Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

OCTOBER 31, LONG AGO: THE DEVIL MADE HIM DO IT

THE DEVIL MADE HIM DO IT

One might assume that the carving of jack-o’-lanterns was a clever promotion by the Association of Pumpkin Growers because there just weren’t enough pumpkin pies being eaten in this world. But as it turns out, folks have been making jack-o’-lanterns at Halloween for centuries. And that there’s a proper legend to explain the practice.

It all started with an Irish fellow called Stingy Jack. In addition to being cheap, Jack was a drunkard and a ne’er-do-well. During one of Jack’s benders, the Devil came calling on him with every intention of claiming his miserable soul. As a last request, Jack asked the Devil to have a  drink with him. (It’s a relief to learn the Devil drinks; Hell might not be so bad after all.)

Naturally, Stingy Jack being Stingy Jack had no intention of paying for the drinks, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to buy their drinks, and the Devil agreed. (It would appear that the Devil is not the brightest candle in Hell.) Once the Devil had changed himself into a coin, Jack stuffed him into his pocket next to a crucifix, which prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form. Jack, now having all the chips in this game, agreed to free the Devil, on the condition that he would not bother Jack for ten years and that, should Jack die during this time, he would not claim his soul. (Jack wasn’t all that shrewd either.)

Drunkenness tends to make time fly, and before Jack knew it, ten years had passed.   And the Devil, ever prompt, came calling for Jack’s soul once again. And no last drink this time, the Devil said. Then perhaps just one small apple before I go, Jack begged. The Devil acquiesced. Jack lamented that he was in no condition to climb the apple tree, and would the Devil be so kind as to fetch the apple for him? (The Devil is a lot like Charlie Brown and his football. You’d think, being the Evil One, he wouldn’t be so trusting.) So the Devil climbed the tree, and while he was up in the tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark. To earn his release this time, the Devil agreed never to take Jack’s soul.

Wouldn’t you know, little time passed before Jack turned up his toes. Jack’s soul foolishly made it’s way toward Heaven where everyone had a good laugh before telling him to get lost. Then Jack journeyed to the Gates of Hell where the Devil, finally wise to Jack’s tricks,  also sent him packing —  to roam the world between good and evil, with only a burning ember inside a hollowed out turnip to light his way.  Jack of the Lantern. Obviously, the Association of Turnip Growers botched this one. Had they been on their toes, we’d all be celebrating Halloween with carved-out rutabagas.

 

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OCTOBER 30, 1938: JUST ME AND MY RADIO

JUST ME AND MY RADIO

It’s easy from the comfort of our 21st century recliners to dismiss the mass hysteria of an earlier generation as so many Chicken Littles or Turkey Lurkeys, afraid of their own shadows. We’ve seen it all, any horror one can imagine, right there on the screen in front of us, and should it become too squirmy, well we can always just hit a button. The remote is there to protect us.

But what if you were at home, alone perhaps, on that October night back in 1938. It’s dark out; Halloween and all its spookiness is just a day away. But there’s the radio to keep you company. Like millions of other Americans, you’ll tune in to Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. That should lighten up a dark night. They finish their comedy routine at ten after eight. A singer you’ve never heard of follows so, like millions of Americans, you surf the radio stations (Wasn’t there supposed to be a dramatic program on?) pausing to hear an unenthusiastic announcer: “. . . the Meridian Room in the Hotel Park Plaza in downtown New York, where you will be entertained by the music of Ramon Raquello and his orchestra.” You listen for a minute; it’s not that great. You’re all set to surf again when the announcer interrupts, reporting that a Professor Farrell of the Mount Jenning Observatory has detected explosions on the planet Mars. The music returns, but only for a minute. The announcer is back with the news that a large meteor has crashed into a farmer’s field in Grovers Mills, New Jersey.

Now your ears are glued to the radio, as announcement after announcement confirms the impossible – a Martian invasion. “Good heavens, something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now here’s another and another one and another one. They look like tentacles to me … I can see the thing’s body now. It’s large, large as a bear. It glistens like wet leather. But that face, it… it … ladies and gentlemen, it’s indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it, it’s so awful. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is kind of V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate.”

Now’s the time to surf the radio. If you do, you’ll quickly realize that everything is normal on other radio stations, that you’ve been listening to a realistic but fictional radio drama. But if you don’t, chances are you’ll join the thousands of people jamming highways, trying to flee the alien invasion.

Orson Welles was just 23 years old when his Mercury Theater company broadcast its update of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds with no idea of the uproar it would cause. He employed sophisticated sound effects and top notch acting to make the story believable.

