All posts by sleuthboss

Heaven’s Gate cult members found dead

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/heavens-gate-cult-members-found-dead

Following an anonymous tip, police enter a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, an exclusive suburb of San Diego, California, and discover 39 victims of a mass suicide. The deceased–21 women and 18 men of varying ages–were all found lying peaceably in matching dark clothes and Nike sneakers and had no noticeable signs of blood or trauma. It was later revealed that the men and women were members of the “Heaven’s Gate” religious cult, whose leaders preached that suicide would allow them to leave their bodily “containers” and enter an alien spacecraft hidden behind the Hale-Bopp comet.

The cult was led by Marshall Applewhite, a music professor who, after surviving a near-death experience in 1972, was recruited into the cult by one of his nurses, Bonnie Lu Nettles. In 1975, Applewhite and Nettles persuaded a group of 20 people from Oregon to abandon their families and possessions and move to eastern Colorado, where they promised that an extraterrestrial spacecraft would take them to the “kingdom of heaven.” Nettles, who called herself “Ti,” and Applewhite, who took the name of “Do,” explained that human bodies were merely containers that could be abandoned in favor of a higher physical existence. As the spacecraft never arrived, membership in Heaven’s Gate diminished, and in 1985 Bonnie Lu Nettles, Applewhite’s “sexless partner,” died.

During the early 1990s, the cult resurfaced as Applewhite began recruiting new members. Soon after the 1995 discovery of the comet Hale-Bopp, the Heaven’s Gate members became convinced that an alien spacecraft was on its way to earth, hidden from human detection behind the comet. In October 1996, Applewhite rented a large home in Rancho Santa Fe, explaining to the owner that his group was made up of Christian-based angels. Applewhite advocated sexual abstinence, and several male cult members followed his example by undergoing castration operations.

In 1997, as part of its 4,000-year orbit of the sun, the comet Hale-Bopp passed near Earth in one of the most impressive astronomical events of the 20th century. In late March 1997, as Hale-Bopp reached its closest distance to Earth, Applewhite and 38 of his followers drank a lethal mixture of phenobarbital and vodka and then lay down to die, hoping to leave their bodily containers, enter the alien spacecraft, and pass through Heaven’s Gate into a higher existence.

Salk announces polio vaccine

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/salk-announces-polio-vaccine

On March 26, 1953, American medical researcher Dr. Jonas Salk announces on a national radio show that he has successfully tested a vaccine against poliomyelitis, the virus that causes the crippling disease of polio. In 1952–an epidemic year for polio–there were 58,000 new cases reported in the United States, and more than 3,000 died from the disease. For promising eventually to eradicate the disease, which is known as “infant paralysis” because it mainly affects children, Dr. Salk was celebrated as the great doctor-benefactor of his time.

Polio, a disease that has affected humanity throughout recorded history, attacks the nervous system and can cause varying degrees of paralysis. Since the virus is easily transmitted, epidemics were commonplace in the first decades of the 20th century. The first major polio epidemic in the United States occurred in Vermont in the summer of 1894, and by the 20th century thousands were affected every year. In the first decades of the 20th century, treatments were limited to quarantines and the infamous “iron lung,” a metal coffin-like contraption that aided respiration. Although children, and especially infants, were among the worst affected, adults were also often afflicted, including future president Franklin D. Roosevelt, who in 1921 was stricken with polio at the age of 39 and was left partially paralyzed. Roosevelt later transformed his estate in Warm Springs, Georgia, into a recovery retreat for polio victims and was instrumental in raising funds for polio-related research and the treatment of polio patients.

Salk, born in New York City in 1914, first conducted research on viruses in the 1930s when he was a medical student at New York University, and during World War II helped develop flu vaccines. In 1947, he became head of a research laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh and in 1948 was awarded a grant to study the polio virus and develop a possible vaccine. By 1950, he had an early version of his polio vaccine.

Salk’s procedure, first attempted unsuccessfully by American Maurice Brodie in the 1930s, was to kill several strains of the virus and then inject the benign viruses into a healthy person’s bloodstream. The person’s immune system would then create antibodies designed to resist future exposure to poliomyelitis. Salk conducted the first human trials on former polio patients and on himself and his family, and by 1953 was ready to announce his findings. This occurred on the CBS national radio network on the evening of March 25 and two days later in an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Dr. Salk became an immediate celebrity.

