Some of our favorite historical figures were born in the month of December. We couldn't possibly name them all, but here are just a handful whose lives we'll be celebrating.
1. WALT DISNEY: DECEMBER 5, 1901
Walter Elias Disney was a sketch artist from an early age, and his cartoons from the 1920s were so successful that he eventually opened his own studio, where Mickey Mouse was born. Always looking for bigger and better things, Disney produced the first full-length animated feature in 1937 (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), was an early adopter of television, and opened Disneyland in 1955. But to build an empire, you have to exert some serious control—even over unlikely things. Case in point: For 43 years, employees at Disney theme parks were forbidden from growing facial hair. That all changed in 2000 (four years after Disney's death) when the company decided to let male employees sport mustaches, a logical choice since Disney himself wore one throughout his life. There is a catch though: Employees must already have one when they get hired or grow it out on vacation. The trash 'stache look is not allowed.
Sammy Davis, Jr. was destined for show business. Born to two vaudevillians, he began performing on stage at age four, and you can watch his film debut at the age of seven in the short Rufus Jones For President (1933). Davis's career included vaudeville, standup comedy, singing, dancing, Broadway musicals, movies, and TV. He was a member of the infamous Rat Pack, along with Frank Sinatra, whose birthday is also this month. He was also particularly known for his celebrity impressions, which you can see here, including an impressive Michael Jackson mimic.
Renowned poet Emily Dickinson spent most of her life at home in Amherst, Massachusetts, surrounded by family. While she's often remembered as a recluse, Dickinson did have a noteworthy social life—even to the point of scandal. We can only speculate how her many rumored paramours may have contributed to the passion in her romantic poems.
Augusta Ada King-Noel died at the age of 36, but she managed to make a serious mark on humanity in her short life. As a young woman, Lovelace worked for professor Charles Babbage, who developed a theoretical computer in the 1830s. He assigned young Ada with figuring out how to input data to make the computer, well, compute. A brilliant mathematician, she was up to the task, and developed the world's first computer software, a century before there was an actual computer to use it. Take that, modern coders.
5. FRANK SINATRA: DECEMBER 12, 1915
Frank Sinatra might have had an air of ease about him, but began his life the hard way. The forceps used to bring him into the world left a lifelong scar on his left jaw and mangled his ear. And while he was always self-conscious about his looks, it didn't stop him from becoming an icon. "Ol' Blue Eyes" started his singing career with the big bands of the 1930s, effortlessly moved into the role of a teen heartthrob in the '40s, and began appearing in movies, where he proved to be a natural. In the 1950s, Sinatra had his own TV show, and won an Oscar for From Here to Eternity (not to mention his many Grammy Awards). When his record sales flagged, Sinatra became a record company executive, but ultimately made comebacks with his music in both the '60s and the '70s, while constantly adding to his acting credits.
In the 1940s, Shirley Jackson was a housewife and mother of four with serious literary chops (and aspirations). One day in 1948, she sat down to write about an idea she'd been mulling over. In just two hours she produced the short story "The Lottery" [PDF], about a small town where every year, residents draw slips of paper, and one unlucky "winner" is stoned to death. Published in The New Yorker, it was an immediate sensation—because readers were horrified. The magazine was flooded with calls and letters, people canceled their subscriptions and others still, believing it was nonfiction, inquired as to how they could witness the ritual in the story. Jackson said nothing, preferring her work to speak on its own. She went on to write several more well-received novels, mostly horror and some humor. "The Lottery" has since become a classic think piece, and required reading in many schools.
Jane Austen wrote her heart out from an early age, but did not publish her first novel until 1811, when she was 36 years old. Sense and Sensibility sold well, so Austen published Pride and Prejudice in 1813, a novel she completed when she was only 21. Two more novels followed, all published anonymously. It was only after Austen's death at age 41 that her true identity was revealed to the literary world. Two more of her novels were published posthumously.
German composer Ludwig van Beethoven was in the right place at the right time to fill the void left by the death of Mozart. Beethoven became a rock star in the royal courts and concert halls of Europe, and had an ego to match his fame. When his hearing began to fail at around age 30, he stopped performing and dedicated his life to composing. Beethoven made his comeback in 1824 when he debuted his Symphony No. 9, which became his most famous work ever.
