Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

January 28, 1807: He Made the Night a Little Brighter

Frederick Albert Winzer was a German entrepreneur living in London on Pall Mall, that city’s version of Boardwalk or Park Place. He was one of those guys who, you could say, lit up his neighborhood. Winzer had developed and patented in 1804 a method of gas lighting fueled by the burning of coal , a technology he lectured on and demonstrated that same year at London’s Lyceum Theater. Earlier fuels included olive oil, beeswax, fish oil, and whale oil.

On January 28, 1807, thanks to Winzer, Pall Mall became the first street anywhere to be illuminated by gaslight. Street lighting itself was nothing new. For centuries, citizens were required to hang out lanterns or keep lights burning in windows that faced the streets. But the new gaslights were an exciting novelty and a boon for those old lamplighters.

Linzer followed the lighting of Pall Mall with a special exhibition later that year in honor of the birthday of King George III, using gaslight to superimpose images against the walls of the buildings along his street.The use of gaslight quickly took off. By 1823, the first public gas company, the Gas Light and Coke Co., had covered 215 miles of London’s streets with 40,000 lamps and soft drinks.

The gaslight remained the primary means of street illumination in Europe and North America throughout the 19th century. Although they’ve been pretty much replaced by electric lighting, some gaslights remain, usually in the historic districts of older cities. (In the United States, gaslit neighborhoods can still be found in Boston, Cincinnati and New Orleans).

Adios Mis Amigos

On January 28, 1948, a DC-3 plane carrying 32 passengers crashed in California’s Diablo Mountain Range, killing everyone aboard. News reports listed only the pilot, first officer and stewardess by name; the others were identified as deportees. The Hispanic victims were buried in a mass grave marked “Mexican Nationals.” At least they were not identified as rapists and murderers and other really bad people.

Woody Guthrie wrote a song about the incident:

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January 26, 1784: Soar Like a Turkey

If Benjamin Franklin had had his way, the bald eagle would never have become a national symbol. He would have preferred the rattlesnake which he suggested was an appropriate symbol of “the temper and conduct of America.” He also suggested a scene of confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh.

In a January 26, 1784, letter to his daughter, Franklin outlines his case against the eagle: “He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

“With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem . . .”

If we must have a bird as our symbol, why not the turkey? “For the Truth (says Franklin) the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America.”

Soar like a turkey.


Louis solemnly marched back and forth between the pharmacy at Number 10 and the tobacconist at Number 14, eyes right, with a deep sigh each time he passed Number 12, the Cafe Victor Hugo. Unlike the doors at Numbers 10 and 14, the door to the small bistro at Number 12 remained unopened, even though it would normally have been open for twenty minutes by now. And by now, Louis would have reached page two of Le Monde, would have finished his jus de pampelmousse, and would be settling into his cafe au lait and croissant. These things were seemingly trivial but they characterized his morning ritual, and rituals should not be kept waiting.

“Where is that infernal Jacques?” Louis demanded of the locked door, of the brick facade, of the sidewalk. Agitation hardened the wrinkles of his face and turned his blue eyes steely. Jacques had operated the Cafe Victor Hugo for twelve years now, succeeding his father who had operated it for as long as it had existed on the boulevard from which it took its name. Jacques was a little young, but he was a good man who ran a good bistro, because he properly ran it the way his father ran it. And he was properly deferential to the old men who sat so often at the corner table, the men he had inherited when he inherited the bistro.

Of the old men, only two remained on this earth. Francois and Emmanuel had both died within the past year, Bertran two years before, and Jean was in an institution unable to move or speak — quite a change, since, for 73 years, he had hardly ever refrained from speaking. Of the group who held sway night and day at the corner table, only Louis and Albert remained. And one day, Louis mused, Albert would be sitting at the corner table without him, or he without Albert. “Such is life,” he said aloud, then caught himself with a little laugh. “Life? Such is not life; such is death. Where is that man? I have so few needs, and yet he would deprive me of them.”

Weekday mornings, the Cafe Victor Hugo was as deserted as the cathedral down the street. The few patrons who sat within silently worshiped their morning papers and sipped their holy morning liquids. In the corner pew, the church elders did not just read their newspapers; they scoured them in a search for indiscretions and transgressions, breaking the silence as necessary to castigate the sinners with a healthy dose of hellfire and brimstone. “That jackal so-and-so has done it again” or “just like the Americans” would occasionally thunder through the bistro, and the simple blessing “merde!” was voiced as frequently as “amen!” at an American Baptist get-together.