In 1954, clinical trials using the Salk vaccine and a placebo began on nearly two million American schoolchildren. In April 1955, it was announced that the vaccine was effective and safe, and a nationwide inoculation campaign began. Shortly thereafter, tragedy struck in the Western and mid-Western United States, when more than 200,000 people were injected with a defective vaccine manufactured at Cutter Laboratories of Berkeley, California. Thousands of polio cases were reported, 200 children were left paralyzed and 10 died.

The incident delayed production of the vaccine, but new polio cases dropped to under 6,000 in 1957, the first year after the vaccine was widely available. In 1962, an oral vaccine developed by Polish-American researcher Albert Sabin became available, greatly facilitating distribution of the polio vaccine. Today, there are just a handful of polio cases in the United States every year, and most of these are “imported” by Americans from developing nations where polio is still a problem. Among other honors, Jonas Salk was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977. He died in La Jolla, California, in 1995.

Black music gets whitewashed, as Georgia Gibbs hits the pop charts with “The Wallflower (Dance With Me, Henry)”

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/black-music-gets-whitewashed-as-georgia-gibbs-hits-the-pop-charts-with-the-wallflower-dance-with-me-henry

For its time, the mid-1950s, the lyrical phrase “You got to roll with me, Henry” was considered risqué just as the very label “rock and roll” was understood to have a sexual connotation. The line comes from an Etta James record originally called “Roll With Me Henry” and later renamed “The Wallflower.” Already a smash hit on the Billboard Rhythm and Blues chart, it went on to become a pop hit in the spring of 1955, but not for Etta James. Re-recorded with “toned-down” lyrics by the white pop singer Georgia Gibbs, “Dance With Me Henry (Wallflower)” entered the pop charts on March 26, 1955, setting off a dubious trend known as “whitewashing.”

In addition to replacing “Roll” with “Dance,” the lyrics of the Georgia Gibbs version omitted lines like “If you want romancin‘/You better learn some dancin,’” but its most important change was more subtle. Even in an era when radio audiences rarely saw the faces of the singers they listened to, the rhythmic and vocal style of the Georgia Gibbs record made it as obviously white as the Etta James record was black. And while many Americans might have preferred the Etta James version to the Georgia Gibbs cover had they heard the two in succession, they would rarely have the opportunity to do so. Pop radio was almost exclusively white radio in 1955 America, and middle-of-the-road artists like Nat “King” Cole and the Ink Spots were rare exceptions to this rule.

Last U.S. troops depart Somalia

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/last-u-s-troops-depart-somalia

At the end of a largely unsuccessful 15-month mission, the last U.S. troops depart Somalia, leaving 20,000 U.N. troops behind to keep the peace and facilitate “nation building” in the divided country.

In 1992, civil war, clan-based fighting, and the worst African drought of the century created famine conditions that threatened one-fourth of Somalia’s population with starvation. In August 1992, the United Nations began a peacekeeping mission to the country to ensure the distribution of food and medical aid. On December 4, with deteriorating security and U.N. troops unable to control Somalia’s warring factions, U.S. President George Bush ordered 25,000 U.S. troops into Somalia. Although he promised the troops involved that the humanitarian mission was not an open-ended commitment, “Operation Restore Hope” remained unresolved when Bill Clinton took over the presidency in January 1993.

Like his predecessor, Clinton was anxious to bring the Americans home, and in May the mission was formally handed back to the United Nations. By June, only 4,200 U.S. troops remained. However, on June 5, 24 Pakistani U.N. peacekeepers inspecting a weapons storage site were ambushed and massacred by soldiers under Somali warlord General Mohammed Aidid. U.S. and U.N. forces subsequently began an extensive search for the elusive strongman, and in August, 400 elite U.S. troops from Delta Force and the U.S. Rangers arrived on a mission to capture Aidid. Two months later, on October 3-4, 18 of these soldiers were killed and 84 wounded during a disastrous assault on Mogadishu’s Olympia Hotel in search of Aidid. The bloody battle, which lasted 17 hours, was the most violent U.S. combat firefight since Vietnam.

Three days later, with Aidid still at large, President Clinton cut his losses and ordered a total U.S. withdrawal. On March 25, 1994, the last U.S. troops left Somalia.

Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Kills 146 in New York City

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/triangle-shirtwaist-fire-in-new-york-city

In one of the darkest moments of America’s industrial history, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory in New York City burns down, killing 146 workers, on this day in 1911. The tragedy led to the development of a series of laws and regulations that better protected the safety of factory workers.

