All posts by sleuthboss

Fire sweeps through Oakland hills

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/fire-sweeps-through-oakland-hills

On October 19, 1991, a fire begins in the hills of Oakland, California. It went on to burn thousands of homes and kill 25 people. Despite the fact that fires had ravaged the same area three times earlier in the century, people continued to build homes there.

Fires had previously raged through the hills in 1923, 1970 and 1980. Each time, the fires occurred during autumn in a year with relatively little precipitation, and, each time, the residents rebuilt and moved back in as soon as possible. The deadly 1991 fire can be traced to a small fire at 7151 Buckingham Boulevard on October 19. Firefighters responded quickly and thought they had brought the blaze under control. However, heat from the fire had caused pine needles to fall from the trees and cover the ground.

When highly flammable debris, also known as “duff,” accumulates on the ground, fires can smolder unseen. At 10:45 a.m. on October 19, strong winds blew one of these unseen fires up a hillside; changing wind patterns then caused it to spread in different directions.

The winds were so intense and the area was so dry that within an hour close to 800 buildings were on fire. The wind then blew southwest, pushing the fire toward San Francisco Bay. In some places, the temperature reached 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, making it virtually impossible to fight the fire effectively. Homeowners attempted to hose down their roofs, but were often thwarted when water pipes burst from the fire. Also, many homes had wooden shingle roofs that were particularly susceptible to fire—it took only 10 minutes in some cases for a house to be brought down by the flames.

Firefighting efforts were constrained by the fact that the affected homes were located on steep hills with very narrow streets. This made it difficult to maintain radio communications and to move large fire engines close to the flames. The fire spread so rapidly that firefighters were unable to establish a perimeter. When the fire was finally contained the following day, 25 people had lost their lives, 150 people were injured and 3,000 homes and 1,500 acres had been consumed. The total tally of damages was $1.5 billion.

In the aftermath, authorities attempted to reduce the likelihood of a similar fire breaking out the in the future. Laws were changed regarding the maximum height of trees permitted and the type of vegetation that was allowable in the area. In addition, most homes that have been rebuilt do not have wooden roofs.

READ MORE: California Wildfires Have Been Fought by Prisoners Since WWII

First Blockbuster store opens

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/first-blockbuster-store-opens

On October 19, 1985, the first Blockbuster video-rental store opens, in Dallas, Texas. At a time when most video stores were small-scale operations featuring a limited selection of titles, Blockbuster opened with some 8,000 tapes displayed on shelves around the store and a computerized check-out process. The first store was a success and Blockbuster expanded rapidly, eventually becoming one of the world’s largest providers of in-home movies and game entertainment, before eventually filing for bankruptcy in 2010.

Blockbuster was founded by David Cook, who had previously owned a business that provided computer software services to the oil and gas industry in Texas. Cook saw the potential in the video-rental business and after opening the first Blockbuster in 1985, he added three more stores the following year. In 1987, he sold part of the business to a group of investors that included Wayne Huizenga, founder of Waste Management, Inc., the world’s biggest garbage disposal company. Later that year, Cook left Blockbuster and Huizenga assumed control of the company and moved its headquarters to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Under Huizenga’s leadership, Blockbuster embarked on an aggressive expansion plan, snapping up existing video store chains and opening scores of new stores. By 1988, Blockbuster was America’s leading video chain, with some 400 stores. By the early 1990s, Blockbuster had launched its 1,000th store and expanded into the overseas market.

In 1994, Blockbuster was acquired by the media giant Viacom Inc., whose brands include MTV and Nickelodeon. In the mid-1990s, the digital video disc (DVD) made its debut and in 1997, Netflix, an online DVD rental service, was founded. Around that same time, the e-commerce giant Amazon.com launched a video and DVD store. Blockbuster faced additional competition from the rise of pay-per-view and on-demand movie services, through which viewers could pay for and watch movies instantly in their own homes. In 2004, Blockbuster split off from Viacom. That same year, Blockbuster launched an online DVD rental service to compete with Netflix. The venture was not successful. On September 23, 2010, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. By 2014, the last of the company-owned stores had closed. 

Stock markets crash on "Black Monday"

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/black-monday-stock-markets-crash-dow-drops

The largest-ever one-day percentage decline in the Dow Jones Industrial Average comes not in 1929 but on October 19, 1987. As a number of unrelated events conspired to tank global markets, the Dow dropped 508 points—22.6 percent—in a panic that foreshadowed larger systemic issues.

Confidence on Wall Street had grown throughout the 1980s as the economy pulled out of a slump and President Ronald Reagan implemented business-friendly policies. In October 1987, however, indicators began to suggest that the bull market of the last five years was coming to an end. The government reported a surprisingly large trade deficit, precipitating a decline in the U.S. Dollar. Congress revealed it was considering closing tax loopholes for corporate mergers, worrying investors who were used to loose regulation.

