A wry view of life for the world-weary

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


Hunt’s Remedy – William E Clarke

Whatever happened to dropsy? It first made its appearance in literature in Horace’s Odes (Carmina 2.2 13 – 16) and was used by the poet as a metaphor for avarice. 18th and 19th century literature is peppered by references to people suffering from dropsy but it seems to have gone out of fashion. Perhaps that’s because it is now known as oedema and is a condition whereby excess fluid accumulates below the surface of the skin, particularly in the legs and ankles, causing inflammation. An obstruction in the blood vessel seems to cause it and it can be treated by locating and treating the obstacle.

Anyone suffering from dropsy would be glad of some form of respite and a popular remedy in the second half of the 19th century was Hunt’s Remedy. It was not just restricted to the cure of dropsy. According to the accompanying adverts it was the “great Kidney Medicine that cures dropsy and all diseases of the kidney, bladder and urinary organs – never known to fail”. When the medicine came into the hands of a chemist from Providence, Rhode Island, William E Clarke, it was promoted using some really wonderful trade cards showing a healthy male using a bottle of the said potion to wrestle a skeleton accompanied by a scythe. There was no doubting the message of this powerful image.

The adverts went on to say that “by the use of Hunt’s Remedy the Stomach and Bowels will speedily regain their strength and the blood will be perfectly purified”. In case you were concerned what was in it, the advert went on to reassure you that it “is purely vegetable and meets a want never before furnished to the public and the utmost reliance may be placed on it”. The potion came in two sizes – a small embossed bottle, known as Trial Size, retailing for 75 cents and a larger one which would set you back $1.25. The bottles were aqua in colour. One of Clarke’s agents, a Mr W B Blanding, sold 33,120 bottles over the course of two years and it was extremely popular throughout New England. But that was not the limit of its sales penetration. “The Remedy is known throughout the United States and Canada and in foreign countries”.

The story went that the key ingredient of the potion was a root which grew in the pastures and roadsides of the United States and was used by the Dutch colonists for medicinal purposes. The recipe was passed to a number of physicians, one of whom used it to cure a Mr Hunt of Manhattan who, suffering from dropsy, took it for a year and saw that “his bloated flesh was reduced and his vigour restored”. Rather like Victor Kiam, he was so enamoured with the drug that he bought up the manufacturing rights and upon his death these were acquired by William Clarke in 1872.

The Remedy was widely available until the turn of the 20th century when the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act put an end to its rather extravagant claims. Whether it was effective was unclear. Its main ingredient, according to the Medical Record of 19th July 1884, was apocynum cannabium or dogbane which was used by Native American tribes to treat a wide variety of complaints such as rheumatism, coughs, pox, whooping cough, asthma and internal parasites. Whether it touched the kidneys or dropsy is unclear. However, the quality of the advertising images meant it has a special place in the annals of quackery.

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


The Nottinghamshire Club

Isn’t it annoying when there are two pubs on the same street bearing the same name? This was the case in 18th century London where there were two pubs called the Star and Garter on Pall Mall. It is thought that the one on the south side of the street, which also hosted the Diletanttis, was the one which the Nottinghamshire met at once a month. The club was so called because it drew its membership from gentlemen who lived or came from Nottinghamshire.

Proceedings would start on the second floor of the pub just after four o’clock in the afternoon with a jolly good dinner spiced with lively conversation. The bill and a bottle was brought in at seven to wrap up proceedings. I’m sure the gentlemen from the north Midlands had a convivial time.

On 26th January 1765 things didn’t quite go to plan. Ten members of the club sat down to dine with John Hewet in the chair and amongst the diners were to be found Lord Byron, the 5th Baron (not the poet but his great uncle) and Byron’s cousin, William Chaworth. When the proceedings were drawing to a close Hewet suggested as a topic of conversation the best way to preserve game on one’s estate. Chaworth and Byron expressed contrary views, the former recommending taking measures of the utmost severity against poachers while Byron thought that the best way to maximise game was to do nothing at all. Chaworth then claimed that he had more game on his five acres of land than Byron had on all his estate. Byron’s response was to suggest a £100 bet but the wager was not struck.