The Triangle factory, owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, was located in the top three floors of the 10-story Asch Building in downtown Manhattan. It was a sweatshop in every sense of the word: a cramped space lined with work stations and packed with poor immigrant workers, mostly teenaged women who did not speak English. At the time of the fire, there were four elevators with access to the factory floors, but only one was fully operational and it could hold only 12 people at a time. There were two stairways down to the street, but one was locked from the outside to prevent theft by the workers and the other opened inward only. The fire escape, as all would come to see, was shoddily constructed, and could not support the weight of more than a few women at a time.

Blanck and Harris already had a suspicious history of factory fires. The Triangle factory was twice scorched in 1902, while their Diamond Waist Company factory burned twice, in 1907 and in 1910. It seems that Blanck and Harris deliberately torched their workplaces before business hours in order to collect on the large fire-insurance policies they purchased, a not uncommon practice in the early 20th century. While this was not the cause of the 1911 fire, it contributed to the tragedy, as Blanck and Harris refused to install sprinkler systems and take other safety measures in case they needed to burn down their shops again.

Added to this delinquency were Blanck and Harris’ notorious anti-worker policies. Their employees were paid a mere $15 a week, despite working 12 hours a day, every day. When the International Ladies Garment Workers Union led a strike in 1909 demanding higher pay and shorter and more predictable hours, Blanck and Harris’ company was one of the few manufacturers who resisted, hiring police as thugs to imprison the striking women, and paying off politicians to look the other way.

On March 25, a Saturday afternoon, there were 600 workers at the factory when a fire broke out in a rag bin on the eighth floor. The manager turned the fire hose on it, but the hose was rotted and its valve was rusted shut. Panic ensued as the workers fled to every exit. The elevator broke down after only four trips, and women began jumping down the shaft to their deaths. Those who fled down the wrong set of stairs were trapped inside and burned alive. Other women trapped on the eighth floor began jumping out the windows, which created a problem for the firefighters whose hoses were crushed by falling bodies. Also, the firefighters’ ladders stretched only as high as the seventh floor, and their safety nets were not strong enough to catch the women, who were jumping three at a time.

Blanck and Harris were on the building’s top floor with some workers when the fire broke out. They were able to escape by climbing onto the roof and hopping to an adjoining building.

The fire was out within half an hour, but not before over 140 deaths. The workers’ union organized a march on April 5 to protest the conditions that led to the fire; it was attended by 80,000 people.

Though Blanck and Harris were put on trial for manslaughter, they managed to get off scot-free. Still, the massacre for which they were responsible did finally compel the city to enact reform. In addition to the Sullivan-Hoey Fire Prevention Law passed that October, the New York Democratic set took up the cause of the worker and became known as a reform party.

Fire kills 146 at Triangle Shirtwaist factory

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/fire-kills-145-at-triangle-shirtwaist-factory

In one of the most infamous incidents in America’s industrial history, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory in New York City burns down on this day in 1911, killing 146 workers. The tragedy led to the development of a series of laws and regulations that better protected the safety of factory workers.

The Triangle factory, owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, was located in the top three floors of the Asch Building, on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, in Manhattan. It was a true sweatshop, employing young immigrant women who worked in a cramped space at lines of sewing machines. Nearly all the workers were teenaged girls who did not speak English and made only about $15 per week working 12 hours a day, every day. In 1911, there were four elevators with access to the factory floors, but only one was fully operational and the workers had to file down a long, narrow corridor in order to reach it. There were two stairways down to the street, but one was locked from the outside to prevent stealing and the other only opened inward. The fire escape was so narrow that it would have taken hours for all the workers to use it, even in the best of circumstances.

The danger of fire in factories like the Triangle Shirtwaist was well-known, but high levels of corruption in both the garment industry and city government generally ensured that no useful precautions were taken to prevent fires. The Triangle Shirtwaist factory’s owners were known to be particularly anti-worker in their policies and had played a critical role in breaking a large strike by workers the previous year.

On March 25, a Saturday afternoon, there were 600 workers at the factory when a fire began in a rag bin. The manager attempted to use the fire hose to extinguish it, but was unsuccessful, as the hose was rotted and its valve was rusted shut. As the fire grew, panic ensued. The young workers tried to exit the building by the elevator but it could hold only 12 people and the operator was able to make just four trips back and forth before it broke down amid the heat and flames. In a desperate attempt to escape the fire, the girls left behind waiting for the elevator plunged down the shaft to their deaths. The girls who fled via the stairwells also met awful demises—when they found a locked door at the bottom of the stairs, many were burned alive.

