A wry view of life for the world-weary

I Predict A Riot – Part Twenty Eight

The New York City Police riot of 1857

Handling a transition is always a tricky business, especially as the entity to be replaced is reluctant to relinquish its role as the reorganisation of the New York Police authority in 1857 reveals. The original force, the Municipal Police, was under the control of the City Mayor and was widely regarded as being corrupt. A law was passed by the state legislature in the spring of 1857 abolishing the Municipal police and replacing them with a Metropolitan police force under the control of the boroughs that made up the Big Apple.

But the Municipal police would not give up their place on the gravy train so easily. Supported by the mayor, Fernando Wood, who resisted attempts to enforce the new legislation, they continued to patrol the city, as did the newly established Metropolitan force. Chaos ensued. Felons arrested by the Municipals would be released by the Metropolitans. Something had to give. Even though the State Supreme Court backed the new legislation in May 1857, Wood held out, organising public meetings to rally support amongst the Municipals. In a vote, 15 police captains and 800 patrolmen elected to support Wood whilst the rest, led by George W Walling decided to side with the Metropolitans. The Municipals filled up the vacancies caused by the split.

The spark that caused the riot was the appointment of a new Street Commissioner. When the new appointee, Daniel Conover, arrived at City Hall to take up his post he was informed that Wood had appointed Charles Devlin instead and was forcibly removed by some Municipal officers. Conover immediately took a couple of warrants for Wood’s arrest and Walling was detailed to effect the seizure of the Mayor.

Walling entered City Hall but his attempts to carry out his commission were rebuffed. There were some 300 Municipal officers in the building and Walling returned with a force of some fifty officers. Walling met with fierce resistance. The Municipal officers charged out of City Hall and for the next thirty minutes or so there was fierce fighting between the two sets of police, during the course of which 53 were injured. The injuries sustained by a patrolman by the name of Crofut were so severe that he was crippled for life.

The result of the fighting was that the Metropolitans had to beat a hasty retreat, the wounded brought into the offices of the City’s Recorder to be patched up while the Metropolitans celebrated their victory in Wood’s office. But that was not the end of matters. The Metropolitans sought reinforcements from General Sandford and the Seventh Regiment who were just about to go to Boston and the reinvigorated force marched once again to City Hall, surrounded it and demanded the surrender of Woods. Realising he had met his Waterloo, Woods surrendered and was arrested.

Within an hour, though, Woods was at liberty and was never charged for his part in bringing disorder to the streets of New York. Those officers who were injured sued Woods successfully and were awarded compensation to the tune of $250 each. True to form, Woods did not pay up and the City had to meet the bill from its coffers.

During the early part of the summer the city had two police forces operating. Instead of increasing peace and security, each force would interfere with whatever the other was doing, releasing prisoners captured by the others as before. Gangs flourished and the situation could not be allowed to continue and eventually, in the autumn, the Court of Appeals upheld the Supreme Court’s decision and the Municipal Police Force was disbanded.


There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Seventy Eight

Dr Louis Slotin (1910 – 1946)

We’ve all done it, I’m sure – moaned about the red tape of bureaucracy and ‘Elf and Safety which hinders us from getting on with what we are trying to do. But, occasionally, there are good reasons why a bit of safety awareness wouldn’t come amiss as this cautionary tale involving our latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Canadian scientist Louis Slotin, amply illustrates.

Slotin was one of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos during World War 2 and he earned a reputation as one of the pre-eminent assemblers of nuclear warheads. Following the destruction of Horoshima and Nagasaki and the conclusion of the war, Slotin continued to experiment with nuclear fission. His particular sphere of interest was measuring the beginnings of the fission reaction, by bringing two semi-spherical pieces of radioactive material into close proximity. Of course, if the two actually touched there would be an almighty explosion and so a degree of precision, as well as a steady hand, was called for.

For some people, playing your part in developing something that could fry large portions of the world’s population is not enough. It would seem Slotin was a bit of a character who liked to spice up his life. That may be the reason why he eschewed any of the fancy-dan safety equipment available and relied upon a humble screwdriver to keep the two hemispheres apart.

