Everything Is Possible For An Eccentric, Especially When He Is English – Part Twelve

James Lucas (1813 – 1874)

For some eccentrics a life-changing event proved to be the tipping point into strange and unusual behaviour. A case in point is James Lucas who earned the sobriquets, mad Jack and the Hermit of Hertfordshire.

James was the son of a rich Liverpudlian land-owner who had interests in sugar plantations out in the West Indies. They moved to Hertfordshire when James was about ten, taking up residence at Elmwood House at Great Wymondley, near Stevenage. James used to terrorise the locals by riding through the countryside at a reckless pace, tied to an old-fashioned saddle with a cord and with his long hair flowing in the breeze. Apart from that, though, he was clever, studied medicine and a good conversationalist.

The point at which his eccentricity developed occurred in 1849 when his mother, to whom he was devoted, popped her clogs. So distraught with grief was James that he sat beside the body for thirteen weeks, refusing to allow her to be buried until the local magistrates decided enough was enough.

James had now inherited Elmwood and dismissed all the servants. He shut all the rooms of the house, save for the kitchen. His only furniture was a table and a chair and for clothing he made do with a blanket. James’ sole source of heat was the kitchen fire which he never allowed to go out. Inevitably, the ash accumulated. All James did was scrape them out by hand so that they gradually filled the room. Dirty and unwashed, he lived amongst and slept on piles of ashes for his remaining twenty-five years, subsisting on milk and bread.

In order to deter unwelcome visitors and relatives, the windows and doors to the kitchen were barred with logs and iron struts. Towards the end of his life he took extra security precautions by employing a couple of watchmen. But the hermit’s fame spread far and wide and he had a steady stream of visitors with he would converse through the barred windows. James enjoyed the company of tramps whom he would interrogate. If there were no holes in their story, he rewarded Protestants with a penny and Catholics with two pence. Those whom he caught spinning a yarn were sent packing with a flea in their ear and, possibly, a shower of ashes.

Children were also welcome and on major Christian festivals, principally Christmas Day and Good Friday, he would shower the local ragamuffins with money, sweets and buns. Perhaps Lucas’ most famous visitor was Charles Dickens who paid his respects in 1861. The author immortalised the encounter in Tom Tiddler’s Ground, published in 1861, featuring a misanthropic, morbid hermit called Mr Mopes who sought seclusion to gain notoriety. This rather unsympathetic portrayal of his condition probably pissed Lucas off.

An attack of apoplexy finished him off in 1874 and when the house was opened up, it took 17 cartloads to remove all the dirt and ashes. After twenty-five years of studied neglect, the house had slowly rotted away and in 1890 it was finally demolished. Lucas was buried in the family grave in Hackney in east London.

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Book Corner – August 2017 (3)

The Stamboul Train – Graham Greene

This is one of the few Graham Greene novels that I had not read before and it seemed the appropriate time to discover it having read Bethany Hughes’ history of Istanbul. The novel, published in 1932, is the first to which Greene attached the label of an entertainment. American readers might know it better as the Orient Express, which was also the name of the film based on it which was released in 1934. I think it is fair to say that it is one of Greene’s lesser works but, nonetheless, is an action-packed and rewarding read.

Long, international train journeys are a bit of a literary cliché these days but it allows the author to assemble a motley crew of characters who, because of the length of their time together in an enclosed space, have time to connect and interact and, as Greene uses to advantage, the stops along the way allow him to introduce new characters and as the train wends its way through the heartland of Europe to its ultimate destination, Istanbul, each new passenger increases the sense of malevolence and danger.

Three very disparate characters start the journey – Dr Richard Czinner whose alias is an English schoolteacher but who is really an exiled communist leader returning to Belgrade to lead a revolution, Carleton Myer, a trader in currants who is travelling to Turkey to seal a business deal, and Carol Musker, a dancer who is going to take up a job as a dancer in Istanbul. Their fates and stories are soon intertwined. Myer feels sorry for Musker who becomes ill during the journey and falls for her charms. Czinner is recognised by a lesbian journalist, Mabel Warren who joins the train at Brussels with her beau, Janet Pardoe. The tension is cranked up when Josef Grunlich, a thief who has botched a raid and committed murder, joins the train at Vienna.

The revolution is botched and takes place before Czinner arrives, leading him to question his purpose in life. Border guards stop the train and arrest Czinner, Grunlich and Musker. The pace of the book hots up with a Kafkaesque trial, escapes, shootings and car chases. I will not spoil the denouement other than to say that Musker’s ultimate fate is never quite revealed and that Pardoe turns out to be the niece of the man Myer is trying to do business with.

