"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, January 26, 2015

Writ in Water: The Enigma of Psalmanazar

"Here lies one whose name was writ in water."
~epitaph for John Keats

Sometime around the end of the 17th century, a young man could be seen wandering through Germany and the Low Countries. He was a poor man, little more than a footloose beggar. He described himself as "a Japanese converted to Christianity." Little was known about Japan at the time, and the youth's habits were odd enough to make people accept he was some sort of exotic foreigner.

It did him little good. No one cared where this ragged, lice-ridden stranger came from, they just wanted him to go away. Having no other options, in Cologne he enlisted in the army of the Duke of Mecklenburg. He gave his name as "George Psalmanazar."

"Psalmanazar" was no ordinary soldier. He made a point of eating nothing but raw meat and herbs and he had an elaborate daily ritual involving facing the rising and setting suns while he chanted in some incomprehensible language that he assured everyone was fluent Japanese. In 1703, this peculiar fellow attracted the attention of an Alexander Innes, chaplain to a Scottish regiment stationed near Mecklenburg's troops. Innes was sharp enough to see at once that "Psalmanazar" was a fraud, and he was unscrupulous enough to utilize the young playactor for his own personal ends. He felt that the unusual achievement of converting a "heathen Japanese" would be very good for his career.

Innes made a great show of baptizing the "heathen." Then he wrote his superior, the bishop of London, a letter relating "Psalmanazar's" remarkable tale, with a few even more baroque additions of his own. In this letter, Innes changed the land of "Psalmanazar's" birth from Japan to the even lesser-known Formosa. He threw in a great deal of self-congratulatory remarks describing his triumph at converting this pagan to the True Protestant Faith. The bishop swallowed it whole, and begged for more. He quickly wrote back urging Innes to bring this exciting new Anglican to London as soon as possible.

Thus is was that this penniless, enigmatic vagrant became a leading light of British society. England has always loved its human curiosities, and you didn't get any more curious than Psalmanazar. He soon proved himself to be not only odd, but highly intelligent, erudite, and charming. He and Innes explained that he had been kidnapped from his native land by Jesuit priests, who sought to take advantage of his talent for languages by training him to be a missionary. He managed to escape their clutches, and, fortunately, fell under the protection of Chaplain Innes.

Psalmanazar delighted the bishop by translating the Church of England catechism into, uh, "Formosan." It was such a hit that he was prevailed upon to write a history of his homeland. In 1704, he produced "A Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, An Island Subject to the Emperor of Japan." It all bore about as much resemblance to the real Formosa as "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" does to Des Moines, Iowa, but fortunately for Psalmanazar, no one around him knew enough about the far-off land to be able to tell. The well-written, colorful, and astonishingly detailed work was a huge success. When it was pointed out that Formosa belonged to China, not Japan, he loftily accused these nitpickers of either lying or being grievously mistaken.

It was his air of certainty that did the most to make his outlandish hoax a success. Psalmanazar later explained that, "There was one maxim I could never be prevailed upon to depart from, viz. that whatever I had once affirmed in conversation, tho' to ever so few people, and tho' ever so improbable, or even absurd, should never be amended or contradicted in the narrative." In other words, if he was a ridiculous fraud, at least he was a consistent one.

Londoners adored Psalmanazar. The clergy delighted in landing such a fascinating convert. Scientists and linguistics experts flocked to study his exotic Formosan language. The titled and wealthy considered it an honor to become his patrons. Everyone was spellbound by the lurid tales of his homeland--human sacrifices, polygamy, cannibalism, and all.

Rather amazingly, Psalmanazar's bizarre heyday lasted until around 1710. Then, he found himself dealing not only with increasing doubts about his story, but with a novelty-hungry public's satiety and eagerness to discard him for new thrills. With his decreasing popularity came a corresponding lack of self-confidence. It all combined to create a perfect storm of personal disaster.

The next few years of Psalmanazar's life are hazy. All we know is that the impostor, humiliated by his public exposure as a fraud, deliberately hid from the world--and himself--in what he later described as "a course of the most shameful idleness, vanity, and extravagance."

