May 23rd 1701: Captain Kidd executed

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Willliam “Captain” Kidd (c.1654 – 1701)

 

On this day in 1701 the Scottish pirate William Kidd was executed in England. Kidd, born in Dundee around 1654, enjoyed a successful career as a seaman before his turn to piracy. In May 1696 Kidd set sail charged with the job of hunting pirates and attacking enemy French ships as a privateer. However whilst on this voyage around the Indian Ocean, Kidd and his crew began plundering treasure ships. During his time, Kidd killed a mutinous gunner on his ship, contributing to his fearsome piratical reputation. Their main prize was the Quedagh Merchant which carried a wealth of gold, silk and spices – the haul from this came to around £15,000, a huge amount of money for this period. As news broke in England of Kidd’s activities, his wealthy and powerful patrons at home scrambled to condemn him.

 

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William Kidd’s body hanging in a cage on the River Thames – from ‘The Pirates Own Book’ by Charles Ellms (source: http://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/execution-captain-kidd)

 

Kidd was eventually arrested in New York, where he had gone with hopes of support from his powerful contacts there, insisting he was innocent and had acted only as a privateer. Whilst he gave up some of his buried treasure on Gardiners Island, he claimed he had more buried somewhere else; would-be treasure hunters have been searching for his haul ever since. Kidd was put on trial for piracy in England, in what became a public spectacle due to his prominent connections, where he was found guilty and sentenced to death. On May 23rd, Kidd was hanged on the River Thames in London and his body encased in an iron cage and left to rot as a warning to other pirates.

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May 14th 1881: Mary Seacole dies

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Mary Seacole (1805 – 1881)

 

On this day in 1881 the nurse Mary Seacole died in London aged 76. Originally from Jamaica, the young Mary was taught her nursing skills by her mother. When war broke out in the Crimea, she applied to give medical assistance to wounded servicemen but was refused, and so gave treatment independently. Her patients admired ‘Mother Seacole’ and helped raised money for her after the war when she was left destitute. Despite her exemplary national service and popularity in Britain, Seacole faced discrimination at home due to her race and was unable to vote or hold public office.

 

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Blue plaque outside Seacole’s London home

 

She has often been forgotten and placed in the shadow of famous Crimean War nurse Florence Nightingale, a phenomenon which some critics consider a ‘whitewashing’ of British history. Seacole should be the household name that Nightingale is – they each were heroines of the Crimean War who put themselves in danger to help their country. However it should be noted that in 2004 Seacole was voted the greatest Black Briton, so she certainly is beginning to receive the attention a woman like her deserves.

May 11th 1812: Spencer Perceval assassinated

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Depiction of the assassination of Spencer Perceval

On this day in 1812 Spencer Perceval became the first and only British Prime Minister to be assassinated when he was shot by John Bellingham in the lobby of the House of Commons. Perceval became Tory Prime Minister in 1809 (replacing the Duke of Portland) and his administration had to deal with economic depression, Luddism and the ‘madness’ of King George III. He had initially been considered a weak Prime Minister, but things had been looking up for his administration until he was shot. Bellingham was a merchant with a grievance against the government for supposedly not freeing him when he was imprisoned in Russia. The assassin was hanged on 18th May.

 

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John Bellingham (1769 – 1812)

 

“I am murdered…I am murdered”
– Perceval’s last words

May 5th 1821: Napoleon Bonaparte dies

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Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 – 1821)

 

On this day in 1821 French Emperor Napoleon I, aged 51, died in exile on the island of Saint Helena. Napoleon became Emperor in 1804 and led France in the wars against various European coalitions in the Napoleonic Wars; for his leadership in these wars he is considered one of the greatest generals of all time. France had initial success in the wars but by 1812 was in decline, partly due to Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812.

 

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Napoleon retreats from Russia

 

 

Napoleon was forced to abdicate and was exiled to Elba in 1814 after defeat at the Battle of Leipzig. He returned to power in 1815, but was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo which sealed the fate of the French army, and the coalitions declared victory; France and thus Napoleon were defeated. Napoleon was then exiled on Saint Helena, and in 1821 died of stomach cancer.

 

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Napoleon’s tomb in Paris

“France, army, head of the army, Joséphine.”
– Napoleon’s last words – Joséphine was his first wife

May 2nd 1972: J. Edgar Hoover dies

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J. Edgar Hoover (1895 – 1972)

 

On this day in 1972 the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, John Edgar Hoover, died aged 77. Despite a difficult childhood, Hoover secured a law degree from George Washington University and in 1917 found work in the Justice Department. His initial roles centered around tackling the threat of communism within America, but this came to encompass anyone with a left-wing viewpoint. He famously secured the deportation of anarchist Emma Goldman. Hoover spent some time working at the FBI’s predecessor, the Bureau of Investigation, and went on to help found the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935. Under Hoover the FBI grew into the sophisticated crime-fighting agency we know today, as he instituted forensic and fingerprint technology and initiated intense background checks and physical tests in appointing new agents. He was a controversial figure, and has been accused of using the FBI to harass political dissenters and blackmail politicians. Upon his death, J. Edgar Hoover had led the FBI for 48 years; he was succeeded by L. Patrick Gray upon his death.