On May 21st 1946 Slotin was training a colleague, the aptly named Alvin Graves, at the Omega Laboratory and for his piece de resistance a small crowd of his colleagues assembled to watch his performance. Unfortunately, at the critical moment at around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the screwdriver slipped and the two pieces of radioactive material made contact. The official report into the incident reported, “The blue flash was clearly visible in the room although it (the room) was well illuminated from the windows and possibly the overhead lights. . . . The total duration of the flash could not have been more than a few tenths of a second.”  Showing a remarkable presence of mind, Slotin pushed the top hemisphere of plutonium off with his bare hands, thus ending the reaction.

It was calculated that Slotin’s screwdriver slip had set off about three quadrillion fission reactions – it sounds a lot but the bang, in fact, it was about a million times smaller than the first atomic bombs. The blue flash was caused by the high-energy photons emitted when the electrons in the air settled down after their agitation. But the damage was done. Slotin complained of a burning sensation in his left hand and a sour taste in his mouth. He was rushed into a car and taken to hospital, but during the journey started to vomit, a symptom of severe radiation poisoning. Slotin said to his colleagues, “You’ll be OK, but I think I’m done for.”

He was not wrong, dying nine days later of radiation exposure. He was commended for his actions in a citation read to him before meeting his maker; “Dr Slotin’s quick reaction at the immediate risk of his own life prevented a more serious development of the experiment which would certainly have resulted in the death of the seven men working with him, as well as serious injury to others in the vicinity.” It was a rather optimistic assessment; within two years of the incident, two of his colleagues had died of radiation sickness.

Clearly, Slotin’s approach to the experiment had been cavalier.  After all, there had been an incident a few months earlier when Harry Daghlian dropped a brick of tungsten carbide onto a plutonium mass, bathing him in radiation. He died a month later from radiation sickness.

For conducting an experiment that caused your demise, Louis Slotin, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Four

H L Mencken (1880 – 1956) and the Bathtub

Sometimes what is intended to be a bit of harmless fun gets out of hand and once the metaphorical cat is out of the bag it is difficult to regain control. A classic example of this is the curious case of the respected journalist and so-called sage of Baltimore, H L Mencken, and the history of the bathtub.

It was the dark days of December 1917. America had entered the First World War, something Mencken opposed, and news from the front was dreadful. In order, as Mencken said later, “to have some harmless fun in war days” he wrote an article on the history of the bath tub which was published in the New York Evening Mail. In it Mencken claimed that Adam Thompson installed the first bath, made of mahogany and lined with sheet lead, in Cincinnati on 20th December 1843. It caused a storm, some attacking it as an example of epicurean luxury whilst some medics claimed that bathing in this fashion was detrimental to one’s health.

It was Millard Fillimore, claimed Mencken, who gave the bath a fillip. When Vice President he visited Cincinnati, had a bath, felt no ill effects and quite enjoyed the experience. When he was elected President in 1850, Fillimore had one installed in the White House and the rest is history. But of course it wasn’t, it was all bunkum and was a hoax designed to test the gullibility of the general public and fellow journalists.

The fact that it was written by Mencken, was well-written and seemed plausible meant that the story had legs. To Mencken’s surprise his article appeared in a number of other journals and many papers printed abbreviated versions. It was then picked up by learned journals and histories of public hygiene and once it had taken root in the groves of academe, it was well-nigh impossible to shift.

Eight years later Mencken decided to own up to his hoax, writing a front-page article for the Chicago Tribune on 23rd May 1926, entitled Melancholy Reflections. In his mea culpa he wrote, “This article..was a tissue of absurdities, all of them deliberate and most of them obvious..[it] was planned as a piece of spoofing to relieve the strain of war days and I confess that I regarded it, when it came out, with considerable satisfaction. It was reprinted by various great organs of the enlightenment, and after a while the usual letters began to reach me from readers. Then, suddenly, my satisfaction turned to consternation. For these readers, it appeared, all took my idle jocosities with complete seriousness. Some of them, of antiquarian tastes, asked for further light on this or that phase of the subject. Others actually offered me corroboration!

He went on, “Pretty soon I began to encounter my preposterous “facts” in the writings of other men.. I began to find them in standard works of reference. Today, I believe, they are accepted as gospel everywhere on earth. To question them becomes as hazardous as to question the Norman invasion…” In 1949 he wrote,Scarcely a month goes by that I do not find the substance of it reprinted, not as foolishness but as fact, and not only in newspapers but in official documents and other works of the highest pretensions.”

