What Is The Origin Of (99)?…


Lame duck

We use this phrase to describe someone or, occasionally, something that is unsuccessful or ineffective and in a political context someone who is serving out time following the election of their successor.

Although the phrase is pretty much deployed in a political context these days, it owes its origins to the nascent stock exchange of 18th century London. Those of us who scour the financial papers are familiar with the journalists’ characterisation of investors as bulls – optimists who see the market rising – and bears – pessimists who see the market falling. But there was a third category in the 1760s – lame ducks, a term developed to describe a stock market trader who failed to pay up when their bills became due.

The earliest known usage of the term in this context appeared in the Newcastle Courant of 5th September 1761 in a report of monies being paid into the Bank of England by subscription which noted, perhaps with some relief, “no lame ducks this time”. As a felicitous phrase its usage took off to join the emerging argot of the investors and traders in stocks and shares, to the bafflement of some. Horace Walpole wrote to Sir Horace Mann on 28th December 1761, “apropos, do you know what a Bull and a Bear and a Lame Duck are? Nay, nor I either: I am only certain that they are neither animals or fowl”.

In January of the following year the London Evening Post was reporting on the effect that exposure to lame ducks was having on fellow investors, “Thursday a Lame Duck disappeared from J___’s, to the no small mortification of his Brother Bulls and Bears, whom he has touched very considerably…Yesterday four more Lame Ducks took their flight”. Although  lame duck would often be barred from future trading for defaulting on their obligations, their dishonesty had an impact on others.

On land ducks are ungainly creatures as they waddle along. Lame ducks were also characterised as waddling as the Leeds Intelligencer reported on 29th June 1762, “yesterday a lame duck or two made shift to waddle out of ‘Change Alley”. A century later, Thomas Love Peacock provided a perfect definition in his seventh and final novel, Gryll Grange, “a lame duck is a man who cannot pay his differences and is said to waddle off”.

It was only when the phrase crossed the Atlantic that it lost its financial context and acquired the more customary political hue. According to the Congressional Globe of January 12th 1863, Senator John P Hale said, “it is well known to anybody who knows anything of its history that this court (the court of claims) was made a sort of retreat for lame duck politicians that got wounded and had to retreat before the face of popular condemnation. That is just exactly what it was for, a safe retreat for lame ducks”.

In the States, unlike here in Blighty, there is a period of time, often stretching to months, between an election and the successful candidate actually taking office. This had two obvious effects – the incumbent, a lame duck, could be tempted to use the hiatus to feather their own nest, to continue the avian theme, or if there were a number in the same boat (or perhaps pond) it would paralyse the legislative process. So bad was the problem that the 20th Amendment, the so-called Lame Duck Amendment, was passed in 1933 reducing the period between an election and the victors assuming the reins of power.

So now we know!

Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Forty Three


Morphina-cura or Habitina

Sometime during the early part of the 19th century Friedrich Wilhelm Serturner managed to isolate a yellowish-white crystalline compound from crude opium. After successfully experimenting with it as a form of pain relief he called this new substance after the Greek god of sleep, morphine. The development of the first hypodermic needle in 1853 meant for the first time it could be delivered directly into the blood stream and from that moment morphine became established as the analgesic of choice.

Unfortunately, of course, morphine was addictive – soldiers who had been injured on the battlefield were pumped full of morphine and their on-going dependence on the stuff was known as “Soldiers’ Disease”. Morphinism was viewed at the turn of the 20th century as such a scourge in polite society that it opened up an opportunity for unscrupulous quacks to exploit.

Step forward, Dr Robert Prewitt and Ryland C Bruce who, trading as the Delta Chemical Company, began in 1906 to promote Morphina-cura. Retailing at $2 a bottle it was advertised as “an infallible remedy for the cure of Drug Habits of all kinds”. Prepared for hypodermic or internal use, it was available through the post. It was rebranded as Habitina in 1907, probably in response to the Pure Food and Drug Act which took a dim view to drugs being named in a way that suggested they were a cure to something.

Habitues, as the target audience of morphine addicts were quaintly named, were exhorted to “discontinue the use of all narcotic drugs and take sufficient Habitina to support the system without any of the old drug”. The idea was that over time the addicts would reduce the amount they took until, eventually, they could live without it at all. But, of course, life isn’t like that and the unfortunate habitues swapped one form of addiction for another.

When Prewitt and Bruce were arrested and charged with sending poison through the mail in 1912, the stories of the devastation their panacea had caused were harrowing. One mechanic from Missouri had lost everything, consuming a $2 bottle a day and become a “maniac”, a woman from Pennsylvania had lost her reason and went blind after taking Habitina, although she was eventually cured of her addiction in hospital, and, perhaps most tragic of all was a 26 year-old woman who spent more than $2,300 on the stuff over a 5 year period, even foregoing shoes to afford it. Although initially convicted, it would appear that the duo were released on appeal.

