Monthly Archives: August 2020

American soldier Harry Butters killed in the Battle of the Somme

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/american-soldier-harry-butters-killed-in-the-battle-of-the-somme

On August 31, 1916, Harry Butters, an American soldier serving in the British army during World War I, is killed by a German shell during the Battle of the Somme, while fighting to secure the town of Guillemont, France.

The son of a prominent San Francisco industrialist, Butters was raised partially in England and schooled there at Beaumont College, a Jesuit academy in Old Windsor. He later attended Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, before inheriting his father’s fortune upon the latter’s death in 1906 and moving back to California, where he worked briefly for Standard Oil and purchased his own ranch. When World War I broke out in the summer of 1914, Butters rallied to the Allied cause and decided to join the British army. Through his old school connections in England, he received a commission in the Royal Artillery, 24th Division, 107th Brigade in April 1915. In September, Butters traveled to France with his comrades, where he took part in the ill-executed British attack during the Battle of Loos later that month.

READ MORE: Why Was the Battle of the Somme So Deadly?

“I find myself a soldier among millions of others in the great allied armies fighting for all I believe right and civilized and humane against a power which is evil and threatens the existence of all the rights we prize and the freedom we enjoy,” Butters wrote home on October 5, 1915, describing his experiences on the battlefield at Loos. “It may seem to you that for me this is all quite uncalled for, that it can only mean either the supreme sacrifice for nothing or at best some of the best years of my life wasted; but I tell you that I am not only willing to give my life to this enterprise (for that is comparatively easy except when I think of you), but that I firmly believe—if I live through it to spend a useful lifetime with you—that never will I have the opportunity to gain so much honorable advancement for my own soul, or to do so much for the cause of the world’s progress, as I am here daily…I think less of myself than I did, less of the heights of personal success I aspired to climb, and more of the service that each of us must render in payment for the right to live and by virtue of which only we can progress.”

Butters was on the front lines near the Belgian village of Ploegsteert in April 1916 when he met Winston Churchill; Churchill was serving as a battalion commander on the Western Front after leaving the British Admiralty in the wake of the disastrous Allied operations on the Gallipoli Peninsula the previous year. Impressed by the young American volunteering in service to England—”I just lied to ‘em and said I was British born,” Butters told Churchill, explaining his commission in the Royal Artillery—Churchill invited Butters to dine with him in his bunker, where the two men ate and drank champagne on the evening of April 11. After suffering from shell shock—the newly diagnosed psychological trauma of battle—Butters was sent on leave in June. Although Churchill, then back in London, urged Butters to take his time before returning to service, he went back to the Western Front on July 2, one day after the Allies launched the epic Battle of the Somme.

On August 31, 1916, Butters and his unit were at the Somme, firing on Trones Woods, outside Guillemont, when his gun received a direct German hit during a massive barrage; he and all the members of his battery were killed. “I don’t exaggerate when I say nearly 100,000 shells dropped that day in an area of about 800 square yards,” wrote Reverend A. Caseby in his diary entry recounting Butters’ death. Butters was buried in the Commonwealth Graves Commission Cemetery at Meulte, a little village south of Albert, France. In accordance with a request he made in late August to a British chaplain, his gravestone reads simply “An American Citizen.”

Churchill himself wrote a memorial to Butters in the London Observer: “He had seen much service on the front line, including the battle of Loos, and came through unscathed until in June last a bouquet of shells destroyed his observation post and stunned him.He could be induced to take only a week’s rest before he was back at the front, disdainful as ever of the continual threats of death.And thus, quite simply, he met his fate.He was one of the brightest, cheeriest boys I have ever known, and always the life and soul of the mess.We realize his nobility in coming to the help of another country entirely of his own free will, and understand what a big heart he had.”

Los Angeles mob attacks "Night Stalker" serial killer

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/los-angeles-mob-attacks-night-stalker

Richard Ramirez, the notorious “Night Stalker,” is captured and nearly killed by a mob in East Los Angeles, California, after being recognized from a photograph shown both on television and in newspapers. Recently identified as the serial killer, Ramirez was pulled from the enraged mob by police officers.

During the summer of 1985, the city of Los Angeles was panic-stricken by a killer who crept into his victims’ homes at night. The Night Stalker, as the press dubbed the murderer, first turned his attention on the men in the house, usually shot any men in the house with a .22 caliber handgun before raping, stabbing, and mutilating his female victims. He cut out one of his victim’s eyes, and sometimes carved satanic pentagrams on the bodies before he left.

By August, the Night Stalker has murdered at least a dozen people, and law enforcement officials were desperate to stop him. One witness, who managed to note the license plate of the car in which Ramirez fled, led police to a single, partial fingerprint left in the vehicle.

