Sunday, July 18, 2010

Pop History Moment: Rome Burned, But Did Nero Fiddle?

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[Emperor Nero: megalomaniacal arsonist or Rome's saviour?]

On this day in 64 CE, the most famous fire in the history of Rome, throughout which Emperor Nero was said to have 'fiddled'*, began in the vicinity of the market stalls around Circus Maximus; the conflagration completely destroyed four of fourteen Roman districts and severely damaged another seven.

The truth, however, makes Nero seem considerably less callous. Most sources claim he was in Antium the night the fire broke out, and as soon as he heard the city was burning he rushed back. He threw open his palaces to shelter the homeless, paid for relief efforts with his own money, and soon thereafter set about an ambitious plan to rid the city of it's wooden houses, replacing them with those made of brick or stone.

Whether Nero had the fire set to give himself the opportunity to rebuild the city to his vision, or whether he merely responded to the accidental fire and later had his reputation besmirched by his successors will likely never be known, as this is surely one of the coldest cases of all time.

*This despite the fact that nothing like a fiddle would be invented for many centuries.
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Pop History Moment: The Incident At Chappaquiddick

On this day in 1969, following a party at Lawrence Cottage on Massachusetts' Chappaquiddick Island, Senator Ted Kennedy drove his mother's 1967 Oldsmobile Delmont 88 off the wooden Dike Bridge into tide-swept Poucha Pond; his passenger, 28 year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, died. Exactly when she died as much as precisely how has given her story all the qualities of a legend - small comfort to the friends and family who may have lost their loved one to foul play, a crime (if indeed it was one) for which no responsibility has ever been taken.

PhotobucketKopechne had been one of six so-called Boiler-Room Girls, workers on Robert F. Kennedy's ill-fated campaign for the Presidency in 1968; prior to this, she'd been RFK's secretary when he served in the US Senate. The other five - Susan Tannenbaum, Maryellen Lyons, Ann Lyons, Rosemary (Cricket) Keough, and Esther Newberg - dubbed her 'the brightest' of their number. It was in their honour the party was held, following that day's Edgartown Regatta, in which the Senator competed.

As there were six women at the party there were also six men - all married, and all without their wives: Kennedy, Joe Gargan, US Attorney Paul Markham, Charles Tretter, Raymond La Rosa, and John Crimmins.

PhotobucketKennedy's own recollection was that he and Kopechne left the party at 11:15 PM in order to get her onto the last ferry of the night to Martha's Vineyard at midnight; along the way, instead of turning onto the paved Chappaquiddick Road he instead turned onto the unpaved and unlit Dike Road (for some reason) where he soon drove onto the bridge, which had no guard rails. Subsequent forensic analysis has determined he was driving 35 miles per hour when the vehicle hit the water.

While he later described freeing himself, then trying to save her until he became exhausted, he left after some 20 minutes, passing several houses on his way back to Lawrence Cottage. Once there he gathered the men to return with him to the pond, although they later testified that the current had become too strong to attempt any rescue; the group then drove Kennedy to the ferry dock, whereupon he swam 500 feet across the channel and returned to his room at the Shiretown Inn in Edgartown. At no time did any of them think to contact the authorities.

When around 8 AM the next morning two fisherman found the overturned car in the water and rushed to the nearest house to call the police they were the first people to do so; diver John Farrar was on the scene by 8:30 and at 8:45 Kopechne's lifeless body was being pulled from the water. It was Farrar's testimony that would later prove to be the most damning; according to him Kopechne's body had been frozen by rigor mortis into such a position that would indicate she'd been breathing from a pocket of air trapped behind the back seat wheel well, and that her cause of death had been suffocation rather than drowning.

Had the police been called the previous night, in other words, Mary Jo Kopechne might still be alive today.

The senator's subsequent statement in his own defense raised more questions than it offered answers; local police claimed to have seen Kennedy and Kopechne driving erratically around the island as late as 2:40 AM. As incriminating as this information is, it's the least of the evidence to suggest that the true story of what happened that night has never been fully told.

While the Chappaquiddick Incident may have prevented Ted Kennedy from running for the Presidency in 1972 and again in 1980, it didn't stop him from becoming an august statesman with the status of a demi-god in his home state. Did his own version of events, though, not only save him from jail but also help him to get away with murder?
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"Rinse The Blood Off My Toga" by Wayne & Shuster

On this, the anniversary of the 1990 death of Canadian comedian Johnny Wayne, I thought it would be most apt to feature the greatest sketch Wayne & Shuster ever produced; Rinse the Blood off My Toga is a parody of William Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar, featuring the classic catch-phrase 'Julie, don't go!' contrasted with a hard-boiled detective story, in which Wayne plays Flavius Maximus, investigating the death of the Roman general and statesman armed only with corny jokes.
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POPnews - July 18th

[Pierre and Marie Curie (I'll leave it to you to work out which is which) probably wouldn't have appeared quite so blithe as they do in this photo if only they'd known ahead of time that the work they were doing with radioactive elements would eventually kill them. Although Pierre died first - in April 1906, as a result of a fractured skull in a traffic accident - it's likely that his strength had been sapped by radiation poisoning; Marie's own death, in July 1934, was officially attributed to aplastic anemia, although it was almost certainly related to the blasé manner in which she handled substances like polonium which, thanks to its famous victims like Alexander Litvinenko, we now know will fuck you up big time.]

390 BCE - By tradition (and the chronology of Marcus Terentius Varro, which is today presumed to be faulty*) a Roman Republican army commanded by Quintus Sulpicius was defeated by the raiding Gauls of Brennus at the Battle of the Allia, which took place 18 km (11 miles) north of Rome at the river Allia, itself a tributary of the Tiber. It would be the first Gaulish invasion of Italy, and cleared the way for the Senones to sack Rome in 410 BCE.

*In all likelihood the battle took place on this day, but in 387 BCE instead, or possibly 364 BCE.

- The Bishop of Firenze blessed the first foundation stone for the new campanile of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, which was designed by its new Master of the Works, Giotto di Bondone; although he never lived to see it completed (which would involve not one but two successors, Andrea Pisano and Francesco Talenti) his masterpiece now bears the name Giotto's Bell Tower in his honour.

1536 - Legend has it the authority of the Pope was declared void in England.

1656 - Forces of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth led by King John II Casimir clashed with those of Sweden's King Charles X and his ally Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg, at the start of what is to now known as the Battle of Warsaw, which ended in a decisive Swedish victory.

1862 - A team of climbers led by T. S. Kennedy and including W. Wigram, J. Croz and J. Konig, made the first known ascent of Dent Blanche, one of the highest summits in the Alps.

1863 - During the American Civil War at the Battle of Fort Wagner, Morris Island, the first formal African American military unit - the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry - unsuccessfully assaulted Confederate-held Battery Wagner; their valiant fighting nonetheless proved the worth of black soldiers during the war (not to mention imparting the all-important psychological element to warfare inherent in sending them against a pro-slavery enemy).

1870 - The First Vatican Council decreed the controversial dogma of papal infallibility.

1898 - Marie and Pierre Curie announced their discovery of polonium.

1925 - A ham-fisted landscape painter from Munich published his memoirs*, calling them Mein Kampf. Yeah... Your struggle. Sure. Anyway, upon its release the book was widely read, mainly by people who, after its author was dead, rather disingenuously insisted they never would have supported him had they known what he was all about... Even though it's pretty much all in the book. A book that millions of them bought! AND READ!

*Actual Meaning: Diatribe. As in 'Di a tribe. Die ya tribe. Die you tribe'. See what I mean?

1940 - Franklin Delano Roosevelt received an unprecedented third nomination to run for the Presidency at the Democratic National Convention, held that year in Chicago.

1944 - Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo resigned due to numerous setbacks in the war effort.

1953 - Elvis Presley made his first recordings at Sam Phillips' Sun Studios in Memphis.

1965 - The Soviet Union launched its Zond 3 satellite.

1966 - Gemini 10 was launched, with John W. Young and Michael Collins aboard.

1984 - James Oliver Huberty opened fire at a McDonald's in San Ysidro, California, killing 21 people and injuring 19 others before being shot dead by police.

Photobucket1989 - Actress Rebecca Schaeffer - costar of the sitcom My Sister Sam - was murdered on her doorstep by Robert John Bardo, who'd been stalking her for three years. Bardo shot Schaeffer once in the chest at point-blank range; she was pronounced dead 30 minutes after her arrival at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. The previous focus of Bardo's obsession had been the pre-teen peace activist Samantha Smith, who died when Bar Harbor Airlines Flight 1808 crashed in August 1985; he'd also been stalking teen singers Debbie Gibson and Tiffany. Schaeffer's murder brought about the first-ever anti-stalking law in the United States, alas a day late and a dollar short... In another of those pop culture coincidences, the prosecutor who saw Bardo locked up for life was Marcia Clark, who would shortly become famous for her work on the O.J. Simpson Trial. Bardo made a return to the headlines in July 2007 when he was stabbed while incarcerated at California's Mule Creek State Prison.

1992 - The ten victims of the La Cantuta massacre were 'disappeared' from their university in Lima towards the end of the increasingly corrupt presidency of Alberto Fujimori; coming just two days after the Shining Path's Tarata bombing nine students suspected of complicity in that event - Bertila Lozano Torres, Dora Oyague Fierro, Luis Enrique Ortiz Perea, Armando Richard Amaro Cóndor, Robert Édgar Teodoro Espinoza, Heráclides Pablo Meza, Felipe Flores Chipana, Marcelino Rosales Cárdenas, and Juan Gabriel Mariños Figueroa - and a professor, Hugo Muñoz Sánchez, were abducted and have never been seen again.

1995 - The Soufriere Hills volcano on the Caribbean island of Montserrat erupted; over the course of several years, it devastated the island, destroying Plymouth (the capital) and forcing most of the population to flee.

1996 - During the week-long Battle of Mullaitivu - codenamed Operation Unceasing Waves by the Tamil Tigers - the group carried out an attack which killed over 1200 Sri Lankan Army soldiers and captured the base in the town of Mullaitivu, the single biggest loss to the Sri Lankan military ever. A return engagement, also known as the Battle of Mullaitivu, was carried out in January 2009.

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