What happened this month in history?

This series aims to take a look at many of the important events or memorable moments that shape our history month after month. It will be on occasions updated to include additional material, giving you the reader a rough guide to what happened this month in history!

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May 1st 1931

The Empire State Building scrapes the skies of New York City.

In dramatic fashion, President Herbert Hoover pressed a telegraph key in Washington, which turned on the Empire State Buildings lights, officially opening the tallest building in the world in New York City on May 1st 1931. The 102 storey steel skyscraper soared an incredible 380 metres above the city’s skyline. Incredibly too, it was the city’s third new skyscraper built-in a frenzy of construction during that period. An intense rivalry amongst some of the richest men in America, turned into a competition to see who could erect the world’s tallest building. 40 Wall Street held that title briefly in 1930 before it was surpassed by the Chrysler Building. However, just a year later, the Chrysler Building would itself be dwarfed by the majesty of the Empire State Building’s Art Deco structure.

It is said that its dedication in May 1931 marked a deep sense of pride amongst New Yorker’s, something that was desperately needed especially during those bleak days of the Great Depression. Interestingly, by the early 1940’s, it would stand as a symbol of American ingenuity, prestige and power.


May 3rd 1929

The Marx Brothers’ The Cocoanuts premieres in New York.

By the early 1920s, the Marx Brothers began to realize that vaudeville was dying a slow death. People had grown tired of specialty acts such as burlesque comedy and song and dance as a form of entertainment. So in 1924, the Marx’s Brothers moved their successful act to Broadway. Of course, it wasn’t long before they became the toast of New York. All that remained was now to conquer Hollywood and in 1929 they transferred their successful Broadway version of The Cocoanuts to the silver screen.

On May 3rd 1929, the filmed version of The Cocoanuts premiered in New York City at the Rialto Theatre. In short, The Cocoanuts, set in a Florida resort, introduced Groucho Marx and his amusingly eccentric brothers Chico, Harpo and Zeppo to a wider American audience. With enough hi-jinxs, unforgettable banter and charming musical numbers, The Cocoanuts became a box office hit for Paramount Pictures.

Track_of_Lusitania.jpgMay 7th 1915

The sinking of the Lusitania.

The ocean liner Lusitania was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland, by a German submarine on May 7th 1915 during the First World War, killing more than one thousand civilian passengers. Public opinion in many countries, including the United Kingdom and the United States, deplored this act of violence against a civilian vessel. The tragic sinking of the ship was an important factor in the United States entry into the war two years later in 1917.

In a master stroke of wartime propaganda, the misfortune of the sinking of the Lusitania, was used by all Allies to promote recruitment for the war effort. While English painter William Lionel Wyllie painting of casualties and survivors in the water and in lifeboats (above) is a poignant reminder of the tragic sinking of the Lusitania, one of the most striking recruitment posters from the era ‘Enlist’ by American artist Fred Spears shows a young mother and her baby drowning which truly emphasize the futility of war.


May 8th 1429

France’s warrior maiden recaptures Orleans.

The remarkable young woman, Joan of Arc, wearing a breastplate and brandishing her banner, rode at the head of the uncrowned Charles VII’s army in early May 1429 and into history. She led the French to a famous victory by routing the English at the Siege of Orleans in 1429. As the people of Orleans burst into rousing cheers, questions were immediately asked who was this young woman?

Ever since she was thirteen years old, Joan had heard divine voices directing her on a mission to ride the French of the English. For seven months Orleans had been under siege by the English and now in a little over 4 days of fighting, Joan of Arc, a simple peasant girl, had liberated the town and its inhabitants. It was truly a miracle. Their liberator had swapped a life of spinning wool besides her mother to don a suit of armour, answering a call from God at only seventeen years of age.

1280px-Sandro_Botticelli_-_La_nascita_di_Venere_-_Google_Art_Project_-_edited.jpgMay 17th 1510

Sandro Botticelli dies in his native Florence.

Botticelli is perhaps most famous for his Birth of Venus (c.1486) painting. She stands on a seashell modestly covering her herself with her hands and hair. This mythological painting and many others, especially his obsession painting images of the Madonna and Child, is why Botticelli is seen as the most prominent of all the new wave Italian artists of his day.

Botticelli was born in 1445 the son of a leather worker and his talents as an artist were spotted at an early age. He was in turn taught by master painter Fra Filippo Lippi and sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio.

In his 40’s, Botticelli was at the height of his career, when the downfall of his Medici patrons brought personal disaster, in the shape of the Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola, who advocated for Christian renewal and preached that art was immoral. If that wasn’t enough, Botticelli (and Leonardo Da Vinci) was accused of sodomy by an anonymous individual. Eventually, Botticelli was acquitted, but the ordeal was enough for Botticelli to fall out of fashion as a painter for hire. As a result, he largely abandoned his painting and lived out the rest of his life in poverty until his death on May 17th 1510. Interestingly, it was not until the nineteenth century in Britain, that Botticelli’s brilliance was rediscovered.

May 26th 1940

Makeshift navy begins evacuation of British and allied forces from Dunkirk.

The Blitzkrieg (lightning war) of the German war machine had caught the allied forces by surprise in May 1940. In a rapid push through the Ardennes, the Germans isolated the British, French and Belgium forces, back into a small pocket around the port of Dunkirk. Fearing imminent danger of being swept up and losing everything, a plan was devised to fight a rearguard battle to defend the beaches, while a makeshift navy hurriedly evacuated allied forces to safety across the English Channel.

Helped by the British Royal Air Force, who provided air cover, the besieged exhausted forces of the allies, boarded the assembled makeshift flotilla of destroyers, cargo ships, ferries and fishing boats beginning 26th May. Over 340,000 British troops were evacuated from Dunkirk to Britain by the 4th June, including an estimated 120,000 French troops.

The British in their endeavour ‘to live to fight another day’ left behind all their equipment. Many thousands more Frenchmen, who had protected the evacuation in their rearguard action against the Germans, were unable to embark the transports. They were sadly taken prisoner.

Photo Credits: All images used are in the public domain except the movie still image of the film The Cocoanuts (1929) which is courtesy of Paramount Pictures. I make use of this image under the rational of fair use to highlight an exceptionally important film. It also enables me to visually identify the film, contributing to the readers understanding of the article, which could not practically be communicated by words alone. The image of New York in the 1930’s is licensed and used under the Getty Images embedding service.