Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

February 15, 1798: My Congressman Can Lick Your Congressman Continued

Astute readers will remember that back on January 30, 1798, in the U.S. lyonduelHouse of Representatives, the gentleman from Vermont, Matthew Lyon, and the gentleman from Connecticut, Roger Griswold, had a bit of an altercation which involved the latter insulting the former and the former spitting on the latter. Far from letting bygones be, the two men evidently nursed their respective angers until they were bound to boil over again, which they did on the morning of February 15, 1798.

Pandemonium, it is fair to say, broke out when, without a word of warning, Representative Griswold stormed across the chambers to where Lyon sat preoccupied with correspondence of some sort. Cursing him as a “scoundrel,” Griswold pounded the Vermont Republican’s head and shoulders with a thick, hickory walking stick. A witness described the attack:

“I was suddenly, and unsuspectedly interrupted by the sound of a violent blow. I raised my head, and directly before me stood Mr. Griswold laying on blows with all his might upon Mr. Lyon, who seemed to be in the act of rising out of his seat. Lyon made an attempt to catch his cane, but failed — he pressed towards Griswold and endeavored to close with him, but Griswold fell back and continued his blows on the head, shoulder, and arms of Lyon who, protecting his head and face as well as he could, then turned and made for the fireplace and took up the fire tongs. Griswold dropped his stick and seized the tongs with one hand, and the collar of Lyon by the other, in which position they struggled for an instant when Griswold tripped Lyon and threw him on the floor and gave him one or two blows in the face.”

The combatants were separated, and Lyon retreated to the House water table; but Griswold approached him again, and Lyon lunged forward with the fire tongs and initiated a second brawl. As Representative Jonathan Mason commented, the central legislative body of the United States of America had been reduced to “an assembly of Gladiators.” A lesson, perhaps, for today’s legislators, although the House of Representatives has become a place of cooperation and reasoned debate where no harsh words, let alone blows, are ever exchanged.

Sweet Sugar Cane, Part 4: The Verdict

Since we knew of no way to weigh the woman, we devised an ingenious plan – well, it seemed ingenious at the time – to learn her true weight. In my business, I know rum. I know it by volume, and I know it by weight. Napoleon’s rum weighs exactly 28 ounces the bottle. So our plan was this: We would put the woman in Napoleon’s barrel of rum, and she would push rum out of it. Then we fill it up again, figuring how many bottles it took. And that would tell us her weight.” Rollo looked smugly at the spectators as if expecting them to applaud.

And the rest of the operation was pretty much as Mrs. Napoleon described it?” asked the judge.

Pretty much,” answered Rollo. “When she ran away I was a bit upset, but Napoleon told me not to worry. So we measured the rum, and it was just what I expected. But Napoleon wouldn’t accept this. ‘It’s not right,’ he shouted, ‘it should be more.’ He began yelling that I was cheating him, and I felt duty bound to hit him. And he hit me back. And I hit him back. Well, you know how it goes, your honor.”

No, I don’t,” said the judge, “but go on.”

Then the policeman showed up and dragged us away and threw us in jail. And we were just drunk. We deserve an apology. We deserve damages!”

Damages!” echoed Napoleon.

Prisoner Napoleon,” said the judge, “Do you agree with this account?”

Yes,” answered Napoleon. “Except for the part where he said Mrs. Napoleon was unattractive. And I’m sorry for my part in this, but I was drunk”

The judge sat silently for a moment, then said: “Given that Mrs. Napoleon was not harmed and that there was no intention to harm her and given that the two defendants have had several days in jail to reflect on their misdeeds, I’m going to release them with a reprimand and an order that they never drink together again. Mrs. Napoleon, I regret your ordeal and suggest you might think of separation as a possible solution to your situation.”

Oh no, sir,” she answered looking at her husband, who began to sweat and shake under her gaze, “Napoleon’s not getting off that easy. No indeed. We’re going to spend many, many long years together.”

Sweet Sugar Cane is included in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.


Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

February 14, 278: Roses Are Red, Etc., Etc.

