5 acts of kindness that changed history

All too often, it can seem that history books are packed with marauding royals, dishonest politicians, warring nations and murderous plots. However, history is also full of examples of kind and good gestures. On World Kindness Day, we look at five acts of kindness and bravery that have changed history – from a letter that saved Jane Austen’s life to the man who helped Jesse Owens win gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics…

American athlete Jesse Owens (right) perhaps would never even have won one of his gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics if it wasn't for an act of kindness from a fellow athlete, German long-jumper Carl Ludwig 'Luz' Long. (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

World Kindness Day falls on 13 November and is now a recognised day for the celebration of kindness in society. Here are five significant acts of kindness from history…

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1

A letter saves the life of Jane Austen, 1783

In 1783, seven-year-old Jane Austen and her elder sister Cassandra were sent to Oxford to stay with one of their cousins, Jane Cooper. The girls were to be tutored by a Mrs Ann Cawley, who later moved to Southampton, taking the young girls with her. While in Southampton, Cassandra and Jane became very ill with what was then known as “putrid sore throat” – suggested to have been diphtheria [a potentially fatal contagious bacterial infection that mainly affects the nose and throat], or typhoid.

In 1783, seven-year-old Jane Austen contracted "putrid throat" and might have died, if it weren't for a letter sent by her cousin Jane Cooper. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
Author Jane Austen might have died, if it weren’t for a letter sent by her cousin Jane Cooper. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Jane was so ill that she nearly died, but Mrs Cawley, for some inexplicable reason, made no attempt to alert her parents. Author Helen Amy explains how Jane Cooper took it upon herself to write and inform her aunt that Jane’s life was in danger, after which Austen’s mother and Mrs Cooper set off for Southampton to rescue the girls, bringing a herbal remedy that would supposedly cure the infection.

The Austen sisters recovered under their mother’s care at home and the three girls never returned to Mrs Cawley.

Portrait of Jane Austen (1775-1817). Artist: Andrews, James (active 19th cen.)

“Without her cousin’s timely intervention,” explains Amy, “Jane Austen would almost certainly have died and the world would have been deprived of her outstanding talent.”

2

Miep Gies and associates hide Anne Frank’s family from Nazi persecution, 1942–44

Following the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party in 1933, the Jewish Frank family decided to escape to the Netherlands to flee the rapidly escalating anti-Semitism in Germany. Otto and Edith Frank, along with their daughters Margot and Anne, went into hiding in an annex above Otto’s offices in Amsterdam on 6 July 1942. They were soon joined by four other Jews.

Otto and Edith Frank, along with their daughters Margot and Anne (pictured), went into hiding in an annex above Otto’s offices in Amsterdam on 6 July 1942. (Photo by ADN-Bildarchiv/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Anne Frank went into hiding in an annex above her father’s offices in Amsterdam on 6 July 1942. (Photo by ADN-Bildarchiv/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

The family was helped into hiding by a number of people who had worked for Otto Frank, including Miep Gies, who had started work as an office assistant for Frank in 1933. During the two years and 35 days the Frank family lived in the secret annex, Gies (along with other helpers) visited frequently with food and other supplies, and shared news from the outside. Above all, the friendship and kindness shown by Gies proved a lifeline for Anne, who kept a diary about her experiences and thoughts while in hiding.

On 4 August 1944, everyone in the annex was arrested. Somebody had called the German Security Police to notify them that Jews were in hiding at Prinsengracht 263. The identity of the caller has never been established. Everyone in the annex was deported first to the Westerbork transit camp, and then on to Auschwitz. In the autumn of 1944, Anne and her sister Margot were transported to Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp in Germany where almost 4,000 Jews, primarily Dutch, were imprisoned. There, facing unsanitary conditions and having no food, the girls contracted typhus. They both died in March 1945, just a few weeks before the camp was liberated.