Apparently, the task force looking for the Night Stalker had already received information that someone named Ramirez was involved, so only the records for men with that name were checked against the fingerprint. Although the Los Angeles Police Department’s new multimillion-dollar computer database of fingerprints only contained the records of criminals born after January 1960, Richard Ramirez, who had a record of petty crimes, had been born in February 1960.

When Ramirez was identified as the chief suspect, authorities debated whether to release his name and picture to the public, fearing that it might give him the chance to escape. Nonetheless, they decided to take the risk, and Ramirez, who was actually traveling back to Los Angeles at the time, arrived to find his face and name on the front of every newspaper.

Ramirez turned his trial into a circus by drawing pentagrams on his palms and making devil’s horns with his fingers. When he was convicted, he shouted at the jury, “You make me sick. I will be avenged. Lucifer dwells within all of us.” After the judge imposed a death sentence, Ramirez said, “Big deal. Death always went with the territory. See you in Disneyland.” Ramirez married a female admirer and penpal while incarcerated at California’s San Quentin Prison in 1996. In 2006, his first appeals were denied and he died in prison on June 7, 2013.

Earthquake shakes Charleston, South Carolina

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/earthquake-shakes-charleston-south-carolina

An earthquake near Charleston, South Carolina, on August 31, 1886 leaves more than 100 people dead and hundreds of buildings destroyed. This was the largest recorded earthquake in the history of the southeastern United States.

The earthquake was preceded by foreshocks felt in Summerville, South Carolina, on August 27 and 28 but, still, no one was prepared for the strength of the August 31 quake. At 9:51 p.m., the rumbling began, and it was felt as far away as Boston, Chicago and Cuba. There was damage to buildings as far away as Ohio and Alabama. It was Charleston, South Carolina, though, that took the biggest hit from the quake, which is thought to have had a magnitude of about 7.6. Almost all of the buildings in town were seriously damaged. It is estimated that 14,000 chimneys fell from the earthquake. It caused multiple fires and water lines and wells were ruptured. The total damage was in excess of $5.5 million (about $112 million in today’s money).

While there were no apparent surface cracks as a result of this tremor, railroad tracks were bent in all directions in some locations. Acres of land were liquefied. This quake remained a mystery for many years since there were no known underground faults for 60 miles in any direction. However, better science and detection methods have recently uncovered a concealed fault along the coastal plains of Virginia and the Carolinas. Still, a quake of this magnitude remains highly unlikely in this location.

READ MORE: The Deadliest Natural Disasters in US History

Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s "The Threepenny Opera" premieres in Berlin

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/bertolt-brecht-and-kurt-weills-the-threepenny-opera-premieres-in-berlin

Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) receives its world premiere in Berlin on August 31, 1928.

“I think I’ve written a good piece and that several numbers in it, at least musically, have the best prospects for becoming popular very quickly.” This was the assessment offered by the German composer Kurt Weill in a letter to his publisher 10 days before the premiere of his latest work. Created in partnership with the revolutionary dramatist Bertolt Brecht, that work would, in fact, prove to be the most significant and successful of Weill’s career and one of the most important works in the history of musical theater: Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera). In addition to running for 400-plus performances in its original German production, Brecht and Weill’s masterpiece would go on to be translated into 18 languages and receive more than 10,000 performances internationally.

The premiere of The Threepenny Opera on this day in 1928 came almost exactly 200 years after the premiere of the work on which it was based: John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. In Gay’s satirical original, the thieves, pickpockets and prostitutes of London’s Newgate Prison competed for power and position in the accents and manners of the English upper classes. It was Bertolt Brecht’s idea to adapt The Beggar’s Opera into a new work that would serve as a sharp political critique of capitalism and as a showcase for his avant-garde approach to theater. Much of The Threepenny Opera‘s historical reputation rests on Brecht’s experimental dramaturgical techniques—such as breaking “the fourth wall” between audience and performers—but the music of Kurt Weill was just as important in turning it into a triumph.

The drama critic for The New York Times said of Weill in 1941, “He is not a song writer but a composer of organic music that can bind the separate elements of a production and turn the underlying motive into song.” While this comment was intended as praise of Weill, who had by then fled his native Germany for the United States, it nevertheless sold Weill’s songwriting somewhat short. By 1959, Weill’s opening song from The Threepenny Opera, “The Ballad of Mackie Messer” would be one of the biggest pop hits of all time for Bobby Darin in a jazzy variation inspired by Louis Armstrong and renamed “Mack The Knife.”

FDR signs Neutrality Act

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/fdr-signs-neutrality-act

On August 31, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Neutrality Act, or Senate Joint Resolution No. 173, which he calls an “expression of the desire…to avoid any action which might involve [the U.S.] in war.” The signing came at a time when newly installed fascist governments in Europe were beginning to beat the drums of war.

