SEPTEMBER 11, 1680: THE UNFORTUNATE ROGER CRAB

THE UNFORTUNATE ROGER CRAB

Seventeenth century England was not without its share of eccentrics, folks who were not the sharpest arrows in the quiver. Roger Crab may certainly be categorized as one of them, although his misfortune at having his skull split open while serving in the Parliamentary Army might provide some excuse for his eccentricity. The unfortunate Crab was sentenced to death after the incident (for having his skull in the wrong place at the wrong time?), but his sentence was later commuted and, upon his release, he became a haberdasher of hats.

His wandering mind somehow happened upon the idea that it was sinful to eat any kind of animal food or to drink anything stronger than water. Determined to pursue a biblical way of life, Crab sold all his hats and other belongings, distributing the proceeds among the poor. He then took up residence in a makeshift hut, where he lived on a diet of bran, leaves and grass (the 16th century equivalent of a kale and edamame diet), and began to produce pamphlets on the wonders of diet.

“Instead of strong drinks and wines,” he wrote, “I give the old man (referring to his body) a cup of water; and instead of roast mutton and rabbit, and other dainty dishes, I give him broth thickened with bran, and pudding made with bran and turnip-leaves chopped together.”

mad-hatterJust as Crab persecuted his own body, others began to persecute him. He was cudgeled and put in the stocks. He was stripped and whipped. Four times he was arrested on suspicion of being a wizard. He bounced from prison to prison until his death on September 11, 1680.  Fortunately, our modern society treats its vegetarian eccentrics much more humanely.

Some scholars believe Crab was the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter.

Just a Bunch of Tomorrows, Part 1: Bessie and Cora

I really don’t know why my mother took me to see Bessie and Cora.  Perhaps she was worried about the future, my future, and the future was Bessie and Cora’s forte.  These two sixty-something ladies shared a bungalow on the upper end of D Street, a bungalow from which they told fortunes, mostly to the young women whose husbands were off trying their best to wind down World War II.

Bessie and Cora were twins as well as fortunetellers.

Although they looked very much alike, they were not identical, which made life much easier for Wilhelm, Cora’s husband, who also shared the bungalow and whose eyesight and mental prowess had been waning since about 1939, so that it was difficult enough for him to identify his wife as it was.

Bessie and Cora each took a slightly different spin on divining the future:  Bessie was an avowed palmist; Cora dabbled in tarot, tea leaves and the other trendier methods.  Bessie was pragmatic; she gave her clients nuts and bolts information to help them cope with the near-term future.  Cora was a blue-sky seer; her flights of fancy took her clients into a distant romantic future filled with dark strangers and great wealth.

My mother took me to see Bessie and Cora twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays while she went to do her part for the war effort — I was never sure exactly what — I always assumed it was riveting airplanes, but that’s probably just a romantic notion I picked up later in life.  And so, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, my future was in the hands of Bessie and Cora.  It didn’t take too many Tuesdays and Thursdays for me to completely read their meager library of children’s books and lose interest in the fortune telling paraphernalia that had outlived its usefulness and had been consigned to a cardboard box in the back hallway.

And how many times can you hear your future foretold?  I would be a good student, and if I studied hard, become very smart and eventually successful  — that’s what Bessie saw in my palm.  She held my palm tightly, looked at it sternly, her features as hard as the marble bust of Beethoven that watched from an upper bookshelf.  (I could never understand Wilhelm’s confusion.  The sisters did look very much alike, but even though their physical features were the same, Bessie’s were hard and Cora’s were soft — an incredible difference that should have been obvious to everyone, even Wilhelm. Bessie looked just as much like Old Marble Beethoven as she did like Cora.  At least I thought so.)  Bessie’s divination of my future never wavered; it was exactly the same on the third Thursday as it was on the first Tuesday, so I quickly gave complete control of my future to Cora.

Soft-featured Cora spread out her tea leaves and told me that someday I would fly in very fast airplanes to faraway places where I’d meet fascinating people — kings, queens, archdukes, emirs.  She consulted her cards to discover that I would, when I reached a proper age, have rendezvous with women as beautiful as Rita Hayworth, as lively as Carmen Miranda, as mysterious as Marlene Dietrich.  The bumps and contours of my ten-year-old head revealed that adventure also lie ahead — hidden treasures, Himalayan treks, maybe even a trip to Mars.  It was a wonderful life that Cora had planned for me, but even her big wide wonderful world of the future grew tiresome in time.

