We’ve just found out about an intriguing book that tells tales of bad days in history. In fact it has one bad tale for every day of the year – from the weird to the terrible. And as we enter May, we thought we’d share a few of these with you… From trouble in the American South to Mary Lincoln, and a clash between a communist and somebody who was very rich! So, following is an excerpt from BAD DAYS IN HISTORY: A Gleefully Grim Chronicle of Misfortune, Mayhem, and Misery for Every Day of the Year by Michael Farquhar!
May 1, 1948 and May 14, 1961 and 1963
Raging Bull Connor
There must have been something about the merry, merry month of May that got Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor’s blood boiling. With spring in the air, and racial inequality to be maintained at all costs, the super-segregationist public safety commissioner of Birmingham, Alabama, seemed extra-energized by the season.
Start with May 1, 1948, when Glen H. Taylor, U.S. senator from Idaho, came to Birmingham—“the most segregated city in America,” as Dr. Martin Luther King later called it—and tried to enter a meeting of the Southern Negro Youth Congress through a door reserved for blacks, rather than the “Whites Only” entrance. The senator, then running for vice president on the Progressive Party ticket, was promptly seized by the police under Connor’s control. “Keep your mouth shut, buddy,” they ordered, before hauling Taylor away to jail.*
Then came more invigorating May days in the early 1960s, when Connor’s bigotry blossomed furiously in the face of new challenges to white supremacy. The Freedom Riders were coming to town, and Connor was good and ready for them. He had arranged with the Ku Klux Klan a memorable greeting party for May 14, 1961— Mother’s Day. According to one Klan informant, the terrorists had been assured by Connor’s Birmingham Police Department that they would be given 15 minutes “to burn, bomb, kill, maim, I don’t give a goddamn . . . I will guarantee your people that not one soul will ever be arrested in that fifteen minutes.” The Klansmen used the allotted time well, unleashing a savage assault on the riders with iron pipes, baseball bats, and chains.
Two years later, during the first week of May, Birmingham’s children inflamed Bull Connor further when thousands took to the streets in peaceful protest. Mass arrests were followed by a full-on assault on demonstrators with fire hoses and attack dogs—images that were captured on film and sent throughout the world. The media glare and national outrage that accompanied it made Birmingham too blistering hot for Connor that May. Unwelcome change was in the air, change he had inadvertently unleashed. By the end of the month, he was out of a job. Worse, his viciousness had pushed the previously inattentive Kennedy Administration to finally address the gross injustices in the South that Connor so viciously represented in Birmingham.
“The civil rights movement should thank God for Bull Connor,” President Kennedy said. “He’s helped it as much as Abraham Lincoln.”
* Connor had already given vent to his feelings about racial mixing a decade before, when he halted the integrated meeting of the newly formed Southern Conference for Human Welfare with this delightfully oxymoronic declaration: “I ain’t gonna let no darkies and white folk segregate together in this town.”
May 4, 1933
Immural Acts? Rockefeller vs. Rivera
Had it not been for Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the lobby of New York’s RCA building at Rockefeller Center might still be graced by the work of the world-renowned muralist Diego Rivera. The Rockefellers, capitalists to their core, commissioned Rivera, an avowed Communist, to paint a dramatic centerpiece for the new building. The lofty theme: “Man at the Crossroads Looking With Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future,” which, in the midst of the Great Depression, would feature two opposing views of society, with capitalism on one side and socialism on the other. Perhaps some might have thought twice about such a potentially explosive topic, but family matriarch Abby Rockefeller was a big fan of the artist, despite, perhaps, his political views, and the fact that he had already ridiculed John D. Rockefeller in another work. Thus, Rivera set about his creative task—with a great big surprise up his sleeve.
With work on the mural well under way, future New York governor and U.S. vice president Nelson Rockefeller went on one of his frequent visits to check on Rivera’s progress. This time, however, he saw something entirely unexpected incorporated into the work: a portrait of Lenin himself. Rockefeller was appalled, and on May 4, 1933, he shared his feelings with the artist in a letter asking him to change Lenin’s face to that of an unknown person.
Predictably, Rivera balked at the idea of altering his artistic vision. The same day he received Rockefeller’s letter, the artist responded: “Rather than mutilate the conception, I should prefer the physical destruction of the conception in its entirety.” With that, what Rivera called the “Battle of Rockefeller Center” was on. The artist was ordered to stop work on the project, and his fee was paid in full.
Amid the ensuing uproar from the art world, Nelson Rockefeller suggested the plywood-covered mural be removed and donated to the Museum of Modern Art. But the museum’s timid trustees wouldn’t touch it. Then, the following February, Rivera’s work was suddenly and unexpectedly smashed to bits and tossed into barrels—an act one critic described as “art murder.” The family claimed the destruction was inadvertent, the result of an unsuccessful attempt to remove the artwork intact. But Rivera didn’t buy that, nor did many art connoisseurs. In a wire sent from Mexico City—where he eventually reproduced the destroyed mural—the artist seethed: “In destroying my paintings the Rockefellers have committed an act of cultural vandalism. There ought to be, there will yet be, a justice that prevents the assassination of human creation as of human character.”
May 20, 1875
The Son Sets on Mary Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln tolerated his wife’s wild extravagances and occasional fits of fury with benign chagrin; his son Robert, much less so. On May 20, 1875, just over a decade after the president’s assassination, the younger Lincoln had his mother committed to an insane asylum. It was an ambush, really, one for which Mary Todd Lincoln was entirely unprepared.
The day before her forced confinement, Leonard Swett, a lawyer and adviser to the late president, arrived unexpectedly at the Chicago hotel where Mrs. Lincoln had taken a room. Accompanied by two guards, Swett escorted her to a packed courtroom where a judge, a previously empaneled jury, and an array of witnesses awaited her. Robert Lincoln was also there, having orchestrated the entire proceeding. The son had been long mortified by the eccentricities of his mother, who had endured the tragic loss of two young sons and witnessed the assassination of her husband. But mostly he was concerned about money—and how much of it she was spending.
The former first lady sat in the courtroom that day, by turns bewildered and infuriated, as a parade of experts—many of whom had never met her—testified as to her unbalanced mind, based solely on reports they had received from Robert. Hotel maids and others were called as well, offering such damning evidence as “Mrs. Lincoln’s manner was nervous and excitable.”
Then Robert took the stand. “I have no doubt my mother is insane,” he declared before the court. “She has long been a source of great anxiety to me. She has no home and no reason to make these purchases.”
The defense rested without ever raising an objection or offering a witness of its own. Robert had his mother’s appointed lawyer in his pocket, and he wouldn’t have stood for any rebuttal. While the all-male jury retired to determine Mrs. Lincoln’s fate, her treacherous son approached and tried to take her hand. Rejecting the transparent gesture, Mary Lincoln made her only statement of the day: “Oh, Robert, to think that my son would do this to me.”
Ten minutes later, the verdict of insane was rendered, and the next day Mary Todd Lincoln was locked away.
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