The story wouldn’t die. Between his exposure of his own hoax and 1958, according to Curtis MacDougall, there had been thirty-eight instances of Mencken’s story being presented to the general public as fact. It still persists. A Kia advert in January 2008 for Soap on a Roap repeated the canard without realising they had been had.

Supermarket Of The Week

One of the highlights of my week now that I am retired is the trip to the supermarket. I am prone to the odd bout of sarcasm. However, things would be brightened up considerably if I lived within striking distance of the Morrison’s store in Guiseley, near Leeds.

To help shoppers endure the experience, particularly as Christmas looms, they have opened up a bar, located near the café, where shoppers and trolley pushers can refuel with Saltaire Blonde ale or, if they prefer, wine or a selection of bottled ciders and lagers. Helpfully, it is open from as early as 6 am so you can get your early morning hair of the dog.

Gets my vote but the aisles could be a bit dangerous if shoppers imbibe too liberally. Can you be done for being drunk in charge of a shopping trolley? A new definition of being trolleyed, perhaps?


Sporting Event Of The Week (8)

Ordinarily it would take the longest stretch of the wildest imagination to describe last Saturday’s Evo-Stick North Premier league fixture between Halesowen Town and Shaw Lane AFC as such, notwithstanding the visitor’s recent FA Cup exploits. It was a typically dour 0-0 draw with the visitors starting off stronger but the Yeltz clawing their way back into the game and, perhaps, being unlucky not to snatch a win.

For me it was a landmark game – it was the first time I had taken my eldest grandson, BoJ1, to a football match. It was going to be Shrewsbury versus Charlton but international call ups, primarily but not exclusively from Charlton, put paid to that. If he gets half the enjoyment I have had from watching football at all levels, I will have done him a favour!

What Is The Origin Of (154)?…

A bull in a china shop

This figurative phrase is used to describe an extremely clumsy person who in their haste to do something causes untold damage and havoc. It is a very vivid image and the meaning is easy to devine. Porcelain aka china was much prized but didn’t make its way from the East, China actually, until the 16th century and not manufactured in Western Europe until the 18th. So we can assume that the genesis of our phrase is relatively recent.

The first recorded usage of it appears to be in a review of a pantomime called The White Cat or Harlequin in Fairy Land which appeared in the London Review and Literary Journal of January 1812. There we find the critic reporting that “The extraordinary spectacle of a Bull in a China Shop afforded great entertainment; and an artificial elephant introduced, was welcomed with loud plaudits.” I can only assume it was akin to a party trick or those annoying intervals in modern pantomimes when some minor celebrity sings their latest ditty. What is interesting is that the bull appears to have been an elephant and echoes the image in other languages such as Russian, Dutch, German, French, Italian and Spanish where an elephant crashes through a shop, usually a china shop although in Italy and Spain through a shop selling glassware.

It could well be that the phrase is more generic than particular to English and it makes sense. Elephants are massive creatures and are not known for their daintiness. In the wrong place a pachyderm can make quite a mess, particularly to a shop load of valuables. Perversely, though, we Brits have substituted a bull for the elephant, probably because the average citizen was more likely to encounter one in their daily life and of the domesticated creatures, the bull was surely the most powerful.

Frederick Marryat uses the phrase in a figurative sense in Chapter XV of Jacob Faithful, published in 1831. Mr Turnbull has trouble controlling the wayward tails of his coat and remarks, “Whatever it is it smashes, Mrs T always swear it is the most valuable thing in the room. I’m like a bull in a china shop.” And three years later, the antics of a bull in a china shop made their way into a music hall song which appeared in the Universal Songster or Museum of Mirth. The song included the following lines; “So frisky he was, with his downs and his ups,/ Each tea service proved he was quite in his cups./ He play’d mag’s diversion among all the crates,/ He splinter’d the dishes, and dish’d all the plates.”

And so the phrase slipped easily into our vernacular but to the enquiring mind the obvious question is how would a bull react in a china shop? Jim Moran, whose sobriquets included America’s No 1 prankster and the last great bunco (con) artist in the profession of publicity, made his name in the 1930s and 1940s by devising outrageous stunts on behalf of his clients, usually to test the veracity of a popular saying. It will come as no surprise, then, to learn that in January 1940 he led a bull through a china shop in New York. The bull did not cause any damage but a bystander stepped back to get out-of-the-way and knocked over a pile of plates. A bull off the leash might be a different story, though.

