Building the Berlin Wall, August 1961.
Building the Berlin Wall, August 1961.
August 31, 12: Caligula is born.
The Roman emperor Caligula succeeded the his great-uncle Tiberius in the year 37 at the age of twenty-four. Like his predecessor, Caligula was popular with the public and generally regarded as a good ruler - early in his reign; not only was he the son of the very popular general Germanicus (whose soldiers gave him the nickname “Caligula” - “little boot”), but he was also not Tiberius, who, in the later years of his reign, became brooding and reclusive and was perceived by the public as paranoid and cruel.
It is still unclear exactly what triggered Caligula’s almost spontaneous transformation into the depraved, insane despot we are familiar with. Some surviving sources simply state that he was insane; more modern scholars offer up medical explanations for his condition (hyperthyroidism, meningitis, epilepsy, etc.) He famously attempted to appoint his favorite horse, Incitatus, to the Senate, although this may have been Caligula’s idea of a joke, or simply not true at all. Caligula was also accused of, among other things, seducing his guests’ wives, trying to erect statues of himself in temples for worship, punishing the most minor of offenses with death, killing random bystanders simply because he could, and committing incest with each of his sisters. Philo of Alexandria also hints at pedophilic inclinations, although there is little historical basis for this claim (and for any of these claims, to be fair). Another notable feature of Caligula’s short reign was his reckless spending and the general decadence of his courts and lifestyle. While Tiberius left a large surplus in the imperial treasury, Caligula emptied it, spending wastefully on all sorts of projects and public displays.
After less than four years of rule, conspirators within the Praetorian Guard murdered Caligula, his wife, and their daughter.
August 29, 1949: The Soviet Union detonates its first atomic bomb.
A little over four years after the United States conducted its first nuclear test Trinity Site in New Mexico, the Soviet Union followed suit, successfully testing their RDS-1 device (also called First Lightning, and “Joe-1” by the Americans) at the Semipalatinsk Test Site. The bomb was similar in yield and design to the American “Fat Man” bomb, unsurprisingly, as it was later revealed that the Soviets had access to a ring of atomic spies, who passed along technical information sometimes directly from Los Alamos.
The first Soviet experiment was similar to the American one, although the scientists had structures (bridges, buildings, towers) built and caged animals placed around point zero, in order to study the effects of radiation on both. The test was conducted by a program headed by Igor Kurchatov, called the “father of the Soviet atomic bomb”. In September of 1949, Harry Truman announced that the U.S. had reason to believe “that within recent weeks an atomic explosion occurred in the U.S.S.R.” Most American officials had anticipated that several more years would pass before the Soviets acquired an atomic bomb, but with Joe-1, American weapons supremacy was crushed with one blast. Once this fact was confirmed, pressure mounted in both countries to develop an even deadlier weapon - a hydrogen bomb.
August 28, 1955: Emmett Till is kidnapped and murdered.
The appalling, brutal murder of Emmett Till, a young African-American boy from Chicago, was one of the key events that helped spur the African-American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. Between 1882 and 1968, nearly 600 lynchings (of both blacks and whites) had, according to the Tuskegee Institute, taken place in the state of Mississippi. It was Mississippi that Emmett Till visited in the summer of 1955 to stay with his relatives.
What exactly transpired that provoked his murder remains uncertain: according to some, Till whistled at a white woman working in a store; according to the woman herself, Till made advances on her using “unprintable” words. He may, in fact, have had a stutter that caused him to make whistling noises while speaking. Whatever the case, it was after this incident that Till was taken from his great-uncle’s home by three men at around 2:00 in the morning and brutally beaten. One of the perpetrators was Roy Bryant, husband of the white woman at whom Emmett Till had allegedly whistled; the other was his half brother J.W. Milam, who claimed to have “never hurt a nigger in [his] life”… except to put them “in their place”. According to a 1956 interview, the men had not intended to kill Till but merely beat and frighten him. How did an attempt to scare a teenage boy turn into murder? An excerpt from that interview:
I [J.W. Milam] tood there in that shed and listened to that nigger throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. ‘Chicago boy,’ I said, ‘I’m tired of ‘em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I’m going to make an example of you—just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.’
