They say that “timing is everything.” It’s not just what you do, but when you do it, and you are about to see ten examples where this little truism has applied. On almost any other day, the following noteworthy events would have dominated public attention. But, as it happened, they occurred around the same time as something even more important that stole a lot of their thunder, transforming them from headlines into footnotes.
10. The Peshtigo Fire
On October 8, 1871, a massive forest fire erupted in a logging area in Wisconsin, near the small city of Peshtigo. The dreadful blaze burned over 1.2 million acres of land and killed between 1,200 and 1,500 people, becoming the deadliest wildfire in the United States, possibly in all of recorded history. You would think that such a catastrophic event would get top billing in every newspaper in the country, right?
Not quite, because it happened on the exact same day as the Great Chicago Fire. Although the death toll there was nowhere near as large, that fire occurred in one of the biggest cities in the country so, unsurprisingly, it garnered a lot more attention from the media and from the public. The story of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, who started the destructive blaze by knocking over a lantern onto a pile of hay, is still popular today, even though it’s been debunked decades ago.
Today, the Peshtigo fire is barely remembered outside of Wisconsin, and it is not even the only one. Several more fires occurred throughout the Midwest that day, ostensibly caused or, at least, aided by the same weather conditions that fanned the flames in Peshtigo.
9. The Liberation of Rome
The Liberation of Rome was a pivotal moment during World War II. After the fall of Mussolini in 1943, the country signed an armistice with the Allies, but was soon invaded by Germany who took over the northern and central parts of Italy. After nine months of heavy fighting, the Allies managed to liberate Rome and entered the city on June 4, 1944. Thus, Rome became the first capital to escape the clutches of the Nazis.
It was a strategic victory and a major morale boost for the Allies, but they did not intend to rest on their laurels. Before the world had time to process this news, something else happened that caught everyone’s attention. Just two days after the liberation of Rome came D-Day, the largest seaborne invasion in history which saw a massive Allied force storm the beaches at Normandy in order to begin the liberation of France.
8. The Deaths of Two Authors
There are quite a few examples of famous people whose deaths did not get a lot of attention because they died on the same day as someone even more famous than them. But in this case, we have not one, but two people who got overshadowed and both of them were British authors.
C.S. Lewis was an academic at Oxford and Cambridge Universities and a writer best known for penning The Chronicles of Narnia fantasy series. Meanwhile, Aldous Huxley was a prolific author who wrote almost 50 books and was nominated nine times for the Noble Prize for Literature, whose most famous work is the dystopian sci-fi novel Brave New World.
Both men died on November 22, 1963 – Lewis due to kidney failure and Huxley from cancer – but their demises received almost no press coverage. The New York magazine later proclaimed them the winners of “the championship trophy for badly timed death” because they passed away on the same day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
7. The Olympic Protest
At the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, American track and field athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos executed, arguably, the most famous political statement in the history of the Olympics when they performed the Black Power salute during the medal ceremony for the 200-meter sprint. That image with the two of them raising their fists in the air became instantly iconic, but not so iconic was the protest that occurred the following Summer Olympics in Munich.
The circumstances were similar: two Black American athletes, Vince Matthews and Wayne Collett, won the gold and silver medals, respectively, for the 400-meter race. Then, while the American national anthem started playing during the medal ceremony, the two of them gathered on the first place podium and began chatting casually, fidgeting around and playing with their medals with their backs turned to the flag.
Their protest got an immediate reaction, as the duo were criticized for being disrespectful and were banned from future games by the International Olympics Committee. Their actions were quickly forgotten, however, as the 1972 games became remembered for only one thing: the Munich massacre. During the second week of the competition, members of a Palestinian terrorist group dubbed Black September stormed the Olympic Village and killed 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team, as well as a West German police officer.
6. The Channel Crossing
Harriet Quimby was one of the greatest female pioneers of flight, making history on August 1, 1911, when she became the first woman in America to earn her pilot’s license. Unfortunately, her trailblazing career also served as a reminder of just how dangerous flying was in its early stages, as she died in a plane crash less than a year after getting her license.
Before her untimely end, though, Harriet Quimby became responsible for several aviation firsts, including her crowning achievement of becoming the first woman to fly across the English Channel.
This happened on April 16, 1912, less than three years after the first-ever airplane crossing had been completed. Harriet’s flight lasted for 69 minutes and almost ended in tragedy as she lost visibility in heavy fog and her engine flooded. Although off-course, she ultimately landed safely on a French beach near Hardelot.
The locals quickly surrounded the plane and lavished Harriet with excited cries and cheers, but they were about the only ones to do so. The rest of the world was completely focused on something else, one of the most infamous events of the 20th century, which had occurred just two days earlier: the sinking of the Titanic.
5. The Pope’s Beatification
May 2, 2011, was a strange day because it started with the world celebrating the life of one man, but ended with them celebrating the death of another.
