December 19, 1983, is the day the World Cup trophy was stolen. It was on display at the Brazilian Football Confederation offices, where it was meant to stay permanently, an honor the Brazilian team had earned by winning the cup in 1970 for the third time. But speaking of repetition, this was actually the second time the trophy was stolen. The first time was in 1966, in England. But they got the trophy back; Pickles the dog found it. No, really; Pickles was out for a walk and found the trophy wrapped in newspaper, just lying on the ground next to a car. Pickles got pretty famous, starred in the movie “The Spy with a Cold Nose,” was named “Dog of the Year”, and, probably his favorite accomplishment, won free dog food for a year.
The second time the trophy was stolen, though, it was gone for good. Being gone for good is a bit of a theme for December 19, in fact. That was the day in 1924 that the famous Rolls Royce Silver Ghost automobile model was gone for good after the very last one was sold in London. And speaking of London, December 19 was the day all the way back in 1606 that settlers bound for the New World embarked on sister ships: Godspeed, Discovery, and Susan Constant (or possibly Sarah Constant; there’s a bit of disagreement on this point). It took them months to reach their destination, which turned out to be the Colony of Virginia, where they founded Jamestown.
It was no picnic at all in Jamestown, though, and most of them died of starvation and disease. It being no picnic in the Colonies wasn’t news at all by December 19,1777. By then the Colonists had started their revolution, and that was the day George Washington’s Continental Army entered their winter quarters in Valley Forge. They remained for six months, until June of 1778, by which time about one out of six had succumbed to the same problems that hit the Jamestown colonists: malnutrition and disease.
Those weren’t the problem in 1904, when over a thousand people perished when the sidewheel steamship General Slocum caught on fire and sank in the East River near New York City. It was the worst disaster in New York at the time, and the captain, William Van Schaick, was jailed afterward, although investigations showed that the steamship company had failed to maintain the ship’s safety equipment. But on December 19, 1012, Van Schaick was pardoned by President Taft after spending three years in prison. The captain’s ordeal was gone for good, but it was just one of the scandals that have been connected with December 19 through the years.
One big one was the Dreyfus affair at the close of the 19th Century in France. It started in 1894 when Captain Alfred Dreyfus was convicted — falsely, as it turned out — of passing French military secrets to Germany. He was imprisoned on Devil’s Island in French Guiana. Dreyfus was from a Jewish family, and there was evidently a strain of antisemitism running loose in France at the time. When a new investigation in 1894 identified the actual spy as an officer named Esterhazy, apparently clearing Dreyfus, a military court ignored it and acquitted Esterhazy in a hasty, two-day trial. Even worse, the army made additional accusations against Dreyfus; accusations that turned out to be based on forged documents.
The situation went public, and luminaries including novelist Émile Zola, actress Sarah Bernhardt, and mathematician Henri Poincaré started pressuring the government to take another look. That happened in 1899 when Dreyfus was shipped back to France for another trial. By some accounts, the majority of French society started to divide into those who supported Dreyfus (the “Dreyfusards”) and those who didn’t (the “anti-Dreyfusards”). The Dreyfusards tended to be republican and against the Catholic Church and the army, while their foes took exactly the opposite stances. But really we’re here to talk about December 19, remember. And it was December 19, 1900 that the French parliament voted to grant amnesty to everyone involved in the whole mess. Dreyfus himself was pardoned, and then in 1906 completely exonerated and reinstated in the army with his former rank of major in time to serve for the duration of the Great War.
He was probably caught in a rip current and swept out to sea.
Political scandals haven’t been limited to France on December 19, though. In 1828 that was the day the Vice President of the US, John Calhoun wrote the South Carolina Exposition and Protest. It doesn’t sound very exciting, but it’s all about the “Nullification Crisis” that established that US States don’t have the authority to decide which Federal laws and regulations they’re going to accept or reject (“nullify”). It all had to do with a tariff imposed on manufactured goods by the John Quincy Adams administration. The southern states tended to be agricultural and imported anything manufactured, so the tariff was comparatively more expensive for them than for the more industrialized northern states. In any case, the whole thing took years to resolve, but eventually got decided. The crisis was gone for good.
So was the Apollo space program as of December 19, 1972. That was the day Apollo 17, the last flight to the moon, splashed down, returning Eugene Cernan, Harrison Schmitt, and Ronald Evans home safely. Returning home safely wasn’t what happened to Harold Holt, the Prime Minister of Australia, on December 19, 1967. He was swimming in the surf at a place called Cheviot Beach in Queensland, Australia, and disappeared. He was probably caught in a rip current and swept out to sea. A massive search found no trace of him or his body. The official conclusion was that it was a tragic accident, but some used the event as the seed for a conspiracy theory: that Holt had not died, but swum out to a Chinese submarine — because he had been a spy throughout his whole career. There’s even a book about it: The Prime Minister Was A Spy, by Anthony Grey.
There have been spies aplenty in international conflicts, of course, and December 19 boasts one of its own: the first IndoChina War. It began on December 19, 1946 in what was then known as French Indochina. That was the conflict that eventually led to the creation of North and South Vietnam, separate capitals (Hanoi and Saigon), and the Vietnam War that the US became involved in. In international affairs, everything seems to be connected, at least relatively.
And speaking of relativity (see what I did there?), December 19 is also the birthday of Albert Michelson, a physicist partly responsible for the Michelson-Morley experiment in 1887. At the time physicists thought light was propagated through a substance called “luminiferous aether”, an invisible something that permeated space. The Michelson-Morley experiment tried to compare the speed of light in perpendicular directions through this aether, with the proposition that light traveling through the stuff in one direction would go slightly faster or slower than light traveling through it at a 90° angle. They found no difference, of course, because there wasn’t any aether. That led to the eventual abandonment of the aether theory, and eventually to special relativity. Einstein made note of the significance of the experiment: “If the Michelson–Morley experiment had not brought us into serious embarrassment, no one would have regarded the relativity theory as a redemption.”
But redemption is a December 19 story too. It was December 19, 1986 that Andrei Sakharov and his wife were released from exile in Gorky. It was exactly 9 years later that the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi Native American tribe regained their official status. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that although December 19 is not Christmas day, it is Saint Nicholas Day in eastern Christian countries. Gifts are involved!