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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: this day in history, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 25 of 129
1. Spain 40 years after General Franco

Forty years ago today (20 November), General Franco, the chief protagonist of nearly half a century of Spanish history, died. ‘Caudillo by the grace of God’, as his coins proclaimed after he won the 1936-39 Civil War, Generalissimo of the armed forces, and head of state and head of government (the latter until 1973), Franco was buried at the colossal mausoleum partly built by political prisoners at the Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen) in the Guadarrama mountains near Madrid.

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2. “Did I do what I should have done?”: white clergy in 1960s Mississippi

In his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. expressed keen disappointment in white church leaders, whom he had hoped “would be among our strongest allies” and “would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure.”

The post “Did I do what I should have done?”: white clergy in 1960s Mississippi appeared first on OUPblog.

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3. Celebrating 50 years of the Voting Rights Act

On 6 August 2015, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) will be turning 50 years old. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson approved this groundbreaking legislation to eliminate discriminatory barriers to voting. The Civil Rights Movement played a notable role in pushing the VRA to become law. In honor of the law's birthday, Oxford University Press has put together a quiz to test how much you know about its background, including a major factor in its success, Section 5.

The post Celebrating 50 years of the Voting Rights Act appeared first on OUPblog.

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4. Florence Nightingale’s syphilis that wasn’t

Nursing lore has long maintained that the mysterious illness that sent Florence Nightingale to bed for 30 years after her return from the Crimea was syphilis. At least that’s what many nursing students were told in the 1960s, when my wife was working on her BSN. Syphilis, however, would be difficult to reconcile with the fact that Nightingale was likely celibate her entire life and had not a single sign or symptom typical of that venereal infection.

The post Florence Nightingale’s syphilis that wasn’t appeared first on OUPblog.

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5. The origins of Labor Day: Marches and civil unrest in 1880s Chicago

When I ask college students what they know about the origins of Labor Day, the answer is usually straightforward: not much. But if the labor movement’s story is not on the tip of their tongues, it says less about them than it does about our era.

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6. The day that changed the 20th century: Russia’s October Revolution

The October Revolution was probably the determining event of the twentieth century in Europe, and indeed in much of the world. The Communist ideology and the Communist paradigm of governance aroused messianic hopes and apocalyptic fears almost everywhere.

The post The day that changed the 20th century: Russia’s October Revolution appeared first on OUPblog.

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7. Where was Christopher Columbus really from?

Of the many controversies surrounding the life and legacy of Christopher Columbus, who died on this day 510 years ago, one of the most intriguing but least discussed questions is his true country of origin. For reasons lost in time, Columbus has been identified with unquestioned consistency as an Italian of humble beginnings from the Republic of Genoa. Yet in over 536 existing pages of his letters and documents, not once does the famous explorer claim to have come from Genoa.

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8. Exploring the final frontier

On this day in 1953, the New Zealand mountaineer Edmund Hillary and Nepali-Indian Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay became the first people to reach the summit of Mount Everest. In the following excerpt from his book, Exploration: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2015), Stewart A. Weaver discusses why we, as humans, want to explore and discover. For all the different forms it takes in different historical periods, for all the worthy and unworthy motives that lie behind it, exploration, travel for the sake of discovery and adventure, seems to be a human compulsion.

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9. Murders in rural Mississippi: remembering tragedies of the Civil Rights Movement

On June 21, Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, Mississippi will hold its fifty-first memorial service for three young civil rights workers murdered by the Ku Klux Klan at the start of the Freedom Summer. Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner were activists who planned to create a voting rights school at the church, located in rural Neshoba County.

The post Murders in rural Mississippi: remembering tragedies of the Civil Rights Movement appeared first on OUPblog.

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10. Hart-Celler and a watershed in American immigration

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the congressional passage of the Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. It was the culmination of a trend toward reforming immigrant admissions and naturalization policies that had gathered momentum in the early years of the Cold War era.

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11. Prince Charles, George Peele, and the theatrics of monarchical ceremony

Today marks the forty-sixth anniversary of Prince Charles’s formal investiture as Prince of Wales. At the time of this investiture, Charles himself was just shy of his twenty-first birthday, and in a video clip from that year, the young prince looks lean and fresh-faced in his suit, his elbows resting on his knees, his hands clasping and unclasping as he speaks to the importance of the investiture.

