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Sitcom actress murdered; death prompts anti-stalking legislation

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/sitcom-actress-murdered-death-prompts-anti-stalking-legislation

On this day in 1989, the 21-year-old actress Rebecca Schaeffer is murdered at her Los Angeles home by Robert John Bardo, a mentally unstable man who had been stalking her. Schaeffer’s death helped lead to the passage in California of legislation aimed at preventing stalking.

Schaeffer was born November 6, 1967, in Eugene, Oregon. She worked as a teenage model and had a short stint on the daytime soap opera One Life to Live, but was best known for co-starring with Pam Dawber in the television sitcom My Sister Sam. Bardo, born in 1970, had written Schaeffer letters and unsuccessfully tried to gain access to the set of My Sister Sam, before showing up at her apartment on July 18, 1989. The obsessed fan had reportedly obtained the actress’s home address through a detective agency, which located it through records at the California Department of Motor Vehicles. On the day of the murder, Schaeffer reportedly complied with Bardo’s request for an autograph when he appeared at her home and then asked him to leave. He returned a short time later and the actress, who reportedly was waiting for someone to deliver a script, answered the door again. Bardo then shot and killed her.

Arrested the next day in Tucson, Arizona, Bardo was later prosecuted by the Los Angeles County district attorney Marcia Clark, who later became famous as a prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson trial. In 1991, Bardo was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In 1994, California passed the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, which prevented the Department of Motor Vehicles from releasing private addresses.

The 2002 film Moonlight Mile, loosely inspired by Schaeffer’s story, was written and directed by Brad Silberling, who had been dating the young actress at the time of her death.

Barack Obama’s “Dreams from My Father” is published

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/barack-obamas-dreams-from-my-father-is-published

On this day in 1995, “Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance,” a memoir by a little-known law professor named Barack Obama, is published. Obama wrote the book before entering politics; 13 years after it was published, he was elected America’s 44th president.

“Dreams from My Father” tells the story of Obama’s family—he was born in Hawaii in 1961 to a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya. The book is also, as Obama writes in the introduction, “a boy’s search for his father, and through that a search for a workable meaning for his life as a black American.” Obama describes his adolescence in Hawaii, where he was raised by his white grandparents; his post-college years as a community organizer in Chicago; and a visit he made to Kenya as a young man to meet his African relatives following the 1982 death of his father, who he had seen only once after his parent’s divorce when he was 2.

After being elected the first black president of the influential Harvard Law Review in 1990 while in his second year of law school, Obama was contacted by a literary agent who eventually got him a reported $40,000 advance to write what became “Dreams from My Father.” When the book was published in 1995, Obama was a law professor at the University of Chicago and had not yet stepped into the national spotlight. The book received favorable reviews; however, it sold a modest 8,000 to 9,000 hardcover copies and went out of print within several years.

The year after the book’s publication, Obama was elected to the Illinois State Senate, his first foray into politics. In March 2004, he shot to national prominence by winning the U.S. Senate Democratic primary in Illinois. The publicity generated by his victory prompted a publisher to reissue “Dreams from My Father” in the summer of 2004. Boosted by his well-received keynote address at the Democratic National Convention that July, and his landslide election to the U.S. Senate in November of the same year, “Dreams of My Father” became a best-seller. Reviewers praised the book for its eloquence and candor.

In October 2006, Obama, then a U.S. senator, published his second book, “The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming America.” Like his first book, “The Audacity of Hope” became a best-seller, and Obama drew crowds at book signings as speculation mounted over whether he would seek the presidency. In February 2007, Obama announced he would run for the White House. When asked about “Dreams from My Father” while on the campaign trail in 2008, he told The New York Times “he was not even thinking about political consequences when he wrote the memoir. In fact, he said, one editor warned him back then that his references to drug use could come back to haunt him—if he were ever nominated for the Supreme Court.”

Three-point seatbelt inventor Nils Bohlin born

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/three-point-seatbelt-inventor-nils-bohlin-born

Nils Bohlin, the Swedish engineer and inventor responsible for the three-point lap and shoulder seatbelt–considered one of the most important innovations in automobile safety–is born on July 17, 1920 in Härnösand, Sweden.

Before 1959, only two-point lap belts were available in automobiles; for the most part, the only people who regularly buckled up were race car drivers. The two-point belts strapped across the body, with a buckle placed over the abdomen, and in high-speed crashes had been known to cause serious internal injuries. In 1958, Volvo Car Corporation hired Bohlin, who had designed ejector seats for Saab fighter airplanes in the 1950s, to be the company’s first chief safety engineer. (A relative of Volvo CEO Gunnar Engelau had died in a car crash, which helped motivate the company to increase its safety measures.) Bohlin had worked with the more elaborate four-point harnesses in airplanes, and knew that system would be untenable in an automobile. In designing the new seat belt, he concentrated on providing a more effective method of protecting driver and passenger against the impact of the swift deceleration that occurred when a car crashed.

