Pity the '15s. Some years ending in "5" have pretty famous events associated with them: Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005; Saigon fell in 1975; and there was the Voting Rights Act of — wait for it — 1965. World War II ended in 1945, the Civil War in 1865. But '15s just don't have the same fame. So as 2015 begins, let's revive the prospects of the '15s by listing some events that we all know but don't associate with a '15. Here are some century-by-century options from Western history for the previous millennium:
Mary Mallon, known uncharitably to history as Typhoid Mary, is quarantined for life — the 23 years until her death. She was a carrier of typhoid fever — which she passed to some New York families she cooked for, though victims were in the tens, not the hundreds or even thousands of legend. She herself never showed symptoms. In an era before antibiotics, she had years earlier been quarantined by the state against her wishes and released with her promise that she would never cook for others again — and that, literally, she would keep her hands clean. (Unwashed hands contaminated with human waste were a prime source for transmission of the bacteria.) But a cook is what she was. When she was caught this final time — cooking under a pseudonym at a hospital — she was never freed again, a sad human rights case before the term existed.
Andrew Jackson's troops beat the British in the Battle of New Orleans. A treaty had been signed in late 1814 to end the War of 1812 — are you keeping all those years straight? — but word didn't cross the Atlantic in time to stop the battle, which was bad for the British but great for Jackson's political future.
Halley's Eclipse of 1715. Edmond Halley predicts this total solar eclipse almost exactly, so he got what we would now call exclusive naming rights. He drew the eclipse's path as it would be seen from above, a first. He also figured out how a certain comet kept appearing every 76 years or so, which led to its eponymous name.
Pocahontas, married to tobacco planter John Rolfe at Jamestown the previous year, gives birth to a son called Thomas. The next year, the family sailed for London where Pocahontas became a celebrity. But just before departing back to Virginia in 1617, she died, probably of smallpox.
Henry VIII's right-hand man, Thomas Wolsey, becomes both a cardinal in the Catholic Church and lord chancellor of England. The cardinal's downfall would come years later after Wolsey failed to secure a papal annulment for Henry so he could remarry. Wolsey was already dead when the king's second of six marriages — to Anne Boleyn — finally occurred, leading to Henry's separation of England from the Catholic Church in the Reformation.
Shakespeare's Henry V is nearly two centuries in the future, but the battle it depicts occurs this year when "we few, we happy few, we band of brothers" take the field — Agincourt — in northern France against overwhelming odds: "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more."
The Great Famine of 1315 sweeps across Europe after horrible spring weather — and climate change — destroys the food supply. A few decades later came the Black Death in the form of the bubonic plague. Quite a century.
England's King John is forced to sign the Magna Carta, which says even kings must obey the law. In limiting the power of the monarchy, the "great charter" and its reference to the "law of the land" began to open up the basic freedoms and legal protections that we enjoy today.
History is pretty thin for this year, so let's just say it's halfway between the 1066 Battle of Hastings and the beginning of construction of Notre Dame in Paris in 1163. At Hastings, William the Conqueror did just that as his Norman army stormed English shores in the last successful invasion of Britain. And they literally won the war of words, too, eventually bequeathing to us a modern English that melded the anglicized French of the conqueror ("chaise" became "chair") with the old English of the conquered ("stool" remained "stool").