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12. Ten questions about Braddock’s Defeat

On 9 July 1755, British troops under the command of General Edward Braddock suffered one of the greatest disasters of military history. Braddock's Defeat, or the Battle of the Monongahela, was the most important battle prior to the American Revolution, carrying with it enormous consequences for the British, French, and Native American peoples of North America.

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13. The belated autopsy of a forgotten Revolutionary War hero

John Paul Jones died in Paris on this day in 1792, lonely and forgotten by the country he helped bring into existence. Shortly before his death, he began to lose his appetite. Then his legs began to swell, and then his abdomen, making it difficult for him to button his waistcoat and to breath.

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14. Medicare and Medicaid myths: setting the 50-year record straight

Over the past half-century, Medicare and Medicaid have constituted the bedrock of American healthcare, together providing insurance coverage for more than 100 million people. Yet these programs remain controversial: clashes endure between opponents who criticize costly, “big government” programs and supporters who see such programs as essential to the nation's commitment to protect the vulnerable.

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15. Relax, inhale, and think of Horace Wells

Many students, when asked by a teacher or professor to volunteer in front of the class, shy away, avoid eye contact, and try to seem as plain and unremarkable as possible. The same is true in dental school – unless it comes to laughing gas.

As a fourth year dental student, I’ve had times where I’ve tried to avoid professors’ questions about anatomical variants of nerves, or the correct way to drill a cavity, or what type of tooth infection has symptoms of hot and cold sensitivity. There are other times where you cannot escape having to volunteer. These include being the first “patient” to receive an injection from one of your classmate’s unsteady and tentative hands. Or having an impression taken with too much alginate so that all of your teeth (along with your uvula and tonsils) are poured up in a stone model.

But volunteering in the nitrous oxide lab … that’s a different story. The lab day is about putting ourselves in our patients’ shoes, to be able to empathize with them when they need to be sedated. For me, the nitrous oxide lab might have been the most enjoyable 5 minutes of my entire dental education.

In today’s dental practice, nitrous oxide is a readily available, well-researched, incredibly safe method of reducing patient anxiety with little to no undesired side effects. But this was not always the case.

The Oxford Textbook of Anaesthesia for Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery argues that “with increasingly refined diets [in the mid-nineteenth century] and the use of copious amounts of sugar, tooth decay, and so dentistry, were on the increase.” Prior to the modern day local anesthesia armamentarium, extractions and dental procedures were completed with no anesthesia. Patients self-medicated with alcohol or other drugs, but there was no predictable or controllable way to prevent patients from experiencing excruciating pain.

That is until Horace Wells, a dentist from Hartford, Connecticut started taking an interest in nitrous oxide as a method of numbing patients to pain.

Dr Horace Wells, by Laird W. Nevius. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Wells became convinced of the analgesic properties of nitrous oxide on December 11, 1844 after observing a public display in Hartford of a man inhaling the gas and subsequently hitting his shin on a bench. After the gas wore off, the man miraculously felt no pain. With inspiration from this demonstration and a strong belief in the analgesic (and possibly the amnestic) qualities of nitrous oxide, on December 12, Wells proceeded to inhale a bag of the nitrous oxide and have his associate John Riggs extract one of his own teeth. It was risky—and a huge success. With this realization that dental work could be pain free, Wells proceeded to test his new anesthesia method on over a dozen patients in the following weeks. He was proud of his achievement, but he chose not to patent his method because he felt pain relief should be “as free as the air.”

This discovery brought Wells to the Ether Dome at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Before an audience of Harvard Medical School faculty and students, Wells convinced a volunteer from the audience to have their tooth extracted after inhaling nitrous oxide. Wells’ success came to an abrupt halt when this volunteer screamed out in pain during the extraction. Looking back on this event, it is very likely that the volunteer did not inhale enough of the gas to achieve the appropriate anesthetic effect. But the reason didn’t matter—Wells was horrified by his volunteer’s reaction, his own apparent failure, and was laughed out of the Ether Dome as a fraud.

The following year, William Morton successfully demonstrated the use of ether as an anesthetic for dental and medical surgery. He patented the discovery of ether as a dental anesthetic and sold the rights to it. To this day, most credit the success of dental anesthesia to Morton, not Wells.

