February 23, 1885: Hanging Around in England

In November 1884, Ellen Keyse was found dead in the pantry of her hangingExeter, England, home. She had been beaten and her throat had been cut. John Lee, who worked for the wealthy victim was charged with the crime. The 19-year-old was found guilty and was sentenced to be hanged on February 23, 1885.  On the day of his comeuppance, Lee was led to the gallows, where his executioners placed a noose around his neck. They pulled the lever that would release the floor under him and drop him to his death. The big oops: John Lee was not dispatched — red faces all around. The apparatus had been thoroughly tested the previous day and had been in fine working order. They tried once again. Nothing. And again. Still a no-go. Flabbergasted, they returned Lee to his prison cell, while they pondered the situation.

The authorities remained mystified, so they did what authorities often do when mystified. They attributed the malfunction to an act of God, and rather than risk God’s anger, they commuted his sentence and removed him from death row. He spent 22 years in prison, and upon being released, promptly set sail for America.


Silent film star Mabel Normand died on February 23, 1930, after a short but stellar career as an actress, screenwriter, director and producer. She collaborated with Mack Sennett and appeared with Charlie Chaplin in a dozen films and Fatty Arbuckle in another 17. It was in one of those films, A Noise from the Deep, that she made cinematic history, throwing the first pie ever in a movie, a direct hit to Fatty Arbuckle’s face.




February 22, 1956: Not Your Typical Barbarian

You can pretty much be certain you’ve got a turkey on your hands when you’ve got actors such as Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead (Endora on Bewitched), and John Wayne (!) playing Mongolians, when the entire film is shot in one location in a desert in southern Utah (haven’t we seen that rock before?) and when you have such dialogue as:

“Joint by joint from the toe and fingertip upward shall you be cut to pieces, and each carrion piece, hour by hour and day by day, shall be cast to the dogs before your very eyes until they too shall be plucked out as morsels for the vultures . . . pilgrim.”

The Conqueror, released on February 22, 1956, was the epic story of a 12thconqueror century Mongol warlord who worked his way up the barbarian ladder to become the infamous Genghis Khan. Produced by Howard Hughes, it was meant to be his crowning cinematic masterpiece. The film cost $6 million to film in Cinemascope and Technicolor and is frequently ridiculed in the same breath as Plan 9 from Outer Space, another 50s flop which cost about $2.99 to make. Hughes spent another $12 million to buy back every single print of the film after its disastrous release.

The Conqueror not only destroyed RKO, the studio that made it, but wiped out a good number of the cast and crew. The shooting location turned out to be downwind from Yucca Flats, Nevada, where the government was merrily testing atomic bombs, and the cast and crew received far more than the recommended daily allowance of radioactive fallout. Nearly half of them, including Wayne, were later diagnosed with cancer (although Wayne also smoked six packs a day).

February 22, 1907: Hey Youse

sheldon_leonardThose who remember his screen appearances at all are most likely to recognize him as Nick, the surly bartender who gives George Bailey and Clarence the heave-ho in  It’s a Wonderful Life. As an actor, Sheldon Leonard, born on February 22, 1907, specialized in playing supporting characters, most often gangsters or or other tough guys with names like Pretty Willie, Lippy, Jumbo, Blackie, or, notably, Harry the Horse in the 1955 film of Guys and Dolls. He spoke with a thick New York accent, usually delivered from the side of his mouth.

His many appearances in movies and television spanned six decades. But it was as a producer and director that Sheldon Leonard really made his mark. He began a new career as a television producer in the early 50s and turned out a succession of hit series — The Danny Thomas Show (Make Room for Daddy), Gomer Pyle: USMC, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Dick Van Dyke Show (winner of 21 Emmys). He had another success in the mid 60s with I Spy, the first series to cast a black actor (Bill Cosby) as an equal co-star with a white actor in a dramatic role.  Leonard is also informally credited with having invented the spin-off,  the practice of using an episode of a series as a backdoor pilot for a new series.The character of Sheriff Andy Taylor was introduced in an episode of The Danny Thomas Show, which led to the series The Andy Griffith Show. 