Within a year, Bohlin had developed the three-point seat belt, introduced in Volvo cars in 1959. The new belts secured both the upper and lower body; its straps joined at hip level and buckled into what Bohlin called “an immovable anchorage point” below the hip, so that they could hold the body safely in the event of a crash. According to Bohlin (as quoted by The New York Times in his 2002 obituary): “It was just a matter of finding a solution that was simple, effective and could be put on conveniently with one hand.”

In the interests of safety, Volvo made the new seat belt design available to other car manufacturers for free; it was required on all new American vehicles from 1968 onward. Since 1959, engineers have worked to enhance the three-point belt, but the basic design remains Bohlin’s. At the time of Bohlin’s death in September 2002, Volvo estimated that the seat belt had saved more than one million lives in the four decades since it was introduced. In the United States alone, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, seat belts save more than 11,000 lives each year.

Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan crosses the Atlantic

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/wrong-way-corrigan-crosses-the-atlantic

Douglas Corrigan, the last of the early glory-seeking fliers, takes off from Floyd Bennett field in Brooklyn, New York, on a flight that would finally win him a place in aviation history.

Eleven years earlier, American Charles A. Lindbergh had become an international celebrity with his solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic. Corrigan was among the mechanics who had worked on Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis aircraft, but that mere footnote in the history of flight was not enough for the Texas-born aviator. In 1938, he bought a 1929 Curtiss Robin aircraft off a trash heap, rebuilt it, and modified it for long-distance flight. In July 1938, Corrigan piloted the single-engine plane nonstop from California to New York. Although the transcontinental flight was far from unprecedented, Corrigan received national attention simply because the press was amazed that his rattletrap aircraft had survived the journey.

Almost immediately after arriving in New York, he filed plans for a transatlantic flight, but aviation authorities deemed it a suicide flight, and he was promptly denied. Instead, they would allow Corrigan to fly back to the West Coast, and on July 17 he took off from Floyd Bennett field, ostentatiously pointed west. However, a few minutes later, he made a 180-degree turn and vanished into a cloudbank to the puzzlement of a few onlookers.

Twenty-eight hours later, Corrigan landed his plane in Dublin, Ireland, stepped out of his plane, and exclaimed, “Just got in from New York. Where am I?” He claimed that he lost his direction in the clouds and that his compass had malfunctioned. The authorities didn’t buy the story and suspended his license, but Corrigan stuck to it to the amusement of the public on both sides of the Atlantic. By the time “Wrong Way” Corrigan and his crated plane returned to New York by ship, his license suspension had been lifted, he was a national celebrity, and a mob of autograph seekers met him on the gangway.

Superpowers meet in space

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/superpowers-meet-in-space

As part of a mission aimed at developing space rescue capability, the U.S. spacecraft Apollo 18 and the Soviet spacecraft Soyuz 19 rendezvous and dock in space. As the hatch was opened between the two vessels, commanders Thomas P. Safford and Aleksei Leonov shook hands and exchanged gifts in celebration of the first such meeting between the two Cold War adversaries in space. Back on Earth, United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldheim congratulated the two superpowers for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project and praised their unprecedented spirit of cooperation and peace in planning and executing the mission.

During the 44-hour Apollo-Soyuz embrace, the astronauts and cosmonauts conducted experiments, shared meals, and held a joint news conference. Apollo-Soyuz, which came almost three years after the sixth and last U.S. lunar landing, was the final Apollo program mission conducted by NASA. It was fitting that the Apollo program, which first visited the moon under the banner of “We came in peace for all mankind,” should end on a note of peace and international cooperation.

Flight 800 explodes over Long Island

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/flight-800-explodes-over-long-island

Shortly after takeoff from New York’s Kennedy International Airport, a TWA Boeing 747 jetliner bound for Paris explodes over the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 230 people aboard. Flight 800 had just received clearance to initiate a climb to cruise altitude when it exploded without warning. Because the plane was loaded with fuel for the long transatlantic journey, it vaporized within moments, creating a fireball seen almost all along the coastline of Long Island.

The tragedy came just two days before the opening of the XXVI Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, and many suspected terrorism. Suspicions of foul play seemed to be confirmed when a number of eyewitnesses reported that they had seen what appeared to be a missile shoot up toward the airline an instant before the explosion. The U.S. Navy and the FBI, in conjunction with the National Safety Transportation Board, launched an extensive investigation of the incident, collecting the scattered wreckage of the aircraft out of the Atlantic and reconstructing the plane in a closely guarded hangar. Despite continuing eyewitness reports, authorities did not come forward with any evidence of a missile or a bomb, and the investigation stretched on.

When it was revealed that several U.S. Navy vessels were training in the Long Island area on the night of the blast, some began to suspect that Flight 800 had been accidentally downed by a navy test missile. U.S. authorities ruled out the possibility of an errant missile strike by the navy, but a number of conspiracists, including former White House press secretary Pierre Salinger, supported the theory. The much-criticized Flight 800 investigation ended in late 1998, with investigators concluding that the explosion resulted from mechanical failure, not from a bomb or a missile.