Clarissa Harlowe Barton (who preferred to be called Clara) was working as a clerk in Washington D.C. when the Civil War began. She saw a need and went to work supporting Union troops with food, supplies, and medical care. Barton sought permission to bring food and medical supplies to front line clinics, where she was considered an "Angel of the Battlefield." Barton also searched for missing soldiers and worked to identify those in graveyards. She learned about the International Red Cross during a visit to Europe in 1869, and volunteered with the organization during the Franco-Prussian War. Her service impressed Red Cross officials in Europe, and Barton spent the next several years lobbying for the United States to open a chapter—the American Red Cross—which was established in 1881.
10. HENRI MATISSE: DECEMBER 31, 1869
Henri Matisse was the leading artist of the Fauvist movement, though his art evolved during his more than half a century of work. Best known for his paintings, Matisse was also a sculptor and printmaker, but before all of that, he pursued a more practical career path: law. Matisse earned a legal degree and was working as a clerk in a law office when he came down with appendicitis in 1899. His mother brought him paints to use while he was recuperating, and the rest was history.
How Common Is Your Birthday? An Interactive Map Can Tell You
BY Mental Floss UK
January 15, 2018
by James Hunt
At some point in their life, everyone counts back from their birthday and tries to figure out what anniversary, special occasion, or other excuse might have happened to their parents nine months before they were born. To make this backtracking exercise easier—and give us the chance to do it for a much larger population—data journalist Matt Stiles created an interactive "heat map" showing the most common birthdays in the United States for individuals born between 1994 and 2014.
Click on the map and you'll quickly notice that July, August, and September are by far the most common birth months. It's no surprise that nine months prior you'll find the dark and rainy period of October, November, and December when—to put it delicately—people have to make their own entertainment.
According to Stiles, "People generally seem to have time for baby-making during their time off. Several of the most common birth dates, in September, correspond with average conception periods around Christmas. September 9 is most common in this dataset, though other days in that month are close. September 19 is second. Following a customary gestation period, many of these babies would, in theory, have been conceived on December 17 and December 27, respectively."
But that's not all we can tell from the chart. When you take into account the fact that some people get to choose their child's birthday because of induced and elective births, they tend to want to stay away from the hospital during understaffed holiday periods.
"The least common birthdays in this dataset were Christmas Eve, Christmas [Day], and New Year’s Day," Stiles concluded. "Dates around Thanksgiving aren’t as common. July 4 is also at the bottom of the list. Conversely, Valentine’s Day ranks relatively high, as you can see in the graphic, as are the days just before a new tax year begins."
Amazingly, though it only comes around every four years, Leap Year babies aren't as uncommon as you might think: February 29 ranked 347th out of 366 on the list.
You can play around with the interactive graphic, and see the full ranking of birthdays, here.
When the Revolutionary War broke out, Benedict Arnold became one of America’s first military heroes. But within a few short years, patriots were comparing him unfavorably to the man who betrayed Jesus. As a disgusted Benjamin Franklin wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette, “Judas sold only one man, Arnold three millions [sic].”
That Arnold defected to the British army in 1780 is common knowledge. But before he switched allegiances, Arnold engineered some crucial victories for the colonist rebels and, by all accounts, led a pretty interesting life. Here are a few things you might not have known about one of America's most notorious traitors, who was born on this day in 1741.
1. HE WAS DESCENDED FROM RHODE ISLAND’S FIRST COLONIAL GOVERNOR.
Arnold was born on January 14, 1741 in Norwich, Connecticut—the fifth person in his family to be named Benedict Arnold. Among others, he shared the name with his father and great grandfather, the latter of whom was the first governor of the Rhode Island colony under the 1663 Royal Charter. A wealthy and respected landowner, he would intermittently remain governor until his death. He was laid to rest at a Newport cemetery that now bears his name: Arnold Burying Ground.
2. ARNOLD FOUGHT IN AT LEAST ONE DUEL.
Though he apprenticed at a druggists, and, as an adult, set up a profitable general store in New Haven, Arnold eventually decided to get into the shipping industry, purchasing three merchant vessels by the time he turned 26. He used the boats to trade goods in Canada and the West Indies. (The ventures would later give him a healthy disdain for British tax policies; to get around them, he—like many of his countrymen—ultimately turned to smuggling.) It was while traveling for business that Arnold would get into a disagreement that led to a duel.
