Friday, September 18, 2015

SEPTEMBER 18 = Washington Lays Capitol Cornerstone

On today's date, September 18, in 1793, President George Washington laid the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol building. In a report found in a newspaper, the Alexandria Gazette, a grand procession which included two brass bands was said to have begun at the site wherein the White House was still being constructed in this, the still very new federal city. President Washington's parade then moved across the Potomac River to the ground construction site for the capitol there to be met a volunteer artillery company, and a delegation of Masons in full regalia. And there the solemn ceremony commenced.

The New Nation's Capitol

As a brand new nation, the United States lacked a set spot for her capitol.  Eight different cities served as the meeting place of Congress between 1789 and 1791, including Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore.  The Congress, on July 16, 1790 granted the President the authority to choose a permanent home for our nations federal government by passing the Residence Act.  In 1791, Washington chose
the site for the new seat of government from land provided by the State of Maryland - this would be called the District of Columbia, "Columbia" being a poetic name for the United States which was commonly used at that time. President Washington then chose three commissioners who in turn selected French engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant (right) to design a plan for the city. However, L’Enfant, a brilliant man but possessed of a headstrong temperament fought with these commissioners and wound up being fired in 1792. A competition for design was then held, and a Scotsman named William Thornton put forth the winning idea for the Capitol building. And on today's date, the cornerstone was laid.

The Silver Cornerstone

It is known from the newspaper article, and from Masonic ritual that a trench having been dug for the foundation, the group took its place around the southeast corner of what would become the North Wing of the Capitol. A silver plate was presented by Washington (below) which read:
“This South East corner Stone, of the Capitol of the United States of America in the City of Washington, was laid on the 18th day of September 1793, in the thirteenth year of American Independence, in the first year of the second term of the Presidency of George Washington, whose virtues in the civil administration of his country have been as conspicuous and beneficial, as his Military valor and prudence have been useful in establishing her liberties..."

The Capitol Building's Neo-Classical Design

At that point in time the U.S. capitol was set up in the city of Philadelphia, which was primarily a city built of bricks.  But George Washington, like many men of his day, saw his new republic as being based on the democracy of classical Greece, and wanted his new city to be styled accordingly. In fact he envisioned sitting atop Capitol Hill, a magnificent domed structure so he naturally enough favored the design idea with which the Scotsman Dr. Thornton had won the contest. possessing as it did “grandeur, simplicity, and beauty.” In a letter to Commissioner Johnson, Thomas Jefferson was even more effusive, saying that "It is simple, noble, beautiful, excellently distributed and moderate in size.", noting that "No one is more delighted than him {President Washington}whose decision is most important." The President would periodically return to the construction site to observe and oversee its progress, but sadly enough Washington would never see the end product of his cornerstone as he would die on December 14 of 1799, almost a year before the Capitol building's completion.

The Capitol Building Since Then....

The Congress moved into its new digs and began work on November 17, 1800 working in the North Wing.  The House of Representatives moved into the south wing in 1807, with the finish to work on that portion of the building coming in 1811. However the old girl wasn't peacefully humming for very long before the British Army attacked Washington D.C., during the War of 1812,  sacked the town and burnt a number of buildings.  Among these were the President's Mansion (the White House), the U.S. Patent Office, and of course... the Capitol Building. Happily, God took pity on the U.S. that night by calling up a rain storm which saved her from burning to the ground.  Since then she has survived Civil War. during which troops were bivouacked inside her, and a military hospital was set up there as well.  In fact it was during the Civil War that the Capitols famous dome was actually completed at the direction of President Abraham Lincoln, who insisted on the work's continuance. She has even survived the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001 during which she was said to have been one of the
murderer's intended targets. She is now is visited by 3 million to 5 million people every year.

But That Silver Plate In the Capitol Cornerstone...

has never been located. The Masonic and other records speak of the silver plate as having been laid in the "southeast corner" but we simply do not know whether this refers to the southeast corner of the Senate wing, which was the first completed section of the building , or the southeast corner of the entire Capitol building as she was originally envisioned. This would place the priceless silver plate across the building on the House side. To this day, more than a couple of centuries later, the Architect of the Capitol is still looking in every conceivable spot for that cornerstone. But even with the use of Metal detectors he has never able to locate the silver plate.

Sources =,_D.C.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

SEPTEMBER 15 = "Lost in Space" Premieres

"Star Trek was a show that aimed at your head. Lost in Space was a show that aimed at your heart."