The two gentlemen descended to the first floor and asked a waiter to show them to a vacant room. After a few minutes the bell rang and the waiter returned to the room to find Chaworth with his sword in his left hand and Byron with his in his right and their unoccupied hands around each other’s neck. During the contre-temps Byron managed to wound his opponent, from which injuries Chaworth died a couple of days later.

Byron was sent to the Tower of London and appeared before the House of Lords on 16th and 17th April 1765. He was found not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter. However, he got away with just a fine and upon his return to his gaff in Newstead Abbey he mounted his infamous sword on the wall of his bedchamber and revelled in his newly gained sobriquet, the Wicked Lord.

Whether this unsavoury event put a dampener on the proceedings of the illustrious Nottinghamshire, I know not, but the club fades out of the historical records. The Star and Garter, however, seems to have been a popular venue, Jonathan Swift persuading his club to meet there as early as 1712 and the Jockey Club meeting there in 1752. The Connoisseur noted in 1754 that “fools of quality of that day drove to the Star and Garter to regale on macaroni”. The Savoir Faire club used it as its headquarters during its brief existence and in 1774 Sir Horace Mann of Kent and the Duke of Dorset and Lord Tankerville, representing Surrey and Hampshire respectively, met there to draft the first rules of cricket including the fiendish LBW law.

The Epicure’s Almanack of 1815 claimed that the establishment was noted for the quality of its claret, although a century earlier the main complaint was the excessive costs. The Duke of Ormond was charged £21 6 shillings and eight for a meal of two courses for four without wine or dessert. Now that would have caused me to draw my sword!

The Streets Of London – Part Fifty Seven


King’s Road, SW3

Synonymous with fashionable, trendy London, King’s Road runs from Sloane Square in the east to the junction with Wandsworth Bridge Road where it becomes New King’s Road, terminating at Putney Bridge station. In all, it runs for 1.9 miles – the trendier end being the eastern. Property prices are astronomic, even for London, although I managed to rent a small flat there for a few months in the 1980s.

As its name suggests, it has royal connections. It was the private thoroughfare by which Charles II was able to travel to Kew and back without the attentions of the great unwashed. Although the road could be used by people with royal connections it was not until 1830 that it was opened up to the hoi polloi. This restriction to usage meant that by London terms the buildings along the road are relatively modern, dating from the 19th century.

Perhaps one of the most vivid examples of climate change are the pictures and reports of people skating on the frozen wastes of the River Thames. During the course of the 19th century temperatures rose and nature’s skating rinks were a thing of the past. But skating had caught the popular imagination and the race was on to develop the first artificial ice rink. In 1844 one such was opened on Grafton Street, just off Tottenham Court Road, which provided an “area of artificial ice [which] is extremely convenient for such as may be desirous of engaging in the graceful and manly pastime of skating”. Unfortunately, the surface was made of swine lard and chemical salts and the stench was such that it soon put off even the most ardent aficionado.

The first vaguely successful commercial ice rink known as the Glacarium did not appear until 1876 and was housed at 379, King’s Road. John Gamgee had developed a process for creating ice whilst working on a way to preserve meat which was transported from down under. He patented the first deep freezer in 1870 and saw another application for his invention.


The rink measured 40 feet by 24 and had a concrete base as a floor. On top of this was placed a layer consisting of dirt and cow hair and some wooden planking, above which was placed oval shaped copper tubing. Gamgee then pumped through the pipes a solution of glycerine, nitrogen peroxide, water and ether and filled the structure. Using pumps the solution was pumped through the pipes and froze the water, producing a smooth, glass-like surface. To add to the sense of theatre, the walls of the glacarium were painted with images of the Swiss Alps and there was a balcony where an orchestra could serenade the skaters or where onlookers could admire the skills on show.

It was a great success and Gamgee opened two more rinks, the largest of which, located at Charing Cross, measuered 115 feet by 25. But the process of making the ice was expensive and created a mist which was off-putting to the skaters, numbers dropped and Gamgee was forced to pull the plug by mid 1878. The site is now occupied by the hideous Moravian Tower.

