You’re Having A Laugh – Part Twenty Five

Mark Twain and the Empire Street Massacre of 1863

The problem with being a satirist who is adept at his work is that it can backfire on you as Mark Twain found out with what he thought was a clever attempt to expose the evils of financial fraud. Investors put their faith in the business acumen and financial integrity of the stewards of the companies in which they invest. Sometimes this faith can be misplaced.

During 1863 the newspapers in San Francisco were beginning to unearth a major financial scandal in the mining sector. Unscrupulous directors of the Daney Silver mine had declared a false dividend by cooking the books, thereby increasing the value of their shares, which they sold at an inflated price, just before the inevitable collapse of the company. The remaining hapless investors lost their money. It was a scandal and one which merited all the attention that the might of the press could bring to bear on it.

However, the very same upholders of financial prudence, the San Francisco press, were running adverts and editorials encouraging investors to get rid of their shares in the Nevada silver mines and plough their money into reputedly safe and sound shares such as those of the Spring Valley Water Company. Unfortunately, it was discovered that the Water Company too had cooked their books, inflating their balance sheet strength. For Twain these sharp financial practices, compounded by the hypocrisy of the local press, had to be exposed.

The newspaper Twain was working on, the Territorial Enterprise, ran an astonishing and truly shocking story, brought to it by one Abram Curry from Carson, in their edition of October 28, 1863. It told of a bloody massacre that had been committed in Ormsby County by Philip Hopkins, an investor in a San Francisco utility company. On learning that his investment had gone sour and that he had lost his money, Hopkins went beserk. At around 10 o’clock in the evening he made a dramatic entrance into Carson on horseback, “with his throat cut from ear to ear, and bearing in his hand a reeking scalp, from which the warm, smoking blood was still dripping, and fell in a dying condition in front of the Magnolia saloon”.

Five minutes later, the report continued, he had died without uttering a word. A posse led by Sheriff Gasherie, rode to Hopkins’ house, a dressed-stone mansion in the heart of a forest, where they encountered a scene of absolute carnage. As well as the scalpless body of Mrs Hopkins, they found six dead children, “their brains evidently dashed out with a club”. Two other children, Julia and Emma, fourteen and seventeen respectively, were found alive but badly injured.

Curry’s report tried to provide an explanation for this senseless slaughter. Hopkins, the paper reported, had invested in some of the best mines in Virginia and Gold Hill. When the San Francisco newspapers started to expose fears of companies cooking their books, he bailed out of these seemingly safe shares and, on the advice of an editor on the San Francisco Bulletin, invested in Spring Valley Water Company shares. But when the shares crashed, Hopkins lost his money, a disaster which drove him mad. Twain signed the article off with this bit of moralising; “The newspapers of San Francisco permitted this water company to go on borrowing money and cooking dividends, under cover of which the cunning financiers crept out of the tottering concern, leaving the crash to come upon poor and unsuspecting stockholders, without offering to expose the villainy at work. We hope the fearful massacre detailed above may prove the saddest result of their silence”.

The response to the story was astonishing. It was reproduced widely in the press and despite its grotesque nature, hardly anyone smelt a rat. Twain had carefully laid some obvious giveaways in Curry’s account- Hopkins was well known in the area to be a bachelor; he was supposed to live in a dressed-stone- mansion in the heart of a forest but, in truth, there was nary a tree in a fifteen mile radius of the spot and there was no dressed-stone mansion in the whole of Nevada; Hopkins’ injuries were such that they would have killed him outright rather than after a four mile ride into Carson City to make a dramatic entrance and a theatrical end. But no one seemed to notice these clues, sucked in by the adroitness of Twain’s storytelling.

When the truth emerged that it was all a hoax, Twain nearly lost his job on the paper. Writing in Sketches New and Old twelve years later in a piece entitled My Bloody Massacre, Twain reflected “it was a deep, deep satire, and most ingeniously contrived”. After metaphorically patting himself on the back, he reflected on the lesson learned; “I found out then, and never have forgotten since, that we never read the dull explanatory surroundings of marvellously exciting things when we have no occasion to suppose that some irresponsible scribbler is trying to defraud us; we skip all that, and hasten to revel in the blood-curdling particulars and be happy”.

An observation that is as true today as it was then.

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

Names Of The Week (4)

At the best of times, voting can be a bit confusing. Who do you vote for, what are you voting for, are you convinced they are even vaguely competent?

As Churchill once said, “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter” Perhaps we should take to heart Mark Twain’s aphorism; “if voting made any difference they wouldn’t let you do it.

Here in Britain we’ve made a pretty poor fist of matters psephological in recent times, so imagine what we would do if we had the dilemma that the voters in the district of Kensington-Malpeque on Prince Edward Island in Canada face on April 23rd.