The previous day, May 1, was the date when Pope John Paul II was beatified and canonized in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. It was a grand event attended by dozens of heads of state and other dignitaries, but it was all but forgotten by the next day.
Just hours after the ceremony had taken place, American special forces led by SEAL Team Six had launched a raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan and killed the most wanted man in the world. President Barack Obama made the official announcement that night, but the news had already leaked and it was all that people talked about that day. The pope’s beatification took an immediate backseat, although some people, including the President of Peru, tried to give John Paul the credit, claiming that bin Laden’s death was his miracle.
4. The NBA Finals
Let’s move on to something a bit more lighthearted, such as the time when all Americans stopped watching the NBA finals game in order to see the O.J. Simpson car chase.
Now, you might be thinking that an NBA final isn’t exactly a major event, but this one did represent a pivotal moment in sports history. The 1993-1994 season was the first one without Michael Jordan after the Chicago Bulls superstar abruptly quit basketball and decided to give baseball a try. There was a lot of concern at NBC that the NBA would struggle in the ratings without its most popular star.
Even so, the league hoped that it had a compelling story to tell, even without MJ. Without the dominance of the Chicago Bulls, two new strong contenders emerged – the Houston Rockets, led by Hakeem Olajuwon, and the New York Knicks, led by Patrick Ewing.
On June 7, 1994, the series was tied at 2 wins each and the teams met for Game 5. However, during the game, O.J. Simpson had decided to take the California police on a high-speed chase in a white Ford Bronco across the 405 Freeway…and it was all being broadcast live on every American channel except for NBC.
The channel was hemorrhaging viewers so, ultimately, it made the call to go with a picture-in-picture broadcast, giving the O.J. chase top-billing on the big screen. Still didn’t work. That matchup became the lowest-rated finals game since the early 80s and kept that dubious honor until 2003.
3. The Attack on Clark Field
If we mention the words “Pearl Harbor,” there is one event that immediately springs to mind – the surprise attack by the Japanese during World War II. That doesn’t really work as well with the words “Clark Field,” even though it was basically the same thing.
On the morning of December 8, 1941, roughly nine hours after the airstrikes on Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii, the Japanese Navy Air Service launched another attack on Clark Field, an American airbase located on Luzon Island in the Philippines. A few more minor airstrikes occurred throughout the day, all part of Japan’s plan to weaken the enemy air force before its invasion of the Philippines.
The damage and casualties sustained at Clark Field were lower than Pearl Harbor, one of the main reasons why this event is not as well-remembered. But one thing that still is unclear is why none of the people in charge were disciplined, especially since they knew for hours what had happened at Pearl Harbor. The two generals in charge, Douglas MacArthur and Lewis Brereton, each tried to put the blame on the other one, but neither faced any severe repercussions, whereas the officials in Hawaii were relieved of their command and forced into retirement.
2. The Solo Row
On almost any other week in history, the tremendous accomplishment of John Fairfax would have been celebrated on a global scale. At the start of 1969, the British adventurer set sail from the Canary Islands aboard a rowing boat. His goal was to do something that had never been done before – row across an ocean alone.
Fairfax began his journey on January 20. The trip was supposed to be around 3,600 miles, but due to unfavorable winds it actually ended up being 5,000 miles. The rower’s supplies had dwindled and he had to rely on fish he could catch and the occasional kindness of passing ships. But ultimately, he succeeded. Fairfax reached the coast of Florida on July 19, after 180 days at sea, becoming the first person to row solo across an ocean.
He celebrated his feat with “a nice steak, a bottle of Scotch, and two aspirin.” Unfortunately for him, the rest of the world was concerned with an even greater feat of human endeavor. The very next day, July 20, 1969, mankind took one giant leap as the Apollo 11 astronauts walked on the Moon for the very first time.
1. The Wow! Signal
Let’s end with another space entry, except that this time, it was the space event that got ignored in favor of something completely different.
On August 15, 1977, astronomers operating the Big Ear radio telescope at Ohio State University picked up a strange signal emanating from the Sagittarius constellation. The transmission was so unusual that it prompted astronomer Jerry Ehrman to write “Wow!” on the printout amid talks that it could be of extraterrestrial origins.
So scientists had just recorded what they believed could be first contact with alien life. You would think that would be a pretty big deal but, unfortunately for them, they announced their findings the next day, just hours before the death of Elvis Presley. As it turned out, people cared about the king more than about aliens, so news of the Wow! Signal was relegated to the back pages of the newspapers.
Although it was mainly ignored in its own time, interest in the Wow! Signal has seen a resurgence in the decades that followed, mainly because it has never been detected again and has yet to be thoroughly explained, despite multiple hypotheses. Some have joked that the signal came from the mothership as it arrived to take Elvis back home and, frankly, that sounds perfectly plausible to us.