An Eye For An Eye Will Only Make The Whole World Blind – Part Seven

The Nicaragua Postage Stamp War, 1937

Philately will get you everywhere, they say, and as a boy I used to circumnavigate the world frequently as I perused and added to my collection of stamps. I suppose the rather boring hobby taught me something about geography and different currencies. I remember how dull and tedious the British stamps were at the time – an air-brushed silhouette of the monarch against a monochromatic background – in comparison with many of the foreign jobbies.

I don’t have the albums now but I’m fairly certain that I didn’t have a copy of the Air Mail stamps issued by the Nicaraguan Postal Service in August 1937. And even if I did, I doubt I would have realised that the stamp featuring a map of the country along with part of its neighbour, Honduras, in a tasteful shade of green nearly caused a war.

Borders are tricky to establish at the best of times. The Spanish conquest of Nicaragua and Honduras in the 1520s resulted in large numbers of the indigenous populations being wiped out by disease and starvation. Administratively, the territories were nominally two separate areas within the greater Central American province, known, rather grandiloquently, as the Captaincy General of Guatemala. But the precise boundary between the two areas was not really an issue whilst they were absorbed within the Hispanic empire and, in any event, rather primitive cartographical techniques, thick, often impenetrable jungle, and a thinly populated area, probably persuaded the Spaniards that it was more trouble than it was worth.

Nicaragua and Honduras gained their independence, after the dissolution of the Captaincy General in 1821, the overthrow of the First Mexican empire, into which they were then absorbed, in 1823 and the collapse of the Federal Republic of Central America in the second half of 1838.

Of course, precise borders now mattered.

Probably because they had more important matters to consider, the two countries kicked the thorny subject into the long grass or, more accurately, the deep jungle and relied on the international convention of uti possidetis juris which, to the layman, meant that newly formed sovereign states should have the same borders that their preceding dependent area had. But if you couldn’t determine precisely where the border ran, it was not a great deal of help.

In an attempt to resolve the matter once and for all, the two countries agreed in 1894 that a Commission should be established to fix the border between the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. When the Commission published its findings six year later, they came up with a nice line which ran along straight lines, river beds and mountain ranges but, unfortunately, it only got a third of the way to the Atlantic coast. In despair, they appealed to the Spanish king, Alphonso XIII, who awarded most of the disputed territory to Honduras.

The 1937 stamp reopened this festering sore. Whilst the map clearly showed the agreed border, the area north of the border was marked “territorio en litigio”, territory in dispute. When the first stamps reached the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, riots broke out and the police had their work cut out to prevent the Nicaraguan embassy from being stormed. Troops were sent by both countries to the disputed area and war was only averted thanks to some frantic diplomatic efforts on the part of America, Mexico and Costa Rica.

The status quo had been restored but the matter was unresolved. In 1957 a commission under the auspices of the International Court of Justice considered the matter and in 1960 reconfirmed Alphonso’s decision, awarding the disputed territory once more to Honduras. Another border commission set about fixing the precise border and did a better job than the first one, drawing a line across the 573 miles of border country.

And there matters stand to this day.

Double Your Money – Part Thirty Two

William Thompson

For an etymologist with a penchant for the ignoble art of scamming, William Thompson, who operated in the Big Apple during the 1840s, is manna from heaven.

Conmen were known at the time as diddlers, taking their name from James Kenney’s character, Jeremy Diddler, who appeared in his 1805 farce, Raising the Wind. The art of diddling fascinated Edgar Allan Poe and he wrote an essay, Diddling: Considered as One of the Exact Sciences, which was published in 1843. He considered that “the origin of the diddle is referrable to the infancy of the Human Race, ” and averred that “perhaps the first diddler was Adam.

Be that as it may, Poe did go on to consider the attributes that made the consummate diddler. These, in his opinion, included audacity, focus on small crimes, self-interest, ingenuity, perseverance, impertinence, nonchalance, originality, and a grin. William Thompson was the epitome of Poe’s archetypal diddler.

