John’s Believe It Or Not… May 14th

* 1847 – First of over 100000 Irish immigrants arrive at Grosse-Île * 1796 Jenner tests smallpox vaccine * 1948 State of Israel proclaimed * 1973 Skylab launched * 1998 Frank Sinatra dies

Frank Sinatra: 1915 - 1998

It’s Monday! Did You Know…

* 1847 – First of over 100,000 Irish immigrants arrive at Grosse-Île.

When the authorities in Quebec heard news of ships arriving with sick passengers, they quickly set up Grosse Île as a port of entry and quarantine station at which all ships were required to dock before moving on to the mainland. The island had dealt with epidemics before. In 1830, about 30,000 immigrants arrived in Quebec, and two-thirds were Irish. These huge waves of immigration were concurrent with cholera epidemics in Great Britain and Europe. Areas in the west of Ireland – mostly Mayo, Donegal and Galway – were also experiencing potato crop failure. In fact, the crop failed to various degrees all over the country throughout the 1830s, though no one is sure exactly when the blight that caused the successive crop failures of 1845-49 arrived in Ireland.

In 1847, 100,000 Irish people traveled to Grosse Île to escape starvation, unaware of the hardships they would encounter upon arrival.

The first “Famine ship” arrived on May 17, 1847, the ice still an inch thick on the river. Of that ship’s 241 passengers, 84 were stricken with fever and 9 had died on board. With the hospital only equipped for 150 cases of fever, the situation quickly spun out of control. More and more ships arrived at Grosse Île each day, sometimes lining up for miles down the St. Lawrence River throughout the summer. On these coffin ships – named for their crowded and deadly conditions – the number of passengers stricken by fever increased exponentially.

The Virginius, from Liverpool on May 28, had 476 passengers on board but, by the time she reached Grosse Île, “…106 were ill of fever, including nine of the crew, and the large number of 158 had died on the passage, including the first and second officers and seven of the crew, and the master and the steward dying, the few that were able to come on deck were ghastly yellow looking specters, unshaven and hollow cheeked, and without exception, the worst looking passengers I have ever seen…” wrote Dr. Douglas, Medical Superintendent at Grosse Île, in the 1847 Immigration Report.

The island was ill equipped to say the least. Hastily built, the quarantine hospitals lacked proper sanitation, supplies and space to accommodate all the sick patients. Many of the doctors dispatched to Grosse Île had never even seen the effects of cholera let alone treated it, and all were overworked. Being taken to a quarantine hospital was soon viewed as more of a death sentence than an opportunity to get better.

Between 1832 and 1937, Grosse Île’s term of operation, the official register lists 7,480 burials on the island. In 1847 alone, 5,424 burials took place, the majority were Irish immigrants. In that same year, over 5,000 Irish people on ships bound for Canada are listed as having been buried at sea. Today the island is a National Historic Site that serves as a Famine memorial. It was dedicated in 1996 after a four-year-long campaign to protect the mass gravesite. The Grosse Île Celtic Cross, erected by the Ancient Order of Hibernians in 1909, bears an inscription in Irish commemorating the victims of the epidemic and condemning colonial rule. In English, it reads: “Children of the Gael died in their thousands on this island having fled from the laws of foreign tyrants and an artificial famine in the years 1847-48. God’s blessing on them. Let this monument be a token and honor from the Gaels of America. God Save Ireland.” Visitors to the island may also see the lazaretto, the only remaining quarantine hospital from 1847.

Those who survived the trip and could not be accommodated in the Grosse Île hospitals were transferred to Windmill Point, another quarantine area where almost 6,000 Irish people died from typhus. The sick were crammed into poorly built quarantine houses called “fever sheds” where the Grey Nuns of Montreal acted as nurses. Many Grey Nuns also contracted illness themselves.

Grosse-Île Irish Memorial National Historic Site
Grosse-Île Irish Memorial National Historic Site

* 1796 Jenner tests smallpox vaccine

Edward Jenner, an English country doctor from Gloucestershire, administers the world’s first vaccination as a preventive treatment for smallpox, a disease that had killed millions of people over the centuries.