Sheldon Leonard died in 1997.


February 21, 1937: It Was a One-eyed, One-horned Flying Purple Studebaker

Like so many youngsters of his age, Waldo Waterman looked up at the heavens and wanted to fly. The Wright brothers had already done their thing, and the skies were becoming littered with aviators. In 1909, at the age of 15, Waldo built himself a glider, a year later a powered flying machine. Not quite enough power it turned out; it seems Waldo was mostly adept at crashing things.

But Waldo soldiered on. He studied aeronautical engineering and turned to teaching the theory of flight. Theory was one thing, but Waldo still had the driving desire to build flying machines. In 1932, he introduced his Waterman Whatsit, a flying wing with a cockpit on top and a tricycle undercarriage. It crashed a lot. A few years of tinkering led to an improved flying wing, he called the Arrowplane that actually stayed in the air from Santa Monica, California, to Washington DC as part of a government competition to produce a flying machine that would cost under $700 to build.

Nobody could get the cost down that far, but attempts by Henry Ford got Waldo to thinking flying car, and the result was his Arrowbile. The cockpit was now below the wing. It had a radiator grille, a single headlight, automobile type doors and a single Studebaker automobile engine. Its successful maiden flight took place on February 21, 1937, when the Arrowbile, lifted off, landed safely and drove off into the sunset.

Unfortunately, the story kind of peters out here. Only five were ever produced, the five that were bought by Studebaker.

The Grass Is Always Greener . . .

ermaErma Bombeck took her humorous observations on suburban life from her weekly hometown paper to 900 newspapers throughout the U.S. and Canada. Born on February 21, 1927, she also published 15 books, many of which became bestsellers.  She died in 1996.

“My second favorite household chore is ironing. My first one being hitting my head on the top bunk bed until I faint.”

“If a man watches three football games in a row, he should be declared legally dead.”

“In general, my children refused to eat anything that hadn’t danced on TV.”

“Never loan your car to anyone to whom you’ve given birth.”

“I didn’t fight my way to the top of the food chain to be a vegetarian”

“Ironed sheets are a health hazard.”

“Seize the moment. Think of all those women on the ‘Titanic’ who waved off the dessert cart.”

“When humor goes, there goes civilization.”

Just Sayin’

On February 21, 1975, former U.S. attorney general John Mitchell and former White House aides H.R. Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman were each sentenced to 30 months in prison for their involvement in the Watergate scandal. Some four dozen people, many of them top White House officials, were found guilty of one crime or another.

February 20, 1524: Don’t They Know It’s the End of the World?

Those Peruvians must have thought the world was coming to an end end-of-the-world_2038061cwhen the volcano blew its top in 1600 (February 19). In Europe, they were certain the end was near quite a few years earlier. In fact, in 1524 you couldn’t swing a virgin without hitting a prophet of doom. They all pretty much agreed that 1524 was curtains and that a Noah-like deluge would be responsible, thanks to a conjunction of major planets in Pisces (the water sign) — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, being the culprits along with the sun.

As far back as 1499, astrologer Johannes Stoeffler had identified the exact day of the giant flood as February 20, 1524. His authority on the matter was such that more than a hundred pamphlets were written and published on his prediction.

George Tannstetter, of the University of Vienna, was one of the few astrologers who disagreed with the other Cassandras. Drawing up his own horoscope, he discovered that he would live well beyond 1524, and therefore the world would keep on turning. He was pretty much dismissed as a village idiot and ignored.

In response to the many dire predictions, worried Europeans set about building boats.  Arks were everywhere. One over-achieving would-be Noah, a German Count von Iggleheim, built himself a three-story ark, no doubt with some grand purpose in mind. When, on February 20, the predicted rain sputtered into a brief, inconsequential shower, the mobs awaiting the deluge grew restless, then piqued, and finally they ran amok, stoning the Count to death in the process. For the Count and a few hundred others killed in the melee, it was the end of the world (just as it was for those Peruvians who thought it would be entertaining to watch the volcano explode).