 

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Hoover family grave in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington D.C.

May 1st 1994: Senna dies

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Ayrton Senna (1960 – 1994)

 

On this day in 1994 the Brazilian racing driver and Formula One champion Ayrton Senna was killed in an accident during the San Marino Grand Prix; he was 34 years old. Often considered one of the greatest drivers of all time, Senna won the Formula One World Championships three times.

 

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Senna being treated by the medical team after his crash

 

He died hours after his accident during a race when his car left the track and hit a concrete wall at around 145mph. Senna is the last Formula One driver to die during a race, and is still considered one of the greats.

 

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Senna’s grave

 

20 years ago today

April 28th 1945: Mussolini killed

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Benito Mussolini (1883 – 1945)

 

On this day in 1945 the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci were executed by members of the Italian resistance movement. Mussolini became Prime Minister in 1922 and became head of government and ‘Il Duce’ in 1925. Mussolini’s Italy was a dictatorial and ruthless totalitarian state. He took Italy into World War Two in 1940 on the side of Germany, but by 1943 support for him had dwindled and he was defeated in a vote at the Grand Council of Fascism and was arrested by the King. He managed to escape but was soon captured and executed on April 28th. When Petacci was shot, Mussolini told the shooters to kill him also. His body was taken to Milan and hung for public viewing.

 

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Site in Mezzegra where he was shot

 

“Look at his face, the emotions on his face don’t suit him.”
– Mussolini’s executioner after shooting the dictator

April 23rd 1616: William Shakespeare dies

 

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William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)

 

On this day in 1616, the famous English poet and playwright William Shakespeare passed away on his 52nd birthday. Shakespeare, from Stratford-upon-Avon,  became famous for his plays including Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and King Lear; he wrote around 38 plays and 154 sonnets. He was married to a woman named Anne Hathaway and had three children. In his will he left most of his estate to his eldest daughter Susanna and to his wife left “my second best bed”. He was buried in the chancel of the Holy Trinity Church.

 

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His birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon

 

Today, on the 450thS anniversary of his birth, Shakespeare is still considered one of the greatest writers of the English language in history. School children and university students across the globe study his work, and his plays continue to draw huge crowds. Big-name actors still feel most at home performing a Shakespeare play – just take the recent success of David Tennant’s Hamlet and Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus.

 

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Shakespeare’s grave

 

“Good friend, for Jesus’ sake, forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here;
Blessed be the man that spares these stones
And cursed he that moves my bones.”
– Shakespeare’s epitaph

April 14th 1759: Handel dies

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On this day in 1759, the German composer George Frederic Handel died aged 74. Famous for his Baroque pieces, Handel was born in Germany in 1685 but moved to Britain later in life. He gained a reputation there for his Italian operas, and some of his works were performed for Queen Anne and her successors on the British throne. Handel enjoyed royal patronage, and his music is regularly played at royal coronations even to this day. However he is perhaps best known for his biblical choral masterpiece: Messiah.

 

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The monument to Handel in Westminster Abbey

 

Handel died in 1759, and was honoured with a state funeral and burial in Westminster Abbey. Alongside his grave is a monument (pictured above), sculpted by Louis Francois Roubiliac, which was unveiled in 1762 and features a statue of Handel which supposedly has the exact likeness of his death mask.

April 9th 1492: Medici dies

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Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449 – 1492)

 

On this day in 1492 the ruler of Florence, Lorenzo de’ Medici, died aged 43. The Medici family had run the largest Florentine bank, the Medici Bank, for some time, but eventually came to rule the republic itself. Lorenzo de’ Medici was one of the central figures of the Italian Renaissance as a leading statesman from Florence, a city which was the hub of the cultural movement. A primary legacy of the Renaissance is its astounding art, and Medici was well-known in Florence for making considerable contributions to the art world. The famed artist Leonardo da Vinci even held a place in the Medici court, and Michelangelo was a family friend.

 

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Tomb of Lorenzo de’ Medici in Sagrestia Nuova, San Lorenzo, Florence (source: http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/m/michelan/1sculptu/medici/index.html)

 

However Lorenzo did not rule unopposed: he faced challenges in Florence, from the Pazzi familly; from the Vatican, who excommunicated Lorenzo; and from the King of Naples who went to war with Florence. When Medici died, Florence mourned their leader, and eventually the fragile peace he had established with fellow city states fell apart. I must admit, once again my knowledge of Renaissance Florence comes primarily from playing the Assassin’s Creed games, in which Lorenzo de’ Medici is a central character. Clearly, some artistic liberties are taken with certain characters (especially the Borgias), which I have written about before. However I would still recommend these games, especially Assassin’s Creed 2 and Brotherhood. As you roam around the Italian countryside and cities killing Templars, you can read about the locations and characters in their historical context. Then at least you can feel you’re doing something educational while playing videogames!