This Week In History: Nov. 27 – Dec. 3 

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On this week in history, Lassy talks about London, automobiles, World War II, and more! Illustration by: Kaitlyn Tran/Daily Campus

Hello there history buffs, welcome back to This Week in History! Unfortunately Thanksgiving break has come to an end, but some fascinating history will help make the weeks to come all that much better! 

On Nov. 27, 1809, Theordore Hook, a resident of London, England, followed through on a bet that wreaked havoc across the city, now known as the Berners Street hoax. 

Imagine this: You tend to a house on Berners Street in London when unexpectedly, a chimney sweeper knocks on the door asking if you need his services. As you tell him you have no need, another man offers the same, and another. Within the next hour, 12 chimney sweepers, countless vicars and priests, fish sellers, shoemakers, piano deliveries and even government officials show up at your one overwhelmed house.  

As the day dragged on and the city streets were clogged with various angry individuals, all tricked to go to this house for reasons that were fabricated, Hook looked on joyfully from the house across the street. He had won his bet; he proved he could make any house in London the most talked-about address in a week. 

Theodore’s friend and loser of the bet, Samuel Beazley, paid Hook the equivalent of 89 pounds for his success, likely astonished at how much chaos ensued as a result. With the government in outrage and locals demanding that the perpetrators be caught, the Morning Press newspaper published a statement. 

“A reward has been offered for the apprehension of the author of the criminal hoax,” the statement read. 

Upon hearing such an angry reaction to the hoax, Hook sought “respite” by traveling to the English countryside – definitely not to evade the authorities – and was not caught for his actions.  

Racing across the Atlantic to the American Midwest, Nov. 28, 1895 was an exhilarating day for Illinois, as the Chicago Times-Herald Race marked the first automobile race in American history.  

Excitement about the prospects of racing with such newly developed technology led to increased interest in the idea, but notably, the paper had a difficulty in naming the race. To some an automobile, to others a “moto cycle”; the editors of the paper debated on the correct terminology to use for the vehicles in the race, eventually settling on the latter of the two. 

Thus, the Chicago Times-Herald Moto Cycle Race began, planned to span 54 miles from Jackson Park to Evanston, Illinois. Yet similar to finding a name, the race immediately ran into issues. Of the 83 cars signed up for the race, only six arrived, forcing the race to be postponed. Likewise, the few car drivers heading to the race encountered difficulties on the way, with some even being stopped by city authorities and forced to have horses pull their vehicles out of fear of the new technology. 

Once the race finally began, the cars took off, one immediately hitting a horse and dropping out of the race, while the others ripped through the city streets at an astonishingly fast average of 7 mph. Finally, after nearly 10 hours of driving, the “moto cycle” driven by Frank Duryea of Illinois finished the race in first, with his car being essentially the only vehicle to properly finish.  

Perhaps the most important outcome of the race was the arrival of the automobile industry into mainstream American culture. Newspapers across the nation reported that “horses would soon be replaced by the automobile” and rightly so, as only a year later, commercial production of cars began.  

Once again heading to Europe, the next event this week took place on Nov. 30, 1786, with the abolition of the death penalty in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.  

Under Duke Leopold II, later to become Holy Roman Emperor, Tuscany became a center of the enlightenment, with many historians citing Leopold to be one of the most “sensible” of the monarchs to come out of the intellectual rebirth. Indeed, Tuscany’s removal of the death penalty marked the first time in modern history that a nation abolished the punishment — truly remarkable for the age.  

The decision has since come to be celebrated as Cities for Life Day, with many nations lighting monuments or hosting campaigns against the penalty. While still a contentious issue in some parts of the globe, over 100 nations have since abolished the death penalty to varying degrees.  

To conclude this week with a brief visit to World War II, let’s head south to the coasts of southern Italy, where on Dec. 2, 1943, a Luftwaffe bombing raid sank the American ship SS John Harvey in port in the city of Bari.  

While many ships had been sunk over the course of the war, the loss of this cargo ship proved to be especially horrific, as loaded on board were old stockpiles of World War I era mustard gas. Exploding across the devastated city port, hundreds of military personnel and civilians were hit by the surge of the gasses, causing painful reactions as it ravaged the bodies of those hit.  

Such an event raises numerous questions from a historical perspective, especially as to the reasoning behind chemical weapons being present on board an American ship. In fact, the incident was covered up with the deaths being considered “burns due to enemy action,” and numerous reports containing information were soon classified. 

Despite the dubious circumstances around the possession of the chemicals, much good came out of the incident, with chemical warfare doctors – notably Dr. Stewart Francis Alexander – discovering successful treatments as a result of working with survivors.  

Amazingly, the knowledge gained by the medical team helped hasten the development of new medicinal strategies, such as chemotherapy, in years to come. At least something good came of such a terrible event. 

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