You’re Having A Laugh – Part Nineteen

Fritz Kreisler (1875 – 1962)

For many years I was involved with the English Haydn Festival, held annually in the beautiful Shropshire market town of Bridgnorth. Our resident music adviser was the renowned Haydn scholar and larger than life figure, H C Robbins Landon.

Haydn was a prolific composer and with Eastern Europe opening up in the 1990s, there was always the possibility that some lost works of the maestro would turn up in some dusty corner of a museum or monastery. Lo and behold, six sonatas turned up and Robbins Landon verified them as the work of Haydn. It caused quite a stir at the time but not as much as a stir when the Haydn Institute in Cologne declared the manuscripts to be fakes.

Red faces all round. Robbins Landon had to own up to the fact that he had been duped. They were actually the work of Winfried Michel, a very clever and convincing pasticheur.

Even when Haydn was alive, there was a roaring trade in forged works. Perhaps the best Haydn forger was a Bohemian, Franz Kotzwara, who had the maestro down to a tee. London music publishers made a fortune passing of Kotzwara’s compositions. The forger was eventually hung in 1791, not by the judiciary, but in a sadomasochistic experiment in a brothel in London.

The Kotzwara of the 20th century, although without the sexual predilections, was the Austrian violin virtuoso, Fritz Kreisler. A child prodigy, he was admitted to the Vienna conservatory at the age of seven and gave his first public performance two years later. The composer, Anton Bruckner, taught the young Fritz musical theory and he went on to study at the Paris Conservatory. But Fritz decided to put his bow away after a less than successful tour in the States, deciding instead to practise medicine and later to serve in the Austrian army.

But the siren call of Euterpe was too much for Fritz to resist and on the December 1st 1899 he made his comeback with the Berlin Philharmonic. He became phenomenally successful as a soloist and the music crowds could not get enough of him. Elgar even composed his Violin Concerto for him and Keisler was foresighted enough to exploit the nascent recording industry.

The highlight of a Kreisler was the airing of a lost classic from the pen of the likes of Corelli, Pugnani, Vivaldi, and Couperin, which, he claimed, he had found languishing in the archives of libraries and monasteries around Europe. One monastery in deepest France was a particularly fruitful source of these lost treasures. The rediscovered masterpieces became a feature of Kreisler’s performances and were well received by audiences and critics alike. They even found their way int o the repertoires of other soloists.

No one seemed to pay much attention to how Kreisler got his hands on such a stock of forgotten masterpieces. That is until his 60th birthday on February 2nd 1935.

The music critic of the New York Times, Olin Downes, sent Kreisler a telegram – remember them? – wishing him a happy birthday and innocuously commented that it was as if he was the composer of all these lost classics he got his hands own. To Olin’s astonishment, Kreisler said he was.

The revelation of Kreisler’s hoax split the music establishment down the middle. Some critics thought that he had behaved appallingly by foisting these now worthless pieces of music on the classical canon. Others, though, applauded him. More importantly, his paying public did not seem to mind and his career carried on as before, undisturbed by the furore caused by his confession.

As Kreisler rightly pointed out, the value of a piece of music should be judged solely on its merits not by who penned it.


If you enjoyed this, discover more ingenious hoaxing, financial skulduggery and medical quackery in Martin Fone’s Fifty Scams and Hoaxes, an ideal Christmas present



Double Your Money – Part Thirty Six

Bertha Heyman

If you stumble upon a winning formula, why not exploit it for all it’s worth? This seems to have been the motto of Bertha Heyman, the so-called Confidence Queen of 1880s America. Born in Prussia in the early 1850s, she migrated to the States in 1878, settling in New York. There she started to put her God-given talents to use.

In appearance Bertha was a striking woman, just 5 feet 4.5 inches tall and weighing 245 pounds. Some contemporary reports claim she had a pleasing face but, according to a 1923 article in the New York Times, her picture was “one of the least attractive in the police records of that day.” Her appearance earned her the rather uncharitable sobriquet of Big Bertha. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I guess.

