The Cruelest Month
Eons ago, when I was in high school, we were invited—nay, commanded—to learn by heart the prologue to Geoffrey Chaucher’s Canterbury Tales. To this day, I can intone, “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote/ The droghte of March hath perced to the roote/ And bathed every veyne in switch licour/ Of which vertu engendred is the flour …”
And that was the way I saw April for most of my life, sweet showers that engendered flowers. It was not until much later that I learned that T.S. Eliot had dubbed it “the cruelest month.” How, I wondered, could a month with such promise be termed “cruel.”
I don’t think that Eliot was thinking historically when he said that but history certainly bears him out. April bids fair to be the most catastrophic of months, packed with horrific events that changed the course of the world’s story.
We seem to be particularly belligerent in April. The “shot heard ’round the world” was fired during the Battle of Lexington and Concord on April 19th, 1775, effectively beginning the eight-year-long American Revolution. Eighty-six years later, on April 9th, 1861, Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, ushering in four years of civil war that killed some 620,000 Americans. April tried to make amends for the grief and misery when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox on April 9th, 1865 but the good mood was quickly dashed when America’s greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, was assassinated on April 14th. And then, on April 27th, 1865, 2,000 returning Union prisoners of war were killed in the worst steamship disaster in U.S. history when the Sultana exploded and sank.
Thirty-three years farther on, America was itching for a fight (particularly that belligerent politician-on-the-make, Theodore Roosevelt) and propagandized its way into the Spanish-American War on April 24, 1898, a mere blip in the nation’s military history. But fast forward another 19 years to April 6th, 1917 and the United States was ready for a much bigger show, throwing its hat into the bloody ring of World War 1, killing another 117,000 American soldiers in just one year (not too bad when you consider the estimated 15 to 22 million European military deaths).
While not directly related to the wars, April saw the births of two of the world’s worst dictators: Adolf Hitler on April 20nd, 1889, architect of World War II and the cause of 50 million deaths, and Vladimir Lenin, April 22nd, 1870, leader of the Russian Revolution. By the time of his death, Lenin is estimated to have killed three million his people.
Again, April tried to add a little luster to its tarnished reputation by sneaking the death of Hitler into its annals on April 30th, 1945 but that month had already claimed America’s longest-serving president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt on April 12th, the man who had seen the nation through the Great Depression and World War II.
Even when we are not declaring war or killing presidents, April is a bloody month. Another great American died April 4th, 1968 when seminal Civil Rights leader, the Reverend Martin Luther King, was shot and killed in Memphis, Tenessee. In 1993, the Waco, Texas, siege ended on April 19th when members of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms attempted to raid the heavily-armed members in the Branch Davidian compound resulting in the deaths of 76 people.
Two years later, on April 19th, 1995, Timothy McVeigh, (who happened to have been born on April 23rd, 1968) attempted to revenge the Waco deaths by carrying out a terror attack on the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. Four years later, on April 20th, 1999, two students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, shot and killed 13 people and wounded 21 others, perhaps inspiring the Virginia Tech shooting of April 16th, 2007, which left 32 dead and 17 wounded.
Terrorism rears its ugly head regularly in April. On April 18th, 1983, a member of the Islamic Jihad Organization drove a car bomb up to the U.S. embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people, including 17 Americans. And on April 15th, 2013, two brothers planted bombs along the Boston Marathon route, killing three and injuring more than 250.
Some of April’s worst moments have only inadvertently been caused by man. On April 15th, 1989, enthusiastic fans crowded the standing-only pen at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, England, crushing 96 people to death and injuring 766. Louisiana’s Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig was destroyed by an explosion and subsequent fire April 20th, 2010, killing eleven workers and injuring 17 others. And on April 17th, 2013, a fire broke out at a fertilizer storage and distribution facility in West, Texas. A massive ammonium nitrate explosion killed 15 people, injured 160 and destroyed or damaged more than 150 buildings.
That fire was intentionally set but a careless workman set off one of the most heart-rending April events when, on April 15th, 2019, a fire burst forth in the 800-year-old Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
Not all of April’s dastardly deeds are the fault of man. Nature sometimes deals the blow. On April 18th, 1906, the San Francisco Earthquake left 80 percent of the city in ruins, up to 3,000 dead and 300,000 homeless. Only six years later, on April 15th, 1912, the luxury liner Titanic sank in the icy North Atlantic, taking 1,500 souls to their reward.
Are you depressed (or scared) yet? History suggests it’s a good idea to be careful in this “cruelest” of months but such is the power of spring that it is hard not to succumb to its charms, the pleasure of a warming sun, greening grass and the first blush of emerging flowers. So, as we come out of the cocoon of Covid and winter, embrace the month, enjoy its pleasures but be sure to watch your back.