Stoeffler, who somehow escaped the angry mobs, went back to the drawing board and came up with a new doomsday date in 1528. His perseverance, however, did not set afloat any more arks.


“Après moi, le déluge.” — Louis XV of France



February 19, 1600: Thar She Blows

Back in the 16th century, the natives of Arequipa in the Andean mountains of Peru led a simple, uncluttered existence, pounding stuff on volcano1rocks, doing folk dances and sacrificing bits of clothing, animals and virgins to the neighborhood volcano, Huaynaputina. The sacrifices kept Supay, the god of death, happy. It’s always best — though not necessarily easy — to keep the god of death happy. But then along came the buttinsky Spanish to colonize South America, and right away they outlawed the practice of sacrifice. Well, we we can be certain Supay was not amused. In fact, Father Alonso Ruiz of Arequipa in 1599 predicted an imminent “hit from heaven.”
supaySure enough, Huaynaputina began to noisily pass gas.  The local natives scrambled to appease the volcano, preparing virgins, pets, and flowers for sacrifice. Huaynaputina just kept chugging and rumbling and carrying on as though it were about to blow its top, and on February 19, 1600, it did. With a huge fiery explosion, it spewed volcanic ash into the Peruvian sky. Rivers of lava flowed down the mountain. Supay was throwing one mean tantrum. Within 24 hours, Arequipa was covered with a foot of ash, and most everyone around was dead.

Not only did Huaynaputina do a number on Peru, it also affected a good part of the world. In the northern hemisphere, 1601 was the coldest year in six centuries. There was a famine in Russia. In China, the peach trees didn’t bloom. In France, the wine harvest was late.

All for the want of a virgin or two.


Success didn’t spoil me, I’ve always been insufferable. ~ Fran Lebowitz



February 18, 1953: Leaping from a Screen Near You

An exciting new kind of movie opened in New York City on February 18, 1953, and quickly took the entire nation by storm. It promised each and every theater patron the cinematic excitement of a lion in his or her lap. It was the latest attempt by desperate movie studios to pry people away from those insidious television sets that had popped up in living rooms everywhere, to get them back into theaters.  In a frenzy they had tried to beat the little box with Cinerama, Cinemascope and a host of other Deadly Cins.

The new kind of movie was of course 3-D, complete with those funny little glasses (sadly lacking a big nose and mustache), and this first film was called Bwana Devil. Not only did audiences have to sit through a newsreel and a featurette about folk dancing in a remote Himalayan village to get to the good stuff, they also had to endure an opening lecture on just how this modern marvel worked. A very serious scientist in a lab coat delivered this lecture. He described the 3-D process in numbing detail while the antsier members of the audience chewed Necco wafers and stared at him through those special glasses, wondering why he remained flat as a pancake in a lab coat.

Bwana Devil was a jungle flick (in case you wondered), obviously chosen so that it could feature lions and tigers and elephants and giraffes leaping from the screen onto the unsuspecting audience, causing most of the ten-year-olds to pee their pants. “Let’s see your 15 inch, black and white TV do that,” Messieurs Metro, Goldwyn and Mayer snickered.

And they continued to do that, with westerns, in which Indians would shoot flaming arrows indiscriminately into the audience – one of them right into the forehead of a kid sitting in the third row. Or creepy horror films in which a mad scientist reached into the audience plucking a comely teenager by the throat, pulling her out of her seat, sucking her into the screen never to be seen again.  And Cat-Women on the Moon — sexy moon maidens in black tights leaping into the aisles and luring ogling men into the lobby for who knows what? Hollywood had struck back.

To experience the sheer terror of 3-D, tape red cellophane over your left eye and blue cellophane over your right eye.  Then look at the picture below and Omigod! Look out for the tiger!.



