On December 31, 1775, Patriot forces under Colonel Benedict Arnold and General Richard Montgomery attempt to capture the city of Quebec under cover of darkness and snowfall. They fail, and the effort costs Montgomery his life.
On December 2, Arnold, Montgomery and their troops met on the outskirts of Quebec and demanded the surrender of the city. Governor Sir Guy Carleton rejected their demand, and on December 8 the Patriots commenced a bombardment of Quebec, which was met by a counter-battery by the British defenders that disabled several of the Patriots’ guns. Facing the year-end expiration of their troops’ enlistment, the Patriot forces advanced on the city under the cover of a blizzard at approximately 4 a.m. on December 31. The British defenders were ready, however, and when Montgomery’s forces came within 50 yards of the fortified city, the British opened fire with a barrage of artillery and musket fire. Montgomery was killed in the first assault, and after several more attempts at penetrating Quebec’s defenses, his men were forced to retreat.
Meanwhile, Arnold’s division suffered a similar fate during their attack on the northern wall of the city. A two-gun battery opened fire on the advancing Americans, killing a number of troops and wounding Benedict Arnold in the leg. Patriot Daniel Morgan assumed command and made progress against the defenders, but halted at the second wall of fortifications to wait for reinforcements. By the time the rest of Arnold’s army finally arrived, the British had reorganized, forcing the Patriots to call of their attack. Of the 900 Americans who participated in the siege, 60 were killed or wounded and more than 400 were captured.
The remaining Patriot forces then retreated from Canada. Benedict Arnold remained in Canadian territory until the last of his soldiers had crossed the St. Lawrence River to safety. With the pursuing British forces almost in firing range, Arnold checked one last time to make sure all his men had escaped, then shot his horse and fled down the St. Lawrence in a canoe.
Less than five years later, Benedict Arnold, then commander of West Point, famously turned traitor when he agreed to surrender the important Hudson River fort to the British for a bribe of £20,000. The plot was uncovered after British spy John Andre was captured with incriminating papers, forcing Arnold to flee to British protection and join in their fight against the country that he had once so valiantly served.
Bernhard Goetz, the white man dubbed the “subway vigilante” after he shot four young Black men on a New York City subway train, turns himself in at a police station in Concord, New Hampshire. Goetz claimed that the men, all of whom had criminal records, were trying to rob him and that he had acted in self-defense. At the time, New York was in the midst of a crime wave and Goetz was viewed by some people as a hero, an ordinary citizen fighting back against his attackers.
The shooting occurred on the afternoon of December 22, 1984, when Goetz (1947- ), a Queens, New York, native who owned an electronics business, boarded a Manhattan subway. Soon after, he pulled out a gun and shot the men, whom he claimed were attempting to rob him. Goetz then fled the scene and drove to Vermont, where he buried the gun. The men all survived the shooting, although one was seriously injured. On December 31, Goetz turned himself in to New Hampshire police.
In 1987, a Manhattan jury acquitted Goetz of criminal assault and attempted murder. However, he was convicted on weapons charges for carrying a gun without a license and spent eight months in jail.
Darrell Cabey, who was left paralyzed and brain damaged by the shooting, filed a lawsuit against Goetz and in April 1996 a Bronx jury awarded him $43 million. Goetz filed for bankruptcy soon afterward. Before and during the trial, Goetz, who expressed no remorse for his actions, made inflammatory statements, saying he had done a public service by shooting the men and society would be better off if their mothers had aborted them.
In the decades following the shooting, Goetz, who remains a controversial figure, has been a candidate for mayor of New York and an advocate for vegetarianism.
Roberto Clemente, future Hall of Fame baseball player, is killed along with four others when the cargo plane in which he is traveling crashes off the coast of Puerto Rico. Clemente was on his way to deliver relief supplies to Nicaragua following a devastating earthquake there a week earlier.
At the end of September, Clemente had gotten his 3,000th hit in the final game of the season for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was a hero in his native Puerto Rico, where he spent much of the off-season doing charity work. Some of his charitable work had taken him to Nicaragua, so Clemente was particularly distressed when he learned that very little aid was getting to victims of a devastating December 23 earthquake near Managua.
Clemente decided to collect supplies on his own and personally deliver them. The plan went awry when Clemente chose for the mission a plane owned by Arthur Rivera. Rivera had bought an old DC-7 propeller plane to go along with a DC-3 he operated to haul cargo in the Caribbean. Apparently, the plane was in such bad shape that others wondered why Rivera had bothered to purchase it. In fact, the DC-7 had to be ferried from Miami to Puerto Rico.