After giving up dentistry, Horace Wells worked unsuccessfully as a salesman and traveled to Paris to see a presentation on updated anesthesia techniques. But his ego had been broken. After returning the U.S, he developed a dangerous addiction to chloroform (perhaps another risky experiment for patient sedation, gone awry) that left him mentally unstable. In 1848, he assaulted a streetwalker under the influence. He was sent to prison and in the end, took his own life.

This is the sad story of a man whose discovery revolutionized dentists’ ability to effectively care for patients while keeping them calm and out of pain. As a student at the University of Connecticut School of Dental Medicine, it is a point of pride knowing that Dr. Wells made this discovery just a few miles from where I have learned about the incredible effects of nitrous oxide. My education has taught me to use it effectively for patients who are nervous about a procedure and to improve the safety of care for patients with high blood pressure. This is a day we can remember a brave man who risked his own livelihood in the name of patient care.

Featured image credit: Laughing gas, by Rumford Davy. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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16. Behind Korematsu v. United States

Seventy years ago today, in Korematsu v. United States, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Japanese-American internment program authorized by President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. The Korematsu decision and the internment program that forcibly removed over 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry from their homes during World War II are often cited as ugly reminders of the dangers associated with wartime hysteria, racism, fear-mongering, xenophobia, an imperial president, and judicial dereliction of duty. But the events surrounding Korematsu are also a harrowing reminder of what happens to liberty when the “Madisonian machine” breaks down — that is, when the structural checks and balances built into our system of government fail and give way to the worst forms of tyranny.

Our 18th century system of separated and fragmented government — what Gordon Silverstein calls the “Madisonian machine” — was engineered to prevent tyranny, or rather tyrannies. Madison’s Federalist 51 outlines a prescription for avoiding “Big T Tyranny” — the concentration of power in any one branch of government. This would be accomplished by dividing and separating powers among the three branches of government and between the federal government and the states. “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” Madison wrote. Each branch would jealously protect its own powers while guarding against encroachments by the others.

But this wasn’t the only form of tyranny the framers worried about. In a democracy, minorities are always at risk of being oppressed by majorities — what I call “little t tyranny.” Madison’s solution to this kind of tyranny is articulated in Federalist 10. The cure to this disease was firstly to elect representatives who could filter the passions of the masses and make more enlightened decisions. Secondly, Madison observed that as long as the citizenry is sufficiently divided and carved up into numerous smaller “factions,” it would be unlikely that a unified majority would emerge to oppress a minority faction.

Official notice of exclusion and removal. By Department of the Interior, War Relocation Authority. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In the events leading up to and including the Supreme Court’s decision in Korematsu, these safeguards built into the Madisonian machine broke down, giving way to both forms of T/tyranny. Congress not only acquiesced to President Roosevelt’s executive order, it responded with alacrity to support it. After just one hour of floor debate and virtually no dissent, Congress passed Public Law 503, which promulgated the order and assigned criminal penalties for violating it. And the branch furthest removed from the whims and passions of the majority, the Supreme Court, declined to second-guess the wisdom of the elected branches. As Justice Hugo Black wrote for the majority in Korematsu, “we cannot reject as unfounded the judgment of the military authorities and of Congress…” If Congress had been more skeptical, perhaps the Supreme Court might have been, too. But the Supreme Court has a long track record of deference to the executive when Congress gives express consent for his actions – especially in times of war. Unfortunately, under the Madisonian design, this is exactly when the Supreme Court ought to be the most skeptical of executive power.

To be sure, these checks and balances built into the Madisonian system were only meant to function as “auxiliary precautions.” The most important safeguard against T/tyranny would be the people themselves. Through a campaign of misinformation and fear-mongering, however, this protection was also rendered ineffective. Public opinion data was used selectively to convey the impression to both legislators and west coast citizens that the majority of Americans supported the internment program. The passions of the public were further manipulated by the media and west coast newspaper headlines such as “Japanese Here Sent Vital Data to Tokyo,” “Lincoln Would Intern Japs,” and “Danger in Delaying Jap Removal Cited.” Any dissent or would-be countervailing “factions,” to use Madison’s phrase, were effectively silenced. 

In Korematsu, ambition did not counteract ambition as Madison had intended, and the machine broke down. That’s because in order to function properly, the Madisonian machine requires access to information and time for genuine deliberation. It also requires friction. It requires people to disagree – for our elected representatives to disagree with one another, for the Supreme Court to police the elected branches, for citizens to pause, faction off, and check one another. So we can complain of gridlock in government, but let’s not forget that the alternative, as demonstrated by the unforgivable and tragic events of Korematsu, exposes the most vulnerable among us to the worst forms of tyranny.

