Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac


An unfortunate incident involving beer – aged porter to be precise – occurred in London back in 1814.

The central London parish of St Giles was, as slums go, one of the slummiest.  Although it has since been rather gentrified with theaters, Covent Garden and the British Museum nearby, it was then mostly squalid housing where immigrants crowded into its ramshackle buildings, often more than one family to a room. Near one end of the parish stood the massive Meux and Company Horse Shoe Brewery, its giant vats filled with thousands of gallons of aging porter.

One particular vat which held over 135,000 gallons had seen better days. Like the shanties surrounding the brewery, it suffered from age, and on October 17 it succumbed, bursting and letting loose enough precious liquid to give all of St. Giles and then some a pretty good buzz, although the fury with which it was released made tippling difficult. Like giant shaken cans of beer, nearby vats ruptured and joined the game of dominoes.

Within minutes the brick structure that was the Meux and Company Horse Shoe Brewery was breached, and the deluge roared down Tottenham Court Road, flinging aside or burying in debris anyone or anything in its path.

Homes caved in. A busy pub crumbled, burying a buxom barmaid and her ogling patrons for several hours.  All in all, nine people were killed by drink that day. Those who didn’t lose their lives lost everything they owned to evil alcohol. Soon after the suds subsided, survivors rushed in to save what they could of the precious brew, collecting one or more for the road in pots and cans.

St. Giles smelled like the morning after a particular robust party for weeks. The brewery was later taken to court over the accident, but they pleaded an “Act of God,” and the judge and jury bought it, leaving them blameless. The brewery even received reparations from the government.  God, it would seem, has a soft spot for brewers.

I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts, and beer. ~ Abraham Lincoln


Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac


In 1869, George Hull, a New York tobacconist, and his cousin, William Newell, a farmer, hired two men to dig a well on Newell’s farm. As theycardiff_ were digging, one of the men suddenly shouted: “I declare, some old Indian has been buried here!” ‘I declare’ is a tad short of ‘Eureka!’ but it got the point across; what the two men had discovered was, according to Hull, a perfectly preserved ten-foot-plus petrified giant.

Noting the incredible scientific implications of this discovery, Hull and Newell immediately did the scientific thing. They set up a tent over the giant and charged 25 cents for people who wanted to see it. Two days later, thanks to public demand, the price doubled to 50 cents. And the crowds doubled along with the price. Everyone wanted to see the amazing, colossal Cardiff Giant, as the stony corpse had come to be called.

Archaeological scholars stood at the back of the throngs shouting “fake, fake” but folks ignored them (folks generally ignore archaeologists). And they ignored the geologists who said there was no earthly reason to dig a well in the exact spot the giant had been found. A Yale palaeontologist, getting really worked up, called it “a most decided humbug.” Some Christian fundamentalists and preachers, came to the giant’s defense, however, citing some positive reviews in Genesis.  And we all know there were some mighty big people in the Bible.

Eventually, Hull sold his part-interest for $23,000 (close to half a million today) to a syndicate in Syracuse, New York, for exhibition. The giant continued to draw amazing crowds, so much so that P. T. Barnum offered $50,000 for the giant. When the syndicate turned him down, he hired an unscrupulous sculptor to create a plaster replica. Barnum put his giant on display in New York, claiming that his was the true giant, and that the Cardiff Giant was an impostor.

Then in December, Hull confessed to the press that he had faked the Cardiff Giant (he already had his $23,000). It had been carved out of a block of gypsum then treated with stains and acids to make the giant appear to be old and weathered.  (It had been whacked with steel knitting needles embedded in a board to simulate pores.) And the following February, both giants were declared fakes in court.

Epilogue: An Iowa publisher later bought the Cardiff Giant to use as a conversation piece in his basement rumpus room. In 1947 he sold it to the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York, where it is still on display.


Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

October 15, 1881: Rated PG

Freddie experienced the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoy’s Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day’s work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city’s reservoir, he turns to the cupboards, only to find the vodka bottle empty.” One line from someone who had a great knack for them, which he displayed in over 300 stories, 90 books, 30 plays and musicals, and 20 film scripts. Comic novelist P.G. Wodehouse, creator of Jeeves the butler, was born on this day in 1881 in Surrey, England.

Beginning his career as a humor columnist for the London Globe, he also worked as a freelance writer, spending extended periods of time in the United States and in France. In 1915, he published “Extricating Young Gussie,” the first of many stories featuring the kindly but dim lightbulb Bertie Wooster and his gentleman’s gentleman, Jeeves. My Man Jeeves, the first collection of Jeeves stories,was published in 1919; The Inimitable Jeeves, Very Good, Jeeves, and Thank You, Jeeves, a novel, followed during the next few years.

Wodehouse was knighted in 1975 at the age of ninety-three and died later that year.

He had the look of one who had drunk the cup of life and found a dead beetle at the bottom.

Mike nodded. A sombre nod. The nod Napoleon might have given if somebody had met him in 1812 and said, “So, you’re back from Moscow, eh?”

I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.

There is only one cure for gray hair. It was invented by a Frenchman. It is called the guillotine.

She looked as if she had been poured into her clothes and had forgotten to say ‘when.’

The fascination of shooting as a sport depends almost wholly on whether you are at the right or wrong end of the gun.

Every author really wants to have letters printed in the papers. Unable to make the grade, he drops down a rung of the ladder and writes novels.

It was my Uncle George who discovered that alcohol was a food well in advance of modern medical thought.

And she’s got brains enough for two, which is the exact quantity the girl who marries you will need.

At the age of eleven or thereabouts women acquire a poise and an ability to handle difficult situations which a man, if he is lucky, manages to achieve somewhere in the later seventies.

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October 14, 1790: If It’s Thursday, This Must Be Pitcairn

When British ships arrived at Pitcairn Island in 1814, two men paddled out in canoes to meet them. Both spoke English well, impressing the officers and men of the ships with their refinement as they met on deck. Their civilized demeanor persuaded the ships’ captains that  the mutineers from the Bounty, had created a proper society (after alcoholism, murder and disease had killed most of them off), and did not merit prosecution for the takeover.

One of the two men was Thursday October Christian, son of Fletcher Christian and his Tahitian wife Mauatua. Fletcher, you will remember, was the ringleader of the mutiny that took place on the Bounty‘s voyage to Tahiti for breadfruit. Captain Philip Pipon, commander of one of the British ships, described Fletcher’s son Thursday as being “about twenty five years of age, a tall fine young man about six feet high, with dark black hair, and a countenance extremely open and interesting. He wore no clothes except a piece of cloth round his loins, a straw hat ornamented with black cock’s feathers, and occasionally a peacock’s, nearly similar to that worn by the Spaniards in South America, though smaller.”

Thursday October Christian, born on October 14, 1790, was the first child born on the Pitcairn Islands after the mutineers took refuge there. Born on a Thursday in October, he was given his name because his father wanted him to have “no name that will remind me of England,” forgetting perhaps that there are both Thursdays and Octobers in England. Captain Pipon referred to young Thursday as Friday October Christian,” because the Bounty had crossed the international date line going eastward, but the mutineers had somehow failed to adjust their calendars for this. The mutineers were living on a tropical island where everyone was running around naked. Is it any surprise that they didn’t know what day it was – or care?

As soon as Captain Pipon left, Thursday went back to his original name, not wanting to be confused with that other character from a story set on a tropical island.


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October 13, 1947: Before There Were Muppets

The name Frances Allison probably doesn’t ring a bell with most people. In the days of live programming and test patterns, the radio comedienne and singer became well known to those who huddled around the TV set early evenings to watch the misadventures of the Kuklapolitan Players.  She was better known simply as Fran, and she was one-third of the trio Kukla, Fran and Ollie.

Created by puppeteer Burr Tillstrom, the show got its start as Junior Jamboree locally in Chicago, on October 13, 1947. Renamed Kukla, Fran and Ollie, it began airing nationally on NBC in early 1949.  Although the show, all puppets except for Fran, was originally targeted to children, it was soon watched by more adults than children. It was entirely ad-libbed.

Fran assumed the role of big sister and cheery voice of reason as the puppets engaged each other in life’s little ups and downs. It was a Punch and Judy kind of show but with less slapstick and more character development. Kukla was the nerdy leader of the amateur acting troupe, plucky and earnest, and Ollie (short for Oliver J. Dragon) was his complete opposite, a devilish one-toothed dragon who would roll on his back when sucking up or slam his chin on the stage when annoyed. Joining them were Madame Oglepuss, a retired opera diva; Beulah, a liberated witch; Fletcher Rabbit, a fussy mailman, and several others.

KFOs fan base included Orson Welles, John Steinbeck, Tallulah Bankhead, and Adlai Stevenson among many others.  James Thurber wrote that Tillstrom and the program were “helping to save the sanity of the nation and to improve, if not even to invent, the quality of television.”

Kukla, Fran and Ollie ran for ten years until 1957.  Mister, we could use a Kukla, Fran and Ollie today.

To Swazzle or Not To Swazzle

Kukla and Ollie didn’t come on the scene until the mid-20th century; but puppets has already been around for some 4,000 years. And they come in many different flavors: marionettes, finger puppets, rod puppets. The Tillstrom characters are glove puppets, controlled by a hand inside the puppet.

Punch and Judy are the most famous of this type of puppet. Their first recorded appearance in England was during the Restoration when King Charles II replaced wet blanket Oliver Cromwell and the arts began to thrive. Punch and Judy shows generally feature the fine art of slapstick with characters hitting each other as frequently as possible.

Punch speaks with a distinctive squawk, created by means of a swazzle, an instrument held in the mouth while speaking. Punch’s cackle is deemed so important in Punch and Judy circles (yes, there are Punch and Judy circles) that a non-swazzled Punch is considered no Punch at all.

“I knew Punch. Punch was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Punch.”



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October 12, 1940: The Suitcase of Death

According to his press agent, Tom Mix, the star of 291 full-length westerns was the real thing – a genuine, actual cowboy hero of the American Wild West; born under a sagebrush in Texas, veteran of Tom Mix BBBnot one but three wars (Spanish-American War, Boxer Rebellion and Boer War); a sheriff in Kansas, a marshal in Oklahoma, a Teddy Roosevelt Rough Rider and a Texas Ranger, to boot.

Seems, however, he was really born in Driftwood, Pennsylvania, deserted the Army in 1902; marched in a Rough Rider parade, and was not quite a lawman but a so-so drum major in the Oklahoma Territorial Cavalry before heading off to Hollywood in 1909. Nevertheless, Mix became one of the top silent-film stars, at one time the highest-paid actor in Hollywood. Unfortunately, like many silent film stars Mix had a difficult transition to talkies. His squeaky voice didn’t match his beefy cowboy image.

On October 12, 1940, having traded in his faithful horse Tony for a bright yellow Cord Phaeton sports car, Mix was speeding north from Tucson at 80 mph when he failed to notice a sign warning that a bridge was out on the road ahead. The Phaeton swung into a dry wash, and Mix was smacked in the back of the head by one of the heavy aluminum suitcases he was carrying in the convertible’s backseat. The impact killed him instantly.

Today, visitors to the site of the accident (now called the Tom Mix Wash) can see a rather diminutive (2-foot–tall) iron statue of a riderless horse with a rather wordy plaque that reads: “In memory of Tom Mix whose spirit left his body on this spot and whose characterization and portrayals in life served to better fix memories of the Old West in the minds of living men.” And if you visit the Tom Mix Museum in Dewey, Oklahoma, you can view the featured attraction – the dented “Suitcase of Death.”

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October 11, 1944: Just Put Your Lips Together

Harry “Steve” Morgan and his alcoholic sidekick, Eddie, are a couple of ne’er-do-wells crewing a boat for hire on the island of Martinique. to_have_and_have_not_1944_film_posterLife is okay, but World War II is happening all around them, doing a number on the tourist trade and thus their livelihood. Howard Hawks’ film To Have and Have Not which premiered in New York on October 11, 1944, was notable for bringing together what would become one of Hollywood’s hottest couples, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

The film takes the title from the book by Ernest Hemingway but not much else. Hawks was a Hemingway fan but thought this particular book was a “bunch of junk.” Even so, Hemingway worked with Hawks on the screenplay, in which Bogart once again gives up his professed neutrality in the war to thwart the Nazis. The plot is well thickened by the stormy relationship between Bogart and Bacall who plays Slim, a saucy singer in the club where Morgan drinks away his days.

Another notable member of the cast is Hoagy Charmichael who appears as the club piano player, Cricket. He and Bacall perform several Charmichael songs: “How Little We Know,” “Hong Kong Blues,” and “The Rhumba Jumps.” Bacall does her own singing, even though persistent rumors would have a 14-year-old Andy Williams singing for her.

The most memorable take away from the film is one line of dialogue delivered seductively by Bacall: “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and . . . blow . . .”