Bertha’s initial strategy was to carry out what we now term as advance fee fraud – we came across it before with the Letters of Jerusalem. The story was fairly simple. She had married a rich man whom she was now trying to divorce. If only she could raise enough money to initiate divorce proceedings then all would be hunky dory. The mark would give Bertha the requisite money, on the promise of a share of the riches his generosity had unlocked, but, of course, he would never see Bertha or his money again. Another variant was that she owned some land but without access to her hubby’s money, she couldn’t afford to sell it. The mark would lend her the money against a share of the sale proceeds of the land.

Bertha was very selective as to her victims. She saw a successful scam as an intellectual challenge and so saw no fun in duping fools. As she told the New York Times in 1883, “the moment I discover a man’s a fool, I let him drop, but I delight in getting into the confidence and pockets of men who think they can’t be skinned. It ministers to my intellectual pride.” Some consolation, I suppose, to her victims.

But all good things must come to an end and having defrauded dupes of several thousand dollars, Bertha was arrested and sentenced to five years in chokey on Blackwell’s Island. But being incarcerated didn’t stop her. She is reported to have relieved a prison warder of his life savings!

Realising that New York was on to her, Bertha moved to California and resumed her old ways. In February 1888 she met the Chief Rabbi in San Francisco and span the old story. She was a widow, inheriting $300,000 but the money would only be available to her if her next husband was a nice Jewish man. She even offered $1,000 to the person who would found her next hubby. She was feted and eventually introduced to Abraham Gruhn, a wealthy businessman who was besotted by her, showering her with gifts and jewellery.

There was one problem, though. Bertha’s stepson, Willie, was opposed to the liaison and so to smooth the way Gruhn “lent” him $500. This was the cue for Bertha and Willie to scarper, only pausing to pawn some of the jewellery. Gruhn went to the police and when he told his story, bells started ringing and he recognised Bertha from a photograph held in police records. A warrant was out for her arrest and the duo had their collars felt in Texas.

Bizarrely, a theatre impresario called Ned Foster paid her bail and put her on the stage where she played to large audiences reciting a poem The Confidence Queen in which she painted herself as the misunderstood victim; “”so when vain grasping men/ pant for glittering gold/ and find their bonanza in me/ is it wicked to show up how/ badly they’re sold/ and the rogues that men/ can sometimes be.

Even Foster became a victim of sorts, falling for a story that Bertha’s trunk had a false bottom in which were secreted thousands of dollars, bonds and some expensive jewellery. On the cusp of paying her $1,600 for the trunk, he had the wit to inspect it. Naturally, there was no false bottom.

Bertha spent the rest of her life running honky-tonk saloons. Willie was less fortunate. He did time for his part in the Gruhn scam.

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

What Is The Origin Of (209)?…

The man on the Clapham omnibus

It is a while since I have been to Clapham, never mind travelled to or from by bus, but I suspect that the demographics of the area have changed since this phrase sprang up. It was used to denote the average or typical person, the man on the street or, as the Americans might put it, an ordinary Joe. We live in a much more polarised society but this mythical person was supposed to be the epitome of fairness and a true representative of the wishes, thoughts and opinion of the public at the time. Naturally, he was a chap as the opinions of women didn’t count for much at the time.

An omnibus was a four-wheeled public vehicle with seats for passengers, introduced to London in 1829. Over time it became a popular way of getting around the metropolis, at least until the development of the underground system, for those not wealthy enough to be able to afford their own means of transport.

Contrary to popular opinion, it wasn’t the journalist, Walter Bagehot, or a bright, thrusting QC who coined the phrase. We will come to them in a moment.

No, the first appearance in print appears to have been in a piece in the Journal of Society of Arts of 1857, moaning about the perennial traffic problems in London which, the correspondent claimed, the weary commuter endures with nary a complaint unlike the rail traveller who is quick to voice their indignation if their chosen form of transport is late. “But your dog-coller’d occupant of the knife-board of a Clapham omnibus, will stick on London-bridge for half-an-hour with scarcely a murmur.” Nothing ever changes, it would seem.

Walter Bagehot, in his magisterial The English Constitution, published in 1867, gave us a variant when discussing public opinion. He argued; “public opinion now-a-days is the opinion of the bald-headed man at the back of the omnibus. It is not the opinion of the aristocratical classes as such; or the most educated or refined classes as such; it is simply the opinion of the ordinary mass of educated, but still commonplace mankind.

