by Kathy Wolfe

The month of December is full of historical events, and this week, Tidbits takes the opportunity to focus on a few.

• Vincent van Gogh is considered one of the greatest painters of all time. Over his career, he generated more than 800 oil paintings and 700 drawings. Yet he suffered from severe mental illness, including deep depression, hallucinations, and delusions. On December 23, 1888, the 35-year-old Van Gogh used a razor to slash off his left ear. He went home from the hospital after two weeks of healing, with no recollection of the incident whatsoever.    Five months later he admitted himself to a psychiatric hospital where he spent a year. In July of 1890, the artist shot himself in the chest, but miraculously survived, yet perished from the wound two days later after uttering his final words, “The sadness will last forever.” In 2022, Van Gogh’s artwork “Orchard with Cypresses” sold at a Christie’s auction for $117.2 million.

• Four months before the beginning of the American Civil War, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union on December 20, 1860. Within four months, ten more states had seceded, forming an 11-state Confederate States of America, population 9 million.

• Wilbur and Orville Wright took to the air on December 17, 1903 for the first powered, controlled airplane flight. Orville was first up, flying 120 feet (37 m) in 12 seconds at a speed of 6.8 mph (10.9 km/hr). Wilbur was next, airborne for 175 feet (53 m), followed by Orville’s second attempt, 200 feet (61 m). Wilbur wrapped up the day with a distance of 852 feet (260 m). Their original plane, the Wright Flyer, is housed at the Smithsonian Institute.

• It’s a half-a-million-mile round trip to the Moon. Twenty-four men have traveled from Earth to the Moon, but only 12 of them walked on the lunar surface during the Apollo missions between 1969 and 1972. The last two men to walk on the moon, Eugene Cernan and Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, were part of the Apollo 17 mission, accomplishing the final walk on December 14, 1972.

•    In the automotive world, December 7, 1931 marked the production of the last Ford Model A. It had been in production since December of 1927, with total sales of 4,320,446. In December, 2008, in order to keep America’s auto industry out of bankruptcy, the U.S. Government stepped in with a $17 billion bailout of General Motors and Chrysler. GM had experienced $71 billion in losses over two years. Government officials feared that the collapse of the auto industry, which put 3 million jobs at risk, would be a blow that the economy could not endure. The Ford Motor Company did not require funds, as they had secured financing before the crisis. In December, 1952, the first Corvette was completed, a hand-built prototype that was shown to the public for the first time less than a month later. Production began six months later, with a price tag of $3,513 ($38,425 in today’s dollars). All 300 1953 Corvettes were painted Polo White and had red interior, and a blue engine, a tribute to the U.S. flag. More than 200 of these original sports cars still exist today.

• Forty-two-year-old Rosa Parks was on her way home after a hard day of work at a Montgomery, Alabama department store on December 1, 1955, when she refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. The front of the bus was reserved for white citizens, and when a white man was without a seat, the driver instructed riders in the “colored” section to stand. When Parks refused, the driver pulled over. Police officers arrived and placed Parks in custody. Four days later, she was found guilty of violating segregation laws, and was given a suspended sentence and a fine and court cost fee of $14. Rosa Parks’ actions sparked a year-long bus boycott, organized by the 26-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr.    A 1956 Supreme Court decision declared the city’s segregation laws on buses as unconstitutional. When Parks passed away in 2005 at age 92, this civil rights pioneer was the first woman in U.S. history to lie in state in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.

• On December 8, 1980, 25-year-old Mark David Chapman stepped out of the dark in front of New York City’s luxury apartment building The Dakota and shot 40-year-old former Beatle John Lennon four times in the back. Earlier in the day, Chapman had received an autograph from Lennon in front of the building. After Lennon was rushed to Roosevelt Hospital, Chapman, a former security guard, stood quietly at the scene waiting to be arrested. He later revealed he had considered killing other public figures, including Jackie Onassis, Johnny Carson, Paul McCartney, Ronald Reagan, and Elizabeth Taylor. Although Chapman’s lawyer urged him to enter a plea of “not guilty by reason of insanity,” Chapman pleaded guilty and received a sentence of 20 years to life. In 2000, he became eligible for parole, which was denied, as it has been an additional 11 times. Chapman’s next parole hearing will be in February, 2024.

•    There have been 49 U.S. Vice-Presidents since 1789. Of these, only two have ever resigned from the office. John C. Calhoun, who served under 6th President John Quincy Adams and 7th President Andrew Jackson, was the first, on December 28, 1832, following a series of political disagreements with Jackson. Spiro Agnew, Vice-President under Richard Nixon, resigned in disgrace in 1973, in the midst of charges of political corruption, including accepting bribes.

• Thomas Edison demonstrated his latest invention, the phonograph, on December, 6, 1877 at his New Jersey laboratory. His creation used a revolving cylinder wrapped in tin foil to record sounds. The first words spoken on the phonograph were “Mary had a little lamb.” On another December day two years later, Edison conducted the first public demonstration of his electric incandescent lamp. A large crowd flocked to his laboratory on New Years’ Eve, 1879 to see 25 bright electric lights reflected off hundreds of glass bottles lining the shelves. Twenty-seven days later, Edison was awarded a patent for his “electric lamp.”

• President Franklin D. Roosevelt called December 7, 1941 “a date which will live in infamy.” Japan’s air raid on the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, just before 8 AM lasted just over an hour, and left more than 3,000 dead. The base was attacked by 353 Japanese aircraft launched from six aircraft carriers, a force that destroyed 20 U.S. ships, including eight battleships, and more than 300 airplanes. The United States and Great Britain declared war on Japan the following day.