August 10, 1749: 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

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.

 

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

July 28, 1948: 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

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.

July 15, 971: Just Lying in the Rain

‘St. Swithin’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St. Swithin’s day if thou be fair
For forty days ’twill rain nae mair.’

     St. Swithin is the British counterpart to America’s Puxatawney Phil, except that the former is a ninth century bishop and the latter is a ground hog.  And just how did the good St. Swithin get his meterological stripes?  Here’s how:

ST-SWITHIN-DUDLEY-MAXIMSSt. Swithin was noted for his great humility, a quality that some may say he carried to excess. On his deathbed, he asked to be buried, not in the church or in some shrine, but outside where his corpse might be watered by rain from the church eaves and his grave stomped on by passers-by. Folks rolled their eyes a bit but complied with his request.

     And his remains lay wet and walked on for a good hundred years, until a more modern generation of clergy (those 10th century radicals!) took umbrage at one of their own resting in such a lowly spot. They decided at once to relocate Swithin, who could not object, to a great cathedral.  However, on July 15, 971,  just as a ceremony with great pomp and circumstance was about to begin, as if on cue, a heavy rain burst forth and continued with nary a break for 40 days (40 days is a popular duration for great rainfalls).

     The monks interpreted this tempest as a not-so-subtle warning from on high that their nasty little undertaking was a bit of blasphemy.  They immediately abandoned the project. And even without the help of modern social media, word spread throughout the land, and a tradition was born: if it rained on St. Swithin’s Day, it would rain for 40 days.

St. Swithin also planted apple trees (like Johnny Appleseed, who never predicted weather) leading to the popular description of rain: “St Swithin is christening the apples

It is best to read the weather forecast before praying for rain. ~Mark Twain

July 8, 1898: Squeaky Clean in Skagway

Soapy Smith, “king of the frontier con men” died in a gunfight celebrated as the Shootout on Juneau Wharf on the evening of July 8, 1898. His last words, while not particularly memorable and certainly not effective, were nevertheless appropriate to the situation: “My God, don’t shoot!”

Soapy’s career began soon after the death of his mother in Fort Worth, Texas. He formed a highly disciplined cadre of ne’er-do-wells to work for him, and rose rapidly to criminal super stardom. He built three major evil empires: in Denver, Colorado, from 1886 to 1895); Creede, Colorado in 1892; and Skagway, Alaska, from 1897 to 1898. It was in Skagway that he finally made his dramatic exit.

Starting off with small-time cons such as three-card monte and shell games, he eventually employed the big con that gave him his nickname. On a busy street corner, Smith would go into an ordinary sales pitch extolling the wonders of his soap cakes. But he proceeded to wrap money around the cakes of soap – ones, tens, a hundred dollar bill.   He then wrapped plain paper around them to hide the money.

soapyHe mixed the money-wrapped packages with bars containing no money and began selling the soap for a dollar a cake. Immediately, one of his shills would buy a bar, tear it open, and begin waving around the money he had supposedly won.  People began buying soap, usually several bars. Every few minutes, someone would shout that he had won, always a confederate. Eventually, Smith would announce that the hundred-dollar bill remained unpurchased and began auctioning off the remaining soap bars to the highest bidders. Naturally, the only money was “won” by members of the gang.

Smith used this swindle successfully for twenty years. The proceeds from this scam and others gave him the money to pay graft to police, judges, and politicians, and live as a somewhat shady swell until his comeuppance on the Juneau Wharf at the hand of a man he had cheated.

 

Take me or leave me; or, as is the usual order of things, both. ~ Dorothy Parker

 

 

July 6, 1189: It’s Good To Be the King II

Known as Cœur de Lion or the Lionheart because of his reputation as a great military leader and warrior, Richard I became King of England on July 6, 1189, and ruled until his death ten years later.  He was the stuff of which legends were made, particularly in the story of Robin Hood, although he’s strictly an offstage presence, being held prisoner in a far-off land until the very end and his triumphant return. Robin, you will remember, battled the evil Prince John who was doing his best to usurp Richard’s throne in his absence. Eventually, Richard returns triumphantly to England, but in a bit of a slap in the face to Robin, he forgives John and names him his heir to the throne. Robin is abandoned to Sherwood Forest and his “merry men” (see Robin Hood – Men in Tights).

     In reality, Richard, it seems, was a rather lackluster king, spending only six months of his ten-year reign in England (“hates London, it’s cold and it’s damp”) preferring to spend his time on crusades, battling Saladin, and waging wars throughout the world (“who would Jesus invade?”).

