When did Brutus die? How did Mussolini rise to power? And why did Oliver Cromwell besiege the Irish town of Wexford? Here, Dominic Sandbrook explores some of the most interesting things that happened in October through history
16 October 1888: ‘Jack the Ripper’ posts a gruesome memento
The autumn of 1888 found George Lusk most agitated. Lusk was one of Whitechapel’s most prominent local figures, a self-employed builder and churchwarden who had been elected chairman of the area’s Vigilance Committee. Like his fellow volunteers, Lusk was horrified by the police’s inability to solve the crimes of Jack the Ripper, and his name featured prominently in posters appealing for information. But as the tension mounted, Lusk began to worry that somebody – a mysterious bearded man, he thought – was watching his house.
On 16 October, a little parcel arrived at Lusk’s house in the evening mail, its postmark showing that it had been sent the day before. Lusk read the accompanying letter. “From hell,” it began, and continued in ungrammatical, misspelled English: “Mr Lusk. Sor, I send you half the Kidne I took from one women prasarved it for you tother piece I fried and ate it was very nise. I may send you the bloody knif that took it out if you only wate a whil longer. signed Catch me when you can Mishter Lusk.”
In the parcel he found a little lump, preserved in alcohol. Initially thinking it a hoax, Lusk put away the box in his desk drawer, but next day he was persuaded to take it for medical tests. The results were chilling. It was indeed half of a human kidney; according to a newspaper report, one medical expert thought it had come from a woman aged about 45 who drank heavily. The Ripper’s second victim, Catherine Eddowes, had been 46 and was a drinker – and it was known that her kidney had been cut out. Could Lusk’s gory gift have been sent by the Ripper?
For Marcus Junius Brutus, one of the aristocratic assassins of Julius Caesar, the second battle of Philippi was a catastrophe. More than two years since Caesar’s murder, Brutus might have been forgiven for thinking himself safe. Even at the beginning of October 42 BC, when he was facing the combined armies of Caesar’s lieutenant Mark Antony and his heir Octavian, his position looked pretty good. But after a stalemate on 3 October at the first battle of Philippi, in modern-day Greece, things began to unravel.
The second battle could hardly have gone worse for Brutus. He had a strong defensive position but his officers were impatient to settle matters, and their insistence on mounting an attack soon backfired. After bitter hand-to-hand fighting against Octavian’s forces, Brutus’s army fell back in disarray.
That night, after fleeing from the battlefield, Brutus and his senior officers sat and talked in the darkness. He asked his old friend Volumnius to help him kill himself, but was refused. Brutus was undeterred. “After clasping each man by the hand… he said he rejoiced with exceeding joy that not one of his friends had proved false to him,” wrote the historian Plutarch, “and as for Fortune, he blamed her only for his country’s sake.” Then he withdrew with another old friend, Strato. According to some reports, Strato held Brutus’s sword, upon which the commander “fell with such force that it passed quite through his breast and brought him instant death”.
When Brutus’s enemies discovered his body, they treated it with striking respect; Antony even ordered that it be covered with his own expensive cloak. Brutus was cremated and on Antony’s orders, his ashes were sent to his mother in Rome.
11 October 1649: Cromwell’s army ravages Wexford
On 11 October 1649, guns rang out across Wexford. For more than a week the Irish port had been besieged by Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, which had identified it as a key royalist garrison and a crucial base for attacks on parliamentarian shipping.
During the siege, Cromwell had been negotiating with the local governor, David Synnot, for a peaceful surrender. The English commander promised that if Wexford capitulated he would allow the garrison leave to disperse, and that “no violence” would be offered to the townsfolk. But on the morning of 11 October, the talks broke down.
A few hours later, for reasons that remain unclear, the officer commanding Wexford Castle decided on his own initiative to hand it over to Cromwell. Now the New Model Army had the upper hand. As the town’s defenders broke and fled, Cromwell’s men burst into the town.
What followed was carnage. The parliamentarian troops stormed through the streets of Wexford, and hundreds of defenders fled for the river Slaney; many drowned, while others were shot down by their pursuers. Estimates of the total death toll at Wexford differ widely, but most historians agree that at least 2,000 people may have been killed – perhaps many more.
Contrary to popular belief, Cromwell had not personally ordered the attack on the town, but he shed no tears for the town’s victims – for this was the judgment of God. “They were,” he wrote, “made with their blood to answer for the cruelties they had exercised upon diverse poor Protestants.”
28 October 1922: Mussolini marches to power in Italy
The March on Rome, which assumed mythical significance in the Fascist imagination, was a chaotic affair. Italy in the autumn of 1922 was a turbulent, unhappy place, seething with industrial unrest and political discontent. By the final weeks of October, the Fascists’ paramilitary ‘Blackshirts’ were itching to strike. On the 24th, with thousands of Blackshirts heading for the capital, their leader, Benito Mussolini, told an audience in Naples: “Our programme is simple: we want to rule Italy.” Tellingly, though, Mussolini himself held back from joining the march. A self-interested opportunist rather than a fanatic, he wanted to stay out of trouble if the elected government regained control.
As it happened, the authorities lost their nerve. With much of the liberal regime paralysed by indecision, on 26 October the cabinet resigned, though the prime minister, Luigi Facta, agreed to remain in post to maintain order. Two days later, early on the 28th, Facta decided to strike back. He prepared to declare a state of siege, sending troops to defend Rome’s gates and bridges, and ordering the army to arrest the Fascist leaders. By the time he took the draft declaration of martial law to the king, Victor Emmanuel III, news of the state of siege was already being broadcast on agency wires – but the king refused to sign the declaration.
Victor Emmanuel’s decision changed the course of Italian history. By lunchtime, the state of siege had been officially suspended. Facta was finished; Fascist supporters were openly celebrating in the streets of Rome. Two days later, the king invited Mussolini to form a government.
Why had he done it? Fear of civil war, some said, while others suggested that the king had deluded himself into thinking he could control Mussolini. If that was true, as events were to prove, he could hardly have been more mistaken.
Comment – Professor Richard Bosworth:
The March on Rome had two evident characteristics, raising issues that lingered through the Italian dictatorship and today dividing historians in their assessments of ‘the Italian road to totalitarianism’ (a word invented in Italy).
On the one hand there was violence and murder. The Fascist squads were armed and belligerent. Once the king had appointed Mussolini as prime minister, the Fascists raged through the working-class suburb near San Lorenzo, a raid that culminated in the burning of the small local socialist library. It was a demonstration that, from that point on, there was only one truth – and it was Fascist. Between 18 and 20 December, a still more brutal assault on working-class Turin followed.
Yet Mussolini had not himself marched with the squads. He had stayed by the telephone in Milan, negotiating with this politician and that one. His government was a coalition. Only in January 1925 did he pronounce himself ‘dictator’ of an entrenched ‘totalitarian regime’, where “all [must be] for the state, nothing outside the state, no one against the state”.
In 1922 the king, the Vatican and almost the whole of the national establishment backed the new government. This dictatorship won considerable consensus, one reason being that, in contrast with Hitler’s radical revolution, most of the time the ‘duce’ “worked towards Italians” – at least, those from the comfortable classes.
Richard Bosworth’s latest book is Italian Venice: A History (Yale University Press, 2014). He is now working on a study of Mussolini’s last lover, Claretta Petacci, and her world.