And believed it was. In Indianapolis, a woman ran into a church where evening services were being held, yelling: “New York has been destroyed! It’s the end of the world! Go home and prepare to die!”

When the actors got wind of the panic, Welles went on the air as himself to remind listeners that it was just fiction. Afterward, he feared that the incident would ruin his career, but three years later he was in Hollywood working on Citizen Kane.

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OCTOBER 29, 1636: HERMIT OF GRUB STREET

HERMIT OF GRUB STREET

Henry Welby was a gentleman of fortune, education and popularity in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth who suddenly secluded himself from all public life – not as a hermit off in the Grub_street_hermitwilderness but right in the middle of London. His irrevocable resolution to live a solitary life followed an incident in which his younger brother, displeased over some trifle or another, attempted to shoot him at close range, certainly with the intent to kill.

To fulfill his resolution, Henry took a house at one end of Grub Street, known primarily for bohemians and impoverished hack writers. He occupied three rooms himself – one for dining, one for sleeping and one for study. The rest of the house was given over to his servants. A technical quibble here perhaps: can a man truly be a hermit with servants?  But it would seem that he managed. While his food was set on his table by his cook, he would wait in his bedroom. And while his bed was being made, he would retire into his study, and so on – thus avoiding any actual contact with his servants.

He ate only a salad of greens and herbs in the summer and a bowl of gruel in the winter. He drank no wine or spirits, only water or an occasional cheap beer. Occasionally, on a special day, he might eat an egg yolk, no white, or a piece of bread, no crust. Yet he provided a bountiful table for his servants.

And in these three rooms, he remained – for forty-four years, never ever leaving them until he was carried out on a gurney.  Not one of his relatives or acquaintances ever laid another eye on him – only his elderly maid Elizabeth ever saw his face. And she didn’t see much of it because it was overgrown by hair and beard. Elizabeth died just a few days before Henry’s death on October 29, 1636.

Books were his companions for those forty-four years, and not once did one of them shoot at him.

Alice in Donaldland, Part 8: Stipulations and Legal Briefs

“Is this the Queen’s court?” Alice asked the two funny-looking men blocking the big iron gate.

“Who wants to know?” they chimed together.

“I’d like to join the Queen for some golf,” answered Alice.

“She’d like to join the Queen,” they taunted, looking at each other. “Do you have a nondisclosure agreement?”

“I’m afraid I don’t, but I’m not the sort of person to disclose things. Are you the Queen’s guards?”

“Guards?” They looked at each other and laughed. “Do we look like guards? We are the Queen’s personal lawyers — Tweeedledum and Tweedledumber, attorneys-at-law. Here, sign these.” They each pushed a pile of papers at Alice.

“What are these?”

“Sworn statements that the Queen didn’t grab you, wouldn’t grab you, and was miles away when the grabbing occurred.”

“But the Queen probably won’t — ”

“Of course he will. The Queen has big hands and — ”

“– a big heart. I know, I know.”

“You also stipulate that grabbing isn’t a crime if the Queen grabs,” said Tweedledum.

“It’s not even naughty,” added Tweedledumber.

“And Collusion isn’t a crime if the Queen colludes. Obstruction isn’t a crime if the Queen obstructs. Subtraction isn’t a crime —

“Okay, I stipulate,” said Alice impatiently. “And the Queen isn’t a witch, and doesn’t grab girls and is making Donaldland great again.”

“I think she’s got it,” said the twin lawyers. “And what about the White Knight?”

Alice began to recite: “The White Knight and his nefarious throng of 98 — ”

” — 125 — ”

” — 125 dastardly democreeps are out to destroy the good Queen.”

“And the Queen is cooperating fully with his witch hunt and is willing to answer any number of questions. As a matter of fact, we have provided a list of answers to the questions the Queen is willing to answer.” Tweedledum handed a piece of paper to Alice.

She read: “Yes. No. Maybe. I couldn’t say. Fourteen. Uruguay. 1492. None of your damn business. Never. Maybe tomorrow. Gilligan’s Island. Wayne Newton. Crooked Hillary.”

“What more could we possibly do?” said Tweedledum.

“Legal is as legal does,” said Tweedledumber.

“Hand me the briefs, said Tweedledum.

“No,” said Tweedledumber. “It’s my turn to wear the briefs.”

“No, it’s my turn.”

“My turn.”

“My turn.”

“I’ll sue.”

“I’ll sue first.”

“I’ll counter-sue.”

“I’ll counter-counter sue.”

And off they went, arguing and leaving the gate for Alice to enter. Which she did.

