21 people were killed and a further 150 were injured after 2.3 million gallons of molasses swept through North End in Boston, Massachusetts after a storage tank collapsed.
The 50 ft (15 m) tall tank on Commercial Street had been built in 1915 by the Purity Distilling Company to store molasses that were then fermented to produce industrial alcohol for liquor and munitions manufacturing. Demand for the latter had soared following the outbreak of the First World War, and the company had rushed to take advantage. The storage tank was built quickly and was already known to leak, since the metal used for its construction was poor quality and only half as thick as it needed to be to hold the intended quantity of molasses.
A warm shipment of molasses was added to the tank two days before the disaster, decreasing the overall viscosity of the contents and enabling it to flow faster while also increasing the pressure on the tank walls. It has since been suggested that the dramatic increase in air temperate from -17 to 5.0 °C over the course of the previous day may have also increased the speed of fermentation within the tank, adding further pressure from carbon dioxide.
The tank collapsed shortly after noon, and witnesses later recalled feeling the ground shake and hearing a variety of loud crashes followed by a sound similar to gunfire as the rivets shot out of the tank. A wave of molasses measuring over 15 feet swept down the street at 35 miles an hour, smashing houses and seriously damaging the support girders of a nearby elevated train track.
Many of the victims were either crushed by the force of the wave or drowned in the sticky syrup. The youngest victims were just ten years old.
Although numerous suspension bridges had been built prior to the Brooklyn Bridge, nothing came close to the almost 1,600 foot span across the East River from Brooklyn to Manhattan. German immigrant John Augustus Roebling was attracted to the challenge after he developed a system to stabilise large span bridges using a steel web truss down each side. He was appointed chief engineer but, six months before construction began, died of a tetanus infection after a boat crushed his toes while he was surveying the site.
Roebling’s son Washington took over the project but he too suffered a terrible injury while inspecting the foundations. In order to secure a stable foundation for the towers of the bridge, large watertight timber caissons were sunk to the river bed. These enormous upside down boxes were filled with compressed air to keep out the water, and men known as sandhogs then entered to dig away the sediment until they reached bedrock.
The compressed air inside the caissons gave the workers terrible headaches but, more dangerously, dissolved high levels of gases into their bloodstream. Exiting the caisson caused these gases to expand, leading to incredible pain, paralysis, and even death. Washington Roebling himself was struck down with ‘caisson disease’, now better known as ‘the bends’, and was confined to his home for much of the bridge’s construction. His wife, Emily, took over many of his duties and successfully oversaw the completion of the project.
The bridge was officially opened on May 24, 1883, 13 years after construction began. The total cost was over $15 million, more than twice the original estimate, but well over a century later it still remains a vital link for New Yorkers.
The Exorcist is one of the highest-grossing films of all time, but originally opened in just twenty-six American cinemas. Famed for its ground-breaking special effects, the film terrified audiences yet was nominated for ten Academy Awards of which it won two.
The film, directed by William Friedkin who had previously had success with The French Connection, was adapted from William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel of the same name. This was itself inspired by reports of the real-life exorcism of an anonymous boy known by the pseudonym Roland Doe that emerged in the late 1940s. Blatty described his novel as ‘an apostolic work’ that sought to prove that if supernatural evil existed then so too must supernatural good.
These themes came through in Friedkin’s film, but for many audience members it was the sight of the twelve year-old Regan’s spinning head, levitation, vomiting and other extreme behaviour that proved most shocking and most memorable. With newspapers reporting cases of people fainting at screenings, The Exorcist quickly became a social phenomenon.
The film went on to sell 6 million tickets within just three months of its release in the United States despite a mixed response from the critics. While Variety praised its “expert telling of a supernatural horror story”, the New York Times criticised it as “a chunk of elegant occultist claptrap”.
Such negative responses failed to affect the film’s success, however. The Exorcist was the second most popular film of 1974 and, once gross earnings are adjusted for inflation, remains the ninth highest-grossing film of all time.
On the 23rd December 1823, the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, more commonly known as “The Night Before Christmas” was published anonymously in the New York Sentinel. It is significant for being the first source to give the names of Santa’s reindeer, as well as establishing the image of the jolly fat Santa that we know today. Reprinted a number of times in subsequent years, the poem became attributed to the academic Clement Clarke Moore who eventually acknowledged authorship in 1844. However, debate over the author continues to this day with Major Henry Livingston, Jr. being other potential writer being put forward most regularly.
