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The Streets Of London – Part Sixty Eight

Steelyard Passage, EC4

What is now known as Steelyard Passage is a covered passageway running underneath Cannon Street station, linking Cousin Lane to the west with All Hallows Lane to the east. Handy as it is for getting from A to B in one’s rush to get to one of the many eateries in the area, what I hadn’t appreciated was that it was an area steeped in history. The Steelyard, derived from the Middle Low German word, stalhof, was the centre of the Hanseatic League’s trading operations in London.

What made the area particularly attractive to the German merchants was that it was situated on the northern bank of the Thames by the outflow of the Walbrook river. So ensconced were the Hanseatics there that they were able to build their own walled community which contained warehouses by the river, weighing and counting houses, residential blocks and chapel. They even had their own laws and, naturally, conversed in their native tongue. Traces of the trading house which was the largest trading complex in mediaeval London were uncovered in 1988 when maintenance work was being carried out on the station.

Records suggest the presence of a German trading post on the banks of the Thames as far back as 1282. In 1303 Edward I regularised the position of the Hanseatics by issuing a Carta Mercatoria which gave them tax and customs concessions. The heyday for the trading post was probably in the 15th century when the site was extended and the German merchants made a play for the English cloth making trade. This often led to friction between the two sets of merchants, often ending in violence. This culminated in the destruction of the Steelyard in 1469. Edward IV allowed the merchants from Cologne to stay in the city, which in turn caused dissension with the other members of the league, resulting in Cologne’s expulsion.

England and the Hanseatic League then went to war but following the peace treaty of Utrecht, the Hanseatic League bought outright their land on the banks of the Thames. Part of their obligations was to maintain one of the city’s great gates, Bishopsgate. The community’s fortunes flourished in the 16th century and a number of the members – they were stationed in London for a few years and then returned home – sat for portraits by the likes of Hans Holbein the Younger and Cornelis Ketel. John Stow in 1598 described their imposing edifices facing on to Thames Street; “large, built of stone, with three arched gates towards the street, the middlemost whereof is far bigger than the others and is seldom opened; the other two bemured up; the same is now called the old hall.

Impressively built as the trading area was by contemporary standards, it could not escape the flames of the Great Fire of 1666. Samuel Pepys who had once been drawn to visit the Steelyard, attracted by its fashionable “Rhenish winehouse”, sat in a barge on the Thames watching the flames of the fire licking the Steelyard’s walls. The warehouses were rebuilt and they concentrated on trading in steel but from that point the fortunes of the Hanseatics in London waned. With typical tenacity they soldiered on but in 1852 the remaining members of the League, Lubeck, Bremen and Hamburg, sold their London outpost to the South eastern Railway. The site was demolished and Cannon Street railway station was built, opening to the public in 1866.

Sadly, nothing remains of the Steelyard but the Banker pub occupies the spot where the weigh house once stood with what is left of the once mighty Walbrook trickling down a pipe affixed to one of its walls.


What Is The Origin Of (157)?…

At sixes and sevens

This curious phrase is used to signify that things are in a state of confusion or disorder. It can also be used to indicate that two parties are in dispute or having a disagreement. So how did this phrase evolve and why sixes and sevens?

A variant of our phrase first appeared in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde which was written in 1374. There we find “Lat nat this wrechched wo thyn herte gnawe, But manly set the world on sexe and seuene” which translates into modern English as “Let not this wretched woe gnaw at your heart, But manly set the world on six and seven.” One of the interesting aspects of this phrase is that you can trace its mutation over the centuries from Chaucer’s on six and seven to at six and seven before settling upon the familiar at sixes and sevens.

By the time Shakespeare penned Richard II in around 1595 at six and seven was the normal formulation – its first citation dates to around 1535. The Duke of York remarks in Act 2 Scene 2 remarks, “I should to Plashy too, But time will not permit. All is uneven, And everything is left at six and seven.” Some seventy-five years later the numerals began to appear in the now familiar plural form.  In 1670 the bashful G.H “faithfully Englished” Leti’s Il cardinalismo di Santa Chiesa and there we find “they leave things at sixes and sevens.” And our phrase appears in Francis Grose’s invaluable Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1785 complete with a definition; “Left at sixes and sevens, in confusion, commonly said of a room where the furniture, etc. is scattered about, or of a business left unsettled.