Unusually for a Greene novel the heavy hand of Catholicism is absent. Nonetheless the main protagonists engage in periods of soul-searching, trying to reconcile what has happened and their role in the world. The principal them is that of fidelity, to yourself and to others and how you will be remembered and want to be remembered after you have gone. Heavy stuff but it doesn’t really obtrude because Greene is a master story-teller and gets the balance right.

The bigger issues for modern readers are whether Greene is homophobic in his unflattering portrayal of Warren and anti-semitic in the way he writes about Myer. For those who are attuned to spotting any deviation from political correctness, the answer is probably yes. That said, he was a creature of his time. Warren is a fabulously rich, louche character who just happens to be gay but her sexual orientation is probably used to emphasise what a grotesque person she is. As to anti-Semitism, I’m not sure. Most of the stereotypical characteristics of Jews appear in his make-up – shrewd businessman, love of money, monetising everything – but he is kind, caring, considerate – loving, even. Every reader has to make their mind up but it would be a sad day if modern sensibilities got in the way of reading good literature.

And as for sensitivity, J B Priestley took umbrage of Greene’s portrayal of popular Cockney novelist, Q C Savory, thinking it was a bit near the knuckle and Greene, fearing a libel case, had to tone the character down.

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

Dr Velpeau’s Magnetic Love Powders

In cultures and times when arranged marriages were not the vogue, one of the principal concerns for the male member was how to win over the fairer sex. And where there is insecurity, there is fertile ground for the practitioner of quackery to till.

Dr Velpeau – of course, that was not his real name, it was the more prosaic J C Merrill and may have been an attempt to associate his product with the French surgeon, Alfred Velpeau – offered his dupes powders which were supposed to transform their amatory fortunes. What was most enterprising about the scam was that the adverts were in the form of a job advert for salesmen, offering a salary of 800 dollars and commission. When someone responded, all they received was a sample of the powders and some instructions as to their use. “These powders” the literature proclaimed, “properly administered, are warranted irrespective of age, circumstances or personal appearance, to win them the love or unchanging affections of any one they may desire of the opposite sex.

The problem was in the proper administration of the powder. The male was not the one to consume it but rather he had to find a way to induce the object of his affections to take the powder. This might be an insuperable hurdle for someone who is particularly gauche in the presence of the opposite sex. Slipping some surreptitiously into a beverage might just work. If he succeeded in getting the woman to consume the powder, the man would have an anxious wait to see whether she went weak at the knees and threw herself at him. Astonishingly, at the height of the scam in 1855, Velpeau was getting upwards of forty letters a day from men desperate enough to send him two dollars for the keys to unlock a woman’s heart.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, nothing happened. Many would put the failure down to experience but some were incensed enough in late 1855 to write to the Mayor of New York, complaining about Merrill’s sharp practice. The scam hit the newspapers but the victims didn’t find a sympathetic press. One paper commented, “Only think of it! For two dollars, any enterprising young man – no matter if he is as poor as an editor, and as ugly as a baboon, can through the instrumentality of these powders, make himself “lord” of the most charming lass of “sweet sixteen” to be found within the limits of our friend’s agency, which comprises four counties!”

The Mayor, though proved to be more sympathetic and Merrill had his collar felt and was charged with fraud. He eluded incarceration by promising to stop flogging his powders and to return the monies extracted from his victims. Whether he returned the victims’ money is unclear but the lure of easy money was too much to resist and six weeks later he was still at it, selling his miraculous powders and fleecing his victims. This time, though, Merrill couldn’t evade the long arm of the law. He was arrested, charged with defrauding his victims and thrown in jail. And that was the end of the Magnetic Love Powders.

Double Your Money – Part Twenty Three

James Paul Lewis Junior

We have looked at a number of Ponzi and Pyramid selling schemes over this series and have noted that there is an inherent design flaw in them. Ponzi schemes are totally reliant upon new members joining the scheme to pay the dividends promised to the earlier investors while pyramid schemes financially reward investors for recruiting new members. However, once the supply of new investors dries up, the whole edifice comes tumbling down.

The remarkable feature of Lewis’ Ponzi scheme is that it defied gravity for so long. It is estimated that it lasted for around 20 years, during which time Lewis had collected around $800 million from his investors – Lewis was one of them. His company was called Financial Advisory Consultants and was based in Lake Forest in Orange County, California. Many of his 5,200 clients were recruited by word of mouth, many through fellow churchgoers and church-based organisations. Initially, the minimum investment was $25,000 but as the fund began to start creaking, this was raised to $100,000.