Those workers who were on floors above the fire, including the owners, escaped to the roof and then to adjoining buildings. As firefighters arrived, they witnessed a horrible scene. The girls who did not make it to the stairwells or the elevator were trapped by the fire inside the factory and began to jump from the windows to escape it. The bodies of the jumpers fell on the fire hoses, making it difficult to begin fighting the fire. Also, the firefighters’ ladders reached only seven floors high and the fire was on the eighth floor. In one case, a life net was unfurled to catch jumpers, but three girls jumped at the same time, ripping the net. The nets turned out to be mostly ineffectual.

Within 18 minutes, it was all over. Forty-nine workers had burned to death or been suffocated by smoke, 36 were dead in the elevator shaft and 58 died from jumping to the sidewalks. A total of 146 people were killed by the fire. The workers’ union set up a march on April 5 on New York’s Fifth Avenue to protest the conditions that had led to the fire; it was attended by 80,000 people.

Despite a good deal of evidence that the owners and management had been horribly negligent in the fire, a grand jury failed to indict them on manslaughter charges. The tragedy did result in some good, though—the International Ladies Garment Workers Union was formed in the aftermath of the fire and the Sullivan-Hoey Fire Prevention Law was passed in New York that October. Both were crucial in preventing similar disasters in the future.

Exactly 79 years to the day after the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, another tragic fire occurred in New York City. The blaze, at the Happy Land Social Club in the Bronx, killed 87 people, the most deadly fire in the city since 1911.

North Vietnamese launch “Ho Chi Minh Campaign”

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/north-vietnamese-launch-ho-chi-minh-campaign

The North Vietnamese “Ho Chi Minh Campaign” begins. Despite the 1973 Paris Peace Accords cease fire, the fighting had continued between South Vietnamese forces and the North Vietnamese troops in South Vietnam. In December 1974, the North Vietnamese launched a major attack against the lightly defended province of Phuoc Long, located north of Saigon along the Cambodian border. They successfully overran the provincial capital at Phuoc Binh on January 6, 1975.

President Richard Nixon had repeatedly promised South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu that the United States would come to the aid of South Vietnam if the North Vietnamese committed a major violation of the Peace Accords. However, by the time the communists had taken Phuoc Long, Nixon had resigned from office and his successor, Gerald Ford, was unable to convince a hostile Congress to make good on Nixon’s promises to Saigon.

The North Vietnamese, emboldened by the situation, launched Campaign 275 in March 1975 to take the provincial capital of Ban Me Thuot in the Central Highlands. The South Vietnamese defenders fought very poorly and were quickly overwhelmed by the North Vietnamese attackers. Once again, the United States did nothing. President Thieu, however, ordered his forces in the Highlands to withdraw to more defensible positions to the south. What started out as a reasonably orderly withdrawal degenerated into a panic that spread throughout the South Vietnamese armed forces. They abandoned Pleiku and Kontum in the Highlands with very little fighting and the North Vietnamese pressed the attack from the west and north. In quick succession, Quang Tri, Hue, and Da Nang in the north fell to the communist onslaught. The North Vietnamese continued to attack south along the coast, defeating the South Vietnamese forces one at a time.

As the North Vietnamese forces closed on the approaches to Saigon, the Politburo in Hanoi issued an order to Gen. Van Tien Dung to launch the “Ho Chi Minh Campaign,” the final assault on Saigon itself. By April 27, the North Vietnamese had completely encircled Saigon and by April 30, the North Vietnamese tanks broke through the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon and the Vietnam War came to an end.

German forces cross the Somme River

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/german-forces-cross-the-somme-river

On March 24, 1918, German forces cross the Somme River, achieving their first goal of the major spring offensive begun three days earlier on the Western Front.

Operation Michael, engineered by the German chief of the general staff, Erich von Ludendorff, aimed to decisively break through the Allied lines on the Western Front and destroy the British and French forces. The offensive began on the morning of March 21, 1918, with an aggressive bombardment.

The brunt of the attack that followed was directed at the British 5th Army, commanded by General Sir Hubert Gough, stationed along the Somme River in northwestern France. This section was the most poorly defended of any spot on the British lines, due to the fact that it had been held by the French until only a few weeks before and its defensive positions were not yet fully fortified. Panic spread up and down the British lines of command, intensified by communications failures between Gough and his subordinates in the field, and German gains increased over the subsequent days of battle. On March 23, Crown Prince Rupprecht, on the German side of the line, remarked that The progress of our offensive is so quick, that one cannot follow it with a pen.