As these concerns grew, Iran attacked two oil tankers off of Kuwait and a freak storm paralyzed England, closing British markets early on the Friday before the crash. The following Monday, U.S. investors awoke to news of turmoil in Asian and European markets, and the Dow began to tumble.

Further compounding the crash was the practice of program trading, the programming of computers to automatically execute trades under certain conditions. Once the rush to sell began, matters were quite literally out of traders’ hands and machines escalated the damage to the market.

Despite looking like the beginning of another Great Depression—the L.A. Times’ headline read “Bedlam on Wall St.” while the New York Daily News’ simply read “PANIC!,” Black Monday has been largely forgotten by Americans not versed in financial history. As it would again in 2008, the federal government took a number of measures to “correct” the market, resulting in immediate gains over the next few weeks. By 1989, the market appeared to have made a full recovery. 

Some now interpret the events surrounding Black Monday as proof that boom-and-bust cycles are natural and healthy aspects of modern economics, while others believe it was a missed opportunity to examine and regulate the kind of risky behaviors that led to the crash of 2008.

READ MORE: The Warning Signs Investors Missed Before the 1929 Crash

R. Buckminster Fuller tries to patent his Dymaxion Car

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/r-buckminster-fuller-tries-to-patent-his-dymaxion-car

On October 18, 1933, the American philosopher-inventor R. Buckminster Fuller applies for a patent for his Dymaxion Car. The Dymaxion—the word itself was another Fuller invention, a combination of “dynamic,” “maximum,” and “ion”—looked and drove like no vehicle anyone had ever seen. It was a three-wheeled, 20-foot-long, pod-shaped automobile that could carry 11 passengers and travel as fast as 120 miles per hour. It got 30 miles to the gallon, could U-turn in a distance equal to its length and could parallel park just by pivoting its wheels toward the curb and zipping sideways into its parking space. It was stylish, efficient and eccentric and it attracted a great deal of attention: Celebrities wanted to ride in it and rich men wanted to invest in it. But in the same month that Fuller applied for his patent, one of his prototype Dymaxions crashed, killing the driver and alarming investors so much that they withdrew their money from the project.

When Fuller first sketched the Dymaxion Car in 1927, it was a half-car, half-airplane—when it got going fast enough, its wings were supposed to inflate—called the “4D Transport.” In 1932, the sculptor Isamu Naguchi helped the inventor with his final design: a long teardrop-shaped chassis with two wheels in front and a third in back that could lift off the ground. In practice, this didn’t turn out to be a great idea: As the vehicle picked up speed (theoretically in preparation for takeoff) and the third wheel bounced off the ground, it became nearly impossible for the driver to control the car. In fact, many people blamed this handling problem for the fatal crash of the prototype car, even though an investigation revealed that a car full of sightseers had actually caused the accident by hurtling into the Dymaxion’s lane.

Many elements of the Dymaxion Car’s design—its streamlined shape, its fuel efficiency—have inspired later generations of automakers, but Fuller himself was probably best known for another of his inventions: the geodesic dome. Geodesic domes are built using a pattern of self-bracing triangles. As a result, perhaps unlike the Dymaxion Car, they are incredibly strong and stable—in fact, as one historian writes, “they have proved to be the strongest structures ever devised.”

John Lennon and Yoko Ono arrested for drug possession

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/john-lennon-and-yoko-ono-arrested-for-drug-possession

John Lennon and Yoko Ono are arrested for drug possession at their home near Montagu Square in London, England. The arrests came at a tempestuous time for the couple. Only days earlier, an announcement was made that Ono was pregnant, creating a scandal because both Lennon and Ono were still married to other people. Her pregnancy ended in a miscarriage a few days after the arrest.

Detective Sergeant Norman Pilcher, the instigator behind the raid on Lennon and Ono, was an anti-drug zealot who would later arrest George Harrison and his wife on similar charges. While Lennon was frantically trying to get rid of the evidence, the police read a warrant through a bedroom window and then broke down the front door. Drug-sniffing dogs found 200 grams of hashish, a cigarette rolling machine with traces of marijuana, and half a gram of morphine. However, the couple denied that the drugs belonged to them.

When the matter finally approached trial, Lennon pleaded guilty because he was worried that Ono would be deported. He was fined £150 and warned that another offense would bring a year in jail.

"Roseanne" debuts

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/roseanne-debuts

On October 18, 1988, Roseanne, a television sitcom about a blue-collar American family starring the comedienne Roseanne Barr, premieres on ABC. The show was considered groundbreaking for its realistic portrayal of a working-class family and the issues they faced. Barr’s portrayal of the loud, abrasive, overweight Roseanne Conner was a sharp contrast to the stereotypical TV housewife in the mold of Leave It to Beaver’s June Cleaver and The Brady Bunch’s Carol Brady. The show was an instant ratings hit, airing for nine seasons, collecting numerous awards and turning Barr into a big star. It was rebooted for one season in 2018. 