An army doctor is accused of stabbing his family to death

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/an-army-doctor-is-accused-of-stabbing-his-family-to-death

Jeffrey MacDonald stands trial in North Carolina for the murder of his wife and children nearly 10 years before. Captain MacDonald, an army doctor stationed at Fort Bragg, made an emergency call to military police in the early morning hours of February 17, 1970. Responding officers found Colette MacDonald and her two children, five-year-old Kimberley and two-year-old Kristen, dead from multiple stab wounds. The word “pig” had been written in blood on the headboard of a bed. Jeffrey, who had a few stab wounds himself, told the officers that four hippies had attacked the family.

With little evidence of disruption to the home, investigators doubted MacDonald’s story of struggling with the killers. An Esquire magazine containing an article about the notorious Manson murders was on the floor in the living room where MacDonald claimed to have been attacked. Investigators theorized that the hippie story and writing on the wall were attempts to mimic that crime and diffuse suspicion.

More important, the blood and fiber evidence did not seem to support MacDonald’s account of events. In a stroke of luck for detectives, each member of the MacDonald family had different and distinguishable blood types. Little of Jeffrey’s blood was found anywhere in the home except in the bathroom. In addition, his wounds were much less severe than those of his family; his wife and children had been stabbed at least 20 times each.

Still, the initial forensic investigation was badly bungled and the charges were eventually dropped later in 1970. A three-month military hearing ended without a court-martial due to lack of evidence and MacDonald was honorably discharged shortly afterward. Although MacDonald appeared on television complaining about his treatment, investigators stayed on the case. In 1974, a grand jury indicted him for murder, but due to various delays, the trial did not begin for another five years. In 1979, MacDonald was convicted and given three life sentences.

MacDonald, still vigorously insisting on his innocence, enlisted author Joe McGinnis to help exonerate him. McGinnis interviewed MacDonald and investigated the case on his own, but decided early on in the project that MacDonald was indeed guilty. The subsequent book, Fatal Vision, was a bestseller and it enraged MacDonald, who sued McGinnis for fraud.

MacDonald has since exhausted his appeals—his case has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court more than any other—and remains in prison. He has been denied parole, but will again be eligible in 2020, when he will be 76 years old.

Earthquake wreaks havoc in the Philippines

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/earthquake-wreaks-havoc-in-the-philippines

More than 1,000 people are killed when a 7.7-magnitude earthquake strikes Luzon Island in the Philippines on this day in 1990. The massive tremor wreaked havoc across a sizeable portion of Luzon, the country’s largest island, with Baguio City suffering the most devastating effects.

The epicenter of the quake, which struck at 4:26 p.m., was north of Manila in the Nueva Ecija province. Reports indicate that the shaking went on for nearly a full minute. Collapsing buildings were the main cause of damage and death. Getting out of a multi-story building was a good safety precaution that afternoon, although many people were injured and a few even died in stampedes of others doing the same thing.

At Christian College, a six-story building completely collapsed, trapping approximately 250 students and teachers inside. Heroic rescue efforts saved many, but some victims who did not die in the collapse were found dead later from dehydration because they were not pulled out in time.

All types of buildings, including several resort hotels in Baguio, known as the Philippines’ Summer Capital, suffered tremendous damage. Most of the city’s 100,000 residents slept outdoors that evening and during the following week, afraid to return to their homes amid the frequent aftershocks. For days, workers pulled bodies from the demolished buildings in Baguio. The best estimate is that 1,000 bodies were eventually recovered. At least another 1,000 people suffered serious injuries. Rescue efforts were hampered severely because the three main roads into the city were blocked by landslides. Hundreds of motorists were stranded on the roads as well. Outside of Baguio, a chemical factory fire also caused terrible damage. The Tuba gold and copper mine in the area lost 30 workers when a mine collapsed.

Baguio, sitting on at least seven fault lines, is now listed as one of the most risk-prone cities in Asia. In addition to the risk of earthquakes, the area’s high annual rainfall increases the likelihood of deadly landslides.

American military personnel stationed in the Philippine archipelago took part in the relief effort. The area was revisited by disaster less than a year later when Mount Pinatubo erupted. Some geologists believe the two events were connected.

"Catcher in the Rye" is published

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/catcher-in-the-rye-is-published

J.D. Salinger’s only full-length novel, The Catcher in the Rye, is published by Little, Brown on this day in 1951. The book, about a confused teenager disillusioned by the adult world, is an instant hit and will be taught in high schools for half a century.

The 31-year-old Salinger had worked on the novel for a decade. His stories had already started appearing in the 1940s, many in The New Yorker.

The book took the country by storm, selling out and becoming a Book of the Month Club selection. Fame did not agree with Salinger, who retreated to a hilltop cabin in Cornish, New Hampshire, but he continued to publish stories in The New Yorker periodically. He published Franny and Zooey in 1963, based on two combined New Yorker stories.

Salinger stopped publishing work in 1965, the same year he divorced his wife of 12 years, whom he had married when he was 32. In 1999, journalist Joyce Maynard published a book about her affair with Salinger, which had taken place more than two decades earlier. Notoriously reclusive, Salinger died at his home in New Hampshire on January 27, 2010. He was 91 years old.