Ten notable events that took place in March in history, from the Great Escape to the opening of the Eiffel Tower…
1 March 1932: The ‘Lindbergh baby’ vanishes
On the evening of 1 March 1932, the pioneering aviator Charles Lindbergh was at home in New Jersey with his wife, Anne, and 20-month-old son, Charles Jr. At 7.30pm, a nanny laid the toddler down to sleep in his crib. About two hours later, Charles heard a noise he thought sounded like a crate smashing, but thought nothing of it.
Then at 10pm, the nanny, frantic with worry, reported that the baby had disappeared. In his bedroom, Charles found a handwritten, misspelled note: “Dear Sir! Have 50000$ redy 25000$ in 20$ bills 15000$ in 10$ bills and 10000$ in 5$ bills … We warn you for making anyding public or for notify the Police. The child is in gut care.”
So began one of the most lurid cases in American criminal history. Amid massive publicity, crowds swiftly swarmed to the Lindbergh estate, destroying any chance of finding footprints. Amateur detectives, military men and even Chicago mobsters offered their assistance. More ransom notes arrived. In early April, Lindbergh delivered $50,000 to the kidnapper via an intermediary. But there was no baby.
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Then, on 12 May, a truck driver found a child’s body in woods near Lindbergh’s home. It was little Charles. Two years later, the police arrested a German-born carpenter, Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who had a record of robbery and whose garage contained notes from the ransom money. Protesting his innocence, he went to the electric chair. But many observers were convinced that he must have had help. And for the novelist Agatha Christie, the case inspired one of her greatest books, Murder on the Orient Express.
2 March 537: Belisarius saves Rome from the Goths
4 March 1918: ‘Spanish’ flu strikes and kills 100 million
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5 March 1946: Churchill warns of an ‘iron curtain’ falling across Europe
In the spring of 1946, Winston Churchill arrived in Fulton, Missouri. The little Midwestern town seemed an unlikely destination for the man who, until the previous summer, had been leading the world’s largest empire. But Churchill, rejected by the British electorate, was in the doldrums. When President Harry Truman invited him to give a lecture at a little college in his home state, Churchill saw it as a chance to revive his American reputation.
Churchill and Truman travelled to Fulton by train and on the way the president read a draft of the former prime minister’s talk. It was, he declared, excellent. But when Churchill stood up on 5 March, in the packed gymnasium at Westminster College, few could have expected that his words would resound in history.
A shadow, he explained, had fallen “upon the scenes so lately lighted by the Allied victory” – thanks entirely to Stalin’s Soviet Union. “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic,” he declared, “an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” That made Anglo-American co-operation all the more important. Theirs, Churchill added, was a “special relationship”.
Churchill was not the first man to use the words ‘iron curtain’, but he was unquestionably the most famous. After that day in Fulton, there was no doubt that the alliance between Stalin’s Soviet Union and the two great western powers was over – and that the Cold War had begun.
11 March AD 222: Rome’s emperor of excess meets a bloody end
Even in the lurid parade of Roman emperors, Elagabalus stands out. Born into the imperial Severan dynasty in c203 AD, he found himself catapulted to supreme power in his early teens and soon began to court controversy.
To the horror of the Roman elite, their teenage emperor – whose real name was Marcus Aurelius Antoninus – had signed up to the cult of the Syrian sun god Elagabalus, after whom he now named himself. Once emperor, he renamed his god Deus Sol Invictus – God the Undefeated Sun – and installed him at the head of the Roman pantheon. Then he declared himself high priest, had himself publicly circumcised and made the city’s bigwigs watch while he danced around the Sun’s new altar.
In the meantime, Elagabalus’s sexual conduct was raising eyebrows across the city. In total he married and divorced five women, but his chief relationships seem to have been with his chariot-driver, a male slave called Hierocles, and an athlete from Asia Minor called Zoticus. According to gossip, the emperor “set aside a room in the palace and there committed his indecencies, always standing nude at the door of the room, as the harlots do… while in a soft and melting voice he solicited the passers-by”. If any doctor could give him female genitalia, he said, he would give him a fortune.
Eventually, the Praetorian Guard, sick of their emperor’s excesses, switched their allegiance to his cousin Severus Alexander and turned on Elagabalus.
As the historian Cassius Dio recorded, there was no mercy for either Elagabalus or his mother: “Their heads were cut off and their bodies, after being stripped naked, were first dragged all over the city, and then the mother’s body was cast aside somewhere or other while his was thrown into the river.”
21 March 1556: Thomas Cranmer burns at the stake
By the early 1550s, Thomas Cranmer had a good claim to be one of the most influential men in English history.
As archbishop of Canterbury, he had laid the foundations for the new Church of England, attacking monasticism and the doctrine of the Mass, compiling the Book of Common Prayer and establishing the king, not the pope, as head of the church. But when the Catholic Mary succeeded her brother, young Edward VI in 1553, Cranmer was in trouble. Arrested that autumn, he publicly recanted in an attempt to save his skin. But it was no good. Even though he had abjured all his Protestant views, Mary wanted him to burn.