By 1715, he had pulled himself together enough to obtain a position as clerk to a regiment of dragoons. He couldn't resist presenting himself as a descendant of Formosan royalty who had been knighted by Queen Anne, but by now such taraddidles scarcely raised an eyebrow. He remained quietly with the regiment for two years, until it was transferred to Ireland. He had become rather disgusted with himself, and sincerely tried to make an honest living. He turned his hand to tutoring, then becoming an artist, then a translator, but nothing worked out for him. His only real talent, it seemed, was one for make-believe. Although by now he was heartily sick of being a faux-Formosan, it seemed to be the one thing people found valuable about him. He was, in a word, trapped.

In 1728, Psalmanazar fell seriously ill. As with so many other people who narrowly escape death, the experience caused him to undergo a long period of solemn soul-searching. He came to bitterly repent his long, wasted years of deception and dissipation, and resolved to spend the rest of his life making amends for his folly.

Although he continued to go under the name of "Psalmanazar," otherwise he was a changed man. His lifestyle became one of saintly asceticism and self-disciplined study. He earned a living by writing--always anonymously--on various topics (including Formosa, where he scornfully attacked the ridiculous falsehoods of George Psalmanazar.) Secretly, he began to write his memoirs, which would prove to be one of the oddest non-confessional confessions on record.

Psalmanazar had gone from goofy charlatan to public sensation to scorned laughingstock to, in his later years, a beloved, even revered figure, greatly admired for his scholarship, dignified demeanor, and purity of character. His friend Samuel Johnson wrote, "Psalmanazar's piety, penitence, and virtue exceeded almost what we read as wonderful in the lives of the saints." Johnson called him the best man he had ever known.

Psalmanazar died on May 3, 1763. With what had become his characteristic modesty and self-denial, he requested that his body "be conveyed to the common burying-ground, and there interred in some obscure corner of it, without any further ceremony or formality...and that the whole may be performed in the lowest and cheapest manner. And it is my earnest request, that my body be not enclosed in any kind of coffin, but only decently laid in what is called a shell of the lowest value, and without lid or other covering which may hinder the natural earth from covering it all around." His funeral was as anonymous as his recorded life had been.

His memoirs were published after his death, as he had instructed. For the first time, he explained how he had concocted an entire language and history of Formosa out of whole cloth. He gave only vague details about his early life. He was probably born around 1679. He described himself as having come from a poor Catholic family in a small village in an undisclosed country--probably, it has been guessed, somewhere in southern France. The local monks gave him a good education, and he was sent to a university to study theology. He showed little interest in the subject, but he discovered he had an extraordinary talent for languages, quickly becoming fluent in six or seven different tongues.

However, he soon tired of the academic life, and left the university to become a tutor. Finding that did not suit him either, at the age of sixteen he set out on his own, apparently with no real goals or plans other than to see the world. He was the only surviving child of parents who would never hear from him again. The directionless young man fell into a vagrant lifestyle that only ended with his transformation into "Psalmanazar."

His only explanation of why he constructed such an outlandish persona was that he thought people would be more likely to give alms to a colorful foreigner. As for why he continued to hide behind it, even after he repented of the deception, all he would say was that "I deserve no other name than that of an impostor." His memoirs gave no hint of his real identity, which is almost certainly lost to us forever. Psalmanazar felt he deserved punishment, and he got it from spending nearly all of his long life as a stranger to everyone around him. He lived, died, and was buried with no one who knew him ever having any idea who he really was.

What an incredibly lonely fate.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Weekend Link Dump

Come on in and fill your plate from this week's link buffet.

The cats think it's finger-lickin' good.

What the hell happened to the owner of this rifle?

What the hell was wandering around Australia in 1932?

Watch out for the spunkies!

Watch out for the walking toads!

Watch out for your lightbulbs!

Are you German?  Watch out for these diseases!

The silver tomb of Psusennes I.

I forgot the suicide pills, and "I'll shoot you first."  Probably the last words anyone wanted to hear on D-Day.

Summary of what little we know about the Green Children of Woolpit, one of history's more baffling and unique stories.  It's a long read, but well worth the time.

Military women in ancient Rome.

More 18th-century Cries of London.

Terror attacks in 1890s Paris.

Some medieval interactive books.

Richard Nixon's hypnotized housekeeper.

