What’s in a Day (or Two)?

It’s uncanny how some days of the month seem to have a greater array of noteworthy historical milestones than others. Of course, that’s a rather subjective statement, not to mention a somewhat false one.

Dramatic things happen every day of every month of every year. But the distance of time and the “This Day in History” lists that collapse the decades or centuries between events lulls one into imagining they have some mystical numeric connection.

Take April 14, for example. There are (at least) two major contenders for drama on this day (and by default, the day that followed).

One took place in 1865, at about 10:15 p.m. On that evening, during an otherwise innocent production of Our American Cousin, John Wilkes Booth stepped into the Presidential box at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. and assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln died across the street the next morning at the Peterson Boarding House.

Abraham Lincolns Deathbed Scene, ca. 1865. One of the cabinet members depicted is Secretary of the Treasury Hugh McCulloch (second from left), born in Kennebunk, in 1808.

Weirdly, the 14th of April in 1912 was another dark day in history. On that day, the Titanic hit the iceberg. That also happened in the late evening, at 11:40 p.m., though the ship didn’t sink until early on the 15th–2:20 a.m. to be exact. Despite several ships responding to the distress calls, none were close enough to arrive on time. 1,517 lives were lost.

The Parisian, Portland, ca. 1900. This passenger vessel was the first to have the Marconi wireless telegraph in 1902 and was one of the ships called to respond to the sinking of the Titanic.

Lest you think this is just proof that April really is the cruelest month, here are some more uplifting and lofty April 14 events:

  • 1775: The first abolition society in North America is established in Philadelphia. (On the 15th in 1947, Jackie Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers!)
  • 1828: Noah Webster copyrights the first edition of his dictionary. (And on the 15th in 1755, A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson is published in London. Rand McNally published the first road atlas on the 15th in 1924.)
  • 1860: The first Pony Express rider made it to California. (Of course the Donner Party also left Springfield, Illinois to begin their fateful trip to California on that day in 1886. Oops… decidedly not uplifting.)
  • 1939: John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is published in 1939; across the water (and much earlier), A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens is published in 1859.

One could go on (and on), but you get the idea. The events are entirely arbitrary and yet there’s something addictive about organizing and sorting haphazard historical occurrences and put them into parallels with one another to see which ones hold up–to gauge which ones feel as though an actual historical thread exists between them.

For example, there’s probably nothing whatsoever that leads from Dickens to Steinbeck. But it doesn’t take a genius to see the historical relationship between the establishment of the first abolition society and Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball. They were both part of the same historical narrative–albeit a big one.

The next time you’re angling for a good brainteaser, Google one of those “This Day in History” lists and try weaving the historical threads between the decades and centuries. Then pull tight and see which ones hold fast.

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