John’s Believe It Or Not… April 26th

* 1887 – Charles Ora Card and a small group of Mormons found Cardston in Alberta. * 1986 Nuclear explosion at Chernobyl * 1913 Girl murdered in pencil factory * 1986 Maria Shriver marries Arnold Schwarzenegger * 1977 Studio 54 opens

Mary Phagan a short time before her murder in 1913.

It’s Thursday! Did You Know…

* 1887 – Charles Ora Card and a small group of Mormons found Cardston in Alberta.

The town of Cardston was the first of what would become several Mormon settlements in Southern Alberta, Canada. Its colonizer, Charles O. Card, came seeking refuge from prosecution in the U.S. due to his practice of plural marriage. On President John Taylor’s advice, he went first to British Columbia in search of friendlier territory. There, he found nothing available that was to his liking. Hearing from a mountaineer of the “buffalo plains” of Alberta, he reportedly said to his traveling companions, “If the buffalo can live there, we can. Let us go and see it.”

In late October 1886, Charles selected the site of the future town of Cardston at Lee’s Creek, and by late the next spring his wife Zina and several other families had arrived at the new settlement. Charles set to work building the town that would soon bear his name, establishing a Sunday School within a few weeks and opening a general store.

During its first few years, Cardston’s population grew gradually as other polygamist families sought refuge in Canada. By the time the LDS practice of plural marriage officially ended in 1890, land shortages in Utah and Idaho were driving young farmers north to seek a living in Alberta, where a $10 entry fee and cultivation of the land was enough to secure a homestead.

Cardston Mormon Temple
Cardston Mormon Temple (Cardston tourism)

* 1986 Nuclear explosion at Chernobyl

On this day in 1986, the world’s worst nuclear accident to date occurs at the Chernobyl nuclear plant near Kiev in Ukraine. The full toll from this disaster is still being tallied, but experts believe that thousands of people died and as many as 70,000 suffered severe poisoning. In addition, a large area of land may not be livable for as much as 150 years. The 18-mile radius around Chernobyl was home to almost 150,000 people who had to be permanently relocated.

The Soviet Union built the Chernobyl plant, which had four 1,000-megawatt reactors, in the town of Pripyat. At the time of the explosion, it was one of the largest and oldest nuclear power plants in the world. The explosion and subsequent meltdown of one reactor was a catastrophic event that directly affected hundreds of thousands of people. Still, the Soviet government kept its own people and the rest of the world in the dark about the accident until days later.

At first, the Soviet government only asked for advice on how to fight graphite fires and acknowledged the death of two people. It soon became apparent, however, that the Soviets were covering up a major accident and had ignored their responsibility to warn both their own people and surrounding nations. Two days after the explosion, Swedish authorities began measuring dangerously high levels of radioactivity in their atmosphere.

Years later, the full story was finally released. Workers at the plant were performing tests on the system. They shut off the emergency safety systems and the cooling system, against established regulations, in preparation for the tests. Even when warning signs of dangerous overheating began to appear, the workers failed to stop the test. Xenon gases built up and at 1:23 a.m. the first explosion rocked the reactor. A total of three explosions eventually blew the 1,000-ton steel top right off of the reactor.

A huge fireball erupted into the sky. Flames shot 1,000 feet into the air for two days, as the entire reactor began to melt down. Radioactive material was thrown into the air like fireworks. Although firefighting was futile, Pripyat’s 40,000 people were not evacuated until 36 hours after the explosion. Potentially lethal rain fell as the fires continued for eight days. Dikes were built at the Pripyat River to contain damage from contaminated water run-off and the people of Kiev were warned to stay indoors as a radioactive cloud headed their way.

On May 9, workers began encasing the reactor in concrete. Later, Hans Blix of the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that approximately 200 people were directly exposed and that 31 had died immediately at Chernobyl. The clean-up effort and the general radioactive exposure in the region, however, would prove to be even more deadly. Some reports estimate that as many as 4,000 clean-up workers died from radiation poisoning. Birth defects among people living in the area have increased dramatically. Thyroid cancer has increased tenfold in Ukraine since the accident.

An aerial view of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant before the disaster in Ukraine.
An aerial view of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant before the disaster in Ukraine. (dalje.com)

* 1913 Girl murdered in pencil factory

Thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan is found sexually molested and murdered in the basement of the Atlanta, Georgia, pencil factory where she worked. Her murder later led to one of the most disgraceful episodes of bigotry, injustice, and mob violence in American history.

Next to Phagan’s body were two small notes that purported to pin the crime on Newt Lee, the night watchman at the factory. Lee was arrested, but it quickly became evident that the notes were a crude attempt by the barely literate Jim Conley to cover up his own involvement. Conley was the factory’s janitor, a black man, and a well-known drunk.