So the component parts of the Clapham omnibus and the ordinariness of average traveller on public transport, with or without hair or dog collar, were there before the first formulation of our phrase, attributed to a junior counsel in 1871 later Lord Bowen, who was defending the Tichbourne Claimant case, a major case at the time and one which scandalised the nation. Richard Henn Collins, the Master of the Rolls, in his summation in the 1903 libel case of McQuire v Western Morning, noted; “Fair, therefore, in this collocation certainly does not mean that which the ordinary reasonable man, the man on the Clapham omnibus, as Lord Bowen phrased it..

Frustratingly, his Lordship gave no reference for Bowen’s pearls of wisdom and, so far as I can trace, no one has found it.

Perhaps it was already in the common vernacular or perhaps the phrase was regarded as an apposite description of the ordinary man but within twenty days of Collins’ use of the phrase, on 1st June 1903, it popped up in the Manchester Guardian; “The weaker section of the Liberal imperialists (those with an eye to the man on the Clapham omnibus) are generally declaring against Mr Chamberlain.

Inevitably, the English phrase spawned local variants around the Empire. So we have “the man on the Bondi tram” in New South Wales and “the man on the Bourke Street tram” in Victoria and “the man on the Shaukiwan Tram” in Hong Kong.

It has travelled far.

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Eighty Six

Hans Lippershey (1570 – 1619)

Twinkle, twinkle, little star/ How I wonder what you are” goes the nursery rhyme. There is something mystifying and deeply captivating about the celestial bodies that sparkle and shine above our heads at night-time and from time immemorial Homo sapiens has wanted to get to know them better. Today, of course, we can get a better view of them from terra firma by using a telescope. But who invented this very useful scientific instrument?

Popular theory gives the credit to Galileo Galilei but, inevitably, it is a lot more complicated than that. This is where the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Hans, or Johann, Lippershey, a German-Dutch spectacle maker comes in.

The techniques for making glass and grinding lenses came on leaps and bounds in the 16th century, making it easier to develop smaller and more powerful lenses. Inevitably, someone would have the bright idea of seeing what would happen if they held up two lenses. Indeed, an apocryphal story suggests that Lippershey conceived his idea of a telescope when two children held up a couple of lenses and made the weather vane of the local church appear closer.

Less charitable souls claim that he stole the idea from a neighbour, fellow eyeglass maker, Zacharias Jansen. The truth is buried in the mists of time but what is certain is that Lippershey developed a rudimentary form of telescope, consisting of a concave eyepiece which was aligned to an objective lens, concave, of course. It boasted a magnification power of three, pretty feeble by modern standards but at least it was a start.

Emboldened by his success, on October 2nd 1608 Lippershey applied to the States General of the Netherlands for a patent for what he called an instrument “for seeing things far away as if they were nearby” – a rather clumsy description but the word,  telescope, was not coined until three years later, by Giovanni Demisiani. Lippershey did not get a patent granted, perhaps the waters had been muddied by the controversy as to how he got the idea. Another complication was that a few weeks later the Dutch authorities received a patent application for a patent for a similar instrument, this time from Jacob Metius, another Dutch instrument-maker.

The emergence of a rival instrument led the authorities to draw the inevitable conclusion that the device was easy to make and, therefore, difficult to patent. At least Lippershey received a large fee from the Dutch government in return for the use of his design. Poor Metius had to make do with a small reward.

The device created a bit of a stir and was mentioned in a report issued and distributed around Europe of the visit of the embassy of the King of Siam to the court of the Dutch crown prince, Maurice, in Hague. The genie was out of the bottle and a number of eminent scientists began experimenting with the concept of using a pair of lenses to bring the image of something nearer to the viewer.

By the summer of 1609, the English scientist, Thomas Harriott, had produced a telescope with a magnification factor of six. He pointed his telescope at the moon and in August 1609 drew what he saw but never published the results.

And then Galileo got in on the act. His considerable intellect was piqued by reports of the Dutch perspective glasses which reached him in 1609. Within days he had created his own telescope, without seeing a Dutch version, which boasted a magnification power of twenty. With this he observed the moon, discovered the rings of Saturn and four of Jupiter’s moons. Galileo reproduced what he saw in astonishing ink drawings, which were published.

So Harriott drew the moon first and Lippershey can rightly claim to have been the first to develop a telescope. But Galileo scooped the glory.

Such is the fickle finger of fate and why Hans is a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone


What Is The Origin Of (208)?…

Morton’s fork

For those of us who subscribe to the concept of free will or self-determinism we can spend a heck of a lot of time weighing up the pros and cons of the various courses of action. Sometimes we may conclude that we have been presented with a Hobson’s Choice – a phrase we looked at many moons ago – in which only one option is really available and we either have to take it or lump it.

On the other hand, we may conclude that there are two courses of action we could take but the anticipated outcome of either is just as unpleasant as the other. Such a prospect is known as Morton’s fork, named after John Morton (c 1420 – 1500), Archbishop of Canterbury, who had an ingenious line of thought to determine whether someone could afford to pay a forced loan, euphemistically called a benevolence, to his master, Henry VII.

Francis Bacon picks up the story in his The historie of the raigne of King Henry the seventh of 1622; “there is a Tradition of a Dilemma, that Bishop Morton the Chancellour vsed, to raise vp the Beneuolence to higher Rates; and some called it his Forke, and some his Crotch…That if they met with any that were sparing, they should tell them, That they must needs haue, because they laid vp; and if they were spenders, they must needs hauve, because it was seene in their Port, and manner of living. So neither kinde came amisse.

In other words, the crafty Bishop thought that if you were living frugally, you must have amassed savings and if you were extravagant in your lifestyle, you could obviously afford to pay. It described a situation that was analogous to being between the devil and the deep blue sea or between a rock and a hard place.

Inevitably, the phrase was occasionally used in a figurative sense. An example of such is to be found in the Paisley and Renfrewshire Gazette and Paisley Herald of 16th May 1885. With impeccable logic the columnist queried a recent budget which increased the tax on beers and spirits, commenting; “one prong of Morton’s fork certainly applies to the Teetotallers. If they do not spend money on liquor, they must be better able than others to contribute to the national necessities.” Quite.

There was a time when correspondents to newspapers used the letters’ page to showcase their erudition. One such was moved in September 1888 to pen a letter to the Thunderer aka the Times to comment upon the question of tithes in Wales. With impeccable logic he wrote; “either the tithe is the titheowner’s, in which case they should give it him, or it is public property, in which case they should not keep it in their own pockets. How will they escape? MORTON’S FORK.

While we are on the subject, we may as well deal with Buridan’s Ass, the logician’s equivalent of a drinker of rosė wine and named after the 14th century philosopher, Jean Buridan. It is a reduction ad absurdum, illustrating the mental paralysis that can beset someone seeking to exercise free will. The conceit is that an ass will choose to go wherever is the nearer so if it stands equidistant from a pail of water and a stack of hay, it will die both of thirst and hunger because it can’t make a rational decision between the two courses of action.

Exercising my free will, I will quit while the going is good!

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Eighteen

The Monte Christo Pistol hoax, 1856

A staple ingredient of the movie business when I was growing up was the Western. The derring-do of the likes of John Wayne kept us entertained and left us with the distinct impression that America, or at least the western parts of it, was a dangerous and lawless place, full of gun slingers and desperadoes, ready to shoot to kill at the drop of a Stetson. It seems it was ever thus.

That august of newspapers, The Times of London, received an astonishing letter from an Englishman who had been travelling in Georgia. In it the correspondent, it later was revealed to be John Arrowsmith, a cotton merchant, recounted how he had boarded a train at Macon for a ten and a half hour journey to Augusta. The train made slow and stately progress, stopping from time to time, not because of congestion on the tracks, the wrong sort of snow or leaves on the line which are the bane of many an Englishman’s commute, but for something much more sinister.

The letter recounted a bloodthirsty litany of carnage. By the time he had got off the train, six passengers had been killed. Scores were settled by way of duels and the conductor obligingly stopped the train from time to time so that the combatants could get out and fire shots at each other without prejudicing the safety of their fellow passengers. But the most horrifying murder was that of a boy who, on witnessing his father gunned down, cried out and had had his throat slit for his troubles.

Arrowsmith then went on to claim that this level of violence was so commonplace on American trains that it did not unduly concern the other passengers. It certainly was more than one up from the bunfight to get seats on a crowded train at Waterloo. For The Times this was manna from heaven and they duly published the letter, verbatim, on 15th October 1856, under the headline of “Railways and Revolvers in Georgia.” The tutting at the breakfast tables in suburban England is audible even to this day!

When the American press got wind of the Times’ story, they vigorously denied that anything of the sort had happened in Georgia, let alone it being an everyday occurrence on the railroads of America. The Times stuck to its guns and resisted all claims, particularly from its New York counterpart, to admit that it had been had. Eventually, though, after two months of acrimonious dispute The Thunderer backed down and admitted that Arrowsmith had strung them along.

A little fact checking might have saved The Times a red face. Not only would a little bit of investigation have shown that mass slaughter on the railways was a rarity rather than an everyday occurrence a passenger had to put up with along with draughty windows, but it might also have revealed that Monte Christo pistol was slang in the area for a bottle of champagne. The pistol being a reference to the explosive noise that greets the popping of the cork from the bottle. Empty champers’ bottles were known as dead men.

A Times reporter, travelling through the Southern states a year later, discovered what the locals meant by Monte Christo pistols but at least he had the good grace to put a goodhearted and mildly amusing (demi-sec, perhaps) end to what had been a highly embarrassing episode for the Times. “Encounters with the Monte Christo weapons”, he noted, “in the baggage-wagons are, I understand, not uncommon on the line…[but] no fatal results have ever occurred.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone?

What Is The Origin Of (207)?…


To paraphrase a famous line from Casablanca, of all the narcotics in all of the world marijuana is probably the most sociable. A reefer, or at least it was in my day, was rolled and shared amongst the assembled party. There was a certain etiquette attached to the proceedings. The accepted convention was that you would have a toke or possibly two and then pass the joint on. To hang on to it was to risk the opprobrium of your fellow potheads and incurring the charge of bogarting the joint.

Bogart as a verb means to appropriate or keep something, originally a marijuana cigarette, greedily or selfishly. It owes its origin to the cinematic chain smoker that was Humphrey Bogart and his habit of hanging a fag from the corner of his mouth without actually drawing on it or smoking it, particularly when he launched into a long monologue.

The need to reinforce the correct etiquette associated with smoking dope gave birth to a song, Don’t Bogart That Joint, written by Larry “Stash” Wagner (lyrics) and Elliott Ingber (music) and copyrighted on 8th January 1968. For those unacquainted with the ditty – it was popularised in the 60s cult film, Easy Rider, and by Little Feat on their 1978 live album, Waiting for Columbus – the first couplet of the first verse goes; “Don’t bogart that joint my friend/ pass it over to me.

Unlike port there was no convention as to which way the joint circulated, although the reggae group, the Mighty Diamonds, recorded Pass the Kutchie in early 1982, in which they were adamant that the kutchie, Jamaican slang for a pot that held ganja, should be passed to the left-hand side.

This song spawned an unlikely hit in the UK for a group of teenagers called Musical Youth later that year, although to protect sensitivities Kutchie was replaced by the more innocuous Dutchie, a Jamaican cooking pot, immediately rendering the lyrics nonsensical.

So endemic was pot smoking amongst the arty crowd and ne’er do wells like students that films were produced in which the finer points of the marijuana counter-culture were explored and explained. One such was the 1971 film, Taking Off, directed by Milos Forman. In a review in the Nashville Tennessean in June 1971 the Tennesseans were informed; “the an orientation session in grass smoking. A wild-haired pothead (they were always thus) wafts forward to turn on old-times, acquaint them with dope terminology (joint, bogarting it etc) and remind them that all butts are to be turned in to him.

Interestingly, bogart broke out from the narrow confines of the drug culture to have a more general meaning of hanging on or biding their time. A news report in The Home News from New  Brunswick in New Jersey on 8th January 1980, speculating on whether the election of Ronald Reagan as President would spark a re-run of his old films, noted that “a few stations are bogarting their air time.

Perhaps reflecting the type of character that Humph often played, bogart also developed another sense, that of forcing your way in, coercing or bullying. The Richmond Review from October 1973 reported, with a gloss reflecting that it was not a usage widely understood; “Redd subsequently nicknamed him Bogart because he bogarted (slang expression for forced) his way on the show.

Seasoned topers are always on the look-out for Captain Cork, a slang term for someone who holds on to a communal bottle of hooch for too long.

Manners maketh man, after all.