Thomas Arne is said to have composed Rule Britannia whilst living at no 215 and Ellen Terry, the actress, lived in the same house, although not at the same time, in case you were thinking I had unearthed a scoop, In the 1960s the King’s Road was “where it was at”, frequented by mods and hippies. A decade later, Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s boutique, Let It Rock which later became SEX and then Seditionaries, was the honeypot around which the leading luminaries of the nascent punk movement congregated. These days, though, the area has been gentrified and is stuffed full of expensive shops and restaurants.

Bring back the ice rink, I say.

What Is The Origin Of (124)?…



One of the wonders of the English language is how a word can over time change its meaning to become the polar opposite – something I looked at a year or so ago in a series entitled All Change. Today’s word is even more remarkable because snob is what grammarians call an auto-antonym – it has two meanings which are directly contradictory of each other.

This may seem surprising because nowadays the commonly accepted definition of a snob is someone who despises those considered to be inferior in rank, attainment or taste. That’s true but other definitions to be found in the Oxford English Dictionary include “a person belonging to the ordinary or lower classes of society; one having no pretensions to rank or gentility”. So what is the story behind this word?

The starting point in our search is an edition of the Westminster Journal and London Political Miscellany of 25th August 1770 in which a correspondent, signing himself as the Wood Street Cobbler, wrote, “but what is this [broken pavement] more than honest Snob has taken notice of several times?” The correspondent’s nom de plume may well have been something of an in-joke because by 1781 the word snob is documented as meaning a shoemaker or a cobbler’s apprentice. The association of snob with the profession of shoemaking appeared in a theatre review in the Middlesex Journal and Evening Advertiser of 8th December 1774. The reviewer informed his readers that “last night a new Comic Ballad of two act was performed at the Theatre Royale Drury Lane, called the Cobbler ..Air IV”. We are then treated to an extract, “Pray, pray, be quiet neighbour Snob,/ Don’t act now so contrary:/ make love to me – a pretty job,/ I’m quite in a quandary”.

By 1796 the meaning had shifted a little as it now referred to a towns person or anyone who was not a student at Cambridge. Legend has it that anyone who was not a member of the Varsity was called sub nobilitate or sine nobilitate and that an abbreviation taking the first letter of the prefix and the first three letters of the noun to form the abbreviation snob. We don’t need to believe this because it is quite easy to imagine that a word that started out describing an honest cobbler could easily migrate to a position where it encapsulates the entire working class, a class to which students, particularly those from Cambridge, would hardly profess to belong.

It was thanks to William Thackeray that the word snob became to have its more modern meaning. He wrote a series of essays for the magazine, Punch, about a whole range of snobs you could encounter in everyday Victorian life from military snobs to university and country and literary snobs and even snobs abroad. He published them as a collection in 1848, entitled The Book of Snobs, written by one himself. It is a sort of natural history of snobbery. Not all of the characters you find within its pages are vulgar and ostentatious. But a pretty common theme throughout all the portraits is that they are insufficiently refined and are subjected to ridicule because their manners violate what is deemed acceptable to society.

From then onwards with the imprimatur of a great novelist, snob acquired its more modern meaning without ever losing its original sense and, indeed, someone exhibiting snobbery is in an inverted way acting like an uncouth, ill-educated member of the working class. Or am I just being a snob myself?

A Better Life – Part Eight


The Chapter of Perfection

A combination of the turmoil caused in central Europe by the Thirty Years War, the emergence of the Lutheran Protestantism as a hierarchical and state church and the offer by William Penn of a safe haven for religious refugees in the nascent colony of Pennsylvania meant that groups of religious dissidents were encouraged to cross the Atlantic in search of their utopia. One such group formed around the recently defrocked pietist pastor, Johann Jacob Zimmerman.