Featured image credit: A young evacuee of Japanese ancestry waits with the family baggage before leaving by bus for an assembly center. US National Archives and Records Administration. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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17. What did the Treaty of Ghent do? A look at the end of the War of 1812

Two hundred years ago American and British delegates signed a treaty in the Flemish town of Ghent to end a two-and-a-half-year conflict between the former colonies and mother country. Overshadowed by the American Revolution and Napoleonic Wars in the two nations’ historical memories, the War of 1812 has been somewhat rehabilitated during its bicentennial. Yet arguing for the importance of a status quo antebellum treaty that concluded a war in which neither belligerent achieved its war aims, no territory was exchanged, and no victor formally declared can be a tough sell. Compared to the final defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, fought a just a few months later and forty odd miles down the road from Ghent, the end of the War of 1812 admittedly lacked cinema-worthy drama.

But the Treaty of Ghent mattered enormously (and not just to historians interested in the War of 1812). The war it ended saw relatively light casualties, measured in the thousands compared to the millions who died in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars that raged across the rest of the globe. Nevertheless, for the indigenous and colonizing peoples that inhabited the borderlands surrounding the United States, the conflict had proved devastating. Because the American and British economies were intertwined, the war had also wreaked havoc on American agriculture and British manufacturing, and wrecked each other’s merchant navies. Moreover, public support for the war in the British Empire and the United States had been lukewarm with plenty of outspoken opposition who had worked tirelessly to prevent and then quickly end the war.

William Charles, “The Hartford Convention or Leap No Leap,” (Philadelphia, c. 1814). Library of Congress. The print depicts New England Federalist contemplating secession, which Charles equates to a return to the fold of the British Empire—represented as the open-armed King George III. In the center is Timothy Pickering, the former Secretary of State and outspoken opponent of the war in Congress, who is praying fervently (an attack on those New England clergy who publicly opposed the war) for secession and for the personal rewards of wealth and aristocratic title it would bring him.
William Charles, “The Hartford Convention or Leap No Leap,” (Philadelphia, c. 1814). Library of Congress. The print depicts New England Federalist contemplating secession, which Charles equates to a return to the fold of the British Empire—represented as the open-armed King George III. In the center is Timothy Pickering, the former Secretary of State and outspoken opponent of the war in Congress, who is praying fervently (an attack on those New England clergy who publicly opposed the war) for secession and for the personal rewards of wealth and aristocratic title it would bring him.

Not surprisingly, peace resulted in widespread celebration across the Atlantic. The Leeds Mercury, many of whose readers were connected to the manufacturing industries that had relied on American markets, even compared the news with that of the Biblical account of the angelic chorus’s announcement of the birth of Jesus: “This Country, thanks to the good Providence of God, is now at Peace with Europe, with America, and with the World. . . . There is at length ‘Peace on Earth,’ and we trust the revival of ‘Good-will among men’ will quickly follow the close of national hostilities.” When the treaty reached Washington for ratification, President James Madison and Congress fell over themselves in a rush to sign it.

Far more interesting than what the relatively brief Treaty of Ghent includes is what was left out. When the British delegation arrived at Ghent in August 2014, they had every possible advantage. Britain had won the naval war, the United States was on brink of bankruptcy, and the end of Britain’s war with France meant that hardened veterans were being deployed for an imminent invasion of the United States. Later that month British troops would humiliatingly burn Washington. Even Ghent itself was a home field advantage, as it was occupied by British troops and within a couple of days of communication with ministers in London.

In consequence, Britain’s initial demands were severe. If the United States wanted peace, it had to cede 250,000 square miles of its northwestern lands (amounting to more than 15% of US territory, including all or parts of the modern states of Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota). These lands would be used to create an independent American Indian state—promises of which the British had used to recruit wary Indian allies. Britain also demanded a new border for Canada, which included the southern shores of the Great Lakes and a chunk of British-occupied Maine—changes that would have given Canada considerable natural defenses. The Americans, claimed the British, were “aggrandizers”, and these measures would ensure that such ambitions would be forever thwarted.

