1955: Rosa Parks sits to take a stand
It was about six o' clock on the evening of 1 December 1955 when the 42-year-old Rosa Parks boarded a bus.
A few minutes later, the bus stopped in front of the Empire Theater. By this time it was almost full, and some white passengers were standing at the front. When the driver noticed, he ordered the first row of black passengers to give up their seats, as the regulations demanded. Rosa Parks was among them. And at that moment, she wrote: “I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night.”
The man next to her moved back; but she did not. The driver asked: “Why don’t you stand up?” Parks replied: “I don’t think I should have to.” She was arrested. Four days later, the Montgomery bus boycott began.
1908: Two-year-old Pu Yi becomes the last Emperor of China
Pensioned off following the Chinese Revolution of 1911–12, he was installed by the Japanese in 1932 as the puppet ruler of Manchuria.
1926: Agatha Christie vanishes
On the evening of 3 December, Christie was at home in the Berkshire stockbroker belt. She went upstairs to kiss her seven-year-old daughter goodnight. Then she got into her Morris, started the engine – and disappeared.
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What followed was a media sensation. Amid a blizzard of headlines, the police mobilised a thousand officers to help with the search, while volunteers chartered aeroplanes to scour the countryside.
The denouement was bizarre indeed. On 14 December Christie turned up in the elegant Swan Hydro Hotel in Harrogate under an assumed name. For days she had joined in with the hotel’s bridge and dancing programme, and when she was finally recognised, she claimed to have lost her memory. The really weird thing, though, was that she had checked in under the name Theresa Neele. For as it turned out, her husband had been having an affair – with a woman whose surname was Neele.
1872: Sailors spot a mysterious ghost ship – the abandoned Mary Celeste
As Captain Morehouse and his mates approached the stricken vessel, they realised that they knew her. She was an American merchant ship, barely a decade old. Only a few weeks earlier both ships had been in New York Harbor, and their captains vaguely knew one another. This was Captain Benjamin Briggs’ ship, the Mary Celeste. But where were the crew?
As the two mates investigated, the mystery deepened. Contrary to myth, there were no untouched meals and no signs of a struggle. The sails were poorly set, some of the hatches were open and there was a little water in the hold, but the ship was otherwise in decent order. The captain’s cabin was slightly messy, and his papers were missing. So, tellingly, was the lifeboat. But the galley was tidy, and there were plenty of supplies. Above all, there were no signs of a fight, no hints of fire or disaster – nothing, in short, that would explain the disappearance of the entire crew.
1791: Composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart meets an untimely end
Two days later, Mozart was buried in a pauper’s grave. The gale howled, and all day, rain hammered down in the sepulchral darkness. The heavens themselves were weeping – or were they? Actually, contemporary accounts suggest it was a mild, misty day, with only a moderate wind. Even the pauper’s grave is a fiction. Mozart was buried in an ordinary unmarked grave, like the overwhelming majority of middle-class Viennese.
1240: The Mongols terrorise Kiev
The Mongols poured into the city, looting, raping and killing. Hundreds of Kiev’s citizens fled inside the Church of the Virgin Mary. But so many stampeded up the stairs towards the dome that the structure collapsed beneath their weight. There was no escape from the slaughter.
Six years later, a papal envoy passed the ruins of what had once been Kiev, now a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The people had been enslaved, only 200 houses still stood, and there were “countless skulls and bones of dead men lying about on the ground”. Kiev, he wrote, “has been reduced almost to nothing”.