Lewis span a good story, claiming that one of his funds delivered annual returns of 40% while the other generated a more modest 20%. He was able to sustain such high levels of return, he claimed, by leasing medical equipment, financing purchases of medical insurance, making commercial loans and buying and selling distressed businesses. To add a bit of glitz to the scam, Lewis claimed that his clients included a number of professional athletes and at least one movie star.

In reality, however, Lewis was paying the high levels of dividends from the investments of the newer recruits as well as using some of the funds to finance a lavish lifestyle. Rather like George Best, he spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest he just squandered. But the money kept coming in, many of his investors putting their life savings into a fund that promised returns that seemed too good to be true. Of course, they were.

The writing was on the wall in 2003 when Lewis was unable to meet dividend payments. Investors became suspicious but he placated them and bought some time by claiming that the Department of Homeland Security had frozen the funds. This, naturally, was bunkum and when there was still no sign of the promised dividends, the FBI were invited to investigate. Lewis did then what any self-respecting fraudster does when the net tightens around him – he fled.

An arrest warrant was issued on January 14th 2004 and after a narrow escape in Tallahassee, Lewis was arrested in Houston. The investigations showed the extent of Lewis’ scam. Instead of the $814 million in clients’ assets he was supposed to have had, his company’s bank accounts held just $2.3m. Even at the time that his funds were allegedly frozen, Lewis helped himself to $3million and amongst the assets the FBI seized were five cars including two Mercedes and a BMW. A letter dating to 2001 showed that Lewis had speculated on high-risk currency trading – naturally, Lewis lost $6.5 million on that occasion.

On trial in 2006 – Lewis received 30 years and was ordered to repay $156 million – Judge Carney called the scheme a “crime against humanity” because many of its victims were elderly and had lost their life savings. Only $11 million was ever recovered.

It’s The Way I Tell ‘Em (30)

More jokes from the Edinburgh Fringe

  • I’m not a fan of the new pound coin, but then again, I hate all change – Ken Cheng
  • Trump’s nothing like Hitler. There’s no way he could write a book – Frankie Boyle
  • I’ve given up asking rhetorical questions. What’s the point? – Alexei Sayle
  • I’m looking for the girl next door type. I’m just gonna keep moving house till I find her – Lew Fitz
  • I like to imagine the guy who invented the umbrella was going to call it the ‘brella’. But he hesitated – Andy Field
  • Combine Harvesters. And you’ll have a really big restaurant – Mark Simmons
  • I’m rubbish with names. It’s not my fault, it’s a condition. There’s a name for it… – Jimeoin
  • I have two boys, 5 and 6. We’re no good at naming things in our house – Ed Byrne
  • I wasn’t particularly close to my dad before he died… which was lucky, because he trod on a land mine – Olaf Falafel
  • Whenever someone says, ‘I don’t believe in coincidences.’ I say, ‘Oh my God, me neither!’ – Alasdair Beckett-King
  • A friend tricked me into going to Wimbledon by telling me it was a men’s singles event – Angela Barnes
  • As a vegan, I think people who sell meat are disgusting; but apparently people who sell fruit and veg are grocer – Adele Cliff
  • For me dying is a lot like going camping. I don’t want to do it – Phil Wang
  • I wonder how many chameleons snuck onto the Ark – Adam Hess
  • I went to a Pretenders gig. It was a tribute act – Tim Vine

Photo Opportunity Of The Week

The search for that perfect photo is relentless. It emerged this week that a family thought that hoisting junior into the 800-year old sandstone casket on display at Prittlewell Priory Museum in Southend, would make a good shot.

Alas, the coffin, the only one of its kind in existence, was knocked off its stand and broken after the child was lifted over a protective barrier. To compound their misdemeanour, the family left the museum without alerting staff of the mishap. The damage was only discovered later and was dutifully recorded on the all-seeing CCTV system.

It will cost £100 to repair the damage and the museum will put the casket in an enclosed display case.

It’s a good job it wasn’t a new one is all I can say.

Toilet Of The Week (12)

Ever wondered what happens to a toilet block when it is closed down by the local authority? Well, here in Surrey it is turned into a bijou des res, natch.

The carsey, which was a bog standard affair with a gents’ block on the left and the ladies on the right and backs on to Grade II listed Bourne Hall, was flogged off by Epsom and Ewell Borough Council in 2012 for £68,000. It was converted into two semi-detached houses, each boasting an open-plan kitchen, living area, double bedroom and a shower room, not golden I presume.

I discovered this week that the right-hand side property is now on the market for £330,000, according to Rightmove. The potential buyer, flush with cash, will have to leave a sizeable deposit. I wonder if there is a chain!