As for the significance of the numerals in our phrases, the authoritative sources are (ahem) at sixes and sevens. The Chaucer citation rules out the theory that it relates to a dispute between two London Livery Companies, the Merchant Taylors and the Skinners, over precedence. In 1484 the Lord Mayor, Sir Robert Billesden, ruled that the two companies should alternate between sixth and seventh place on an annual basis, a practice that remains today. Shame, because it is a nice story.

The Chaucer citation could well provide a clue because the sense it conveys is one of reckless behaviour akin to a risky throw of the dice. Dice were commonly used in gambling games in the Middle Ages, particularly in to us the rather obscure and complicated game of Hazard. The numbers on the faces of a die were based on Old French numbers, ace, deuce, trey, quatre, cinq and sice. The riskiest and most reckless bet in Hazard was to go for the high numbers, five and six. We have noted how over the centuries the English have been a bit tin-eared with foreign words and phrases and are past masters of the mondegreen. We are asked to believe that cinq and sice was corrupted and mangled into six and seven, losing along the way its association with gambling. This seems to be good enough for the Oxford English Dictionary but I’m troubled by it.

It may be that we have to say that the real association with six and seven has been lost in the mists of history. But I leave you with a couple of thoughts. The sum of six and seven is thirteen, a notoriously ill-starred number. May this be the origin? Alternatively, it may be a bit of a joke. Most dice have six faces and so to have a die with a seven is the sign of a disorderly gambling establishment. Perhaps it is no more than that.

Double Your Money – Part Twenty Six

James Whitaker Wright (1846 – 1904)

There was a time when being a company director was a bit of a sinecure, earning the trustee of a company’s fortunes a hearty lunch every now and again, a fee and a share of any dividends that were going. There was no shortage of the great and the good willing to put themselves forward to serve on a Board and for the unscrupulous entrepreneur, stacking the board of their companies with titled dignitaries gave their venture the patina of respectability. For the unwary, though, this could be the road to ruin as the story of James Whitaker Wright shows.

Born in Stafford, Wright trained in chemistry and assaying and upon the death of his father, he emigrated to Canada and then the States where he became an American citizen. He made a fortune, becoming a millionaire, by promoting silver-mining companies in Leadville, Colorado, and Lake Valley, New Mexico. Although initially Wright did well out of these ventures, his investors did not see a penny and by the age of 31 he had lost his fortune and returned to Blighty penniless.

Undaunted, he started again, promoting on the London stock exchange a number of Australian and Canadian mining companies. The boards of many of his companies consisted of aristocrats. Perhaps his most significant catch was the former Viceroy of India, the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, who agreed to be chairman of the London and Globe Company, formed in the 1890s. The company floated numerous stock and bond issues associated with mining, appropriating the term consols to describe the offerings. These were not to be confused with the consols which described the state bonds issued by the British government which were safe and reliable but unwary investors would be forgiven for thinking that they were the same thing.

For a while all went well and by 1897 Wright had become a millionaire for a second time. He bought himself a mansion, Lea Park, which boasted a smoking room underneath a rooftop aquarium. His affairs started to unravel when he founded the British America Corporation with the intention of financing the construction of the new Bakerloo underground line. The bond issue associated with this development was nothing short of a disaster, the construction was difficult and costly and Wright soon found himself short of funds. The situation called for desperate measures.

The solution Wright adopted was to shift money around between his companies in the form of loans. This practice strengthened balance sheets at the time when results had to be published but meant that there was nothing with which to pay dividends. So although he was claiming all in the garden was rosy, there was no pay out for the investors who began to smell a rat. By December 1900 the whole pack of cards collapsed, Wright was accused of misusing investor funds, shock waves were felt in the international mining industry and questions were even asked in Parliament.