Legend says that Moore wrote the poem while on a shopping trip, and read it to his children on Christmas Eve 1822. A year later a copy found its way to the offices of the New York Sentinel who published it along with a message in which the editor expressed “his cordial thanks to whoever had sent him these Christmas verses.”
Moore’s reluctance to be associated with the verse apparently stemmed from his career as a professor of ancient languages, since he didn’t want the poem to undermine his academic credentials. It was his friend, Charles Fenno Hoffman, who first publicly attributed the poem to him in the Christmas 1837 edition of the Pennsylvania Inquirer and Daily Courier.
One interesting aside relates to Santa’s reindeer in the poem. When reading it to children, they’re often surprised to find that Rudolph isn’t mentioned. This is because Rudolph didn’t appear until the story by Robert L. May was published in 1939.
On the 21st December 1913, the first modern crossword puzzle was printed in the New York World newspaper. Created by British-born journalist Arthur Wynne, his diamond-shaped puzzle was originally called a ‘word-cross puzzle’, but due to a typesetting error the name was accidentally changed to a ‘cross-word puzzle’ and the name stuck.
Although examples of crossword-like puzzles had begun appearing in the mid-19th Century, Wynne was the first to include various features that we associate with modern crosswords such as a box for entering each letter and a symmetrical design. His first ‘word-cross’ was actually shaped as a symmetrical diamond with a hollow centre, but he soon went on to design other versions. Wynne was even the first to incorporate shaded black squares to allow the creation – and separation – of rows and columns of words that allowed more and more complex designs to be created.
Surprisingly, the ‘word-cross’ was just one of a number of puzzles developed by Wynne for the 21st December issue of the New York World’s ‘Fun’ supplement. However it caused a sensation and, before long, crossword puzzles had spread beyond the New York World to other newspapers in America and beyond. Within less than a decade they had begun to appear in comic strips such as Clare Briggs’ cartoon ‘Movie of a Man Doing the Cross-Word Puzzle’, and in 1924 the first collection of crossword puzzles was published by Simon and Schuster. This is also the same year that the first crossword appeared in a British newspaper, when the Sunday Express printed an adapted Wynne puzzle in November 1924.
On the 17th December 1903, American brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright successfully made the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight. Their aircraft, known as the Wright Flyer but later referred to as Flyer I, made its historic flights about four miles south of the town of Kitty Hawk in North Carolina. Four flights were made on the day, with the first by Orville lasting for just 12 seconds over a total distance of only 36.5m.
The brothers originally went into business selling, repairing and designing bicycles. However, by the end of 1899 they had developed a keen interest in flight, and began to devise control systems that could be employed on manned gliders. Their justification was that it was pointless to create a powered aircraft before a reliable control system had been designed. Their research led them to develop three axis control: wing-warping to control the roll of the aircraft, a moveable rudder to control yaw, and elevators to control the pitch.
Successful testing of these controls on a glider in 1902 led the brothers to build an engine to power their flying machine, along with a pair of specially-designed propellers that were refined under testing in their own wind tunnel.
After a number technical delays, the brothers tossed and coin to decide who would be the first to fly on the 14th December. Wilbur won, but stalled the engine on take-off and crashed the plane after just a three-second flight. After repairs, Orville became the first to pilot the aircraft on its first true flight three days later. Each brother successfully flew twice that day.
The British government had passed the Tea Act seven months earlier on 10 May, partly in an attempt to support the struggling East India Company. The act allowed the company to import tea directly to the colonies, bypassing the middlemen who previously handled overseas tea sales and avoiding the issue of duty and refunds for importing tea into Britain. Tea imported into the colonies would consequently be much cheaper, and allow the East India Company to undercut the price of smuggled Dutch tea.
The problem for settlers in America was that tax was still imposed on tea in a continuation of the three pence duty that came in under the Townshead Acts of 1767. Although tea imported under the new Tea Act would still be cheaper than before, a number of colonists opposed the idea that the British government had the right to impose any tax at all on the colonies. Since they did not elect the British parliament they argued that the new Act violated their right to “no taxation without representation”.
The first shipment of tea to arrive in Boston under the new Act was brought by the Dartmouth in November. Colonialists gathered together by Samuel Adams urged the captain of the ship to sail back to Britain without paying the import duty, but Governor Hutchison refused to allow the ship to leave.