How did St. Valentine’s Day become a day associated with hearts and flowers and all things romantic? One account puts a definitely sinister spin on the origin of this holiday. It begins back in the third century with a fellow named Claudius the Cruel. As you might guess, Claudius is not going to be the hero of this tale.

Claudius (II, if you’re counting) was the Emperor of Rome, a barbarian that proved that any young boy can grow up to be emperor if he believes. Valentinus, or Valentine, was not a saint at the time, but he was a holy priest.

Claudius, in addition to his barbarianism and cruelty, was a bit of a be_my_valentine_coloring_pagewarmonger. Continually involved in bloody campaigns to destroy upstart nations throughout the region, Claudius needed to maintain a strong army.  But it was a constant battle to keep his military at full strength what with Christianity gaining a toehold and everyone  into family values. The men for their part were unwilling to be all they could be in the army because of their annoying attachment to wives and families.

Claudius had a fairly simple solution; he banned all marriages and engagements in Rome. Valentine, part of whose livelihood was the performing of marriages, thought this decree unjust and defied the emperor by continuing to marry young lovers on the sly.  Claudius, as emperors will, got wind of Valentine’s doings and, true to his name, ordered that Valentine be put to death. Valentine was arrested and condemned to be beaten about the head, and then have said head cut off. The sentence was carried out on February 14, 278.

Legend has it that while in jail, Valentine left a farewell note for the jailer’s daughter, with whom he had had a brief relationship (that will not be explored here), and signed it “From Your Valentine.”  There may have been other cute little Valentine poems as well,  but they have been lost to history.

For this, Valentine was named a saint and had a holiday created after him, though not a legal one with school closings and such. Conspiracy theorists will naturally jump up and down, saying there were several St. Valentines and the holiday could have been named after any one of them. Or it could have come from the pagan festival Lupercalia, a day of wanton carrying on. They should mind their own business.




Sweet Sugar Cane, Part 3: The Weigh-In

Quiet please,” said the judge, ‘or I’ll empty the class. .er . . Courtroom.” They obediently reverted to subdued snickering. “Well, gentlemen,” said the judge turning to the defendants. “I guess it’s time to hear your version of these strange events. Prisoner Rollo, I sense that you’re somehow instrumental in this curious business. Why don’t you go first?”

Rollo stood. “I was drunk, your honor.”

I was drunk, too,” Napoleon chimed in.

I know that,” said the judge. “Please continue.”

I am the owner of a drinking establishment known as Leeward Lounge. On occasion I purchase rum from Mr. Napoleon, because I know he needs the money and I try to help in my own little way.”

He pours it into bottles with fancy labels,” said Napoleon.

On the day in question,” continued Rollo, “he came into my place at about noon and called for two drinks which I served up. He said: ‘this one’s for you, dear friend.’ To be polite, I sat down and drank with him, and in turn I produced two more drinks. He did the same again, and I did the same again and so on – you know how it goes, your honor.”

No I don’t, but please continue.”

Well, it got to be evening and we were fairly tipsy.”

We were wicked drunk, your honor,” Napoleon interjected.

Napoleon starts getting very serious and starts talking about how he needs money for new equipment and he just doesn’t know what he’ll do. When I show reluctance, he suddenly says, ‘I’ll sell you my wife.’ Well, I was quite surprised. The woman is fairly unattractive, as you here in court can see, but I’ve been without a woman for some time and I was drunk, as you know. So I asked him how much he’d sell her for. He didn’t seem to have thought that part out. I suppose the whole idea had been a spur of the moment thing.”

And I was drunk,” said Napoleon.

He thought for a while then said ‘I’ll sell her for two thousand dollars.’ I told him I thought that was too much and we went back and forth a bit. We somehow reached the point where we agreed the price should be based on her weight, but we were both guessing at it, and we were a good thirty pounds apart. Being drunk, that didn’t discourage us. It just made the whole transaction more interesting, a gamble. We finally settled on the amount of fourteen dollars per pound. Being a devoted husband, Napoleon insisted that the price be higher than the finest cut of beef.”

Napoleon grinned and turned red.


Sweet Sugar Cane is included in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.

Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

February 13, 1862: Thaw Out the Holly

With the giving and getting of gifts growing to a crescendo in late December, it is to many a glass of cold water in the face when the merriment suddenly gives way to a bleak long winter with scarcely a box or a bow in sight. The people of Norwich, a city on England’s east coast, a couple of centuries ago found a way to keep on giving by elevating February 13, St. Valentine’s Eve to a Christmas-like celebration.

According to an 1862 account, this Victorian tradition was evidently peculiar to Norwich: visitors to the city were often puzzled to find the shop windows crammed with gifts in early February and newspapers full of advertisements for ‘Useful and Ornamental Articles Suitable for the Season’ available from local retailers.

As soon as it got dark on St. Valentine’s Eve, the streets were swarming with folks carrying baskets of treasures to be anonymously dropped on doorsteps throughout the city. They’d deposit a gift, bang on the door, and rush away before anyone inside could reach the door. Indoors there were excited shrieks and shouts, flushed faces, sparkling eyes and laughter, a rush to the door, examination of the parcels.

Practical jokers  were everywhere as well, ringing doorbells and running off, leaving mock parcels that were pulled away by string when someone attempted to pick them up. Large parcels that dwindled to nothing as the recipient fought through layer after layer of wrapping, and even larger parcels containing live boys who would jump out, steal a kiss, and run away.

As with most holidays that involve children out after dark and mischief, the celebration of St. Valentine’s Eve fell out of favor, to be replaced by the Hallmark-inspired and saintless Valentine’s Day.

No Valentine, This One

Hal Foster had been drawing the Tarzan comic strip based on the books by Edgar Rice Burroughs for several years, but itched to create his own original strip. He began work on a feature called Derek, Son of Thane, set in Arthurian England. Before the strip had its coming out party on February 13, 1937, it had gone through a couple of name changes, first to Prince Arn and eventually to Prince Valiant.

Prince Valiant was five years old when his story began, a continuous story that has been told through 4,000 Sunday episodes. Without a whole lot of deference to historical accuracy, Val’s adventure’s take him throughout Europe, Africa, the Far East and even the Americas in a time frame covering hundreds of years. He does battle with Huns, Vikings, Sorcerers, witches and a slew of monsters from prehistoric to modern, but always big.

Foster drew the strip until 1971 and wrote the continuity until 1980. Since then, other artists have kept it alive. Foster died in 1982, at age 89.

Fore, I mean duck

Golf is thought of as relatively safe sport.  But for the safety of others, there are just some people who should not be allowed on a golf course.  Vice President Spiro Agnew had the dubious distinction of beaning not just one but three spectators on this day in 1971 during the Bob Hope Desert Classic.  On his very first drive, he sliced into the crowd for a two-bagger, bouncing off a man to nail his wife as well.  On his next shot, he hit a woman, sending her to the hospital.  The previous year, Agnew had managed to hit his partner in the back of the head.

Sweet Sugar Cane, Part 2: Roll Out the Barrel

They were drinking from this barrel of rum?”

They weren’t, and that was odd. They’d take a drink from a bottle then pour the rest of it into the barrel until it was filled to the brim.”

And how is it that there is a barrel of rum in your kitchen?” the judge asked.

Napoleon makes rum,” Mrs. Napoleon answered, and then, glowering at her husband, added: “Very bad rum.”

Please continue.”

They were drinking and making strange talk. ‘Kind of scrawny,’ says the one. ‘Not so much as you’d think,’ says the other. ‘I’d say not over 120 pounds,’ says the one. ‘You’d be surprised,’ says the other. ‘Ready?’ says the one. ‘Ready,’ says the other. Then they stand up and stagger toward me. ‘How much do you weigh?’ says the one. And when I refused to tell them, they were happy about it. Grinning like drunk crocodiles. And the one takes me by the head and the other by the feet and they lift me off the ground. ‘Stop, let me down,’ I shouted. Napoleon just says, ‘Hush, it’ll be all right.’ ‘Take her shoes off,’ says the other. ‘And her dress.’ ‘We’ll make allowance for the dress,’ says Napoleon. I start screaming, and they dump me into the barrel of rum, right up to my neck.” She shook a fist at the defendants and shouted: “You assassins. I want you hung.”