Anne Frank - Getty Images

After the family’s arrest, Gies discovered Anne’s diary and kept it, unread, hoping she could one day return it to Anne. Sadly this never happened and she instead gave it to Otto, the only member of the family to survive the war, in July 1945. Otto later recalled: “I began to read slowly, only a few pages each day, more would have been impossible, as I was overwhelmed by painful memories. For me, it was a revelation. There, was revealed a completely different Anne to the child that I had lost. I had no idea of the depths of her thoughts and feelings.”

Anne Frank’s diary was published in the Netherlands on 25 June 1947 and remains one of the most famous – and bestselling – books of all time.

Miep Gies, who helped hide the Frank family from the Nazis. (Picture by Bettmann/Getty Images)
Miep Gies, who helped hide the Frank family from the Nazis. (Picture by Bettmann/Getty Images)
3

Elizabeth Fry visits Newgate Gaol, 1813

Until May 2017, British social reformer Elizabeth Fry was commemorated on the UK’s £5 note (she was later replaced by Winston Churchill) for her most famous philanthropic project: reform of the female side of Newgate Gaol.

Elizabeth Fry (1780–1845) was born into a wealthy Quaker family and later married London merchant Joseph Fry, with whom she had 11 children. By the early 19th century, Fry had already turned her attention to the plight of the poor, distributing aid and establishing a successful Sunday school for children. When the family moved to East Ham in 1809, Fry co-founded a school for poor girls and organised a smallpox vaccination programme for the children in the surrounding villages

c1820: English prison reformer and Quaker, Elizabeth Fry. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
c1820: English prison reformer and Quaker, Elizabeth Fry. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Yet Fry’s notable prison reform wasn’t sparked until 1813, when she visited Newgate Gaol to distribute clothing to the female prisoners, after a Quaker missionary named Stephen Grellet had alerted her to their plight. Fry was appalled at the conditions, and was most affected by the sight of two women taking the clothes from a dead baby to dress a living one.

When Fry returned in 1816, explains historian Rosalind Crone, little had changed. The women, she wrote, were “wild beasts”, often drunk, disorderly and even violent.

Elizabeth Fry visiting Newgate Prison, 1926. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

“Elizabeth now launched into action,” says Crone. “She organised a school for the children and appointed a matron to watch over the prisoners. She also found useful work – sewing and knitting – for the women, and formed the Ladies’ Newgate Association, the members of which would visit the prison daily to superintend the matron, give religious instruction and mentor the prisoners. New rules were laid down, forbidding ‘begging, swearing, gaming, card-playing, quarrelling, immoral conversation [and] improper books’. The prisoners voluntarily submitted, and Elizabeth won the support of the gaol and city authorities.”

Fry’s prison work later won public recognition through the foundation of the Elizabeth Fry Refuge for released female prisoners in 1849, and she is also remembered as a social activist, Quaker minister, author and mother.

4

Harriet Tubman rescues at least 300 people from slavery, c1850–61

Born Araminta ‘Minty’ Ross in Maryland, USA, in c1822, the woman now known as Harriet Tubman was born into an enslaved family who were all ‘owned’ by the Brodess family. At this time in certain American states, enslaved people were considered ‘property’ with no rights of their own, and their well-being was usually only considered important in terms of productivity. From the age of five, Minty was put to work. She was often loaned away from home to neighbouring families who mistreated her and by the age of 12 she had graduated to backbreaking work in the fields. In 1849, in her late 20s, Minty fled alone to Pennsylvania, the neighbouring free state.

American abolitionist leader Harriet Tubman who escaped slavery led many other slaves to safety. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)
American abolitionist leader Harriet Tubman who escaped slavery led many other slaves to safety. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

“No one knows her exact route,” explains Sophie Beal, writing for History Extra, “but during her escape, Minty likely used part of the ‘underground railroad’ – a secret network of slaves and abolitionist sympathisers – for the first time.”

On the ‘railroad’, so-called ‘conductors’ guided fugitive slaves between hiding places or ‘stations’ towards freedom in the north. It was around this time that Minty changed her name to Harriet, likely to cover her escape.