After hiding for a week in the ice house at Witley Park, Wright scarpered to Paris and then to New York. New technology meant that the authorities could telegraph a warrant for his arrest to New York and even though he was travelling under a false name, he was arrested. He managed to delay his extradition until September 1902 and didn’t face an unsympathetic judge and jury until 1904. On 25th January 1904 Wright was found guilty of fraud and sentenced to seven years in chokey. But he had the last laugh.

Protesting his innocence and calling for a large whisky and a cigar, he did a Praljak by ingesting a cyanide capsule in an ante-room of the Royal Courts of Justice and died on the spot. For good measure, the police also found a loaded revolver on his person. As for the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, the shame of the collapse killed him in 1902, proving that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

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

Ali Ahmed’s Treasures of the Desert

The development of trade and the expansion of the British Empire meant that the world was a smaller place in Victorian times. As a consequence there was a certain mystique about things oriental and this gave the practitioner of the art of quackery a fertile source to tap into. One such was the curious tale of Ali Ahmed and his cough pills.

Ahmed was said to be of Persian origin but had to flee to Aleppo where he flourished “between the years of the Herah 420 to 488.” There he discovered many wonderful secrets which he passed on to his family on his death bed. They were discovered by “an excellent and philanthropic Englishman” who (natch) considered it his duty to make them available to the folks at home. And so, within the fourteenth instalment of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House containing chapters 43 to 46 was to be found an eight page advertising supplement extolling the virtues of Ahmed’s cough pills.

The advertising copy gave a bit of local colour by way of background, claiming that the pills were so famous in Aleppo that anyone running furiously was said to have “ran as though he were running for the celebrated cough pills.” The supplement was decorated with swirls and squiggles, perhaps to mimic Arabic calligraphy, and featured a couplet which roughly translated read, “Men of all ages, four score years or nigh/ run to the mart old Ali Ahmed’s Pills to buy.” Then there were testimonials, from a man in Damascus and another in Bangkok who vouched that a course of Ahmed’s pills was enough to cure the cough that had plagued Prince Choo Fan of Siam whereas all other medicaments had failed. There was even a specially carved bust of Ahmed on display at the depot in St Bride’s Avenue, off London’s Fleet Street, where the pills could be procured in boxes of varying sizes with prices ranging from thirteen and a half old pennies to 10 shillings and sixpence.

The advert went on to warn against the noxious compounds developed by the European medical profession. Instead of strychnine and morphine, Ahmed’s drugs were “simple and pure; the mountainside furnishes him with herbs and roots and the plains are bountiful in bulbs.” The drugs were described as “the kindest gifts of nature to suffering humanity.” What not to like?

In addition to the Pectoral Antiphthisis Pill which was designed to fight off colds, coughs and consumption, there were two other remedies available from the Ahmed range. The Sphairopeptic Pill was designed to deal with liver and digestive complaints whilst the Antiseptic Malagma was a type of plaster to be used on ulcers and wounds and to deal with gangrene.

So what was in them and did they work? The Pectoral Pills, according to Cooley’s Cyclopaedia, contained myrrh, squills (which can be toxic in large doses but acts as an expectorant), ipecacuanha (another expectorant), white soft soap, aniseed oil and treacle whilst the Sphairopeptic Pills contained aloes, colocynth pulp, rhubarb, myrrh, scammony (yet another expectorant), ipecacuanha, cardamom seeds, soft soap, oil of juniper and treacle. The presence of the Central American ipecacuanha seems to give the lie to the claim that these were Ahmed’s original recipes. The Malagma consisted of a calico strip smeared with a mix of lead plaster, a sort of thickened turpentine, salad oil and beeswax.

As to efficacy, the expectorants may have helped but Punch suggested at the time that it was only by following the lifestyle adopted by Ahmed that they may have induced them to work. So probably not, then.