- Mark Goddard

This was one view expressed explaining the longevity of "Lost in Space" an Irwin Allen produced TV show about a family which was literally lost in space, which had its premiere on the CBS television network on the evening of today's date, September 15, in 1965.  I freely admit that this event was certainly not a great historical moment. But it was an important part of popular culture when I was a kid. So if you, my "Today in History" readers will indulge me for a few minutes, I would like to reminisce about one of my favorite TV shows of all time. I call it a favorite not because its production values, which were pretty poor by today's standards. But the character of Dr. Zachary Smith played with pompous delight by the actor Jonathan Harris made the show frankly hilarious fun to watch. An "iconic" character in TV history? Maybe not, but he certainly was iconic for me!

The Original Story of "Lost in Space"

The original story was set in the year 1997. Earth at this time is vastly overpopulated, so a family - the Robinsons are selected for a mission which sends them to the third planet in the Alpha Centauri
 star system in hopes of estab- lishing a colony where other earthlings can settle.  Professor John Robinson, his wife Maureen, their children (Judy, Penny and Will) and Major Don West are sent on their space craft - the Jupiter 2, to investigate this possibility.  But an agent is sent by an enemy government to sabotage the mission; one Dr. Zachary Smith.  But the hapless Dr. Smith in the process winds up being trapped on the ship when she takes off. As a result of Smith's excess weight the ship runs into a meteor shower, and the Jupiter 2 and all aboard are thrown way off course and she, and the Robinsons, Major West, and Dr. Smith all become lost in space, and now must find their way home to earth.

The Dr. Smith, the Robot and the Robinsons

The show's original concept focused on the Robinson family. But the character of Dr. Smith (below) wound up as the primary foil and the source of most of the troubles.  Initially conceived as a completely evil, saboteur, the character became a self-centered, scheming, and eternally
greedy man who provides comic relief for the more serious characters of the Robinson family (his original identity as an enemy agent was not mentioned again). But while always protesting his good motives ( "I'm innocent!!"), Smith always maintained a measure of good underneath his surface cowardice. He developed a friendly relationship with the boy - Will Robinson, played by Bill Mumy and an abusively working relationship with the Robot whom he is forever dismissing with his articulate tongue ("Silence, you babbling booby!"). But the basis for all of this was the Robinson clan - with the father John played by Guy Williams and his wife Maureen played by June Lockhart, providing gentle but firm parental guidance. Major Don West, the ship's pilot, played by Mark Goddard was the male action hero who had a kind of romance going with the eldest of the Robinson children, Judy played by Marta Kristen. And Angela Cartwright as Penny and Will provided an innocent and trusting child's eye view of life in space.

"Lost in Space".... Lost in the TV Ratings

The show ran for three seasons, between September 15, 1965, and March 6, 1968, putting out a total of 83 episodes.  The first season was in black and white, and the second and third seasons were in color. "Lost in Space" was Irwin Allen's most successful television program. While the ratings were lackluster at the start, they improved by the second month. By January of 1966, "Lost in Space" was a top ten show, soundly topping its competition on the other networks. When "Star 
Trek" premiered in September 1966 on NBC, there were inevitable compar- isons between the two. Trek maintained a fairly serious science fiction focus, but by its second season "Lost in Space" had become a kind of parody of science fiction. The ratings began to suffer, and LIS dropped out of the top 20. And it has been said that Guy Williams and Mark Goddard were unhappy with the shift in emphasis to Dr. Smith and away from serious sci-fi. In the third season the show took on a more adventurous sci-fi bent with the crew of Jupiter 2 visiting different planets every week and the shift back to science fiction produced some of the better episodes o the series.  But the shift didn't hold - one of the worst episodes of the series, "The Great Vegetable Rebellion" (above) came late in that season. Amid talk of declining ratings and escalating production costs the show was cancelled in early 1968.

"Never Fear... SMITH is here!!"

The main reason why I've made this TV show the subject of a Blog is that I had soooo many enjoyable moments watching it. The over-the-top performances by Jonathan Harris as the scoundrel Dr. Smith made it one of the happiest parts of my childhood.  Now tell me, any of you who watched this show: can you recall with the same hilarious reaction I always had these signature Dr. Smith lines:  "Oh my back! My delicate back!!", or "WHAT DO YOU WANT WITH MEEEE?!" , or the slimy greed exuded by this one: "Did you say... diamonds??"  The
man was a textbook hypochondriac, a sniveling coward, and as greedy as they come.  And yet, he loved the Robinson children.  A main idea in the show was that although he was a stowaway, it had been his excess weight on board that not only drove the Jupiter 2 far off course and hence "Lost", it had also pulled them from a collision course with a huge meteor that would have killed everyone aboard. Nevertheless in an episode wherein Smith went back in time and had a chance to avoid getting left on board, he stays. All the time crying that "Wild horses couldn't pull me back onto that ship!!" he sees Penny and Will boarding, and knowing that without his presence aboard that they will die in the meteor crash, he runs aboard at the last minute.  Yes, as he said countless times with Dr. Smith's usual mock bravado:

"Never fear.... SMITH is here!!"