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On 21 March 1556, the day scheduled for his execution, Cranmer was ordered to make a final recantation at the University Church in Oxford. He wrote out his text and submitted it to the authorities. But then, once in the pulpit, he did something quite extraordinary. Unexpectedly abandoning his text, Cranmer withdrew all that he had “written for fear of death, and to save my life”.
“And forasmuch as my hand offended in writing contrary to my heart,” he added, “therefore my hand shall first be punished: for if I may come to the fire, it shall be first burned. And as for the pope, I refuse him, as Christ’s enemy and Antichrist, with all his false doctrine.”
By now the place was in uproar. Guards dragged Cranmer from the pulpit to the spot at St Giles where other martyrs had been burned. And there, “apparently insensible of pain”, this exceptionally courageous man met his end, plunging his right hand into the flames first, as he had promised. His last words were a cry almost of exaltation: “I see the heavens open, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”
24 March 1944: The Great Escape arouses Hitler’s fury
26 March 1830: The Book of Mormon debuts with a whimper
30 March 1282: Sicilians revolt against their French oppressors
As the people of Sicily celebrated Easter in 1282, the mood was tense. For more than a decade, the island had been ruled by the French magnate Charles of Anjou, whose heavy taxes and Gallic hangers-on were much resented by the locals. After years of growing unrest, passions were running high; all that was needed was a spark.
It was on Easter Monday, just before the evening Vespers service at the Church of the Holy Spirit, Palermo, that the moment came. As crowds gathered outside the church for the annual festival, a group of swaggering, tipsy French officials, with a man called Drouet particularly prominent, made overtures to some young Sicilian women. In the ensuing melee, one outraged husband plunged his knife into Drouet – and all hell broke loose.
“To the sound of the bells,” wrote the great historian Steven Runciman, “messengers ran through the city calling on the men of Palermo to rise against the oppressor. At once the streets were filled with angry armed men, crying ‘Death to the French’… They poured into the inns frequented by the French and the houses where they dwelt, sparing neither man, woman nor child.” Whenever they found a suspected Frenchmen, the mob demanded that he pronounce the local word ciciri, which outsiders invariably found difficult. Anyone who failed the test was killed.
By the next morning, 2,000 people lay dead. The War of the Sicilian Vespers had begun; it would last for another 20 years.
31 March 1889: France’s iconic tower opens
The Eiffel Tower had a troubled birth. Conceived by engineers Maurice Koechlin and Emile Nouguier as the centrepiece of the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition, it was built by the celebrated bridge-maker Gustave Eiffel, who claimed it would celebrate “not only the art of the modern engineer, but also the century of Industry and Science in which we are living, and for which the way was prepared by the great scientific movement of the 18th century and by the Revolution of 1789”.
Most of the French intellectual establishment hated the idea. It would be “useless and monstrous”, a “hateful column of bolted sheet metal”, claimed a petition signed by some 300 writers and artists. But Eiffel was having none of it, even comparing his new structure to the pyramids of Egypt. “My tower will be the tallest edifice ever erected by man,” he wrote. “Will it not also be grandiose in its way? And why would something admirable in Egypt become hideous and ridiculous in Paris?”
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In fact, when the tower was finally opened to the government and press on 31 March 1889, it was not quite finished. Crucially, the lifts were not yet working, so the visiting party had to trudge up the stairs on foot. Most gave up and remained on the lower levels; only a handful made it to the top, where Eiffel hoisted a gigantic French flag, greeted by fireworks and a 21-gun salute.
The tower was an instant hit: illuminated every night by gas lamps, it dominated not just the Exposition, but Paris itself. When the public were finally allowed in, the lifts were still not working. Yet in the first week alone, almost 30,000 people climbed to the top – a sign of how completely it had caught the world’s imagination.
Other notable March anniversaries
5 March 1981
Clive Sinclair launches the ZX81 computer, the first British model to sell more than a million units. It cost just £70, and nobody who uses its peculiar keyboard will ever forget it.
9 March 1230
Tsar Ivan Asen II crushes the army of Theodore Komnenos Doukas, so reasserting Bulgaria’s primacy in the southern Balkans.
19 March 1649
Having executed Charles I, the House of Commons passes an act abolishing the House of Lords, which it calls ‘useless and dangerous to the people of England’.
23 March 1801
In St Petersburg, Tsar Paul I is attacked by disgruntled Russian officers, who strike him down with a sword before strangling and stamping him to death.
27 March 1881
In the then violent town of Basingstoke, troops are called to clear the streets after the Salvation Army’s anti-alcohol campaign provokes rioting by local brewery workers.
29 March 1461
At Towton in Yorkshire, Edward IV leads the Yorkists to victory over the Lancastrian army – led by the Duke of Somerset – in the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil.
Dominic Sandbrook is a historian who has presented several documentaries for the BBC.
These anniversaries were first published in the March 2014/2015/2019 issues of BBC History Magazine