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ProhibitOnions via Wikimedia // Public Domain

10 Surprising Historical Markers Hidden in Plain Sight

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ProhibitOnions via Wikimedia // Public Domain

History is all around us, and yet we don’t always notice historical markers in our midst. These markers, whether they’re a bronze plaque or something more inventive, can reveal world firsts, places of birth or death, the locations of momentous discoveries, or other major events that occurred in a particular location. But some are more interesting than others, especially when they're located in a place you might not expect.


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In 2006, a marble flagstone was laid in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City to mark the spot where, on May 13, 1981, Pope John Paul II was shot by a Turkish gunman in a failed assassination attempt. The historical marker, which includes John Paul’s coat of arms and the date of the attack in Roman numerals, replaced some cobblestones and is set into the floor of the famous square.

On the fateful day, Turkish criminal Mehmet Ali Ağca shot the pope four times, causing grievous injuries. Ağca ran off, but was apprehended by a Vatican security guard, some bystanders, and a nun. John Paul survived the attack and attributed his recovery to the prayers he offered to the Madonna of Fatima, whose feast day is celebrated on May 13. John Paul later traveled to the shrine of the Madonna at Fatima in Portugal, and one of the bullets that was recovered from his body was placed inside the crown of the statue of the Virgin at the shrine. Remarkably, John Paul later publicly forgave Ağca and secured a pardon for him.


As with many great recipes, the precise origins of the martini remain obscure, with a number of people and locations vying for the honor of being home to the cocktail. But that hasn’t prevented the town of Martinez, California from putting up a plaque to proclaim itself the birthplace of the Martini. According to the plaque, situated at 911 Alhambra Avenue, the very first Martini was mixed on that spot. The plaque records the story as follows:

“On this site in 1874, Julio Richelieu, bartender, served up the first Martini when a miner came into his saloon with a fistful of nuggets and asked for something special. He was served a ‘Martinez Special.’ After three or four drinks, however, the ‘Z’ would get very much in the way. The drink consisted of 2/3 gin, 1/3 vermouth, a dash of orange bitters, poured over crushed ice and served with an olive.”


The Eagle Pub in Cambridge was established in the 16th century. It was here on February 28, 1953 that Francis Crick and James Watson burst into the pub to announce “We have found the secret of life!” Their discovery of the double-helix shape of DNA has been vital to medicine ever since and has led to numerous scientific advances; in 1962, the pair were awarded the Nobel Prize. The pub has since become associated with this momentous discovery, and so one of English Heritage’s blue plaques was affixed to a wall in 2003 to memorialize this historic moment.

The historical markers inside the pub do not stop there, as in 2013 a second plaque was added to the interior, remembering the role of Rosalind Franklin, who had also been researching the secret of DNA at King’s College, London, and in 1952 had successfully taken the first x-ray photo of DNA, revealing the structure. Unbeknownst to Franklin, her photograph, which became known as “Photograph 51,” was passed on to Crick and Watson’s team, much aiding their research. Sadly, Franklin died of ovarian cancer just five years later, and in her lifetime never gained the recognition she deserved for her part in the discovery. The small plaque in The Eagle reminds drinkers that the discovery of DNA, like many other leaps forwards, was a team effort.


Tangopaso via Wikimedia // Public Domain

The Place de la Concorde was called the Place Louis XV until 1792, when amid the fervor of the French Revolution, the statue to Louis was pulled down and the site renamed Place de la Revolution. It was here that the new-fangled beheading contraption, the famous guillotine, was situated. This efficient machine allowed the puppet-masters of the revolution, led by Robespierre, to systematically and quickly dispatch enemies of the state in what became known as the Reign of Terror.

There were three guillotines across Paris, but it was this machine that took the heads of King Louis XVI, his wife Marie-Antoinette, and up to 1200 other individuals. In a twist of fate, Robespierre himself was later beheaded on this guillotine for crimes of tyranny and dictatorship. Since 1830 the site has been renamed Place de la Concorde to move on from its revolutionary past, and a small plaque now lies in the western center of the square, marking the spot where the guillotine once stood.


Seneca Oil Spring 2009-05-12

New York is not usually associated with the American oil industry, and yet it was in this Allegany County town that the very first oil was discovered in America by a European. In 1627, a French Catholic missionary named Joseph de La Roche d' Allion was led to a small natural petroleum creek by the Native Americans. The missionary recorded the incident in a letter home to France, providing the first account of oil in North America. Today, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sign stands at the edge of the road along State Highway 446 at the intersection with Cuba Lake Road, revealing the significance of this spot.