Book Corner – November 2017 (3)

Miraculous Mysteries – edited by Martin Edwards

You must have read or seen something like this. A crime, invariably a murder most foul, is committed in circumstances which at first blush, and many subsequent ones, seems either impossible to have been committed or for the perpetrator to have got in and/or out. In the world of detective fiction these stories are known as locked-room mysteries – the classic scenario is when the victim is found knifed in the back or shot through the head in a room where all the doors and windows are locked from the inside (natch). The earliest example of the genre was Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

Drawing upon his encyclopaedic knowledge of detective fiction, Martin Edwards has produced an entertaining collection of sixteen stories that push the rather limited limits of the genre to the edge. Unusually in a collection like this, I hadn’t read any of the stories before, an added bonus to be sure. Some of the authors are familiar to the modern reader – there are stories by Conan Doyle and Dorothy L Sayers – but many are by writers I have come across for the first time. Some are superb whilst others, whilst retaining some interest, are more pedestrian, show their age or telegraph the denouement. The pleasure for the reader is doubled because it is not just a question of whodunit but working out how the dastardly deed was committed. I won’t spoil your enjoyment in this review.

To commit a locked-room crime requires ingenuity and resourcefulness on the part of the felon. But as Dr Tancred says in Too Clever By Half by G D H and Margaret Coles, if you do intend to murder, don’t make the mistake of trying to be too clever. There is always something you overlook, some little trace that ultimately gives you away.

The collection opens with a Conan Doyle story, always a smart move I think. The Lost Special isn’t a Sherlock Holmes story and it concerns itself with a train which disappears somewhere between Liverpool and London. The final story, The Villa Marie Celeste by Margery Allingham was published in 1960 and is the most recent story. It concerns the disappearance of a married couple who depart with just a pair of linen sheets. Although it is relatively modern, its central premise is how a win on the football pools can change people’s behaviour.

A personal favourite of mine is Christopher St John Sprigg’s Death at 8:30, a kind of rerun of Edgar Wallace’s Four Just Men. This time it is the Home Secretary who is threatened with death at a very specific time unless a ransom is paid. The unmasking of the felon, X K, involves some rather unsporting behaviour by the old bill which would certainly have involved a full and comprehensive enquiry by the authorities these days.

Harking back to the days when the cat’s whiskers were a novelty, Grenville Roberts’ The Broadcast Murder features a murder which is broadcast live on the radio, to the consternation of the listeners. I suppose it is something that could go wrong with a live broadcast and might pep up our rather lame programming if it made a reappearance every now and again, just to keep us on our toes. There is a Father Brown story, set in America, The Miracle of Moon Crescent, in which the cleric investigates a death seemingly caused by a curse and in Marten Cumberland’s The Diary of Death, Lilian Hope’s diary lists all the victims, people she hated, who are to meet their maker.

If you like detective fiction and want to spend a couple of evenings by the fire, puzzling over how the corpse met its fate, you cannot go wrong here.

The Streets Of London – Part Sixty Seven

Herbal Hill, EC1

We have seen that many of London’s streets are named after pubs that one stood there or a trade or industry or activity that once flourished in the area. If you walk down Clerkenwell in an easterly direction, then just before the junction with Farringdon Road, on the left-hand side you will find Herbal Hill. This street was previously known as Little Saffron Hill, only gaining its current name in the late 1930s.

Hard as it is to believe today when all around consists of brick, concrete and tarmac, but this area was once the one of the most fertile in the City with gardens and vineyards aplenty. As what might be termed a scientific approach to medicine was fairly rudimentary, much faith was placed on the homeopathic qualities of plants and spices. Rather in the way that we reach for an aspirin or some paracetamol when we feel under the weather, so half a millennium or so ago people would turn to herbal medicine to sooth away aches and pains. It was only in extremis that a doctor was summoned, partly because of cost and partly because there was little faith, and rightly so, that the doctor knew what he was doing.