Wilhelm wasn’t particularly impressed by his wife’s or his sister-in-law’s prowess at prognostication.  Whenever the subject came up, he’d just snort and say:  “The future.  It’s just a bunch of tomorrows, pretty much the same as today.”  For a while I enjoyed sneaking up on Wilhelm to see how close I could get before he knew I was there.

continued

Just a Bunch of Tomorrows is included in Naughty Marietta and Other Stories

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SEPTEMBER 9, 1754: ET TU, FLETCHER?

ET TU, FLETCHER?

When little Billy Bligh, born on September 9, 1754, joined the British Royal Navy at the tcirca 1817: English naval officer and victim of the celebrated mutiny on the bounty William Bligh (1754 - 1817) is cast adrift. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)ender age of seven, he certainly never thought he’d grow up to haul breadfruit around the world. At sixteen, he became an able seaman, then a year later a midshipman. And in 1787, Bligh became Captain of the Bounty.

The Royal Society was offering special prizes to those who would travel to Tahiti, pick up a bunch of breadfruit trees and haul them back to the Caribbean as a source of cheap high-energy food for slaves. It sounded simple enough on paper, but getting there was far from half the fun. First, there was Cape Horn. The Bounty tried to get round it for a month before giving up and taking a longer route. Then Bligh and his crew had to sit around in the tropical sunshine for five months waiting for the little breadfruit babies to get big enough to travel. And when finally they set off for the Caribbean, didn’t Fletcher Christian and his cohorts, having grown fond of the Tahitian ambiance, up and mutiny.

Bligh and his loyalists were loaded into a launch with nary a breadfruit tree and set adrift. Amazingly, they survived and sailed over 4,000 miles to Timor, from where they returned to England. And two years later Bligh headed another expedition and this time successfully carried a load of trees to the Caribbean. However, the slaves refused to eat the breadfruit, wanting no part of a fruit that tasted like day-old bread.

The Ballad of Breadfruit

Once upon a time, according to Hawaiian legend, Kū , the war god, for reasons known only to Kū, decided to live secretly among the common folk and pass himself off as a mortal. He posed as a farmer and even went so far as to marry and have a family. Kū and his family lived quite happily, but being a war god Kū wasn’t such a hot farmer, and famine struck (as famine will). When everybody got pretty darn hungry,

Ku posing as a farmer

Kū realized it was time to shed his disguise and do some god thing. One would think his action would involve a battle of some kind, his being the god of war and all. Instead he disappeared into the ground right before his astonished family’s eyes. They were quite distressed by this, so they stood around where he had last been seen and cried day and night, thus watering the ground until a tiny green sprout emerged. The tiny sprout grew into a magnificent tree heavy with fruits that looked like big ugly green footballs. After tossing one around for a bit, they wondered if they might eat it since they were starving. They tried it, and it tasted awful. But they ate it anyway, saving themselves from starvation, and always remembering that this tree was their beloved Kū, finally providing for his family.

 

The Wisdom of Charlie Chan

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SEPTEMBER 5, 1786: WATCH IT WITH THAT THING; YOU’LL POKE SOMEBODY’S EYE OUT

WATCH IT WITH THAT THING; YOU’LL POKE SOMEBODY’S EYE OUT

Jonas Hanway who died on September 5, 1786, was well-know in several British spheres — a vice president of the Foundling Hospital, founder of Magdalen Hospital, revolutionizing London birth registration, and in charge of “victuallizing” the Navy. On the other hand, he was also known for tirades against tipping and tea-drinking and his support for the concept of solitary confinement.

But what he is most remembered for is bringing the umbrella to Britain. Now the umbrella had been around for a long time. It was invented in China back in the 11th century B.C. It was popular in Greece and Egypt as a sunshade. It was also used in Rome, but when the empire declined and fell, so did use of the umbrella. It was finally reintroduced in the 15th century, and by the 17th century had become quite popular among sophisticated women in France and even some British women. But a man?

Hanway is credited with being the first male Londoner to carry an umbrella, much to the chagrin of hackney coachmen who thought it their proprietary right to protect Londoners from rainfall. For years, they jeered at him with vigor as being a feminine sissy and even worse, a French sissy. But by the time of his death, umbrellas were commonplace throughout London.

Brolliology is of course the study of umbrellas. Of course. Does anyone actually know a brolliologist? What inspires someone to become one? What are their conventions like? We will study the umbrella a little further on September 7, the date of another noted umbrella in history.