Roseanne was set in the fictional town of Langford, Illinois, where the wisecracking Conner lives with her husband Dan (played by John Goodman), daughters Becky (alternately Lecy Goranson and Sarah Chalke) and Darlene (Sara Gilbert) and son D.J. (Michael Fishman). Roseanne’s younger sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) is also a prominent member of the family. The show featured a large cast of supporting characters, which over the years included a young George Clooney (as Roseanne’s boss Booker Brooks of Wellman Plastics), Estelle Parsons (as Roseanne and Jackie’s mother), Shelley Winters, Martin Mull and Sandra Bernhard, among others.

Roseanne Barr was born on November 3, 1952, and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. She began doing stand-up comedy at clubs in Denver and used her experiences as a wife and mother of three children as fodder for her routines. She became known for using the term “domestic goddess” to refer to a housewife. By the mid-1980s, Barr had risen to national fame, and in 1988 her self-titled TV show debuted on ABC.

During her years on TV, the outspoken Barr became a tabloid target, and her family, personal appearance and romantic relationships were all heavily scrutinized. Barr was married to her second husband, the actor Tom Arnold, from 1990 to 1994. From 1995 to 2002, she was married to Ben Thomas, who worked as her security guard. In June 1990, Barr stirred up controversy when she performed a screeching, off-key version of the “Star Spangled Banner” at a Major League baseball game in San Diego. After her song, she spit and grabbed her crotch in what she said was a humorous imitation of baseball players. She was heavily criticized for the incident, which was later parodied on multiple occasions, including by Barr herself.

The final original episode of Roseanne aired on May 20, 1997. Barr went on to host her own talk show, from 1998 to 2000. In 2018, Roseanne was brought back for an 8-episode revival, which took place 20 years after the events of the ninth season. It was renewed for an eleventh season, but after Barr issued a series of racist tweets, ABC reversed the decision and canceled Roseanne. 

Soul singer Al Green is attacked in his own bathtub

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/soul-singer-al-green-is-attacked-in-his-own-bathtub

There can be no question that anyone would have been shaken by the events that transpired in the Memphis, Tennessee, home of singer Al Green in the early morning hours of October 18, 1974, when an ex-girlfriend burst in on him in the bath and poured a pot of scalding-hot grits on his back before retreating to a bedroom and shooting herself dead with Green’s own gun. Not everyone, however, would have processed the meaning of the incident quite the way that Green did. Believing that he had strayed from the righteous musical and spiritual course intended for him, Al Green had become a born-again Christian one year earlier. But after the attack by Mary Woodson on this day in 1974, he began a process that would eventually lead him to renounce pop superstardom and all that it stood for.

Al Green, widely renowned as one of the greatest voices in soul-music history, was at the absolute height of his powers in 1974. He had seven critically and commercially successful major-label albums behind him that included such timeless hits as “Tired Of Being Alone” (1971), “Let’s Stay Together” (1971) and “I’m Still In Love With You” (1972). He also, in the words of Davin Seay, who collaborated with Green on his 2000 autobiography, Take Me To The River, had a “basic animal appeal to women” that attracted many admirers, including Mary Woodson.

Mary Woodson first made Green’s acquaintance after leaving her husband and children behind in New Jersey and attending one of his concerts in upstate New York. On the night of the attack, Woodson had shown up unexpectedly at Green’s Memphis home after he returned from a concert appearance in San Francisco. What exactly prompted her to act is unclear, but her actions not only left Al Green with severe burns that would require months of hospitalization, they also left him severely shaken emotionally and spiritually. “He likes to distance the facts of his [religious] conversion from the terrible events of that night,” says Seay, “but I think the Woodson incident kind of crystallized his need to move on, to sort of shut down one part of his life and open up another.”

Reggie Jackson—aka “Mr. October”—hits three homers in three swings

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/mr-october-hits-three-homers-in-three-swings

On October 18, 1977, in the sixth game of the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees outfielder Reggie Jackson hits three home runs in a row off of three consecutive pitches from three different pitchers. Only the great Babe Ruth had ever hit three homers in a single World Series game (and he did it twice, once in 1926 and once in 1928) —but he didn’t do it on consecutive pitches or even consecutive at-bats. Jackson’s amazing home-run streak helped the Yankees win the game and the series, the team’s first since 1962.

During his pre-game batting practice, Jackson was unstoppable: He stepped to the plate and immediately knocked three pitches high into Yankee Stadium’s third-tier seats. Then he smacked the next one hard into the rear wall of the right-field bleachers. Jackson kept on pounding homers into the stands—so many that that backup catcher Fran Healy was reminded of the old baseball adage that the better you hit in batting practice, the worse you hit when it counts. As a result, Healy later recalled, “I thought to myself, ‘Boy, is he gonna have a horseshit game.’”

