Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The OK Corral 26 October

On the morning of this day, 26 October, in 1881, a Wednesday, a 30 second long gun battle took place in lot 2, in block 17, behind the corral, in Tombstone, Arizona. In that brief thirty seconds, Wyatt Earp, Morgan Earp, Virgil Earp, and Doc Holliday fought against Billy Claiborne, Frank McLaury, Tom McLaury, Billy Clanton, and Ike Clanton.

Both McLaurys and Billy Clanton were killed by some of the thirty shots that were fired and the gunfight at the OK Corral found its place in American history.

Like so much legend, especially American legend, the gunfight was in fact little more than the culmination of a sordid struggle for power between rival gangs. The Earps were seen by their enemies as badge-toting pimps who ruthlessly enforced the business interests of the town while the Clantons and their cowboy crowd were viewed by their enemies as cattle rustlers, thieves, and murderers. The likely truth is that both groups were a bunch of nasty self-seeking crooks who should all have been exposed on a hillside at birth.

The two groups would probably have continued in pointless bickering for years but two events took place which bought matters to a head.

In March 1881 there was a stagecoach robbery, in which two people were killed and the prime suspect escaped from jail. This, as everyone who has ever watched a Western film knows, was nothing new, and this event would probably have been forgotten except that, for some little understood reason, the improbably named tart ‘Big Nose Kate’, made accusations that her paramour, Doc Holliday, had robbed the stagecoach. Like many such women before and since, she later recanted.

Coincidentally, Wyatt Earp, a chum of Doc Holliday, was standing for election as sheriff of Cochise County. In a crass attempt to grab the moral high ground he decided to coerce Ike Clanton to help arrest some of the men accused in the robbery – and thereby get his pal Doc Holliday off the hook. Ike, knowing a wind-up when he saw one, decided not to take part.

These two events resulted in the animosity between the Earps and Clantons growing.

Bickering ensued and during the morning of October 26 reports of the cowboys going about the place toting guns were rife, with Ike Clanton saying he was going to shoot down the Earps.

Virgil Earp, ever the diplomat, decided to pour petrol on troubled waters and enforce the town's little used law which said that all firearms had to be checked in with local authorities. He decided to approach Ike Clanton's group to demand they give up their guns.

Accompanied by his brothers Morgan and Wyatt, and soon by Holliday, they strode (no doubt with that bow-legged gait much loved in westerns) to the vacant lot near the corral. Virgil Earp shouted "Throw your hands up, I want your guns" at which point everyone and his dog opened fire.

Virgil and Morgan were seriously wounded, while Holliday received minor wounds. Wyatt remained standing. Ike Clanton, who had pushed more than anyone else for a showdown, was, ironically, unarmed and ran away. Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers Frank and Tom were killed.

There you have it; a legend or just another tawdry day in the wild west?

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

St Crispins Day 25 October

The 25th of October is St Crispins Day and on this day in 1415, Henry V, King of England, together with 1000 men-at-arms, 5000 archers and a couple of thousand armed peasants gave the flower of French aristocracy and an army of around 12000 a rattling good biffing at the battle of Agincourt.

Henry's success has been attributed to the success of his archers, armed with the immensely powerfull longbow and armour-piercing bodkin tipped arrows against the heavily armoured French. We English know that in fact, this, the greatest victory in English history, was achieved by simply having at the, to quote Mr Simpson, "cheese-eating surrender monkeys".

I believe that old Bill Shakespeare's rendition of Henry's stirring tonic for the troops said it better than I ever could:

"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Most Famous Song In The World. 12 October

On this day, 12 October in 1609,probably the most famous song ever written was published by Thomas Ravenscroft, an English composer, theorist and editor. He is best known (although never very well known) as a composer of rounds and for compiling collections of folk music.

Some of the music he compiled has acquired astonishing fame, even though his name is rarely, if ever, associated with it. His most famous piece was published in a collection of works entitled Deuteromelia. He published also a book of psalms as well as two other collections of songs. Many of his works are now long forgotten but they include 11 anthems, 3 motets for five voices and four fantasias for viols.

Three Blind Mice, see how they run.

Monday, October 10, 2005

The Great Hurricane of 1780 10 October

Whilst no-one would wish to under-estimate the havoc caused by the recent hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Stan, spare a thought for this day, 10 October, in 1780 when the 'Great Hurricane of 1870' (this was in the days before hurricanes were given friendly names like Stan or Ida) smashed its way through the Caribbean. The 'Great Hurricane of 1780' was reckoned to be the deadliest hurricane of all time. There is no accurate figure of the number killed in the storm but about 22,000 people died when the storm swept over Martinique, St. Eustatius and Barbados between October 10 and October 16. Thousands more were killed at sea.

The historians amongst you will recall that 1780 was the middle of the American Revolution and, as a consequence, British and French fleets that were contesting for control of the area were very heavily damaged. The British fleet commanded by Admiral George Rodney, which was en route from New York to the West Indies, was dispersed by the storm. Only 12 ships eventually arrived at Barbados and eight of 12 surviving warships were a write-off and their crews were mostly drowned.