The significance of the terms is difficult to underestimate. Western expansion would have ground to a halt in the face of a powerful British-led alliance with the Spanish Empire and new American Indian state. The humiliation would likely have resulted in the collapse of the United States. The long-marginalized New England Federalists had been outspoken in their opposition to the war and President James Madison’s Southern-dominated Republican Party, with some of their leaders openly threatening secession. The Island of Nantucket had already signed a separate peace with Britain, and many inhabitants of British-occupied Maine had signed oaths of allegiance to Britain. The Governor of Massachusetts had even sent an agent to Canada to discuss terms of British support for his state’s secession, which included a request for British troops. The counterfactuals of a New England secession are too great to explore here, but the implications are epic—not least because, unlike in 1861, the US government in 1814 was in no position to stop one. In the end, a combination of the American delegates’ obstinacy and a rapidly fading British desire to keep the nation on an expensive war footing solely to fight the Americans led the British to abandon their harsh terms.

In consequence, the Treaty of Ghent cemented the United States rather than destroyed it. Historians have long debated who truly won the war. However, what mattered most was that neither side managed a decisive victory. The Americans lacked the organization and national unity to win; the British lacked the will to wage an expensive, offensive war in North America. American inadequacy ensured that all of Canada would prosper as part of the British Empire, even though Upper Canada (now Ontario) had arguably closer links to the United States and was populated largely by economic migrants from the United States. British desire to avoid further confrontation enabled the Americans to focus its attentions on eliminating the other, and considerably weaker, obstacles to continental supremacy: the American Indians and the remnants of the Spanish Empire, who proved to be the real losers of the War of 1812 and the Treaty of Ghent.

Featured image: The Signing of the Treaty of Ghent, Christmas Eve, 1814, Amédée Forestier (1814). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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18. Vernon and Gladys

Today, 8 January, is the 80th birthday of Elvis Presley. Born to Vernon Elvis Presley and Gladys Love Presley (née Smith) in 1935, the ‘King of Rock and Roll’ left an indelible mark on American popular culture. In celebration, we present a brief extract from Elvis Presley: A Southern Life by Joel Williamson.

One photograph of the small Presley family captures the essence of their lives then and thereafter. Elvis, about three years old, is posed with Gladys and Vernon. Elvis is standing, and his parents are sitting on either side of him.

The exact date of the picture is unknown. Decades later it showed up in the photograph collection of the Official Elvis Presley Fan Club in Leicester, England. Interviews with pediatricians, pediatric nurses, mothers, fathers, grandmothers, and grandfathers have estimated Elvis’s age.

The blank, clean, slightly gray background is probably the concrete wall of the brand-new Lee County jail in Tupelo. Vernon is a prisoner, having been arrested on November 16, 1937, for forging a check. The county jail had recently been built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal project to employ the unemployed. Previously, county prisoners had been lodged in the run-down town jail. Only the white prisoners were moved to the new jail.

Courtesy of Joel Williamson
Courtesy of Joel Williamson

In the photograph, mother, child, and father are close, body to body as if huddled against a coming moment of separation. Gladys’s left arm reaches behind and across Elvis’s back to Vernon. Her open hand rests lightly on Vernon’s left shoulder, as if to hold him in gently, to affirm her presence with him. It is a hand that seeks to comfort, but its loose openness signals her powerlessness.

Vernon had been charged with forging a check on Orville Bean, the dairy farmer who was his landlord and employer. He had been arrested and arraigned during the fall term of criminal court. He pled not guilty, but he would not get a speedy trial. His plea came too late for him to be tried in the fall term of court. His case would have to wait for the spring term, which began six months later on Monday, May 23, 1938. Before the court convened that spring, the local papers were full of suggestions that the docket was overfull and that justice in Lee County must be meted out more rapidly than before.

Only days before Vernon’s case would have been tried, he changed his plea to guilty. Justice swiftly followed. On Wednesday, May 25, Judge Thomas H. Johnston sentenced Vernon to three years in the state penitentiary. He got no credit for the six months he had spent in the county jail. After sentencing came the anxious wait before the prison guards trucked him off to Parchman Farm.

On Saturday, May 28, Circuit Court Clerk Joe J. Kilgo wrote out the papers committing Vernon and eleven other convicts to Parchman. The twelve men waited in the county jail for the dreaded arrival of “Long Chain Charley,” a sergeant on the guard force at Parchman who circulated through the state collecting convicts for transport to prison. He always brought a long chain to which he shackled his prisoners to prevent their escape.