Zimmerman was convinced that the second coming of Christ would occur in 1694, after which would follow a thousand years of Christ in charge and then the end of the world. He gathered around him a group of some forty young followers, mainly doctors, lawyers and theologians, the Chapter of Perfection. The appearance of Halley’s comet in 1680 confirmed Zimmerman’s view that something celestial was afoot. The group decided to migrate to America in early 1694 via London but, doubtless disappointingly in the light of the imminent revelation, Zimmerman pegged it and leadership of the group passed to the 21-year-old Johannes Kelpius. The links the group made with the Quakers in London provided the funds to cross the Atlantic.

On arrival at Baltimore, the group made their way to some woods between Germanstown and Philadelphia where they established their community. They kept themselves to themselves, living a simple lifestyle with vows of celibacy and poverty, whiling their time away studying numerology, astrology and alchemy as well as peering into the sky using telescopes in the hope of getting an advance warning of the Second Coming from the roof of their 40-foot square tabernacle.

Although isolationists, the group offered their services to the local communities, including a tribe of native Americans, as doctors, lawyers and craftsmen gratis. They were dubbed by the local German community as the Society of the Woman in the Wilderness, a quote from chapter 12, verse 6 of the Book of Revelation, “and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and three score days” – a strange sobriquet as they were all chaps.

Christ didn’t appear in 1694 and this rather took the wind out of the sails of the Society. In 1695 some left to get married – so much for celibacy – while others moved away. But some still clung to their simple life in the woods, hoping that Christ was still on his way, passing the time in prayer and meditation in the adjacent caves, gardening and writing music and prayer books. Kelpius’ A Short, Easy and Comprehensive Method of Prayer, published in 1700, became popular amongst the German-speaking colonists and when it was translated into English in 1761 it fuelled Pennsylvanians’ interest in the strange band of brothers.

Kelpius, who was the subject of one of the first oil paintings in the colonies, died in 1708, of TB, despite believing he would not suffer a physical death. His philosopher’s stone, as directed in his will, was thrown into the nearby river Wissahickon. Numbers depleted further but six stuck it out under the direction of Conrad Matthai. However, upon his death in 1748, the Chapter was closed. There is only so much disappointment you can take, after all.

Kelpius and his followers had made their mark on Philadelphian society through their writings and musical compositions and appeared in the gothic novels written by the likes of Charles Brocken Brown and George Lippard. But they would have had a long wait.

I Predict A Riot – Part Twenty Two


The Khodynka Riot, 1896

People can’t resist getting something for nothing. Such is the change in people’s behaviour when there is the prospect of a freebie, that woe betide the organisers who have miscalculated the likely demand. If evidence of this were required, just consider the tragic events at Khodynka Field, just outside Moscow, following the coronation of the ill-fated Russian Tsar, Nicholas II.

The idea was simple enough and, at first blush, pretty generous. Open house would be held for the masses, four days after the coronation, on 30th May. What was on offer for all those who turned up was a bread roll, a piece of sausage, pretzels, gingerbread, a commemorative cup and, crucially, as much beer as they could consume. Adjacent to the site 150 buffets were erected to hand out the gifts and 20 pop-up pubs to dispense the all-important booze. Close to the square was a field which had a ravine and numerous gullies. The threat to ‘elf and safety that these topographic features posed would become increasingly apparent as events unfolded.

News of the shindig spread like wildfire and by 6 o’clock in the morning, a sizeable crowd had already begun to assemble to get their piece of the action. By mid-morning, it is estimated that some half a million citizens were milling around, controlled by some flimsy barricades and a few hundred mounted Cossacks. The crowds grew restless and their humour was not improved when a rumour circulated to the effect that the officials had miscalculated demand and so there was unlikely to be enough to go around. It was also rumoured that within each enamel cup there was to be found a gold coin.

The crowd surged forward through the barriers towards the pubs and buffets. Now the topography came into play. Many fell into the ditch and were trampled on or were suffocated to death. Seeing what was happening, some of the crowd tried to turn back, compounding the mayhem and chaos. Despite police reinforcements numbering around 1,800 by the time the situation was brought under control, 1,389 people had been trampled to death and a further 1,3000 injured.


But the show must go on. By the time the Tsar and his old Dutch had made their way to the Royal Pavilion at around 2 o’clock, all traces of the devastation had been removed. Indeed, there was a rather successful news black-out. Alexei Volkov wrote, “..I met many groups of people coming back from that site and carrying the Tsar’s gifts. The strange thing, though, was not one person mentioned the catastrophe and I did not hear about it until the next morning”.

When the extent of the tragedy was known, many blamed Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich as he had been responsible for organising the event. But when the Tsar suggested holding an inquiry, the Duke flew off the handle and threatened to boycott the court. The inquiry never took place. Worse still, the Tsar was persuaded, for fear of upsetting his French hosts, to attend a lavish ball at the French embassy on the night of the disaster. This show of royal insensitivity did not go down with the masses, a feeling which royal visits to see those hospitalised the following day did nothing to dissipate.

In an attempt to make some amends, a number of minor officials were sacked and the government distributed aid packages to the families of those who had been killed. Grand Duke Sergei was nicknamed the Duke of Khodynka and Nicholas was given the tag “The Bloody”. Not a good way to begin a reign which concluded with his execution at the hands of the Bolsheviks a hundred years ago.

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


Francis Henry Egerton, 8th Earl of Bridgewater (1756 – 1829)

Although educated at Eton and Oxford, Egerton quickly forsook England for the delights of Paris and soon entertained the locals with his version of English eccentricity. Quite why he left the family home of Ashridge House in the Hertfordshire village of Little Gaddesden is unclear, although there are suggestions that he had got a woman in the family way. His friends were somewhat surprised as he regularly spoke of his hatred of the place.

On arrival in Paris he bought a luxurious hotel, as you do, at 335 rue Saint-Honore and moved in with his collection of cats and dogs. A regular Parisian sight was a grand carriage leaving his gaff carrying several dogs reclining on silk cushions to the Bois de Boulogne where the pooches got out and were exercised, under umbrellas when the weather was inclement. At meal times the dogs were kitted out with leather boots, handmade of course, on their feet and linen napkins round their necks. Seated at the table, they were expected to behave with decency and decorum as their grub was brought to them on silver dishes.

Alas, not all of the dogs met Egerton’s exacting standards. Two of his favourites, Bijou and Biche, rebelled and in the eccentric’s own words “behaved like rascals”. So he had them measured up and condemned them to wear the valets’ uniform of yellow coats and knee breeches for eight days and they were deprived of the Earl’s company. I wonder if it made any difference.

As an English gentleman abroad, Egerton was keen to pursue the sport of fox-hunting. To this end he imported a pack of hounds and a fox and dressed in the full hunting rig would pursue the poor creature around the grounds of the hotel. Perhaps even less sporting was Egerton’s habit of clipping the wings of partridges and pheasants with which he stocked the grounds so that he might more easily shoot them even with his by then failing eyesight.

Egerton had a novel way of keeping track of the date. He would wear a fresh pair of shoes every day and when he had finished with them one of his servants would take them into a special room where they were laid out in a row. Egerton would then amuse himself by visiting the room, counting the shoes to calculate the date and by judging the condition of them, determine what the weather conditions had been.

Although eccentric, Egerton was not a man to cross. He faced down Napoleon Bonaparte who was remodelling Paris and wanted to change the layout of the area near the hotel. His workmen were quickly sent packing. The Duke of Saxe-Coburg made an attempt to requisition the hotel, only to be confronted by Egerton and thirty servants, armed to the teeth.

Egerton made little attempt to learn the local language, preferring to converse in Latin, although he did have some of Milton’s works translated into French for the benefit of the natives. And he didn’t think the local cuisine was up to snuff. One summer he decided that his entourage would spend some months sampling the delights of the French countryside. On the day of departure, 30 servants on horseback, the earl and his dogs together with 16 luggage carriages set off from rue Saint-Honore. Stopping some way out of Paris for lunch, he concluded that the quality of the food and the standard of service was not up to his exalted standards and promptly returned home.

He stayed in Paris until his death but was buried back in Blighty in the family chapel.