Please, Mrs. Napoleon,” soothed the judge. “I know this is very trying, but if you could continue.”

I’ll try,” sobbed Mrs. Napoleon. “I was right up to my neck in rum. And Rollo says ‘I guess we’re set.’ And Napoleon, the fiend, says ‘oh no, we’ve got to count her head.’ ‘Well, push it in then,’ says Rollo. And Napoleon pushed my head down and rum came into my nose and I knew I’d breathed my last and he kept pushing until my head was completely under and I saw the good Lord beckoning me and I said a last prayer that both of my murderers would rot in Hell and suddenly they pulled me out and I ran screaming into the night all soaked in rum like I was the one who was drunk. I ran to the station and told the policeman what had happened. At first he didn’t believe me, thought I was drunk, but finally he followed me back. And there we found Napoleon and Rollo going at each other like a couple of wild animals, shouting about how many bottles of rum there were and how much that much rum should weigh. The policeman hauled them away and that’s the last I know.” She sat down exhausted but triumphant, and in what should have been a somber moment, the spectators, who had been giggling throughout, broke into loud laughter.


Sweet Sugar Cane is included in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.



Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

February 12, 1924: Now You Has Jazz

Advertised as an educational event, the “Experiment in Modern Music” drew a capacity crowd to New York City’s Aeolian Hall on the afternoon of February 12, 1924. Noted critics were in attendance as were such luminaries as John Phillip Sousa and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Organized by the conductor of the Palais Royal Orchestra, Paul Whiteman, the concert was intended to introduce the new form of music called jazz and show audiences that it was a musical form to be reckoned with. True to its billing as educational, most of the concert had consisted of mind-numbing rather than toe-tapping music, two dozen little lessons that began to dissolve into one another as the audience grew antsier and antsier. At last (second to last, actually) a young Broadway composer sat down at the piano to perform a brand new piece written for the occasion.

His composition had been hastily created.  Just over a month earlier, whilegershwin in a Manhattan pool hall, he had read in a newspaper that he was scheduled to perform a jazz concerto at the Whiteman soiree. Painted into the proverbial corner, he set to work. The framework of his concerto came to him on a train journey: “It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, that is so often so stimulating to a composer – I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise . . . And there I suddenly heard, and even saw on paper – the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end.”

The piece opened with an “outrageous cadenza of the clarinet,” now instantly recognizable, and “Rhapsody in Blue” metamorphosed into a showstopper of American music history. George Gershwin himself would, as a New York Times critic lacking restraint put it, “go far beyond those of his ilk.”

And now you has rock

Forty years later, on February 12, 1964, New York City would again be home to musical history.  This time the venue was Carnegie Hall and the occasion a major skirmish in the British invasion as the Beatles held their first concert in the U.S.  And not everyone thought they would go far beyond those of their ilk:  “Visually they are a nightmare, tight, dandified Edwardian-Beatnik suits and great pudding bowls of hair. Musically they are a near disaster, guitars and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony and melody.” — Newsweek

Sweet Sugar Cane, Part 1: Order in the Court

All of y’rise,” said Victor Clovis who most of the time drove a taxi, shuffling tourists from one island rendezvous to another, but who, on the rare occasions when court was in session, served as whatever court personnel might be needed. Except judge, of course. Those duties fell to the short gentlemen who stood rather pretentiously behind the unpretentious teacher’s desk in one of the three rooms in Ste. Catherine School. Student desks had been pushed to one side of the room to make room for grown-up folding chairs, and court was now in session.

Everyone in the classroom/courtroom did indeed rise as instructed, everyone being Regina Napoleon, her husband Corso, his friend Max Rollo, and a good dozen townspeople who had nothing to do on this hot summer day. Court proceedings were rare on the island, and they were timed to fit into the judge’s semi-annual visits.

Mrs. Napoleon was the plaintiff in this particular case, her husband and his friend Rollo the defendants. She stood before a chair to the judge’s right, facing, at about six feet away on the judge’s left, the two men.

Okay, be seated,” Victor intoned, after the judge had seated himself.