Sunday in London with George Cruikshank.

Tommy Mulligan, Coney Island's lighthouse cat.

There's progress in deciphering a carbonized ancient Roman library.

The strange history of a Poe letter.

"The Power of Sympathy," America's first roman à clef.

Meteorites: the universe's hard drives.

The fearless woman.

Books go to war.

The birth of a gypsy, 1820.

A look at the first automatons.

Vincenzo Lunardi, 18th century daredevil aeronaut.

Stunning photographs of life on a Russian farm.

Some haunting mugshots of Victorian child criminals.

A brief history of crochet. "Ladies made happy!"

Victorian men going crazy.

In a related topic, here's a look at life in the Victorian asylums.

And that marks the end of yet another Link Dump.  See you on Monday, with the tale of one of the most mysterious impostors in history.  In the meantime,  here's some Telemann:

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

This lovely story of neighborly friendliness comes to us from the "New York Evening World" for March 4, 1909:

There were peace and quiet and the blessings thereof in the apartment house at No. 137 Main street, Astoria, until Mrs. Louis Kramer bought a phonograph and Miss Laura Fitch, who lives across the hall from her, invested in a green parrot with red trimmings and a black and white cat.

There is an extension roof behind the Fitch domicile, and on this the black and white cat was wont to walk of nights and lift his soul in song. During the day Miss Fitch's parrot hung out of the window and as the bird made the voyage north in the forecastle of a lime-juicer its vocabulary was extensive and profane.

One morning there came to Miss Fitch a polite little note risking her to restrain her parrot by day and her cat by night that her days might be long in the apartment house. Miss Fitch sent back word that providing the Kramers would please turn off their phonograph and trade it for a smoking table or a butter dish she would be glad to do so. Here diplomatic relations were severed and both sides ordered up their artillery.

Mrs. Kramer planted her heaviest gun--the phonograph--in the window opposite Miss Fitch's . Here, in rain and shine it ground out "Because I'm Mar-r-r-ied Now," which was distinctly annoying to Miss Fitch, who has passed the age when women usually contract matrimonial alliances.

Then, according to Mrs. Kramer, Miss Fitch taught her parrot to say, "Wash your dirty kids, wash your dirty kids," and fed it red pepper and lumps of sugar as a reward when Mrs. Kramer appeared at her window and scowled. Miss Fitch says the Kramers rigged up a hose and sprayed her bird with it to douse his spirits. Mrs. Kramer says Miss Fitch retaliated by throwing potatoes at the phonograph. Several of these missiles fell on the head of Louis Anspacher, the janitor, last week while he was doing chores in the backyard, and what he said to Miss Fitch only fed the flame of warfare in that militant little lady's heart.

Mrs. Kramer says that Miss Fitch deliberately allowed her scraggly old black-and-white Tom to go out and serenade all the eligible tabbies in the neighborhood with the express purpose of keeping Mr. Kramer--"a hardworking man if ever there was one"--from his slumbers. Miss Fitch goes as far as to say that Mr. Kramer cultivated his natural tendency to snore till dishes fell from the rack in her kitchen beneath the thunderous diapason of his nose music.

And all the while the phonograph kept wheezing--it had grown wheezy now--"Because I'm-m-m-m m-m-m-mar-r-i-bzzzzz-n-bz-z-z-now-&xx." And the parrot yelled, "Wash your dirty kids! Wash your dirty kids!" urged to a frantic stage by the sight of favorite foods, till its voice grew cracked.

Then the ladles took up letter writing, and today Mrs. Kramer had Miss Fitch summoned to the Long Island City Court to explain why she had written three letters that contained all sorts of unladylike things. Miss Fitch was martial and unashamed when she marched into court. From their station at one site of the magisterial bench the allied forces of the Kramers glared at her.

"Yes, I wrote two of the letters, Your Honor," fearlessly spoke up Miss Fitch. "I guess they stung. I hope they did," and she tucked her umbrella akimbo, as if it were a rifle.

The janitor was in court to testify about the potatoes.

"I guess they gave him 50 cents to do that," commented Miss Fitch.

"Now, you ladies go home," said Magistrate Smith, "and you"--to the janitor--"report to me any further disturbances, and if there are any I shall order the landlord to evict you both."

