14 weird things that have happened in November through history
As we enter the 11th month of the year, author and journalist Eugene Byrne rounds up 14 curious November events that have taken place in history
How to win the next rollover
In November 1996, three people – two neighbours from Tipperary, southern Ireland, who shared a ticket, and another person who bought a ticket in County Waterford, southeast Ireland – shared the Irish Lotto jackpot of IR£1.6 million. The numbers the winners chose were based on the dates of the birth, ordination and death of St Pio of Pietrelcina (1887–1968), the Italian Catholic priest and mystic better known as ‘Padre Pio’.
A Lotto spokesman told the press that the use of numbers relating to saints was common among players. “The very first winner of the Lotto was a woman in Donegal who used the birth dates of her favourite saints,” they said.
Insuring a grim outcome
Jack Gilbert Graham of Colorado stood to inherit a substantial sum of money upon the death of his mother (some reports suggest $150,000), but he decided to up the stakes. On the morning of 1 November 1955, he escorted his mother to Denver Airport, carrying the suitcase he'd packed for her, which was, in fact, filled with dynamite.
United Airlines Flight 629 exploded in mid-air, killing Graham’s mother and 43 other people. Forensic examination of the site aroused suspicion, while witnesses came forward to say that they'd seen Graham at the airport frantically buying insurance policies from a vending machine (they had vending machines for everything in those days).
The criminal trial, one of the earliest to be televised, was a national sensation. Graham was found guilty and executed in January 1957.
Constable foretells election result
The US presidential election of 1976, held on 2 November, pitted the Democrat James Earl ‘Jimmy’ Carter against the incumbent Gerald Ford. This was the year in which the US was celebrating its bicentennial (200 years since the adoption of the Declaration of Independence), while a rather more low-key celebration marking the 200th anniversary of the painter John Constable was marked in Britain.
The Constable bicentenary, it was claimed, predicted the outcome of the presidential contest and the Democrat victory, because Constable’s most famous painting, The Hay Wain, shows a farm cart(er) going over a ford (crossing).
Lady Chatterley chatter
On 2 November 1960, an Old Bailey jury ruled that DH Lawrence's novel Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928) was not obscene. The case against Penguin Books famously included Mr Mervyn Griffith-Jones for the prosecution asking jurors: “Is it a book you would wish your wife or your servant to read?”
In the US, though, the quote about the book that’s best remembered comes from a review in country pursuits magazine Field & Stream: “This fictional account of the day-to-day life of an English gamekeeper is still of considerable interest to outdoor minded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional gamekeeper.
“Unfortunately one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savour these sidelights on the management of a Midlands shooting estate, and in this reviewer’s opinion this book can not take the place of JR Miller’s Practical Gamekeeping.”
Many at the time (and since) considered this a serious review, but it was a joke – its author, Ed Zern, contributed humorous articles to the magazine.
Dogs in space
The first animal to go into orbit was a dog named Laika, shot off by the Russians on 3 November 1957 in Sputnik II. The capsule wasn't designed to return to Earth, and Cosmodog Laika died a few hours after departing from earth.
This was a PR disaster for the Soviets, with protests from animal-lovers all over the world. Significantly, when the Russians launched a two-dog mission in 1960, the animals – Strelka and Belka – accompanied by a rabbit, 40 mice, two rats, and some flies – returned unharmed.
Strelka went on to have a number of puppies, one of which was presented to President Kennedy’s daughter Caroline by Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev.
Crane of thought
Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex, who was born on 10 November 1566, grew up vain and arrogant, and flattered his way into the affections of the ageing Queen Elizabeth I. Devereux’s life went swiftly downhill after his abortive rebellion, and he was executed for treason in 1601. It took three strokes of the executioner’s axe to despatch him.
According to legend, the executioner was one Thomas Derrick, who had been spared from a flogging for rape some years previously by the very same Earl of Essex on condition that he became an executioner.
Derrick had been a sailor and now used his experience with ropes, blocks and pulleys to devise a new type of hoisting beam that he employed to hang an alleged 3,000 miscreants.
The poorest rich woman in the world
Henrietta (‘Hetty’) Howland Robinson (née Green) was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, on 21 November 1838. Reading the financial pages of the papers at the age of six, Hetty would sit on her father’s knee and examine stock market reports with him.
Hetty inherited six million dollars, but was eager for more. She contested an aunt's will, which left two million to charity and, when she married millionaire Edward Green, Hetty made him sign away all rights to her fortune. The couple had two children, but grew increasingly estranged because of Hetty’s miserliness and eccentricities.
In later years Hetty lived alone in a small, two-room apartment in Brooklyn, eating mainly oatmeal (heated on radiators) and broken biscuits. Yet she was one of the most able financiers of the age, investing shrewdly in real estate, mines, railroads, and government bonds. When she died a pauper's death in 1916, she was probably the richest woman in the world.
Crawling for Jesus
“A lot of people tell me I’m crazy,” said Baptist minister Hans Mullikin in the 1970s, but as far as he was concerned, crawling 1,600 miles on his hands and knees from Texas to Washington was a religious act. His intention, he said, was to show America “that we need to get on our knees and repent”.
Mullikin crawled from his home in Marshall, Texas, to the gates of the White House in Washington DC, in two-and-a-half years. Equipped with footballer’s kneepads, he would crawl a certain distance, jog back to his car, drive the car up to the stopping point, then start crawling again, repeating this process over and over. The voyage was not continuous, as he returned home to work in the winter months to finance his journey.