Births in December
3 December 1838
Octavia Hill, social reformer
5 December 1661
Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford
5 December 1830
Christina Georgina Rossetti, poet
5 December 1859
Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, governor general of New Zealand
6 December 1421
Henry, the only son and heir of Henry V of England
7 December 1598
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Baroque sculptor and architect
7 December 1810
Theodor Schwann, physiologist
8 December 1542
Mary, Queen of Scots
9 December 1608
John Milton, poet
10 December 1812
Paul Abadie, French architect
13 December 1871
Emily Carr, Canadian writer and expressionist painter
14 December 1730
James Bruce, Scottish traveller and writer
15 December 1832
Gustave Eiffel, engineer and tower designer
15 December 1859
LL Zamenhof, inventor of the international language, Esperanto
16 December 1882
Jack Hobbs, cricketer
16 December 1717
Elizabeth Carter, writer and "bluestocking"
18 December 1619
Prince Rupert, the son of Elector Frederick V and Elizabeth
18 December 1707
Charles Wesley, hymn writer
19 December 1910
Jean Genet, criminal turned novelist, poet and playwright
25 December 1642
Isaac Newton, English physicist, astronomer, mathematician, philosopher and theologian
25 December 1759
Richard Porson, English classical scholar
26 December 1887
Arthur Percival, who surrendered Singapore to the Japanese in 1942
29 December 1788
CJ Thomsen, Danish archaeologist
29 December 1809
William Ewart Gladstone, future prime minister
31 December 1908
Simon Wiesenthal, Nazi hunter
31 December 1912
John Frost, British soldier and paratrooper
1941: Japanese planes bomb Pearl Harbor
The clock had just ticked past five to eight in the morning when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Tension between Tokyo and Washington had been building for weeks. Even so, none of the American airmen and sailors at Pearl Harbor that day had any expectation that Japan would strike with such devastating speed
Some 353 Japanese planes descended in two thick black waves on the Hawaiian naval base. What followed was hell on earth. More than 2,400 Americans were killed, almost 200 aircraft were destroyed, four battleships were sunk and another four were badly damaged. Just two hours after they had screamed out of the sky, the Japanese were gone. They left a scene of total devastation, black smoke pouring from the wreckage of the ships.
1980: Crazed fan murders John Lennon
That day was a Monday and, bizarrely, it was the ABC commentators on the evening’s American football game who broke the news of Lennon’s death. Within moments the news had spread around the globe: thousands of fans gathered outside the Dakota Building in New York, while millions mourned across the world. Six days after the murder, some 30,000 people paid tribute in Liverpool, while a further 225,000 gathered in New York.
Mark Chapman, a college dropout who had been a big Beatles fan before being 'born again', was sentenced to life imprisonment. He has had eight parole hearings since 2000, none of which have been successful.
1960: Coronation Street hits TV sets
For British audiences, 9 December 1960 was a milestone in television history. At seven that evening, with more than 3m people staring at their sets, a brass band struck up a mournful tune, the grainy black and white picture showed a long street of terraced back-to-backs, and Coronation Street began its record-breaking run as the nation's best-loved soap opera.
1884: Huckleberry Finn comes to Britain
At the end of 1884, the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was finished, and was published in Britain on 10 December by Chatto & Windus – though American publication, oddly, had to wait a few more weeks.
Alas, not everybody liked it. In New England, one library committee called it “the veriest trash”, adding that it was “more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable, people”. Twain thought that was hilarious. “This will sell us another 25,000 copies for sure!” he wrote. And he was right.
1282: Llywelyn ap Gruffyd, the last prince of an independent Wales, is killed by the English in a minor skirmish while campaigning in the Builth region
His head was later sent for public display in London.
1870: Joseph H Rainey, a South Carolina Republican, becomes the first African-American to serve in the United States House of Representatives
1577: Francis Drake sails from Plymouth on his world voyage
AD 557: The earth moves in Constantinople
It was at around midnight on 14 December 557 that Constantinople felt the first tremors. Its people were no strangers to earthquakes – there had been one just a matter of months earlier – but this seemed worse. As the Roman capital’s buildings began to shake, “shrieks and lamentations” rose from the imperial city. After each tremor, recorded the historian Agathias, there came a “deep, growling sound like thunder issuing from the bowels of the earth”, while the sky “grew dim with the vaporous exhalations of a smoky haze rising from an unknown source, and gleamed with a dull radiance”.
1939: Premiere of Gone with the Wind
An estimated 300,000 people lined the streets to watch the stars arrive at Loew’s Grand Theater. Among the guests of honour was a group of Confederate veterans, whose appearance drew great roars of approval from the crowds. But although most of the Hollywood names turned up, one was missing. This was Hattie McDaniel, who later won an Academy Award for her performance as Mammy. Since McDaniel was black, state law prevented her from sitting alongside her white counterparts. Amid all the Civil War nostalgia, here was a reminder of the enduring injustice at the heart of the old South.
1773: Boston rebels dump tea into the sea
It was dark in Boston when the Tea Party began. After years of rising tension between Britain and its American colonies, attention had become focused on the Tea Act of 1773, which reaffirmed the controversial tax on imported tea. At the end of November, the first tea ship, the Dartmouth, had arrived in Boston, but local activists demanded that it return home without paying the import duty.
With passions running high, the crowd was soon surging towards the harbour. That evening, dozens of men, some of them disguised as Native Americans, boarded the Dartmouth and two other tea ships, unloaded hundreds of chests of tea and dumped them into Boston harbour. It was an act of pure vandalism, and back in Britain, the authorities were appalled.