Evenings, on the other hand, were not the least bit silent. After a hearty cassoulet or leek pie and several rounds of drinks, a smoky haze would envelope the corner, tongues would be loosened, and the jackals of the morning and anyone else who had crossed the old men during the day would be vilified in earnest.

“Andre the butcher is a criminal of the worst sort,” Albert would say. “The moneychangers driven from the temple were not nearly the usurers that Andre is. Fifty francs for a sausage of less than a kilo.”

“And one must question the parentage of Andre’s sausage,” Louis would add, always ready to goose along a good tirade. “Only God knows what he stuffs into them.”

“Maybe he’s like that Englishman who ground up other Englishmen and stuffed them into sausages.”

“A sausage stuffed with Englishmen wouldn’t be worth half a franc.”


And then Louis might drag poor Jacques into the fray: “And what’s in your sausage, Jacques. Any Englishmen? Or worse still, Americans?”

“Non, non,” Jacques would playfully protest. “One hundred percent French. And only children. Plump ones.”

But even such a conversational detour into the contents of sausage would not let the poor butcher off the hook. No matter how far the old men wandered, they would eventually return to Andre. “That wife of his cheats on him, you know.” A fairly simple formula controlled the debasement of the day’s villains, for the villains shared certain qualities that must inevitably be addressed. Their credentials as Frenchmen were suspect. They consorted with foreigners, particularly English-speaking foreigners — and possibly shared their blood. Their wives invariably cheated on them, their daughters were wanton, and their sons effeminate.

“Where is Jacques?” Louis shouted at the tobacconist as though he were the man’s guardian. The tobacconist merely answered with an insulting gesture as he always had since the day Louis called him a Vichy whoremaster. “Can the French do nothing on time anymore?” He turned back toward the pharmacy.

In the evening, once the villains had been dealt with, the old men mellowed out on cognac and grew nostalgic for better days. They were prodded on by the old songs that Jacque’s father had first put on the juke box that no longer took money. The great war evoked many of their best memories. Even though they had hated the war when they were young and in it, it had, over the years, become a thing of beauty and pleasure. Their individual little experiences, trivial at best and nasty at worst, had been melded into one unified grand history, one that became grander with each retelling, now a sweet dream of youth rather than the nightmare of carnage it had actually been.

They revered the past, but every day a little bit of it disappeared. Change came without being invited. And with each change, something good was gone forever, until the world had changed so much that it was no longer their world. It was someone else’s world and as foreign as the most remote world in a science fiction story. “Perhaps it’s the way of preparing us to die,” Louis would say. “Making the world a place in which we no longer care to live.”

“Just look at this cafe. Look at the empty tables. People today are too healthy to eat cassoulet, too aloof to share an aperitif. If they go anywhere at all, they go to discos where the music destroys all hopes of conversation. They go to shopping centers where everyone is a stranger. They buy their food to take home, to eat alone. And they watch television or tap those silly little phones. Nobody talks. Nobody relaxes with friends.” And nobody paid much attention to Louis’ lament, except Albert who would nod sympathetically and try to stay awake.

Forty minutes, and still no Jacques. Louis paused at the door to the Cafe Victor Hugo once more, and for the first time he noticed the sign. It was the same sign that had always been there — the one that said the bistro was closed. The other side, the side that should have been displayed, proclaimed the bistro to be open. But something had been hastily printed beneath the word closed. Louis looked closer and saw that the words until further notice had been added.

The sign took his breath away, weakened him. How could this be? Without telling us? This was terrible. He must speak to Albert. A fear suddenly gripped him, and the closing of the bistro took on an even greater and more fearsome significance. He knew everything about Albert, every intimate detail about Albert’s life — everything but what mattered now, his last name, his address, his phone number.

Louis continued to pace, again to the tobacconist, again to the pharmacy, and back to the darkened bistro. He would wait. Maybe Albert would come.


This is one of ten stories in the collection Naughty Marietta and Other Stories.  See more here.

