At first this seemed like an easy list to write; anybody can look up what happened on this day in history without doing a lot of legwork. But as February 29 only comes around every four years, that means it's four times less likely to have had anything interesting happening on it. Thus, finding the good stuff took a bit of effort on my part. (By the way, you can thank Julius Caesar for instituting Leap Day, way back in 46 BC, though it wasn't quite held on Feb. 29.)
- First arrests in the Salem witchcraft trials, 1692. Sarah Good (a homeless woman), Sarah Osborne (an old widow), and Tituba (a slave) - outsiders all - were arrested for witchcraft in what remains, over 300 years later, one of the darkest chapters in American history. For the record, Good was hanged, Osborne died in custody, and Tituba was released. (Fun note: The place of my birth, Danvers, Massachusetts, was originally named Salem Village and was where the trials and executions took place. Wisely, later civic leaders changed the name of the town to distance themselves from its grim notoriety.)
- Panama Canal commission formed, 1904. It's hard to overstate the importance of this man-made waterway in terms of shipping and transportation, but in 1904 Theodore Roosevelt decided to carve it out for US military interests. (It was Roosevelt who spearheaded American meddling in international affairs.) On February 23, control of the Panama Canal Zone was sold to the US - a thank-you to Roosevelt for helping the Panamanians win their independence from Colombia - and on the 29th, Roosevelt appointed a seven-man committee to oversee the design. Ten years later, the canal was open for business.
- "Gone With the Wind" wins big at the Academy Awards, 1940. What was especially significant in Wind's sweep (8 Oscars) was that supporting actress Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win the award, at a time when segregation was still the law of (much of) the land.
- First Playboy Club opens, 1960. Harkening back to the Mad Men era, Hugh Hefner inaugurated his famous chain of lounges in his hometown of Chicago. With their scantily-clad "bunny" waitresses, Playboy Clubs remained popular watering holes for two decades, but business quickly dwindled in the 1980s and the last of the clubs closed in 1991. (I blame Hooters.) The franchise was revived in 2006.
- "Family Circus" comic strip debuts, 1960. There's something poetic about the schmaltzy cartoon family being introduced to America on the same day as the Playboy Club, but I should mention that initially The Family Circus was not all that out of step with Hefner's winking attitudes: the father, Steve, who didn't look a thing like his successor Bil (maybe he was Thel's first husband?), was a boozy businessman tied down by his rambunctious family. Sharply written during its early days, it would be years before creator Bil Keane transformed The Family Circus into the pious funny pages staple we know today.
- "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" named Album of the Year, 1968. The seminal 1967 Beatles LP, which would alter the course of popular music, was awarded with four Grammys on this date. Other big winners included Aretha Franklin, Glen Campbell, and Bobbie "Ode to Billie Joe" Gentry. But the night's champion was the cheesy Fifth Dimension song "Up, Up and Away", which won five Grammys.
- Gordie Howe hits his 800th goal, 1980. One of the biggest names in professional hockey (a sport I admittedly don't follow), Howe was the first to score 800 career goals in the NHL. He achieved this feat while playing for the Hartford Whalers at the age of 51(!). Howe scored just one more goal before retiring that year. Since then, only the legendary Wayne Gretzky has beaten his record.
- Gioachino Rossini born, 1792. Let's not forget the births of significant people! The Barber of Seville composer shares this rare birthday with the likes of Dinah Shore, Dennis Farina, and Tony Robbins. Interestingly, serial killers Aileen Wuornos and Richard Ramirez were also born on Leap Day.
- Davy Jones dies, 2012. I end this list on a sad note, having just learned that the UK-born Monkees singer died of a heart attack this morning at the age of 66. But what can it mean to a daydream believer?