This Day In History

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On this day in 1887, Groundhog Day, featuring a rodent meteorologist, is celebrated for the first time at Gobbler's Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. According to tradition, if a groundhog comes out of its hole on this day and sees its shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter weather; no shadow means an early spring.

Groundhog Day has its roots in the ancient Christian tradition of Candlemas Day, when clergy would bless and distribute candles needed for winter. The candles represented how long and cold the winter would be. Germans expanded on this concept by selecting an animal--the hedgehog--as a means of predicting weather. Once they came to America, German settlers in Pennsylvania continued the tradition, although they switched from hedgehogs to groundhogs, which were plentiful in the Keystone State.

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On March 12, 1930, Indian independence leader Mohandas Gandhi begins a defiant march to the sea in protest of the British monopoly on salt, his boldest act of civil disobedience yet against British rule in India.

Britain's Salt Acts prohibited Indians from collecting or selling salt, a staple in the Indian diet. Citizens were forced to buy the vital mineral from the British, who, in addition to exercising a monopoly over the manufacture and sale of salt, also exerted a heavy salt tax.

Although India's poor suffered most under the tax, Indians required salt. Defying the Salt Acts, Gandhi reasoned, would be an ingeniously simple way for many Indians to break a British law nonviolently.

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At approximately 8:12 p.m. Eastern time, Sunday, February 9, 1964, The Ed Sullivan Show returned from a commercial (for Anacin pain reliever), and there was Ed Sullivan standing before a restless crowd. He tried to begin his next introduction, but then stopped and extended his arms in the universal sign for "Settle Down." "Quiet!" he said with mock gravity, and the noise died down just a little. Then he resumed: "Here's a very amusing magician we saw in Europe and signed last summer....Let's have a nice hand for him—Fred Kaps!"

For the record, Fred Kaps proceeded to be quite charming and funny over the next five minutes. In fact, Fred Kaps is revered to this day by magicians around the world as the only three-time Fédération Internationale des Sociétés Magiques Grand Prix winner. But Fred Kaps had the horrific bad luck on this day in 1964 to be the guest that followed the Beatles on Ed Sullivan—possibly the hardest act to follow in the history of show business.

It is estimated that 73 million Americans were watching that night as the Beatles made their live U.S. television debut. Roughly eight minutes before Fred Kaps took the stage, Sullivan gave his now-famous intro, "Ladies and gentlemen...the Beatles!" and after a few seconds of rapturous cheering from the audience, the band kicked into "All My Lovin'." Fifty seconds in, the first audience-reaction shot of the performance shows a teenage girl beaming and possibly hyperventilating. Two minutes later, Paul is singing another pretty, mid-tempo number: "Til There Was You," from the Broadway musical Music Man. There's screaming at the end of every phrase in the lyrics, of course, but to view the broadcast today, it seems driven more by anticipation than by the relatively low-key performance itself. And then came "She Loves You," and the place seems to explode. What followed was perhaps the most important two minutes and 16 seconds of music ever broadcast on American television—a sequence that still sends chills down the spine almost half a century later.

The Beatles would return later in the show to perform "I Saw Her Standing There" and "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" as the audience remained at the same fever pitch it had reached during "She Loves You." This time it was Wells & the Four Fays, a troupe of comic acrobats, who had to suffer what Fred Kaps had after the Beatles' first set. Perhaps the only non-Beatle on Sullivan's stage that night who did not consider the evening a total loss was the young man from the Broadway cast of Oliver! who sang "I'd Do Anything" as the Artful Dodger midway through the show. His name was Davy Jones, and less than three years later, he'd star in a TV show of his own that owed a rather significant debt to the hysteria that began on this night in 1964: The Monkees.

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On February 20, 1792, President Washington formally created the U.S. Postal Service with the signing of the Postal Service Act, which outlined in detail Congressional power to establish official mail routes. The act allowed for newspapers to be included in mail deliveries and made it illegal for postal officials to open anyone's mail.

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On this day in 1959, rising American rock stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson are killed when their chartered Beechcraft Bonanza plane crashes in Iowa a few minutes after takeoff from Mason City on a flight headed for Moorehead, Minnesota. Investigators blamed the crash on bad weather and pilot error. Holly and his band, the Crickets, had just scored a No. 1 hit with "That'll Be the Day."

After mechanical difficulties with the tour bus, Holly had chartered a plane for his band to fly between stops on the Winter Dance Party Tour. However, Richardson, who had the flu, convinced Holly's band member Waylon Jennings to give up his seat, and Ritchie Valens won a coin toss for another seat on the plane.

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On March 14, 1879, Albert Einstein is born, the son of a Jewish electrical engineer in Ulm, Germany. Einstein's theories of special and general relativity drastically altered man's view of the universe, and his work in particle and energy theory helped make possible quantum mechanics and, ultimately, the atomic bomb.

After a childhood in Germany and Italy, Einstein studied physics and mathematics at the Federal Polytechnic Academy in Zurich, Switzerland. He became a Swiss citizen and in 1905 was awarded a Ph.D. from the University of Zurich while working at the Swiss patent office in Bern. That year, which historians of Einstein's career call the annus mirabilis--the "miracle year"--he published five theoretical papers that were to have a profound effect on the development of modern physics.

Continue reading over at History.com!

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On this day in 1933, a deranged, unemployed brick layer named Giuseppe Zangara shouts Too many people are starving! and fires a gun at America's president-elect, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Roosevelt had just delivered a speech in Miami's Bayfront Park from the back seat of his open touring car when Zangara opened fire with six rounds. Five people were hit. The president escaped injury but the mayor of Chicago, Anton Cermak, who was also in attendance, received a mortal stomach wound in the attack.

Several men tackled the assailant and might have beaten him to death if Roosevelt had not intervened, telling the crowd to leave justice to the authorities. Zangara later claimed I don't hate Mr. Roosevelt personallyI hate all officials and anyone who is rich. He also told the FBI that chronic stomach pain led to his action: Since my stomach hurt I want to make even with the capitalists by kill the president. My stomach hurt long time [sic].

Zangara's extreme action reflected the anger and frustration felt among many working Americans during the Great Depression. At the time of the shooting, Roosevelt was still only the president-elect and had yet to be sworn in. His policies remained untested, but reports of Roosevelt's composure during the assassination attempt filled the following day's newspapers and did much to enforce Roosevelt's public image as a strong leader.

Unsubstantiated reports later claimed that Zangara's real target had been Cermak and hinted at Zangara's connection to organized crime in Chicago. Zangara was initially tried for attempted murder and sentenced to 80 years in prison, but when Mayor Cermak later died of his wounds, Zangara was retried and sentenced to death. Zangara died on the electric chair on March 5, 1933.

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