The judge was not long on ceremony. Victor felt a little slighted that he was not given the opportunity to instruct Mrs. Napoleon on the matter of the whole truth and nothing but the truth before the judge started right in with questions.

So you are charging the two defendants with attempted murder, is that correct?”

That’s absolutely correct, your most honorific sir, “ answered Mrs. Napoleon.

Even though one of them is your husband?”

He’s the worst of the two, don’t you know. He’s an animal.”

And they attempted this murder by immersion in a barrel of rum?”

If that means they tried to drown me, that they did. That they did.”

Please explain.”

I was whacking some conch with a board – that makes them tender, perfect for conch chowder. I make a nice conch chowder, lots of conch and good vegetables – well they came in with big grins on their ugly faces and the look of evil in their eyes.”

Defendant Napoleon stood and grinned at the judge. “I was drunk, you see.”

Defendant Rollo rose and added: “So was I, that’s the truth.”

We’ll hear your story by and by,” snapped the judge. “Now please sit. Mrs. Napoleon, you were saying the two defendants had the look of evil in their eyes. Do you agree that they were drunk?”

Oh my yes,” answered Mrs. Napoleon. “They were lit up to their very gills. I never like to see the two of them together, especially not when they’re in their cups. And still they were drinking. ‘There’ll be mischief,’ I said to myself.”


Sweet Sugar Cane is included in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.

Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

February 11, 1960: Take This Job and Shove It

When the folks at NBC decided to censor Jack Paar’s water closet joke, they must have known the Tonight Show star would be angry. After all, Paar was principled, emotional and a bit unpredictable. But evidently they didn’t gauge the depth of his anger and were certainly unprepared for his reaction. On the night after the joke was cut, February 11, 1960, the Tonight Show went on air as usual. What followed, within minutes, was one of the most unexpected and abrupt goodbyes in the history of television. After his introduction, Paar walked on stage for the live broadcast, announced that he was quitting, and walked promptly off stage, leaving announcer Hugh Downs in charge of the program with nearly 90 minutes to finish.

And he meant it. Paar was gone for three weeks, not returning to the program until NBC apologized and agreed to let him tell the joke on air.


The Water Closet joke

An English lady, while visiting Switzerland, was looking for a room, and she asked the schoolmaster if he could recommend any to her. He took her to see several rooms, and when everything was settled, the lady returned to her home to make the final preparations to move.  When she arrived home, the thought suddenly occurred to her that she had not seen a “W.C.” around the place. So she immediately wrote a note to the schoolmaster asking him if there were a “W.C.” around. The schoolmaster was a very poor student of English, so he asked the parish priest if he could help in the matter. Together they tried to discover the meaning of the letters “W.C.,” and the only solution they could find for the letters was “Wayside Chapel.” The schoolmaster then wrote to the English lady the following note:

Dear Madam:
I take great pleasure in informing you that the W.C. is situated nine miles from the house you occupy, in the center of a beautiful grove of pine trees surrounded by lovely grounds. It is capable of holding 229 people and it is open on Sunday and Thursday only. As there are a great number of people and they are expected during the summer months, I would suggest that you come early: although there is plenty of standing room as a rule. You will no doubt be glad to hear that a good number of people bring their lunch and make a day of it; while others who can afford to go by car arrive just in time. I would especially recommend that your ladyship go on Thursday when there is a musical accompaniment. It may interest you to know that my daughter was married in the W.C. and it was there that she met her husband. I can remember the rush there was for seats. There were ten people to a seat ordinarily occupied by one. It was wonderful to see the expression on their faces. The newest attraction is a bell donated by a wealthy resident of the district. It rings every time a person enters. A bazaar is to be held to provide plush seats for all the people, since they feel it is a long felt need. My wife is rather delicate, so she can’t attend regularly. I shall be delighted to reserve the best seat for you if you wish, where you will be seen by all. For the children, there is a special time and place so that they will not disturb the elders. Hoping to have been of service to you, I remain,
The Schoolmaster

Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

February 10, 1906: Prince of Pain

Struggling in the long shadow cast by his famous father, Lon Chaney, Jr. (Creighton Tull Chaney), born February 10, 1906, finally found his career in the 1930s after his father’s death. Cast mostly in small supporting roles for several years, his first major film role came in 1939, when he reprised his turn on the stage as Lennie Small in Of Mice and Men, a critical success.

