On the afternoon of September 22, 1906, Atlanta papers report four separate assaults on white women by Black men, none of which is every substantiated by hard evidence. Inflamed by these fabrications, and resentful of the city’s growing African American population, white Atlantans riot. Over the next few days, the race riot will claim the lives of at least 12 Black Atlantans—the total may be more than twice as high—and devastate the city’s Black community.
The race riot took place against the backdrop of a heated gubernatorial primary. Atlanta’s population had nearly doubled over the last three decades, and its Black population had risen from 9,000 in 1880 to 35,000 by 19000. During Reconstruction, before Jim Crow laws became ubiquitous, African Americans competed with whites for jobs, held political office and established a thriving salon society. In fact, it was progress like this that led many whites to embrace Jim Crow, and the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906 was a direct result of this phenomenon. In the 1906 Democratic gubernatorial primary, one candidate, Hoke Smith, ran on a platform of explicitly disenfranchising the city’s African American population, arguing that giving them the right to vote had led them to pursue social and economic opportunities that should only be available to whites. His opponent, Clark Howell, was not anti-segregation or pro-civil rights—he simply maintained that the poll tax was already doing enough to prevent Black participation in government. Smith was the former publisher of the Atlanta Journal while Howell was the editor of the Atlanta Constitution, and it was no coincidence that city’s papers ran a slew of inflammatory articles about African American men committing crimes as the primary election neared.
The tension boiled over on September 22, after local papers ran with a story about a Black man assaulting a white woman. A white mob formed downtown and headed for Decatur Street and the surrounding district of Black businesses and salons. There, they looted Black-owned businesses, swarmed streetcars and attacked passengers, and assaulted hundreds, killing at least a dozen African Americans. The militia arrived around midnight, but it was only when heavy rain started a few hours later that the mob finally dispersed. Over the next few days, Black and white vigilante groups roamed the area. While law enforcement stood by and watched—and by some accounts, helped—as armed white men moved into Black neighborhoods, they cracked down on a group of Black men who had stockpiled weapons in Brownsville on September 24, arresting 250 men and confiscating the guns.
Although leaders of both races made attempts at reconciliation in the wake of the riot, many viewed it as proof that white Americans would sooner revoke their Black neighbors’ right to vote, destroy their economic and social institutions and murder them in the streets than allow them an equal place in society. The grief, exhaustion and rage felt by the Black community in the wake of the massacre was captured by W.E.B. Du Bois in his poem “A Litany of Atlanta,” published later that year.
Richard Ramirez, the notorious “Night Stalker,” is captured and nearly killed by a mob in East Los Angeles, California, after being recognized from a photograph shown both on television and in newspapers. Recently identified as the serial killer, Ramirez was pulled from the enraged mob by police officers.
During the summer of 1985, the city of Los Angeles was panic-stricken by a killer who crept into his victims’ homes at night. The Night Stalker, as the press dubbed the murderer, first turned his attention on the men in the house, usually shot any men in the house with a .22 caliber handgun before raping, stabbing, and mutilating his female victims. He cut out one of his victim’s eyes, and sometimes carved satanic pentagrams on the bodies before he left.
By August, the Night Stalker has murdered at least a dozen people, and law enforcement officials were desperate to stop him. One witness, who managed to note the license plate of the car in which Ramirez fled, led police to a single, partial fingerprint left in the vehicle.
Apparently, the task force looking for the Night Stalker had already received information that someone named Ramirez was involved, so only the records for men with that name were checked against the fingerprint. Although the Los Angeles Police Department’s new multimillion-dollar computer database of fingerprints only contained the records of criminals born after January 1960, Richard Ramirez, who had a record of petty crimes, had been born in February 1960.
When Ramirez was identified as the chief suspect, authorities debated whether to release his name and picture to the public, fearing that it might give him the chance to escape. Nonetheless, they decided to take the risk, and Ramirez, who was actually traveling back to Los Angeles at the time, arrived to find his face and name on the front of every newspaper.
Ramirez turned his trial into a circus by drawing pentagrams on his palms and making devil’s horns with his fingers. When he was convicted, he shouted at the jury, “You make me sick. I will be avenged. Lucifer dwells within all of us.” After the judge imposed a death sentence, Ramirez said, “Big deal. Death always went with the territory. See you in Disneyland.” Ramirez married a female admirer and penpal while incarcerated at California’s San Quentin Prison in 1996. In 2006, his first appeals were denied and he died in prison on June 7, 2013.
