1890 – The Lakota are massacred at Wounded Knee

Colonel James Forsyth of the US Cavalry led a force of approximately 500 soldiers into the Lakota camp at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation on the morning of December 29, 1890. Their intent was to disarm the Lakota tribespeople there, as there was great concern among the European-descended American population that the Native American ‘Ghost Dance’ portended a revolutionary uprising.

Nothing could have been further from the truth, but after literally centuries of slaughtering, deceiving and cheating the native tribes, the American people and their government found it hard to believe that the Indian’s response could be anything other than violence. Tragically, due to the intransigence and fearfulness of Forsyth’s troop, as soon as a single shot was fired (apparently by accident), it became the signal to open fire without restraint or mercy.

Ninety men of the Lakota, and two hundred of their women and children were slaughtered in the ensuing violence, more than half the residents of the camp. Despite claims that the killings happened due to the chaos of battle (which does no doubt account for a good number of them), the fact that some women and children were pursued as far as two miles to be murdered by cavalrymen undermines the idea that this was just a misunderstanding. Twenty of the 500 cavalrymen were awarded the Medal of Honor for their deeds at Wounded Knee (compare this to a total of three Medals of Honor awarded among 64,000 South Dakotans who fought in World War Two).

The massacre is generally seen to mark the end of the American Indian Wars (although there were a few smaller incidents in the following weeks). Henceforth, the genocide of the Native Americans would be pursued by slower and subtler means.

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1890 – Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, dies

Joseph Merrick (often incorrectly called John) was one of the most notoriously deformed human beings ever to live. Among other unusual features, he had thick, lumpy skin with enlarged lips, and a bony lump growing from his forehead. One of his arms and both of his feet became enlarged, and at some point during his childhood he fell and damaged his hip, resulting in Merrick becoming perpetually lame.

He made a living (of sorts) as a circus freak for many years (about the only work he could get – Merrick had no illusions about how others regarded his appearance, although those able to look beyond that generally reported him to be friendly and well-mannered, if understandably shy), until a Dr Frederick Treves arranged for him to reside in a hospital in London. It was here that Merrick spent the last six years of his life, being examined by the finest medical minds that the Victorian Era had to offer, and remaining (even to this day) enigmatically undiagnosable. Merrick was only 27 when he died, apparently from injuries caused in his sleep by his enlarged head bones. Most of what is known about him today comes from the writings of Treves, which were unfortunately rather subjective.

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If I Had A Million Dollars — Bare Naked Ladies

1890 – Vincent Van Gogh commits suicide

While the aphorism that genius is never recognised in its own time predates Van Gogh by centuries, there are few creative geniuses who exemplfy it as much as he does. Vincent Van Gogh was a Dutch painter with a style labelled as post-Impressionist. This is misleading: while Van Gogh’s art shows clear influences of the Impressionists, his style was utterly unique, and in various works anticipated both Cubism and Surrealism.

Van Gogh suffered from mental health problems, notably severe anxiety. The widespread rejection of his art, which was derided as childish for its rough style and bold colours, did nothing to relieve his issues. Although no gun was ever found, it is widely accepted that Van Gogh took his own life at the age of 37, finally losing the war with his personal demons.

Van Gogh’s fame took off after his death, bringing him too late the recognition he had so long desired. Alongside only Pablo Picasso, his works are the most expensive in the world, and his influence on the Expressionist school of painting is incalculable: it literally would not exist without his pioneering works.

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Vincent — Don McLean

1890 – The Electric Chair is first used to execute a condemned prisoner

The first person to be executed via the electric chair was William Kemmler in New York’s Auburn Prison on August 6, 1890; the ‘state electrician’ was Edwin Davis. The first 17-second passage of current through Kemmler caused unconsciousness, but failed to stop his heart and breathing. The attending physicians, Dr. Edward Charles Spitzka and Dr. Charles F. Macdonald, came forward to examine Kemmler. After confirming Kemmler was still alive, Spitzka reportedly called out, “Have the current turned on again, quick — no delay.”

The generator needed time to re-charge, however. In the second attempt, Kemmler was shocked with 2,000 volts. Blood vessels under the skin ruptured and bled and his body caught fire.

In all, the entire execution took approximately eight minutes. Westinghouse later commented: “They would have done better using an axe.” A reporter who witnessed it also said it was “an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging.”

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Fuel – Ani Di Franco