The incumbent is a 37-year-old estate agent called Matthew Mackay. One of his challengers is a 64-year-old graphic artist called – you guessed it, Matthew Mackay.

Perhaps it is a legacy of the Scottish settlers who colonised the island off the east coast of Canada or the fact that the people there are not very imaginative when it comes down to names, either way it is a tad confusing. The elder candidate has sportingly offered to use his middle initial, J, to minimise the confusion and with an electorate of just 4,000 in a close-knit community, it may not matter too much.

That is, until the result is in, as we know to our cost.

What Is The Origin Of (173)?…

The whole shebang

Often in these etymological excursions I find that a word just seems to spring up into common usage, seemingly from nowhere, and there is little in the way of consensus as to where it came from. One such example is the noun shebang which is used in everyday speech today accompanied by whole and means the whole thing or all of it. But what is a shebang?

The word first appeared in print in America in the 1860s and already had assumed two slightly separate connotations. The poet Walt Whitman, writing in his Journal entry for the period 23rd to 31st December 1862 and describing the appalling conditions of the survivors of the battle of Fredericksburg, described “their shebang enclosures of bushes.” Given their parlous state, these shelters could have only been temporary shelters from the elements.

Contemporaneously, the Annual Report of the US Department of Justice for 1862, noted near a particular reservation; “an inn or shebang is established, ostensibly for the entertainment of travellers, but almost universally used as a den for supplying liquor to Indians.” The link to an establishment serving alcohol has suggested to many that its origin is to be found in the Irish noun shebeen which was used to describe an unlicensed and often disreputable drinking den, often run by women. The Irish word sibin meant illicit whiskey and in turn came from seibe which meant a mugful. That there were many migrants from Ireland flooding into the States around that time is indisputable and about the only things they had to bring with them was their language and traditions.

But almost at the same time the word had taken a broader meaning as shown by Samuel Bowles’ helpful definition in Across the Continent, published in 1865. Shebang is described as being “any kind of an establishment, store, house, shop [or] shanty.” These were more substantial structures than the bivouacs of the survivors of Civil War battles but only just and the word was probably used to describe any mean or rough and ready building. This meaning is not at odds with the drinking shack – it just has a broader connotation. As the Marysville Tribune of November 1869 revealed in its list of The Idioms of Our New West, published in March 1869. “shebang is applied to any sort of house or office.

By the time Mark Twain got to use it in Roughing It, published in 1872, its meaning had changed once again, this time to describe a vehicle. “You’re welcome to ride here as long as you please, but this shebang’s chartered..” This vehicular sense has led some to consider it as a variant or corruption of char-a-bancs, the French term used to describe a vehicle with benches as seats which was Anglicised by deleting the hyphens. I don’t find this convincing as the two words are quite dissimilar and, anyway, we need only consider it to be another example of the speed at which shebang, once had it had been let loose into the world, accumulated meanings.

That this must be the case is illustrated by its usage in the Sedalia Daily Democrat in June 1872; “Well, the Democracy can flax – this meant to beat up – the whole shebang, and we hope to see our party united.” This is the first recorded usage of the whole shebang and it seems to have its modern sense of the whole thing. The phrase came into its own from the 1920s but it is remarkable to see how its meaning changed so dramatically in the course of ten years. And for what it is worth, I think it owes its origin to shebeen.

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Eight

Solar Armour

One of the keys to military success, I’m told, is to ensure that your forces arrive at the field of battle in optimal condition. When temperatures are at their height, it would be helpful if the soldiers had some apparel which cooled them down. An article, published on 2nd July 1874 in Nevada’s Territorial Enterprise, described the enterprise of a certain Jonathan Newhouse who had invented something which was known as solar armour, which seemed to be a solution to the problem of perspiring soldiers.

The armour consisted of a long, closely fitting jacket and a cap, both made of sponge about an inch thick. A rubber sack was fitted below the right armpit into which was poured cold water. There was a tube leading from the sack to the cap. Before setting out into the desert the soldier would saturate the sponge and then keep themselves moist by occasionally depressing the sack with their arm.

Having invented the thing, the intrepid Newhouse decided to put it through its paces, choosing the appropriately named Death Valley for the experiment. Alas, for Newhouse, his invention worked too well. An Indian tracker went to a nearby camp and indicated that the men should follow him. About twenty miles from the camp, they saw Newhouse sitting against a rock in his armour, frozen and dead. His beard was covered in frost and an icicle, a foot long, hung from his nose. It seemed that he had been unable to remove the straps to the mechanism and in time his invention had killed him.