"I bane sure skall," said the janitor, rubbing his head where the vegetable missiles had hit it.

"H-m-m-m," sniffed Mrs. Kramer.

"Cat," said the Misses Kramers.

"Vulgarians," said Miss Fitch.
I have a suspicion the warfare did not end there, but after this story the battling neighbors disappear from recorded history.

Perhaps that is just as well.  Frankly, Miss Fitch scares the life out of me.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Sinister Disappearance of a Film Pioneer

Louis Le Prince (1841-1890?) is not only one of the most undeservedly obscure people of the modern era, he is also at the center of one of the 19th century’s most intriguing disappearances.

It is a bit of a shock to learn that Le Prince, not Thomas Edison, shot the first moving images on film. In October of 1888, Le Prince filmed two brief moving pictures, “Roundhay Garden Scene,” and “Leeds Bridge,” using a single-lens camera he had developed and George Eastman’s paper film.

So, why has this man never gotten the acclaim he deserved? This is because, on September 16, 1890, he disappeared while traveling on a train from Dijon, France, to Paris. His luggage, stored in a separate compartment, were also never seen again. He vanished before he could stage a planned demonstration of his invention in New York that would have publicized his achievement. As a result, when competing inventors such as Edison and the Lumière brothers developed the ability to create similar films, they were the ones to receive the fame as motion picture pioneers.

Over the years, there have been many theories to explain Le Prince’s disappearance. Many years later, his grand-nephew claimed he killed himself because of financial difficulties caused by many years of investing in his experiments. However, surely his pride in his recent inventions—ones that he knew would likely prove to be very profitable indeed—gave him a powerful motive to live. People have been known to commit suicide for no obvious reason, but this is still a very implausible theory.

An adaptation of this allegation was devised by film historian Jacques Deslandes. He proposed that Le Prince staged his own disappearance because he was nearly bankrupt. A journalist named Leo Sauvage also proposed Le Prince voluntarily vanished.  He suggested (on no known factual grounds,) that the inventor was gay, which would had alienated him from his relatives. However, there is not a trace of evidence supporting the idea Le Prince willingly abandoned his life.  By all accounts, he was a decent person and a loving husband and father, who had no motive to play such a cruel stunt on his family.

Another yarn has it that Le Prince was murdered for his share of an inheritance by his own brother, who was the last person known to see the inventor alive. This speculation is also generally disregarded due to a complete lack of proof.

And now we turn to the most startling theory: Was Le Prince killed over his landmark invention—and possibly at the instigation of his greatest rival, Thomas Edison, a wealthy man who was as powerful as he was unscrupulous?

Certainly, the timing of Le Prince’s disappearance is suspicious. If he had succeeded with his plans for displaying his films in public, it would have been an obvious blow to any rivals in that field. Months after Le Prince vanished, Edison patented his own film equipment—instruments that bore a decided resemblance to his missing competitor’s work—and he thereupon insisted that he, and no one else, deserved credit for inventing the motion-picture camera. There is another connection between Edison and Le Prince that, in light of the latter’s disappearance, has a sinister aspect: The law partners of Clarence Seward and William Guthrie were prominent patent attorneys. They had been friends of Le Prince, and were among the very few people who knew all the details of his experiments with motion pictures. By the time Le Prince vanished, their firm was working for Thomas Edison. (There is evidence that, even before Le Prince was somehow erased from the scene, there was what can only be described as a widespread legal conspiracy to deny him credit for his invention.) When, after Le Prince’s disappearance, his family sought legal help, lawyers usually wound up either ignoring or sabotaging them.

There were other signs that something very strange indeed was going on. Around the time Le Prince vanished, his wife Lizzie, who was innocently awaiting his arrival at the home they were renting in New York, received a visit from a stranger who gave his name as “Mr. Rose.” He was very anxious to see her husband. When he was told Le Prince was not there, he left in evident agitation. Sometime later, he returned disguised as a milkman—a façade Lizzie easily saw through—and again asked about the inventor. When Lizzie indicated she recognized him, and threatened to summon the police, he fled. No one has any idea who this man was, and why he was so anxious to see Le Prince.