An earthquake near Charleston, South Carolina, on August 31, 1886 leaves more than 100 people dead and hundreds of buildings destroyed. This was the largest recorded earthquake in the history of the southeastern United States.
The earthquake was preceded by foreshocks felt in Summerville, South Carolina, on August 27 and 28 but, still, no one was prepared for the strength of the August 31 quake. At 9:51 p.m., the rumbling began, and it was felt as far away as Boston, Chicago and Cuba. There was damage to buildings as far away as Ohio and Alabama. It was Charleston, South Carolina, though, that took the biggest hit from the quake, which is thought to have had a magnitude of about 7.6. Almost all of the buildings in town were seriously damaged. It is estimated that 14,000 chimneys fell from the earthquake. It caused multiple fires and water lines and wells were ruptured. The total damage was in excess of $5.5 million (about $112 million in today’s money).
While there were no apparent surface cracks as a result of this tremor, railroad tracks were bent in all directions in some locations. Acres of land were liquefied. This quake remained a mystery for many years since there were no known underground faults for 60 miles in any direction. However, better science and detection methods have recently uncovered a concealed fault along the coastal plains of Virginia and the Carolinas. Still, a quake of this magnitude remains highly unlikely in this location.
READ MORE: The Deadliest Natural Disasters in US History
Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) receives its world premiere in Berlin on August 31, 1928.
“I think I’ve written a good piece and that several numbers in it, at least musically, have the best prospects for becoming popular very quickly.” This was the assessment offered by the German composer Kurt Weill in a letter to his publisher 10 days before the premiere of his latest work. Created in partnership with the revolutionary dramatist Bertolt Brecht, that work would, in fact, prove to be the most significant and successful of Weill’s career and one of the most important works in the history of musical theater: Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera). In addition to running for 400-plus performances in its original German production, Brecht and Weill’s masterpiece would go on to be translated into 18 languages and receive more than 10,000 performances internationally.
The premiere of The Threepenny Opera on this day in 1928 came almost exactly 200 years after the premiere of the work on which it was based: John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. In Gay’s satirical original, the thieves, pickpockets and prostitutes of London’s Newgate Prison competed for power and position in the accents and manners of the English upper classes. It was Bertolt Brecht’s idea to adapt The Beggar’s Opera into a new work that would serve as a sharp political critique of capitalism and as a showcase for his avant-garde approach to theater. Much of The Threepenny Opera‘s historical reputation rests on Brecht’s experimental dramaturgical techniques—such as breaking “the fourth wall” between audience and performers—but the music of Kurt Weill was just as important in turning it into a triumph.
The drama critic for The New York Times said of Weill in 1941, “He is not a song writer but a composer of organic music that can bind the separate elements of a production and turn the underlying motive into song.” While this comment was intended as praise of Weill, who had by then fled his native Germany for the United States, it nevertheless sold Weill’s songwriting somewhat short. By 1959, Weill’s opening song from The Threepenny Opera, “The Ballad of Mackie Messer” would be one of the biggest pop hits of all time for Bobby Darin in a jazzy variation inspired by Louis Armstrong and renamed “Mack The Knife.”
On August 31, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Neutrality Act, or Senate Joint Resolution No. 173, which he calls an “expression of the desire…to avoid any action which might involve [the U.S.] in war.” The signing came at a time when newly installed fascist governments in Europe were beginning to beat the drums of war.
In a public statement that day, Roosevelt said that the new law would require American vessels to obtain a license to carry arms, would restrict Americans from sailing on ships from hostile nations and would impose an embargo on the sale of arms to “belligerent” nations. Most observers understood “belligerent” to imply Germany under its new leader, Adolf Hitler, and Italy under Benito Mussolini. It also provided the strongest language yet warning other countries that the U.S. would increase its patrol of foreign submarines lurking in American waters. This was seen as a response to Hitler’s March 1935 announcement that Germany would no longer honor the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which prohibited Germany from rebuilding her military; he had then immediately stepped up the country’s submarine production.
Although the legislation stated that the U.S. intended to stay out of foreign wars, Roosevelt insisted that the country could not foresee future situations in which the U.S. might have to amend its neutral stance. Noting that “history is filled with unforeseeable situations that call for some flexibility of action,” Roosevelt contended that the law would not prevent the U.S. from cooperating with other “similarly minded Governments to promote peace.” In other words, he left plenty of room for America to change its mind regarding the sale of arms to friendly countries and gave it the right to exercise options to protect her own safety. This came to pass in March 1941, when the passing of the Lend-Lease Act increased America’s military exports to the British in order to help them fight off Hitler’s advance toward England.