History Book – Queen Victoria and BASE jumpers

NICK EICHER, HOST: Next up on The World and Everything in It: the WORLD History Book. 

This week, movers and shakers: from a popular English queen, to the youngest American president, and—talk about movers—people who parachute from tops of buildings.

Here’s WORLD senior correspondent Katie Gaultney.


KATIE GAULTNEY, SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: We begin today with the end—the end of the Victorian Era, that is. On January 22, 1901, at the age of 81, Queen Victoria of England breathed her last. She began her rule of Great Britain, India, and Ireland in 1837. She held the record for longest reigning monarch in England and Scotland’s history—until her great-great granddaughter, the current Queen Elizabeth, surpassed her. 

Despite her age, Queen Victoria’s death shocked the British Empire. Amy Sears was a schoolgirl when Victoria died. 


Sears spoke to the BBC and PBS in 1995 about hearing bells tolling that day in 1901 and asking her aunt about it. 

SEARS: The bell was tolling, and she said, “Oh, that’s the poor old dear, she’s gone at last.

Over the course of Victoria’s 63-year reign, Britain gradually adopted a modern constitutional monarchy. With that came voting reforms, and a shifting balance of power from the House of Lords to the House of Commons. But Victoria, with her high-buttoned collars and austere styling, left a legacy of morals, uprightness, and family values. 

Victoria biographer Gertrude Himmelfarb spoke to CSPAN about her impact. 

HIMMELFARB: I don’t want to exaggerate the influence of Queen Victoria, but nevertheless there is a very real sense in which she was a symbol of the age. She represented that kind of domestic virtues that the English regarded so highly… 

Victoria and her husband Prince Albert had nine children. Their eldest son, Edward VII, succeeded Victoria as ruler of the British Empire. 


Moving from the Queen of England to an American president. January 20, 2021, will see Joe Biden take the oath of office as the oldest American president. But 60 years ago, on January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as the youngest American president. 

KENNEDY: We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom…

Like the 2020 election, the 1960 election was controversial. Rumors of Russian interference swirled around Kennedy’s campaign. After Election Day, Nixon’s supporters railed against the Electoral College, urging their candidate to contest the vote count. 

William Rorabaugh, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin, spoke at a CSPAN event in 2018 about just how close the results were. 

RORABAUGH: There were 68 million votes in 1960. Kennedy got 49.7 percent, Nixon got 49.6 percent. Kennedy had won the popular vote by about 114,000 votes, or less than one-half vote per precinct… 

Of course, Kennedy did take the nation’s highest office after that election. His inaugural speech stressed the importance of political rivals working together, across the aisle. 

And his inaugural address included some memorable one-liners: 

KENNEDY: And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.

Interestingly, all but one of the four men atop the 1960 tickets became president: Kennedy, of course, plus Richard Nixon, and Lyndon B. Johnson. The odd man out was Henry Cabot Lodge, Nixon’s running mate. 


Some people say you’d have to be crazy to want to run for public office. Putting yourself under a microscope can be risky. But not as risky as jumping off a skyscraper! 

NEWSCAST: What’s your group called? “Crazy Men of the World,” or what?/ That’s what most people call us. We’ve got an organization… The type jumping that we do, first of all, is called BASE jumping…

That’s fixed-structure parachuting pioneer Phil Mayfield in an early 1980s TV interview. It’s been 40 years since January 18, 1981, when Mayfield and Phil Smith parachuted off a Houston skyscraper. The acronym Mayfield mentioned is “B-A-S-E:” B for buildings, A for antennae, S for spans—or bridges, and E for earth—that is, cliffs.

SMITH: You’ll see the building behind you, or the cliff, or whatever it is, as it just goes zoom.

The jump from the under-construction Texas Commerce Tower checked the final box they needed to become the first two people to BASE jump from objects in all four of those categories. 

They broke through a chain link fence in broad daylight, entered the building, got to the roof—ready with parachutes on their backs—and jumped.


That’s this week’s History Book. I’m Katie Gaultney.

(Photo/Public Domain) W. & D. Downey Diamond Jubilee photograph of Queen Victoria

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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