Halloween is this week, and what better way to scare history enthusiasts than to imagine the practically infinite amount of historical literature that we could never — in one lifetime — consume?
Imagine it like this: How big of a book would you need to fit every single historical document within it? How many pages do you think that book would be?
The Library of Congress alone houses over 150 million items in varying forms, so a book containing solely that collection would be well over 100 million pages at the very least. There are hundreds of millions of documents in other libraries, homes and colleges across the globe; it could well be over a billion pages to contain just those items. That’s one heck of a way to scare even the most prudent of readers, isn’t it?
Now, if the average reader can finish a page in about 1.7 minutes — listen, I know this is imprecise math, but bear with me — that means they could finish the billion-page book in about 1.7 billion minutes, or just about 3,234 years.
Of course it wouldn’t be possible to read that book, so why do I even bring this up? Well, because that book would be the most interesting piece of literature ever written. It would contain every twist and turn in human history, and keep the reader on the edge of their seat as they attempt to flip the page of a book that weighs a measly 7,165 tons.
If you were to open that book to a chapter covering the month of October, you may stumble across one of the most fascinating historical twists: “October Surprises.”
Rather than discussing something incredibly scary for this week in history — I’ll save the history of Halloween for the previous writer, Gino Giansanti, who covered it brilliantly in 2021 — I want to discuss something scary in a different sense of the term.
If there’s one thing more horrifying than Halloween decorations littering the yards of homes across the U.S., it’s the political campaign signs that seem to rise from their graves around this time of the year as well. Of course, this is due to the general elections happening in Connecticut and elsewhere on Nov. 5-7, prompting political campaings to exhaust the last of their momentum before votes are cast.
While nowadays the political system is so disjointed and hard to follow, historically, the energy was off the charts during the three weeks leading up to this stretch in November. These weeks were the deciding time when politicians stopped being civil — that is, if they ever were to begin with — and spewed out whatever last chance schemes they had in mind.
Let’s venture back in time to October 2004. As a presidential election year, the race between George W. Bush and John Kerry was in full swing. While the incumbent Bush was in a fairly comfortable position as a popular candidate and returning president, Kerry wasn’t too far behind. Yet, on Oct. 29, an October Surprise may have swayed the outcome ever so slightly, as a video of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden surfaced on the news station Al Jazeera.
In the video — which features a graying, yet seemingly healthy bin Laden — the terrorist leader comments on the inadequacies of Bush, the attacks on 9/11 and even mentions the presidential candidate Kerry by name. This was shocking for many, as it not only showed bin Laden alive and well (many had thought he was dead), but it also disrupted the course of the election: a classic October Surprise.
Bush and Kerry both scrambled to address the situation, although it was largely played off by both who sought to condemn the influence of a terrorist leader on election results.
Kerry remarked, “They [bin Laden and Al Qaeda] are barbarians, and I will stop at absolutely nothing to hunt down, capture or kill the terrorists wherever they are, whatever it takes. Period.” You can tell he wasn’t going to ignore the severity of the video, and was quite declarative in his response.
While loading onto Air Force One on a trip to Ohio, Bush shared similar remarks: “Americans will not be intimidated or influenced by an enemy of our country. I’m sure Senator Kerry agrees with this.”
In this case, the October Surprise didn’t have too much of an impact on the final results, though it did bring Bush’s War on Terrorism back into the minds of the American electorate. Even if the election would have played out the same, perhaps some voters voted Bush out of a fear of a resurgent bin Laden.
Let’s go back a little further in time to 1884, an important election year for the presidency.
During the 1884 campaign between Grover Cleveland and James G. Blaine, the Republican party which backed Blaine was in a decent position to win the election. Both candidates had large populations voting for them and it appeared to be a close matchup.
That is until the fateful day, Oct. 29, 1884, when a Presbyterian preacher announced that Democrats were the party of “rum, Romanism and rebellion.” In essence, erroneously calling them a “Catholic” party in a slandering sense. The Republican nominee, Blaine, did not come up with a response to the statement; he supposedly just let the words simmer as they were, condemning Democrats as drunken Catholics.
Keep in mind that this was during a time when many Americans feared Irish and Eastern European immigrants, considering them to be poor workers and largely incompetent. Likewise, since many of these immigrants were Catholics, the religion itself also received a great deal of hate.
You would think that anti-immigration sentiment would provide a source of votership for Blaine, after all, since many in the voting class agreed that the immigrants were detrimental to the country; however, he failed to remember that Irish voters were a huge part of his voting base — they were backing the Republicans! The Democrats soon publicized that the absence of a refutation meant that Blaine agreed that Democrats were Catholics, and thus was an anti-Catholic politician. While this was not necessarily true, it nevertheless diminished his popularity. Blaine went on to narrowly lose the election to Cleveland only a few weeks later.
So, while I only discussed a few of the many October Surprises that may exist in the pages of that billion-page book I mentioned earlier, I hope that this prompts you to think about the timing of certain things: With elections coming up, keep an eye on the headlines. I wouldn’t be surprised to see an October Surprise coming out any time now. Have a safe and spooky Halloween, see you next week!