Conley then decided to shift the blame toward Leo Frank, the Jewish owner of the factory. Despite the absurdity of Conley’s claims, they nevertheless took hold. The case’s prosecutor was Hugh Dorsey, a notorious bigot and friend of Georgia’s populist leader, Tom Watson. Reportedly, Watson told Dorsey, “Hell, we can lynch a nigger anytime in Georgia, but when do we get the chance to hang a Yankee Jew?”

Frank was tried by Judge Leonard Roan, who allowed the blatantly unfair trial to go forward even after he was privately informed by Conley’s attorney that Conley had admitted to Frank’s innocence on more than one occasion. The trial was packed with Watson’s followers and readers of his racist newspaper, Jeffersonian. The jury was terrorized into a conviction despite the complete lack of evidence against Frank.

Georgia governor John Slaton initiated his own investigation and quickly concluded that Frank was completely innocent. Three weeks before his term ended, Slaton commuted Frank’s death sentence in the hope that he would eventually be freed when the publicity died down. However, Watson had other plans: He mobilized his supporters to form the Knights of Mary Phagan. Thousands of Jewish residents in Atlanta were forced to flee the city because police refused to stop the lynch mob.

The Knights of Mary Phagan then made their way to the prison farm where Frank was incarcerated. They handcuffed the warden and the guards and abducted Frank, bringing him to Marietta, Phagan’s hometown. There he was hanged to death from a giant oak tree. Thousands of spectators came to watch and have their picture taken in front of his lifeless body. The police did nothing to stop the spectacle.

Although most of the country was outraged and horrified by the lynching, Watson remained very popular in Georgia. In fact, he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1920.

Frank did not receive a posthumous pardon until 1986, on the grounds that his lynching deprived him of his right to appeal his conviction.

The Murder of Mary Phagan Lynching Leo Frank
The Murder of Mary Phagan Lynching Leo Frank (The Unredacted)

* 1986 Maria Shriver marries Arnold Schwarzenegger

Almost a decade after they met at a celebrity tennis tournament, the television news reporter Maria Shriver marries the movie actor and former bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger on this day in 1986.

Politically, it seemed an unlikely match: Shriver, then a co-anchor for the CBS Morning News in New York City, was a Democrat and a member of one of the most prominent political families in the country. Her mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, was the sister of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, while her father, R. Sargent Shriver, had been the Democratic nominee for vice president in 1972. Schwarzenegger, who was born in Austria on July 30, 1947, came to the United States in 1968 and became an American citizen in 1983. Soon after that, he began actively campaigning on behalf of Republican candidates; he would later be named chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports by President George H.W. Bush.

Shriver, who was born on November 6, 1955, began her career in journalism in 1977, after graduating from Georgetown University. That same year, the TV newsman Tom Brokaw introduced her to Schwarzenegger at a party the night before the annual Robert F. Kennedy Pro-Celebrity Tennis Tournament in Forest Hills, New York. The buff Schwarzenegger had won the first of five Mr. Universe titles at the age of 20. Upon his arrival in Hollywood, he acted in forgettable movies such as Hercules in New York before Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Terminator (1984) made him an A-list star. By then, he and Shriver were involved in a long-term bi-coastal relationship, as she worked her way up the ladder at CBS News.

On April 26, 1986, Shriver and Schwarzenegger were married in St. Francis Xavier Church in Hyannis, Massachusetts, before some 500 guests. The bride’s cousin, Caroline Kennedy, was maid of honor, and the former Mr. Universe Franco Columbu served as best man. The reception was held at the Kennedy compound in nearby Hyannisport.

In the fall of 2003, Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California in a special recall election over the Democratic incumbent Gray Davis. At the time, Shriver was a news correspondent for NBC and a frequent contributor to the network’s Dateline program. In February 2004, she announced she was leaving the network due to the competing interests of her work as California’s first lady. In 2007, Shriver announced she would not be returning to TV news. Shriver has reportedly played an important behind-the-scenes role in her husband’s campaign and administration, helping him gain the support of California’s electorate. Shriver and Schwarzenegger have four children: Katherine, Christina, Patrick, and Christopher.

April 1986: Arnold Schwarzenegger poses with his bride Maria Shriver following their wedding ceremony
April 1986: Arnold Schwarzenegger poses with his bride Maria Shriver following their wedding ceremony (Pinterest)

* 1977 Studio 54 opens

The crowd outside 254 West 54th Street in New York City on this day in 1927 would have been waiting for the curtain of a Puccini opera. On this day in 1957 or ’67, they would have been waiting for a filming of an episode of Password or maybe Captain Kangaroo. On this day in 1977, however, the crowd gathered outside that Midtown address was waiting and hoping for a chance to enter what would soon become the global epicenter of the disco craze and the most famous nightclub in the world: Studio 54, which opened its doors for the very first time on April 26, 1977.