On a trip to the Bay of Honduras, Arnold received an invitation to a get-together from a British captain named Croskie. Distracted by an upcoming voyage, Arnold forgot to respond and wound up missing the party. Hoping to smooth things over, Arnold paid Croskie a visit the next morning and apologized. The Brit was having none of it. Irked by Arnold’s apparent rudeness, Croskie called him “a damned Yankee destitute of good manners of those of a gentleman.” Now it was the New Englander’s turn to get offended. His honor impugned, Arnold challenged Croskie to a duel. In the showdown that resulted, the captain fired first—and missed. Then Arnold took aim. With a well-placed shot, he grazed Croskie, whose wound was taken care of by an on-site surgeon. Arnold called Croskie back to the field and proclaimed, “I give you notice, if you miss this time I shall kill you.” Not wishing to risk any further injuries, the British seaman offered an apology. This incident represents the only duel that Arnold is known to have participated in—although some historians believe he may have emerged victorious from one or two others.
3. HE INSPIRED A MINOR HOLIDAY BY COMMANDEERING BRITISH GUNPOWDER.
On April 19, 1775, the battles of Lexington and Concord broke out in eastern Massachusetts, marking the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Three days later, Benedict Arnold led New Haven’s local militia—the Second Company Governor’s Foot Guard—to the city’s powder house, where its supply of emergency gunpowder was stored. He was met at the front door by the local selectmen and demanded the keys. At first they resisted, but it soon became clear that Arnold would be willing to force his way into the building if necessary. “None but the Almighty God shall prevent my marching!” he warned. Faced with the prospect of violence, the selectmen handed over the keys. The Second Company then rounded up all of the available gunpowder and began a march to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they rendezvoused with other rebel troops.
Since 1904, New Haven has been commemorating this chapter in its history with an annual Powder House Day celebration. Every spring, a reenactment of the standoff between Arnold and those selectmen takes place on the steps of City Hall. There, members of the Second Company Governor’s Foot Guard (which still exists) arrive in historically accurate regalia led by a member who plays Arnold himself.
4. HE TOOK PART IN A FAILED ATTEMPT TO CAPTURE CANADA.
Arnold made a name for himself by joining forces with Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys to capture Fort Ticonderoga on the New York side of Lake Champlain in May 1775. That fall, George Washington tapped him to lead a military expedition into Quebec. At the time, many Americans believed—falsely—that their Canadian neighbors would be willing to help them overthrow the British. Brigadier General Richard Montgomery and his men were sent to Montreal by way of the Champlain valley. Meanwhile, Arnold (by that time a Colonel) was given command of a second force that was to proceed upwards through Maine before attacking Quebec City.
This campaign wasn’t exactly Arnold’s finest hour. For starters, he’d been given a wildly inaccurate map of the area which led him to underestimate the distance between Maine and his destination. Since the trek took more time than Arnold had bargained for, his force inevitably depleted its food supply along the way. As a result, many of the men resorted to eating dogs, squirrel heads, and even leather. Severe storms and equipment-destroying flash floods did not help matters.
By the time Arnold finally reached Quebec City on November 8, 1775, the force of around 1100 he’d started out with had been whittled down to less than 600. That December, Montgomery and his men—who’d already captured Montreal—met up with Arnold’s demoralized group outside of Quebec City. On the final day of 1775, the Americans attacked. Montgomery was killed in the fray, more than 400 American soldiers were captured, and a splintering musket ball nearly cost Arnold his left leg. Despite this and other setbacks, the invaders from down south remained in Quebec until 10,000 British troops—accompanied by German mercenaries—arrived to force them out in May 1776.
5. AN ARNOLD-LED NAVAL FLEET THWARTED A MAJOR BRITISH ADVANCE.
Having driven Arnold and company from Canada, the Brits decided to go in for the kill. After advancing down to the northern shores of Lake Champlain, General Sir Guy Carleton ordered his men to construct a fleet of new ships from existing parts and available timber. Meanwhile, Arnold and General Horatio Gates set up shop in Skenesborough, located at the lake’s southern end. The Americans got to work building new ships of their own, which would sail alongside four vessels that Arnold and the Green Mountain Boys had captured in 1775. The stage was set for a naval clash that would have profound implications for the rest of the war.