Announcement Of The Week

I have been writing this blog for over five years now and I am beginning to find that the well of inspiration is running rather dry. In order to maintain what quality there is  I have decided to reduce the frequency with which posts appear on the blog. There will be a minimum of three posts per week and I will be concentrating principally on reviews (books, art and gin), etymology, and some of the features which from WordPress statistics seem to elicit the most views and/or likes.

I hope you continue to enjoy the blog and thank you for your support to date. You never know, I may get a second wind in the new year!

Book Corner – November 2017 (2)

Hangover Square – Patrick Hamilton

It seems as though I have been to Hangover Square. Patrick Hamilton’s classic, published in 1941 but set in the summer of 1939 as hostilities are about to break out, is centred on a small part of London, Earls Court. You will search an A to Z – remember them? – in vain to find the square. After all, it is metaphorical, a grim description amongst topers of where they are heading after a day on the electric sauce. A hangover is the natural consequence of having one over the eight. As Hamilton notes how much better would it be if the hangover came before the pleasure of drink and, in a way, it does for the alcoholic as the hair of the dog soon beckons.

Hamilton’s tale is about alcohol and mental illness. The protagonist, George Harvey Bone, a gentle, fundamentally decent, simple soul, has what he calls “dead moods” where he is disengaged from the world around him. It is not clear but it seems that he is schizophrenic and to the modern reader Hamilton’s treatment of Bone’s condition is a little callous, if not hard-hearted. The story records Bone’s personal descent into an abyss of despair. He survives on a small personal income and the occasional win on the football pools – remember them? – that allows him to numb his pain and insecurities with drink.

The problem with an alcoholic who seems to have a ready supply of money and is a bit gullible is that he will soon attract a gang of ne’er-do-wells who will take advantage of his good nature. This is George’s fate and one of the crowd is a would-be actress and femme fatale, Netta Longdon. Bone is fixated with her but their affair is a one way street – Netta tolerates him only when he is useful to her, either as a provider of cash or as someone who can advance her career as an actress. Bone has a literal love-hate relationship with her and the overriding theme of the book is his determination to murder her.

The denouement comes as no surprise but, nonetheless, Hamilton’s genius is the way he keeps the tension and suspense going. His style is easy and descriptive and what we have here is a tale of a deeply unhappy and troubled man who has missed his way in life and become trapped with, seemingly, only one way out. Even when Bone breaks free – he takes an almost childish delight in shooting a 68 on the local golf course – the siren call of Netta lures him back on to the road to destruction.

But although the book is ostensibly about Bone, his nemesis, Netta is portrayed by Hamilton as a modern version of Becky Sharp and is one of the most vibrant, evil women in modern fiction. She knows what she wants and will do anything to get it. But in her own way she is as trapped as Bone. She is an actress of dubious ability with ideas above her station. It is only by becoming a Circe that she can make ends meet (just).

It is to Hamilton’s credit that these two flawed characters can elicit the sympathy of readers and some will argue that Netta’s tragedy is greater than that of George’s. Whatever your view, it is a wonderful tale of pre-war London and of two characters who are inescapably entwined on a course to mutual destruction. It deserves to be more widely read today.

Gin o’Clock – Part Thirty

My exploration of the ginaissance has exposed my taste buds to a wide array of sensations. I am beginning to get a bit choosy, eschewing those which have gone overboard with presenting the toper with a smorgasbord of sensations for those which add botanicals to enhance rather than overwhelm the basic taste of juniper berries. Perhaps I’m a bit old school in that respect. This week’s featured gin, Langley’s No 8 Distilled London Dry Gin, launched in 2013, is very much in the style that I enjoy.

The gin comes in what can best be described as a medicine bottle with a screw cap. The labelling is rather fetching, being silver-embossed against a black background. The foil at the neck of the bottle proudly proclaims that the hooch is made in England. The front label informs us that it is hand crafted in small batches and that the base is a 100% English grain spirit. The label at the back of the bottle provides a little more information, principally that it is distilled in a copper pot still and that what has been produced is perfectly balanced. I should hope so.

There are two reasons why it is called No 8. The distillers were experimenting on various strengths and blends of gin and it was their eighth incarnation which passed muster. It also contains eight botanicals, the identity of which is somewhat shrouded in mystery. What is for certain is that there is juniper, coriander seeds, sweet lemon and orange peel, cassia bark and ground nutmeg. The final two botanicals are unnamed but are said to be staples of classic gin.