The impresarios behind Studio 54 were Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, college roommates at Syracuse University who got into the nightclub business after their first venture, a chain of steak restaurants, failed to flourish. But before taking Manhattan by storm and becoming famous for openly and shamelessly excluding all but the most chic, famous or beautiful patrons from their establishment, Rubell and Schrager were running a far less pretentious operation called the Enchanted Garden in the far reaches of Queens. The woman who deserves the lion’s share of the credit for making 54 into the celebrity playground that it became was Carmen D’Alessio, a public-relations entrepreneur in the fashion industry, whose Rolodex included names like Bianca Jagger, Liza Minnelli, Andy Warhol and Truman Capote. Her buzz-building turned the grand opening into a major item in the New York gossip columns, and her later efforts—like having Bianca Jagger ride a white horse into the club for her 30th birthday party—stoked the public’s fascination with Studio 54 even further. Not just the usual celebrity suspects—actors, models, musicians, and athletes—but also political figures like Margaret Trudeau, Jackie Onassis and, infamously, White House Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan came out to be seen during the club’s brief heyday.

From a musical standpoint, Studio 54 did not seek to break new ground, but rather to feed its patrons a familiar diet of dance hits. Artists like Grace Jones, Donna Summer, and Gloria Gaynor all made live appearances there, but Studio 54 belonged to the DJs and to the free entertainment provided by the club’s flamboyant staff and clientele. While disco reigned supreme on the pop charts, Studio 54 reigned supreme among discotheques, enjoying a golden era that lasted from its opening on this day in 1977 to its closing-night party on February 4, 1980—a party called, appropriately enough, “The End of Modern-day Gomorrah.”

Opening night at Studio 54
Opening night at Studio 54 (Getty Images)

Today’s Sources: 

* Canadian History Timeline – Canada’s Historical Chronology  http://canadachannel.ca/todayincanadianhistory/index.php

* The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints  https://history.lds.org/place/cardston-alberta-canada?lang=eng

* This Day In History – What Happened Today                        http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/                             

Author: John Fioravanti

I'm a retired History teacher (35 years), husband, father of three, grandfather of three. My wife, Anne, and I became business partners in December 2013 and launched our own publishing company, Fiora Books (http://fiorabooks.com), to publish my books. We have been married since 1973 and hope our joint business venture will be as successful as our marriage.

11 thoughts on “John’s Believe It Or Not… April 26th”

  1. Studio 54 was the place to be in those days. I am surprised it was only popular for three years. It sure seemed longer than that. Chernobyl was a nightmare for sure. Arnold’s life is like the classic bell curve. Georga was always a risky place to be out of step. I remember being stopped there on my way to Florida and asked the question, “What makes you Yankees think you can come through our state jeopardizing the lives of our women and children.” I was going three miles over the speed limit in a car with Michigan plates. It cost me $100.00 dollars to get back on the road and I was happy to pay it. (Never drove through Georgia again.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So many disturbing stories about the American South make me wonder about the water they drink. I know it is wrong to paint everyone from those states with the same brush, but lots of them needed to be rounded up and resettled on an island where they can kill each other off. Thanks for your story, John. Driving anywhere in the States with Canadian plates can be detrimental to your health – the experience always stressed me out as I didn’t trust myself and drove with the cruise control set right on the posted limit. Of course, that’s tricky since our speedometers are in Kilometers per hour and your speed limits are in miles per hour. Had to memorize the conversions.

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    1. I hadn’t heard of it before either. It was so horrible, I felt compelled to include it here. I was reading that in this month back in 311 A.D., the Roman Empire outlawed the persecution of Christians. So little changes in the annals of history. Bigotry has nothing to do with time periods or culture, it is just a consequence of the dark side of human nature. We need to be vigilant. Thanks, Jennie!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. John, another interesting mix. Chernobyl is the gift that keeps on giving and was far worse than first let on. Studio 54 is interesting all by itself. People watching (and probably some other senses) were indeed in vogue. Maria and Arnold were an interesting mix. Unfortunately, he went full on Woody Allen and slept with the paid help. I started with a gulp reading the lines below Mary Phagan’s picture. And, learned about Mormon explorers. Well done, Keith

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope the big lesson we learn from Chernobyl is that we need to abandon dangerous sources of energy. Arnold needed his head read! Gee, except for his place of birth, he could have been president too! That Mary Phagan story was horribly upsetting – from the crime against her to the crime against the owner of the factory. Thanks for your comments, Keith!

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  3. I stumbled upon Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper months ago and have become an avid fan. She’s a remarkable woman, very positive and forward thinking. I don’t know that she’d consider a presidential run, but through her writing, she is definitely touching thousands. Thank you for giving her the sunshine today.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Perhaps she should consider a presidential run – we certainly would welcome a person characterized by positive and forward thinking! Thanks, Gwen.

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