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OCTOBER 28, 1913: PRESENT BRICKS

 

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PRESENT BRICKS

  The editors of the New York Evening Journal did not think it suitable for the comics section. The public didn’t much care for it. But publisher William Randolph Hearst liked it and gave it a permanent place in the Journal, beginning October 28, 1913.

   Krazy Kat was a carefree, simple-minded, gender-confused cat (sometimes a he, sometimes a she), desperately in love with a mouse. It isn’t just unrequited love; Ignatz Mouse, a rather despicable little rodent, positively hates Krazy and endlessly schemes to throw bricks at Krazy’s head. Poor Krazy sees this as a sign of affection.

   Add a dog – Officer Bull Pupp, a police officer who dotes on Krazy and makes it his purpose in life to prevent Ignatz from throwing bricks and to haul him off to jail when he’s caught in the act. This peculiar love triangle takes place in a surreal Arizona (or is Arizona naturally surreal?), where the strip’s creator George Herriman had a vacation home.

   The premise was simplistic, the humor slapstick, but critics have loved it for 100 years. During it’s thirty-year run, it gained such admirers as H.L. Mencken, Jack Kerouac, E.E. Cummings and Willem de Kooning, and many modern cartoonists have cited the strip as a major influence on their work.

krazy-kat-19190211-s

 

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OCTOBER 27, 1666: I DID IT WITH MY BOX OF MATCHES

I DID IT WITH MY BOX OF MATCHES

When the ashes settled after the great Chicago Fire, folks looked to assign blame and pointed their fingers at a cow.  The English were fire-of-londonalso looking to fix blame for a fire some two centuries earlier.  In early September 1666, a major fire broke out in Pudding Lane in the City of London and within days had destroyed 80 percent of the old city.
Accusations were flying in all directions — strangers, the Spanish, Dutch, Irish and most particularly the French, Catholics, even King Charles II.

Enter one Robert Hubert.  Hubert was a simple watchmaker who wasn’t quite wound up  — and he was a French Catholic.  He obligingly confessed to being the culprit, telling authorities he deliberately started the fire in Westminster.  He was arrested, but one little problem cropped up: the fire hadn’t even reached Westminster, let alone started there.

When confronted with the fact that the fire originated in a Pudding Lane bakery.  Hubert adjusted his story, saying that he had actually started the fire there, tossing a fire grenade through an open window.  What’s more, he did it because he was a French spy in service of the Pope.

Hubert was hauled before the court.  His story turned out to be riddled with problems.  The bakery had no windows, and Hubert was judged to be so crippled that he could not have thrown the grenade.  An even bigger problem:  he was not in England when the fire started, according to the testimony of the captain of a Swedish ship who had landed him on English soil two days after the outbreak of the fire.

Nevertheless, the court found Hubert guilty, and on October 27, 1666, he was hanged at Tyburn, London.  A year later, the cause of the fire was quietly changed to ‘the hand of God, a great wind and a very dry season.’

Don’t You Be a Meanie

Oh, Mr. Paganini
Please play my rhapsody
And if you cannot play it won’t you sing it?
And if you can’t sing you simply have to . . .

Mr. Paganini, aka (If You Can’t Sing It) You’ll Have to Swing It became a paganinifixture in Ella Fitzgerald’s repertoire back in the 1930s. The Mr. Paganini to whom she refers is composer and violin virtuoso Niccolo Paganini who was born on October 27, 1782. During the height of his career, the legendary “devil violinist”  set all of nineteenth-century Europe into a frenzy. He was a headliner in every major European city.  His technical ability was legend, and so was his willingness to flaunt it. His fame as a violinist was equaled by his reputation as a gambler and womanizer.

Alas, his grueling schedule and extravagant lifestyle took their toll, and he suffered from ever increasing health problems. He died in 1840.

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OCTOBER 26, 2010: WELL-ARMED SOOTHSAYER

WELL-ARMED SOOTHSAYER

Paul the Oracle was somewhat of a child prodigy, demonstrating a marked intelligence right from the get-go. “There was something about the way he looked at our visitors,” said the adult in Paul’s early life. “It was so unusual, so we tried to find out what his special talents were.”

Paul was hatched from an egg at the Sea Life Centre in Weymouth, England, then moved to his permanent home, a tank at a center in Oberhausen, Germany.  Paul took his name from a German children’s poem, Der Tintenfisch Paul Oktopus. He quickly became a celebrity by virtue of his divination of the outcome of international football matches, choosing the winners through a stratagem typical of German engineering in its complexity — picking boxes of oysters emblazoned with competing nations’ flags.