     He died as a result of an arrow wound (live by the arrow, die by the arrow).  According to a 13th century bishop, Richard was required to spend 33 years in purgatory atoning for his many sins before finally being allowed into heaven in March 1232.

     Richard III also began his reign on July 6, nearly 300 years later in 1483.  He took the crown shortly after having his nephew 12-year-old King Edward V declared a bastard and sent to the Tower. His only accomplishment as king seems to have been the murder of his two nephews (and a number of scholars would take that away from him too).  Bishops have not said how many years he had to spend in purgatory before joining his ancestors up above.

 

What is it about a beautiful sunny afternoon, with the birds singing and the wind rustling through the leaves, that makes you want to get drunk? – Jack Handey

 

 

June 23, 1626: Another Fish Story

A codfish was brought to market in Cambridge, England, on this day in 1626. Codfish were probably brought to market every day in 1626 – and in 1627 and throughout the centuries, but this was a rather unusual fish. Upon being opened, it was found to have a book in its stomach.  There are plenty of  fish in books, but how many books in fish are there?

The book had seen better days, but it remained readable. It had been written by one John Frith and included several essays on religious subjects evidently written by Frith when in prison. Oddly enough, he had been confined in a fish cellar where many of his fellow prisoners died from smelling too much salt cod. Frith got past the salt cod but was eventually taken to the Tower, and in 1533 was burned at the stake for unacceptable religious beliefs.  How he got his essays – which were no doubt inflammatory – into that cod is still a mystery.

The folks at Cambridge reprinted the work, which had been totally forgotten for a hundred years until it turned up inside the fish.  The reprint was called Vox Piscis, which would translate to “voice of the fish.”  There’s definitely a morale booster for writers here:  When Random House says no, go find yourself a big fish.

I know the human being and fish can co-exist peacefully. ― George W. Bush

June 22, 1774: Run Silent, Run Deep

In 1774, John Day, an ignorant but ingenious English millwright, fancied that he had devised a plan by which he could remain completely

underwater at any depth for at least 24 hours. The contraption he had devised for this feat would afford him a degree of comfort until, at his leisure, he returned to the surface.  Day could think of no useful purpose for his invention other than making money by wagering on his feat. He therefore contacted a local gambler who agreed to furnish funds for the construction of Day’s diving machine for a lion’s share of all the bets gained by it.

If nothing else, Day’s plan had the virtue of simplicity. His machine was merely a watertight box attached to a weight by means of screws. After entering the box and sealing the entrance, the vessel would be sunk and would remain underwater until, at the designated time, Day would remove the screws and he and the box would rise to the surface.

The machine was finished, bets were taken, and everyone convened at a designated spot on Plymouth Sound where the water was 132 feet deep. Day entered the compartment with a comfortable chair, a watch, some biscuits, a bottle of water and a candle.  Perhaps had he taken a basic science book with him — it may have enlightened him (if he read fast enough) but at that point it wouldn’t have helped.   The box was tightly closed and sunk 132 feet to the bottom from where neither it nor the unfortunate John Day ever arose.

I must confess that my imagination refuses to see any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocating its crew and floundering at sea.H. G. Wells

June 12, 1349: If You Outlaw Bows and Arrows . . .

In a letter dated June 12, 1349, England’s King Edward III wrote how the people of his realm, archboth rich and poor, had in previous times exercised their skill at shooting arrows and how that practice had brought honor and profit to the kingdom. But, he continued, that skill had been laid aside in favor of other pursuits. Therefore he commanded sheriffs throughout the realm to proclaim that every able citizen in their leisure time use their bows and arrows, and learn and exercise the art of archery.   And furthermore, they should not in “any manner apply themselves to the throwing of stones, wood, or iron, handball, football, bandyball, cambuck, or cockfighting”  or any other such trivial pursuits (that includes golf).

A hundred years later, Edward IV continued the tradition, decreeing that all Englishmen, other than clergymen or judges, should own  bows their own height, keeping them always ready for use and providing practice for  sons age seven or older. Fines were levied for failing to shoot every Sunday.

Sir Wayne of LaPierre complained that the law did not go far enough, that it lacked a provision that citizens should carry concealed bows and arrows and quivers with more than a ten-arrow capacity.  And a ban on background checks for potential archers, of course.

– – –

I got to dress up in funny clothes and run around New Zealand with a bow and arrow for 18 months, how bad could that be? Orlando Bloom on Lord of the Rings