A further complication for the family was the fact that they were unable to take legal action defending the priority of Le Prince’s cameras against those of his rivals until he was officially declared dead—which under American law, took seven years. During all that time, Le Prince’s relatives were forced to sit on the sidelines while Edison and others gained credit for inventions they knew he had pioneered. In that sense, Le Prince’s disappearance was far more useful to his rivals than his immediate, unquestioned death would have been.

For what it’s worth, Le Prince’s family, particularly his wife, believed he had been deliberately killed, and that Edison was probably responsible. And the family had not seen the last of their tragedies. In 1898, Le Prince’s son Adolphe, who had been his father’s assistant, testified in a lawsuit the American Mutoscope Company was fighting with Edison. The company wished to use proof of Le Prince’s discoveries to discredit Edison’s claims to have invented the motion picture camera. Mutoscope lost the case, ending the Le Prince family’s hopes for Louis gaining proper recognition for his work. (They eventually won on appeal, but Le Prince’s achievements remained largely overlooked.) Eerily, shortly after the initial negative verdict was announced, Adolphe was found shot dead while out duck hunting. Was it suicide? An accident? Or was Lizzie Le Prince correct in her belief that Adolphe was murdered because he had too much knowledge about his father’s work for the likes of certain important men?

Christopher Rawlence's book “The Missing Reel” is the most in-depth study to date of Le Prince and his puzzling fate.  The author does not endorse the “Edison-did-it” theory, (the very idea clearly unnerved him,) but he does not entirely discount it, either. Rawlence admitted that his research taught him that Edison was “ruthlessly corrupt…resorting to lying, intimidation and dubious business practices when it came to asserting his power.” Rawlence’s own book proves that, if anything, he was under-emphasizing both Edison’s power and his corruption.

A nice example of the methods used by Edison’s team involved an obscure inventor named Thomas Armat. He had created a motion picture projector that was superior to Edison’s flailing kinetoscope. In 1896, Raff & Gammon’s Kinetoscope Company, approached this potential rival with a deal. “No matter how good a machine should be invented by another,” they wrote Armat, “and no matter how satisfactory or superior the results might be, yet we find that the greatest majority of parties who desire to invest in such have been waiting for the Edison machine and would never be satisfied with anything else…While Mr. Edison has no desire to pose as inventor of the machine, we think we can arrange with him for the use of his name to such an extent as may be necessary for the best results.”

In other words, Edison—already a powerful brand name—would “temporarily” present Armat’s camera to the world, and once “the respective rewards” had been reaped, the true inventor would be given his deserved credit.

Armat trustingly agreed, selling Edison his patent. And the Edison empire well and truly stabbed him in the back. They publicly presented the camera, which they named “the vitascope,” as “Mr. Edison’s latest,” and “Thomas A. Edison’s Latest Marvel.” And, until the Edison Company eventually abandoned the vitascope for their newly-developed Projectoscope, an Edison invention it publicly remained. Similarly ugly stories--most famously, his nasty propaganda war against Nikola Tesla and alternating currents--abound in Edison's career.  The "great American hero" was, in short, a double-barreled bastard.

As I said above, whatever Le Prince’s financial status may have been, it hard to believe he would take his own life right when his years of effort and sacrifice to achieve what had become his life’s work were on the verge of paying off. An accidental death also seems highly unlikely.

That leaves us with foul play. The theory that the inventor was killed in order to get him out of the way may sound like something from a bad novel, but it cannot be ignored. The birth of the film industry was just as viciously competitive and conscienceless as Hollywood is today, full of spies, conspiracy, and dirty dealings. A stray murder here and there in order to accomplish what certain types of people see as the “greater good” of furthering their own interests is hardly uncommon. If Le Prince was slain, Edison is the most obvious suspect, but he is hardly the only possible one.  The truth about Le Prince’s end will likely never be known, but his wife was not necessarily deluded in her belief that her husband and son had lost their lives because of their pioneering scientific work.

The only bright spot in this story is that in recent years, Le Prince has received a certain amount of the credit he deserves. Among film historians, he, and not Edison, is known as the “Father of cinematography.”