What helped their case was that they were upfront in describing what was in their concoction, perhaps a benefit of the tightening of legislation surrounding pharmaceuticals, even if it did not preclude the stuff being sent through the mail. The bottle’s label had a skull and cross-bones in the top left hand corner beneath which was the legend “Poison”. The label went on to announce that for every fluid ounce there were 16 grains of morphine sulphate and 8 grains of a morphine derivative called diacytle morphine hydrochloride.

In other words, over the six years they were trading, between 1906 and 1912, Prewitt and Bruce had made half a million dollars by supplying morphine addicts with a more expensive branded version of the drug. No wonder the habitues couldn’t kick the habit.

Book Corner – September 2016 (2)


Penguin Book of the British Short Story – Volume One – edited by Philip Hensher

I find the short story as a literary form extremely satisfying, at least for the reader. It forces the writer to aim for concision, to paint a picture, a few characters and a credible storyline in between 15,000 and 40,000 words. It is not easy. An anthology of short stories – volume one of Hensher’s anthology runs from Daniel Defoe to John Buchan – is even more appetising for me – it allows me to pick and choose, set the volume down and not feel too guilty that it has been temporarily put aside for something more substantial. It is something to be digested as a snake does its prey – at length.

Anthologies are personal and Hensher has set a rather idiosyncratic mark on this collection. Whilst everyone will cavil at his audacity to have omitted one’s particular favourite, an anthology shouldn’t be a greatest hits album but should have some entries which surprise, stretch the reader and even cause them to discover a new writer. Whatever you may think of the final selection, Hensher has been nothing if not thorough and claims to have read 20,000 stories to come to his final selection of 90 spread between two delicious volumes.

The heyday for the British short story was between the 1890s and the First World War there were at least 34 magazines publishing short fiction. At a time when a doctor would earn £400 a year and a professional footballer £4 a week, a popular writer could command a fee of £350 from a magazine such as the Strand for their short story. With such rewards available it is not surprising that some of the literary giants of the period – Kipling, D H Lawrence, Arnold Bennett, Joseph Conrad and H G Wells – turned their hand to the shortened form and they are all suitably represented in this volume.

My favourite of the collection comes from that era – Arnold Bennett’s The Matador of the Five Towns, a brilliant story with a fine and vivid description of a crowd at a professional football match – the more I read of Bennett the more I think he is vastly underrated. My least favourite was the Ayrshire writer, John Galt’s, The Howdie from 1832, which is written in a dialect which defeated this dyed in the wool Sassenach. I also enjoyed Wilkie Collins’ Mrs Badgery, another underrated author in my view.

Of the old favourites Conan Doyle’s Silver Blaze, the one about horse nobbling and the dog that didn’t bark, is always worth a reprise. Jonathan Swift’s Directions to the Footman is a wonderful example of the Irishman at his satirical best. What surprised me is that there are some stories from the 18th and 19th centuries which have a peculiarly modern feel to them. Henry Fielding’s The Female Husband of 1746 is a story of transvestism or at least the adventures of a woman who passes herself off as a man and gets married to boot. Hannah More’s tale from around 1795, Betty Brown, the St Giles Orange Girl, is a cautionary tale of the perils of taking out Wonga-style loans.

There are so many wonderful writers and stories of different genres – social commentary, mysteries, ghosts and simple entertainments – that there is surely something for everyone. And even if you do not recognise a writer, perseverance is often rewarded. The joy of an anthology is making an unexpected discovery.

I am already looking forward to dipping into volume two that takes us from P G Wodehouse to Zadie Smith.

The Streets Of London – Part Forty Seven


Red Lion Square, WC1R

If you walk eastwards down Theobalds Road in Holborn and turn right into North Street you will come across the pleasant square and garden that is Red Lion Square. Amongst the statues to be found there are those of the philosopher, Bertrand Russell, and the peace activist, Fenner Brockway. Despite Brockway’s presence the square has had a rumbustious past.

In the 17th century there was a pub there, the Red Lyon (natch), and 17 acres of fields. Property speculator, Nicholas Barbon, saw the opportunity to build housing on the land and bought it. However, the lawyers of nearby Gray’s Inn objected to his scheme, claiming that they would lose their rural surroundings and their “wholesome air” and it would be detrimental to their highly strung constitutions. In June 1684 the lawyers, as lawyers do, took Barbon to court but lost the case as he had bought the land fair and square.

Matters did not end there. On 10th June 1684 around 100 lawyers armed with bricks and other building material set about the workmen on the building site. They, led by Barbon, resisted and by the time order was restored, many men on both sides had sustained injuries. Having seen the lawyers off both in the courts and on the site, Barbon succeeded in building a square with neat and tidy houses, many taken up, ironically, by lawyers from Gray’s Inn.

