Category Archives: History

People have always been just as crazy as they are now.

Mr. Dickens Goes to Washington

Charles Dickens visited Washington, D.C. in 1842.

I was sometimes asked, in my progress through other places, whether I had not been very much impressed by the HEADS of the lawmakers at Washington; meaning not their chiefs and leaders, but literally their individual and personal heads, whereon their hair grew, and whereby the phrenological character of each legislator was expressed: and I almost as often struck my questioner dumb with indignant consternation by answering ‘No, that I didn’t remember being at all overcome.’ As I must, at whatever hazard, repeat the avowal here, I will follow it up by relating my impressions on this subject in as few words as possible.


I saw in them, the wheels that move the meanest perversion of virtuous Political Machinery that the worst tools ever wrought. Despicable trickery at elections; under-handed tamperings with public officers; cowardly attacks upon opponents, with scurrilous newspapers for shields, and hired pens for daggers; shameful trucklings to mercenary knaves, whose claim to be considered, is, that every day and week they sow new crops of ruin with their venal types, which are the dragon’s teeth of yore, in everything but sharpness; aidings and abettings of every bad inclination in the popular mind, and artful suppressions of all its good influences: such things as these, and in a word, Dishonest Faction in its most depraved and most unblushing form, stared out from every corner of the crowded hall.

— Charles Dickens, American Notes for General Circulation.

I think Charles would be pleased to learn that, one hundred and sixty-five years later, there has been an important change: members of our nation’s legislative body can now be trusted not to spit on the floor.

The Senate is a dignified and decorous body, and its proceedings are conducted with much gravity and order. Both houses are handsomely carpeted; but the state to which these carpets are reduced by the universal disregard of the spittoon with which every honourable member is accommodated, and the extraordinary improvements on the pattern which are squirted and dabbled upon it in every direction, do not admit of being described. I will merely observe, that I strongly recommend all strangers not to look at the floor; and if they happen to drop anything, though it be their purse, not to pick it up with an ungloved hand on any account.

American Notes (four paragraphs later).

Review: To Ruhleben–and Back

In 1914, two months after England and Germany went to war, Geoffrey Pyke persuaded a newspaper to hire him as a war correspondent. Pyke was about 20 at the time and, acting under the same impulse by which modern 20 year olds crash keg parties and drink themselves into comas, snuck into Berlin. He was arrested, of course. But, hey, at least he got a book out of it.

To Ruhleben–and Back was published in 1916 and recently republished under McSweeney’s (McSweeney’s’s?) Collins Library imprint. (And damn, this is a handsome book. Good paper, a cover made of sturdy boards and real cloth–Cloth! In an age of big-publisher hardcovers covered in construction paper!–and the design must have time-travelled forwards from the days when books were bound like their publishers gave a damn. I stuck it on my shelf between Phillip Pullman and David Quammen and it looked like Mr. Blackwell at a hobo convention.)

Pyke spent months in solitary confinement wondering whether he’d be shot. Then he was transferred to a cold and inadequate POW camp at Ruhleben. A case of pneumonia left him with a weak heart. He escaped in the company of a man who knew the country better. They walked a very long way to the Netherlands with very little food. Pyke collapsed several times and was once almost left for dead.

As Pyke tells it, all of this was hilariously funny. Continue reading Review: To Ruhleben–and Back

A Night at the Opera: The Prequel

Remember the stateroom scene from A Night at the Opera? The same thing happened in London, at 54 Berners Street, in 1810. The Morning Post had the scoop:

> The greatest hoax that ever has been heard of in this metropolis was yesterday practised in Berners-street. The house of Mrs Tottenham, a Lady of fortune, at No. 54, was beset by about a dozen tradespeople at one time, with their various commodities, and from the confusion altogether such crowds had collected as to render the street impassable.