[Note:  There is a strange footnote to the Le Prince mystery: In 2003, a researcher found in the Paris police archives a photo of an 1890 drowning victim. Some believe this unidentified corpse was the missing Louis Le Prince. If that guess is correct, it still would fail to explain what had happened to him—or his luggage.]

Friday, January 16, 2015

Weekend Link Dump

It's nearly the weekend!  Time to relax with some of your best friends.

Here's this week's links, fresh off the grill:

Who the hell was "J.M.," the WWI soldier who created a remarkable sketchbook?

What the hell happened to the Easter Island civilization?  Now we...maybe know?

What the hell is the Rohonc Codex?

What the hell is wandering around Ohio?

Watch out for those treadmills!

Watch out for those meteorites!

Watch out for those crinolines!

Watch out for those sorcerous werewolf princes!

Watch out for those mysterious mirrors!

Watch out for Busby's Chair of Death!

Oh, just another 96-year-old postmaster being driven around by a pig, a badger, two cats, a goose, & a hedgehog.

Saying goodbye to Ray Bradbury's house.

Slave trading in the Crimea.

And I'm sure Winkles was very deserving of the honor.

One of the earliest cat film performances.

Robbing the ghosts of Westminster Abbey.

At this rate, calling someone a "Neanderthal" will soon be a compliment.

"Pamela" and the Cinderella Complex.

Why it's never a good idea to cheat a ghost.

The latest in the "did humans and dinosaurs live at the same time?" controversy.

Trolling the Middle Ages.

Was Judas an ancient hit man?

Uncovering an ancient Cambodian city.

Some lively doings in old churches.

A guide to satirizing Napoleon.

The Prince of Wales tours the Middle East, 1862.

The dogs of Old London.

I still have my doubts that this ended well.

The ghost paintings of Georgiana Houghton.

The witch vs. the cobbler, 1743.

The mystery of the English Cave.

More weirdness surrounding elongated skulls.

So, would I rather be beheaded, or married?  Tough call.

The lingering effects of paganism.

Can the future affect the present?

The horrors of pognophilia.  With poetry!

How to tell your Buricks from your Buffer Nappers.

Women and 18th century politics.

An Italian murder mystery.

The giant rock that was a favored destination for nicely tanned space aliens.

Dealing with Georgian deformities.

A look at the uncomfortable craze for hobby horses.

An eerily beautiful look at abandoned greenhouses.

A modern demonstration of 17th century makeup.

Fifteen countries, four minutes:

And finally, here's a nice little surprise for those of us who are fans of Joe Ely and Linda Ronstadt: A duet they recorded back in 1987 was recently released for the first time.

See you all Monday, with the sinister Case of the Vanishing Inventor.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

This sad story--which somehow seems so characteristic of the Depression era--is one of the most curious poisoning cases I know. This particular account comes from the "Kingston Daily Freeman," September 4, 1933:
New York.--Two persons were taken ill at almost the same moment in a restaurant at Broadway and One Hundred Fourth street. One was a man, the other a woman. They were strangers.

The man died within a few minutes in the restaurant wash room. The woman died an hour later in Knickerbocker hospital. Autopsies disclosed that both deaths had been caused by cyanide poisoning.

Detectives were of the opinion that the man had committed suicide and that the woman's penuriousness had betrayed her into becoming an unwitting companion in that act.

The man was Henry Jellinek, fifty years old, an automobile mechanic in business for himself. He had a wife and eighteen-year-old son, the latter a student at New York university. Jellinek, the police learned, had been in ill health for several weeks, and was worried over business conditions.

The woman, Lillian Rosenfeld, forty-three years old, lived by herself in a dank cellar apartment of two rooms. She was known there as Lillian Fields. She was a daughter of Simon S. Rosenfeld, a Boston and New York real estate man, who died twelve years ago.

So far as anyone in the house knew, Lillian Fields was almost penniless and had neither relatives nor friends. The janitor, on finding her sleeping in the hallway, obtained permission for her to sleep in the cellar apartment.

Lillian Fields, the janitor said, was always complaining of poverty; begging him for the scraps he had left over at meal time; rummaging in ash cans for anything she could salvage. The only furnishings of her apartment were a rickety bedstead with no mattress and a battered red plush sofa she had found in a vacant lot. And piled high around the walls were hundreds of cardboard boxes.