Octopuses are some of the most intelligent of invertebrates, with complex thought processes, memory, and different personalities (good octopus, bad octopus). They can use simple tools, learn through observation, and are particularly sensitive to pain. This according to PETA, the animal rights group. PETA argued that it was cruel to keep Paul in permanent confinement. Sea Life Centres contended that releasing him would be dangerous, because being born in captivity, he was only accustomed to sitting around a tank, popping oysters and using a remote, not fending for himself.

Paul’s accurate choices for the 2010 World Cup, broadcast live on German television, made him a star. Paul predicted the winners of each of seven matches that the German team played, against Australia, Serbia, Ghana, England, Argentina, Spain, and Uruguay. His prediction that Argentina would lose prompted Argentine chef Nicolas Bedorrou to post an octopus recipe on Facebook.

“There are always people who want to eat our octopus,” said Paul’s keeper. “He will survive.”

Paul’s correct prediction of the outcome of the semi-final, with Germany losing to Spain, led to death threats. Spain’s prime minister offered to give Paul safe haven in Spain.

Paul died on October 26, 2010, at the age of two-and-a-half, a normal lifespan for an octopus.  German attempts to find other oracles have never fared well. The animals at the Chemnitz Zoo were wrong on all their predictions.  Leon the porcupine incorrectly picked Australia, Petty the pygmy hippopotamus failed to be swayed by Serbia’s pile of hay topped with apples , and Anton the tamarin mistakenly ate a raisin representing Ghana.

The E-ri-e Was Arisin’

Back at the beginning of the 19th century, shipping goods from one end of New York to the other was a costly and cumbersome. Thereerie2 was no railroad, no trucking, no Thruway — just a two-week ordeal by stagecoach to get from New York City to Buffalo. The New York State Legislature leaped into this transportation breach. They proposed and Governor DeWitt Clinton enthusiastically endorsed a proposal to build a canal from Buffalo, at the eastern point of Lake Erie, to Albany, and the Hudson River. By 1817, they had authorized $7 million for the construction of what would laughingly be referred to as Clinton’s Ditch, 363 miles long, 40 feet wide, and four feet deep.

Work began in August 1823. Teams of oxen plowed the ground, and Irish workers did the digging, using only basic hand tools. It was a lot of work for $10 a month, but officials cleverly left barrels of whiskey alsong the route as an added inducement.

Governor Clinton opened the 425-mile Erie Canal on October 26, 1825, sailing from Buffalo in the Seneca Chief.  News of his departure was relayed to New York City by cannons placed along the entire length of the canal and river, each within hearing distance of the next cannon. The firing of each signaled the next to fire. It took 81 minutes to get the word to New York— the fastest communication the world had yet known. Clinton arrived in New York on September 4, where he ceremoniously emptied a barrel of Lake Erie water into the Atlantic Ocean — the “Marriage of the Waters” of the Great Lakes and the Atlantic.

The canal put New York on the map as the Empire State, transformed New York City into the nation’s principal seaport, and opened the interior of North America to settlement. It has been in continuous operation longer than any other constructed transportation system on the North American continent.

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OCTOBER 25, 1642: MEDICINAL WONDERS OF BRANDY

MEDICINAL WONDERS OF BRANDY

Sir Hugh Ackland of Devonshire in England was seized with a violent fever, and having apparently died during that afternoon of October 25, 1642, was laid out as dead. A nurse and two footmen were assigned todeatbed sit up through the night to watch his corpse, lest it be stolen. Lady Ackland sent the night watchers a bottle of brandy to add a little cheer to an otherwise dreary task.  One of the footmen, a bit of a rogue, said to the others: “The Master dearly loved brandy when he was alive, and now, though he is dead, I am determined he shall have a glass with us.” The footman then poured out a glass and forced it down Sir Hugh’s throat. The corpse immediately made a deep gurgling noise, and its neck and chest shook violently. In a panic, the watchers rushed downstairs, the footmen stumbling and rolling head-over-heels, the nurse screaming in terror.

The noise awakened a young gentleman who was sleeping in the house. He immediately jumped out of bed and raced up to the room where the body lay. There, he found Sir Hugh’s corpse sitting upright with a look of confusion on his face.  The young man summoned the servants and ordered them to place their master in a warm bed. He then sent for Sir Hugh’s medical attendants. Sir Hugh was restored to perfect health, and lived many years afterward, recounting his strange story frequently enough that Lady Ackland regretted having sent up the bottle of brandy.

The footman received a handsome annuity.

Well, dinner would have been splendid… if the wine had been as cold as the soup, the beef as rare as the service, the brandy as old as the fish, and the maid as willing as the Duchess.  — Winston Churchill