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Monday, October 15, 2012

On This Week in History: Oct 15 - Oct 21

Oct 15, 1917 Mata Hari executed

Mata Hari on a 1906 postcard
Mata Hari, the archetype of the seductive female spy, is executed for espionage by a French firing squad at Vincennes outside of Paris.

She found fame as an exotic Asian-inspired dancer born in a sacred Indian temple and taught by a priestess who gave her the name Mata Hari (eye of the day in Malay). In reality, she was Margaretha Geertruida Zelle- born in a small town in northern Holland. She packed dance halls and opera houses from Russia to France mostly because her show consisted of her slowly stripping nude. She became a famous courtesan during World War I with lovers including high-ranking military officers of various nationalities. There is evidence that Mata Hari acted as a German spy and a double agent for the French. Her military trial was riddled with bias and circumstantial evidence, and it is probable that French authorities trumped her up as "the greatest woman spy of the century" as a distraction for the huge losses the French army was suffering on the western front.

Oct 16, 1934 The Long March

Jiajin Mountain, the first snow-covered mountain crossed
by the Red Army during the Long March. [China.org.cn] 
The embattled Chinese Communists broke through Nationalist enemy lines and begin an epic flight from their encircled headquarters in southwest China. The  Ch'ang Cheng (Long March) lasted 368 days and covered 6,000 miles - crossing  24 rivers and 18 mostly snow-capped mountain ranges. It was the longest continuous march in the history of warfare and marked the emergence of Mao Zedong as the undisputed leader of the Chinese Communists. 
Mao Zedong
In 1927 a Chinese Civil war broke out between the Nationalists and the Communists. In 1931, Communist leader Mao Zedong was elected chairman of the Soviet Republic of China in the southwest Kiangsi province. Between 1930 and 1934, the Chiang Kai-shek led Nationalists launched five encirclement campaigns against the Soviet Republic- the first four successfully resisted by the Mao. With defeat imminent, the Communists broke out of the encirclement which began the Long March 5:00 p.m. of October 16, 1934. The retreating force initially consisted of 86,000 troops, 15,000 personnel, and 35 women with a line of marchers stretched for 50 miles. After enduring starvation, aerial bombardment and almost daily skirmishes with Nationalist forces, Mao halted his columns at the foot of the Great Wall of China on October 20, 1935 which ended the Long March. Only 4,000 troops completed the journey. Four years later, the Nationalists were defeated, and Mao proclaimed the People's Republic of China as chairman until his death in 1976.

Oct 17, 1931 Capone goes to prison

Al Capone's mug shot, 1931. (CHS DN-91508)
On this day in 1931, gangster Al Capone is sentenced to 11 years in prison for tax evasion and fined $80,000, signaling the downfall of one of the most notorious criminals of the 1920s and 1930s. Capone began serving his time at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta. Amid accusations that he was manipulating the system and receiving cushy treatment, he was transferred to the maximum-security lockup at Alcatraz Island, in California's San Francisco Bay. He got out early in 1939 for good behavior, after spending his final year in prison in a hospital, suffering from syphilis. Plagued by health problems for the rest of his life, Capone died in 1947 at age 48 at his home in Palm Island, Florida.

Oct 18, 1867 U.S. takes possession of Alaska

Check used to pay for Alaska
On this day in 1867, the U.S. formally takes possession of Alaska after purchasing the territory from Russia for $7.2 million, or less than two cents an acre. The Alaska purchase comprised 586,412 square miles ( twice the size of Texas) championed by William Henry Seward, the expansionist secretary of state under President Andrew Johnson. The name Alaska is derived from the Aleut word alyeska, which means "great land." Alaska has two official state holidays to commemorate its origins: Seward's Day, observed the last Monday in March, celebrates the March 30, 1867, signing of the land treaty between the U.S. and Russia, AND Alaska Day, observed every October 18, marks the anniversary of the formal land transfer.

Oct 19, 1781 Victory at Yorktown

Lord Cornwallis surrenders to George Washington at Yorktown,
Virginia, October 17, 1781. Painting by John Trumbull.

Hopelessly trapped at Yorktown, Virginia, British General Lord Cornwallis surrenders 8,000 British soldiers and seamen to a larger Franco-American force, effectively bringing an end to the American Revolution. General Cornwallis surrendered 7,087 officers and men, 900 seamen, 144 cannons, 15 galleys, a frigate, and 30 transport ships. Pleading illness, he did not attend the surrender ceremony, but his second-in-command, General Charles O'Hara, carried Cornwallis' sword to the American and French commanders. 

Although the war persisted on the high seas and in other theaters, the Patriot victory at Yorktown effectively ended fighting in the American colonies. Peace negotiations began in 1782, and on September 3, 1783, the Treaty of Paris was signed, formally recognizing the United States as a free and independent nation after eight years of war.

Oct 20, 1947 Congress investigates Reds in Hollywood

On October 20, 1947, the Red Scare kicks into high gear in Washington, as a Congressional committee begins investigating Communist influence in Hollywood.
With the beginning of the Cold War after World War II, conservative Washington watchdogs led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, the most public face of anti-communism, worked to out communists in government then on alleged "Reds" in the liberal movie industry. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)  in October 1947 grilled a number of prominent witnesses. (actors Gary Cooper, studio honchos Walt Disney and Jack Warner, etc.) who gave names of colleagues they suspected of being communists. Pressured by Congress, Hollywood banned the work of about 325 screenwriters, actors and directors not cleared by the committee which included composer Aaron Copland, writers Dashiell Hammett and Dorothy Parker, playwright Arthur Miller and actor and filmmaker Orson Welles. The ban began to lift slowly in the early 1960s. In 1997, the Writers' Guild of America voted to change the writing credits of 23 films made during the blacklist period, reversing—but not erasing—some of the damage done during the Red Scare.

Oct 21, 1959 Guggenheim Museum opens in New York City

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, this museum houses Mr. Guggenheim’s collection of non-objective art. Completed after Wrights death, it opened in 1959 to rave reviews for both the architects genius and for the adventurous spirit of the founder.

On this day in 1959, on New York City's Fifth Avenue, thousands of people line up for the opening of a giant upside-down cupcake shaped white concrete building- the new Guggenheim Museum, home to one of the world's top collections of contemporary art by mining tycoon Solomon R. Guggenheim which he began collecting in the 1930s. Needing more space for his collection, architect Frank Lloyd Wright was contacted in 1943 to design a museum for the collection built over the next 16 years which opened on October 21, 1959- a work of art in itself where building and art work together to create "an uninterrupted, beautiful symphony." Located on New York's impressive Museum Mile, at the edge of Central Park, the Guggenheim has become one of the city's most popular attractions. In 1993, the original building was renovated and expanded to create even more exhibition space. 

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