In a public statement that day, Roosevelt said that the new law would require American vessels to obtain a license to carry arms, would restrict Americans from sailing on ships from hostile nations and would impose an embargo on the sale of arms to “belligerent” nations. Most observers understood “belligerent” to imply Germany under its new leader, Adolf Hitler, and Italy under Benito Mussolini. It also provided the strongest language yet warning other countries that the U.S. would increase its patrol of foreign submarines lurking in American waters. This was seen as a response to Hitler’s March 1935 announcement that Germany would no longer honor the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which prohibited Germany from rebuilding her military; he had then immediately stepped up the country’s submarine production.

Although the legislation stated that the U.S. intended to stay out of foreign wars, Roosevelt insisted that the country could not foresee future situations in which the U.S. might have to amend its neutral stance. Noting that “history is filled with unforeseeable situations that call for some flexibility of action,” Roosevelt contended that the law would not prevent the U.S. from cooperating with other “similarly minded Governments to promote peace.” In other words, he left plenty of room for America to change its mind regarding the sale of arms to friendly countries and gave it the right to exercise options to protect her own safety. This came to pass in March 1941, when the passing of the Lend-Lease Act increased America’s military exports to the British in order to help them fight off Hitler’s advance toward England.

Movie tough guy Charles Bronson dies

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/movie-tough-guy-charles-bronson-dies

On August 30, 2003, the actor Charles Bronson, best known for his tough-guy roles in such films as The Dirty Dozen and the Death Wish franchise, dies at the age of 81 in Los Angeles.

Bronson was born Charles Buchinsky on November 3, 1921, in Ehrenfeld, Pennsylvania, to Lithuanian immigrants. The 11th of 15 children, he worked in the Pennsylvania coal mines as a teenager and later served in the Army during World War II. After the war, he worked a series of odd jobs and took acting lessons. He had an uncredited part in the 1951 film You’re in the Navy Now, starring Gary Cooper, and a small part (credited as Charles Buchinsky) in 1952’s Pat and Mike, with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. In the mid-1950s, he changed his name to Bronson because he believed it wasn’t smart for an actor to have a Russian-sounding last name at a time when there was a strong anti-Communist sentiment in America.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Bronson was cast as a tough character in a slew of TV shows and such films as The Magnificent Seven (1960), a Western directed by John Sturges that co-starred Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen; The Great Escape (1963), a World War II drama also directed by Sturges and co-starring McQueen; The Dirty Dozen (1967), another World War II-era story featuring Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine; and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), a spaghetti Western directed by Sergio Leone that co-starred Henry Fonda.

The craggy-faced Bronson achieved fame in Europe–in Italy he was known as Il Brutto or “The Ugly One”–before he became a full-fledged Hollywood star in the 1970s. In 1974’s action thriller Death Wish, Bronson played the New York City architect Paul Kersey, who becomes a vigilante and goes after street criminals following attacks on his wife and daughter. Although the film was criticized for its graphic violence, it was a box-office success and spawned four sequels from 1982 to 1994. Bronson’s last starring movie role came in 1994’s Death Wish V: The Face of Death.

Hotline established between Washington and Moscow

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/hotline-established-between-washington-and-moscow

On August 30, 1963, John F. Kennedy becomes the first U.S. president to have a direct phone line to the Kremlin in Moscow. The “hotline” was designed to facilitate communication between the president and Soviet premier.

The establishment of the hotline to the Kremlin came in the wake of the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, in which the U.S. and U.S.S.R had come dangerously close to all-out nuclear war. Kennedy’s administration had discovered that the Soviets had planted missiles capable of launching nuclear warheads into the U.S. on the island of Cuba. The highly tense diplomatic exchange that followed was plagued by delays caused by slow and tedious communication systems. Encrypted messages had to be relayed by telegraph or radioed between the Kremlin and the Pentagon. Although Kennedy and Khrushchev were able to resolve the crisis peacefully and had both signed a nuclear test-ban treaty on August 5, 1963, fears of future “misunderstandings” led to the installation of an improved communications system.

On August 30, the White House issued a statement that the new hotline would “help reduce the risk of war occurring by accident or miscalculation.” Instead of relying on telegrammed letters that had to travel overseas, the new technology was a momentous step toward the very near future when American and Soviet leaders could simply pick up the phone and be instantly connected 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It was agreed that the line would be used only in emergencies, not for more routine governmental exchanges.

An article in The New York Times described how the new system would work: Kennedy would relay a message to the Pentagon via phone, which would be immediately typed into a teletype machine by operators at the Pentagon, encrypted and fed into a transmitter. The message could reach the Kremlin within minutes, as opposed to hours. Although a far cry from the instantaneous communication made possible by today’s cell phones and email, the technology implemented in 1963 was considered revolutionary and much more reliable and less prone to interception than a regular trans-Atlantic phone call, which had to be bounced between several countries before it reached the Kremlin.

