6 Big Moments In History (People Forgot About Immediately)
While the annals of history are only written a single page at a time, sometimes history can be a bit impatient and dump two major historical events in our collective laps at the same time. Which is bad news for one of them, since our tiny monkey brains can only focus on one world-shattering situation at a time,. For example ...
The Sinking Of The Sultana Was A Bigger Tragedy Than The Titanic -- But Not The Lincoln Assassination
On April 27, 1865, right after the end of the Civil War, the good ship Sultana was sailing its 2,137 souls up the Mississippi River. Most of the passengers were Union ex-prisoners of war who had survived defeat, disease and starvation to finally make their way back home victoriously. And then three of the ship's four boilers exploded and almost everyone was boiled alive.
Like another, much more famous ship, the Sultana was reputed to be a state of the art ship replete with modern safety measures. And like that other famous ship, it was hubris that sank the unsinkable ship. The Sultana only had a capacity of 376 passengers, but since the government had promised to pay $5 and $10 for each enlisted man and officer returned home, so the captain kept cramming them in like sardines. Inevitably, the strained engines exploded, causing eruptions of steam to boil passengers where they stood. To make matters even more tragic, since all the POWs were so frail and underfed, many who managed to jump overboard were too weak to swim to shore and drowned. All in all, about 1,800 souls perished during the sinking, 300 more compared to the Titanic's 1,512.
So if the Sultana was an even worse disaster than the Titanic, why don't we say that something is a mistake the size of the Sultana, or that someone is trying to rearrange the deckchairs on the Sultana? For that, it picked the worst month in American history to make said history. On April 15th, President Lincoln was assassinated. This led to a two-week-long manhunt for John Wilkes Booth until his death on April 26th, a day before the Sultana sank. By the time it hit the papers, America just couldn't muster the attention to flip past the front pages plastered with Lincoln to learn about their nations' greatest maritime disaster -- or prosecute the Sultana's captain, for that matter.
The Most Important Egyptian Tomb Discovery Was Upstaged By The Nazi Invasion Of France
Everyone and their mummy has heard of the splendors of Pharaoh Tutankhamun. The discovery of his tomb, and the many riches within, in 1922 caused a splash not seen in the dusty field of archeology since. But not even the grandeur of Tut could compare with another pharaoh finding only a decade later, except that the world was a bit busy fending off the greatest evil of modern history to pay attention.
In 1939, archaeologists discovered the tomb of Pharaoh Psusennes I, who is also known as the Silver Pharaoh. For obvious reasons, as he's the only pharaoh ever to be found buried in a silver coffin (which was more rare and valuable than gold at the time) and the gold masks, necklaces and other treasures buried with him were so opulent and ostentatious they make King Tut's baubles look like the kind you pull out of a vending machine at the arcade.
For historians, the discovery of King Psus was a much bigger deal than King Tut. His was the only tomb to date that had been left completely intact as looters hadn't managed to penetrate it in 3,000 years. Furthermore, King Psus was also a more important pharaoh than young King Tut, saving the kingdom from a Scythian invasion and shaping Egypt over a 48-year-reign compared to Tut's tiny 10 years of throne time. By any measure, uncovering the tomb of Pharaoh Psusennes I tomb was the greatest egyptological feat of the time.
Unfortunately, that time in history also happened to be Nazi o'clock. The discovery of King Psus' tomb was made in 1940 by famed Egyptologist Pierre Montet, the French Indiana Jones (so, Belloq?). But the people back home weren't very interesting when the story of Psusennes broke as they were a bit busy being invaded by the Nazis. So instead of trying to out-PR Hitler, Montet packed up his family and Psusennes I's treasures and buried them in a vault in Cairo -- the treasures, not his children. It was only over half a century later that they were revealed, long after the Ancient Egypt craze of the early 20th century, at which point all the excitement the world could muster was a PBS documentary.
Reporters Skipped America's Deadliest School Massacre To Witness Charles Lindbergh's Transatlantic Flight
We have already talked about the oft-forgotten Bath School disaster, the worst school massacre of all time. Which is weird, right? How is it that in a country both plagued by and obsessed with school shootings, the mother of all scholarly tragedies isn't a widely spread cautionary tale? Because everyone back then was too preoccupied looking up at the sky to note the bodies on the ground.