His modus operandi was beguilingly simple. Immaculately dressed, well-spoken and doubtless with a grin on his face, he would sidle up – whatever happened to sidling? – to his intended victim. Often he would pretend to have a vague acquaintance with the mark and engaged him in conversation. Once he had gained the stranger’s confidence, Thompson would make an unusual request; “have you the confidence in me to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?

Surprisingly, many had and they were – that was the last they would see of their timepiece. It was like taking candy from a baby.

But one of the hallmarks that Poe didn’t suggest a successful diddler should have was a memory or at least the ability to recognise, and avoid, their marks. This singular failure on the part of Thompson led to his undoing, as the New York Herald reported in 1849. On 12th May 1848 a Mr Thomas McDonald who lived at no 276, Madison Street, met Thompson and during the course of a conversation was persuaded to entrust his gold lever watch, valued at $110, to the diddler. True to form, he never saw it again but what he did see again the following year as he was strolling along the inaptly named Liberty Street, at least as far as Thompson was concerned, was the diddler who had betrayed his trust.

Lucky enough, at least as far as McDonald was concerned, there was an officer of the law nearby, Officer Swayse of the Third Ward, who was told of Thompson’s deception. The Officer swiftly apprehended Thompson who put up somewhat of a fight. It was only when his hands were securely fastened that Swayse was able to march him down to the police station.

Up before Justice McGrath, it was soon revealed that Thompson was, as the New York Herald rather quaintly put it, “a graduate of the college at Sing Sing.” He was remanded in prison and the newspaper recommended that anyone else who had been relieved of their valuables by being foolish enough to trust a stranger should pay him a visit to see whether Thompson was their swindler. Alas, it is unrecorded how many, if any, took up the newspaper’s advice nor is it certain quite what happened to Thompson afterwards.

But etymologically speaking, what is of interest in this rather tawdry tale of petty larceny was that in reporting it, the New York Herald headlined it “Arrest of the Confidence Man.” This was the first printed instance of the use of the term which over time became abbreviated to con man. Herman Melville called his ninth novel, published in 1857, the Confidence Man, showing that the phrase was well understood, fairly rapidly after its first coinage.

The diddler as a term, like William Thompson, faded into ill-deserved obscurity.

If you enjoyed this, try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone

Feat Of The Week

What do you do when you already hold the world record for setting the most Guinness World Records and have already caught the most knives in a minute (54) and the most grapes in your mouth (86) in 60 seconds?

Well, of course, if you are New Yorker, Ashrita Furman, you slice 26 water melons on your stomach in a minute using a Japanese traditional sword known as a Katana. As well as setting up another record – he currently holds over 200 of them – he didn’t suffer a scratch.

Perhaps he could get a job in a restaurant.

If you want to see him in action, click on the link.

I shall be following his further exploits with interest.

What Is The Origin Of (190)?…

Faffing about

Since I joined the serried and ever-increasing ranks of the baby-boomer retirees I can be accused of spending more and more time faffing about. By this I mean that I spend time on ineffectual activities which don’t really get anywhere. About can be replaced by the adverb around – the sense is the same.

It is very much a colloquial idiom, with very few examples to be found in literature and I had assumed that it was a euphemism for the stronger and to many sensitive ears the unacceptable execration that is the Anglo-Saxon f**k. However, this is not the case and faff as a verb has its own, distinctive etymology, although its precise roots are not certain.

There are two front runners for the prize of being the root of faff. The first contender is the Dutch regional word, maffelen, which meant moving the jaws. It was adopted in Scottish dialect and in the vernacular of certain parts of England to mean, in its intransitive form, to speak indistinctly or to mumble, to move the jaws (and tongue) for no obvious end result. In its transitive form, maffle meant to cause to be confused or bewildered.

