed merchant ship, the Andes, arrived on the scene, both ships had been badly damaged. On fire and sinking quickly, the desperate Grief fired one final torpedo, striking the Alcantara. Both ships eventually sank. The crew of the Andes picked up the survivors of both ships, taking more than 120 German prisoners.

Hattie McDaniel becomes first African American actress to win Oscar

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/mcdaniel-wins-oscar

Hattie McDaniel became the first African American actress or actor ever to be honored with an Oscar for her portrayal of “Mammy” in “Gone With the Wind.”

On February 29, 1940, Gone with the Wind is honored with eight Oscars by the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. An epic Southern romance set during the hard times of the Civil War, the movie swept the prestigious Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Cinematography, Art Direction, Film Editing, and Actress categories. However, the most momentous award that night undoubtedly went to Hattie McDaniel for her portrayal of “Mammy,” a housemaid and former enslaved woman. McDaniel, who won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award, was the first African American actress or actor ever to be honored with an Oscar.

Born in Wichita, Kansas, in 1895, McDaniel demonstrated her talents as a singer and actress while growing up in Denver, Colorado. She left school while a teenager to become a performer in several traveling minstrel groups and in 1924 became one of the first African American women to sing on U.S. radio. With the onset of the Great Depression, she was forced to take work as a ladies’ washroom attendant in a Milwaukee club. The club, which hired only white performers, eventually made an exception and let her sing, and she performed there for a year before setting her sights on Hollywood.

In Los Angeles, she won a small role on a local radio show called The Optimistic Do-Nuts and before long had become the program’s main attraction. In 1932, she made her film debut as a Southern house servant in The Golden West. In American movies at the time, African American actors and actresses were generally limited to house servant roles, and McDaniel apparently embraced this stereotype, playing the role of maid or cook in nearly 40 films in the 1930s. Responding to criticism by groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that she was perpetuating stereotypes, McDaniel responded that she would rather play a maid on the screen than be one in real life. Furthermore, she often subverted the stereotype by turning her maids into sassy, independent-minded characters who sometimes made white audiences shift uncomfortably in their seats.

Her most famous role was as Mammy in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind. Directed by Victor Fleming and based on the best-selling Margaret Mitchell novel of the same name, the movie remains the highest-grossing movie of all time when inflation is taken into account. Although she was honored with an Oscar, liberal African Americans sharply criticized McDaniel for accepting a role in which her character, a former slave, spoke nostalgically about the Old South.

McDaniel’s film career declined in the late 1940s, and in 1947 she returned to radio as the star of the nationally broadcast The Beulah Show. In the program, she again portrayed an effervescent Southern maid but in a markedly un-stereotypical manner that won praise from the NAACP. In 1951, while filming the first episodes of a television version of the popular show, she had a heart attack. She recovered to do a few more radio programs but in 1952 died of breast cancer at the age of 57.

Buddy Holly’s glasses, lost since his death in 1959, are found in Mason City, Iowa

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/buddy-hollys-glasses-lost-since-his-death-in-1959-are-found-in-mason-city-iowa

When the Beechcraft Bonanza carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper crashed outside Clear Lake, Iowa, in the early morning hours of February 3, 1959, it struck the ground with such force that all three passengers were killed instantly, and the plane’s wreckage was strewn across nearly 300 yards of snow-covered cornfields. The death certificate issued by the Cerro Gordo County Coroner noted the clothing Holly was wearing, the presence of a leather suitcase near his body and the following personal effects:

Charles Holley

Cash $193.00 less $11.65 coroner’s fees – $181.35

2 Cuff links, silver 1/2 in. balls having jeweled band

Top portion of ball point pen

Notably missing from the list were Holly’s signature eyeglasses, the most distinctive visual legacy of a man who influenced the sound and style of rock and roll immeasurably. Those famous glasses were presumed lost forever until the announcement on February 29, 1980, that they had resurfaced in Mason City, Iowa.

