I sat there cycling through television channels aimlessly the other day like I do when I’m bored. I came across a famous a scene from one of the Rocky movies where the hero Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) started running up the steps in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (map). You know the scene I’m talking about.
He’s climbing the steps triumphantly to a soundtrack of "Gonna Fly Now" and you know someone’s about to get a pounding. I didn’t stick around long enough to figure out which movie it was — apparently Stallone recreated the scene in just about every Rocky movie — although it did get me thinking. Movie locations aside(¹), were there any genuine historical events that happened on steps or stairs?
On the Steps of the Lincoln Memorial
The occurrence that came to mind immediately was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic "I Have a Dream" speech given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (map) in 1963. The site selected by Dr. King was highly symbolic, as it was the 100th anniversary year of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation that trumpeted freedom for slaves living within Confederate states then in rebellion. He drew obvious parallels between the Lincoln of old and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, recognizing Lincoln’s achievements while signaling the struggle continued.
Those same steps featured prominently in another Civil Rights milestone a generation earlier when Marian Anderson sang from that spot in 1939. She’d already earned fame as a classical vocalist, a contralto. She performed on those steps because she’d been denied a performance hall in the city.
Marian Anderson was an international superstar in the 1930s—a singer possessed of what Arturo Toscanini called "a voice such as one hears once in a hundred years." But if race had been no impediment to her career abroad, there were still places in the United States where a black woman was simply not welcome, no matter how famous. What surprised Anderson and many other Americans was to discover in 1939 that one such place was a venue called Constitution Hall, owned and operated by the Daughters of the American Revolution in the capital of a nation "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
The DAR refused to relent in spite of withering criticism. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the organization, writing "You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization failed."
Fifty thousand people showed up to hear Marian Anderson perform on the Lincoln Memorial steps; many times more than would have heard her at the indoor venue. The Daughters of the American Revolution deeply regretted it actions later and invited Marian Anderson to perform at Constitution Hall several times beginning in 1943.
Many Mesoamerican societies practiced human sacrifice in the centuries preceding European contact. The Aztec of central México took the practice to an entirely new level. There were many varieties of ritual and sacrifice although it was human sacrifices particularly that attracted the most attention of armchair historians. Bloodletting reached its pinnacle at Templo Mayor, the Great Temple at Tenochtitlan, now in modern day Mexico City (map).
At the climax of the ceremony, prisoners of war were taken to the top of the steep steps of the pyramid leading to two shrines. Held down, the victims’ abdomens were sliced open by high priests wielding ceremonial knives, and their hearts – still beating – were raised to the spirits above and the crowd in the sacred precinct below. The lifeless bodies of those sacrificed were then kicked down the stairs, and as one followed another, these flowed with blood, bright red against the white of the temple walls. Over the four days of the opening ceremony, some 4,000 prisoners were killed to satisfy the Aztec gods.
That was hardly the only time in history where violence happened on stairways.
The Roman leader Julius Caesar met his demise on a set of steps at the Theatre of Pompey in Rome in 44 BCE, now at the Largo di Torre Argentina (map).
Caesar attempted to get away, but, blinded by blood, he tripped and fell; the men continued stabbing him as he lay defenseless on the lower steps of the portico. According to Eutropius, around 60 or more men participated in the assassination. Caesar was stabbed 23 times.
This was considered a triggering event. Afterwards the Roman Republic (with consuls elected by citizens) that had lasted for five hundred years transitioned into the Roman Empire (led by emperors).
Other noteworthy events
On the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building (map): Congressman William Taulbee was shot to death in 1890; and Congressman John Jenrette and his wife Rita consummated an adult relationship in the early 1980’s (although she now denies it), a sideshow to his bribery convictions.(²)
On the steps of the Versace Mansion in Miami Beach(map): A serial killer murdered famed fashion designer Gianni Versace on the steps of his South Beach mansion in 1997.
On the steps of the Avon Theater in Stratford, Ontario (map): Last prize goes to a set of stairs in Canada where Justin Bieber often sat busking for tips before he became famous.
I could probably find some more examples although that Justin Bieber thing discouraged me. I can hardly wait for all of the Bieber-related Google Ads that will now start popping onto my screen for the next month.
It struck me that Cheyenne (the capital city of the U.S. state of Wyoming) and Cayenne (the capital city of the French overseas department of Guyane française) sounded remarkably similar in name. Yet, as locations go they couldn’t have been much more dissimilar even though they were separated by only a couple of letters and a slight voice inflection.
The Old West came to mind when I thought of Cheyenne.
Cheyenne’s name derived from Native Americans of Algonquian origin that migrated across the Great Plains in the 19th Century. Today they are located in Montana (Northern Cheyenne Nation) and Oklahoma (Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes). The etymology wasn’t entirely clear. Many believed that the name came from a Dakota Sioux phrase for the Cheyenne that was adopted by incoming settlers of European descent. It also seemed like a fine name for a town when those same settlers began rolling into Wyoming in force and platted a village in 1867.
The city of Cheyenne grew and prospered enough to become the capital of Wyoming in 1890 at statehood. Nonetheless, Wyoming remained largely rural, with open countryside dotted by cattle ranches, cowboys and romantic notions along those lines.
Cayenne, on the other hand, settled as it was on coastal South America, absorbed a decidedly equatorial flavor like the fiery red hot pepper named for it.
Etymologically, Cayenne derived from Guyana, a name for the larger geographic region on the northeastern edge of the continent. In turn, Guyana likely came from an indigenous term for "land of many waters." Interestingly both Cheyenne and Cayenne had their basis in indigenous New World languages although their similarity would have to be coincidental since their language families were completely different.