But he didn’t. In the second inning, Dodger pitcher Burt Hooten managed to palm Jackson off with a walk, but on his next at-bat, in the fourth, the slugger nailed Hooten’s first pitch low and hard into the right-field bleachers–“a line drive,” Los Angeles Times reporter Jim Murray wrote, “that would have crossed state lines and gone through the side of a battleship on its way to the seats.” In the fifth, with two out and two on, Jackson treated reliever Elias Sosa’s first pitch the same way. And in the eighth, he emerged from the dugout to a standing ovation, reached down for pitcher Charlie Hough’s diving knuckleball, and sent it flying 450 feet into the center-field bleachers. It was, Murray wrote, a “booming Jack Nicklaus-type tee shot, high and far, the kind that pitchers wake up screaming in the middle of the night over.”

That last homer put the Yanks in the lead 8-3, and—in spite of the ubiquitous security guards and policemen in riot gear who lined the first- and third-base lines—the stadium was about to explode. It got so bad that Jackson had to come in from the outfield during the last inning and get a batting helmet to protect his head from the cherry bombs and firecrackers that the bleacher creatures were throwing onto the field. When the game ended, the field flooded with fans. They had a new hero: Reggie Jackson, now known as “Mr. October.”

In his 21-year career, Jackson hit 563 home runs and retired as the all-time leader in Series slugging, with a .755 average. And no one ever achieved what he did in 1977: three home runs in three swings, and five homers in all in the series. Still, Jackson was uncharacteristically modest. “Babe Ruth was great,” he said. “I’m just lucky.”

U.S. takes possession of Alaska

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/u-s-takes-possession-of-alaska

The U.S. formally takes possession of Alaska after purchasing the territory from Russia for $7.2 million. The Alaska purchase was championed by William Henry Seward, the secretary of state under President Andrew Johnson.

On October 18, 1867, the U.S. formally takes possession of Alaska after purchasing the territory from Russia for $7.2 million, or less than two cents an acre. The Alaska purchase comprised 586,412 square miles, about twice the size of Texas, and was championed by William Henry Seward, the enthusiastically expansionist secretary of state under President Andrew Johnson.

Russia wanted to sell its Alaska territory, which was remote, sparsely populated and difficult to defend, to the U.S. rather than risk losing it in battle with a rival such as Great Britain. Negotiations between Seward (1801-1872) and the Russian minister to the U.S., Eduard de Stoeckl, began in March 1867. However, the American public believed the land to be barren and worthless and dubbed the purchase “Seward’s Folly” and “Andrew Johnson’s Polar Bear Garden,” among other derogatory names. Some animosity toward the project may have been a byproduct of President Johnson’s own unpopularity. As the 17th U.S. president, Johnson battled with Radical Republicans in Congress over Reconstruction policies following the Civil War. He was impeached in 1868 and later acquitted by a single vote. Nevertheless, Congress eventually ratified the Alaska deal. 

Public opinion of the purchase turned more favorable when gold was discovered in a tributary of Alaska’s Klondike River in 1896, sparking a gold rush. Alaska became the 49th state on January 3, 1959, and is now recognized for its vast natural resources. Today, 25 percent of America’s oil and over 50 percent of its seafood come from Alaska. It is also the largest state in area, about one-fifth the size of the lower 48 states combined, though it remains sparsely populated. The name Alaska is derived from the Aleut word alyeska, which means “great land.” Alaska has two official state holidays to commemorate its origins: Seward’s Day, observed the last Monday in March, celebrates the March 30, 1867, signing of the land treaty between the U.S. and Russia, and Alaska Day, observed every October 18, marks the anniversary of the formal land transfer.

READ MORE: Why the Purchase of Alaska Was Far From “Folly”

Ferdinand of Aragon marries Isabella of Castile

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/ferdinand-and-isabella-marry

Ferdinand of Aragon marries Isabella of Castile in Valladolid, thus beginning a cooperative reign that would unite all the dominions of Spain and elevate the nation to a dominant world power. Ferdinand and Isabella incorporated a number of independent Spanish dominions into their kingdom and in 1478 introduced the Spanish Inquisition, a powerful and brutal force of homogenization in Spanish society. In 1492, the reconquest of Granada from the Moors was completed, and the crown ordered all Spanish Jews to convert to Christianity or face expulsion from Spain. Four years later, Spanish Muslims were handed a similar order.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus, an Italian explorer sponsored by Isabella and Ferdinand, discovered the New World for Europe and claimed the rich, unspoiled territory for Spain. Ferdinand and Isabella’s subsequent decision to encourage vigorous colonial activity in the Americas led to a period of great prosperity and imperial supremacy for Spain.