Animals House

houseRThe Beatles had already roiled the American music scene by the fall of 1964, but the British invasion had many skirmishes to go. Another assault came in the form of the Animals who, on September 5, 1964 grabbed the top spot on the U.S. pop charts with their bluesy hit about a New Orleans whore house. No bubble gum here.

“We were looking for a song that would grab people’s attention,” said Eric Burdon. “House of the Rising Sun” got people’s attention big time. The song originated many years before the Animals recording. Alan Lomax recorded an early rendition in the ’30s. Bob Dylan and various folk artists had also recorded versions.

The song is supposedly about a house on St. Louis Street in the French Quarter, said to be the original House of the Rising Sun brothel, run by a Madam named Marianne LeSoleil Levant between 1862 and 1874. The early version is a lament by one of the working girls:

There is a house in New Orleans they call the Rising Sun.
It’s been the ruin of many a poor girl and me, O God, for one.
If I had listened what Mama said, I’d be at home today.
Being so young and foolish, poor boy, let a rambler lead me astray.
Go tell my baby sister never do like I have done
To shun that house in New Orleans they call the Rising Sun.

 

 

AUGUST 30, 1794: PENNY WISE, POUND FOOLISH

In the late 1800s, many of the unfortunates who found themselves in English prisons were there as a result of debts they could not pay. Benjamin Pope had a different story; he found his way to prison for a debt he could easily have paid. Pope was a tanner and quite successful in his trade, enough so that he gave up tanning and became a money-lender and mortgagee. He proved successful at this endeavor as well, earning the nickname “Plum Pope.”

     Alas, his good fortune began to desert him, in no small part because of his greed. His grasping ways scroogein the lending of money led him afoul of the usury laws, and he was frequently brought before the court. In one particularly blatant case, he was fined £10,000.

Instead of paying the fine, he stole away to France with all his property. There, he complained bitterly to anyone who would listen about the unfairness of the English laws. The French naturally commiserated. Nevertheless, he eventually returned to England, but still refused to pay the fine. He went to prison instead. At one point, he could have secured his release by paying just £1000 of the £10,000 fine. Not Plum Pope.

     While in prison, he carried on his avocation as a money lender, albeit on a more limited and cautious scale. While always a penny-pincher, he became more so and more eccentric about it. He would drink beer with anyone who would give it to him, but would never buy it. He would not eat meat unless it was given to him. He chewed his gum twice. When he died on August 30, 1794, after 12 years in prison, he still owed the debt that had sent him there, even though he left behind more than enough to pay it.

Any man who would walk five miles through the snow, barefoot, just to return a library book so he could save three cents — that’s my kind of guy. — Jack Benny

AUGUST 29, 1769: WICKED WITCH OF THE WHIST

WICKED WITCH OF THE WHIST

In 1769 London, a gentleman died at the ripe old age of 97. Although little is known about the gentleman himself, his name has traveled down through the years and is more familiar to us today Bridge-Playersthan to those who might have rubbed elbows with the man back in the eighteenth century. His name was Edmond Hoyle, and although he was a barrister by trade, he is now known for law only as it applies to games of chance. And he is much more recognized by his nickname ‘According to.”

     Hoyle laid down the law for the game of Whist in a widely circulated treatise on the subject. He also had a great deal to say about backgammon, quadrille, piquet, and chess. He was, we might surmise, one of those wet blankets who must rain on card-game parades (to jumble metaphors, about which Hoyle had nothing to say) with their whining “but the rules say” or “according to Hoyle.”

     But Whist was his long suit. This venerable game provides ample material on which to pontificate, and pontificate Hoyle did. A forerunner of Bridge, Whist is all about taking tricks. Who takes them, and when and how and why gives the game a wide variety of flavors from which to choose. There’s Knockout Whist, a game in which a player who wins no trick is eliminated, sent to stand in a corner; Solo Whist, a game where individuals can bid to win 5, 9 or 13 tricks or to lose every trick; Kleurenwiezen, an elaborate Belgian version of the game, filled with Gallic mischief; Minnesota Whist, played to win tricks or to lose tricks (talk about flexibility); Romanian Whist, a game in which players try to predict the exact number of tricks they will take; German Whist for two very aggressive players who take tricks from Poland without prior warning; Bid Whist in which players bid to determine trump and one player is a dummy who sits out the hand; and Danish Whist, in which the dummy brings pastries to the other players.  But England lays claim to most of the true Whist players. It is easy to imagine a group of eighteenth century British aristocrats at their club. “Shall we have a go at a spot of Whist?” “Capital idea.” “Jolly.” “According to Hoyle . . .”

