5 March 1770: Bloodshed in Boston

Soldiers who shoot on crowd escape harsh punishment

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At the beginning of 1770, the mood in Boston was extraordinarily tense. For two years, amid deteriorating relations between the colonies and the crown, British troops had been stationed in the American city. On the evening of 5 March, things turned ugly.

The trouble started when an apprentice goaded a British officer, John Goldfinch, outside the city’s customs house, claiming (wrongly) he had not settled his bills. Another soldier told the apprentice to stop, then Goldfinch cuffed him with his musket. A small crowd gathered, described by the American lawyer and future president John Adams as “a motley rabble”.

As the evening drew on, the mob began to harass the soldiers, hurling snowballs, spitting and throwing small missiles. At last, one private was hit, dropped his musket, retrieved it and then fired a warning shot. At that, an innkeeper hit him with a stick. Surrounded and frightened, the soldiers fired into the crowd.

Three people were killed instantly, another two died later. American legend remembers it as the Boston Massacre. But when the soldiers came before a jury, six were acquitted and the other two given only light sentences. For, as Adams argued in their defence, they had only fired after intense provocation. Their conviction “would have been as foul a stain upon this country as the executions of the Quakers or Witches, anciently. As the evidence was, the verdict of the jury was exactly right.”

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5 March 1946: Churchill warns of an ‘iron curtain’ falling across Europe

In the spring of 1946, Winston Churchill arrived in Fulton, Missouri. The little Midwestern town seemed an unlikely destination for the man who, until the previous summer, had been leading the world’s largest empire. But Churchill, rejected by the British electorate, was in the doldrums. When President Harry Truman invited him to give a lecture at a little college in his home state, Churchill saw it as a chance to revive his American reputation.
Churchill and Truman travelled to Fulton by train and on the way the president read a draft of the former prime minister’s talk. It was, he declared, excellent. But when Churchill stood up on 5 March, in the packed gymnasium at Westminster College, few could have expected that his words would resound in history.

A shadow, he explained, had fallen “upon the scenes so lately lighted by the Allied victory” – thanks entirely to Stalin’s Soviet Union. “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic,” he declared, “an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” That made Anglo-American co-operation all the more important. Theirs, Churchill added, was a “special relationship”.

Churchill was not the first man to use the words ‘iron curtain’, but he was unquestionably the most famous. After that day in Fulton, there was no doubt that the alliance between Stalin’s Soviet Union and the two great western powers was over – and that the Cold War had begun.

We round up smaller anniversaries…

5 March AD 363 
Julian the Apostate, Roman emperor and nephew of Constantine the Great, departed for Mesopotamia on his ill-fated campaign against the Sassanid Persian empire.
5 March 1512
Birth in Rupelmonde, Flanders of cartographer Gerardus Mercator. He is best known for the Mercator Projection style of world map, which is named after him.
5 March 1827 
Alessandro Volta, Italian physicist and battery inventor, dies. "Volt", the term for electromotive force, is derived from his name.
5 March 1868
Charles H Gould of Birmingham patents a device which uses pieces of cut wire to bind magazines – the forerunner of the modern stapler.
5 March 1871
Rosa Luxemburg was born in Zamosch, Poland. A key leader in the German Spartacist movement, Luxemburg was murdered in January 1919 by members of the rightwing Freikorps during the suppression of the Berlin communist uprising.
5 March 1879
Birth in Rangpur, Bengal, of civil servant and social reformer William Beveridge. The 1942 report that bears his name will form the basis of the British Welfare State. 
5 March 1616 
The Vatican condemns On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, by Copernicus, saying it propounds “the false Pythagorean doctrine… contrary to the Holy Scripture, that the earth moves and the sun is motionless”
5 March 1981
Clive Sinclair launches the ZX81 computer, the first British model to sell more than a million units. It cost just £70, and nobody who uses its peculiar keyboard will ever forget it.

5 March 1953: Death of Stalin

A new regime dawns as the Soviet dictator breathes his last

As dawn broke over Moscow on 5 March 1953, perhaps the most powerful man in the world lay dying. Four days earlier, one of Stalin’s guards had discovered him lying on the bedroom floor in his dacha on the edge of Moscow, soaked in his own urine. The dictator had suffered a massive stroke. Within hours, the most powerful men in the Communist Party had assembled by his bedside. The end seemed certain, though he lingered for days, sometimes opening his eyes and once pointing to a photograph.

By the morning of 5 March, Stalin was visibly weakening, his face ashen, his breathing laboured. As he sank towards death that afternoon, his hated secret police chief, Lavrenty Beria, searched his safe to remove and destroy any incriminating documents. Already the Soviet leaders were jockeying for position, desperate to preserve their power under the new regime.

Yet still Stalin, the man who had ordered the deaths of millions, clung to life. At nine o’clock that evening, long after many of his associates had expected him to die, he was still fighting for breath. At 9.40pm, with his pulse failing, the doctors gave him an injection of adrenalin and camphor to stimulate his heart. The dictator began to shudder; as his biographer Simon Sebag Montefiore puts it, he had started to “drown in his own fluids”.

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Later, Stalin’s daughter Svetlana remembered the final moment. “He literally choked to death as we watched,” she wrote. “The death agony was terrible … At the last minute, he opened his eyes. It was a terrible look, either mad or angry, and full of the fear of death.” For a moment, Stalin raised his hand, as if pointing or threatening. “Then,” Svetlana wrote, “the next moment, his spirit after one last effort tore itself from his body.”

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