In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson became the first U.S. president to use the new system during the Six Day War in the Middle East when he notified then-Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin that he was considering sending Air Force planes into the Mediterranean.

Ho Chi Minh responds to Nixon letter

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/ho-chi-minh-responds-to-nixon-letter

Ho Chi Minh’s replies to President Nixon’s letter of July 15 is received in Paris. Ho accused the United States of a “war of aggression” against the Vietnamese people, “violating our fundamental national rights” and warned that “the longer the war goes on, the more it accumulates the mourning and burdens of the American people.” Ho said he favored the National Liberation Front’s 10-point plan as “a logical and reasonable basis for the settlement of the Vietnamese problem.” Ho demanded that the United States “cease the war of aggression,” withdraw its troops from Vietnam and allow self-determination for the Vietnamese people. 

President Nixon would not reveal that he had received this communication until his speech to the nation on November 3.

Thurgood Marshall confirmed as Supreme Court justice

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/thurgood-marshall-confirmed-as-supreme-court-justice

On August 30, 1967, Thurgood Marshall becomes the first African American to be confirmed as a Supreme Court justice. He would remain on the Supreme Court for 24 years before retiring for health reasons, leaving a legacy of upholding the rights of the individual as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

From a young age, Marshall seemed destined for a place in the American justice system. His parents instilled in him an appreciation for the Constitution, a feeling that was reinforced by his schoolteachers, who forced him to read the document as punishment for his misbehavior. After graduating from Lincoln University in 1930, Marshall sought admission to the University of Maryland School of Law, but was turned away because of the school’s segregation policy, which effectively forbade blacks from studying with whites. Instead, Marshall attended Howard University Law School, from which he graduated magna cum laude in 1933. (Marshall later successfully sued Maryland School of Law for their unfair admissions policy.)

Setting up a private practice in his home state of Maryland, Marshall quickly established a reputation as a lawyer for the “little man.” In a year’s time, he began working with the Baltimore NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and went on to become the organization’s chief counsel by the time he was 32, in 1940. Over the next two decades, Marshall distinguished himself as one of the country’s leading advocates for individual rights, winning 29 of the 32 cases he argued in front of the Supreme Court, all of which challenged in some way the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine that had been established by the landmark case Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). The high-water mark of Marshall’s career as a litigator came in 1954 with his victory in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. In that case, Marshall argued that the ‘separate but equal’ principle was unconstitutional, and designed to keep blacks “as near [slavery] as possible.”

READ MORE: Brown v. Board of Education: The First Step in the Desegregation of America’s Schools

In 1961, Marshall was appointed by then-President John F. Kennedy to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, a position he held until 1965, when Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, named him solicitor general. Following the retirement of Justice Tom Clark in 1967, President Johnson appointed Marshall to the Supreme Court, a decision confirmed by the Senate with a 69-11 vote. Over the next 24 years, Justice Marshall came out in favor of abortion rights and against the death penalty, as he continued his tireless commitment to ensuring equitable treatment of individuals—particularly minorities—by state and federal governments.

READ MORE: Black History Milestones

Women join British war effort

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/women-join-british-war-effort

On August 29, 1914, with World War I approaching the end of its first month, the Women’s Defense Relief Corps is formed in Britain.

Though women’s rights organizations in Britain had initially opposed the country’s entrance into the First World War, they reversed their position soon enough, recognizing the potential of the war effort to gain advancement for British women on the home front. As early as August 6, 1914, just one day after Britain declared war on Germany, an article published in the women’s suffrage newspaper Common Cause stated that: “In the midst of this time of terrible anxiety and grief, it is some little comfort to think that our large organization, which has been completely built up during past years to promote women’s suffrage, can be used to help our country through the period of strain and sorrow.”

In addition to the two nursing organizations that existed in 1914—the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) and the Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs)—several new women’s organizations sprung into being over the course of the war. Created with the support of the British secretary of state for war, Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener, the Women’s Defense Relief Corps came into being in late August 1914. The corps was made up of two divisions: a civil section, the goal of which was to substitute women for men in factories and other places of employment in order to free those men for military service; and a “semi-military” or “good citizen” section, where women were actively recruited for the armed forces. This latter group was trained in drilling, marching and the use of arms; its members were exhorted to protect not only themselves but their loved ones on the home front in case of possible invasion by the enemy.

Another organization founded during World War I was the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), created in July 1917. Members of the WAAC supported the war effort more directly, enlisting in the army to perform labors such as cookery, mechanical and clerical work and other miscellaneous tasks. For the first time, British women were sent to the battlefields of the Western Front to serve their country, thus freeing more male soldiers to do battle in the trenches against the German enemy. By the end of the war, some 80,000 women had served Britain as non-combatants, both on the home front and on the front lines in France and Belgium.