497 BC: Romans celebrate the first Saturnalia
Sometimes described as the Roman inspiration for Christmas, the festival of Saturnalia was first celebrated on 17 December 497 BC, to mark the inauguration of Rome’s new Temple of Saturn.
1912: Newspapers announce the discovery in Sussex of the skull and jaw of the ‘Piltdown Man’
It was presented as the missing link between apes and humans but 40 years later the ‘discovery’ was revealed to have been an elaborate hoax.
1981: The Penlee lifeboat disaster
The RNLB Solomon Browne went to the aid of the coaster MV Union Star after its engines failed in heavy seas off the Cornish coast. Both vessels were lost and 16 people died, including eight volunteer lifeboatmen.
1192: Richard the Lionheart is captured
The men of Leopold, Duke of Austria, struck on 20 December. Some versions of the story claim that Richard tried to evade capture by pretending to be a chef, even turning meat over a spit in the kitchen. But it was no good. Arrested and charged with grievously insulting the Austrian duke, Richard was taken to the castle of Dürnstein, perched high above the Danube, west of Vienna. There he remained before being moved to another castle in Germany. He was not released until February 1194, after his countrymen had paid an enormous ransom.
1910: A massive underground explosion at Lancashire's Hulton Colliery Number 3 Bank Pit
It was known locally as the Pretoria Pit, and killed 344 men and boys. It was the third worst mining disaster in British history.
1938: Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, curator of a small museum in East London, South Africa, discovers what turns out to be a coelacanth, a fish believed to have been extinct for millions of years.
1815: Jane Austen’s Emma, a novel about “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”, is an instant hit
Emma was published in three volumes, each set costing one guinea. It was an instant success. Sir Walter Scott thought Austen’s characters were “finished up to nature, and with a precision which delights the reader”.
“Let me entreat you to read Emma,” the poet Thomas Moore told a friend, “it is the very perfection of novel-writing.”
Deaths in December
2 December 1560
Charles de Marillac, Archbishop of Vienne
3 December 311
Diocletian, Roman emperor
4 December 1732
John Gay, poet and dramatist
8 December 1691
Richard Baxter, English Puritan church leader and theologian
9 December 1641
Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Flemish painter
10 December 1909
Red Cloud, leader of the Oglala Lakota Sioux during the Bozeman War of 1866–68
12 December 1889
Robert Browning, poet
14 December 1861
Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria
14 December 1542
James V of Scotland
15 December 1683
Izaak Walton, author of The Compleat Angler
17 December 1830
Simon Bolivar, who played a key role in Latin America's successful bid for independence from Spain
19 December 1848
Emily Brontë, author of Wuthering Heights
22 December 1960
Sir John Ninian Comper, Scottish church architect
26 December 1909
Frederic Remington, New York-born painter and sculptor
27 December 1940
Jessie Margaret Saxby, Shetland writer and folklorist
28 December 1360
Thomas Holland, Earl of Kent
28 December 1937
Maurice Ravel, French composer
30 December 1408
John Hawley, wine and wool merchant
31 December 1877
Gustave Courbet, French realist painter
1818: An Austrian priest, Josef Mohr, unveils his new carol: ‘Silent Night’
As the worshippers trudged through the snow towards St Nicholas’s Church that Christmas Eve, none knew that they were to witness the birth of a musical phenomenon. Today ‘Silent Night’ is probably the world’s most familiar carol, having been translated into an estimated 300 languages and dialects. Its fame in the English-speaking world owes much to an American priest, John Freeman Young, who translated it for his New York parishioners in 1859 and later became bishop of Florida.
Yet the carol we sing today is not quite the same as Mohr and Gruber’s original. During its early days, it was faster and jauntier, a song to gee up the parishioners of a bruised, moribund little town – and a long way from the gentle ballad we know and love in the 21st century.
1223: The Christmas nativity is born
In 1223, Greccio, in the Apennines in central Italy, welcomed one of the best-known men in the medieval world: Francis of Assisi, Catholic friar and founder of the Franciscan order. And it was Francis who decided that Greccio should put on the world’s first nativity scene.
Francis had been to the Holy Land a few years earlier, and may well have been inspired by the sites associated with the Gospels. According to St Bonaventure, he “prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed”. Then, as midnight approached on Christmas Eve, “the brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise”.
