This Day in History
1756 — Black Hole of Calcutta. An Indian ruler, Siraj ud-Daulah, ordered the French and British to stop construction work at Fort William in Calcutta. The French complied, the British didn’t. Armed conflict ensued and the British were forced to surrender. The captives were marched down to the fort’s dungeon where they were crammed into a cell measuring 14 by 18 feet. They were British soldiers, Indian sepoys, and Indian civilians. How many were in the cell is uncertain. Some estimates are as high as 146 but it is now more widely believed that 64 prisoners were jammed into the cell for 24 hours. Whatever the number, they were so tightly packed the jailers had difficulty closing the cell door. There were only two small windows in the cell and pleas for mercy and relief were ignored. Resolve weakened and panic ensued. This from en.wikipedia.org: “They raved, fought, prayed, blasphemed, and many then fell exhausted on the floor, where suffocation put an end to their torments.” Siraj ud-Daulah was unaware of the cruelty of his men and when he found out he immediately ordered the release of the prisoners. By that time only 21 prisoners were still alive. Despite having been unaware of the prisoners’ condition, and showing some small kindness to the survivors, Siraj un-Daulah was executed after British forces recaptured Calcutta.
Payback for British colonialism. Until Gandhi came along the history between the English and Indians was rife with violence and cruelty.
1789 — Tennis Court Oath. Deputies of the Third Estate of France had intended to meet at a hotel in Versailles. However the hotel was locked and the entrance guarded by troops loyal to Louis XVI. So the 577 deputies went to a nearby indoor tennis court. There they took an oath pledging to remain assembled until a new national constitution had been drafted and implemented. This act captured the revolutionary imagination of France at the time and is comparable to the storming of the Bastille which took place less than a month later.
An exciting and dangerous time to be in France. A lot of people lost their heads, both literally and figuratively.
1943 — Detroit race riot. There had been a migration of African-Americans from the South to Detroit to labor in the war industry. Tensions between the races increased due to a lack of available housing and white resistance to public housing being constructed in their neighborhoods. A fist fight between two men, one white and one Black, at an amusement park soon turned into a brawl. That spread to the streets where stores were looted, buildings burned and cars overturned. Blacks were dragged off streetcars and beaten while whites were pulled from their cars. The riot only lasted 24 hours but 34 people were killed in the violence, 25 African-American and 9 whites. The police did little other than siding with the whites and FDR sent in federal troops to quell the violence. Police were responsible for 17 African-American deaths while no whites died at the hands of the authorities.
Just another sad milepost in the long trail of racial injustice in this country.
1905 — Lillian Hellman. Writer. Hellman wrote two stage plays in the 1930s that were very successful, “The Children’s Hour” and “The Little Foxes.” So much so she was the first woman to gain entrance to the all-male club of American Dramatic Literature. “The Children’s Hour” was banned in London, Boston and Chicago because of its subject matter: two female teachers having their lives ruined because a female student spread lies about them being lovers. Lesbianism was a taboo thought, much less drama material at that time. The play was considered too scandalous to be considered for the Pulitzer Prize. Hellman was a long time romantic partner with detective writer Dashiell Hammett and she claimed she was the inspiration for the character of Nora in his novel “The Thin Man”. As were many writers of that era Hellman’s politics were left-wing and even after Stalin’s purges in Russia became public she remained sympathetic to communism. When called before the HUAC during Senator Joseph McCarthy’s purges she was defiant and refused to name names. Blacklisted for a time, Hellman continued to write and continued to find success. Her “Toys in the Attic” ran for 464 performances on Broadway. She also wrote a series of veracity challenged, according to her critics, memoirs. She was unabashed on that front also, writing “What I have written is the truth as I saw it, but the truth as I saw it, of course, doesn’t have much to do with the truth.” Hellman remained a controversial figure her whole life, dying at 79 in 1984.
“It was the Depression, people were out of work and here we were making so much money as writers. I think we joined the Communist Party as a way to assuage our guilt.” A blacklisted screenwriter and contemporary of Hellman’s once told me, in explaining their political affiliation at that time.
1924 — Chet Atkins. Musician, record producer. Also known as Mr. Guitar, Atkins helped create what became called the “Nashville sound.” He had trouble getting a start in country music because he was shy and his style so sophisticated some questioned whether he was truly country. Even after he was successful he was criticized for allowing jazz influences into his playing. As a producer he worked with Hank Snow, Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley, Eddy Arnold, Perry Como and more. If during a recording session someone was out of tune Atkins would not call out that person. He would say there was a tuning problem and would everybody please check. If it persisted he’d simply have the mix for that part turned down. He collected 14 Grammys and is in both the Country Music and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. After surviving an early bout of it, Atkins succumbed to colon cancer in 2001.
He sounded like a kind man and he had the perfect name for a country star.
1925 — Audie Murphy. Soldier, actor. Murphy was one of the most decorated American soldiers in WWII. Every available combat medal was awarded to him, including the Medal of Honor. He was also presented with medals for heroism from the French and Belgian governments. Actor James Cagney originally brought him to Hollywood although that association did not last. One of his first major roles was The Youth in “The Red Badge of Courage.” Although reluctant to do so, he played himself in “To Hell and Back,” a movie about his wartime experience. After that Murphy mostly appeared in westerns. He grew up in poverty with no father and quit school after the fifth grade to pick cotton to help support his family. Raised in Texas, he hunted for food and was an excellent shot. He joined the Army at age 16, having falsified his age. Murphy suffered from battle fatigue, now known as PTSD, and slept with a loaded pistol under his pillow. An American success story, Murphy died at age 45 in the crash of a small plane.
No great shakes as an actor, he did however bring an earnest honesty to his roles. A sadness, rather than joy seemed to emanate from him, which is understandable.