This Week In American History: April 17th - 23rd

April 17


American statesman, printer, scientist and write Benjamin Franklin died in Philadelphia at age 84. Born in Boston in 1706, Franklin became a printing and publishing apprentice at 12 y/o. During his lifetime, he helped establish Philadelphia's first circulating library, police force, volunteer fire company, and an academy that became the University of Pennsylvania. He was the first American scientist to be highly regarded in European scientific circles due to his experiments with electricity. In 1776, he helped draft the Declaration of Independence and in July signed the final document. After his death in 1790, Philadelphia gave him the largest funeral the city had ever seen.


The Bay of Pigs invasion began when a CIA-trained group of Cuban refugees landed in Cuba and attempted to topple the communist government of Fidel Castro. The plan was hatched under President Eisenhower, who increasingly saw Castro as aligned with communists in the Soviet Union, and Kennedy gave the go-ahead for the attack. The failure at the Bay of Pigs cost the United States dearly. Castro used the attack by the “Yankee imperialists” to solidify his power in Cuba and he requested additional Soviet military aid. Eventually that aid included missiles, and the construction of missile bases in Cuba sparked the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, when the United States and the Soviet Union nearly came to blows over the issue.


The Ford Mustang was officially unveiled by Henry Ford II at the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York. That same day, the new car also debuted in Ford showrooms across America and almost 22,000 Mustangs were immediately snapped up by buyers. Named for a World War II fighter plane, the Mustang was the first of a type of vehicle that came to be known as a “pony car.” Ford sold more than 400,000 Mustangs within its first year of production, far exceeding sales expectations. In 2004, Ford built its 300 millionth car, a 2004 Mustang GT convertible 40th anniversary model. Over the decades, the Mustang underwent numerous evolutions, and it remains in production today.

April 18


At 5:13 a.m., an earthquake estimated at close to 8.0 on the Richter scale struck San Francisco, California. The quake was caused by a slip of the San Andreas Fault over a segment about 275 miles long, and shock waves could be felt from southern Oregon down to Los Angeles. By April 23, most fires were extinguished, and authorities commenced the task of rebuilding the devastated metropolis. It was estimated that some 3,000 people died as a result of the Great San Francisco Earthquake and the devastating fires it inflicted upon the city. Almost 30,000 buildings were destroyed, including most of the city’s homes and nearly all the central business district.


Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Ernie Pyle, America’s most popular war correspondent, was killed by Japanese machine-gun fire on the island of Ie Shima in the Pacific. Pyle, who always wrote about the experiences of enlisted men rather than the battles they participated in, became a national folk hero by reporting on the average soldier in World War II. Ernie Pyle’s death dealt a blow to Americans still reeling from the loss of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12. President Harry S. Truman paid tribute to the fallen correspondent, as did former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who fondly remembered meeting him. Today his work is still the yardstick by which all other war reporting is judged.


The U.S. embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, was almost completely destroyed by a car-bomb explosion that kills 63 people, including the suicide bomber and 17 Americans. The terrorist attack was carried out in protest of the U.S. military presence in Lebanon. In 1975, a bloody civil war erupted in Lebanon, with Palestinian and leftist Muslim guerrillas battling militias of the Christian Phalange Party, the Maronite Christian community, and other groups. On August 20, 1982, a multinational force featuring U.S. Marines landed in Beirut to oversee the Palestinian withdrawal from Lebanon. U.S. President Ronald Reagan announced the end of U.S. participation in the peacekeeping force, and on February 26 the last U.S. Marines left Beirut.

April 19


The American Revolution began when 700 British troops, on a mission to capture Patriot leaders and seize a Patriot arsenal, marched into Lexington to find 77 armed minutemen under Captain John Parker waiting for them on the town’s common green. British Major John Pitcairn ordered the outnumbered Patriots to disperse, and after a moment’s hesitation the Americans began to drift off the green. Suddenly, a shot was fired from an undetermined gun, and a cloud of musket smoke soon covered the green. When the brief Battle of Lexington ended, eight Americans lay dead or dying and 10 others were wounded. Only one British soldier was injured.


As a prelude to a massive antiwar protest, Vietnam Veterans Against the War began a five-day demonstration in Washington, D.C. The generally peaceful protest, called Dewey Canyon III in honor of the operation of the same name conducted in Laos, ended on April 23 with about 1,000 veterans throwing their combat ribbons, helmets, and uniforms on the Capitol steps, along with toy weapons. Earlier, they had lobbied with their congressmen, laid wreaths in Arlington National Cemetery and staged mock “search and destroy” missions.


A massive truck bomb exploded outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The blast collapsed the north face of the nine-story building, instantly killing more than 100 people and trapping dozens more in the rubble. Emergency crews raced to Oklahoma City from across the country, and when the rescue effort finally ended two weeks later the death toll stood at 168 people killed, including 19 young children who were in the building’s day-care center at the time of the blast. On April 21, the massive manhunt for suspects in the worst terrorist attack ever committed on U.S. soil by an American resulted in the capture of Timothy McVeigh, a 27-year-old former U.S. Army soldier who was a member of a radical survivalist group in Michigan.

April 20


Edgar Allan Poe’s story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," first appeared in Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine. The tale is generally considered to be the first detective story and the author was paid an additional $56 for it: a high figure if compared to what he earned from publishing the “The Raven” (only $9). The story describes the extraordinary “analytical power” used by Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin to solve a series of murders in Paris. Like the later Sherlock Holmes stories, the tale is narrated by the detective’s roommate. Following the publication of Poe’s story, detective stories began to grow into novels.


The Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan scored 63 points in an NBA playoff game against the Boston Celtics, setting a post-season scoring record and breaking records held by Elgin Baylor, Bob Cousy and Wilt Chamberlain. Despite Jordan’s achievement, the Bulls lost to the Celtics in double overtime, 135-131. Boston swept the three-game series and went on to win the NBA championship. The Celtics’ star forward Larry Bird said: “He is the most exciting, awesome player in the game today. I think it’s just God disguised as Michael Jordan.” The following season, “Air Jordan” became only the second NBA player, after Wilt Chamberlain, to record 3,000 points in a season.


26-year-old Danica Patrick won the Indy Japan 300 at Twin Ring Motegi in Motegi, Japan, making her the first female winner in IndyCar racing history. On May 29, 2005, Patrick made her Indy 500 debut, becoming just the fourth female driver ever to compete in the celebrated 500-mile race, which was first held in 1911 and today is considered one of auto racing’s premier events. During Patrick’s inaugural Indy 500, she led the race for 19 laps, marking the first time a woman ever led a lap in the competition. She later earned Rookie of the Year honors for the Indy Racing League’s 2005 season. Patrick retired from IndyCar after the 2011 season and fully retired from racing in 2018.

April 21


During the Texan War for Independence, the Texas militia under Sam Houston launched a surprise attack against the forces of Mexican General Santa Anna along the San Jacinto River. The Mexicans were thoroughly defeated, and hundreds were taken prisoner, including General Santa Anna himself, , bringing an end to Mexico’s effort to subdue Texas. On December 29, 1845, Texas entered the United States as the 28th state after President John Tyler orchestrated a compromise in which Texas would join the United States as a slave state.


General Motors (GM) celebrated the manufacture of its 100 millionth American-made car, a 1967 Chevrolet Caprice Custom Coupe built at Chevrolet-Fisher Body Assembly Plant in Janesville, Wisconsin. At the time, GM was the world’s largest automaker. The global tally on that date also included 18,493,496 vehicles, both passenger and commercial, built in other countries. 1967 was a big year at GM, with production of the Chevrolet Camaro started, the Cadillac Eldorado switched to front-wheel drive, and the few L88 Corvettes built would later become legends. GM also touted new safety features like collapsible steering columns, dual master cylinder brakes across the passenger-car lineup, and energy-absorbing instrument panels.


Prince, the polymathic musician who created more than 30 albums and won seven Grammy awards over a 40-year career, was found deceased in Paisley Park, his Minnesota home and recording studio. The cause of death was an accidental overdose of the opioid fentanyl he took for chronic hip pain. He was 57 years old. In the hours and days after the news broke, fans around the world mourned his death with massive memorials. In a statement, President Obama said, “Few artists have influenced the sound and trajectory of popular music more distinctly, or touched quite so many people with their talent.” In 2016, Prince’s estate sold more albums than any other artist that year, dead or alive. 

April 22


Earth Day, an event to increase public awareness of the world’s environmental problems, was celebrated in the United States for the first time. Millions of Americans, including students from thousands of colleges and universities, participated in rallies, marches and educational programs across the country. Earth Day was the brainchild of Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, a staunch environmentalist who hoped to provide unity to the grassroots environmental movement and increase ecological awareness. The first Earth Day indeed increased environmental awareness in America and lead to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency along with the passing of both the Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts.


It was Marshall Checker, of the legendary Checker brothers, who first discovered them in the gritty blues clubs of Chicago’s South Side in 1969 and handed them their big break nine years later with an introduction to music-industry heavyweight and host of television’s Rock Concert, Don Kirshner. Actually, none of that is true, but it’s the story that Saturday Night Live‘s Paul Shaffer told as he announced the worldwide television debut of that night’s musical guest, the Blues Brothers—the not-quite-real, not-quite-fake musical creation of SNL cast members Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi.


Pat Tillman, who gave up his pro football career to enlist in the U.S. Army after the terrorist attacks of September 11, was killed by friendly fire while serving in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004. The news that Tillman, age 27, was mistakenly gunned down by his fellow Rangers, rather than enemy forces, was initially covered up by the U.S. military. A criminal investigation was eventually launched into the case and in 2007 the Army censured retired three-star general Philip Kensinger, who was in charge of special operations at the time of Tillman’s death, for lying to investigators and making other mistakes. “Memorandums of concern” were also sent to several brigadier generals and lower-ranking officers who the Army believed acted improperly in the case.

April 23


Judy Garland performed at Carnegie Hall in what is often called “the greatest night in showbiz history." The album won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year, making her the first woman to win the award. Garland was one of the biggest and most popular movie stars of all time, making her first film appearance at the age of seven and earning the first of three Oscar nominations at 17 for her starring role in what may well be the best-loved American movie of all time, The Wizard of Oz. She was also a prolific recording star, selling millions of records and winning five Grammy awards in a single year nearly three decades after starting out as one of the youngest performers ever signed to a major record label.


Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours" album reached No. 1 & stayed atop the charts for 31 weeks. It won Album of the Year at the 1977 Grammy Awards and was eventually inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2003. It has sold over 40 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling albums of all time. Often considered Fleetwood Mac's magnum opus, Rumours has frequently been cited as one of the greatest albums of all time. In 2018, it was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry, being deemed "culturally, historically, or artistically significant" by the Library of Congress.


New Coke is introduced by the Coca-Cola Company. It was a reformulated soft drink meant to replace their flagship drink in the hopes of revitalizing the brand and gaining market share in the beverage industry. The announcement sparked a furor, and within a few days the decision to discontinue the prior version of Coke was called “the biggest marketing blunder of all time.” Despite Coke’s seemingly secure place in American lives, by the mid-1980s it was facing a strong challenge from Pepsi. That beverage had begun a popular ad campaign called the “Pepsi Challenge,” in which the majority of participants in blind taste tests chose Pepsi over Coke. Worried Coke executives decided to reformulate their drink, creating a sweeter product.