One of the largest decentralized memorials in the world began in 1992, when the artist Gunter Demnig started laying “Stolperstein,” or stumbling stones, to remember individuals persecuted by the Nazis. Each stone, which is just 3.9 x 3.9 inches and covered with a brass plaque recording the name and dates of the victim, is embedded in the street in front of their last chosen place of residence. Today, there are over 56,000 Stolperstein in 22 European countries, the quiet yet powerful markers reminding us of the scope and horrors of the Nazi era.


The folklore tale of Dick Whittington and his trusty cat has long been tied to the history of London, and is based on the true-life figure of Richard Whittington (c.1354–1423), a wealthy businessman and Lord Mayor of London. The legend tells that Whittington grew up in poor circumstances yet managed to find a home with a wealthy merchant, who took pity on him and gave him a job in his kitchen. Dick’s sleeping quarters were plagued with mice and rats, so he saved his hard-earned money and bought a cat to deal with the pests. But when the merchant went on a long voyage and offered to sell household items for cash, Dick offered up the cat for sale. Unfortunately, without his cat, the mice and rat problems returned, so Dick fled London. But as he reached Highgate Hill, he heard church bells chiming, which seemed to say “Turn again Whittington, thrice mayor of London.” Of course, after hearing this promise of a great future, he returned to the merchant’s house, who by coincidence had just returned from his travels after securing a huge pile of gold for the amazing rat-catching cat. Suddenly Dick was rich, and he went on to use his money so wisely he was named Lord Mayor of London three times.

The Whittington Stone on Highgate Hill in London marks the spot where Dick Whittington supposedly heard the bells calling “turn again,” and was said to have originally been placed there by the man himself. The current stone, carved in 1821, replaced an old stone that historians think was broken in two and used to mend the sidewalk. In 1964 a limestone cat was added to the marker in honor of the little cat who supposedly made Whittington’s fortune.


A small sign attached to a wooden pole at the side of a main street in Ohio City marks the spot of the world’s first car crash. In 1891, inventor James William Lambert had recently built an early single-cylinder gasoline automobile and decided to take it for a spin with his friend James Swoveland. But as the pair motored along the highway—which would have been a far cry from the smooth surface we enjoy today—the automobile hit a tree root and careered off the road and into a hitching post. Fortunately, the two passengers escaped with only minor injuries, and Lambert was not discouraged from his love of motoring. He went on to patent over 600 further inventions, most of which were associated with automobiles.


This marker, commemorating a key moment in French broadcast history, is easily overlooked because it’s on the top balcony of the Eiffel Tower, where tourists tend to be somewhat distracted by the views.

When the Eiffel Tower was first built for the Paris World's Fair in 1889, it was only intended to stand for 20 years, and so its creator, Gustave Eiffel, was constantly trying to find ways to keep the structure from being demolished. As a result, he allowed many scientists to perform experiments from the top of the tower, proving its use as one of the highest points in Paris. On November 5, 1898, Eugène Ducretet successfully carried out the first trials of wireless telegraphy in France when he sent a signal between the Eiffel Tower and the Pantheon more than two miles away. A small plaque now recognizes this feat. Ducretet’s experiments proved the possibilities of telegraphy, and by 1899 he had managed to send waves from the Eiffel Tower all the way across the Channel to England.


John D. Smith via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

In the middle of an unprepossessing traffic island on one of the major roads in London lies a circular marker revealing the gruesome history of this seemingly ordinary location. Back in 1196 at this spot the first execution at Tyburn (which was then just a small village outside London) was carried out, the beginning of a long history as one of the most notorious execution sites in Britain. In 1571 a triangular gallows was erected, which became known as the Tyburn Tree. The “tree” was capable of hanging 24 people simultaneously, although it rarely executed that many at once.

Hangings at that time were a popular spectator sport, and noted diarist Samuel Pepys recorded that at the execution of Colonel James Turner in 1664 at least 12,000 to 14,000 people turned out to watch. The huge, baying crowds soon became unwelcome as Marble Arch became a fashionable address, and so in 1759 the gallows were taken down and state executions moved to Newgate prison.

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Pop Culture
Fumbled: The Story of the United States Football League
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There were supposed to be 44 players marching to the field when the visiting Los Angeles Express played their final regular season game against the Orlando Renegades in June 1985.

Thirty-six of them showed up. The team couldn’t afford more.

“We didn’t even have money for tape,” Express quarterback Steve Young said in 1986. “Or ice.” The squad was so poor that Young played fullback during the game. They only had one, and he was injured.

Other teams had ridden school buses to practice, driven three hours for “home games,” or shared dressing room space with the local rodeo. In August 1986, the cash-strapped United States Football League called off the coming season. The league itself would soon vaporize entirely after gambling its future on an antitrust lawsuit against the National Football League. The USFL argued the NFL was monopolizing television time; the NFL countered that the USFL—once seen as a promising upstart—was being victimized by its own reckless expansion and the wild spending of team owners like Donald Trump.

They were both right.

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Spring football. That was David Dixon’s pitch. The New Orleans businessman and football advocate—he helped get the Saints in his state—was a fan of college ball and noticed that spring scrimmages at Tulane University led to a little more excitement in the air. With a fiscally responsible salary cap in place and a 12-team roster, he figured his idea could be profitable. Market research agreed: a hired broadcast research firm asserted 76 percent of fans would watch what Dixon had planned.

He had no intention of grappling with the NFL for viewers. That league’s season aired from September through January, leaving a football drought March through July. And in 1982, a players’ strike led to a shortened NFL season, making the idea of an alternative even more appealing to networks. Along with investors for each team region, Dixon got ABC and the recently-formed ESPN signed to broadcast deals worth a combined $35 million over two years.

When the Chicago Blitz faced the Washington Federals on the USFL’s opening day March 6, 1983, over 39,000 fans braved rain at RFK Stadium in Washington to see it. The Federals lost 28-7, foreshadowing their overall performance as one of the league’s worst. Owner Berl Bernhard would later complain the team played like “untrained gerbils.”

Anything more coordinated might have been too expensive. The USFL had instituted a strict $1.8 million salary cap that first year to avoid franchise overspending, but there were allowances made so each team could grab one or two standout rookies. In 1983, the big acquisition was Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, who opted out of his senior year at Georgia to turn pro. Walker signed with the New Jersey Generals in a three-year, $5 million deal.

Jim Kelly and Steve Young followed. Stan White left the Detroit Lions. Marcus Dupree left college. The rosters were built up from scratch using NFL cast-offs or prospects from nearby colleges, where teams had rights to “territorial” drafts.

To draw a line in the sand, the USFL had advertising play up the differences between the NFL’s product and their own. Their slogan, “When Football Was Fun,” was a swipe at the NFL’s increasingly draconian rules regarding players having any personality. They also advised teams to run a series of marketable halftime attractions. The Denver Gold once offered a money-back guarantee for attendees who weren’t satisfied. During one Houston Gamblers game, boxer George Foreman officiated a wedding. Cars were given away at Tampa Bay Bandits games. The NFL, the upstart argued, stood for the No Fun League.

For a while, it appeared to be working. The Panthers, which had invaded the city occupied by the Detroit Lions, averaged 60,000 fans per game, higher than their NFL counterparts. ABC was pleased with steady ratings. The league was still conservative in their spending.

That would change—many would argue for the worse—with the arrival of Donald Trump.

Despite Walker’s abilities on the field, his New Jersey Generals ended the inaugural 1983 season at 6-12, one of the worst records in the league. The excitement having worn off, owner J. Walter Duncan decided to sell the team to real estate investor Trump for a reported $5-9 million.

A fixture of New York media who was putting the finishing touches on Trump Tower, Trump introduced two extremes to the USFL. His presence gave the league far more press attention than it had ever received, but his bombastic approach to business guaranteed he wouldn’t be satisfied with an informal salary cap. Trump spent and spent some more, recruiting players to improve the Generals. Another Heisman winner, quarterback Doug Flutie, was signed to a five-year, $7 million contract, the largest in pro football at the time. Trump even pursued Lawrence Taylor, then a player for the New York Giants, who signed a contract saying that, after his Giants contract expired, he’d join Trump’s team. The Giants wound up buying out the Taylor/Trump contract for $750,000 and quadrupled Taylor’s salary, and Trump wound up with pages of publicity.

Trump’s approach was effective: the Generals improved to 14-4 in their sophomore season. But it also had a domino effect. In order to compete with the elevated bar of talent, other team owners began spending more, too. In a race to defray costs, the USFL approved six expansion teams that paid a buy-in of $6 million each to the league.

It did little to patch the seams. Teams were so cash-strapped that simple amenities became luxuries. The Michigan Panthers dined on burnt spaghetti and took yellow school buses to training camp; players would race to cash checks knowing the last in line stood a chance of having one bounce. When losses became too great, teams began to merge with one another: The Washington Federals became the Orlando Renegades. By the 1985 season, the USFL was down to 14 teams. And because the ABC contract required the league to have teams in certain top TV markets, ABC started withholding checks.

Trump was unmoved. Since taking over the Generals, he had been petitioning behind the scenes for the other owners to pursue a shift to a fall season, where they would compete with the NFL head on. A few owners countered that fans had already voiced their preference for a spring schedule. Some thought it would be tantamount to league suicide.

Trump continued to push. By the end of the 1984 season, he had swayed opinion enough for the USFL to plan on one final spring block in 1985 before making the move to fall in 1986.

In order to make that transition, they would have to win a massive lawsuit against the NFL.

In the mid-1980s, three major networks meant that three major broadcast contracts would be up for grabs—and the NFL owned all three. To Trump and the USFL, this constituted a monopoly. They filed suit in October 1984. By the time it went to trial in May 1986, the league had shrunk from 18 teams to 14, hadn’t hosted a game since July 1985, kept only threadbare rosters, and was losing what existing television deals it had by migrating to smaller markets (a major part of the NFL’s case was that the real reason for the lawsuit, and the moves to smaller markets, was to make the league an attractive takeover prospect for the NFL). The ruling—which could have forced the NFL to drop one of the three network deals—would effectively become the deciding factor of whether the USFL would continue operations.

They came close. A New York jury deliberated for 31 hours over five days. After the verdict, jurors told press that half believed the NFL was guilty of being a monopoly and were prepared to offer the USFL up to $300 million in damages; the other half thought the USFL had been crippled by its own irresponsible expansion efforts. Neither side would budge.

To avoid a hung jury, it was decided they would find in favor of the USFL but only award damages in the amount of $1. One juror told the Los Angeles Times that she thought it would be an indication for the judge to calculate proper damages.

He didn’t. The USFL was awarded treble damages for $3 in total, an amount that grew slightly with interest after time for appeal. The NFL sent them a payment of $3.76. (Less famously, the NFL was also ordered to pay $5.5 million in legal fees.)

Rudy Shiffer, vice-president of the Memphis Showboats, summed up the USFL's fate shortly after the ruling was handed down. “We’re dead,” he said.

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The Time Douglas Adams Met Jim Henson
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On September 13, 1983, Jim Henson and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams had dinner for the first time. Henson, who was born on this day in 1936, noted the event in his "Red Book" journal, in characteristic short-form style: "Dinner with Douglas Adams – 1st met." Over the next few years the men discussed how they might work together—they shared interests in technology, entertainment, and education, and ended up collaborating on several projects (including a Labyrinth video game). They also came up with the idea for a "Muppet Institute of Technology" project, a computer literacy TV special that was never produced. Henson historians described the project as follows:

Adams had been working with the Henson team that year on the Muppet Institute of Technology project. Collaborating with Digital Productions (the computer animation people), Chris Cerf, Jon Stone, Joe Bailey, Mark Salzman and Douglas Adams, Jim’s goal was to raise awareness about the potential for personal computer use and dispel fears about their complexity. In a one-hour television special, the familiar Muppets would (according to the pitch material), “spark the public’s interest in computing,” in an entertaining fashion, highlighting all sorts of hardware and software being used in special effects, digital animation, and robotics. Viewers would get a tour of the fictional institute – a series of computer-generated rooms manipulated by the dean, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and stumble on various characters taking advantage of computers’ capabilities. Fozzie, for example, would be hard at work in the “Department of Artificial Stupidity,” proving that computers are only as funny as the bears that program them. Hinting at what would come in The Jim Henson Hour, viewers, “…might even see Jim Henson himself using an input device called a ‘Waldo’ to manipulate a digitally-controlled puppet.”

While the show was never produced, the development process gave Jim and Douglas Adams a chance to get to know each other and explore a shared passion. It seems fitting that when production started on the 2005 film of Adams’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would create animatronic creatures like the slovenly Vogons, the Babel Fish, and Marvin the robot, perhaps a relative of the robot designed by Michael Frith for the MIT project.

You can read a bit on the project more from Muppet Wiki, largely based on the same article.


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