The glasses in question had the appearance of something government issued, but they were, in fact, carefully chosen as part of Holly’s image—not by Holly himself, but by his Lubbock, Texas, optometrist, Dr. J. Davis Armistead. “Buddy was trying to wear the least conspicuous frames he could find,” wrote Dr. Armistead nearly 40 years after writing Holly’s last prescription. “Personally, I was not happy with the frame styles we had been using. I did not think they contributed anything to a distinct personality that a performer needs.” It was while on vacation in Mexico City that Armistead found exactly the frames that he felt Holly needed. He brought back two pair of the heavy plastic Faiosa frames. “Those heavy black frames achieve exactly what we wanted—they became a distinct part of him.” In fact, they became a part of the basic iconography and spirit of rock and roll. Before Buddy Holly, it would have been impossible to imagine a skinny, knock-kneed kid in an Ivy League suit and thick, heavy glasses being considered “cool.” After Buddy Holly, the look and attitude that would later be called “geek chic” became a completely accepted alternative style for an aspiring rock star to embrace.

So how did the famous glasses re-emerge? In the violence of the crash back in February 1959, they were thrown clear of the other wreckage and buried in snow. They were found, along with the Big Bopper’s watch, that same spring, when the melting snow made them visible again. Though they were handed in immediately to the Cerro Gordo County Sherriff’s office, they sat filed away for the next 21 years in a sealed manila envelope marked “rec’d April 7, 1959.” That envelope was opened by Sheriff Jerry Allen on this day in 1980. The glasses were eventually returned to Holly’s widow.

Kerner Commission Report released

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/kerner-commission-report-released

The President’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders—known as the Kerner Commission—releases its report, condemning racism as the primary cause of the recent surge of riots. Headed by Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois, the 11-member commission was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in July 1967 to uncover the causes of urban riots and recommend solutions.

The report, which declared that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal,” called for expanded aid to African American communities in order to prevent further racial violence and polarization. Unless drastic and costly remedies were undertaken at once, the report said, there would be a “continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values.”

The report identified more than 150 riots or major disorders between 1965 and 1968 (including the deadly Newark and Detroit riots) and blamed “white racism” for sparking the violence—not a conspiracy by African American political groups as some claimed.

Statistics for 1967 alone included 83 people killed and 1,800 injured—the majority of them African Americans—and property valued at more than $100 million damaged or destroyed.

Deerfield settlement razed in Queen Anne’s War

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/deerfield-razed-in-queen-annes-war

Deerfield, a frontier settlement in western Massachusetts, is attacked by a French and Native American force. Some 100 men, women, and children were massacred as the town was burned to the ground.

The Deerfield raid was the bloodiest event of Queen Anne’s War, a conflict known to American historians as the second of the French and Indian Wars. The frontier conflict, named after the English monarch at the time, was to France and England a rather unimportant aspect of the War of the Spanish Succession. To settlers in America, however, the rivalry of the two powers in the colonies was a serious concern, as the fighting meant not only raids by the French or the British but also the horrors of Indian tribal warfare.

With the signing of the Peace of Utrecht in 1714, peace returned to the frontier. Thirty years later, it would be broken by the War of Austrian Succession, the third of the French and Indian Wars.

Final episode of M*A*S*H airs

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/final-episode-of-mash-airs

On February 28, 1983, the celebrated sitcom M*A*S*H bows out after 11 seasons, airing a special two-and-a-half hour episode watched by 77 percent of the television viewing audience. It was the largest percentage ever to watch a single TV show up to that time.

Set near Seoul, Korea, behind the American front lines during the Korean War, M*A*S*H was based on the 1968 novel by Richard Hooker and the 1970 film produced by 20th Century Fox and directed by Robert Altman. Its title came from the initials for the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, an isolated compound that received wounded soldiers and was staffed by the show’s cast of doctors and nurses. 

