Eight weird and wonderful things that happened in May through history

History Revealed magazine explores some of the strangest things that happened in May through history.

Eight weird and wonderful things that happened in May through history © Getty Images
1

1935 – HAPPY HOUR

At the Berlin Olympics in 1936, track-and-field speed machine Jesse Owens blew away the crowds – and undermined Hitler’s belief in Aryan supremacy – by winning four gold medals. But that wasn’t his greatest achievement.

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A year earlier, at the Big Ten Championships on 25 May 1935, the 21-year-old black American broke three world records and tied a fourth, all in less than an hour. What’s more, Owens sprinted to glory in the 100-yard dash, 220-yard sprint, 220-yard hurdles and long jump while suffering from an injured tailbone.

2

1610 – HORSING AROUND

Henri IV of France lost a lot more than time when carts in the road blocked his royal carriage as it made its way through Paris on 14 May 1610. While stopped, fanatical Catholic François Ravaillac (believing the King to be declaring a war on the Pope) stabbed Henri in the chest.

Ravaillac underwent days of torture for killing the King, culminating in an especially gruesome execution reserved for regicides – being pulled apart by four horses.

3

1812 – TIME AT THE BAR

Just after 5pm on 11 May 1812, Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was walking through the Westminster lobby when he was shot. He reportedly cried out “I am murdered!” before collapsing, becoming the only Prime Minister to be assassinated.

The assassination of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval in the lobby of the House of Commons, 1812 © Getty Images
The assassination of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval in the lobby of the House of Commons, 1812 © Getty Images

The next day, an inquest was held into the actions of the attacker, aggrieved merchant John Bellingham. Everything was above board, except that this official inquiry took place in the Rose and Crown pub on Downing Street. Let’s hope they raised a glass to the fallen PM before proceeding.

4

1895 – THE MOST IMPORTANT MEAL OF THE DAY

When Dr John Kellogg applied for a patent for his “flaked cereal” on 31 May 1895, his interest wasn’t in providing a delicious choice for the breakfast table.

Instead, he was on a mission to quell people’s deeply damaging sexual urges with a plain and healthy diet – especially when it came to the “self-pollution” that was self-pleasure.

His brother, Will, however, had different plans for ‘Corn Flakes’, so founded the Kellogg Company, added sugar and transformed the anti-sex cereal into a breakfast staple.

5

AD 868 – DIG UP A DIAMOND

Dated “the 13th of the fourth moon of the ninth year of Xiantong”, or 11 May AD 868, the Diamond Sutra may not be the first book, but it is the oldest with a definite print date. The five-metre-long scroll, written in Chinese and currently held by the British Library, contains lessons from the Buddha, who gave the text its name by declaring the teachings will “cut like a diamond blade”.

A page from the Diamond Sutra – the oldest complete and dated printed book © Getty Images
A page from the Diamond Sutra – the oldest complete and dated printed book © Getty Images

Lost for centuries, the Diamond Sutra was found in 1900, buried in one of the 492 ‘Caves of a Thousand Buddhas’ in north-west China, where the paper had been preserved by the dry air.

6

1842– DARING DOPPLER

In 1842, the Doppler Effect – which explains why a train whistle or car horn changes pitch as they whizz past you – was first presented. Austrian physicist Christian Doppler’s principle has since been used to support the Big Bang theory of the universe.

7

1910 – COMET-H THE HOUR

As Earth was actually going to pass through its 24-million-mile tail, the 1910 passage of Halley’s Comet promised to be spectacular. Yet scare-mongering news stories that the comet’s tail could be poisonous – exacerbated by astronomer Camille Flammarion’s remarks that the gas might “possibly snuff out all life on the planet” – left some in dread of an imminent celestial catastrophe.

Cover of the French newspaper Le Petit Parisien to mark the 1910 passing of Halley's Comet © Getty Images
Cover of the French newspaper Le Petit Parisien to mark the 1910 passing of Halley’s Comet © Getty Images

In the build-up to the comet being at its closest in May, it wasn’t only gas masks that sold in dramatic numbers. Swindlers were able to flog off ‘anti-comet pills’, too.

American wordsmith Mark Twain – born when Halley’s Comet was last visible – predicted he would die during the 1910 passage. And, sure enough, he did.

8

1785 – WHAT A SPECTACLE

As well as Founding Father, politician, writer, publisher, diplomat and scientist, Benjamin Franklin also gave the world some ground-breaking inventions.

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In a letter to a friend, dated 23 May 1785, he sketched out one of the ideas he had been working on for a while: bifocals. He hoped split lenses would mean that, despite his failing eyesight, he could see both the food on his plate and expressions on the faces of his company at a fancy dinner. And with bifocals still in use today, the American polymath certainly caused a spectacle!

This article was first published in the May 2016 issue of History Revealed.