On this day in 1876 – (139 years ago) – during the final act of a play called The Two Little Orphans at the Brooklyn Theater in New York, a canvas drop curtain behind the stage was set aflame by a gas-powered stage lamp. The play continued while the audience of about a thousand heard stagehands yelling and swearing as they tried to put the fire out. Only when the flames became visible to the audience did the actors fall out of character and urge the crowd to stay calm. One actor actually told the audience that the fire was “part of the play”—only to break and run a moment later, when a flaming chunk fell to the stage at her feet. After that, all hell broke loose—and while the main floor audience got out of the building safely, the gallery and balcony areas became death traps. Almost three hundred people were killed.
On this day in 1933 – (82 years ago) – organized crime and the bootlegging industry took a major hit as Utah became the thirty-sixth US state to ratify the Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution, which repealed the Eighteenth Amendment and thus ended Prohibition. After fourteen “dry” years—during which violent crime had soared and thousands had died from drinking industrial alcohol, bathtub gin, and other poison concoctions—law-abiding Americans could once again purchase and consume alcoholic beverages. Millions of others, meanwhile, simply moved their stocks of wine and liquor up from the secret cellar and back to the kitchen. But some 38 percent of Americans continued to live under various forms of state or local prohibition for many years to come. The last completely “dry” state, Mississippi, did not repeal its law until 1966—and some two hundred counties across the United States remain “dry” to this day.
On this day in 1952 – (63 years ago) – the city of London came to a near standstill as cold weather and heavy fog combined with coal smoke and other air pollution to produce the most severe smog event in the history of the UK. For three days, the so-called Great Smog of 1952 was so thick that visibility was limited to a few yards. Not only was driving impossible, but even walking down the street became difficult, as people could not see their own feet or the streets and sidewalks they were walking on. The smog even penetrated indoors, to the point that large concert venues and movie houses were forced to close. During each day, coal-fired power plants in and around London spewed 1,000 metric tons of smoke, along with 370 metric tons of sulfur dioxide, 140 metric tons of hydrochloric acid, and a generous variety of other pollutants. Of course Londoners have always been accustomed to fog, so they took the event in stride—but within a few weeks, the Great Smog was determined to have caused the deaths of some four thousand people from various respiratory illnesses. Later research raised that death toll to twelve thousand.