December 4, 1872: Took a Trip on a Sailing Ship

Was the Mary Celeste a cursed ship? Three owners of the brigantine built in Nova Scotia in 1861 didn’t fare so well; they all died during voyages. The ship also suffered a damaging fire and a collision in the English Channel. But it was the voyage from New York harbor headed for Genoa, Italy in November 1872 that is the stuff of legends.

On December 4, 1872, the Dei Gratia, a small British brig spotted the Mary Celeste, sailing marycerratically but at full sail near the Azores Islands in the Atlantic Ocean. The captain and crew of the Dei Gratia boarded the ship. The ship was seaworthy although its sails were slightly damaged and there was some water in the hold. Its cargo of 1,700 barrels of crude alcohol was mostly untouched.  Six months’ worth of food and water remained on board, and the crew’s personal belongings were still in place, including valuables. But the ten persons who had been aboard the Mary Celeste had vanished.

The Mary Celeste had sailed into nautical history as one of its most tantalizing mysteries, a classic ghost ship.

Through the years, a dearth of hard facts has created endless speculation and a host of theories as to what might have taken place. Mutiny? Piracy? Killer waterspouts? Just a few of the least bizarre explanations. In an 1884 short story, Arthur Conan Doyle suggested a capture by a vengeful ex-slave. A 1935 movie featured the irrepressible Bela Lugosi as a homicidal sailor killing off the other passengers.


The more logical speculators agree that for unknown reasons, the ten passengers (the captain, his wife and daughter, and seven crew members) abandoned the ship in the ship’s lifeboat (which was missing) and disappeared at sea. Hardcore conspiracy theorists are having none of that; they’re sticking with the Bermuda Triangle, sea monsters, and the ever-popular alien abductions.

The Mary Celeste, lived to sail another day, but presumably the curse remained. Her last owner intentionally wrecked her off the coast of Haiti in 1885 in an unsuccessful attempt at insurance fraud.


I have no truck with lettuce, cabbage, and similar chlorophyll. Any dietitian will tell you that a running foot of apple strudel contains four times the vitamins of a bushel of beans. ~ S. J. Perelman





November 28, 1922: Ghost Writers in the Sky

It didn’t take long after the advent of flying for crafty marketing types to come up with a way to use it for advertising.   Skywriting was the way showing the most promise: a small airplane spits out magic smoke during a flight, creating text able to be read by someone on the Messages naturally run the gamut from the inane to the weighty. Advertisers had a field day.

The first use of skywriting for advertising came on November 28, 1922, when Captain Cyril Turner of the Royal Air Force flew over New York City, spelling out, “Hello USA. Call Vanderbilt 7200.” Within just a few hours, 47,000 people had done just that. And of course operators were standing by at sky1Vanderbilt 7200 to take their orders although no one had any idea what was being sold.

Pepsi-Cola became the first major brand to use skywriting as a medium to reach a mass market with thousands of flights through the 1930s into the mid-1940s. During the following years, skywriting became more sophisticated with the use of coordinated flights by fleets of planes that could deliver longer and more clearly written text messages.

At one point, rumor has it, an ambitious skywriter produced Pride and Prejudice in its entirety, but most observers fell asleep during the first three paragraphs.

November 23, 1889: Put Another Nickel In

The scene is the Palais Royale Saloon in San Francisco, November 23, 1889. Entrepreneur Louis Glass has installed a machine destined to become an overnight sensation, and find a permanent spot in the psyche of the nation, even the world. He called his device the “nickel-in-the-slot player” a name that would certainly need a bit of massaging in the future.

What it played was music. Inside a handsome oak cabinet was an electric phonograph.  Four stethoscope-like tubes were attached to it, each operating individually after being activated by the insertion of a coin. Four different listeners could be plugged into the same song at the same time! In a nod to sanitation, towels were supplied to patrons so they could wipe off the end of the tube after each listening.

The success of the “nickel-in-the-slot player” eventually spelled the demise of the player piano, then the most common way of providing popular music to saloon patrons, notorious for their love of music.

Most machines were capable of holding only one musical selection, the automation coming from the ability to play that one selection at will. Obviously, after each patron had listened to that one song several times, the novelty wore off and the player went idle. In 1918, another entrepreneur solved that problem with an apparatus that automatically changed records. Ten years later, enter Justus P. Seeburg, who combined an electrostatic loudspeaker with a coin-operated record player that gave the listener a choice of eight records.

This machine was pretty cumbersome: it had eight separate turntables mounted on a rotating Ferris wheel-like device, allowing patrons to select from eight different records. Later versions included Seeburg’s Selectophone, with 10 turntables mounted vertically on a spindle. By maneuvering the tone arm up and down, the customer could select from 10 different records.

There was still no decent name for these devices. That came in the 1940s, when person or persons unknown dubbed it a jukebox, a reference to juke house, slang for a bawdy house, a favorite location for the devices. All that remained necessary in the evolution of the jukebox was the addition of a healthy helping of rock and roll.