There is another contender, faffle, another word to be found in English dialect, which means to stammer or stutter. It is tempting, because of the match of the first syllable, to think that faffle is the root of our phrase but there is no conclusive evidence to prove it and it may just be that faffle is a variant of maffle. It is all very confusing and you could faff about without getting too far in your enquiries. In speech, though, these words had been in use since the 16th century.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded usage of the phrase in print was as recent as 1874 in a book entitled Yorkshire Oddities, Incidents and Strange Events, by Sabine Baring-Gould who filled in his long hours as a clergyman by collecting folk-songs, examples of local folk lore and dialect. He recorded, “t’ clock-maker fizzled an’ faffed aboot her, but nivver did her a farthing’s worth o’good.”  Despite the clock-maker’s well-meaning attentions, his attempts to help the woman came to naught, as good an example of the modern usage and meaning of the phrase as you could get.

But a North Yorkshire glossary, dating from 1868, throws up another definition of faffle – “as when a person blows chaff away from corn held in his hands, or the wind when it causes brief puffs of smoke to return down the chimney.” This sense was transported, perhaps literally, to the Antipodes where it appeared in the Australian Journal of 1879. “No, it [a candle] burns quite steadily now; you are right about it faffing about before, because it blew towards my face.

It may not be straining credulity too much to think that both senses we have uncovered are variants of the same original sense. The spluttering candle or the wind that fails to make good its escape up the chimney or a puff that disturbs a sample of corn held in the hand are examples of things that weren’t meant to happen like that and, by extension, as evidence of their ineffectiveness. Whether there is anything to this or it is just a piece of sophistry, what is clear that the sense of wasting time or acting ineffectually won out.

It is only recently that the phrase has been deemed appropriate for the printed page but it seems to be used with increasing frequency in newspapers, both here and in Australia. A recent notable example was this headline from the Australian Financial Review of 11th March 2016; “Mr Turnbull has to stop faffing around.


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

Charles Waterton (1782 – 1865)

It is a fascinating to see how our perceptions of someone have changed over time. Take Charles Waterton, for example. The Yorkshire born naturalist and taxidermist was viewed principally as one of the 19th century’s foremost eccentrics, not least because he featured in the pages of Edith Sitwell’s 1933 classic, The English Eccentrics. Today, he is viewed as a pioneering environmentalist.

Observing nature and conducting experiments in the tropics in South America in the 1810s required considerable ingenuity and was certainly not for the faint of heart. Waterton once jumped on to the back of a crocodile, seizing its front legs in a vice-like grip and riding it as if it was a bucking bronco, a feat of balance, determination and derring-do which he put down the training he had received riding with the foxhounds of Lord Darlington.

Keen to observe at close quarters the teeth of a boa constrictor, he couldn’t get his native guides to summon up the courage to bundle it up into a sack. Undaunted Waterton whipped off his braces and bound the poor creature up with them. I hope his trousers stayed up. The guides’ circumspection was perhaps justified. After all, when Waterton tried to interest a vampire bat to bite his toe in order to study the effect of its toxins, the ingrate creature swooped down and bit his amanuensis instead. The experiment was abandoned.

Returning to his family home, Walton Hall, in the 1820s Charles astonished his neighbours by building a three mile long perimeter wall around the estate, some eight to nine feet high. The purpose? Not to keep nosey parkers out but to keep fauna in. He was in the process of constructing one of the world’s first wildfowl and nature reserve. Perhaps slightly more unnerving, callers would often find him up a tree, “dressed like a scarecrow,” the better to observe birds or, on occasion, to return chicks which had fallen out of their nest in a storm. He is also credited with inventing the nesting box.

Waterton cut a striking figure. Eschewing the fashion of the time to sport a full set of whiskers and a luxuriant head of hair, he was clean-shaven and wore his hair closely cropped. That was the least that would unnerve an unsuspecting visitor. His house was full of strange creatures, including an albino hedgehog, a duck without webbing on its feet, and a Brazilian toad which, for a time, accompanied him everywhere. Anyone venturing into Waterton’s room would encounter a live three-toed sloth hanging from the back of a chair.