When she arrived in Philadelphia, Tubman soon found domestic work and made abolitionist friends. However, she was not completely safe. Slave catchers operated in the area, and just a year after she arrived, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 obliged local commissioners to return runaways to their owners. There were now harsh penalties for those who aided escapees.

Yet over the next 11 years, Tubman made as many as 19 trips to rescue approximately 70 slaves, including almost all her remaining family, from Maryland’s eastern shore. She also delivered to many others detailed instructions on how to escape. She is often estimated to have helped to rescue at least 300 people from slavery.

c1900: Harriet Tubman (far left) photographed with members of her family. Tubman is often estimated to have helped to rescue at least 300 people from slavery. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)
c1900: Harriet Tubman (far left) photographed with members of her family. Tubman is often estimated to have helped to rescue at least 300 people from slavery. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

Beal explains more about Tubman’s bravery: “Having raised enough money earlier in the year, Harriet would usually travel to Maryland in autumn or winter, when the longer nights kept most people inside. She would then infiltrate a plantation to find slaves ready to escape. As Sunday was their day off, she would lead them away on a Saturday night, so their owners usually wouldn’t notice them missing until Monday. This not only gave them a head start, but delayed the publication of runaway notices in the newspaper.”

Harriet Tubman’s bravery was not limited to helping enslaved people escape to northern states; she later became the first woman to lead an armed raid in the American Civil War. Tubman has become a celebrated icon of the fight to abolish slavery and it was announced in April 2016 that Tubman will be commemorated on US currency.

The bronze statue in Washington DC celebrating Abraham Lincoln's emancipation of slaves shows the 16th president standing over a shackled African American. Lincoln is "one of the towering figures in the story that Americans tell about themselves," writes Lucy Worsley. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
5

Luz Long advises Jesse Owens on his run-up, 1936

It is often claimed that Jesse Owens, American four-time gold medallist at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, was deliberately snubbed by Adolf Hitler, who refused to shake his hand. Though Albert Speer, Germany’s war armaments minister, recalled that Hitler was “highly annoyed” by Owens’s series of victories, in fact Hitler had chosen to shake hands only with German competitors and only on the first day of the Olympics – and had not deliberately refused Owens’s hand.

However, Owens perhaps would never even have won one of his gold medals if it wasn’t for an act of kindness from a fellow athlete, German long-jumper Carl Ludwig ‘Luz’ Long.

Competitors Luz Long and Jesse Owens during the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Long, the European record holder, offered Owens advice on how to adjust his run-up to make the qualifying distance during the event. (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)
Competitors Luz Long and Jesse Owens during the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Long, the European record holder, offered Owens advice on how to adjust his run-up to make the qualifying distance during the event. (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)

On 4 August 1936, in a qualifying round of the long jump, the world record holder Owens had already foot-faulted twice in his bid to compete in the event’s final. Long, the European record holder, offered Owens advice on how to adjust his run-up to make the qualifying distance. Long suggested that, as the qualifying distance was only 7.15m and that Owens could jump more than 8m, Owens should shift his mark back to ensure that he took off well short of the board and remained clear of another foul.

Jesse Owens, Berlin Olympics, 1936. It is often claimed that Hitler deliberately snubbed Owens because he had shown the Fuhrer’s theories of Aryan racial superiority to be unfounded, but this is a myth. (Granger Historical Picture Archive/Alamy Stock Photo)

Owens’s next jump was a success and he went on to win the gold medal with a jump of 8.06m, with Long earning silver.

Owens later wrote of the 1936 Olympics: “What I remember most was the friendship I struck up with Luz Long. He was my strongest rival, yet it was he who advised me to adjust my run-up in the qualifying round and thereby helped me to win.”

Owens’s long jump world record stood for 25 years and his performance during the games is widely regarded as a blow to Adolf Hitler’s intention to use the Olympics to demonstrate Aryan superiority.

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Elinor Evans is the deputy digital editor of HistoryExtra.com