 

AUGUST 24, 1850: MEET ME AT THE FAIR

MEET ME AT THE FAIR

London’s Bartholomew Fair, a wild celebration on the eponymous saint’s anniversary, died not with bartha bang but a whimper after enduring for more than seven centuries, Although originally established for legitimate business purposes, the fair had become all eating, drinking and amusement (for shame!) and a bit of a public nuisance with rowdiness and mischief.

Serious pursuits, uplifting exhibits, and dramatic entertainments had given way to shows and exhibits catering to the lowest common denominator of British fair-goers tastes – conjurers, wild beasts, monsters, learned pigs, dwarfs, giants. A prodigious monster with one head and two distinct bodies, a woman with three breasts, a child with three legs. A mermaid with a monkey’s head and the tail of a fish. Puppet shows, pantomimes, and coarse melodramas. A pig-faced lady and a potato that looked like King Henry VIII.

Eventually the fair grew less curiouser and curiouser, and on August 24, 1850, when the mayor went as usual to proclaim the opening of the fair, he found nothing to make it worth the trouble. No mayor went after that, and in 1855 the fair rolled over and expired.

I went to the animal fair,

The Birds and the Beasts were there.
The big baboon, by the light of the moon,
Was combing his auburn hair.
The monkey, he got drunk,
And sat on the elephant’s trunk.
The elephant sneezed and fell on his knees,
And what became of the monk, the monk?
The monk, the monk, the monk.

— Minstrel Song

AUGUST 10, 1749: MORE POWERFUL THAN . . .

MORE POWERFUL THAN . . .

Thomas Topham, born in London about 1710, was brought up in the trade of carpentry and eventually found himself as the landlord of a small pub, the Red Lion Inn. Though he was by no tophammeans remarkable in size, he was endowed with extraordinary muscular powers and was able to entertain the patrons by performing various feats of strength. Crowds began to gather at the inn, not to drink but to see him perform.  To entertain the crowds, he might break a broomstick by striking it against his bare arm or lift a horse and toss it over a fence or roll up a pewter plate weighing seven pounds as another man would roll up a sheet of paper. In addition to his freakish strength, Topham could also sing in a basso profundo voice said to be so deep and resonant that it was scarcely human.

Strong as he was, he had basically a gentle nature. Sure, he might wrap an iron pipe around the neck of a man who irked him, but all in all he was a good-natured soul.  Naturally, the fame of this amazing strong man spread throughout England, and he became known as the Modern Samson.  He continued to wow bigger and bigger crowds – lifting 200-pound weights on his little finger or a six foot long oak table with his teeth, smashing a coconut by striking it against his ear, bending a one-inch thick iron bar around his bare arm with one blow.

     Alas, great fortune was not to continue for our Modern Samson. Like his biblical namesake, he was done in by the wiles of his very own Delilah. On August 10, 1749, his world came crashing down like that ancient temple when he discovered his wife’s infidelity.   After stabbing her to death, he used the knife on himself; dying from his wounds shortly thereafter.

She stood there laughing
I felt the knife in my hand and she laughed no more
My, my, my Delilah
Why, why, why Delilah
So before they come to break down the door
Forgive me, Delilah, I just couldn’t take any more.

— Delilah, as sung by Tom Jones

JULY 31, 1718: LUST IN THE BARLEY

LUST IN THE BARLEY

A tragedy occurred on the last day of July in the English countryside, and eighteenth century poets were all over it like paparazzi on today’s celebrities. Gay wrote about it, and even Pope versified the unfortunate event.  John Hewit was a well-set man of 25, the comely Sara Drew about the same age, when they were both struck dead by a single lightning bolt. An anonymous poet (neither Gay nor Pope) told the sad story:

loversmeadowSara and Johnnie were lovers.

Oh, how those two kids could love.

Vowed to be true to each other,

As true as the stars above

He was her man,  And they were doing no wrong.

 

They were out in the meadow,

Picking flowers they say.

They lay down in the barley

Just to pass the time of day.

She was his woman, And they were doing no wrong.

 

The rain began, pitter patter.

It soaked them right through to the skin.

The great storm of 1718,

Yet the lovers didn’t come in.

He was her man, And they were doing no wrong.

 

Then came loud peals of thunder.

Guess what? They stayed there outside.

Lightning struck all around them.

Alas, our lovers were fried.

She was his woman, And they’ll be doing no wrong.