Yesterdays robots: 

R2D2 (Star Wars), C-3PO (Star Wars), Gort (The Day the Earth Stood Still), Robby the Robot (Forbidden Planet), Wall-E, Rosie the Maid (The Jetsons), Number 5 (Short Circuit), Robocop

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January 17, 1893: Wanna Go Back To My Little Grass Shack

Back in the eighth century, simple Polynesian voyagers in their handmade sailing vessels arrived on the islands of Hawaii, not known then as the Hawaiian Islands or even the Sandwich Islands. They led an idyllic existence – hula dancing, surfing, exchanging leis, trading banter: “Kulikuli, Ku’uipo” or “Hau‘oli Makahiki Hou” and occasionally chanting.

hawaiiFor nearly a thousand years, Hawaiians lived like this (not the same ones, but many generations), and then came the  European explorers and – the Americans. American traders came to Hawaii for the islands’ sandalwood, which they sold to China. Then came the sugar industry followed naturally by missionaries. They moved right in and immediately upended Hawaiian political, cultural, economic, and religious life. In 1840, the monarchy, which had given us such notables as Kamehameha and Kamehameha II and Kamehameha III, became constitutional and lost much of its grandeur.

Four years later, a man name of Sanford B. Dole was born in Honolulu to American parents.

During the next four decades, Hawaii’s ties to the United States grew closer thanks to a number of treaties, and in 1887, a U.S. naval base was established at Pearl Harbor as part of a new Hawaiian constitution. Sugar exports to the United States grew, and U.S. investors and American sugar planters broadened their dominion over Hawaiian affairs. Queen Liliuokalani, who ascended to the throne in 1891, wanted none of this and said hele along with a Hawaiian gesture involving a ukulele.

The Americans were above trading unpleasantries. Instead on January 17, 1893, a revolutionary “Committee of Safety,” organized by the aforementioned Sanford B. Dole, staged a coup against Queen Liliuokalani. The United States turned a blind eye to the Hawaiian troubles, but 300 Marines who just happened to be in the neighborhood watched from offshore.

Shortly afterward, the US annexed Hawaii and sixty years later it became the 50th state. The Dole family – well, just think pineapple.


fuchsia January 17, 1501

German botanist Leonhard Fuchs was born in 1501. He died in 1566, but not before giving his name to the shrub that remains popular today.

No, it’s not the Rose of Leonhard.



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January 16, 1777: We’re Outta Here

It would appear that the state of Vermont got kicked around a lot back in Revolutionary times. After it had been governed as a part of New Hampshire for 15 years, King George III decided in 1764 that the territory should belong to New York. It didn’t take long for Vermonters (they weren’t really called that yet) to realize they didn’t want to be a part of the Empire State (it wasn’t called that yet), so in 1777 they got together and declared their independence from everybody — New York, Britain and New Hampshire.

They called their independent state New Connecticut (they had some identity problems). After a few months, they renamed the state Vermont, a bastardized translation of the French for Green Mountain. A month later, they wrote themselves a constitution, the first written in North America and the first to prohibit slavery.

Throughout the 1780s the U.S. Congress refused to recognize their independence (kind of snarky for someone having just fought a war for independence). In 1784, the governor of New York asked the U.S. Congress to declare war on Vermont, but Congress (probably sick of war) did not oblige.  Vermonters turned to the British, requesting readmittance to the empire as part of Canada. Finally, in 1791, Vermont was admitted to the new American nation as the 14th state.

Crazy Aunts in New Hampshire’s Attic

Democrats recently took over New Hampshire’s House of Representatives.  One of their first acts was to repeal their own right to legislate while armed to the teeth.  This undid one of the first pieces of legislation Republicans passed when they had control, one I discussed in one of my very first posts:

I don’t like to speak ill of a neighbor.  But if your neighbor has a crazy aunt locked up in the attic, you’ve got to say something.  And our New England neighbor New Hampshire has a bunch of crazy aunts locked up in the state legislature attic.  New Hampshire has a history that includes its desire to have a nuclear weapon.  And where would this nuke have been aimed?  Duck and cover, Montpelier.

Jumping to the present, New Hampshire has just armed its state legislators, but in a tip of the hat to Yankee reserve, legislators are not allowed to brandish those weapons; they must keep them concealed.   I guess if they’re threatened, they shout:  “Don’t mess with me, I’m carrying a concealed weapon.”  “I don’t believe you,” says the threatener.  “Show me.”  “I can’t, but I really do have a concealed weapon, honest I do.”  This of course has been disastrous to the holster industry, which has been struggling for quite a while.

Who are these legislators?  Let’s do a little demographic digging.  There are 400 members of New Hampshire’s House of Representatives.  According to Wikipedia, that’s one representative for every 3,300 residents.  If the United States had the same level of representation, the U.S. House of Representatives would have 99,000 members.  About 300 are Republican.  We might as well forget about the Democrats (New Hampshire has) and concentrate on the majority.   They’re mostly male.  In ethnicity, they range in color from eggshell white to antique white.  Their average age is somewhere around 103.