November 6, 1982: Antifreeze and Old Lace

In Arsenic and Old Lace, a delightfully dark stage play adapted into a movie by Frank Capra, Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) has an eccentric family that includes two brothers – one of whom thinks he’s Theodore Roosevelt digging the Panama Canal in the basement, the other a killer who’s had plastic surgery to make him look like Boris Karloff – and two spinster aunts who have taken to murdering lonely old men by poisoning them with home-made elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine, and “just a pinch” of cyanide. Generally, poisoners aren’t as sweet as these two old ladies.

Take the case of Shirley Allen, arrested on November 6, 1982, charged with murdering her sixth husband Lloyd. Shirley certainly wasn’t as sweet as the two old ladies, nor nearly as successful. Her first attempt at poisoning was believed to be an early husband, Joe Sinclair, back in 1968. When his coffee began to taste odd, he didn’t buy the idea that it was the newest flavor of the month, reasoning that Juan Valdez Free Trade Almond Praline Decaf should not give him internal injuries.  Joe went to the police, but no charges were filed. He filed for divorce, however.

Another husband, John Gregg, was not so lucky. He died a year after he married Shirley. He must have sensed that something was amiss because he changed the beneficiary of his insurance policy shortly before he died. Shirley got nothing. As you might guess, she was miffed. A pink-haired, large-bosomed barfly was rather happy, however.

Lloyd Allen was Shirley’s sixth husband. He began to complain of a strange taste in his beer. When Shirley said that it was an iron supplement that would put a tiger in his tank, Lloyd believed her and promptly died. This time she was named as beneficiary of a $25,000 life insurance, but alas her daughter told police about the doctored beers. Toxicology reports confirmed that Lloyd’s body tissue contained a lethal amount of ethyl glycol – antifreeze. Shirley went to prison for life. She was never allowed to work in the prison cafeteria.


October 30, 1938: 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.

October 24, 1901: We’ll Have a Barrel of Fun

Annie Edson Taylor was born on, October 24, 1838, in Auburn, New York. One of eight children, she led a typical if uneventful life. She became a schoolteacher, married, became widowed, spent her working years in a variety of jobs and locales from Bay City, Michigan to Mexico City.

The century turned, and she found herself in her early 60s with a less than secure financial future. How she reached the decision that would make the next stage of her life far from typical is anyone’s guess. But by 1901, she had become determined to be the first person to ride over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

barrelTaylor had a barrel custom made for her trip; it was fashioned out of oak and iron, and padded with a mattress. There was a curious lack of enthusiasm for her project among other folks – no one wanted to take part in what they viewed as certain suicide. The domestic cat that became her assistant probably shared those concerns, but lacked the means to express its doubts. So two days before the day designated for Taylor’s own attempt, kitty went over Horseshoe Falls to test the barrel’s strength. Kitty lived through the ordeal and posed with Taylor in photographs to prove it, though she wasn’t purring.

On October 24, 1901, Taylor’s 63rd birthday, the barrel was put over the side of a rowboat, and Taylor climbed in, taking with her a lucky pillow. The lid of the barrel was secured, and Taylor was set adrift, bobbing along near the American shoreline. The cooperative Niagara River carried the barrel and its passenger toward the Canadian Horseshoe Falls, and over she went.

Rescuers reached her barrel shortly after the plunge. Taylor emerged from the barrel, bruised but alive, although she wasn’t purring. The trip had taken a mere twenty minutes.  After the journey, Annie Taylor told the press: “I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces than make another trip over the Fall.”

Although she earned money from speaking engagements, she was never able to accumulate much wealth.  And to add insult, her manager made off with her barrel. She spent her final years posing for photographs with tourists, planning another plunge, dabbling with a novel, attempting to reconstruct her 1901 plunge on film, and working as a clairvoyant.

Annie Taylor died on April 29, 1921, at the age of 82.


Niagara Falls is very nice. I’m very glad I saw it, because from now on if I am asked whether I have seen Niagara Falls I can say yes, and be telling the truth for once. ~ John Steinbeck

October 9, 1900: Soda Sipping Ingenuity

Joseph Friedman born on this day in 1900 was one of those inventors who might more correctly be called dabblers, thinking up ideas here and there that usually don’t amount to much (a lighted pencil, for example) although his nephew, a British MP, referred to one particular invention as “arguably the most significant technological achievement of the twentieth century.”

It came about one day in 1937 while Friedman was sitting in his younger brother Albert’s fountain parlor, the Varsity Sweet Shop in San Francisco. Friedman watched his young daughter sitting at the counter as she struggled to drink her soda through a straw that seemed to stay just beyond her reach. He took another paper straw and pushed a screw into it. Then, using dental floss, he wrapped the paper into the screw threads, creating corrugations in the straw. After he removed the screw, the straw would bend easily over the edge of the glass, allowing his daughter to conveniently sip her soda – a  eureka! moment by any standard, the creation of the bendy straw. Friedman hastened to the Patent Office and secured patent #2,094,268 for his invention under the title Drinking Tube. He later filed for two additional U.S. patents and three foreign patents.

His attempts to interest straw manufacturers in his invention were unsuccessful so he eventually produced the straw himself. The Flexible Straw Corporation was incorporated on April 24, 1939, in California. However, war intervened and he didn’t make his first sale until 1947 – to a hospital rather than kids sipping sodas.


