1586 – Sir Walter Raleigh introduces tobacco to England

It’s not true to say that Sir Walter Raleigh – privateer, nobleman, favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, soldier, sailor, explorer and unsuccessful quester for the fabled city of El Dorado – killed more men than cancer.

However, as the man generally credited with the introduction of tobacco products to England – where they became popular at court, thus guaranteeing their spread throughout the rest of the nation and rival European courts (fashion is a harsh mistress) – he should at least be thought of as one of cancer’s most able accessories before the fact.

It would be nice to say that he died of lung cancer, but actually, he was beheaded in what many believe to have been a political maneuver aimed at placating the Spanish (whom Raleigh had fought during the Armada incident and the related war), and something of a miscarriage of justice (since King James, Elizabeth’s successor, did not have much love for her former favourites).

Referenced in:

I’m So Tired – The Beatles

1789 — Marie Antionette (allegedly) says “Let them eat cake”

The French phrase “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” is usually translated as “Let them eat cake”, and is widely attributed to Marie Antionette.

However, in the original – Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, which he finished writing in 1769, when Marie Antoinette was 13 – the remark is attributed only to “a great princess”. The phrase was attributed to Marie Antionette only after the Revolution began, and many citations for it exist prior to this, and not referencing her. In fact, the emerging consensus among historians at this time is that the Rousseau was referring to Marie-Thérèse, the wife of Louis XIV, and pre-dates Marie Antionette by at least a century.

Referenced in:

Killer Queen — Queen
Ain’t That Just Like A Woman — Louis Jordan

1892 – Lizzie Borden murders her parents

They say she done all of ’em in.

They say she done it with an axe.

They are, in this case, probably right. Certainly someone murdered Andrew and Abby Borden with an axe, in their own home, when Lizzie was the only other person who could have been in the house at the time. But was she?

At her trial, she was acquitted, largely due to lack of evidence (although her father’s unpopularity in the community may also have been a factor). And there were other reasonably credible suspects (such as the family maid). At this late date, we’ll probably never know.

Referenced in:

Lizzie Borden — Chad Mitchell Trio
She Took An Axe — Flotsam and Jetsam

1963 – Jennifer Beals born

Forever to be associated with her best known role, that of the dancer Alex Owens in the 1980 film “Flashdance”, Beals never thought of herself as a dancer (she famously turned down “Dancing with the Stars”), but as an actor. And despite often being criticised (particularly in the Eighties) for being cast more for her sex appeal than her acting, she is undeniably a talented actor.

Other than “Flashdance”, career highlights include the film “Vampire’s Kiss”, and roles in the long-running “The L-Word” and the unfortunately cut short (but excellent) “The Chicago Code”. Despite her inclusion in the song by Sandler, Beals is not Jewish – her (now deceased) father was African American, and her mother is Irish American.

Referenced in:
The Chanukah Song (Part II) — Adam Sandler

1964 – Courtney Love born

Born Courtney Michelle Harrison in San Francisco, Love is one of the most divisive musical figures of the 1990s. Both in her own right as the lead singer and songwriter of Hole, and also as the wife (and later widow) of Kurt Cobain, Love’s outspoken nature and brash behaviour has made her controversial.

In reality, of course, her attitudes, words and actions are no worse than any of her male contemporaries. They’ve all said and done stupid things. But they’re men.

Also, she never went to school in Olympia.

Referenced in:
The Chanukah Song (Part II) — Adam Sandler

1999 – The Twentieth Century ends

Technically, the Twentieth Century did not end for another year, at the end of the year 2000. But in the popular imagination, the last day of 1999 was the last day of the millennium. A day when many a religious – and one big secular – apocalypse was counted down to, to hit at the stroke of midnight. But neither the Second Coming nor the Y2K bug proved to be that big a threat.

The Twentieth Century was over with, and now, the 21st Century – the future – could begin. Only it turned out that if apocalypse wasn’t just around the corner, neither was utopia. And only 21 months into the new century, we’d all be dragged into a brand new endless Cold War when we’d just finally shaken off the last one.

Referenced in:

1999 — Prince
L.A. Money Train — Rollins Band
I Have Not Been to Oxford Town — David Bowie