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Sixty Eight


John Joseph Merlin (1735 – 1803)

One of the underlying themes of this series is the role that luck plays in success – being in the right place at the right time or, in the case of inductees into our illustrious Hall of Fame, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Perhaps a shining example of this is the Belgian-born inventor, John Joseph Merlin. Born in Huy, he studied at the Academie des Sciences in Paris where he became well-known for his inventiveness and was persuaded to move to London in 1760.

In London Merlin used his knowledge of automata and the mechanics of clocks to develop a range of innovative toys and musical instruments which he patented. In 1783 he opened in Hanover Square a Mechanical Museum where he displayed many of the toys and objects that he had developed. It was a great success, Madame d’Arblay noting that “Merlin was quite the rage in London where everything was a la Merlin – Merlin chairs” – he had developed a mechanical gouty chair – “Merlin pianos, Merlin swings…Merlin fiddles and Merlin mechanical pegs for violins and violoncellos”.

Merlin was lionised by the great and the good. He was a particular friend of Thomas Gainsborough, who painted a rather splendid portrait, possibly in return for one of Merlin’s mechanical instruments. He was a regular visitor at the house of the musicologist, Charles Burney. His daughter, Fanny, wrote that Merlin was “very diverting in conversation…he speaks his opinion upon all subjects and about all persons with the most undisguised freedom”. But showing a little Englander attitude even then, she noted “He does not, though a foreigner, want words but he arranges and pronounces them very comically”.

Another theme that runs through this series is man’s frustrations with the limitations that bipedalism imposes on the ability to get from A to B as quickly as possible. We have seen early attempts to create bicycles, air flight, submarines and the like. Merlin applied his ingenuity to the problem of how to accelerate man’s ability to travel and his light bulb moment was to hit upon the ice skate from which he removed the blade and replaced it with a couple of wheels. Attaching them to the feet he had made, and naturally, patented the first pair of roller skates.

Merlin was a showman and could not resist the opportunity to demonstrate his roller skates at one of the premier events of the 1771 London season, a soiree at the home of Mrs Cowley’s at Carlisle House. For maximum effect, Merlin decided to make his entrance on his roller skates while playing the violin – and why not? What happened next is to be found in Thomas Busby’s Concert Room and Orchestra Anecdotes of 1805. “when not having provided the means of retarding his velocity, or commanding its direction” – two major design faults, I feel –“he impelled himself against a mirror of more than five hundred pounds value, dashed it to atoms, broke his instrument to pieces and wounded himself most severely”.

Merlin’s dramatic entrance set back the development of the roller skate by nearly 90 years. In 1863 James Plimpton, an American, came up with the idea of a rocking skate with four wheels for stability and independent axles. So successful was Plimpton’s device that roller skating took off. Plimpton’s design is still today.

For inventing the roller skate but putting back its development by nearly a century because of your eccentric demonstration, John Julius Merlin, you are a worthy inductee.


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

What Is The Origin Of (123)?…


To a T

I used this the other day when I was writing about keeping my hat on and it occurred to me that I hadn’t a clue what the T in the expression was or meant. The phrase, of course, means that there is a perfect fit and usually follows a noun or pronoun such as that’s me to a T.

Before we plunge into finding out what a T is, it is worth noting that this has been around since at least the 17th century. Possibly the first usage in print is to be found, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in The Humours and Conversations of the Town by James Wright, published in 1693, where we find on page 102, “All the under-villages and towns-men come to him for redress; which he does to a T”. Variants, where T is spelt phonetically as tee, appeared in Edward Ward’s Labour In Vain, published in 1700, “Harry cajoled my inquirer, and fitted his humour to a t__” and Joseph Giles’ Miscellaneous Poems of 1771, “I’ll tell you where you may be suited to a tee”.