Columbus Was No Viking

October 9 has been designated as the day to celebrate the true discoverer of America Leif Erikson, son of Erik the Red, son of Thorvald the Blue, son of Knut the Orange, son of Sven the Green and so on.  It is a day to reflect on Scandinavian heritage and, of course, Viking humor.

October 5, 1983: Burping in Polite Company

Noted American businessman and inventor, Earl Silas Tupper died on October 5, 1983. He was buried in a 100-gallon Tupperware container whose lid was “burped”to get an airtight seal before being lowered into the ground. Thousands paid their respect at a memorial Tupperware Party held earlier.

For indeed this was the man who invented and gave his name to Tupperware, a line of plastic containers in an almost infinite array of shapes and sizes that changed the way Americans stored their food. Tupper invented the plasticware back in the late 30s, but it didn’t really start worming its way into every household until the 50s when Tupper introduced his ingenious and infamous marketing strategy, the Tupperware Party. This clever gambit gave women the opportunity to earn an income without leaving their homes and to simultaneously annoy their friends and relatives.


Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

The rock musical Hair has played pretty much continuously since its Broadway debut at the Biltmore Theatre in the late 60s, its mix of sex, drugs and rock and roll more or less guaranteeing hairan avid following. It’s been translated into many languages and produced throughout the world. But back on October 5, 1967, it looked a lot like a colossal failure.

After rejections by producer after producer, the musical was accepted by Joseph Papp, who ran the New York Shakespeare Festival, to open the new Public Theater in New York City’s East Village for a six-week engagement.

Hair depicts a group of hippies living the bohemian life in New York City, rebelling against the Vietnam War, conservative parents and other societal ills while diving into the sexual revolution and the drug culture. Its protagonist Claude must decide whether to resist the draft or give in to conservative pressures and risk his principles (and his life) by serving in Vietnam.

Production did not go well. Perhaps the theater staff was too close to conservative America; the material seemed incomprehensible, rehearsals were chaotic, casting confusing. The director quit during the final week of rehearsals and the choreographer took charge. The final dress rehearsal was a disaster.

But the show did go on. Critics were not particularly kind, but it found an audience. During the six-week engagement, a man from Chicago was attracted to the show by its poster with a picture of five American Indians on it. He thought Hair was all about Native Americans, a favorite subject of his. He was surprised to discover it was actually about hippies, but he nevertheless liked it so much that, he bankrolled its move to a discotheque in midtown Manhattan. The show had to start at 7:30 pm instead of the normal curtain time of 8:30 and play without intermission so dancing could begin at 10 pm. But Hair was getting closer to Broadway.

In 1968, the play’s creators reworked it into the musical that everyone knows, adding additional songs, the infamous nude scene, and an upbeat ending — it was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.


I found it all about as arousing as a Tupperware party.  — Stephen Fry


August 28, 1963: the “Negro is still not free”

In Washington DC, on  August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to a crowd stretching from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument.

“Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back King_Jr_Martin_Luther_093.jpgto Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettoes of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.”

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’ I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.”

“When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'”


Part of that is when they try and demean me unfairly, because we had a massive crowd of people. We had a crowd… I looked over that sea of people, and I said to myself, ‘wow’, and I’ve seen crowds before. Big, big crowds. That was some crowd. — Donald Trump

August 23, 1618: This Little Pig Had Roast Beef

There is no dearth of stories in the realm of pig-faced lady literature; a 17th century Dutch account typifies the genre. This particular pig-faced lady was born at Wirkham on the Rhine in 1618. Her name was Tanakin Skinker. Miss Skinker was a near perfectly formed little girl – one might say beautifully constructed – except that her face (some say her entire head) was that of a swine. She was a dead ringer for a pig.

     The child grew to be a woman and a source of great discomfort to her parents, for although her disposition and carriage were in general unoffending, her table manners fell a bit short of those desirous in a lady. Her voracious and indelicate appetite was appeased by placing large amounts of food in a silver trough to which she would vigorously apply her entire face, accompanied by grunts, snorts and squeals. The maid who served her had to be paid handsomely for enduring this and risking her limbs to the wildly snapping jaws.

     A fortune awaited the man who would consent to marry Miss Skinker, and many suitors came calling, gallants from Italy, France, Scotland, and England – fortune hunters all, naturally – but ultimately they all refused to marry her. Were there no pig-faced men in the world?  Or even a dog-faced boy?  Apparently not, at least not one who saw himself as such.

In this particular account, our pig-faced lady was sadly left to die an old maid (or sow, if you prefer). Other accounts have happier, if less likely, conclusions. The woman’s pig-like appearance was the result of witchcraft.  A husband was found, and he was granted the choice of having her appear beautiful to him but pig-like to others, or pig-like to him and beautiful to others. When the husband told her that the choice was hers, the enchantment was broken and her pig-like appearance vanished. And in some modern accounts, the pig-faced lady is abducted by aliens.


To me, boxing is like a ballet, except there’s no music, no choreography, and the dancers hit each other. ~ Jack Handey