When he arrived at the White House on 22 or 23 November 1978 (some ambiguity surrounds the date), President Carter was unavailable for a meeting.
King Otto I
Albania proclaimed itself independent of the Ottoman Empire on 28 November 1912. What happened in the immediate aftermath is a matter of some dispute. According to one story, the independence leaders chose as their ‘protector’ Halim Eddine, a Turkish prince. Eddine turned up in Durrës, the then Albanian capital, richly dressed and accompanied by a strapping bodyguard. He declared an amnesty for all prisoners, a week of celebrations, and appointed all the feudal grandees a place in his cabinet. In turn, he was presented with 25 women for his harem. It was suggested that he be formally crowned king, and so became known as King Otto.
King Otto I of Albania reigned for five days. On day five, the Albanian prime minister received a telegram from Halim Eddine, puzzled to hear reports of his reception, as he hadn’t left Turkey yet. The impostor was a German circus performer named Otto Witte (1872–1958), with sword-swallower Max Schlepsig as one of his bodyguards.
Back in Germany the authorities reportedly permitted Witte’s identity card to bear the words: ‘Former King of Albania’.
A humane invention
Contrary to popular belief, Richard Jordan Gatling (1818–1903) did not ‘invent’ the machine gun. He merely patented what turned out to be one of the earliest practical ones, on 4 November 1862.
Gatling was a prolific inventor, and his gun – a sequence of rotating barrels operated by a hand-crank – was based on a seed-planting machine he had devised. Gatling later claimed that the gun, far from making the battlefield more murderous, had been invented for humane reasons: “It occurred to me that if I could invent a machine – a gun – which could by its rapidity of fire, enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would, to a large extent, supersede the necessity of large armies.” Thus, fewer soldiers would be needed and fewer people would be killed.
The feast of St Rumwold (also sometimes known as Rumwald or Rumbold), one of the most interesting of Britain's Anglo-Saxon saints, is celebrated on 3 November. Rumwold was a grandson of Penda, King of Mercia in the mid-7th century and was born, according to legend, at King’s Sutton, Northamptonshire, and died three days later. During his brief life he is supposed to have said “I am a Christian” several times; professed his belief in the Holy Trinity; asked for baptism and Holy Communion; and preached a sermon on the importance of the Trinity and the need for clean living among all good Christians.
The cult of this highly improbable saint was popular in England before the Norman invasion.
Great Catherine’s dull death
The death of Empress Catherine the Great of Russia in November 1796 is surrounded in scandalous legend. With the help of her lover, Count Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov, Catherine deposed her husband Peter III in 1762 and took the throne.
Catherine had a succession of lovers after Orlov, each initially ‘road-tested’ by Catherine's chief lady-in-waiting, the Countess Bruce. Bruce was sacked when it was found she was ‘road-testing’ young Ivan Rimsky-Korsakov (an ancestor of the composer) far more than was deemed necessary.
Catherine's love-life became the scandal of Europe, leading to all manner of outrageous stories, the silliest ones being about how she died: she was, the story goes, crushed to death by a horse (in other versions, a bull) that had been suspended over her bed using a harness used for unspeakable purposes. In another version of the story, Catherine was assassinated by spring-loaded blades in her toilet seat.
In reality she had a stroke, lapsed into a coma, and died in a bed of which she was, at the time, the sole occupant.
Pulling the plug
Lake Peigneur in Louisiana was 10ft deep, with a botanical park on one side and some oil wells on the other. On 20 November 1980, contractors working for Texaco were drilling a test hole in the middle of the lake when their rig started to tilt.
The five-man crew fled for the shore as the water in the lake started to turn into a huge whirlpool. A large crater formed at the bottom of the lake as though someone had pulled the plug from an enormous bath, and all the water in Lake Peigneur ran out of the increasingly large hole.
The whirlpool consumed the drilling platform; a tugboat; 11 barges; greenhouses from the nearby botanical gardens; a couple of trucks and trailers; 65 acres of land; and another nearby rig – along with 1.5 billion gallons of lake water.
The drillers, it transpired, had drilled into a salt mine. They knew it was there, but just didn't think it was right under their borehole. Nobody was killed in the incident; the hole was stabilized; and the lake filled once more.
Cheating the bank, and the hangman
Henry Fauntleroy was a partner in Marsh, Sibbald & Co, an early 19th-century London bank. His earnings allowed him to indulge his obsession with Napoleon, to the extent he decorated his parlour like the inside of Bonaparte's campaign tent.
The reason Henry could afford this opulence was simple; he was embezzling cash from the bank. His death sentence after being caught was unpopular: Henry was a flamboyant figure who had earned himself a number of fans, many of whom appealed for clemency. One fan even offered to be executed in Fauntleroy's place.
Nevertheless, Henry was hanged on 30 November 1824… or was he? Before the introduction of the hangman's drop, which kills by breaking the neck of its victim, hanging was a matter of slow strangulation, and a legend arose that it was possible to cheat the rope by inserting a silver tube into the windpipe.
Fauntleroy was said to have used this method and made a quiet escape after being cut down for dead. There is no evidence that this happened, but many people believed it.
This article was first published on History Extra in November 2015