The gin is crystal clear and weighs in at 41.7% ABV, putting it around the middle of the gin strength spectrum. To the nose the juniper is pronounced but there is a hint of the citrus coming through. To the taste it is quite dry with juniper to the fore but with spice and, perhaps, liquorice making their presence felt as you roll it in your mouth. There is a strong after taste in which liquorice and black pepper can be detected. It is a strong, old-school style, heavy gin which goes well with a good mixer and is none the worse for that.

The distillery is based in Langley Green which is just outside Oldbury in the West Midlands which has been a centre of the brewing and distilling industry since the early 19th century. Crosswells was the original brewery which was built atop an ancient underground water source. It was not until 1920 that gin production started there, after it was realised that the purity of the water upon which the distillery was sitting made it ideal for producing top quality spirits.

There are six stills in the distillery including what is claimed to be the oldest working copper still in the UK, dating back to the early 1800s. Our gin is macerated in a 4,000 copper pot still called Constance which, in the scheme of things, is a bit of a youngster, having been built as recently as 1917 by John-Dore. Once the gin concentrate is removed from the still it has an ABV of between 77 and 80 per cent. It is then transported to the Burlington Bottling plant in Witham in Essex where the strength is diluted to commercially acceptable levels and put in bottles which are hand labelled.

It’s a complicated old business!

Double Your Money – Part Twenty Five

The Gold Accumulator and the Electrolytic Marine Salts Company

If you could get rich by panning for gold from a river bed, surely you would get similar results if you were able to explore the sea bed for the mineral? And how much easier would it be if you had a special contraption, the design of which was revealed to you in a heavenly vision, which could do all the hard work for you? Such was the reasoning of the Reverend Prescott Ford Jernegan, a pastor in Middletown, Connecticut, who claimed in 1896 to have the very thing to extract and exploit the gold residing at the bottom of the sea.

His contraption, called the Gold Accumulator, was hardly the epitome of the cutting-edge of white hot technology, consisting of a wooden box with holes cut into it through which the seawater would flow. The guts of the contraption consisted of a pan of mercury containing a mystery ingredient through which a wire ran to a small battery. You lowered the box into the water, leave it overnight and when you raised it up again and got it on to terra firma, voila, there would be gold.

Jernegan interested a local jeweller, Arthur Ryan, in the box and Ryan decided to test it with a few of his mates. To prove that there was nothing fishy about the contraption – other than, perhaps, some errant fish that strayed through the holes – Jernegan absented himself from the trials that were held in February 1897 just outside of Providence, Rhode Island. The trial proved successful because when the Accumulator was hauled, some gold flakes worth about $4.50 were found inside.

Although the amount of gold was negligible, the process was so simple that it could easily be expanded. There was little in the way of operating expenses, save the initial outlay for the Accumulator, and a thousand of the things – this is how many Jernegan reckoned could be built in a year – running every day would drag up a tidy amount of gold and provide a good profit, to boot. Fired up with enthusiasm Jernegan, Ryan and a few others established the Electrolytic Marine Salts Company whose headquarters were in Boston but whose field operations were based in Lubec, Maine.

To begin with, all went swimmingly. A handful of Accumulators were generating $145 of gold a day, profits began to roll in, the company was floated on the stock market with an initial price of $33 a share. Within weeks the share price hit the heady heights of $150. But in July 1898 Jernegan, along with his unassuming assistant, Charles Fisher, disappeared and immediately the serried ranks of Accumulators stopped bringing gold up from the depths of the ocean. The investors realised they had been the victim of an elaborate scam, the company folded and they lost all of their money.

It seems that the secret ingredient in the mercury pan was Fisher, a trained diver. In the initial demonstration of the Accumulator, Fisher had swum underwater, found the box and replaced the pan of mercury with one containing some traces of gold. When the company was founded and production was in full swing, the investors never troubled themselves to go down to Lubec. All Jernegan and Fisher had to do was present them with gold bars, representing the latest haul from the Accumulators. Of course, the bars were bought in Boston.

The Directors’ plans to expand the operations presented a logistical problem for the duo and so when they had made around $200,000 each, they scarpered and were never caught. Perhaps filled with Christian remorse, Jernegan is said to have refunded $75,000 at a later date.