Six months in the county jail waiting for a trial had been bad enough, but there was always at least some hope for relief. Orville Bean might decide not to press charges against Vernon. Relatives and friends might somehow intervene. If it came to a trial, a good lawyer might rise to defend him and the jury might find him innocent. Having changed his plea to guilty, Vernon faced the certainty of serving at hard labor in a notoriously tough prison for three long years, years in which he could not come home every night to his wife and child in their little two-room wooden house in East Tupelo nor earn money to support them.

Sensing the pathos in the photograph does not require knowledge of its history. The bodies of the man and woman are tense with anxiety and dread. The child is anxious and confused. Vernon has put his hat on his head as if making ready to leave. He faces the camera, but his eyes cut to his left as if watching fearfully for someone or something to appear that he already hears. Gladys also stares to the left, her body stiff.

The little boy’s gaze is less focused, as if he were told to look at the camera but senses something he needs to see off to the left too. He wears bib overalls over a dark, long-sleeved shirt, charmingly trimmed with white cuffs and a white collar. Gladys is a talented seamstress. She wears a flower-print dress. Her dress, like Elvis’s shirt, is attractively set off by a collar of a different color. Elvis, like his father, wears a hat. His hat seems almost man-sized, cocked at a rakish angle on his round little head. His full cherubic lips are twisted down to the right as if he realizes that he should say something and set his jaw in some certain way to assert an attitude, but he doesn’t know what to say or how.

This is the earliest photograph of Elvis. The photographer was most likely a friend or a relative who had driven Gladys and Elvis a couple of miles over from their home in East Tupelo. It was a defining moment in the lives of Elvis, Gladys, and Vernon Presley, individually and collectively. The very fact of the visit, the camera, and the one photograph that has been preserved indicates that they understood that they were at a critical juncture in their lives. The petty and foolish crime that Vernon committed in the fall of 1937, when he was twenty-one, Gladys twenty-five, and Elvis less than three, deeply marked their lives.

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19. Elvis: a life in pictures

Today, 8 January, would have been Elvis Presley’s 80th birthday. In remembrance of his fascinating life we’re sharing a slideshow from the beautiful images in Elvis Presley: A Southern Life by Joel Williamson. How did this Southern boy make it from Nashville and Vegas, to Grafenwoehr and the White House?

Featured image credit: Headline and 1956 photo from article on Elvis and Mae Axton, who wrote “Heartbreak Hotel,” just after the record sold 1 million copies, 1956. Published in the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Courtesy of the Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center.

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20. The death of Sir Winston Churchill, 24 January 1965

As anyone knows who has looked at the newspapers over the festive season, 2015 is a bumper year for anniversaries: among them Magna Carta (800 years), Agincourt (600 years), and Waterloo (200 years). But it is January which sees the first of 2015’s major commemorations, for it is fifty years since Sir Winston Churchill died (on the 24th) and received a magnificent state funeral (on the 30th). As Churchill himself had earlier predicted, he died on just the same day as his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, had done, in 1895, exactly seventy years before.

The arrangements for Churchill’s funeral, codenamed ‘Operation Hope Not’, had long been in the planning, which meant that Churchill would receive the grandest obsequies afforded to any commoner since the funerals of Nelson and Wellington. And unlike Magna Carta or Agincourt or Waterloo, there are many of us still alive who can vividly remember those sad yet stirring events of half a century ago. My generation (I was born in 1950) grew up in what were, among other things, the sunset years of Churchillian apotheosis. They may, as Lord Moran’s diary makes searingly plain, have been sad and enfeebled years for Churchill himself, but they were also years of unprecedented acclaim and veneration. During the last decade of his life, he was the most famous man alive. On his ninetieth birthday, thousands of greeting cards were sent, addressed to ‘The Greatest Man in the World, London’, and they were all delivered to Churchill’s home. During his last days, when he lay dying, there were many who found it impossible to contemplate the world without him, just as Queen Victoria had earlier wondered, at the time of his death in 1852, how Britain would manage without the Duke of Wellington.

Winston Churchill, 1944. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Like all such great ceremonial occasions, the funeral itself had many meanings, and for those of us who watched it on television, by turns enthralled and tearful, it has also left many memories. In one guise, it was the final act homage to the man who had been described as ‘the saviour of his country’, and who had lived a life so full of years and achievement and honour and controversy that it was impossible to believe anyone in Britain would see his like again. But it was also, and in a rather different emotional and historical register, not only the last rites of the great man himself, but also a requiem for Britain as a great power. While Churchill might have saved his country during the Second World War, he could not preserve its global greatness thereafter. It was this sorrowful realization that had darkened his final years, just as his funeral, attended by so many world leaders and heads of state, was the last time that a British figure could command such global attention and recognition. (The turn out for Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, in 2013, was nothing like as illustrious.) These multiple meanings made the ceremonial the more moving, just as there were many episodes which made it unforgettable: the bearer party struggling and straining to carry the huge, lead-lined coffin up the steps of St Paul’s; Clement Attlee—Churchill’s former political adversary—old and frail, but determined to be there as one of the pallbearers, sitting on a chair outside the west door brought especially for him; the cranes of the London docks dipping in salute, as Churchill’s coffin was born up the Thames from Tower Pier to Waterloo Station; and the funeral train, hauled by a steam engine of the Battle of Britain class, named Winston Churchill, steaming out of the station.

For many of us, the funeral was made the more memorable by Richard Dimbleby’s commentary. Already stricken with cancer, he must have known that this would be the last he would deliver for a great state occasion (he would, indeed, be dead before the year was out), and this awareness of his own impending mortality gave to his commentary a tone of tender resignation that he had never quite achieved before. As his son, Jonathan, would later observe in his biography of his father, ‘Richard Dimbleby’s public was Churchill’s public, and he had spoken their emotions.’

Fifty years on, the intensity of those emotions cannot be recovered, but many events have been planned to commemorate Churchill’s passing, and to ponder the nature of his legacy. Two years ago, a committee was put together, consisting of representatives of the many institutions and individuals that constitute the greater Churchill world, both in Britain and around the world, which it has been my privilege to chair. Significant events are planned for 30 January: in Parliament, where a wreath will be laid; on the River Thames, where Havengore, the ship that bore Churchill’s coffin, will retrace its journey; and at Westminster Abbey, where there will be a special evensong. It will be a moving and resonant day, and the prelude to many other events around the country and around the world. Will any other British prime minister be so vividly and gratefully remembered fifty years after his—or her—death?

Headline image credit: Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, New Bond Street, London. Sculpted by Lawrence Holofcener. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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21. Beethoven’s diagnosis

Since Beethoven’s death on this day 188 years ago, debate has raged as to the cause of his deafness, generating scores of diagnoses ranging from measles to Paget’s disease. If deafness had been his only problem, diagnosing the disorder might have been easier, although his ear problem was of a strange character no longer seen. It began ever so surreptitiously and took over two decades to complete its destruction of Beethoven’s hearing.

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22. Darwin’s “gastric flatus”

When Charles Darwin died at age 73 on this day 133 years ago, his physicians decided that he had succumbed to “degeneration of the heart and greater vessels,” a disorder we now call “generalized arteriosclerosis.” Few would argue with this diagnosis, given Darwin’s failing memory, and his recurrent episodes of “swimming of the head,” “pain in the heart”, and “irregular pulse” during the decade or so before he died.

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23. Remembering Anzac Day: how Australia grieved in the early years

‘Anzac’ (soon transmuting from acronym to word) came to sum up the Australian desire to reflect on what the war had meant. What was the first Anzac Day? At least four explanations exist of the origins of the idea of Anzac, the most enduring legacy of Australia’s Great War.

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24. May the Fourth be with you!

May the Fourth be with you! Playing off a pun on one of the movie’s most famous quotes, May the 4th is the unofficial holiday in which Star Wars fans across the globe celebrate the beloved blockbuster series. The original Star Wars movie, now known as Star Wars IV: A New Hope, was released on 25 May 1977, but to those of us who waited in line after line to see it again and again in theaters, it will always be just Star Wars.

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25. Stonewall Jackson’s “Pleuro-Pneumonia”

On this day in 1863, General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, one of the wiliest military commanders this country ever produced, died eight days after being shot by his own men. He had lost a massive amount of blood before having his left arm amputated by Dr. Hunter Holmes McGuire, arguably the most celebrated Civil War surgeon of either side.

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