This is what detectives found when they broke through the window recently. But it was not all. At the time she was stricken in the restaurant they had found on her person a bank book. It showed deposits of $4000 in a savings bank. Hunting among the contents of the boxes they found five more bank books. These showed deposits aggregating $41,000 in other savings banks. Among them was a slip of paper which read:

"In case of accident to Lillian Fields please notify Della Rosenfeld of 38 West One Hundred Twenty-Sixth street."

Della Rosenfeld identified the dead woman as her sister. They had not seen each other for years, she said. Her father at his death, she explained, had left them each $15,000, and soon afterwards they had quarreled because Lillian accused her of being "too extravagant."

It is the theory of the police that Lillian Rosenfeld went to the restaurant--a Horn & Hardart automat--in the hope of finding enough scraps on the plates to save her the expense of buying breakfast, and this is what occurred:

Jellinek, bent upon taking poison, entered the restaurant, dropped a nickel in the slot, and obtained two poppy seed rolls. One of these he broke open, then poured a quantity of cyanide into it; the other he left untouched on the plate. He had eaten only half of the poisoned roll when he was taken ill and went to the wash room. Then Lillian Rosenfeld passed the table. Seeing the rolls on the table, she snatched up the whole one and slipped it into a paper bag. The other she devoured.

If this scenario explaining the dual deaths was correct, it certainly is an illustration of the strangeness of fate.

Or maybe it's just a lesson about what bad manners it is to filch food from other people's plates.

[Note:  If any of my New York readers have a taste for morbid architecture, the automat building is still standing.]

Monday, January 12, 2015

George Hanger, Who Did His Best to Keep the Georgian Era Weird

You have to love a guy who proved to be just too damn much for the likes of George IV. Meet George Hanger, 4th Baron Coleraine, one of my favorite minor eccentrics.

Hanger was born in 1751, as the third son of a wealthy Gloucestershire family. His father Gabriel was an MP who received the title of "Baron Coleraine" in 1762. As was usually the case with upper-class surplus sons, young George was pointed toward a career in the army. After graduating from Eton and the University of Gottingen, he did a brief stint in the Prussian Army before returning to England. In 1771, he bought an Ensigncy in the 1st Regiment of Footguards. It was at around this time that his more colorful qualities began to show themselves: George married a gypsy woman, who soon dumped him for an itinerant tinsmith. As Hanger himself wrote, "I was early introduced into life, and often kept both good and bad company; associated with men both good and bad, and with lewd women, and women not lewd, wicked and not wicked;--in short, with men and women of every description, and of every rank, from the highest to the lowest, from St. James's to St. Giles's; in palaces and night cellars; from the drawing-room to the dust cart...Human nature is in general frail, and mine I confess has been wonderfully so."

Hanger continued his army career, although philandering always remained his dominant interest. In 1776, he purchased a captaincy in the Hessian army, and in that capacity he fought in the American Revolutionary War, eventually transferring to become a major in the British Legion. After a less-than-distinguished performance commanding a legion (and leading it into defeat) at the Battle of Charlotte in 1780 (an experience he airily dismissed as a "trifling insignificant skirmish") Hanger came down with yellow fever, and was sent to the Bahamas for his convalescence. (He claimed to have cured himself with a diet of port wine laced with opium.)

After his return to England, Hanger became great friends with the Prince Regent, who later took the throne as George IV. The prince keenly admired Hanger's quirky sense of humor and appetite for dissipation, and as a reward for this free entertainment, created him Equerry in 1791. Despite this royal favor, Hanger's passion for fancy clothes and general riotous living landed him in debtor's prison in 1798-99. He used this mandatory leisure time to write his memoirs, which were eventually published in 1801.

This utterly delightful work featured a sketch depicting the author suspended on a gibbet, and included such edifying chapters as "Advice to the lovely Cyprians, and Fair Sex in general, how to conduct themselves in future, and to practise with greater satisfaction the three cardinal virtues, namely, Drinking, Gambling, and Intriguing." Among his "advice" was the recommendation that women settle their differences by dueling each other. He urged that ladies, when eloping, should leave through a window, rather than a door. "It will impress your lover with a respect for your heroism, and ever establish you, in his opinion, as a woman of true spirit, courage, and spunk." Hanger also approved of the current fashion for women to wear loose gowns, which he saw as "admirably constructed either for a young lady to conceal a big belly, or a shop-lifter to hide a bale of goods." On a more political note, he proposed a tax on all Scots who spent more than six months out of the year in England.

You thought I was kidding about the gibbet, didn't you?

After Hanger's release from prison (his friends clubbed together to pay his debts,) he decided there was nothing for it but to try to earn an honest living. He horrified his aristocratic peers by setting up business as a coal merchant. He did quite well in the line, too, and enjoyed embarrassing his more snobbish peers by proudly flaunting his career. He supplemented his income by working as a jockey and organizing such stunts as a cross-country race between a flock of turkeys and a flock of geese. (Rather than race, the turkeys opted to roost in some trees along the side of the road, ensuring that the geese won in a walkover.) His friend John Thomas Smith recorded for posterity Hanger's one-day stint as an apple-seller:
I also once heard Lord Coleraine, as I was passing the wall at the end of Portland-road, when an old apple-woman, with whom his Lordship held frequent conversations, was packing up her fruit, ask her the following question:

"What are you about, mother?"

"Why, my Lord, I am going home to my tea; if your Lordship wants any information, I shall come again presently."

"Oh! don't baulk trade. Leave your things on the table as they are; I will mind shop till you come back."

So saying, he seated himself in the old woman's wooden chair, in which he had often sat before whilst chatting with her. Being determined to witness the result, after strolling about till the return of the old lady, I heard his Lordship declare the amount of his receipts by saying, "Well, mother, I have taken three-pence half-penny for you: did your daughter Nancy drink tea with you?"

Hanger also became famous for what a later biographer described as "the train of strumpets, dogs and monkeys" he kept in his lodgings. A contemporary described with disgust Hanger's fondness for "introducing into the best apartments of the most respectable families, his cats, his dogs, and his monkeys, while revelling himself in every species of sensuality." In 1787, the newspapers printed his "Ode to Bacchus," written to consecrate a London saloon. ("Illustrious son of Jove and Semele/To thee we dedicate this pile/Built for the Heir-apparent of your isle/Who must one day/When Death shall call his powers into play/Look on his subjects as a monstrous family...")

Hanger's peculiar personality also made him a favorite for contemporary satirists. Caricaturist James Gillray produced no less than twenty prints mocking him as "Georgey the cock-horse," and "Georgey in the coal-hole." Unfortunately, a contemporary recorded that Hanger's "eccentric manners" became "somewhat too free and coarse" for the Prince Regent's liking, and the two parted ways.

Following the deaths of his father and older brothers, he succeeded to the family title in 1814, but he flatly refused to take his seat in the Irish House of Lords. (He did, however, happily accept the handsome family fortune which came with his accession.) It was said that he "was always somewhat peevish" when others persisted in addressing him by his rightful title, correcting them by saying "Plain George Hanger, if you please." Around this time (the date is unknown,) he married his housekeeper, Mary Anne Greenwood. The couple had one son, John.

George Hanger died of a "convulsive fit" on March 31, 1824. His gravestone describes him as "a practical Christian, as far as his frail nature did allow him so to be."

Can't say fairer than that.

Probably due to the questionable legality of his second marriage, his son did not succeed to his title, thus the baronetcy became extinct. If John was anything like his old man, he probably didn't want it, anyway.

Hanger's obituary in the "Gentleman's Magazine" noted that although he "was free in his manners, he never was inclined to give intentional offence, and the peculiarity of those manners precluded all idea of resentment, and laughter rather than anger was the result of his most extravagant sallies. He was capable of serious exertions of friendship, not by pecuniary sacrifices, for of such his situation hardly ever admitted, but by persevering zeal when he was likely to effect a beneficial purpose...Though disposed to participate in all the dissipations of higher life, he yet contrived to devote much of his time to reading...He was so marked a character that he might be considered as one of the prominent features of his time, and he was courted as well for the peculiarity, as for the harmless tendency of his humour."

Not a bad way to be remembered, really.