This Week In History: March 29 – April 2

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Photo Courtesy of Engin Akyurt via Pexels

History buffs like myself love to notice the similarities and parallels in historical events. This week in history, however, much to my frustration, the events we will discuss couldn’t be any more different. Instead of beginning with my usual profound statement about history repeating itself, I’ll just cut to the chase. So let’s dive in! 

On March 30, 1867, 154 years ago, Alaska was purchased by the U.S. government for 7.2 million dollars. 

While 7.2 million is certainly no small sum, even in today’s money, the purchase of Alaska from the Russian Empire was a steal at approximately two cents per acre. While this would seem like a good deal by most real estate standards, Americans largely resented the Federal government, particularly Secretary of State William H. Seward, for wasting money on a frozen wasteland. 

Nicknamed “Seward’s Folly,” Alaska was ignored by the public for more than 30 years. The discovery of gold in 1898, however, prompted an influx of Americans into “The Last Frontier.” Gold and oil reserves would prove that Seward got more than his money’s worth in this tremendous deal of a land mass more than one-fifth the size of the contiguous 48 states. 

Also on March 30, but in 1981, 40 years ago, President Ronald Reagan was shot outside of a Washington, D.C. hotel. 

While most presidential assassinations (or attempts in this case) are politically motivated, as in the case of Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth, would-be assassin John W. Hinckley Jr. targeted Reagan in order to impress a girl he had a crush on.  

After barely two months in office, 70-year-old Reagan was rushed to the hospital with a bullet wound to his left lung, just inches from his heart. In true Reagan-fashion, he is quoted telling his wife, “Honey, I forgot to duck,” and saying to his surgeons, “Please tell me you’re Republicans.” Reagan’s popularity soared in light of his rapid recovery, though future reports would reveal the tremendous toll the incident had on his health despite its appearance. 

Hinckley, in his testimony, revealed that the plot of the movie, “Taxi Driver,” motivated his actions, as he hoped to win the affections of the film’s leading lady, actress Jodie Foster. The trial revealed that Hinckley had been stalking Foster since the film’s release, who was barely 18-years-old studying at Yale University. The verdict deemed Hinckley “not guilty by reason of insanity,” and sentenced him to life in a mental institution. He has since been released and now lives with his mother in Williamsburg, VA. 

On March 31, 1943, 78 years ago, the landmark musical, “Oklahoma!” opened on Broadway.  

While the bright lights of Broadway are dimmer than usual these days, the theatre scene was in full-swing in the 1940s. Despite the hardships of the Second World War, New Yorkers flocked to the St. James Theatre to see the first project of the legendary musical duo, Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II. 

The pair that would eventually write classics like “South Pacific,” “The King and I” and “The Sound of Music,” first made headlines with a charming love story about a charismatic cowhand and a free-spirited farmer’s daughter. Though not groundbreaking in subject matter, “Oklahoma!” revolutionized the theatre industry by using song and dance to tell the story. While previous shows had music, the story would pause while a random showgirl number would wow the audience for five minutes. Rodgers and Hammerstein instead used the music to tell the thoughts and feelings of their characters and keep the story flowing, thus creating the modern musical. 

While some works of art become dated, “Oklahoma!” has stood the test of time, being revived on Broadway five times since 1943, with the most recent 2019 production winning the coveted Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. 

On April 1, in the early 1700s, more than 300 years ago, the English (and subsequently Americans) began celebrating April Fools’ Day. 

While we have no historical proof of the first April Fools’ Day, several historians trace the tradition back to the 16th century when European nations traded the Julian calendar for the more modern Gregorian calendar. While the Gregorian calendar recognizes Jan. 1 as the start of the new year, the Julian calendar recognized April 1.  

News did not travel fast in those days, so many people, especially those in the country, continued to ring in the new year on April 1. As time went on, April 1 would reveal who was “foolish” enough to reject the changing times, making them subject to public ridicule and mockery. Fun fact: “kick me” signs on peoples’ backs were the most popular prank to pull on the village idiots. Since then, the first of April has been unofficially deemed a day for pranks, humor and hijinks, even if the victim follows an up-to-date calendar.  

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