Rivera painted the exterior but did not do any significant work to the engine. This came as no surprise to safety crews at the airports out of which Rivera worked: He had been repeatedly cited for safety violations in previous years. On December 2, Rivera took the DC-7 out to test the engine but forgot to close the hydraulic pump and ended up putting the plane into a drainage ditch. This bent two of the propeller blades and damaged the landing gear. Only some of these damages were fixed prior to the December 31 flight.
On the previous day, Clemente was at San Juan International Airport’s cargo area helping to load relief supplies when he discovered there were far more than could be carried in the plane he had available. Rivera approached Clemente and offered to fly the supplies to Nicaragua for $4,000, not telling Clemente he had no crew for the plane. Clemente agreed and Rivera scrambled to find a pilot. He located Jerry Hill, who had a checkered record, and began to load the plane. It was later determined that Rivera loaded the plane over its maximum capacity. In fact, Clemente himself was warned by someone at the airport that the plane looked dangerously overloaded when he was about to board.
The plane took off at 9 p.m. and the sounds of engine failure were heard as it went down the runway. It reached an altitude of only 200 feet before exploding and plunging into the ocean. Rescue workers were sent out immediately, but the task was next to impossible in the darkness. The bodies were never found. The news hit Puerto Rico hard–one friend of Clemente described it as the “night that happiness died.”
A subsequent investigation into the crash revealed that the plane never should have been put in the air and that the pilot had erred by over-boosting the engines.
In 1973, Clemente was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 2002, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Former teen idol Rick Nelson dies in plane crash in De Kalb, Texas, on December 31, 1985.
When the teenage Ricky Nelson launched his pop career in 1957 by picking up a guitar and singing at the end of an episode of The Adventures of Ozzie And Harriet, he established a template for pop-music stardom that inspired hundreds of imitators in the decades that followed. But what Ricky Nelson had that so many other actors who failed as pop stars didn’t was undeniable musical talent. Having the full weight of the American Broadcasting Corporation behind him at the start of his career certainly guaranteed that the younger son of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson would sell a few records, but it didn’t guarantee that he wouldn’t stink. And Ricky Nelson didn’t stink—not by a long shot.
Beginning with his double-sided hit debut single, “I’m Walkin” b/w “A Teenager’s Romance” (1957), Nelson reeled off a string of 30 rockabilly-tinged top 40 hits in the next five years—more than any other artist in the same period save for Elvis Presley and Pat Boone. Like Elvis himself, Nelson saw his commercial appeal take a major hit with the arrival of the Beatles in 1964. Nelson would remain musically relevant over the next decade, though, even earning credit for helping inspire the California sound of artists like Linda Ronstadt and The Eagles with his country-inspired late 1960s work. But after a brief revival in the early 1970s fueled by the #6 pop hit “Garden Party” (1972), Nelson’s career as a recording artist essentially ended.
Nelson continued to tour frequently, however, and it was on one such tour that he boarded a chartered DC-3 in Guntersville, Alabama, bound for a New Year’s Eve appearance in Dallas. Shortly before reaching Dallas, however, the cabin of Nelson’s plane apparently filled with smoke due to a fire of undetermined origin. While the two pilots of the plane would survive their attempted emergency landing in a field outside De Kalb, Texas, all seven passengers on board were killed, including the first pop star to cross over from the Nielsen charts to the Billboard chats, Rick Nelson.
In 1987, Rick Nelson was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—an honor no other former child actor has yet achieved.
On December 31, 1961, President John F. Kennedy issued a statement extending his “sincere wishes” and those of the American people to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and the people of the Soviet Union for a peaceful and prosperous New Year. It was the height of the Cold War and the United States and Soviet Union were locked in a nuclear arms race.
Citing 1961 as a “troubled one” between the two superpowers, Kennedy said that it was his “earnest hope” that 1962 would see improved relations between the two countries. Kennedy then told Khrushchev he believed the responsibility to achieve world peace rested on the two men’s shoulders.
Kennedy’s message came in response to a December 29 message from Khrushchev that carried his hope that 1962 would be a “threshold” year for taking “efficient steps in the cause of liquidation of centers of military danger.” Khrushchev was likely referring to tensions over the ongoing division of the city of Berlin into democratic and communist sectors. In August 1961, it was Khrushchev’s government that approved East Germany’s decision to construct a physical barrier, the Berlin Wall, between the two sectors to stop communist-ruled East Germans from defecting to the West.
Although Kennedy and Khrushchev both pledged cooperation as 1961 came to a close, the two went on to play a dangerous game of chicken over Soviet missile sites in Cuba in October 1962, leading the world to the very brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis.