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What Is The Origin Of (133)?…

Stick in the mud

We use this phrase to denote someone who is dull and unadventurous and resistant to change. It is generally used in a pejorative fashion and is synonymous with an old fogey. The imagery it evokes is quite clear. Large swathes of mud can be tricky to wade through and if you are not careful you can come to a complete halt or, at best, your rate of progress is significantly slower than that of the person who has taken the drier route.

Interestingly, the first recorded instances of its use are as sobriquets for criminals in 18th century London. The General Evening Post in November 1732 reported that “George Fluster, alias Stick-in-the-Mud, has made himself an Evidence, and impeached the above two persons”.  In December 1733 the Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer listed 14 malefactors who had received the sentence of death at the Old Bailey that month, including “John Baker, alias Stick in the Mud, for breaking into the house of Mr Thomas Rayner, a Silversmith, and stealing thence Plate to a Great Value”.

Being a snitch or breaking and entering, reprehensible as these characteristics may be in most quarters, are not qualities you would necessarily attribute to someone who has been left behind by the times. Rather, I think, what is being described here is their mental acuity. They were five cans short of a six pack or, to put it more kindly, a bit on the slow side mentally. Perhaps that’s why they got caught. William Walsh in his Handy Book of Curious Information, published in 1913, suggests this interpretation is along the right track. “A colloquial expression common to both England and America, and applied to a dullard or slow coach, a person who has never made any progress in education or business”.

The phrase escaped the preserve of criminality and the lower orders at the turn of the 19th century and began to be used in a figurative sense. In a review of Hilaris Benevolus’ The Pleasures of Human Life, printed in the Literary Panorama of 1807, we find a rather curiously constructed sub clause, “if we had not been stuck in the mud in his book, this Mr Benevolus had not helped us out”. The Monthly Mirror the next year contained a bit of doggerel, “Up rose Mr __, when Dallas sat down/ And stammer’d and stuck in the mud like a clown”. By 1832 the phrase had crossed the pond. In the New England Magazine, printed in Boston, we find, “lying mightily at ease, depend upon it, old stick-in-the-mud is wide awake; his eye is bent upon the waters, his mandibles are set for a quick nap”.  In all three instances, the sense is of someone who is slow on the uptake.

But at the same time as the American entry, we see a different shade of meaning emerge. In the Simpkin Papers, published in the Metropolitan in January 1832, the question was posed, “isn’t he a priest of the real old stick-in-the-mud religion, that was established in Ireland…?”  Here we have the sense of conservatism or old fogeyism. By the time the phrase appeared in Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown at Oxford, published in 1861, it is this new sense that has taken over, “This rusty coloured one is that respectable old stick-in-the-mud, Nicias”.

So the phrase has migrated from a nickname for a London criminal to a description of someone slow on the uptake to a person resistant to change. As I see the world going to hell in a handcart, there is something appealing in being an old fogey, at least in some respects.

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

Ignaz Semmelweis (1818 – 1865)

Sometimes you discover something and can’t persuade the powers that be that you have made a major breakthrough. This was the fate that befell the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, the Hungarian obstetrician, Ignaz Semmelweis.

Our hero studied Law at the University of Vienna in 1837 but switched to medicine the following year and after gaining his doctorate in 1844, decided to specialise in obstetrics. He took up his first appointment in 1846 as an assistant in the Vienna General Hospital’s maternity ward. There were two wards, A which was the preserve of doctors and trainees, and B which was staffed by midwives only. In the mid 19th century giving birth was a precarious business, often proving fatal to either the mother or the baby or, in some cases, both.

Clinic A had a phenomenally high mortality rate – about 10%, mainly as a result of puerperal fever, whereas the mortality rate in Clinic B was a still shocking but lower 2%. Women who came to the hospital – they were mainly from the lower classes – tried as best they could to avoid Clinic A because of its fearsome reputation. Many preferred to give birth in the streets where the mortality rate was considerably lower. Why was that, Semmelweis wondered?

The duties of the doctors at the hospital were many and varied. They would routinely examine diseased corpses in the mortuary, carrying out autopsies to determine cause of death or dissections to further their knowledge of the human anatomy, before moving on to the maternity ward. Whilst we now tend to regard, or at least hope, that medics are as close to the Platonic paradigm of cleanliness but in Semmelweiss’ time it was rare for a medic to wash their hands between dealing with patients. He noted the discrepancy between mortality rates where doctors were involved and where midwives, who did not handle dead bodies, were in attendance and concluded that some form of cadaverous material picked up from the stiffs was contributing to the high incidence of puerperal fever.

Acting upon these observations and hypotheses, Ignaz decided that he and his colleagues should was their hands in a solution of chlorinated lime, principally to remove the whiff of putrefying flesh, after handling dead bodies. The results were astonishing with fatality rates plummeting and after the experiment had been carried out for a while, deaths were a thing of the past. Concluding that he was on to something, although he could not provide a rational explanation as to why it worked as he knew nothing about germs, Semmelweiss began to promulgate his views. This led to great outburst of hand-wringing but not hand-washing amongst the medical profession, many of whom were outraged by the suggestion that their hands could be unclean. They were gentlemen, after all.

In revolutionary Vienna, Semmelweiss was seen as a trouble maker and was soon dismissed from his post. Surprise, surprise, the abandonment of the hand washing policy saw mortality rates rise to their pre-Ignatian levels. Frustrated, Semmelweiss wrote increasingly furious letters and articles to the medical community, accusing them of cold-hearted murder. Accounts of his discovery were printed in journals such as the Lancet. Semmelweiss repeated his successes whilst working in hospitals in Budapest in the 1850s and in 1861 published his theory and statistical demonstrations in a book called The Etiology, Concept and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever. It was not well received.

Worse still, he became an obsessive on the subject at a time when he started to develop signs of the onset of what might have been Alzheimer’s. Even his wife thought he was verging on insanity and in 1865 he was lured into a mental asylum in Vienna . Realising he had been trapped, Semmelweiss tried to make good his escape, but was detained, put in a straightjacket and given a good hiding by the warders for good measure. Two weeks later he died from his injuries which had gone gangrenous.

It was only when Louis Pasteur was able to provide a theoretical explanation of the causal link between germs and disease that Semmelweiss began to be regarded as the genius that he was and was able to claim his place as a pioneer of antiseptic policy. For this, Ignaz, you are a worthy inductee to 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

Book Corner – June 2017 (2)


Cabin Fever – B M Bower

If I hadn’t been so concerned about my mortality – yes, this is one of the 50, or rather, 150 masterpieces to read before you die – I wouldn’t have read this charming and impressive book. Bertha Sinclair (1871 – 1940) – B M Bower was her pseudonym – is not an author I had come across before and her genre – sort of Western – is not normally my bag. But, hey, it would be terrible to shuffle off this mortal coil having missed this gem.

Bud marries but soon after the birth of his child quarrels with his wife and leaves home. He gets a job as a driver but soon realises that the vehicle he is driving is stolen and that his passengers have carried out a jewellery heist. In the middle of the desert, he stops the car, ostensibly the check the tires but manages to disable the engine. The car won’t start again and Bud persuades his colleagues to let him go to the nearest town to summon assistance. When he gets to the town he alerts the cops to their whereabouts and sets off on his own to seek his fame and fortune. He hooks up with a prospector, but is beset with bouts of depression, going on alcoholic benders in the nearest town some 15 miles away.

It was as he was traipsing through the snow en route to the town that he came across a squaw carrying a child. He takes the child in and part of the book’s interest is in how the two hardened prospectors, who by this time couldn’t stand each other, take to sharing their Spartan accommodation with a lively and demanding infant. Marie, Bud’s wife, had been alerted to her errant husband’s whereabouts and sets out to find him. In a surprising twist to the story – I won’t spoil it – all the characters find happiness and find that they are linked with each other in ways that they, and the reader, hadn’t imagined.

Bower has a direct, unadorned style. She moves the story along with the minimum of fuss, spending enough time to develop her characters and to make them interesting enough to engender the right emotional reaction. There are moments of humour – she has a playful, light-hearted touch about her – and moments of pathos. Her turn of phrase and sentence construction make her prose a joy to read.

Perhaps it is a reflection of the time in which she wrote but many a critic thought her novels were the product of a man. Some couldn’t make their mind up and used gender-neutral pronouns. Not that the sex of the writer matters a jot, in my view, but she has a sharp observational style and is at ease exploring the psyche of her male and female characters. It was not what I expected, although I’m not sure what I expected, and despite the ups and downs that the main protagonists go through, has a feel-good feeling to it. It is well worth seeking out.

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

Lord Berners (1883 – 1950)

Shropshire born Gerald Tyrwhitt, aka Lord Berners, was the 14th Baron Berners, a title he inherited, along with Faringdon House in Oxfordshire, on the death of his uncle in 1918. He was an accomplished, albeit minor, composer of classical music, a novelist, painter and all-round aesthete. More importantly, from our perspective, he was an eccentric and gratifyingly showed evidence of unusual behaviour from an early age.

I have learnt from experience that you need to be careful what you tell a child. The young Berners overheard someone saying that you could teach a dog to swim by throwing it into the water. Deciding to experiment he grabbed hold of his mother’s pet dog and hurled it out of a window, expecting the pooch to fly. Alas, the dog just crashed to the ground but walked away unhurt albeit a bit groggy. Berners received a thrashing.

His exasperated and uncaring parents often punished Berners by locking him up in a cupboard. One day Berners exacted his revenge by locking all the doors to the lavatories in his mother’s house and throwing the keys into the pond. This was the final straw and he was packed off to boarding school, Cheam House, and then Eton. He then spent ten years attached to the British Embassies in a number of European cities.

Berners left his stamp on Faringdon House. He had all the pigeons dyed in vibrant, pastel colours, using a harmless form of vegetable dye. The National Trust re-enact this tradition at Easter at the house. His dogs wore ersatz pearl necklaces which he bought from Woolworth. However, his guests were often taken in and when one reported that Fido had lost his necklace, Berners sighed and said “Oh dear, I’ll have to get another out of the safe”.

Berners was very fond of signs and notices. He had a number dotted around the estate proclaiming that dogs would be shot and cats whipped. Inside the house guests would find a sign at the top of the stairs announcing that no dogs were to be admitted and upon opening a wardrobe would be confronted with a sign advising them to “prepare to meet thy God”. The gardens would be full of paper flowers and Berners would disconcert the locals by wandering around wearing a pig’s head mask. Berners was noted for the quality of the tropical fruits he was able to grow. When complimented on some particularly delicious peaches, Berners claimed they were ham-fed.

In 1935 Berners decided that the estate needed a folly and so a 140 foot tower was built and given to his beau, Robert Heber Percy, as a birthday present. When asked what the point of the tower was, Berners responded, “the great point of the tower is that it will be entirely useless”. However, in case someone decided to use it as a launch pad for a suicide bid, he erected a wonderful sign announcing “members of the public committing suicide do so at their own risk”. Quite.

In those days guests would leave calling cards and Berners was an inveterate collector of them. He put his collection to good use. When he lent his house in Rome to friends he would furnish his butler with the calling cards of some of the most notorious bores in London society and instruct him to invite one or two a day to drop in at the Roman gaff. It amused Berners to think of his guests diving for cover every time the doorbell rang!

An eccentric, for sure, but fairly harmless – perhaps more a man with a wicked sense of humour. As he said in his epitaph which he composed himself, “Here lies Lord Berners/ One of the learners/ His great love of learning/ May earn him a burning/ But, Praise the Lord,/ He seldom was bored”.

A Better Life – Part Ten


James Strang and the Kingdom of St James

The early history of the Mormons shows that they were a fissiparous lot. The assassination of Joseph Smith in 1844 led to a power struggle between the adherents of Brigham Young and a former lawyer from New York, James Strang (1813 – 1856). Strang, whose oratorical skills had impressed Smith, produced a letter claiming that Smith had appointed him as his successor. Young contested this assertion, writing in a letter to the faithful, “and I say unto you beloved brethren, that Joseph Smith never wrote or caused to be written Strang’s letter of appointment. It is a lie – a forgery – a snare”.

The majority elected to follow Young and made their way to Utah. However, a sizeable minority followed Strang firstly to Voree in Wisconsin and then, after he had found some mysterious brass plates in the ground and had received instructions from God, to Beaver Island in Lake Michigan. Around 2,500 adherents settled there and they were ruthless in driving out non-believers, whom they termed gentiles, from the area. This led to a number of dust ups, the most notable of which was the so-called War of Whiskey Point during which the Mormons dispersed a mob of gentiles from the island’s trading post by firing a cannon at them. By the early 1850s most of the locals had got the message and left.

Strang’s brand of Mormonism deviated from the mainstream beliefs in a number of ways. He rejected the Holy Trinity, claiming that there was just one God who had always been God. He also believed that some things were outside of God’s power – this allowed Strang to see that religion and science could co-exist – and that God could not give man experience. The ultimate goal of each human was to prefer good to evil, not out of any fear of punishment but “on account of the innate loveliness of undefiled goodness; of pure unalloyed holiness”.

Strang’s adherents observed the seventh-day Sabbath which lasts from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday. They also believed in baptism for the dead and animal sacrifice –these remain Strangite tenets but are not now practised. He allowed women to hold the offices of Priest and Teacher and welcomed people of colour into the fold, ordaining at least two as elders. Conservation of land and resources was paramount and so large swthes of forest were retained and parks were built.

But power went to Strang’s head. The size of the Mormon community on Beaver Island was sufficient to see him elected twice to the State legislature. More ominously, Strang claimed he was empowered to be crowned king of his church and on July 8th 1850 in front of a crowd of some 300 and wearing a red flannel robe and a tin crown he was crowned by his prime minister, one George Adams, an actor. The date is still one of the two most important dates of the Strangite church.

Strang and Adams fell out and Adams started spreading lurid tales about life on the island. This prompted an official enquiry but Strang successfully defended himself. Relations with the neighbouring gentile community remained fractious but Strang also had an unerring knack of pissing off his followers. Two disgruntled followers – one who had been flogged for adultery on Strang’s orders and the other who had been excommunicated for drunkenness – assassinated him in 1856.

On July 5th 1856 a drunken mob of gentiles from nearby Mackinac descended on the island, rounded up the Strangites and evicted them from the island. After all this, only a few continued to observe Strang’s doctrines and although they are still practising, they divided still further into two factions. Numbers today are in the few hundreds.

What Is The Origin Of (132)?…

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water

This is a curious expression and when used, it is intended to convey an admonition – in your haste in getting rid of something unpleasant and undesirable, don’t mistakenly eject something that is of value. Harassed parents of infants may demur, but, of course, the baby is what is valuable. The development of internal plumbing and fixed bathroom fittings make this warning somewhat otiose these days but it makes for an entertaining figure of speech.

The phrase appears to be German in origin and first made its printed appearance in 1512 in Thomas Murner’s Narenbeschworung which translates as Advice to Fools. Whether this was a hazard facing Teutonic tots or not is not clear but the title of Murner’s meisterwerk and the fact that it is a satire suggests that he was writing with his tongue firmly in his cheek. Whatever the rationale behind using the phrase, it became popular, its most usual formulation being das Kind mit dem Bade ausschutten.

A variant appeared in Sebastian Franck’s book of proverbs, Spruchvorter, published in 1541. He illustrated the proverb by citing someone sending an old nag to the knacker’s yard but omitting to take the saddle and bridle off first – an unexpected bonus for the knacker. The astronomer, Johannes Kepler, wrote in his Tertius Interveniens, published in 1610, “this is a caution, lest you throw out the baby with the bath water.

The phrase didn’t appear in Blighty until the middle of the 19th century when Thomas Carlyle used a rather clumsy rendition of the proverb in his article in the Fraser magazine in December 1849 which then became a pamphlet four years later. “The Germans say you must empty out the bathing-tub”, he wrote, “but not the baby along with it….How to abolish the abuses of slavery, and save the precious thing in it: alas, I do not pretend this is easy”. The precious thing in this instance is the slave – hardly a statement which would resonate with our sentiments today.

In the English speaking world the phrase didn’t reach a degree of popularity until the early 20th century and this may well be down to George Bernard Shaw’s usage in the preface to Getting Married, published in 1911. There he wrote, “we shall in a very literal sense empty the baby out with the bath”.  And there we have it.

I may be accused of casting aspersions about Carlyle’s attitude to slaves and slavery. When we cast aspersions we criticise someone or something, their ability and there is a sense that the allegations may not be entirely fair and are certainly made by innuendo rather than directly. What is interesting about this phrase is the word aspersions whose root comes from the Latin verb aspergere, meaning to sprinkle. An aspersion was the ritual sprinkling of water and in the Roman Catholic Church was a form of baptism.

By 1749, however, there had been a complete volte-face in its meaning. Instead of sprinkling something beneficial, the sense is that we are showering someone with damaging statements or, possibly, false accusations. It appears in this sense Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones; “I defy all the world to cast a just aspersion on my character; nay, the most scandalous tongues have never dared censure my reputation”.

Is it too fanciful to think this change in meaning is a consequence of the Reformation and the consequent fall from grace of all things Catholic? I wonder.

I Don’t Want To Belong To Any Club That Will Accept People Like Me As A Member – Part Thirty Eight

The Ivy Lane Club

This was a relatively short-lived club, founded in the 1740s, the brain child of Samuel Johnson who wanted to fill his leisure hours with good conversation and a forum in which to impress his comrades with the breadth of his knowledge and acerbity of his tongue. The assembled company met on Tuesday evenings at the King’s Head, a tavern and beefsteak house which was to be found in the eponymous Ivy Lane, off to the left of Paternoster Row, if you were looking down it from the west, under the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral.

As well as the good Doctor, its members included his good friend, Dr Richard Bathurst, the author John Hawkesworth, the publisher John Payne, John Hawkins, an attorney, and the Archdeacon of Norwich, Dr Samuel Salter. Evenings were engaged in literary discussions, Johnson often using the occasion to try out his latest theories or road test his compositions. Inevitably, food and drink were partaken.

Occasionally, the club would move venue, as it did upon Johnson’s suggestion to celebrate the publication of the first book by one of his literary proteges, Charlotte Lennox, The Life of Harriott Stewart, Written by Herself. Although the idea was hatched at the Ivy Lane the club members together with Charlotte and her husband assembled at the Devil Tavern in Fleet Street at 8 o’clock. There were twenty there in all. Johnson had arranged for a magnificent hot apple pie to be baked in Lennox’s honour, topped with bay leaves symbolising the fact that she was now an authoress. Invoking the Muses with all due ceremony, Johnson placed a crown of laurel leaves on the astonished woman’s head.

Sir John Hawkins picked up the story. “The night passed, as must be imagined, in pleasant conversation and harmless mirth, intermingled, at different periods, with the refreshments of tea and coffee”. About five in the morning, Johnson was beaming, although he had only imbibed lemonade. The restraint shown by Johnson was not replicated by his companions who were with difficulty persuaded to forsake the delights of Bacchus for another round of coffee. When it came to getting the bill, there was another difficulty. “The waiters were so overcome with sleep, that it was two hours before we could get a bill, and it was not till near eight that the creaking of the street-door gave the signal for our departure.”

One of the benefits of being a member of a club is the connections one makes. John Payne was looking to establish a literary magazine, the Adventurer, which, although running from 1752 to 1754, was one of the most influential periodicals of the 17th century. He appointed his fellow Ivy Lane clubman, John Hawkesworth, who was then a jobbing journalist. But Hawkesworth had learned at the feet of Johnson and he learned to emulate the moral and literary voice of his master, so much so that readers were scarcely able to determine what was Johnson’s and what had been written by Hawkesworth. In many ways, the Ivy Lane club was Hawkesworth’s finishing school.

Alas, though, things didn’t last. Hawkesworth was said to have made much of his close association with Johnson which pissed the Doctor off and they fell out in 1756. The club disbanded and when Johnson in 1783, a year before his death, tried to reassemble as many of the old crew as were left, he found that the old landlord of the King’s Head was dead and the pub shut down. And that was the end of that.