The next day, German troops stormed across the Somme, having previously captured its bridges before French troops could destroy them. Despite having resolved to concentrate on weaker points of the enemy lines, Ludendorff continued to throw his armies against the crucial villages of Amiens (a railway junction) and Arras—which the British and French were instructed to hold at all costs—hoping to break through and push on towards Paris. By that time, German troops were exhausted, and transportation and supply lines had begun to break down in the cold and bad weather. Meanwhile, Allied forces had recovered from the initial disadvantage and had begun to gain the upper hand, halting the Germans at Moreuil Wood on March 30.

On April 5, Ludendorff called off Operation Michael. It had yielded nearly 40 miles of territory, the greatest gains for either side on the Western Front since 1914. He would launch four more offensive pushes over the course of the spring and summer, throwing all of the German army’s resources into this last, desperate attempt to win the war.

Exxon Valdez crashes, causing one of the worst oil spills in history

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/exxon-valdez-runs-aground

One of the worst oil spills in U.S. territory begins when the supertanker Exxon Valdez, owned and operated by the Exxon Corporation, runs aground on a reef in Prince William Sound in southern Alaska. An estimated 11 million gallons of oil eventually spilled into the water. Attempts to contain the massive spill were unsuccessful, and wind and currents spread the oil more than 100 miles from its source, eventually polluting more than 700 miles of coastline. Hundreds of thousands of birds and animals were adversely affected by the environmental disaster.

It was later revealed that Joseph Hazelwood, the captain of the Valdez, was drinking at the time of the accident and allowed an uncertified officer to steer the massive vessel. In March 1990, Hazelwood was convicted of misdemeanor negligence, fined $50,000, and ordered to perform 1,000 hours of community service. In July 1992, an Alaska court overturned Hazelwood’s conviction, citing a federal statute that grants freedom from prosecution to those who report an oil spill.

Exxon itself was condemned by the National Transportation Safety Board and in early 1991 agreed under pressure from environmental groups to pay a penalty of $100 million and provide $1 billion over a 10-year period for the cost of the cleanup. However, later in the year, both Alaska and Exxon rejected the agreement, and in October 1991 the oil giant settled the matter by paying $25 million, less than 4 percent of the cleanup aid promised by Exxon earlier that year.

Queen Elizabeth I dies

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/queen-elizabeth-i-dies

After 44 years of rule, Queen Elizabeth I of England dies, and King James VI of Scotland ascends to the throne, uniting England and Scotland under a single British monarch.

The daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth succeeded to the throne in 1559 upon the death of her half-sister Queen Mary. The two half-sisters, both daughters of Henry VIII, had a stormy relationship during Mary’s five-year reign. Mary, who was brought up as a Catholic, enacted pro-Catholic legislation and made efforts to restore the pope to supremacy in England. A Protestant rebellion ensued, and Queen Mary imprisoned Elizabeth, a Protestant, in the Tower of London on suspicion of complicity. After Mary’s death, Elizabeth survived several Catholic plots against her; although her ascension was greeted with approval by most of England’s lords, who were largely Protestant and hoped for greater religious tolerance under a Protestant queen. Under the early guidance of Secretary of State Sir William Cecil, Elizabeth repealed Mary’s pro-Catholic legislation, established a permanent Protestant Church of England, and encouraged the Calvinist reformers in Scotland.

In foreign affairs, Elizabeth practiced a policy of strengthening England’s Protestant allies and dividing her foes. Elizabeth was opposed by the pope, who refused to recognize her legitimacy, and by Spain, a Catholic nation that was at the height of its power. In 1588, English-Spanish rivalry led to an abortive Spanish invasion of England in which the Spanish Armada, the greatest naval force in the world at the time, was destroyed by storms and a determined English navy.

With increasing English domination at sea, Elizabeth encouraged voyages of discovery, such as Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the world and Sir Walter Raleigh’s expeditions to the North American coast.

The long reign of Elizabeth, who became known as the “Virgin Queen” for her reluctance to endanger her authority through marriage, coincided with the flowering of the English Renaissance, associated with such renowned authors as William Shakespeare. By her death in 1603, England had become a major world power in every respect, and Queen Elizabeth I passed into history as one of England’s greatest monarchs.