In my student days Red Lion Square was notorious for a dust-up on 15th June 1974 between the National Front, their political opponents and the old bill, in which, unfortunately, Kevin Gateley from the University of Warwick was killed.

In the early 18th century the square in the middle went to rack and ruin, becoming a dumping ground for rubbish and a hangout for thieves and vagabonds, the lawyers’ clients perhaps? In 1737 an Act of Parliament was passed allowing the residents to tart the square and they proceeded to erect iron railings and four post houses, one at each corner, together with a rough stone obelisk with the inscription “obtusum obtusioris ingenii monumentum. Quid me respicis, viator? Vade.” This translates as “a dull memorial of a duller character. Why are you looking at me, traveller. Be on your way.” Charming!

One theory is that it marks the resting spot for Oliver Cromwell’s body (but not his head). Cromwell died in 1658 and when Charles II regained the throne in 1660, Parliament ordered that the bodies of the principal regicides – Olly, Henry Ireton and John Bradshaw – be exhumed from their resting places in Westminster Abbey, and posthumously hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn. The bodies were exhumed and carried by cart to the Red Lyon pub where they were kept overnight before the gruesome task of their disembowelling and execution the following day. The three bodies were decapitated – the heads were put on display at Westminster – and dumped into a pit near the gallows.

But were they bodies of Cromwell and his two accomplices? Legend has it that whilst they were at the Red Lyon the bodies were switched and buried near the pub at the spot later marked by the obelisk. The rather disingenuous inscription, perhaps, was intended to put the inquisitive off the scent. No one knows for sure whether there is any truth in the story but it is said that the ghosts of the three haunt the square.

The square was badly damaged during the Second World War and only a few of the original houses, principally numbers 14 to 17 although they were given new facades in the 19th century, survive to this day.

Double Your Money – Part Eight


Gregor McGregor, the Cacique of Poyais

One of the most incredible fraudsters of the 19th century was Naval veteran, Gregor McGregor, who on his return to London in 1820 after fighting in the Venezuelan War of Independence, announced that he had been named Cacique or prince of the principality of Poyais. The honour had been bestowed on him, he claimed, by the native chief, King Augustus I. And where was Poyais? According to McGregor it was located on the Bay of Honduras.

To promote this land of milk and honey he had a book published, ostensibly written by Captain Thomas Strangeways, called Sketch of the Mosquito Shore including the Territory of Poyais. It told of a fantastic land with untapped gold and silver mines, fertile soil, an established civil service, a democratic government and natives who were eager to work for British masters. St Joseph, the capital, had been founded in 1730 by British settlers – strange that very few people had seemed to have heard of it.

Having piqued the nation’s interest McGregor rolled out his investment scheme. For the rich on October 23rd 1822 he offered 2,000 bonds at £100 each, requiring a deposit of £80 and offering interest of 3%. They were fully subscribed. For the poor he sold land at 3 shillings and threepence an acre – about a day’s pay. He even sold places in his military and positions in the government. Naturally, he devised and issued his own currency.

The Poysian Legation opened offices in London and Scotland and McGregor and his associates made hay selling land, investments and other opportunities. So successful was the enterprise that by 1823 McGregor was in today’s terms a multi-millionaire.

The problem was that this land of milk and honey didn’t exist. True enough, King Augustus did grant McGregor land in a drunken stupor but all it consisted of was four run-down buildings and uninhabitable jungle. There was not a sniff of gold or silver. But, as we know, facts never get in the way of a fraudster or politician.

What would have been an elaborate and successful fraud had McGregor left it at that took a rather surprising turn when the Poysian legation, for reasons best known to itself, decided to send two boatloads of settlers to the non-existent land. On 1oth September 1822 the Honduras Packet left London with 70 settlers and on January 22nd 1823 the Kennersley Castle left Leith Harbour with almost 200 settlers. When they landed, they realised they had been conned. Sadly, only 50 survived to return to England.

When the survivors made it to London, their story hit the newspapers and McGregor, sensing which way the wind was blowing, scarpered to France. But McGregor wasn’t done with his golden egg that was Poyais just yet and started selling investment opportunities to the French, repeating his trick of issuing bonds and making pockets of land available. The French authorities took less of a laissez-faire attitude than their British equivalents and started to investigate this racket, McGregor being arrested in December 1825. Despite facing two trials he was acquitted but deciding that Paris was too hot for comfort, made his way back to Blighty.

Incredibly, he was at it again, opening an office at 23, Threadneedle Street and trying to issue Poyais bonds in 1827, albeit with little success. In 1828 he was selling land in the mythical territory for 5 shillings an acre and during the 1830s by which time he was now President of the Poyaisian republic he made several attempts to resuscitate interest in his fraudulent scheme.

Miraculously, though, he evaded justice and emigrated to Venezuela in 1839 where he died six years later.