There are two possible explanations as to what a T may be. The first is a tee which is a right-angled instrument used primarily by stone masons and carpenters to draw and measure square corners. Obviously, a skilled practitioner of the art of teeing would ensure a perfect fit, with no gap or room to move. This would be a common or garden tool, found in many a workshop and building site, and its usage fits perfectly (pun intended) the meaning of our phrase. My hesitation in accepting as the root is because the first usage adopts T rather than tee. Of course, this may be a vagary of the spelling conventions which were somewhat looser then than they are now but perhaps it is not. But it also doesn’t really add to the sense. A tee is the means of ensuring a perfect fit, not a description of the fit itself.

The other contender is that the T is an abbreviation for the word, tittle. As a noun, it was used as early as the late 14th century to denote a small stroke or point in writing. Examples of a tittle might be the dot over the letter I or the cross in the letter t or an accent mark. From this a secondary meaning developed, that of a jot or a small particle, the weeniest mark or space possible. In English, tittle in a figurative sense is often accompanied by jot and did so in the King James Bible of 1611. In Matthew 5:18 we find, “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled”. An unaccompanied tittle appeared in the same version’s translation of Luke 16:17, “and it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail”.

A jot owes its origin to the Greek letter, iota, which was the smallest letter and so in concert with tittle, it emphasises the smallness of the aperture. We have already seen that tittle is found on its own and in the context of our expression, adds some sense – something that is missing from the alternative, tee. So it may be that the T in our expression is a tittle of the word, tittle, a satisfying result if that is indeed the case.

Double Your Money – Part Seventeen


The Letters of Jerusalem

Occasionally, just very occasionally, I get an unsolicited e-mail pop into my in-box, usually from an African unknown to me, telling me that they have access to untold wealth. If I would only send them a small sum of money and my bank account details, then they will transfer the money to me, I can take my slice and everything in the garden will be rosy. Smelling a rat, I have never been tempted but the sheer frequency of these e-mails suggests that some must take the bait, lured by the prospect of getting rich quick.

It seems that these emails, which are known as advance fee fraud, follow a long if ignoble traditions, dating back to at least the late 18th century and revolutionary France if an account published in his memoirs by Eugene Francois Vidocq is to believed. Vidocq was an interesting character, having been an accomplished thief who then became a policeman. When he retired from the force in 1827, he had amassed a fortune of 0.5 million francs. He was also the model for Jacques Collin in Balzac’s Pere Goriot, but that is by the by.

The scam was conducted by prisoners and guards at the Bicetre prison which was in a southern suburb of Paris. The starting point was to compile a list of the rich living in the targeted area, particularly those with anti-revolutionary sentiments. The scammers would then compose what they termed a letter of Jerusalem. Vidocq gave an extensive version of the type of letter, containing many of the characteristics of the modern scamming e-mail, which I will abridge for convenience.

It would start off, “you will doubtlessly be astonished at receiving a letter from a person unknown to you who is about to ask a favour from you; but from the sad condition in which I am placed, I am lost if some honourable person will not lend me succour”. The correspondent then went on to spin a tale in which he and his master were emigrating from revolutionary France on foot, to avoid suspicion, with a casket containing “sixteen hundred francs in gold and the diamonds of the late marchioness”. They were beset by assailants and the valet, acting on his master’s orders, threw the casket into a ditch.

Once the party had reached their foreign destination, funds began to run low and so the valet was sent back to France to recover the casket. The valet was about to recover the casket from the ditch when further troubles befell him. “I prepared to fulfil my mission, when the landlord .. a bitter Jacobin, remarking my embarrassment when he proposed to drink the health of the republic” – a phrase designed to further win the support of the recipients –“had me apprehended as a suspected person”. He was now languishing in jail and if the recipient could only find it in his heart to send some money, then the casket would be recovered and the profits split.

Vidocq claimed that 20% of the letters elicited a response, with correspondents offering to recover the casket from its hiding place. Often a batch of letters would raise the not inconsiderable sum of between 12 and 15,000 francs. Some even visited the area in the hope of finding the casket without the aid of their correspondent but needless to say, their searches turned up nothing. One cloth seller from the Rue de Prouvaires was caught undermining one of the arches of the Pont Neuf in an attempt to find the diamonds of the Duchess de Bouillon which is where his correspondent claimed to have hidden them.

It just goes to show, there is nothing new under the sun.