Born on this day in 1745, Italian physicist Alessandro Volta, inventor of the electric battery (What is a flashlight?  A place to store dead batteries.) for whom the volt was named.  And in 1838, Ernst Mach, an Austrian physicist who gave his name to a unit of speed.  And way back in 1516, English physicist/queen Mary Tudor, who gave her name to the popular cocktail, the Tudor.


February 17, 1844: When You Wish Upon a Book

The Sears & Roebuck catalog may have become the Magilla Gorilla of mail order, but Aaron Montgomery Ward , born on February 17, 1844, beat Mr. Sears and Mr. Roebuck to the punch by 18 years — and there was only one of him. As a young traveling salesman, Ward saw firsthand how rural folk were being poorly served by small town general merchandisers. Couldn’t they have some of the same opportunities to buy lots of stuff as their big city counterparts?  Of course they could, Ward answered, and in 1872, the mail-order catalog was born.

That first catalog was a one-page price list featuring 163 items. By 1874, it had grown to 32 bound pages; by 1895, over 600 pages with thousands of items. Dubbed the Wish Book, it was a magnificent thing, fully illustrated with woodcuts and drawings, hawking anything you could possibly want — tools, jewelry, millinery, musical instruments, furniture, bathtubs and buggies.  Cradle to grave.

“Satisfaction or your money back!”

Ward died in 1913 at the age of 69, leaving a company, known affectionately as Monkey Ward’s, that would remain a retailing giant through most of the century.

February 16, 1923: Mummies for Dummies

This could be the mother of all conspiracy theories. On February 16, 1923, mummy_2in Thebes, Egypt, English archaeologist Howard Carter entered the burial chamber of the Egyptian ruler King Tutankhamen — Tut to his friends and hangers on. As every schoolgirl knows, Tut died and was mummified back in 1324 B.C., give or take a year, while still a teen idol. As every schoolboy knows anyone foolish enough to enter Tut’s burial chamber would become subject to a pretty nasty curse — involving but not limited to crocodiles, snakes and scorpions.

Tut was the first mummy found in tact and with all his wealth untouched by tomb raiders. And his discovery left scientists scratching their heads. No one knew what had caused the young king’s death. Theories have popped up during the years — genetic disorders, disease, foul play.

An Egyptologist at California State University, Dr. Benson Harer, has come up with a dandy new idea: Tut was done in by an angry hippopotamus. Well, we all know what nasty tempers hippos have. They kill more people each year than lions, gorillas, you-name-it. And ancient Egypt was lousy with hippos — capsizing boats, stomping crops, stampeding through villages, chomping people in half with a single bite.

King Tut loved to hunt hippos, and every schoolgirl knows what dummies hippo hunters can be. We can imagine Tut happening upon a baby hippo: “Isn’t he cute? Let’s get closer. I wonder if his mother’s around somewhere.” Dr. Harer has a lot of scientific stuff that goes along with his theory, but what’s most interesting is the good doctor’s speculation that a coverup took place, with authorities stonewalling and concealing the pharaoh’s death by hippo for political reasons, fearing that the common folk might see Tut as less Trumplike, more Bushlike — or that the gods always liked hippos best. There you have it, slippery slopers — Hippogate!


When it comes to mummies, they don’t make them like this anymore:

Radio for Dummies

edgarbergenandcharliemccarthyBorn February 16, 1903, Edgar Bergen, along with his cohorts, Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, got his start in vaudeville and one-reel movie shorts, but his real success came on radio of all places. The popularity of a ventriloquist on radio, when no one could see the dummies or even whether Bergen’s mouth moved, is a puzzler. But popular they were. Seen at a New York party by Noel Coward, who recommended them for an engagement at the famous Rainbow Room, they were discovered by two producers who booked them for a guest appearance on Rudy Vallee’s radio program. That quickly led to their own show which, under various sponsors, was on the air from 1937 to 1956.  Bergen died in 1978.



February 15, 1798: My Congressman Can Lick Your Congressman

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.


How come the dove gets to be the peace symbol? How about the pillow? It has more feathers than the dove, and it doesn’t have that dangerous beak. ~ Jack Handey



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_pagewar-monger. 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.