Whole gardens or parts of gardens were given over to the cultivation of herbs to supply the herbalists or for home use and in the 16th century there was an established garden in what is now Herbal Hill. Who owned it is not certain. There was a nunnery, St Mary’s, to the east of Farringdon Road and so it is unlikely that their land stretched to our road. The next pretender is the Bishop of Ely who was reputed to have a fine garden and a flourishing strawberry patch. The latter gets a name check in Shakespeare’s Richard III; “My Lord of Ely, when I was last in Holborn I saw good strawberries in your garden there.” Records suggest, though, that Herbal Hill was outside of the Bishop’s garden.

The likely horticulturist whose work is celebrated in our street’s name is John Gerard who moved from Cheshire to take up a position as the head gardener to William Cecil in 1577. He tended two gardens – one in the Strand and the other at Theobalds to the north of the Bishop of Ely’s gaff. Gerard lived somewhere between the two. He was a great experimenter and became famous for the range and variety of his plants and his ability to propagate unusual species successfully. In 1597 he wrote a book entitled Herball or Generall Historie of Plants which is reputed to be the first catalogue of all the plants to be found in a garden, although some say that it was a translation of a Flemish guide.

It is true that there are passages where Gerard compares and contrasts the fortunes of his horticultural endeavours with those of the Flemish. The following is an example “my selfe did plant some shoots thereof in my garden, and some in Flanders did the like, but the coldness of our clymat made an end of mine, and I think the Flemish will have the like profit of their labour.” Rather like dear old Monty Don, not everything he turned his hand to flourished. But it is hard to see that this is a mere translation. Whatever the truth is, Gerard’s expertise was recognised by Anne of Denmark in 1602, giving him two acres of land to rent where King’s College stands and his horticultural endeavours have borne fruit in the name of our street.

What Is The Origin Of (155)?…


We are some way into what seems to be another interminable football season where outrageously overpaid “stars” hog our TV screens and back pages of our newspapers. Invariably when said “stars” are able to string a couple of words together in the always illuminating post-match interview, there is a reference to the gaffer, the manager or the boss. Football seems to be one of the last industries in which this quaint term for the person in charge is used but where did it come from?

The earliest recorded reference to the noun was, according to etymologists, around 1565 to 1675. It was used as a term of respect, employed by country folk to refer to their elders and betters, someone to whom due deference had to be accorded on account of their experience or position in the community. It appears simply to have been a contraction of either godfather or grandfather, or both. It is comparable to gammer, a noun to describe an old woman, which was a contraction of godmother or grandmother and first appeared around the same time. Unlike gaffer, though, gammer sank into obscurity, perhaps only to re-emerge when the first female professional football manager is appointed.

As time moved on, its meaning broadened to indicate an old man, irrespective of status and prestige, particularly an old rustic, with a slightly patronising, if not pejorative, side to it. By 1841 it was being applied to the head of a group of labourers or what we might term the foreman, again showing that it was being used as a mark of respect or at least an acknowledgement of rank or position. Our noun appears in the English translation of Honore Balzac’s Two Poets, the original published in 1837, with the sense that the gaffer is the boss or leader of a group; “He had dragged the chain these fifty years, he would not wear it another hour, tomorrow his son should be the gaffer.” And it has kept that sense to this day.

If you stay long enough in a cinema and have eyesight sharp enough to make sense of the credits – I fail to qualify on either count – you will see that someone occupied the position of gaffer. The gaffer in the film industry is the head electrician and their responsibilities include the execution and, occasionally, design of the lighting plan for a film. The pre-eminence of the position amongst the techies may have earned it the title of gaffer, adopting the sense of the noun as it has developed over the centuries. However, it may also have a different origin, reflecting the fact that overhead equipment was moved in the early days using a gaff, a handle or pole with a hook on the end. I think this is probably where it came from in this particular context.

The term gaffer as a term in the movie business first appeared in print in 1929 in Mary Eunice Macarthy’s The Hands of Hollywood, seven years earlier than the first citation attested in the Oxford English Dictionary. The gaffer’s assistant is known as the best boy, irrespective of sex.

And just to finish off our consideration of the term gaffer, the Irish, to illustrate their contrariness, use it to describe a youngster, usually male, while in glass blowing circles, the gaffer is the master blower, responsible for shaping the glass.

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.