The nativity scene was a huge hit. One man, a former soldier who had become one of Francis’s closest companions, even claimed to have seen a vision of “an Infant marvellously beautiful, sleeping in the manger”. From then on, there was no looking back.
1792: A brilliant defence fails to save Louis XVI from the guillotine
For two weeks, de Sèze, reputedly one of the finest lawyers in the country, had worked almost without a break. Now, as he rose to address the National Assembly, he looked exhausted: in fact, he had not slept for four days. Still, even Louis’ fiercest critics admitted that his lawyer gave a command performance. One by one de Sèze went through the prosecution’s charges, ruthlessly dissecting their distortions and evasions.
Then came a memorable peroration, praising the former king as the “constant friend of the people”. “Citizens,” he concluded, “I cannot finish... I stop myself before history. Think how it will judge your judgment, and that the judgment of him will be judged by the centuries.”
Then it was Louis’ turn. Pale and quiet, he was determined to avoid the example of England’s Charles I, whose defiance in 1649 had done him no favours. “You have heard my defence, I would not repeat the details,” he said softly. “In talking to you perhaps for the last time, I declare that my conscience reproaches me with nothing, and that my defenders have told you the truth.”
Afterwards, on the journey back, the king seemed more anxious for the shattered de Sèze than for himself. A month later, Louis went to the guillotine.
1539: Anne of Cleves lands in England, disembarking at Deal and moving on to Dover
She then travelled to Rochester where, on 1 January 1540, Henry VIII visited her privately in disguise.
1879: Tragedy strikes at the Tay Rail Bridge
“Beautiful railway bridge of the silv’ry Tay / Alas! I am very sorry to say / That ninety lives have been taken away / On the last sabbath day of 1879 / Which will be remember’d for a very long time.” So begins William McGonagall’s The Tay Bridge Disaster, often described as the worst poem in history. It did not even get the casualty figures right. But behind this unintended comic tribute lay a genuinely tragic story.
Opened in June 1878, the Tay Rail Bridge was one of the engineering marvels of Victorian Scotland, spanning almost two miles across the firth of Tay to Dundee. Costs had risen during construction, and the architect, Thomas Bouch, had made virtually no allowance for high winds.
So when a ferocious storm blew up on the evening of 28 December 1879, the result was disaster. At exactly 7.13pm, the Edinburgh express, which had come from Burntisland and was pulling five carriages and a luggage van, was given the signal to proceed onto the bridge. But when it was halfway across, there was a flash of light – and then total darkness.
The collapse happened within moments, toppling the train, the bridge and even some of the supporting girders into the Tay. Counting staff, there had been about 75 people on board. There were no survivors. Much of the blame was aimed at Bouch, who had been knighted after the bridge first opened. He died less than a year later, reportedly from “shock and distress of mind”.
1890: The Sioux are cut down at Wounded Knee
On 28 December 1890, a party of 7th Cavalry troopers intercepted a group of around 350 Lakota Sioux en route to the Pine Ridge Reservation, and escorted them to Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota.
As dawn broke the next day, the troopers ordered the Sioux to surrender any weapons. With tempers rising, a medicine man, Yellow Bird, began to perform the Ghost Dance. When another Sioux, Black Coyote, who was deaf, refused to give up his rifle, troopers tried to take it by force. Nobody quite knows what happened next: there was a scuffle, a gunshot – and then the firing began.
Only when the last shots died away was the extent of the slaughter clear. At least 25 troopers had fallen, many to friendly fire. But up to 300 Sioux had been cut down, including women and children. As one US army veteran recalled: “The white hot fury of this mad melee defies my attempts at description.” His comrades, he admitted, “simply went berserk”. The result was one of the most notorious massacres in American history.
1460: Richard of York’s decapitated head is given a crown of paper
As many as 2,500 men may have been slaughtered in the battle of Wakefield, among them not only York himself, but his son Edmund, Earl of Rutland and his brother-in-law and chief northern ally, the Earl of Salisbury.
Their enemies shed no tears for the fallen Yorkists; quite the reverse. The Lancastrian commander, the Duke of Somerset, ordered that the three barons’ heads should be mounted above Micklegate Bar, the city of York’s western gate. In a gesture of supreme contempt, some sources have Richard of York’s head wearing a paper crown.
1759: Ireland’s most famous drink is born
In the last day of 1759, a young man signed a 9,000-year lease on a dilapidated brewery on James Street, Dublin, for which he agreed to pay the sum of £45 a year. His name was Arthur Guinness and he now enjoys near-legendary status in the Republic of Ireland.