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'The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer' a painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme depicts

Valentine's Day: A bloody love story

Saint Valentine ministered to persecuted Christians | Image: The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer by Jean-Léon Gérôme

Every year on February 14, people from all over the world show their affection for one another by sending messages of love via flowers, chocolates, gifts and cards. High street shops and restaurants are decorated with an array of romantic symbols; the colour red becomes all the eye can see.

Whilst cupid’s arrow will strike the beating hearts of many on Valentine’s Day, not every heart in history has been left invigorated with lust and love on the 14th. The day has witnessed more than its fair share of guts and gore, making one wonder whether the day’s association with the colour red is in fact due to its history of bloodshed.

The bloody death of Saint Valentine

You might think that the man who started it all off would have been given a befittingly affectionate send-off. The truth couldn't be further from it.

Although many legends surround St Valentine, popular belief states he was a priest in the Roman Empire during the third century AD. The Emperor at the time was Claudius II, a man who had been waging many unpopular and bloody campaigns. To keep the gears of war turning, Claudius needed a constant flow of fresh soldiers but was having a tough time recruiting enough men.

Legend has it he outlawed marriage, as he believed the bond between the Roman men and their families was the reason his army was dwindling in numbers. Valentine disagreed with this law and showed his defiance by conducting marriages in secret.

It wasn’t long before the authorities caught wind of what Valentine was up to and arrested him. The story goes that whilst awaiting his fate in prison he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter. After his sentence finally came through, Valentine supposedly left a farewell note to the young lady and signed it ‘from your Valentine’.

He then exited the jail and walked towards the most unromantic of ends - death by beating and decapitation.

The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre

Chicago in the 1920s was gripped in a bloody turf battle between rival mafia gangs, including one run by Scarface himself, the infamous Al Capone. On Valentine’s Day 1929, the violence took an even bloodier turn when seven members and associates of the North Side Gang were gunned down in cold blood at a garage in the Lincoln Park neighbourhood.

The assassins were dressed as policemen and they ordered the seven men to line up, turn and face the garage wall. They then fired over 70 rounds towards them. Six were killed instantly but one lived long enough to see the real police arrive – his name was Frank Gusenberg.

Suffering from 14 bullet wounds, Gusenberg was taken to hospital where policemen quizzed him about the shooting. He refused to talk, reportedly uttering the words, ‘I ain’t no copper.’ He died of his wounds a short while later.

The North Side Gang was run by Irish mob boss George 'Bugs' Moran, a long time enemy of Capone. It was thought he was the main target of the hit and narrowly avoided being killed that day as he was late arriving at the garage.

Moran pointed the finger of blame at Capone, who pointed it right back. No one was ever convicted for the murders and the massacre remains one of America’s biggest unsolved crimes.

The Vinegar Valentine

The tradition of sending Valentine’s cards to loved ones dates back hundreds of years. However, there was a time during the Victorian era when people sent and received cards on February 14, which can only be described as hate mail.

Known as ‘Vinegar Valentines’, these anonymous cards were sent by people to those they disliked. The tradition lasted for around 100 years starting around the 1840s and became very popular in both Britain and America.

Although the cards would vary in style and design, the sourness of the message was always a constant. ‘Hey, lover boy, the place for you is home upon the shelf, ‘cause the one who’d kiss you is a jackass like yourself,’ one read.

The anti-Valentine’s Day cards manifested themselves into a variety of topics allowing people to abuse anyone from the neighbour to the local store clerk.

Another card read, ‘You claim you’re good at anything! So, come on, show some proof and let me see how good you are at jumping off the roof!!’ The harsher messages indeed suggested the recipients should go and kill themselves. When one person did, the newspapers ran the story and the tradition was perceived as having gone too far and gradually faded out… until social media trolls picked up the baton a century later.

The Bloody 14th

Whilst the majority of the world seeks love and romance on February 14, some have seen the day differently. On Valentine’s Day 2013, Olympic and Paralympic Athlete Oscar Pistorius shot and killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. Before the slaying, Pistorius was a hero in his home country of South Africa, but thanks to a recent vote conducted by an Australian publication, he is now officially the most hated athlete of the decade.

In 2008, Steven Kazmierczak took a shotgun and three pistols to Northern Illinois University and opened fire at a lecture hall, killing 5 people and injuring a further 17. Ten years later, Nikolas Cruz, opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. He killed 17 and left a further 17 injured. His Valentine’s Day killing spree is the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history.

It should come as no surprise that wars and terrorism do not respect the world’s most romantic day either. In 1945, the Allied aerial bombing of the German city of Dresden entered its first full day on February 14. At the end of the bombing campaign, estimates placed the number of causalities around 25,000, many of whom were civilians. In 2005, a terrorist truck bomb exploded in West Beirut killing 22 including the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Around 220 others were left wounded.

Finally, one of Britain’s most famous explorers, Captain James Cook, would celebrate (or not in this case) Valentine’s Day as his last day on earth. Although Cook was the first European to discover the Hawaiian Islands, they would become the last place he’d visit. After an altercation with the native islanders, Cook attempted to kidnap their king. It didn’t go to plan and Cook was beaten over the head with a club and then stabbed to death. His body was then disembowelled and part-cooked to enable the flesh to be removed from the bones.

So, the next time a Valentine’s Day doesn’t go quite to plan, just think of Captain Cook and be glad you still have your skin!