As long as we’re on the subject of crazy aunts and weaponry, we should probably mention Utah.  It’s my state of birth, my state of youth.  Thus I follow its news a bit, its sports a bit.  It, like Vermont, has snow, snow, snow. But unlike Vermont it now has a state gun.  You got it, a state gun.  And not some romantic firearm like a Winchester Rifle or a Colt 45, but a semiautomatic whatsis.  Utah is the first state in the nation to have a state gun, but others will follow.  I won’t name states.

Being a state gun and all, you can brandish it freely (“I can shoot the ear off anyone in this state.”)   I’m guessing that eventually the sight of a bunch of snow bunnies with bullets to their brains lying in the snows of Utah will send people to the snow, snow, snow of Vermont, where, I might add, we have designated it as the official state precipitation.

There’s No Business Like Show Business

Born on January 16, 1908, Ethel Merman was the Queen of Broadway for three decades, belting out song after song in a voice described as trumpet-clean, penny whistle-piercing, Wurlitzer-wonderful.”  When she was not appearing on Broadway, Merman enjoyed a successful movie and television career.

Merman was also known for her salty language, never delivered in a whisper. Once while rehearsing for an appearance on the Loretta Young television show, she was told it would cost her a dollar each time she swore since Young disapproved of foul language. As she was fighting to get into an ill fitting gown, Merman shouted: “Oh shit, this damn thing’s too tight.” Young held out her curse box and said, “Come on Ethel, put a dollar in. You know my rules.” Merman is said to have replied: “Ah, honey, how much will it cost me to tell you to go fuck yourself?”


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January 15, 1797: Flamboyant Haberdashery

John Hetherington, a London haberdasher was hauled before the Lord Mayor on January 15, 1797, charged with inciting a riot. His breach of the peace had caused passers by to panic, women to faint, children to run screaming, dogs to yowl and one poor lad to suffer a broken arm from being trampled by the mob.

What had Hetherington done to cause such turmoil? According to authorities, he had appeared in public wearing upon his head “a tall structure having a shiny luster calculated to frighten timid people.” That is, he was the first person to wear a top hat on the streets of London. And for his act of flamboyant haberdashery, he was forced to post a ₤500 bond.

Hetherington’s chapeau was a silk topper also known as a high hat, silk hat, beaver hat, or stove pipe hat. It became popular soon after Hetherington’s breach and remained so through the middle of the 20th century. Folks associated with the top hat include Fred Astaire, Charlie McCarthy, Uncle Sam, and Rich Uncle Pennybags (the Monopoly man).

In 1814, Louis Comte became the first magician to pull a rabbit out of a top hat, and in 1961, John F. Kennedy became the last president to be inaugurated in one.

One If by Treacle

It was midway through the lunch hour on an unseasonably warm day inmolasses Boston, Massachusetts. Folks outside taking in the nice weather were the first to hear the loud rumbling sound and feel the ground beneath them shake as if a train were passing by. And then they were suddenly engulfed by a sweet tsunami, a 25-foot wall of molasses moving faster than molasses ought to move. The goo rolled relentlessly through the streets of Boston just like the creature in The Blob (with nary a Steve McQueen to save the day).

Some conspiracy theorists (before they were swallowed) thought it might be an invasion from outer space. But no, this was a locally spawned terror. The culprit was the Purity Distilling Company, producer of molasses used primarily as a sweetener throughout the United States but also fermented to produce rum and ethanol, and a key component in the manufacturing of munitions. The wayward molasses was stored in a large tank holding over 2 million gallons, awaiting transfer to a plant in Cambridge when the tank burst on January 15, 1919.

The result was devastating. Molasses, waist deep, covered the streets,swirling and bubbling about the wreckage of automobiles, trucks and even a passenger train. People and animals alike were trapped like flies on sticky fly-paper. Twenty-one people and several horses were killed; 150 were injured. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were engulfed.

Cleaning up the gooey mess took several weeks and over 87,000 man-hours. The harbor was brown with molasses for months. Purity, despite its innocent-sounding name, was held responsible, even though the company tried to blame the whole thing on anarchists. Turns out the molasses tank leaked so badly that it was painted brown to hide the leaks.

Some local residents in the true spirit of enterprise made lemonade, collecting enough molasses to sweeten their tea for years to come.


January 15, 1870 – First depiction of Democratic Party as a donkey (by Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly)



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January 14, 1500: For the Ass Was a Donkey, You See

The Feast of the Ass held on January 14 from around 1100 until 1500 was meant as much as teach-in as a party-in, a way to present religious doctrine to the illiterati who had no books or Internet access. This festival, held primarily in France as a cousin to the Feast of Fools, celebrated the flight of Joseph, Mary and Jesus into Egypt.