On October 11, 1776, Arnold led the 15-ship American fleet into battle against Carleton’s newly-finished squadron of well-armed war vessels, which was making a beeline for Fort Ticonderoga. Concealing his forces in the strait between Valcour Island and the lake’s western banks, Arnold was able to catch the British off-guard—momentarily, anyway. Despite this sneak attack, Carleton’s superior weaponry took out 11 of Arnold’s ships, killing or capturing 200 rebels. But from a strategic standpoint, the confrontation worked out well for the colonies because it thwarted the General’s primary goal: recapturing Ticonderoga and then funneling Royal troops across the Champlain. The Battle of Valcour Island—along with all the ship-building that had preceded it—kept him busy until winter arrived. By November, the lake had started freezing over, which prompted Carleton to head back to Canada, where he and his men would remain until spring. His temporary retreat gave the Americans some desperately-needed time to prepare for Britain’s next invasion from the north.
In 1777, General John Burgoyne led 8000 troops down the Champlain Valley. At the Battles of Saratoga, the American forces were able to overwhelm them, forcing the General to surrender his army. More than anything else, it was this surprise victory that inspired France to enter the fray on the rebels’ behalf.
According to Alfred T. Mahan, a naval historian, “That the Americans were strong enough to impose the capitulation of Saratoga was due to the invaluable year of delay secured to them in 1776 by their little navy on Lake Champlain, created by the indomitable energy, and handled with the indomitable courage of the traitor, Benedict Arnold.” Arnold was injured at Saratoga when a bullet went through his leg and killed his horse, which then fell on and crushed the injured limb—the same one that had been wounded in Quebec. The Major General spent three months in the hospital; his leg never fully recovered and he walked with a limp for the rest of his life.
6. HE SIGNED A LOYALTY OATH AT VALLEY FORGE.
In 1778, the Continental Congress made an attempt to weed out any closet loyalists that might be in its midst by forcing the army’s enlisted men and officers to sign standardized loyalty oaths—which they were also expected to read aloud before a witness. Arnold was presented with a copy when he visited Washington in Valley Forge that May. With no reported hesitation, Arnold recited and signed the document; the event was witnessed by Henry Knox, Washington’s future Secretary of War. Today, the signed agreement can be found at the National Archives.
7. ARNOLD SWITCHED SIDES IN PART BECAUSE HE FELT DISRESPECTED.
On June 18, 1778, after a nine-month occupation, British General Sir Henry Clinton and 15,000 troops withdrew from Philadelphia. (By relocating, Clinton hoped he might avoid any French ships that might visit the area.) Philadelphia, back under colonial control, needed a military commander; Washington picked Arnold, who would presumably be grateful for a post that wouldn’t tax his bad leg too much.
Philadelphia was a city known for its radicals, and Arnold was never able to make peace with them. Instead, Arnold found himself gravitating towards the more pro-British upper classes, where he met a charming young woman named Margaret “Peggy” Shippen. Although she was half his age and the daughter of a wealthy judge with strong connections to the British, he married her in 1779. (It was his second marriage; Arnold's first wife, Margaret Mansfield, died in 1775.) The marriage didn’t make Philadelphia’s new military commander the most popular guy around town. Arnold’s extravagant lifestyle also aroused the suspicions of many, and some suggested that he’d been using his position to fatten his wallet with black market goods. In 1779, he was court-martialed twice, largely on accusations of misusing government resources and illegal buying and selling.
Arnold was cleared of all significant charges, but the experience left him embittered and humiliated. The court-martials were just the latest entries in a long list of perceived slights. Throughout his military career, Arnold felt underappreciated by the Continental Congress, which seemed to constantly ignore him when doling out promotions or praise. On a deeper level, he’d grown increasingly pessimistic about the rebellion’s chances. So before 1779 ended, he used his new wife’s social circle to contact Clinton and the British spy John André. At some point in their correspondence, Arnold let it be known that he’d had enough of the colonies; he was now willing to switch sides—if the price was right.