 

When the neighbors went searching, they saw the barley smoking. Then they spied the faithful pair – Sara, lifeless, with just a tiny burn mark on her breast;  John lying upon her in a vain attempt to shield her from the lightning, black all over.  Their tombstone, penned by Pope, read:

Near this place lie the bodies

OF JOHN HEWIT AND SARA DREW

an industrious young man

and virtuous maiden of this parish

who, being at harvest-work

were in one instant killed by lightning

the last day of July 1718

Either Pope didn’t know the sordid truth or he wasn’t telling.

 

JULY 28, 1948: THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN WITH NO FLYING MACHINES

THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN WITH NO FLYING MACHINES

A fog had settled over London on July 28, 1948.  All was quiet and seemingly normal. But of course it wasn’t. Visualize if you will a large shipment of gold bullion awaiting transport at London Airport. A gang of evildoers determined to make off with it.  And an elite throng of intrepid bobbiescrimestoppers known as the Metropolitan Police Flying Squad. You have all the ingredients in place for the adventure known as the “Battle of London Airport.”  Talk about fodder for a summer blockbuster action-adventure movie or at least a page turner to take to the beach.

 

You’d certainly be forgiven for picturing a major confrontation with flying aces swooping in for a pitched battle with the bad guys.  But this is England. 1948. More likely a bevy of bobbies pedaling in on their bicycles or on foot, with nightsticks drawn, like so many Keystone Cops.

In fact, The Metropolitan Police Flying Squad didn’t have a flying machine to its name. Formed back at a time when the Wright Brothers and other dreamers were still tinkering with air travel, the Squad — known at the time the Mobile Patrol Experiment consisted of a dozen members of Scotland Yard. Their original mission was to chase down pickpockets by hiding in a horse-drawn carriage with peep holes cut in the canvas top.

 

During the 1920s, the squad expanded to forty officers, under the command of a Detective Superintendent and was authorized to carry out duties anywhere in London without observing the normal policing divisions, thus earning the name “Flying Squad.” It was also given the nickname “the Sweeney” (as in Sweeney Todd) for reasons that remain obscure.

 

The 1948 Battle of London Airport was the Squad’s crowning achievement, thwarting the attempted theft of £15 million in gold and jewelry.  During the 70s and 80s, however, the Squad came under fire for its close ties with the criminal world (always part of its operating strategy). Bribery and corruption scandals surfaced, and the squad’s commander was jailed for eight years. Twelve other officers were also convicted and many more resigned.

The Flying Squad had lost its wings.

A flying squad without wings is as lost as pirates without a ship.  Speaking of pirates, Terry and the Pirate is available all over the place in both paperback and electronic versions. Check it out at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple.

JULY 17, 1717: CHAMBERMAIDS GONE WILD

CHAMBERMAIDS GONE WILD

The King was on the poop deck counting out his money; the Queen was in the fo’c’sle eating bread and honey.

     A bevy of aristocrats, including King George I himself, boarded the royal barge at Whitehall Palace for a nautical jaunt up the Thames toward Chelsea.  Anne V was there, as was the Duchess Sailing to Musicof Bolton, the Duchess of Newcastle, the Countess of Darlington, the Countess of Godolphin, Madam Kilmarnock, and the Earl of Orkney, to drop just a few names. The rising tide propelled the barge upstream without any necessity of rowing. The evening’s dinner consisted of four and twenty naughty boys, baked in a pie.*

     Another barge provided by the City of London contained His Majesty’s secret service, the press corps, and fifty musicians who performed music written for the occasion by composer and conductor George Frideric Handel. The music opened with a melodic French overture and skittered through minuets and bourrées, with enthusiastic hornpipers hornpiping throughout.

     Many freeloaders also took to the river to hear the free concert. According to a London newspaper, the whole River was covered with rubbernecking boats and barges.  On arriving at Chelsea, the king left his barge, then returned to it at about 11 p.m. for the return trip. No one knows exactly what he did during his bit of shore leave, but rumor has it a chambermaid was involved. (The Queen was in the fo’c’sle eating bread and honey; the King was in the Chambermaid and she was in the money, goes the unauthorized verse.) The king was so pleased with the evening’s music that he yelled “more, more” every time the orchestra attempted to take a break, forcing them to play until well after midnight.  The moonlight, the lapping of the water against the barge, and the chambermaid are all lost to history, but Handel’s Water Music lives on.

* Sing a Song of Sixpence,
   A bag full of Rye,
   Four and twenty Naughty Boys,
   Baked in a Pye.