- - Monday, March 14, 2016


So you don’t believe that the Ides of March — the 15th of the month — is a bit spooky. Julius Caesar, who was assassinated on March 15, 44 B.C. was right, you say, in paying no heed to the soothsayer who forewarned, “Beware the Ides of March.” So you want to chalk it up to Caesar’s salad days?

OK, but historians know better. Quite frankly, holding all these presidential primaries this year on March 15 is worrisome.

March 15 always has been a bummer of a day. In 493, for example, Odoacer the Barbarian, king of Italy, was slain by Theodoric the Osgoth on March 15. In England on March 15, 1660, the “Long Parliament” was cut short. The same fate befell a conspiracy of officers in the American Revolution on March 15, 1783, thanks to Gen. George Washington’s rebuke. And who can forget that on March 15, 1917, Czar Nicholas II abdicated the Russian throne, leading to the Bolshevik takeover of power?

The Ides of March have been tough on labor. Pennsylvania puddlers piddled away their time on strike on that day in 1881. In 1887 and again the following year, March 15 heralded the beginning of a strike by engineers on the Atcheson, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. The day in 1895 saw the Illinois Supreme Court declaring the eight-hour day unconstitutional.

And mid-March matters got worse for labor in the 20th century. Cotton workers at Ware Shoals, S.C. were idled on the Ides in 1929, and in Paint Creek Junction, W.Va., 49 workers underwent a trial under martial law on March 15, 1913, the charges stemming from a militant participation in a coal strike.

Other people have gotten militant on March 15 and usually without success. As the Mexican War was brewing in 1846, U.S. emissary John Slidell testily requested an audience with the Mexican government. He was refused on March 15. On the same day in 1890, President Benjamin Harrison waged verbal war with the British over poaching in the Bering Sea. Then there was Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman who on March 15, 1865, started his northward trek from Fayetteville, N.C. And in 1916 on the Ides, another general, John Pershing, moved 10,000 troops into Mexico. It was supposed to be a limited invasion, but Pershing and his men stayed 10 months.

Even seemingly good things that happen on March 15 have a tendency to go sour. For example, in 1869 on the Ides a joint resolution introduced in Congress proposing a constitutional amendment granting women suffrage got nowhere. On March 15, 1871, Philadelphia citizens were beside themselves with joy. They were getting a fire department. Then they read the fine print: It was a paid fire department, not the voluntary type. New Yorkers were also delighted on March 15, 1897, that there was to be a big fly casting tournament in their city. Again, the fine print: it was of all places indoors — at Madison Square Garden.

No story was more tragic than that of Alexander Graham Bell, who on March 15, 1877, assembled a group of scientists to demonstrate his new invention, the telephone. They overheard a conversation between Salem, Mass., and Boston. But some in the crowd seemed unimpressed because Salem was the scene of the great witchcraft frenzy in 1692. In other words, when Salem people talked on the Ides of March, nobody listened.

It was Congress, however, that left taxpayers with a bad taste of the Ides for years when it tinkered with the income tax law. The original date for filing in 1913, the first year under the 16th, or income tax, Amendment, was March 1. But Congress for no good reason changed the date in 1918 to March 15 — a date that lived in infamy until 1955 when the current April 15 date was chosen.

Only comedian Will Rogers (1879-1935) had an answer to Congress’ taxing disrespect for the March calendar. “The difference between death and taxes,” he said, “is death doesn’t get worse every time Congress meets.”

• Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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