At the heart of M*A*S*H were the surgeons Dr. Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce (Alan Alda) and Dr. “Trapper” John McIntyre (Wayne Rogers); these roles were played in the Altman movie by Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould, respectively. Hawkeye and Trapper’s foils on the TV show were Dr. Frank Burns (Larry Linville) and Senior Nurse Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Loretta Swit), who disapproved of the surgeons’ boozing, womanizing and disregard for military authority. Other key characters in the series were the bumbling camp commander, Lt. Col. Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) and his clerk and right-hand-man, Corporal Walter “Radar” O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff).

M*A*S*H premiered on the CBS television network in September 1972. Under threat of cancellation during its first season because of low ratings, the show turned things around the following year, landing in the top 10 in the ratings and never dropping out of the top 20 for the rest of its run. While the show began as a thinly veiled critique of the Vietnam War, its focus switched to more character-driven plotlines after that war’s anti-climactic end, allowing the series to continue to hold the public’s attention as it developed. In the middle of the show’s tenure, Alda began to take more and more creative control, co-writing 13 episodes and directing more than 30, including the series finale. Alda became the first person ever to win Emmy Awards for acting, directing and writing for the same show.

Elements such as long-range and tracking camera shots as well as sophisticated editing techniques distinguished M*A*S*H from more traditional TV sitcoms. From the beginning, the influence of Altman’s movie was evident in the cinematic nature of the show’s camera work. In addition, each half-hour episode of M*A*S*H contained a signature mixture of dramatic and comedic plot lines, and its success marked the rise of a new genre of TV show dubbed “dramedy.”

After earning consistently high ratings throughout its 11-year run, M*A*S*H enjoyed enduring popularity in the following decades, as it became one of the world’s most syndicated shows. It also spawned an unsuccessful spin-off, AfterMASH, which CBS aired from 1983 to 1985.

Congress creates Colorado Territory

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/congress-creates-colorado-territory

With the region’s population booming because of the Pike’s Peak gold rush, Congress creates the new Territory of Colorado.

When the United States acquired it after the Mexican War ended in 1848, the land that would one day become Colorado was nearly unpopulated by Anglo settlers. Ute, Arapaho, Cheyenne, and other Native Americans had occupied the land for centuries, but the Europeans who had made sporadic appearances there since the 17th century never stayed for long. It was not until 1851 that the first permanent non-Indian settlement was established, in the San Luis Valley.

As with many other western regions, though, the lure of gold launched the first major Anglo invasion. In July 1858, a band of prospectors working streambeds near modern-day Denver found tiny flecks of gold in their pans. Since the gold-bearing streams were located in the foothills not far from the massive mountain named for the explorer Zebulon Pike, the subsequent influx of hopeful miners was termed the Pike’s Peak gold rush. By the spring of 1859, an estimated 50,000 gold seekers had reached this latest of a long series of American El Dorados.

As the first gold-bearing streams to be discovered played out, prospectors moved westward into the rugged slopes of the Rocky Mountains in search of new finds. Wherever sizeable deposits were discovered, ramshackle mining camps like Central City, Nevadaville, and Black Hawk appeared, sometimes almost overnight. Meanwhile, out on the flat plains at the edge of the mountains, Denver became the central supply town for the miners.

Although few miners came to Colorado planning to stay long, they were eager to establish some semblance of “law and order” in the region in order to protect their property rights and gold dust. Far from the seats of eastern government, the miners and townspeople cobbled together their own simple governments, usually revolving around a miners’ court that regulated claims. Technically lacking in any genuine legal foundation, the miners’ courts did maintain the minimal order needed for the mineral exploitation of the territory to continue.

The unreliable mining operations soon gave way to larger, highly capitalized and relatively permanent lode mining operations. The pioneers recognized that the vast mineral resources of the Rockies could form the foundation of a thriving new state, but the people settling there needed a more formal system of laws and government. The Congressional designation of new western states and territories had been bogged down for several years as southern and northern politicians fought over whether slavery would be permitted in the new western regions. By 1861, the South had seceded, clearing the way for the northern politicians to begin creating free-labor states. 