Traditionally, the most beautiful young woman in the village splendidly attired in gold-embroidered cloth, carrying a small child and riding a donkey would be led in a solemn procession through the town to the church. The donkey would stand beside the altar while a mock Mass was performed. Instead of the usual responses to the priest, the congregation would “hee-haw.” At the end of the service, instead of the usual benediction, the priest would bray three times and the congregation would respond with another round of hee-hawing. The choir would then offer up a hymn and everyone would bray along — except for the ass who thought the whole thing rather ridiculous and that these people were all making you know whats of themselves.

Another story from these Years of the Ass featured King Henry IV (of France not England as in yesterday’s post). The king was visiting a small town where he found himself listening to and growing tired of a long and rather stupid speech being delivered by the mayor. As the mayor spoke a donkey brayed loudly and the king with a tone of the greatest gravity and politeness, said: “Pray, gentlemen, speak one at a time, if you please.”

How Cold Was It?

January 14 is also St. Hilary’s Day which honors 4th century bishop St. Hilarius who sounds like a pretty jolly fellow.  In England, the day is considered the coldest day of the year, probably because of the great frost that began on this day in 1205 and lasted through March.  In many subsequent years, folks would hold festivals with thousands of them stomping around on the frozen Thames.

. . . pickpockets were sticking their hands in strangers’ pockets just to keep them warm.

. . .  politicians had their hands in their own pockets.

. . . the squirrels in the park were throwing themselves at an electric fence.

. . . when I turned on the shower I got hail.

. . . mice were playing hockey in the toilet bowl.


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Back in 49 BC, Julius Caesar was a mere governor commissioned by the Roman Senate to oversee a portion of the empire that stretched from Gaul to Illyricum (pretty much most of today’s Europe except Italy). When his term of governorship ended, the Senate ordered Caesar to disband his army and return to Rome. Whatever you do, Julie baby, don’t bring that army across the Rubicon River for that is treason and insurrection and very bad manners. Oh, and the punishment is death.

Caesar may have misunderstood for didn’t he just up and cross the Rubicon into Italy on January 10. His biographer suggests that he was under the control of a supernatural apparition (the Devil made him do it). Willful or not, Caesar is said to have shouted “alia iacta est” as he and his merry men waded across the shallow river (or ‘the die has been cast,” certainly more dramatic in Latin).

Crossing the Rubicon was a declaration of war, but instead of arresting Caesar the Roman Senate fled Rome in fear. Caesar, far from being condemned to death, became dictator for life. Sometimes it’s good to cross the Rubicon. Crossing the Rubicon has endured as a phrase meaning passing a point of no return.

The Hole in My Record Is Bigger Than the Hole in Your Record

RCA Victor it might be said crossed the Rubicon when on January 10, 1949, it introduced a new kind of record — a vinyl disc, just seven inches in diameter with a great big hole in the middle, the 45 (referring to its revolutions per minute). The 45 replaced the big noisy shellac disc that rotated at a breakneck 78 rpm. The first 45 rpm single was “Peewee the Piccolo.” Remember it?

Tata, Toodle-oo and Nano Nano

The cheapest car of the 21st century (so far) was trotted out on January 10, 2008, by its manufacturers, Tata Motors of India. The Nano, as it’s tata_nano_na-known, was a four-door metal bubble about ten feet long with a price tag of $2,500. Its makers called it the People’s Car, a vehicle for families who previously hadn’t been able to afford a car (yes, Volkswagen has been there, done that).

The basic model cost even less —  a mere $2,000, but came without a radio, air conditioning, airbags, steering, or windows (make that power steering or windows).

The Nano was made primarily of recycled computer printers. It had a 32-horsepower, rear-mounted engine, and could reach speeds of 65 miles per hour and 18 copies per minute. It had just one windshield wiper.

Tata received more than 203,000 pre-orders for the Nano, but because Tata was only able to produce an initial 100,000 Nanos, the cars’ lucky first owners were chosen by lottery. The Nano was initially sold only in India, although Tata said it eventually intended to spread it throughout the world.

Lest you think Tata Motors is a questionable business concern, it is part of one of India’s largest and oldest business conglomerates. And Tata, in addition to those Nano Nanos, manufactures Jaguars and Land Rovers.

The Bun Knows

On January 10, 1984, 81-year-old Clara Peller first asked the question for which she would become famous: