From red and pink themed everything, to over-priced flowers and prix fixe, Valentine’s Day is a time when we are meant to feel loved. For many, however, Valentine’s Day is not just a conspicuously consumeristic Hallmark holiday, it is also a painful reminder of broken relationships, dashed dreams, and heartache. Being alone with one’s social media accounts on Valentine’s Day requires fortitude.
However, the broken-hearted can take solace in the knowledge that however bad their day is, others have had it much worse.
As everyone knows, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. After all, there is a historic site devoted to him, a medal named in his honor, and a former telecommunications monopoly that operated using his name. Bell’s real accomplishment, however, was that he hired an excellent lawyer.
On Feb. 14, 1876, a different inventor named Elisha Gray filed a patent for his own version of the telephone. Gray reached the patent office several hours before Bell’s lawyer arrived, and so should have received the patent, the credit, and the fame-filled legacy. Bell’s lawyer, however, was savvy enough to demand that Bell’s application and filing fee be processed immediately. Gray’s fee was left overnight and was only taken to the examiner the following morning.
The controversial incident is subject to no shortage of conspiracy theories. Malcolm Gladwell may call it “simultaneous invention,” but there are questions about intellectual property theft (with most historians arguing that Bell stole a key element of his design from Gray’s patent application) and bribery (the patent examiner Zenas Wilbur claimed a decade later that he had taken a $100 bribe to show Gray’s design to Bell). The situation however, was decidedly complicated, as much of the evidence emerged in a corporate struggle over the Bell Telephone Company. While some continue to assert that Bell stole the design for the telephone, Gray would not have been pipped to the post if he had hired a dogged intermediary to file his patent.
The British navigator, explorer, cartographer, and harbinger of colonialism Captain James Cook met his end on this day in 1779. Best known for mapping New Zealand in detail, this former grocery-store apprentice turned naval captain died while trying to kidnap Kalaniʻōpuʻu, the ruling chief of Hawaii. Cook attempted to kidnap the chief in order to ransom him for a longboat that the British used to ferry goods to and from their boat the Resolution. The longboat, in turn, had been stolen because the British had taken, without permission, the wooden railing used to delineate the sacred burial ground used for high ranking individuals.
The attempted kidnapping was a disaster. At first Kalaniʻōpuʻu went willingly with Cook, believing that he was invited to visit the ship. One of his wives raised the alarm and, just as he was about to get into a waiting boat, Kalaniʻōpuʻu refused to proceed. He literally sat down in the sand. A crowd had already gathered and, with Cook shouting at the chief to get in the boat, others came to the chief’s defense. In the chaos Cook was stabbed, somewhat ironically, with an iron dagger he himself had traded to the native people. James Ledyard, one of Cook’s companions, blamed Cook for his own death when he reported that Cook had fired the first shot. William Bligh (who would later find fame as captain of the HMS Bounty) later claimed that he saw Cook’s body dragged up a hill and ripped to pieces. At least some remains were later returned to Cook’s cruiser and buried at sea.
In the Middle Ages kings regularly quarreled with popes about the balance of civic and celestial power. In some ways clashes between God’s representative on earth and God’s divinely chosen monarchs were somewhat inevitable. For Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Germany, the issue was the appointment of clerical officials. This had been a traditional right of the Holy Roman Emperor and a power that Henry’s own father had exercised. Pope Gregory VII, on the other hand, was having none of it, claiming that lay rulers did not have the power to appoint the clergy. The disagreement, commonly known as the Investiture Controversy, reached dramatic heights in 1076. Henry convened a meeting of German bishops and declared that Pope Gregory was deposed. Gregory, quite predictably, responded by excommunicating Henry on Valentine’s Day. This kicked off a series of uprisings in which Henry’s opponents crowned an anti-king (the first of many), and Henry helped install an anti-Pope known as Pope Clement III.
In the end, and after a succession of military excursions and rival kings, Henry IV was toppled by his own son and forced to resign his crown. Clement III, for his part, met a sticky end. Years after his death his remains were exhumed and thrown into the Tiber.
Members of the North Side Gang of Chicago
The rivalry between rivaling Chicago mobsters reached a head in the 1920s when Al Capone led the South Side Gang (more commonly known as The Chicago Outfit) and Bugs Moran—the man often credited with inventing the “drive by” shooting—ran the North Side Gang. In addition to competing with one another in the bootlegging business, staunchly Catholic Moran reportedly looked down on Capone for his involvement in prostitution. Moran’s predecessor had attempted to take out Capone and, for his part, Moran burned down Capone’s nightclubs and hijacked his trucks. The subsequent deaths of seven members of the North Side Crew has come to be known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and is widely believed to have been orchestrated by Al Capone.
On Feb. 13, 1929, Moran received a call telling him that a truckload of whiskey had just arrived from Detroit. It was Prohibition-era Chicago and Moran was offered the whiskey at a good price. He arranged for the liquor to be delivered the following day at 10:30 a.m. Posing as police officers, two assassins in uniform and two in plain clothes lined up seven members of the gang against a wall as if they were going to handcuff them. Then they gunned them down. As for Bugs himself, he wasn’t there either: He saw a police car and fled or he simply slept in that day.
Then there is St. Valentine himself. One imagines that for the man himself this celebration of his holiness wasn’t the most enjoyable of his life. According to tradition, the patron saint of lovers went to his death on this day around 270 CE. The late antique story known as the Passion of Marius and Martha claims that Valentine was a priest who was imprisoned and beheaded by the Emperor Claudius II. Interestingly, the earliest references to Valentine never mention him in conjunction with love. As the Franciscan scholar Agostino Amore has argued, the record is unreliable. There are at least two candidates for St. Valentine and we know almost nothing about their lives or deaths. So, take heart: Perhaps Valentine was not actually bludgeoned and beheaded on this day.