While still a medical student, Jenner noticed that milkmaids who had contracted a disease called cowpox, which caused blistering on cow’s udders, did not catch smallpox. Unlike smallpox, which caused severe skin eruptions and dangerous fevers in humans, cowpox led to few ill symptoms in these women. On May 14, 1796, Jenner took fluid from a cowpox blister and scratched it into the skin of James Phipps, an eight-year-old boy. A single blister rose up on the spot, but James soon recovered. On July 1, Jenner inoculated the boy again, this time with smallpox matter, and no disease developed. The vaccine was a success. Doctors all over Europe soon adopted Jenner’s innovative technique, leading to a drastic decline in new sufferers of the devastating disease.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, scientists following Jenner’s model developed new vaccines to fight numerous deadly diseases, including polio, whooping cough, measles, tetanus, yellow fever, typhus, and hepatitis B, and many others. More sophisticated smallpox vaccines were also developed and by 1970 international vaccination programs, such as those undertaken by the World Health Organization, had eliminated smallpox worldwide.

Jenner's smallpox vaccination
Jenner’s smallpox vaccination (Click Americana)

* 1948 State of Israel proclaimed

On May 14, 1948, in Tel Aviv, Jewish Agency Chairman David Ben-Gurion proclaims the State of Israel, establishing the first Jewish state in 2,000 years. In an afternoon ceremony at the Tel Aviv Art Museum, Ben-Gurion pronounced the words “We hereby proclaim the establishment of the Jewish state in Palestine, to be called Israel,” prompting applause and tears from the crowd gathered at the museum. Ben-Gurion became Israel’s first premier.

In the distance, the rumble of guns could be heard from fighting that broke out between Jews and Arabs immediately following the British army withdrawal earlier that day. Egypt launched an air assault against Israel that evening. Despite a blackout in Tel Aviv–and the expected Arab invasion–Jews joyously celebrated the birth of their new nation, especially after word was received that the United States had recognized the Jewish state. At midnight, the State of Israel officially came into being upon termination of the British mandate in Palestine.

Modern Israel has its origins in the Zionism movement, established in the late 19th century by Jews in the Russian Empire who called for the establishment of a territorial Jewish state after enduring persecution. In 1896, Jewish-Austrian journalist Theodor Herzl published an influential political pamphlet called The Jewish State, which argued that the establishment of a Jewish state was the only way of protecting Jews from anti-Semitism. Herzl became the leader of Zionism, convening the first Zionist Congress in Switzerland in 1897. Ottoman-controlled Palestine, the original home of the Jews, was chosen as the most desirable location for a Jewish state, and Herzl unsuccessfully petitioned the Ottoman government for a charter.

After the failed Russian Revolution of 1905, growing numbers of Eastern European and Russian Jews began to immigrate to Palestine, joining the few thousand Jews who had arrived earlier. The Jewish settlers insisted on the use of Hebrew as their spoken language. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during World War I, Britain took over Palestine. In 1917, Britain issued the “Balfour Declaration,” which declared its intent to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Although protested by the Arab states, the Balfour Declaration was included in the British mandate over Palestine, which was authorized by the League of Nations in 1922. Because of Arab opposition to the establishment of any Jewish state in Palestine, British rule continued throughout the 1920s and ’30s.

Beginning in 1929, Arabs and Jews openly fought in Palestine, and Britain attempted to limit Jewish immigration as a means of appeasing the Arabs. As a result of the Holocaust in Europe, many Jews illegally entered Palestine during World War II. Radical Jewish groups employed terrorism against British forces in Palestine, which they thought had betrayed the Zionist cause. At the end of World War II, in 1945, the United States took up the Zionist cause. Britain, unable to find a practical solution, referred the problem to the United Nations, which in November 1947 voted to partition Palestine.

The Jews were to possess more than half of Palestine, although they made up less than half of Palestine’s population. The Palestinian Arabs, aided by volunteers from other countries, fought the Zionist forces, but by May 14, 1948, the Jews had secured full control of their U.N.-allocated share of Palestine and also some Arab territory. On May 14, Britain withdrew with the expiration of its mandate, and the State of Israel was proclaimed. The next day, forces from Egypt, Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq invaded.

