With ‘normal’ news on hold at the moment, it’s to the past that we have to turn for ‘take your mind off the virus’ material. In that spirit, every weekend the Spectator is bringing you doses of topical trivia – facts, figures and anecdotes inspired by the current week’s dates in history …
In 1792 the French highwayman Nicolas Jacques Pelletier became the first person to be executed by guillotine. The device was used for French state executions until 1977. On September 10 that year, the murderer Hamida Djandoubi became its last victim.
C.B. Fry (born 1872). The cricketer’s party trick – which he performed well into his seventies – was to face a mantelpiece and leap upwards, turning as went so that he landed on the mantelpiece facing his audience, to whom he would then bow.
In 1923 Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (later the Queen Mother) married the Duke of York. On her way into Westminster Abbey she laid her bouquet on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, in memory of her brother Fergus, who had been killed in World War I. Subsequent royal brides at the Abbey – including Kate Middleton in 2011 – have also laid their bouquets on the tomb. The Archbishop of Canterbury would not allow the service to be broadcast on the radio, as he was concerned that ‘men might listen to it in public houses’.
Rudolf Hess (born 1894). One of the soldiers who guarded Hess at Berlin’s Spandau prison after World War II was a young Bernard Manning.
Samuel Morse (born 1791). When the French navy stopped using Morse code on January 31 1997, their final message was: ‘Calling all. This is our last cry before our eternal silence.’
In 1973, The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd went to number one on the US Billboard Top 200 album chart. (It didn’t drop off the chart until 1988. Its 741 weeks there remain a record.) The prism on the cover shows six colours of light emerging, not the conventional seven of the rainbow. That convention only exists because seven was Isaac Newton’s favourite number – he split purple into indigo and violet to achieve the total.
Bradley Wiggins (born 1980). The first professional cycling team for which Wiggins rode was owned by Linda McCartney. She insisted that her riders be vegetarian, though as Wiggins later confessed, ‘everyone was sneaking in the bacon sandwiches’.
In 1974, Richard Nixon announced the release of edited transcripts from White House tape recordings connected to the Watergate scandal. They became famous for the phrase ‘expletive deleted’. But as the rather prim Nixon insisted on removing words like ‘Christ’ and ‘hell’, the public got the impression that the conversations were far more explicit than they actually were. Protesters outside the White House held up placards saying ‘Impeach the (expletive deleted)!’
Peter Mayhew (died 2019). The 7’3” actor played Chewbacca, who was inspired by a big hairy dog owned by Star Wars producer George Lucas, which used to ride round on the passenger seat of his car. (The dog’s name was Indiana, which was where Lucas got Dr Jones’s first name.) Chewbacca’s voice was created by mixing recordings of walruses, lions, camels, bears, rabbits, tigers and badgers.
In 1707, the Act of Union joining England and Scotland took effect. The bells of St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh rang out the tune of ‘Why Should I Be So Sad On My Wedding Day?’