Arnold started lobbying Washington to grant him command of West Point. On June 29, 1780, the founding father caved and handed over the post. The very next month, Arnold offered to surrender the fort to Clinton for the low price of £20,000 (about $4.7 million in 2017 dollars).
8. WHEN ARNOLD MADE HIS ESCAPE, WASHINGTON WAS EN ROUTE TO HIS HOUSE FOR SOME BREAKFAST.
Arnold arranged to meet with André face-to-face on the night of September 21, 1780. André arrived on the British sloop the HMS Vulture and was rowed to shore. At a location later known as Treason House, Arnold handed André papers that exposed West Point’s weaknesses and the two planned to part ways. But during the meeting, the Vulture had been bombarded by Americans and was forced to move, stranding André in rebel territory. He decided to make his own way to the British-occupied city of White Plains, New York, but along the way he was seized by American militia men who discovered the West Point plans tucked away in his shoe.
André was brought before Lieutenant Colonel John Jameson. Following the dictates of protocol, Jameson sent a letter about this strange man who’d been found with incriminating documents to ... Benedict Arnold. Meanwhile, the documents themselves were mailed to George Washington.
In an amazing coincidence, Washington had arranged to have breakfast at Arnold’s residence in southern New York on September 25, 1780. That very same morning, mere hours before Washington arrived, the turncoat received Jameson’s letter. In a frenzied panic, he dashed out of the house, found the Vulture, and hopped aboard. When Washington learned what had transpired, the normally reserved general shouted, “Arnold has betrayed us! Whom can we trust now?”
9. HE SAW PLENTY OF ACTION AS A BRITISH GENERAL.
Arnold’s involvement with the Revolutionary War didn’t end when he embarked on the Vulture. The British made him a brigadier general, and he captured Richmond, Virginia with 1600 loyalist troops on January 5, 1781. Amidst the carnage, Virginia’s then-governor—Thomas Jefferson—staged a massive evacuation. Arnold wrote to the exiled Sage of Monticello, offering to spare the city if the governor agreed to surrender its entire supply of tobacco. When Jefferson refused, the general’s men burned a number of buildings and looted 42 vessels’ worth of stolen goods.
Later that year, Arnold laid siege to his own home colony. Recognizing New London, Connecticut as a refuge for privateers—who routinely plundered British merchant ships—Arnold ordered his assembled force of British and Hessian soldiers to put over 140 of its buildings to the torch, along with numerous ships. For the rest of the country, this devastating assault became a rallying cry. At the battle of Yorktown, the Marquis de Lafayette fired up his men by telling them “Remember New London.”
But if Arnold thought these raids would earn him Great Britain’s respect or acclaim, he was sorely mistaken. When the war ended, this Connecticut Yankee-turned-redcoat general moved to London with his second wife and their children. To his dismay, Arnold learned that his adopted country distrusted him almost as much as his homeland now did. Although Britain continued to recognize him as a general, the U.K. repeatedly declined to give him any sort of major role in the military. Desperate for work, Arnold then attempted to join the British East India Company only to strike out yet again—a high-ranking employee turned him away by saying, “Although I am satisfied with the purity of your conduct, [most people] do not think so.”
10. HE’S BURIED NEXT TO A FISH TANK IN ENGLAND.
Arnold died on June 14, 1801. His body was laid to rest inside a crypt in the basement of St. Mary’s Church, Battersea in London, where Arnold and his family had been parishioners; Margaret and their daughter, Sophia, would also eventually be interred there. Strange as it may sound, their tomb is embedded in the wall of a Sunday School classroom. Right next to a whimsical goldfish tank, you can read the protruding headstone, which has an inscription that reads: “The Two Nations Whom he Served In Turn in the Years of their Enmity Have United in Enduring Friendship.”
The headstone was financed by the late Bill Stanley, a former state senator and proud native of Norwich, Connecticut who defended Arnold throughout his life. “He saved America before he betrayed it,” Stanley said. Heartbroken by the underwhelming elegy that for many years marked the general’s final resting place, Stanley personally spent $15,000 on the handsome new grave marker that sits there. When this was completed in 2004, the ex-state senator flew out to London with his immediate family and more than two dozen members of the Norwich Historical Society to watch the installation.