To jog everyone's memory, on May 18, 1927, Bath's school board treasurer, 55-year-old Andrew Kehoe, blew up the local school, murdering 38 students before turning the bombs on himself, his farmstead and five more innocents. This was the worst, and first, school massacre the United States had to face, a true turning point in how the nation would deal with such senseless tragedy. But nevermind that, because Lucky Lindy is about to break the world record of being an amazing flyboy! USA! USA! USA!
On May 21, 1927, not three days after the tragedy and still into the 'thoughts and prayers' phase of American school massacres, noted American hero and Nazi-sympathizer Charles Lindbergh touched down in New York from his solo non-stop flight across the Transatlantic. As opposed to facing the gruesome realities of a school massacre, the return of the Lone Eagle was exactly the uplifting story needed during the Great Depression. News organizations pulled journalists covering the Bath disaster and reassigned them to report on Charles Lindbergh's heroic exploits, and the story of 38 murdered students was forgotten within the year. We're sure there's a lesson in there about America needing to take school tragedies more seriously and not get distracted by attention-seeking fascists, but how would that still be relevant today?
The First Terrorist Jihad Had 100,000 Hostages, Still Wasn't As Important As The Iranian Hostage Crisis
On November 20, 1979, 500 fringe fanatics stormed The Great Mosque of Mecca, al-Masjid al-Haram, and took over 100,000 devout Muslims hostage. This resulted in not just the largest and bloodiest hostage situation in the world, but also the start of the first-ever global jihad, one that eventually led to 9/11. But one country over, some Americans were locked in their embassy -- so who cared about all that?
The Muslim world was paralyzed when the small army of al-Ikhwan militants took control of al-Masjid al-Haram. It put Saudi troops in a bind, because it was absolutely forbidden to bear arms or spill blood in the most sacred of sacred places. So during the siege's most crucial moments, soldiers had to wait for a special religious fatwa un-damning their souls before they would even point their guns in the direction of the mosque. By that point, the terrorists, who had spent months smuggling a buttload of weapons, ammo, and food into the catacombs below, were completely entrenched, repelling wave after wave of attacks. It took the army two weeks, waves of artillery strikes and a bunch of poison gas to retake the Grand Mosque, but not before the death of 26 worshippers, 124 soldiers, and about 100 Islamic fundamentals (although some sources place that number far higher).
While one of the largest hostage situations of all time should've been the biggest news of the decade, the story missed something very crucial: white people. The event was buried in the back pages of most global publications because, just days into the attack of the Grand Mosque, the Iran Hostage Crisis kicked off, an incident that lasted almost two years. Soon after, the USSR also invaded Afghanistan, giving both superpowers their own Mideast crises to focus on.
But while the siege didn't make an international splash, its ripples are still felt around the world to this day. The attack marked the end of liberalism in Saudi Arabia, allowing the monarchy to start enforcing hardline Sharia Law. Iran's Supreme Leader, Ruhollah Khomeini then accused the US of being behind the attack on Islam's holiest place, leading to riots that resulted in the killing of two Americans and two local staff members at the U.S. embassy in Pakistan. Meanwhile, the success (by terrorist standards) of the siege also inspired many smaller groups of radicals to attempt similar feats, including Osama Bin Laden who happened to be in Mecca at the time of the attack and later cited the bloodshed in Islam's holiest site as one of his reasons he became radicalized. Maybe we should have been paying attention.
The First U.S. Female Pilot's Fame Was Sunk By The Titanic
Harriet Quimby is the kind of badass Disney princess who breaks records as easily as she breaks the mold. While her pretty face landed her a modeling gig for a soft drink company and her quick wits allowed her to write six Hollywood movies, it was her eagle eyes and quick reflexes that made her the first female American ace pilot. But while she was in the air breaking some glass ceilings, some dumb dudes were in the water smashing into an iceberg.