The Israelis, though less well equipped, managed to fight off the Arabs and then seize key territory, such as Galilee, the Palestinian coast, and a strip of territory connecting the coastal region to the western section of Jerusalem. In 1949, U.N.-brokered cease-fires left the State of Israel in permanent control of this conquered territory. The departure of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs from Israel during the war left the country with a substantial Jewish majority.

During the third Arab-Israeli conflict–the Six-Day War of 1967–Israel again greatly increased its borders, capturing from Jordan, Egypt, and Syria the Old City of Jerusalem, the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. In 1979, Israel and Egypt signed an historic peace agreement in which Israel returned the Sinai in exchange for Egyptian recognition and peace. Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) signed a major peace accord in 1993, which envisioned the gradual implementation of Palestinian self-government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process moved slowly, however, and in 2000 major fighting between Israelis and Palestinians resumed in Israel and the occupied territories.

Maps: New State of Israel as of 1949

* 1973 Skylab launched

Skylab, America’s first space station, is successfully launched into an orbit around the earth. Eleven days later, U.S. astronauts Charles Conrad, Joseph Kerwin, and Paul Weitz made a rendezvous with Skylab, repairing a jammed solar panel and conducting scientific experiments during their 28-day stay aboard the space station.

The first manned Skylab mission came two years after the Soviet Union launched Salynut, the world’s first space station, into orbit around the earth. However, unlike the ill-fated Salynut, which was plagued with problems, the American space station was a great success, safely housing three separate three-man crews for extended periods of time and exceeding pre-mission plans for scientific study.

Originally the spent third stage of a Saturn 5 moon rocket, the cylinder space station was 118 feet tall, weighed 77 tons, and carried the most varied assortment of experimental equipment ever assembled in a single spacecraft to that date. The crews of Skylab spent more than 700 hours observing the sun and brought home more than 175,000 solar pictures. They also provided important information about the biological effects of living in space for prolonged periods of time. Five years after the last Skylab mission, the space station’s orbit began to deteriorate faster than expected, owing to unexpectedly high sunspot activity. On July 11, 1979, the parts of the space station that did not burn up in the atmosphere came crashing down on Australia and into the Indian Ocean. No one was injured.

Skylab space station in Earth orbit
Skylab space station in Earth orbit (NASA)

* 1998 Frank Sinatra dies

On this day in 1998, the legendary singer, actor and show-business icon Frank Sinatra dies of a heart attack in Los Angeles, at the age of 82.

Sinatra emerged from an Italian-American family in Hoboken, New Jersey, to become the first modern superstar of popular music, with an entertainment career that spanned more than five decades. In the first incarnation of his singing career, he was a master of the romantic ballads popular during World War II. After his appeal began to wane in the late 1940s, Sinatra reinvented himself as a suave swinger with a rougher, world-weary singing style, and began a spectacular comeback in the 1950s.

In addition to his great musical success, Sinatra appeared in 58 films; one of his earliest was Anchors Aweigh (1945). Playing a cocky Italian-American soldier who meets a violent death in From Here to Eternity (1953), co-starring Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift, Sinatra won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. His film career flourished after that, as he starred as Nathan Detroit in the movie musical Guys and Dolls (1955) and played a heroin addict in The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), for which he was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actor. He also starred in the musicals High Society (1956) and Pal Joey (1957) and turned in a memorable performance as an Army investigator in the acclaimed film The Manchurian Candidate (1962).

By the late 1950s, Sinatra had become the epitome of show-business success and glamorous, rough-edged masculinity. He even headed up his own entourage, known as the Rat Pack, which included Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop. The group had originally formed around Humphrey Bogart, who died in 1957. The Rat Pack first appeared together on the big screen in 1960’s casino caper Ocean’s Eleven. They would go on to make Sergeant’s Three (1962), Four for Texas (1963) and Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964). Onscreen and in real life, the Pack’s famous stomping grounds included Las Vegas, Los Angeles and New York (notably the Copacabana Club).