Bryant and Milam shot Till by the Tallahatchie River and dumped his body, weighed down with a 35-kg fan from a cotton gin. When Till was discovered in the river three days later, his corpse was unrecognizably disfigured, decomposing and swollen. While the lynching of blacks in the South was rarely covered widely by the media, reaction to the murder of Emmett Till was widespread - and local Mississippian newspapers, along with the state’s governor, outright condemned the murder and murderers. Till’s mother, meanwhile, demanded that her son’s body be displayed in an open-casket funeral, which it was. However, the public’s opinion soon turned more sympathetic towards the murderers, who were both shockingly acquitted of the crime after a little over an hour’s deliberation by the jurors, one of whom joked that if the jury had not taken a break to drink soda, they would have come to a decision even sooner.
In 1956, Bryant and Milam unrepentantly confessed to and described the killing of Emmett Till in a magazine interview.
August 27, 1883: Krakatoa erupts.
The volcanic island of Krakatoa, located between the islands of Java and Sumatra, lay dormant for at least two centuries, before a passing European ship reported seeing enormous clouds of ash and dust rising from the area in May of 1883. Over the following months, volcanic activity in the region intensified, before reaching an apex on August 26th and 27th of that same year.
Four enormous explosions took place on August 27th, resulting in the destruction of at least two-thirds of the island. The sound produced by the eruption was so loud that it could be heard 3,000 miles away (on the island of Rodrigues in the Indian Ocean, the sound was initially thought to be the “roar of heavy guns”). The black clouds of ash spewed into the air by the volcano rose fifty miles high. Each of these colossal explosions was accompanied by tsunamis, which single-handedly killed off a large fraction of the (official) death toll, which was estimated at 36,000. Pyroclastic flow reached neighboring islands (including Sumatra) and wiped out vegetation, villages, and people. For months around the world, sunsets glowed unusually brilliant colors as a result of the gases emitted by the volcano; one British poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, described this phenomenon:
…more like inflamed flesh than the lucid reds of ordinary sunsets… it bathes the whole sky, it is mistaken for the reflection of a great fire.
It is also sometimes theorized that Edvard Munch’s The Scream also depicts the after-effects of Krakatoa, similar as to what was described by Hopkins.
In modern terms, the eruption of Krakatoa is estimated to have had a yield of around 200 megatons; to put things into perspective, the “Fat Man” device detonated over Nagasaki had a yield of 21 kilotons, while Tsar Bomba, the most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated, had a yield of 50 megatons.
August 26, 1920: The 19th Amendment goes into effect.
The 19th Amendment of the Constitution was ratified early that month, finally granting women the right to vote. In some states, mainly in the West, many women were already enfranchised (Wyoming in 1869 and later Washington, California, Oregon, and Montana); before 1920, a woman had served in Congress (Jeannette Rankin) and two women had already attempted to run for the presidency. But, for the time-being, none of these women had the Constitutional right to vote. For four decades following 1878, the issue of a Constitutional amendment providing for women’s suffrage was introduced at each session of Congress, only to be defeated each time. The exact version first introduced in 1878 was the same one that passed in 1919, forty-one years later.
In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose” Progressive Party became the first national political party to adopt women’s suffrage as part of its platform. In 1918, Democrat Woodrow Wilson also appealed heavily to the House in favor of a Constitutional amendment. Finally, in May 1919, the President called a special session of Congress to consider the proposal again; this time, the House approved the amendment, as did the Senate (after much deliberation).
Thirty-six states were needed to complete the ratification of the amendment. Thirty-five ratified relatively quickly between June 1919 and March 1920, but after the thirty-fifth (Washington), five long months passed before Tennessee, the last state needed, approved the amendment on August 18, 1920 by a narrow margin. The last state to ratify was Mississippi, which did not do so until 1984, sixty-four years after it went into effect.
The document itself was actually very brief, reading only:
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
The adoption of these two simple sentences was the culmination of over seventy years of activism and campaigning.