A Measure Of Things – Part Five


As an unreconstructed male, I have only ever had a very passing interest in jewellery and the terminology applied to describing the qualities of the bijou leave me nonplussed. I don’t really know my 18 carats from my 9. What do these descriptions signify? And what exactly is a carat?

It all started with the edible pods of Ceratonia silique or the Carob Tree. Traders in the Middle East weighed gold and gemstones using carob seeds in the belief that of all the seeds available, the carob was the most uniform in mass. In reality it was no more standard in size and weight than any other seed but let’s not spoil a good story. The solidus was introduced into widespread circulation by the emperor Constantine. It was almost pure gold and weighed around 4.5 grams or the equivalent of 24 carob seeds.

The fallacy that all carob seeds were uniform may have meant that you might have got a good bargain or were ripped off but at least it provided the etymological root for the unit of measure we now associate with gold and diamonds. The Greeks called the seed keration and this term was modified by the Arabs to qirat. It appeared in Italian as carato and first appeared in English sometime in the 15th century as carat.

Each country had its own standard for a carat which must have been very confusing for traders. In Cyprus a carat was 187 milligrams in weight whilst in Livorno it was 215.9. In London the carat was set originally at 205.409 milligrams but in 1887 it was adjusted to 205.303 milligrams. So confusing was the situation for international traders and consumers of jewellery that there was a demand for international standardisation.

This task fell to the General Conference of Weights and Measures which had been established in 1875 and met every 4 to 6 years in Sevres in France to thrash out agreement on internationally accepted units of measure. It was the Fourth Conference meeting in 1907 that turned its collective minds to the question of the carat and they concluded, not unreasonably, that what was good enough for the Romans was good enough for them. A carat or, more precisely, the metric carat was set at 200 milligrams, a figure that can easily be subdivided into tens and hundreds. Pure gold was 24 carats.

Talking of gold, the designations that apply to jewellery saying that it is 9 carat or 18 carat gold merely detail the amount of pure gold in the piece. 24 carat is as high as you can go – this is pure gold. 22 carat gold has 22/24ths of pure gold or around 91.6% whereas 18 carat has around 75% and 9 carat around 37.5%. The higher the carat rating the more expensive the piece but ironically, the lower the gold content the stronger and more durable the metal is. When you are accused of penny-pinching for going for the lower carat, just remind your beloved that it will be harder wearing. It might just work!

When it comes to diamonds, a carat is used to describe how much it weighs and this has been the case since around the 1570s. Each carat can be subdivided into hundredths, known as pointers in the jewellery trade. When used to describe gems, a carat has the same value as it has when applied to gold – 200 milligrams. A one carat diamond weighs 200 milligrams whereas one described as a 0.5 carat diamond will weigh 100 milligrams, one that is 0.25 carat, 50 milligrams – you get the picture. Its carat, together with clarity, colour and cut, goes a long way to determining its value.

Double Your Money – Part Twenty

Victor Lustig (1890 – 1947)

Born in Hostinne which was in the Austro-Hungarian Empire but is now in the Czech Republic, Lustig has been called America’s greatest fraudster. Whether that was really the case or not, he made a career out of scamming, his piece de resistance being the sale of the Eiffel Tower, not once but twice.

Paris in 1925 was emerging from the doldrums of the First World War but its iconic landmark was proving a drain on the civic resources, requiring constant maintenance and decoration. Reading a newspaper article about the city’s dilemma over the tower, which was only ever intended to be a temporary structure, gave Lustig an idea. Using forged government papers and posing as the deputy-general of the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs, Lustig invited the heads of six of the city’s scrap metal dealers to a meeting at the Hotel de Crillon.

There he laid out a tale of woe. The bill for the upkeep of the Eiffel Tower was so high that the authorities had only one course of action – to demolish it and sell the structure off for scrap. Because the public outcry would be great if news of the plan leaked out, the scrap metal dealers, who had been selected for their probity, had to keep everything under their chapeaux. The dealers would have the opportunity to bid for the business. Only when the demolition began, would the public be aware of what was going on.

