Three hundred fifty-three years ago, Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, was hanged in chains at Westminster Hall in London for his opposition to the British monarchy. After the hanging, which took place on January 30, 1661, his head was severed, impaled on a spike, and publicly displayed for the next twenty-four years. What makes the story especially interesting is that Cromwell had died of malarial fever and kidney infection in 1658, more than two years before the ritual execution, demonstrating that, if nothing else, his enemies were thorough and had no trouble holding a grudge.
In 1685, the head fell from its perch and into the hands of private collectors, in much the same way that a foul ball hit into the stands at a baseball game becomes the property of the lucky fan who happens to snare it. The location of Cromwell’s head and body have been the focus of continual debate ever since. No one seems to know for certain whether they were ever reunited. What we can be sure about is that Cromwell now has his own website, which, we can all agree, more than makes up for losing your head.
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Speaking of English kings and lost heads: In the early 1830s, an unemployed house painter named Richard Lawrence suffered a mental breakdown and began to believe that he was King Richard III. On January 30, 1835, Lawrence walked up to Andrew Jackson and tried to shoot him in the chest. It was the first attempted assassination of an American president, and it failed only because the man’s pistol misfired. Jackson, sixty-seven, retaliated by threatening to hit the attacker with his cane, prompting Lawrence to pull out a second loaded weapon, which also failed to fire. Experts analyzed both guns and determined them to be in good working condition. It was the dampness of the air on that cold Washington morning that saved Jackson’s life.
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Speaking of US presidents: On January 30, 1882, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born in Hyde Park, New York. He would be elected four times, the only person to serve more than two full terms in the White House. On Roosevelt’s fifty-first birthday in 1933, Adolph Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. It was probably the only time FDR and the Nazi leader attended parties on the same night.
At the end of World War II, Hitler married Eva Braun. Two days later, with the Russian army closing in, the Führer and his new bride committed suicide by shooting themselves in the head, concluding what must have been one of the most disappointing honeymoons in history. Just before firing their pistols, Hitler and Braun had both swallowed cyanide capsules. No doubt they’d read about Richard Lawrence and those unreliable handguns.
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Speaking of handguns: On January 30, 1948, Mahatma Gandhi was murdered after a lifetime of working for an independent India and an end to religious hostilities in that country. A Hindu extremist, frustrated by what he perceived to be an overly-tolerant policy toward Muslims, walked out of a crowd and shot Gandhi from a distance of three feet. Gandhi did not have his cane that day. Nor did New Delhi’s infamous humidity come to his aid — the assassin’s pistol functioned perfectly.
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Speaking of humidity: Richard Reid was sentenced to life in prison on January 30, 2003. Thirteen months earlier, on a rainy afternoon, Reid had been a passenger on a flight from Paris to Miami. Stuffed inside his shoes were the ingredients for a homemade bomb, which he tried unsuccessfully to ignite while seated on the plane. The bomb failed to detonate because of the damp weather.
Speaking of shoes: On January 30, 1956, Elvis Presley recorded his version of Blue Suede Shoes, just four weeks after Carl Perkins wrote and released the original.
Speaking of music: The Beatles gave their final live performance on a chilly and damp January 30 in 1969. The location for the show — the rooftop of the Apple Studios Building in London — had been a closely-guarded secret right up until the group began playing. Crowds gathered gradually on the streets below to listen to the unexpected concert.
Speaking of secrets: Former Nixon aides Gordon Liddy and James McCord appeared in court on January 30, 1973, as the verdicts were read at the end of their Watergate trial. The men were convicted of wiretapping and burglary.
And speaking of courts: On January 30, 1996, basketball star Magic Johnson returned to the Los Angeles Lakers, coming out of a four-year retirement that began when he tested positive for HIV. In his first game back, he scored nineteen points and had eight rebounds and ten assists. Now, eighteen years later – and more than two decades after being diagnosed with the infection — Johnson is alive and healthy. Which is a lot more than you can say for a certain Lord Protector. At least, I think it is.