In 1911, the 35-year-old Quimby became the first woman in the U.S., and only the seventh in the whole world, to earn her pilot's license and she was branded "America's First Lady of the Air." But for Quimby, being part of the flyboys' club wasn't enough, she wanted to run the joint. So not even a year after getting her license, Quimby did what only a single man had done before: pilot a solo flight across the English Channel in what was pretty much a wooden hot tub with a propeller taped to it.
The journey was very dangerous, and the times were very sexist, so no one believed Quimby could do it. Even one of her best friends, Gustav Hamel, offered to crossdress and fly the plane pretending to be Quimby. But she had more moxie than that. Refusing the con, she got into her winged coffin and, through dense fog and with nothing more than a compass to guide her, successfully flew across the Channel on her lonesome in 1912. For that alone, she should've gotten a parade twice the size of Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart combined. Instead, when she returned to America having conquered the skies, Quimby was met by ... absolutely no fanfare whatsoever.
It was there that Quimby found out why she wasn't making any headlines: They all needed the space for Jack and Rose. Only two days before her aerial feat of feminism the Titanic had sunk and, unlike when it was a dude and a school massacre fifteen years later, the papers were too preoccupied with the tragedy to care about the incredible victory. Undeterred, Quimby kept pushing aviation boundaries, but the overshadowing and her untimely death that very same year (did we mention how ridiculously dangerous airplanes were in the 1910s?) has left her legacy shrouded in obscurity.
Everyone Was Too Busy Watching The Moon Landing To Notice Senator Ted Kennedy Got A Woman Drowned
If you'd ask most people what Chappaquiddick means, they probably think it's their least favorite sport at Hogwarts. But to a few oldsters, Chappaquiddick evokes one of the greatest political scandals of the sixties, one that left Nixon in power and a poor woman dead at the bottom of the ocean.
The scandal involved Robert "Ted" Kennedy, the Massachusetts senator, last Kennedy left standing and then-potential challenger for President Nixon. On the night of July 18, 1969, the senator was driving back from a boozy party on the island of Chappaquiddick near Martha's Vineyard when he careened his car off a bridge and into the Atlantic. While Kennedy managed to get out of the sinking car, his driving companion (and likely sexual partner), 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, was trapped inside. So Kennedy swam to shore, gathered his courage and ... went back to the party.
After saving himself, Ted Kennedy claimed he spent fifteen minutes trying to reach Kopechne before accepting that it was too late. But instead of immediately calling for help, he walked back to the party in silence, passing several houses with telephones. Once there, he informed only two of his buds of what had happened. The trio drove back to the scene of the accident where Kennedy jumped back into the water -- not to swim to the car, but all the way back to the mainland in a panic. Once on dry land again, he headed to his hotel and went to sleep until the next morning, when Kennedy finally picked up the phone and called ... his mistress to ask for advice. It was only after ten whole hours after the tragic accident before Kennedy finally reported the accident to the police, a course of action the senator himself later admitted "made no sense at all."
Did people wonder why their senator and potential future president had chilled until the next morning before reporting that he had gotten his young lover killed? Not at all. See, by then, everyone was too busy watching one of the greatest events in human history: the moon landing. By waiting until July 18th had passed to report the death of Kopechne, Kennedy had (totally accidentally, we're sure) pushed the story to the news cycle of July 20th, 1969, the very day Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took one small step for man and one giant leap onto every single front page for the next two weeks.
Thanks in great part to the media being so distracted by the moon boys, the fallout of the incident was minimal. For the crime of driving recklessly, getting a woman killed and obstructing justice, Ted Kennedy received two months of suspended jail time and had his driver's license revoked for 16 months. And while the scandal did cost him his shot at the presidency in the 1972 elections (and giving Nixon another two years for his skullduggery), the senator's career survived. Kennedy served nine more terms in which he authored a bunch of social security legislation and was one of Obamacare's greatest champions. Edward Kennedy died on August 25th, 2009 at the age of 77. His obituary was already in the newspapers the next day.
Steven Assarian is a librarian. He has a short story in A Punk Rock Future, which you should totally buy.