I turned it into a little game. I began a brief quest to see if I could discover any other geographic designations substantially similar in pattern or pronunciation while remarkably distinct in just about every other respect. I found another good one. How about Dallas, Texas and Đà Lạt, Vietnam? Those two places would seem to exhibit tremendous differences.
I returned to the cattle and cowboy theme for Dallas. Then maybe added a few oil wells, made the cattle a longhorn, threw in a dash of J.R. Ewing, and maybe some barbeque sauce along with a few more selected cultural stereotypes. Compare that with…
… Asian culture, Buddhist temples and rice paddies. Thus, Đà Lạt was about as far away from Dallas in every manner imaginable except alphabetically so that should be a pretty high score. If I was keeping score.
That’s how the game was played.
Some Other Examples
I spent more time than I’d care to admit trying to come up with other meaningful pairs. Some were vaguely clever and some were completely absurd.
Giza vs. Pisa: Considerably different although they both featured iconic structures; pyramids in the first instance and a leaning tower in the latter.
New York vs. Newark: Residents of those respective locales would likely argue that they shouldn’t be confused, however their differences didn’t approach anything like North America vs. Asia.
Santiago vs. San Diego: Here my creativity began to wane. The two didn’t sound all that much alike.
Paris vs. Ferris: Well, that was definitely a stretch. Ferris was a town in Texas with 2,500 residents. I hardly considered that a household name so this one began to look like desperation on my part. It got worse.
Manila vs. Vanilla. Now I’m joking of course although there actually was a Vanilla in Pennsylvania according to GNIS (at 39.7781488°, -77.8505523°). I included this one only because I thought Manila folders were called Vanilla folders when I was a kid. In my defense those folders did seem to have the correct approximate color, kind of a milky tan/yellow like the ice cream. It took me years to figure out that I was butchering the name.
That was fun although I ran out of ideas. This is where the Twelve Mile Circle audience can get involved. Please feel free to be creative and suggest better alternatives. I wonder if there are any triple examples?
Two towns sharing the exact same name sat not too far from each other in the Carolinas. Colonial settlers arrived on various points along that swath of coastline at around the same time, increasing the odds of a relationship between identical names. That was the case albeit with a twist.
Beaufort, North Carolina came first, founded in 1709. The town of the same name in South Carolina arrived a couple of years later, 1711. Both Carolinas also have counties named Beaufort. The South Carolina town is the seat of government for Beaufort County. North Carolina was a bit more complicated. The town of Beaufort was the seat of government for Carteret County. Beaufort County was a completely separate place and representative of a peculiar naming trend in North Carolina.
They all commemorated the same man, Henry Somerset, 2nd Duke of Beaufort (1684-1714), a minor nobleman. He wasn’t responsible for any noteworthy feats so his only significant New World namesakes happened to be a couple of coastal towns and a couple of counties.
He was Captain of the Gentlemen Pensioners (1712–1714), Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire (1710–1714), and Lord Lieutenant of Gloucestershire (1712–1714). Via his mother’s second marriage to John Grenville, 1st Baron Granville of Potheridge, Henry Somerset inherited this share of Carolina upon Grenville’s death in 1701. Upon the death of William Craven, 2nd Baron Craven on October 9, 1711, Henry Somerset, 2nd Duke of Beaufort was named the eighth Palatine of Caroline. Dying at the age of thirty, on 24 May 1714… His share of Carolina was left in a trust to his two living minor sons…
Here was the twist: In spite of being named for the exact same person, the location in North Carolina was pronounced BOW-fert and the one in South Carolina was pronounced BYOU-fert. I think the Duke himself would have pronounced it something closer to the North Carolina interpretation although I’ll leave that to 12MC’s UK audience to confirm.
Charles II created the Duke of Beaufort as a Peerage of England in 1682. The name derived originally from a castle in Montmorency-Beaufort (map), France (apparently a beautiful fortress if one translates it from French to English literally), "the only current dukedom to take its name from a place outside the British Isles… Beaufort Castle was a possession of John of Gaunt, and the surname Beaufort was given to Gaunt’s four legitimized children by his mistress and third wife, Katherine Swynford."
The International Association of Beauforts was established in 1995 when Beaufort-en-Vallee, France hosted the first reunion of Beauforts. The Beaufort, North Carolina organization seeks to promote international cooperation, understanding and development through a variety of dynamic exchanges with cities and towns with whom Beaufort maintains active sister city partnerships.
… the biggest day in the British sporting year. It is an event that brings in a crowd of 200,000 annually — a quarter of a million and more on a nice day. This makes it the third-biggest annual event in the world, after the Indianapolis 500 and the Indianapolis 500 practice day. It is the third day of the Badminton Horse Trials, when the cross-country is held.
With a peculiar name like Badminton, the estate seemed to beg for a connection to the sport of the same name featuring small racquets, net and shuttlecock.
It did connect. At the very least, the sport took its name from the estate. Badminton House claimed the sport originated there in 1863. Other sources claimed the sport originated elsewhere before arriving at Badminton House:
Versions of the game had been played for centuries by children in the Far East, and were adapted by British Army officers stationed in Pune (or Poona), India in the 1860s. They added a net and the game became a competitive sport called "poona", with documented rules in 1867. In 1873 the sport made its way back to England and gained its current title after guests at a Badminton House lawn party held by the Duke of Beaufort introduced it to their friends as "the Badminton game".
The final mystery entailed the origin of the word Badminton. The Online Etymology Dictionary traced it to "Old English Badimyncgtun (972), ‘estate of (a man called) Baduhelm.’."
Beaufort, North and South Carolina, made the right call. It was much easier to deal with Beaufort than Badimyncgtun. Imagine the mispronunciations with the latter alternative.