The British sent someone to survey the damage and he found that the destruction was so great that he (mistakenly) assumed that an earthquake had occurred at the same time as the storm. Barbados was almost completely leveled and almost every family living on the island lost a family member in the storm.

So don't come moaning to me about them Delta blues.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Boys Brigade 4 October

On this day, 4 October, in 1883, the first ever Company of the Boys Brigade was formed by Sir William Alexander Smith at the Free Church Mission Hall, North Woodside Road, Glasgow. The Boys Brigade was the earliest of all youth organisations and was set up as a non-denominational Christian youth organization. Initially, the Brigade was based on military traditions and a simple rosette was worn as an identifying uniform. This was later replaced by the simple use of a belt, haversack and pillbox cap (a popular military cap of the day) worn over the boys' everyday clothing. The pillbox cap was used into the 1960s, long after it had fallen out of use in the British Army, when it was replaced with a field cap.

The Brigade was one of the earliest organisations that promoted camping for leisure - an activity that was previously rarely used outside the military. An early admirer of the Brigade was Lord Baden-Powell who as Vice President of the Boy's Brigade used it alongside initiatives in schools, particularly Eton, to promote the idea of scouting and outdoor pursuits and early examples of scouting were seen in Boys' Brigade scouting awards and Baden Powell latter and even specialized Boys' Brigade Scout sections who wore a blue uniform with shorts and the distinctive 'Smokey Bear' hat traditionally identified with the Scouts that Baden-Powell later went on to form.

The Boys' Brigade motto is "Sure and Steadfast" and the old logo is an anchor placed over a Greek Cross. Although now fairly rare, there are still to be found a few older images of the motto in which the motto is spelled "Sure and Stedfast". The anchor comes from a phrase in The Bible, from the Epistle to the Hebrews, Chapter 6, Verse 19: 'Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast'. The Greek cross, sometimes referred to as the Geneva cross in the style of that used by the Red Cross, was added when the Brigade merged with the Boys' Life Brigade in the 1920s. The modern version of the Boys' Brigade logo is a very sad looking 'BB' in a box - a masterpiece of dullness for what was once a hugely dynamic organisation.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Hung Drawn and Quartered 3 October

On this day, 3 October, in 1283, the last native Welsh Prince of Wales, Dafydd ap Gruffydd, had imposed upon him the dubious honour of becoming the first person in history to suffer the punishment of being "hanged, drawn and quartered" for treason against 'Longshanks' - King Edward I. The execution of Dafydd effectively ended Welsh independance and left Edward free to concentrate on biffing the rebelious Scots. William Wallace suffered a similar fate twenty years later.

To be hanged, drawn and quartered was the penalty reserved for treason. It was introduced by Longshanks because treason was deemed more heinous than murder and other capital crimes - this remained the view of subsequent Monarchs for six centuries (Monarchs are, as you all know, noted liberals). The punishment was reserved for male traitors - women found guilty of treason in England were let off lightly and merely burnt at the stake. The extraordinarily cruel punishment of hanging drawing and quartering was finally abolished in England in 1870, whilst burning at the stake was abolished in 1790.

The punishment, for those of you who don't know, was designed as much for deterence as punishment.

The hapless culprit was:
  • Dragged on a hurdle (a wooden frame) to the place of execution.
  • Hung by the neck, but taken down before death.
  • Disembowelled, and the genitalia and entrails burned before the victim's eyes. The heart was the last organ to be removed and was shown to the victim before the entrails were burned.
  • Beheaded and the body divided into four parts (quartered).
  • Typically, the resulting five parts (i.e., the four quarters of the body and the head) were gibbetted (put on public display) in different parts of the city or town to deter other would-be traitors.

Apart from Dafydd ap Gruffydd, other famous victims of this punishment include Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot to assassinate James I, and Edward Marcus Despard and his six accomplices for plotting to assassinate George III.

And people moan about ASBOs.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Mad Cows and Englishmen - Michaelmass Madness 29 September

On this day, the 29 September (Michaelmass Day) in 1997 British scientists established a link between a human brain disease and one found in cows. The stunning conclusion of two major studies was that a new version of Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease (vCJD), was caused by eating BSE-infected meat. At that time 21 people in the UK were suffering from the disease. I have written elsewhere on the early causes of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) or "mad cow disease" and the studies proved that the two diseases were caused by the same infectious protein. It was also discovered that the risk of humans becoming infected with vCJD depended on their having a genetic makeup that included a combination of genes called "M-M".

On this day in 1997 there had already been 18 human deaths from vCJD. Two months after these findings, a selective cull of cattle at most risk to the disease was started, and a 'beef on the bone' ban introduced. Since then there have been 139 deaths due to vCJD and there are 5 people who are still alive who are known to be dying of the illness. There are still an unknown number of people who may be incubating the disease - conceivably as many as the 32% of the population of Britain (about 19 million people) who have the "M-M" gene combination - but numbers have been declining since a peak in 2000. Hundreds of thousands of cattle have been culled to try and eradicate the disease.