Sinatra worked steadily in film throughout the 1960s, though many of his performances seemed almost perfunctory. His last major Hollywood role came in 1980’s The First Deadly Sin. A famous heartthrob, Sinatra married four times, divorcing his longtime sweetheart Nancy Barbato after a decade and three children (Nancy, Frank Jr. and Christina) to marry the actress Ava Gardner in 1951. Their marriage lasted less than two years, and in 1966 Sinatra married the 21-year-old actress Mia Farrow, 30 years his junior; they were divorced in 1968. In 1976, he married Barbara Blakely Marx (the former wife of Zeppo Marx), and they remained together until his death.

Frank Sinatra head shot.
(Famous People)

Today’s Sources: 

* Canadian History Timeline – Canada’s Historical Chronology

* Irish Central                                                   

* This Day In History – What Happened Today                                        

Author: John Fioravanti

I'm a retired History teacher (35 years), husband, father of three, grandfather of three. My wife, Anne, and I became business partners in December, 2013, and launched our own publishing company, Fiora Books (, to publish my books. We have been married since 1973 and hope our joint business venture will be as successful as our marriage.

29 thoughts on “John’s Believe It Or Not… May 14th”

  1. Welcome back, John. Skylab was amazing. Kept us all wondering about discoveries there. Grosse Ile must have been a nightmare. Old Blue eyes. Doesn’t seem possible he’s been gone that long. Good edition.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Welcome back. What an eventful day from Skylab, the first one to fall to the earth, to Frank Sinatra who soared even higher (“Fly me to the moon….”). Interesting that the US embassy is being opened today in Jerusalem. Sadly, it has caused two dozen Palestine deaths thus far. Finally, thank goodness for the smallpox vaccine.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good to be back, good sir. Trump will likely have a lot of blood on his hands before he leaves the White House. When I read about that smallpox vaccine, I couldn’t help but remember how the British traded Indians Hudson Bay blankets exposed to the smallpox virus and killed many of them. Eurocentrism at its worst! Thanks, Keith!

      Liked by 1 person

        1. That’s true, Keith. But what upset me was the deliberate spreading of a deadly disease among the Indigenous peoples.
          Unfortunately, here in Canada, our government committed cultural genocide against them by means of the Indian Act and the Residential Schools system. Absolutely shameful.

          Liked by 1 person

    1. I thought about the Israel timing when I found out that the U.S. Embassy was opening in Jerusalem today. Trump certainly is shaking things up in the Middle East and, unfortunately, there are people paying with their lives. Thanks, Mae.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Fascinating stories, John. And, welcome back. The deaths of the Irish were tragic. The development of the smallpox vaccine is quite a story. Then, there is Frank Sinatra. He was my mother’s heartthrob, so I grew up with his wonderful music. Lucky me! When he came to do a concert in my hometown, my mother was beside herself. At long last she would fulfill her dream. Well, that very day her own mother died. There went the concert. I would have felt the same way had it been the Beatles.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good to be back online, Jennie. That Irish story hit home for me as my Irish relatives came to Canada during that period. For me growing up, my musical hero was Rick Nelson – and he finally came to Kitchener for a concert in ’84 – I was in seventh heaven! I loved watching him on the Ozzie & Harriet show when I was growing up. Thanks, Jennie!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Welcome back, John; you were missed! Today’s story of the Irish exodus and the famine ships is heart-breaking. Being an O’Brien, I know how such tragedies live in families through the decades. Thank you for the graphic reminders. And, thanks for ending the blog on Frank Sinatra. Who doesn’t love Sinatra … a man who did it “My Way.” 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My mother was of Irish descent as a “Ryan” and a “Freeman” on her mom’s side. The Freemans came to Canada during that period. My grandfather, Leo Ryan, was an orphan so the family knows nothing of his heritage. You’re right, tragedies like that live on in the psyches of descendants. I wonder how close Sinatra’s ties were with the Mafia. He certainly was a great singer!


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