The story was soon picked up by newspapers in San Francisco and New York and even crossed the pond where the paper with the largest circulation in the world at the time, the Daily Telegraph, deigned to give it some column inches. But something did not seem quite right about the extraordinary tale. Inventions were a bit Heath-Robinsonish at the time and, as readers of this blog will know, a number of inventors have fallen off this mortal coil at the hands of their invention. The Telegraph, in relating the tale took a rather neutral stance as regards its veracity. Whilst acknowledging the fact that when you ice a bottle of wine by wrapping a cloth around it, the moisture caused by the evaporation is very cold, it would not go as far as accepting the circumstances of poor Newhouse’s demise. Perhaps, it was troubled by the twelve inch icicle hanging from his nose. Instead, rather like Herodotus, it was “not prepared to disbelieve it wholly nor to credit without question.

Still having got the story into so august an organ as the Telegraph, more details started to emerge of Newhouse’s strange death. A further account of an inquest appeared in the August 30th edition of the Territorial Enterprise, recounting the inquest. Bottles of strange chemicals were found in Newhouse’s backpack and the verdict was that “he fell victim to a rash experiment with chemicals with the nature of which he was imperfectly acquainted.

Of course, it was all an elaborate hoax and the truth eventually came out. On the staff of the Territorial Enterprise at the time were Mark Twain and William Wright. The Solar Armour story was the work of Wright who was better known as Dan de Quille and who in the 1860s was tipped to achieve greater literary renown than his colleague. The Solar Armour story was the creation of his fevered imagination and an experiment in to how far a ludicrous story would run.

Quite some distance, it would appear.

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

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

Joshua Abraham Norton (1819 – 1880)

Born into a Jewish family in London, Norton’s early years were spent in South Africa before, like many others, he was lured to California in the late 1840s by the prospect of gold. Norton, however, didn’t pan for gold; rather he speculated on the commodities market and in property. By late 1852 he was one of the most prosperous and respected denizens of San Francisco. Then disaster struck.

China was facing a severe famine and in December 1852 banned the export of rice, causing the price in California to rocket. Norton heard that the Glyde, en route from Peru, was laden with rice and so bought the lot, hoping to corner the market and make a fat profit. But shortly afterwards, several other shipments of rice arrived from Peru, causing the price of the commodity to plummet and Norton to lose his shirt. Norton tried to wriggle out of the contract and a protracted court battle ultimately saw him bankrupted in 1858 and reduced to living in a working class boarding house.

It may be that this traumatic event unhinged Norton but when he next surfaced he had a concocted a ruse which requires considerable chutzpah with a certain dash of eccentricity to carry off. He marched into the offices of the San Francisco Bulletin newspaper with an astonishing announcement which the rag, doubtless with its tongue firmly planted in its cheek, printed on 17th September 1859. It ran, “At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens…I, Joshua Norton…declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States.” Norton commanded representatives from all the states to assemble in the Bay Area “to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is labouring.

Although his palace was a rundown boarding house, Norton would march around the streets of Frisco – the use of that word would have earned me a fine of $25 under one of his edicts – dressed in a navy coat with enormous epaulettes, with an ostrich feather plumed hat and carrying a sabre. The townsfolk indulged Norton in his fantasy, bowing as he approached. Restauranteurs would give him free meals, theatre-owners free tickets, train and ferry operators free rides. Some even added by appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Norton I on their advertising literature. Army officers would give him a new uniform when his old one wore out and a local printing firm even issued a new currency with a picture of Norton on the front. But Norton didn’t get rich, some citizens keeping him going by giving him handouts in the form of payment of imperial taxes.

Not everyone saw Norton as a harmless eccentric. A police officer had the audacity to arrest him for vagrancy but he hadn’t realised the storm of outrage he would unleash. One newspaper wrote, “since he has worn the Imperial purple [he] has shed no blood, robbed nobody, and despoiled the country of no one, which is more than can be said for his fellows in that line.” Norton was quickly released and thereafter was saluted every time he was spotted by a police officer.

As Emperor, Norton issued a number of imperial proclamations, each of which was printed in full by an eager press. Some were ambitious – banning the Republican and Democratic parties and dissolving Congress by force – but one was truly visionary, the call for a bridge between San Francisco and Oakland. Work started on the structure in 1933 and there are still calls to rename it after Norton.

On 8th January 1880 Norton died on the street, suffering a major stroke. “Le Roi est mort”screamed the San Francisco Chronicle. Some 30,000 turned out for his funeral. Mark Twain immortalised Norton as the itinerant King in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  

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


Perry Davis’ Vegetable Pain Killer

In some ways, the tale of Perry Davis is an example of triumph over adversity. Born in 1791 into a desperately poor family and apprenticed to a cordwainer, he was an inventor manqué, several of his patented ideas failing to attract investment and leaving him deeper in debt. He was also desperately unlucky. When 14 he fell off some scaffolding, breaking his hip, an injury which left him lame for the rest of his life. He suffered from respiratory problems which the medics could not cure. Only two of his nine children survived. In 1840 he became very sick and was in great pain.