In the meantime two more ships arrived. Unable to resolve the standoff, on the evening of 16 December a group of up to 130 men, some disguised as Mohawk warriors, boarded the three vessels and threw all 342 chests of tea into the water. This act of defiance served as a catalyst for the American Revolution that broke out less than 18 months later.
On the 15th December 1933, the Twenty-first Amendment to the United States Constitution came into effect, repealing the Eighteenth Amendment which had made the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol illegal. Having been proposed on the 20th February 1933, it was ratified on the 5th December.
Prohibition was introduced in 1920 as a result of the 18th Amendment. This ban on the sale, production, importation, and transportation of alcoholic beverages was greeted with delight by members of the temperance movement, but many law-abiding Americans who had previously been drinkers felt anger towards the government for criminalising what they viewed as a harmless activity.
As a result, some members of the public were willing to break the law, and this quickly ushered in a period of criminal activity focused around the production of illegal bootlegged alcohol. Al Capone, one of prohibition’s most famous gangster bosses, made around $60 million a year from bootlegging alcohol and selling it in so-called ‘speakeasies’.
Izzy Einstein, one of the government’s most famous prohibition agents, demonstrated the scale of the problem facing the authorities who were trying to enforce the ban on alcohol. When visiting New Orleans it took Einstein just 35 seconds to obtain liquor after his taxi driver offered him a bottle of whisky.
Combined with many police officers being paid by the criminals to turn a blind eye to illegal activity, prohibition brought lawlessness and corruption to America. In the wake of the Wall Street Crash, repealing prohibition made sound economic sense, although the introduction of the 21st Amendment ensured that individual states were still able to enforce their alcohol laws.
On the 9th December 1965, American television network CBS first broadcast the animated cartoon A Charlie Brown Christmas. Now a staple of American Christmas television, the cartoon was originally financed by the Coca-Cola Company as a vehicle for Christmas advertising and was created in just six months.
By the mid-1960s, the Peanuts comic strip by American cartoonist Charles M. Schultz had become an international phenomenon. Ideas for an animated special had already been proposed, but it wasn’t until the influential Time magazine featured the Peanuts gang on the cover that sponsorship for the special was secured. Coca-Cola put up the money based on a simple pitch of “winter scenes, a school play, a scene to be read from the Bible, and a sound track combining jazz and traditional music.”
The creators took, at the time, a number of risks with the special. As well as exclusively casting children to voice the characters, Schultz opted for an unconventional jazz music soundtrack and refused to have a laugh track to accompany the animation. Combined with the necessarily simple animation and relatively slow pace, network executives expressed reservations about whether the special was even worthy of being shown.
However, having been completed just ten days before its network premiere the executives didn’t have much choice. They needn’t have worried, with popular and critical responses to the cartoon being universally positive. A Charlie Brown Christmas went on to win both a Peabody Award and the Emmy Award for Outstanding Children’s Program, but more importantly captured the imaginations of the 16 million people who tuned in to watch it that evening.
At 7:48 on the morning of the 7th December 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack against the United States’ Hawaiian naval base at Pearl Harbor. Sixteen US Navy ships were sunk or damaged by 353 Japanese fighter, bomber and torpedo planes. Nearly 2,500 American servicemen were killed, with another 1,000 injured. The Japanese lost just 64 men.
Japan chose to attack Pearl Harbor in order to prevent the U.S. Pacific Fleet from becoming involved in Japan’s advance into Southeast Asia, particularly British-controlled Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. Although the United States was not involved in the Second World War at the time, it had previously provided financial support to the Republic of China in the Sino-Japanese War and stopped selling equipment such as aeroplanes, parts and aviation fuel to Japan in1940. Remaining oil shipments were stopped in July 1941.
Japan’s military commanders became convinced that the USA would eventually intervene as they advanced further into Southeast Asia. On the 26th November, the main Japanese attack fleet left port for Pearl Harbour. However, Emperor Hirohito only gave final approval for the attack on the 1st December. By this point most Americans expected imminent war with Japan, but the attack on Pearl Harbour caught everyone by surprise.
At 7:48am on the 7th December the first wave of Japanese planes began their attack. The entire assault was over within 90 minutes. The following morning, President Franklin D. Roosevelt described it as “a date which will live in infamy” and called for Congress to declare war on the Empire of Japan. They did so less than an hour later.