6 October AD 23: China’s usurping emperor Wang Mang is ousted

Unpopular and out of touch, the leader is butchered by rebels in his imperial palace


By the autumn of AD 23, Wang Mang had been emperor of China for 14 years. Although related to the imperial family, he had never actually been in line to the throne, having seized it from the child Ruzi Ying. At first, all the signs were promising. Wang was a shrewd and experienced man, steeped in Confucian learning. He had served as commander of the armed forces. And he had visionary ideas about the policies China needed, from land reform to a new currency. What could possibly go wrong?

But by October of that year, the answer was clear: everything. Blighted by economic turmoil and peasant rebellions, Wang’s regime was in deep trouble. Having once been famous for his work ethic, the 67-year-old retreated to his grand imperial palace with his magicians, his nine wives and his 27 concubines. But he could not keep reality out forever.

On 4 October, a rebel army stormed the capital, Chang’an. The next morning, they burst into the palace. Wang took refuge in the highest tower, defended by his guards. But there, after a stretch of bitter fighting, his life reached its blood-soaked climax. His head was cut off and his body torn to pieces, while rebel soldiers literally fought and died to get hold of the scraps. Eventually his head was delivered to the rebel commanders, who stuck it on a wall. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

6 October 1510

Scholar and physician John Keys was born in Norwich. After studying theology at Cambridge's Gonville Hall, he developed an interest in medicine, and in 1539 left England to study at Padua, the leading medical university in Europe. After returning to England, Keys, who had altered the spelling of his surname to a Latinised Caius, was elected fellow and then president of the College of Physicians. In 1557 he refounded his old Cambridge college, which became Gonville and Caius College, and in 1559 was elected its master. He died in 1573.

6 October 1688

Christopher Monck, Governor of Jamaica, dies, aged 36. His death is ascribed to the tropical climate, heavy drinking and the excessive bleedings prescribed by his physician, Dr Hans Sloane.

6 October 1807

The chemist Humphry Davy isolates potassium.

6 October 1829

Start of the Rainhill Trials, held on a nine-mile section of track near St Helen's to determine the best type of locomotive to use on the Liverpool and Manchester railway. The trials were convincingly won by George Stevenson's Rocket.

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6 October 1892

British Poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson died at Aldworth House, his family home near Haslemere. He is buried in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey.

6 October 1927: The Jazz Singer heralds the dawn of the ‘talkies’

A few simple words draw applause from astonished audiences

Wait a minute, wait a minute – you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” Perhaps no words in the history of cinema are better known than these, spoken by Al Jolson in the 18th minute of the film The Jazz Singer, released on 6 October 1927 and considered the world’s first feature-length ‘talkie’. In that moment, the silent film era ended; in that moment, perhaps, the modern world began. Yet there’s more to the story behind The Jazz Singer than a mere handful of words.

The film was based on a play by Samuel Raphaelson, telling the tale of a brilliant young entertainer torn between the demands of his traditional Jewish family and the glamour of his career as a jazz singer. That play was inspired by the life of Al Jolson, born Asa Yoelson in what’s now Lithuania. In a sense, Jolson was playing himself – and pocketing the equivalent of £1m in today’s money into the bargain.

Contrary to popular belief, The Jazz Singer was not the first time audiences had heard sound in movies. As early as 1921, DW Griffith’s film Dream Street had featured three very short sound sequences, including a few words from Griffith himself. What’s more, most of The Jazz Singer’s dialogue was delivered on caption cards because sound was both expensive and fiddly. In total, the film features no more than two minutes of audible dialogue.

Even so, Jolson’s first words proved a revelation. Unused to hearing sound at such length or of such quality, many people applauded as soon as they heard the words “wait a minute”. Writing in Life magazine, the dramatist Robert E Sherwood declared that those first words were “fraught with tremendous significance”.

“I for one,” he reflected, “realised that the end of the silent drama is in sight.” | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

6 October 1973: Egypt and Syria strike against an unprepared Israel

Yom Kippur War is nations' revenge for humiliation in 1967

Saturday, 6 October 1973: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. Across Israel, it was a day of fasting and prayer. The shops had closed. Public transport had been shut down. Televisions were dark, radios silent.

That afternoon, Israel’s adversaries made their move. Six years after their humiliation in the June War of 1967, Egypt and Syria were itching for revenge. For months they had drawn up their plans, and the Israelis suspected nothing. Even that morning, after a report from a double agent reached Jerusalem, the Israeli defence minister, the veteran Moshe Dayan, was not convinced that the Arabs would dare to attempt such a stunning surprise assault. The chief of general staff, David Elazar, urged Israeli prime minister Golda Meir to launch a preemptive strike, just in case Egypt and Syria really were going to attack. But she said no.

A few hours later the assault began. At two o’clock, some 200 Egyptian aircraft screamed across the border into Israeli-occupied Sinai, while, hundreds of miles to the north, several Syrian divisions began to move into the Golan Heights. Soon air raid sirens were going off all over Israel. Radios spluttered back into life, broadcasting urgent warnings of imminent attack. Across the country, the word went out for troops to return to their units.

All the time, thousands of Egyptian infantry were moving across the Suez Canal. Within half an hour, they had raised their national flag on the eastern bank; within three hours, they had punched five bridgeheads into the Sinai. All that evening, and into the next morning, Egyptian tanks and armoured vehicles thundered across 12 makeshift bridges. It was one of the most staggering attacks in history – and, at least at first, a sensational triumph.

In the end, the Israelis managed to push their opponents back. But Middle Eastern politics would never be the same again. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook


6 October 1981

President Anwar Sadat of Egypt was assassinated by a group of fundamentalist army officers as he watched a military parade marking the eighth anniversary of the Yom Kippur War with Israel.

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