July 19, 1996 – First Murder Conviction Based on Animal’s DNA

On this day in history, Douglas Leo Beamish was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment with 18 years of parole ineligibility in the Supreme Court of Prince Edward Island (Trial Division).

Beamish, the estranged husband of Shirley Duguay, was the primary suspect in Shirley’s disappearance. When the body was found, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) found a leather jacket nearby covered in Duguay’s blood. Although Beamish’s friends and family acknowledged that Beamish owned a similar jacket, none would positively identify it.

But in addition to the blood, investigators pulled two white hairs from the jacket. The hairs turned out to be not human but cat fur. Detectives recalled that Beamish’s parents owned a white cat named Snowball and obtained a blood sample. (Beamish was at that time living with his parents.) Police inspector Roger Savoie could not find a Canadian laboratory to perform DNA analysis of the cat hairs, so he called experts in the U.S. and eventually reached Dr. Stephen J. O’Brien, chief of the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity at the National Cancer Institute in Frederick, Md., an expert on cats and their genes. He agreed to do the testing, analyzing the hairs in the jacket and Snowball’s blood. But even though they matched, Dr. O’Brien wondered if the cats on the island were so inbred that all of their DNA was essentially identical. He asked Detective Savoie to round up 20 cats in the neighborhood and send their blood too. To everyone’s relief (with the undoubted exception of Mr. Beamish), they found abundant genetic diversity among the cats.

Convicted murderer Douglas Beamish and his cat Snowball. Photo by Dr. Stephen O’Brien

Convicted murderer Douglas Beamish and his cat Snowball. Photo by Dr. Stephen O’Brien

The introduction of Snowball’s hair as evidence was the world’s first use of non-human DNA in a criminal trial. Douglas Beamish was charged with first-degree murder and found guilty of second-degree.

Beamish appealed his conviction in 1998 and 1999. Both appeals were rejected.

Since this groundbreaking case, several prosecutors in the United States have presented in court forensic DNA evidence derived from animal samples.

July 8, 1777 – Vermont Becomes the First State to Abolish Slavery

On this day in history, Vermont formally adopted its State Constitution, which stressed that all men were born equally free:

Therefore, no male person, born in this country, or brought from over sea, ought to be holden by law, to serve any person, as a servant, slave or apprentice, after he arrives to the age of twenty-one Years, nor female, in like manner, after she arrives to the age of eighteen years, unless they are bound by their own consent, after they arrive to such age, or bound by law, for the payment of debts, damages, fines, costs, or the like.”

You can read the entire text of Vermont’s 1777 Constitution here.


July 1, 2016 – 100th Anniversary of the First Day of the Battle of the Somme

On July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme during World War I, the British Army incurred its heaviest casualties in its military history in a single day: 52,471, including 19,240 killed. As Andrew Roberts reports in his book Elegy: The First Day on the Somme, by 8:30 a.m. that day the rate of casualties was as high as 500 per minute for the battle thus far. In late afternoon, stretcher-bearers were sent out, and they carried stretchers under fire continuously for the next 24 hours. Back in the trenches, the wounded continued to be bombarded.

British soldiers "going over the top", or leaving their trenches in the Battle of the Somme

British soldiers “going over the top”, or leaving their trenches in the Battle of the Somme

The Battle of the Somme was the major British offensive of 1916. Together with French forces to the south, the British attacked along an eighteen-mile front. The allied forces thought the Germans would be incapacitated and demoralized by the week-long artillery barrage preceding the ground offensive. Instead, the Battle of the Somme came to represent, according to a Cambridge University Library website on the battle, “the ineffectiveness, incompetence, and ruinous wastage of life which characterized trench warfare.”

Siegfried Sassoon, c. 1916

Siegfried Sassoon, c. 1916

The famous WWI poet Siegfried Sassoon, best remembered for his angry poems about the meaninglessness – as he perceived it, of the First World War, served in the British Army at the Somme, in and around Mametz Wood, and he kept journals of his experiences. Sassoon wrote of the horror and brutality of trench warfare. He described the first day of the Somme as a ‘sunlit picture of hell’. (You an access his journals online, here.)

This poem, Aftermath, is about the Battle of the Somme:

Aftermath – Poem by Siegfried Sassoon

Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same–and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz–
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench–
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack–
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads–those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.”

Note: For more about the role that poets played in helping to form the collective memories of World War I, see our review of The Long Shadow by David Reynolds. The book is a masterful analysis of interpretations of World War I and their causes and effects.

June 30, 1921 – Sweden Becomes First European Power to Abolish Capital Punishment

On this day in history, a new law took effect in Sweden abolishing capital punishment in peace time. Capital punishment was abolished for all crimes, including those committed in time of war, on January 1, 1973.

The last person to be executed in Sweden was Johan Alfred Andersson Ander, who was sentenced to death for a murder during the course of a robbery. The execution took place at Långholmen prison in Stockholm on November 23, 1910. He was also the only person in Sweden to have been executed by the guillotine.

June 24, 1788 – Patrick Henry Opposes the Constitution: “May They Not Pronounce All Slaves Free?”

In June, 1788, Virginia delegates met to debate ratification of the new Constitution. Patrick Henry was bitterly opposed to it. On this day in history, he argued to the convention:

Have they not power to provide for the general defence and welfare? May they not think that these call for the abolition of slavery? May they not pronounce all slaves free, and will they not be warranted by that power? This is no ambiguous implication or logical deduction. The paper speaks to the point: they have the power in clear, unequivocal terms, and will clearly and certainly exercise it. As much as I deplore slavery, I see that prudence forbids its abolition. I deny that the general government ought to set them free, because a decided majority of the states have not the ties of sympathy and fellow-feeling for those whose interest would be affected by their emancipation. The majority of Congress is to the north, and the slaves are to the south.