Sources =

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

SEPTEMBER 2 = The Great Fire of London, 1666

A large portion of the city of London burnt to the ground in a fire which began in the early morning hours of today's date, September 2, in 1666. And it all began when on of the King's own bakers didn't turn off his oven before going to bed. In spite of the flame's widespread progress throughout the city, only about 16 people were killed.  But a huge amount of damage had been done with 430 acres being swallowed up, 13,200 homes nearly 87 parish churches, including  St Paul's Cathedral and most of the buildings of the City' government. 70,000 of the City of London citizens were left without homes, all of their possessions lost, and themselves financially ruined.  Estimates are that some 80% of the city was destroyed. The fire threatened but did not actually reach the Palace of Whitehall, the residence of King Charles II.

The Baker Sets the Blaze Going

At this point in time, London was an extremely flammable city.  Most of its dwellings were made of wood with many of the poorer homes covered with tar. This worked well in keeping the rain out, but
was really perfect for catching fire.  Plus they were built very close together, with very narrow streets separating them.  Put this with a long dry summer and a good wind, and you had the makings of a perfect storm. So it happened that late on the evening of September 1, the king's baker, one Thomas Farrinor (of Farynor according to one source), located on Pudding Lane failed to properly douse the oven he was using, and sparks from it ignited firewood that was lying nearby.  At about 1:00 a.m. the whole bakery had caught fire. The good baker was able to escape with his family, but the fire rapidly spread adjacent buildings, and the Great Fire of 1666 was on.

Samuel Pepys (below), a member of Parliament, and a naval official to the King recorded much of his experiences in the fire in his diary:

"Jane called up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City. So I rose, and slipped on my night-gown and went to her window, and thought it to be on the back side of Mark Lane at the farthest; but, being unused to such fires as followed, I thought it far enough off, and so went to bed again, and to sleep. . . . By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down tonight by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish Street, by London Bridge. So I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower; and there got up upon one of the high places, . . .and there I did see the houses at the end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side . . . of the bridge. . . "

The Fire Spreads...

Well in spite of Mr. Pepys originally blase' reaction to the flames, they continued to spread and eat up more and more real estate. The fire department didn't exist back then, so the old fashioned bucket brigade was the only way of fighting this fire. But the strong winds that settled on London that morning saw to it that flames and sparks flew everywhere. The fire spread into Thames Street which was crowded with riverfront warehouses which were packed with oil, tallow, and tons of other highly combustible items. And of course this all went up immediately before spreading the fire even further.
The usual solution at this point was to blow up everything in the fire's path to create firebreaks, But this was only of limited use, since the explosions would be set off, but before the debris could be cleared away, the strong winds would blow right into the break and light it anew.

And the People of  London Flee the Flames..

Pepys remarked on the people carrying away their belongings, and the dismay of one govern- mental representative to the peoples indifference to his authority:

"[I hurried] to [St.] Paul's; and there walked along Watling Street, as well as I could, every creature coming away laden with goods to save and, here and there, sick people carried away in beds. Extraordinary goods carried in carts and on backs. At last [I] met my Lord Mayor in Cannon Street, like a man spent, with a [handkerchief] about his neck. To the King's message he cried, like a fainting woman, 'Lord, what can I do? I am spent: people will not obey me. I have been pulling down houses, but the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it.' . . . So he left me, and I him, and walked home; seeing people all distracted, and no manner of means used to quench the fire. The houses, too, so very thick thereabouts, and full of matter for burning, as pitch and tar, in Thames Street; and warehouses of oil and wines and brandy and other things."

Thousands of ordinary citizens of London resorted to dragging their possessions with them as described above, many of those either travelling near the Thames River, and in some cases on thee river with whatever craft they could find (above).  These benighted souls ran to the hills on the surrounding areas of London. By September 5, the fire had finally burnt itself out.  They seemed to return briefly in the legal district, but these buildings were successfully blown with gunpowder, and that at last brought the fire to an end. In the 1670s, a memorial column the Great Fire of London was built near the starting point of the blaze. Even though an official investigation of the fire declared that “the hand of God, a great wind, and a very dry season” was the cause of the inferno, an inscription darkly hinted that it had been the work of “treachery and malice of the Popish faction.” In 1986 the bakers of London finally admitted the culpability of one of their ancestors, Thomas Farrinor and presented a plaque attesting to that fact on Pudding Lane,

Sources =

"Eyewitness to History" Edited by John Carey, Avon Books, New York, 1987