Taxidermy was one of his passions and he would often create grotesque creatures from the parts of two or three different animals. Guests were frightened out of their wits when they came across them in darkened passageways, Waterton adding to his sport by, as an ardent Catholic, naming the most extraordinary specimens of his work after prominent Protestants.

Dinner could also be a bit of a trial. He allegedly dissected a gorilla on the table after the dishes had been cleared away. He would surprise his guests by greeting them on all-fours and occasionally would nip them on the shins as if he were a dog. It is surprising anyone came around.

But Charles was also an environmentalist, waging a long campaign against a soap works adjacent to his property who he claimed were polluting the area. He won his case in 1839 and the company relocated to pollute (and bring employment to) nearby Wakefield.

Charles was deeply affected by the death in 1830 of his young wife in childbirth – the baby survived – and from that day on he slept, wrapped in a cloak, on the floor with a block of beechwood for a pillow, rising at 3.30am and breakfasting on dry toast, watercress and a cup of watery, black tea.

He died from injuries sustained in a fall and his body was taken by barge to its final resting place, between two great oak trees, which, sadly, no longer exist.

A naturalist with a streak of eccentricity, I would say.

Book Corner – July 2018 (2)

Continental Crimes – edited by Martin Edwards

I am a sucker for these collections which offer the prospect of an entertaining light read with the opportunity to enjoy again some old familiar friends and to discover some long-forgotten writers. Just to prove that murder most foul is not peculiar to the English countryside and the dark alleys of the metropolis, Edwards has compiled a collection of fourteen stories where the action takes place sur le continent and, inevitably, on a train bound for Venice.

As with all anthologies the quality of the fare is variable. If I was being pedantic, heaven forfend, Jefferson Farjeon’s The Room in the Tower is more of an atmospheric ghost story than a tale of crime and The Secret of the Magnifique by E Phillips Oppenheimer is both overlong and ends with a bit of a damp squib. And for the modern audience the ending to Michael Gilbert’s Villa Almirante – “many a successful marriage has been founded on a good beating” – is a bit rich. Even I, who defend politically incorrect statements as a reflection of their time, think Edwards might have been better advised to omit this story which is of moderate quality at best.

One oddity is to be found in Marie Belloc Lowndes’ Popeau Intervenes. The ‘tec, one Hercules Popeau, has many of the characteristics found in one of Agatha Christie’s Belgian sleuth, Hercules Poirot. Lowndes’ creation predates Christie’s character and she was rightly pissed by how closely Poirot resembled her man and it is worth getting the book just to compare and contrast. You will not expend many little grey cells in the exercise.

I am a fan of Arnold Bennett and his A Bracelet at Bruges – more a case of how the crime was committed than by whom and with a dash of romance thrown in for good measure – doesn’t disappoint. Conan Doyle opens up proceedings with a superbly crafted non-Holmesian tale, The New Catacomb – not one for claustrophobes. G K Chesterton is represented with a Father Brown tale, The Secret Garden, in which the diffident cleric solves an impossible mystery involving a gruesome beheading. It is one of the best Father Brown stories, in my opinion.

Agatha Christie provides us with a tale of mystery and intrigue on a train en route to Venice. Have You Everything You Want? is a fairly lightweight affair and certainly not one of her best but introduces Parker Pyne to her readership. More to my taste was The Perfect Murder by Stacy Aumonier which featured a couple of impecunious brothers whose plight was not helped by relatives with deep pockets and short arms. I also enjoyed the slightly folksy and twee Petit-Jean by Ian Hay.

I was left thinking that many of these stories would have worked well in an English setting. For sure, the continental aspect added a bit of the exotic to proceedings but there was very little that was distinctively foreign about many of the tales, perhaps a reflection that most of the writers were Anglo-Saxons.

On the whole, I found that was less to admire in this collection than in others that Edwards has produced but there was enough to whet and sustain my appetite. There is nothing better than to dream of sunnier climes on a dank and dreary English evening.