The dealers were then taken on a tour of inspection, giving Lustig the opportunity to see who was the keenest for the business. He identified Andre Poisson as his mark – Poisson was struggling to break into the big time and saw this as his opportunity. He took the bait. La Poisson, however, smelled a rat and wondered why everything was being transacted with such speed and secrecy. Lustig offered Poisson another meeting in which he revealed that times was hard, it was difficult to make ends meet on an official salary and if Poisson could see a way to grease his palms, he would be guaranteed the contract. The sum mentioned was a whopping $100,000.

Poisson who had fallen for the scam hook, line and sinker went to his office, returned with the money and, surprise, surprise, Lustig and his colleague took a train to Vienna with a suitcase of money to let the dust settle. Poisson was so embarrassed by being duped that he didn’t report the scam to the police. Lustig had chosen his mark well.

As the police had not been alerted, Lustig returned to Paris and, astonishingly, convened a meeting with another group of six scrap dealers, rolling out the same story and scam. This time, the chosen mark became suspicious and took the forged documentation to the gendarmerie. By the time they came a-calling, Lustig and his accomplice had made good their escape.

To Lustig is attributed the Ten Commandments for Con Men. As well as being a good listener, never looking bored and being tidy and sober, the master fraudster recommended agreeing with the political and religious views of your victim. Key to a successful scam was never prying into the mark’s personal circumstances – they will reveal them themselves – and never boast. Advice to lock away in the memory, for sure.

We will look at some of Lustig’s other scams next time.

What Is The Origin Of (131)?…

Busman’s holiday

This phrase is used to describe someone who is on holiday but is actually engaged in doing what they normally do during their working week or rather than putting their feet up, are engaged in some form of work. So, if I was a doctor who took time off to do some voluntary medical work, then I may be described as having a busman’s holiday.

For such an innocuous phrase, its origins seem steeped in controversy but I think I have been able to navigate my way through the many twists and turns to arrive at the definitive version. Bus is an abbreviation of omnibus which was the name given to a large, enclosed, usually sprung, horse-drawn vehicle. In London George Shilibeer in 1829 introduced a horse-drawn service between Paddington and Regent’s Park which ran to a strict timetable and could carry up to 22 passengers. The carriage was drawn by three horses and there was a driver and a conductor, our busmen. By 1832 the monopoly of hackney carriages was broken and by 1834 there were 620 licensed horse vehicles plying their trade through the streets of London.

The bus became a popular means of transport in London and it prompted some wag to pose the humorous question, “what does a busman do on his day off? He takes a bus ride with a pal, of course”. This quip, mildly amusing by Victorian standards, seems to fit our purpose. On his day off, the busman would travel around London like any other denizen of the metropolis, on a bus. The joke may have slid off into well-merited obscurity, but the term and the concept has remained with us.

In 1893 in the English Illustrated Magazine, an actor described his forthcoming holiday arrangements. “It will be a Busman’s holiday. The bus driver spends his “day off” in driving on a pal’s bus, on the box-seat, by his pal’s side…I shall never be happy except when I am watching some theatrical piece”. The London Chronicle reported in 1913 an encounter with a happy bus conductor. Why was had he done to make himself happy? “Why what he always does when on a day off!…for the man gets on the top of another man’s bus and has a good long ride into the country and back. It cured him of his insomnia, he said”. According to an edition of Punch from July 1920, the habit of doing what you do for day job on your day off was not restricted to busmen. It was a custom adopted by cabbies.

There are some more fanciful theories as to the origin of the phrase. Busmen were supposedly so attached to their team of horses that on their day off, they would visit the stables in the morning to see that they were harnessed properly and in the evening to ensure that they had not been abused. Another reported that the more caring drivers would spend their day off riding on the bus observing the relief driver’s treatment of the nags.

That may be the case but I think all we need to believe is that on their days off, busmen would use the cheapest and most popular form of transport, something which inspired a whimsical retort and gave birth to a phrase which over time was extended in its usage to other occupations. And the phrase did travel, appearing in Sydney’s Sunday Times in 1896, the Auckland Star in 1902 and crossing the pond in 1909.

As I have retired, there is no risk of a busman’s holiday for me.