Then in 1941, he starred as the tortured Larry Talbot, a role with which he would always be associated, in The Wolf Man. Like Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, he would be a horror film actor for the rest of his life. (Chaney was the only actor to play all four of Universal’s heavyweight creatures: Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the Mummy, and the Wolf Man)

Returning to his ancestral home in Wales after the death of his brother, Talbot accompanies a village girl to a gypsy camp. This of course is a big mistake. The young woman is attacked by a wolf. In true hero fashion, Talbot rushes to her aid and slays the beast with his fancy new silver-tipped walking stick although he is bitten in the process. Enter Maleva, a gypsy fortuneteller, in a dandy portrayal by Maria Ouspenskaya, who lays some bad news on Talbot. This was no ordinary wolf; it was her son Bela, played oddly enough by Bela Lugosi. Maleva’s son is a wolf? Not a wolf, a werewolf.

“Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night; May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”

Poor Larry, bitten by a werewolf, becomes a werewolf, cursed to get all shaggy and antisocial whenever the moon is bright, not only in this movie but in four more monster flicks: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

Inka Dinka Do

Unlikely star entertainer Jimmy Durante was born February 10, 1893. Saiddurante critic Leonard Maltin about Durante: “The old ‘schnozzola’ was the living embodiment of the term ‘beloved entertainer’: Everyone adored him, but no one could ever really figure out just what it was he did. He sang, he danced, he played the piano and, of course, he clowned — but he wasn’t really great at any of these tasks. Mostly, it was the sheer force of his overbearing personality that won viewers over.”





Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

February 9, 1909: Den of Iniquity

Thanks to descriptions by authors such as Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde, the opium den became a sinister staple of 19th century literature — an evil place where degenerates, mostly foreigners, mostly Chinese, lounged around on pillows, smoking their pipes, vacant eyes benumbed by clouds of opium fumes. The stories were far more fanciful than reality, but opium dens did exist and they soon drew the wrath of temperance advocates, missionaries and moral reformers.

In the United States, San Francisco, inspired by a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment, outlawed public opium dens in 1875, as did many other communities with Chinese populations. Smoking opium did, however, remain legal. Then in 1909, the U.S. Congress stepped in.

Never mind that only one in a thousand Americans smoked opium. The State Department determined that an initiative against opium smoking would be useful in opening the door to China, which resented British demands to allow opium trade following the two Opium Wars. An international commission instigated by the U.S. signed a treaty banning the opium trade. As a result, the State Department called on Congress to ban the import of opium for smoking favored by Chinese immigrants. And on February 9, 1909, Congress passed the Opium Exclusion Act, creating the first illegal drug in America and unleashing an army of government agents to chase down smugglers, bust dealers and raid dens. The 100-year War on Drugs had begun.

Smoking Leeches

In 1841, doctors tried opium (it was still legal) as well as leeches to save President William Henry Harrison, born on this day in 1773.  To no avail.  Old Tippecanoe (and Tyler Too) became the first president to die in office, turning up his presidential toes just a month after taking office, the shortest tenure of any U.S. president.  He also holds the record for the longest inaugural speech at 31 days which may have been a factor in his death.  Actually it was two hours; it just seemed that long.  And it didn’t contribute to his death, although it might have to members of the audience.

Smoking Bananas

carmenOn the same day, over in Portugal, nowhere near an opium den, Carmen Miranda was born, immigrating to Brazil as an infant.  Larger than life, but tiny in stature, she stood only 5’1” without her tower of bananas.  Nevertheless, she filled a stage with her Latin energy and machine gun delivery, melodic Brazilian bullets ricocheting everywhere.  She and her samba stormed the United States in 1939 – nightclubs, radio, movies – and by 1945 she was a superstar. In 1955, after filming an appearance on the Jimmy Durante television show, at 46 years of age, she died of a heart attack.