In this situation, I see a great deal of the property of the people of Virginia in jeopardy, and their peace and tranquillity gone. I repeat it again, that it would rejoice my very soul that every one of my fellow-beings was emancipated. As we ought with gratitude to admire that decree of Heaven which has numbered us among the free, we ought to lament and deplore the necessity of holding our fellowmen in bondage. But is it practicable, by any human means, to liberate them without producing the most dreadful and ruinous consequences? We ought to possess them in the manner we inherited them from our ancestors, as their manumission is incompatible with the felicity of our country.”

Patrick Henry, of course, is primarily known for his 1765 shout of opposition to the Stamp Act “Give me liberty or give me death!” Obviously, he didn’t mean that dictum to be applied generally, which would interfere with his own “peace and tranquility.”

Patrick Henry

Patrick Henry

June 17, 1944 – Icelandic National Day

The date to commemorate the founding of Iceland and its independence from Danish rule was chosen to coincide with the birthday of Jón Sigurðsson (1811-1879), a major figure of Icelandic culture and the leader of the 20th Century Icelandic independence movement.

Jón Sigurðsson

Jón Sigurðsson

In actuality, the Icelandic Parliament decided to sever ties with the Danish monarchy in February, 1944. Iceland had been self-governing since 1918, but during the Second World War, when Iceland was occupied by the Allies and Denmark was occupied by the Nazis, Iceland unilaterally decided to declare full independence from Copenhagen.

A law was passed that between May 20 and 23, 1944, a national referendum would take place to confirm or reject Parliament’s decision. An overwhelming majority voted for independence and a new constitution.


A Republican celebration was held in Þingvellir on this day in history. Þingvellir, anglicized as Thingvellir, is a site of historical, cultural, and geological importance to Iceland. Alþingi (Althing in English), the Icelandic Parliament, was established at Þingvellir in 930, and remained there until 1798. Þingvellir National Park (or Thingvellir National Park) was founded in 1930, marking the 1,000th anniversary of the Althing. It was later expanded in order to protect natural resources in the surrounding area, and became a World Heritage Site in 2004.

According to the Iceland Review, the National Day is usually celebrated across the country with parades led by marching bands and scouts following as color guard.

Ceremonies often include an address or poetry reading by a woman dressed as Fjallkonan (‘The Mountain Woman’), wearing Iceland’s most festive national dress. Fjallkonan represents the Icelandic spirit and nature and became a symbolic figure in Iceland’s fight for independence.

The first surviving drawing of the Lady of the Mountains, Johann Baptist Zwecker, from Icelandic Legends (1866)

The first surviving drawing of the Lady of the Mountains, Johann Baptist Zwecker, from Icelandic Legends (1866)

June 15, 1804 – Ratification of the Twelfth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

On this day in history, the Twelfth Amendment was officially adopted, creating separate votes in the electoral college for President and Vice-President. The Amendment was a response to the elections of 1796 and 1800, during which problems arose because of the system of voting as laid out in Article II, Section 1, Clause 3 of the Constitution.

According to the original procedure for the Electoral College, each elector could vote for two persons. The person receiving the greatest number of votes – provided that number equaled a majority of the electors, was elected President. Whichever candidate received the second greatest number of votes became Vice President.
Complications developed almost immediately. In the 1796 election, John Adams, the Federalist Party presidential candidate, received a majority of the electoral votes.

John Adams

John Adams

However, the Federalist electors scattered their second votes, resulting in the Democratic-Republican Party presidential candidate, Thomas Jefferson, receiving the second highest number of electoral votes and thus being elected Vice President. Jefferson was a political opponent of Adams, and actually encouraged opposition to the Adams Administration. At times, Jefferson even secretly undermined the Administration, such as when he surreptitiously authored the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, arguing that the states can judge the constitutionality of acts of Congress and the President, and that each individual state has the power to declare federal laws null and void.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

The 1800 election was even more problematic. After 35 votes, neither Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson nor Federalist Aaron Burr had a majority. After much intrigue and arguing, Alexander Hamilton, who despised Burr, convinced a few Federalists who had supported Burr in the balloting to turn in blank ballots rather than vote for either Republican candidate. This move gave the victory to Jefferson. Unfortunately for Hamilton, Jefferson was an even more devious enemy than Burr, although it was Burr who ended up killing Hamilton in a duel several years later.

Aaron Burr

In any event, it was becoming increasingly clear that the system originally defined by the Constitution was not workable. By having the Presidential and Vice Presidential elected on a party ticket, the problems would be minimized, and so there was widespread support for the Twelfth Amendment.

Actually, there is some controversy over the date this Amendment became law. On June 15, 1804, the legislature of the thirteenth state (New Hampshire) approved the amendment. But the Governor of New Hampshire vetoed this act of the legislature on June 20th, and the act failed to pass again by two-thirds vote then required by the New Hampshire state constitution.

Article 5 of the Federal Constitution specifies that amendments shall become effective “when ratified by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several States or by conventions in three-fourths thereof,” so it has been generally believed that an approval or veto by a governor is irrelevant. But if the ratification by New Hampshire was deemed countermanded, then the amendment became operative by Tennessee’s ratification on July 27, 1804.

On September 25, 1804, in a circular letter to the Governors of the several States, Secretary of State James Madison declared the amendment ratified by three-fourths of the states.

James Madison

James Madison

You can read the text of the Twelfth Amendment here.


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