Eschewing medical practitioners, Davis relied on his own resources and started experimenting with a concoction of herbal and naturally grown ingredients. He had no high hopes as to its efficacy, rather anticipating it to be “handing me gently to the grave”. Miraculously, he got better only for ill fortune to dog him once more. After his house in Fall River was destroyed by fire in 1843 and he was on his uppers, he decided to concentrate on the one thing that had worked for him, his patent medicine. Even then, he had another setback. Whilst tinkering with the formula, a can of alcohol exploded, causing severe burns to his face. The application of his panacea did the trick.

If nothing else, Davis was a consummate salesman and imbued with absolute confidence in his product, he flogged it for all he was worth. Bottles of the vegetable pain killer began to fly off the shelves, so much so that he opened a factory in the aptly named Providence. Advertising was fulsome as to its powers. An example ran, “an inexpensive and thoroughly reliable safeguard is offered by Perry Davis’ Pain Killer which…has stood unrivalled as a household companion. It is used externally as well as internally and is just what is needed for burns, bruises, cuts, sprains etc; and most people know that no other remedy is to be compared with it as a cure for coughs, colds, rheumatism, neuralgia etc in winter and all summer complaints in their season…it is a medicine chest in itself”. Another featured a host of cherubs bearing the distinctive brown bottle.

Testimonials were cited including one from Mark Twain; “those who could run away did. Those who could not drenched themselves in cholera preventatives and my mother chose Perry Davis’ Pain Killer for me”. Its fame spread overseas and during the American Civil War it was dispensed to soldiers and horses alike. An ardent Baptist, Davis gave bottles to missionaries to take with them abroad. His generosity was usually rewarded with a boost in sales. As his personal fortune grew he gave donations to many causes, gifting $50,000 in 1850 for the erection of a new Baptist church. When he died in 1862, his coffin was followed by crowds of the poor whom he had helped.

The production and sale of Davis’ Pain Killer survived his death, his son taking over the responsibility and the potion was still on sale until the early 1940s. And what was in it and was it any good? Although Davis never revealed the formula, it seemed that it was a mix of vegetable extracts, camphor, ethyl alcohol and opiates. With that lot inside you, it is no wonder you felt better, even if only temporarily. The ultimate in pick-me-ups, perhaps!

What Is The Origin Of (101)?…


Rub of the green

This phrase is often deployed to explain some piece of bad luck, often in the game of golf, where the player has managed to miss what seemed to the bystander a regulation put. The ball hit an unseen obstacle or took a diversion but, hey, that’s the rub of the green, they might say phlegmatically.

The key to our understanding the origin of this phrase lies in the word, rub. Rub, as a verb, appeared in Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale with the meaning that we attribute to it today, smoothing, “He rubbed her upon her tender face”. In Middle English a rubstone was a synonym for a whetstone, presumably because its purpose was to smooth a surface.

But rub makes an appearance as a noun in the late 16th century in the gloriously titled The Paine of Pleasure published in 1580 and attributed to Anthony Munday. In describing the delights and tribulation of playing a game of bowls, the fourteenth pleasure, he wrote, “How some delight to see a round bowl run/ smoothly away, until he catch a rub:/ then hold thy bias, if that cast were won/ the game were up as sure then as a club”.  Rub is clearly being used as some kind of imperfection in the bowling green, an obstacle or impediment to a true lie.

Shortly afterwards, in 1586 to be precise, it made another appearance, this time in Hooker’s History of Ireland and its usage is metaphorical, “whereby appeareth how dangerous it is to be a rub, when a king is disposed to sweep an alley”. Perhaps the most famous usage of rub in a metaphorical sense is to be found in Shakepeare’s famous to be or not to be soliloquy in Hamlet. “To die – to sleep/ to sleep – perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub!/ For in that sleep of death what dreams may come/ when we have shuffled off this mortal coil,/ must give us pause”.

Interestingly, the expression ay, there’s the rub did not appear in the First Quarto of 1603, although some scholars view the text as unreliable, but it made an appearance in the Second Quarto (1604) and the First Folio (1624). Ay, though, was written as I and appeared in this format well into the 17th century, probably owing its origin to the use of the first person pronoun as a form of assent. Be that as it may, Shakespeare uses rub to mean an obstacle or a form of hindrance.

The long walk ruined, to echo Mark Twain’s glorious description of golf, is particularly prone to be subject to the lie of the land or the rub of the green. We find it used in a golfing context in 1812 in the rule book of the game issued by the Royal and Ancient club in St Andrews, “whatever happens to a Ball by accident must be reckoned a Rub of the green”. The phrase can be used to describe a piece of good fortune – a lucky in-off or a wayward shot being diverted back on course by an imperfection in the topography – as well as ill fortune.

In a sporting context, its origin is from the game of bowls, not golf. Nowadays we use the term in a general context as well as in a narrow sporting context, to explain an unexpected or unanticipated outcome.

So now we know!