>Waggons laden with coals from the Paddington wharfs, upholsterers’ goods in cart loads, organs, pianofortes, linens, jewellery, and every other description of furniture sufficient to have stocked the whole street, were lodged as near as possible to the door of 54, with anxious trades-people and a laughing mob. About this time the Lord Mayor of London arrived in his carriage, and two livery servants, but his Lordship’s stay was short, and he was driven to Marlborough-street Police Office. At the Office his Lordship informed the Sitting Magistrate that he had received a note purporting to have come from Mrs. Tottenham, which stated that she had been summoned to appear before him, but that she was confined to her room by sickness, and requested his Lordship’s favour to call upon her. Berners-street at this time was in the greatest confusion, by the multiplicity of trades-people, who were returning with their goods, and spectators laughing at them.

And two hard-boiled eggs!

(And here’s another summary, and the hoax’s Wikipedia page.)

Annals of 19th-Century Chutzpah

My most recent on-the-bus reading was The Great Pretenders, by Jan Bondeson. In brief, it’s a collection of historic impostors–most of them con artists, but also a couple of accidental impostors who made no claims of their own but became the subject of conspiracy theories after their deaths.

The cases that caught my attention were two tales of purported lost heirs to 19th-century British peerages: The Tichborne Claimant and the Druce-Portland case.

(I first saw the word “claimant” on the spine of Mark Twain’s novel _The American Claimant_. I was a kid at the time, and not knowing what the word meant but seeing the resemblance to “lament” and “climate,” I got the notion that it was about a guy who complained about the weather. As it turns out, _The American Claimant_ is the book where Twain put all the weather in an appendix to obviate the need to mention it during the actual novel. Ah, the irony. It’s enough to make Alanis Morrissette screech unmelodically.)

Anyway. French-speaking, alcohol-abusing Sir Roger Charles Doughty Tichborne was lost at sea in 1864. Years later, a guy turned up in Wagga Wagga, Australia claiming to be Sir Roger. Apparently in the intervening time he had forgotten how to speak French and increased in weight by over two hundred per cent. And yet the claimant–who later turned out to be a butcher named Arthur Orton–still managed to take his case to court. A *lot* of people believed he was Sir Roger. Some of these people were the same kind of people who these days believe the _National Enquirer_ is fine journalism. Some weren’t. Some were people who had known Sir Roger and were happy to testify that he and Arthur were the same guy.

The detail that gets me–the reason I’m writing this post–is the way our pal Arthur financed his lawsuit. He sold bonds. Seriously. For £20 you could buy a Tichborne Bond with the promise that, once “Sir Roger” had his fortune, you’d get a fivefold return on your investment.

And people *bought* them. They bought *£40,000* worth. And the damndest part was that it was apparently legal. It must have been, because a few decades later it happened *again*.

The fifth Duke of Portland (a pathological recluse and a fascinating subject in himself) died in 1879. Years later a woman named Anna Maria Druce claimed that her late husband, Thomas Charles Druce, had been the Duke wearing an unconvincing fake beard, and that her son was therefore the Portland heir.

Mrs. Druce wasn’t the con artist that Arthur Orton was. Actually, she appears to have been genuinely nuts. It’s been just a couple of days since I read Bondeson’s book and already her story is a crazy blur. At one point she claimed that the Duke had for some reason disguised himself as a homeopath named “Dr. Harms” and gotten himself checked into an asylum by pretending to be a dancing bear.

(I badly want to find out more about this thing. Unfortunately, I found just one in-print book about the case–The Disappearing Duke by Andrew Crofts and Tom Freeman-Keel–and on examination it turned out to be worthless… completely unsourced, and full of dialogue which as far as I could tell the authors invented from what’s usually referred to as whole cloth but which in this case probably didn’t even have all its threads.)

Anyway, at one point Mrs. Druce published a pamphlet called _The Great Druce-Portland_ mystery which ended with an invitation to buy “Druce bonds” entitling the bearers to shares in the Portland estate. A few years later another Druce heir turned up–from Australia again, no less–with an improvement: he formed a limited liability company for the sole purpose of suing to claim the Portland fortune.

Passing yourself off as the heir to a fortune takes gall. Taking your purported family to court to get your hands on takes *unmitigated* gall. Forming a startup company to sell shares in the fortune to finance the legal campaign to take your purported family to court takes gall, unmitigated gall, and chutzpah. You just don’t get this class of con artist anymore.

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