Tyler narrowly escapes death on the USS Princeton

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/tyler-narrowly-escapes-death-on-the-uss-princeton

On February 28, 1844, President John Tyler cruises the Potomac with 400 others aboard the U.S. Navy’s new steam frigate USS Princeton, not realizing that his life will soon be in danger. In attendance that day were political dignitaries and their guests, which included the wealthy New Yorker David Gardiner and his two daughters. The 54-year-old Tyler, a recent widower, had fallen for Gardiner’s youngest, the lovely 20-year-old Julia, to whom he had proposed marriage. She had not yet responded.

READ MORE: Why John Tyler May Be the Most Reviled President Ever

The Princeton carried a brand new 12-inch, 27,000-pound cannon called the Peacemaker. The gun’s co-designer, John Ericsson, argued with the ship’s captain, who wanted to demonstrate the new weapon, over whether it was safe to discharge because he feared it had not been sufficiently tested. Days before the cruise, Captain Robert Stockton had boasted about the Navy’s new ship and armament, which he had helped design, to congressmen and reporters. He and the crew were eager to show off the cannon’s ferocity, and despite Ericsson’s warnings, Stockton insisted on firing the cannon during the Potomac cruise. The first two successful and ear-splitting volleys sent the crowd into wild applause.

Halfway through the cruise, President Tyler, below deck, proposed a toast to the three great guns: the Princeton, her Commander and the Peacemaker. Then the secretary of war asked for a third firing toward Mount Vernon in honor of George Washington. Stockton may have recalled Ericsson’s concerns or thought it best not to push their luck with the new cannon, because he initially refused the secretary’s request. In the end, though, he bowed to his superior’s wishes and gave the order to fire.

The third round proved deadly. In the worst peacetime disaster of its time, the cannon exploded, killing several aboard, including Julia’s father and two members of Tyler’s cabinet. Tyler was halfway up the ladder to the upper deck when the explosion occurred. Julia Gardiner fainted when she heard of her father’s death and, after the ship docked, Tyler whisked her off to safety in his arms. Julia’s admiration for Tyler deepened into love and they were married later that year.

Video recreation used in murder trial

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/video-recreates-the-crime

Artie Mitchell is shot to death by his brother Jim in his Corte Madera, California, house. When police responding to a 911 call by Artie’s girlfriend arrived at the house they found Jim wandering aimlessly outside carrying a rifle. Artie had been shot multiple times in the chest and head and was already dead.

The Mitchell brothers had made a fortune in the pornography business. They also owned a popular strip club in San Francisco and had wild lifestyles to match their profession. Despite their success, the brothers were constantly fighting, often in violent physical encounters. Jim Mitchell claimed that his brother’s death resulted from one of these fights.

However, based on the 911 call, the prosecution argued that it was first-degree, premeditated murder. Five out of the eight total shots from the rifle could be heard in the background of the 911 call with a 30-second gap between two of the shots. Thus, authorities maintained that Jim had shot the already-wounded Artie to death in cold blood.

At the trial in 1992, prosecutors sought to introduce an animated video that reconstructed the events of February 27, 1991. This video showed Jim shooting Artie with a final shot to the head. The defense attorneys vehemently objected to this evidence, maintaining that it was impossible to know which shots came at what time. Despite this major problem with the re-creation, the judge admitted the video.

Although the video was shown to the jury, the defense attacked the prosecution’s forensic experts and forced them to admit that pure speculation was at the heart of the video presentation. In the end, the jury only convicted Jim Mitchell of manslaughter. He was sentenced to six years in prison.

Computer-generated video re-creations of crime scenes are used more often today. The public got a taste of their quality during the O.J. Simpson trial, when several were presented on television news shows. However, they remain controversial. With so much left to interpretation, courts are sometimes hesitant to admit re-creations as evidence.