"...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, September 22, 2014

The Case of the Libelous Yo-Yo

Over ten years ago, an aerial photograph of Barbra Streisand's Malibu mansion was included in over 12,000 images of the California coastline taken as part of a professional project documenting coastal erosion. Streisand somehow got wind of this fact, and in 2003 sued the photographer for invasion of privacy.

At the time she filed the suit, the image of her mansion had been downloaded from the photographer's website a grand total of six times--two of those times by the singer's attorneys. No one else on planet earth knew or cared that this aerial shot of her home was included in the database.

After she went to court, of course, that all changed. When her lawsuit became publicly known, millions of people went to the photographer's website, eager to see what all the fuss was about. This innocuous photo of Streisand's roof went viral, appearing all over the internet. If Streisand had only ignored the photo, it would have gone completely unnoticed. Instead, her own hypersensitive desire to play censor drew all eyes to the offending image.

And she lost the lawsuit, to boot.

Ever since, the phenomenon of someone inadvertently drawing attention to something as a result of their efforts to bury it has become known as "the Streisand effect."

I humbly suggest that the term should be renamed "the William Blennerhassett effect."

William Blennerhassett

At the time our story opens, in the year 1932, William Lewis Rowland Paul Sebastian Blennerhassett had been a member of the London Stock Exchange for the past thirty years. He could trace his family back to the 14th century, when a Blennerhassett had served as Mayor of Carlisle. Numerous Blennerhassetts had served in Parliament. William himself had earned a DSO for his service in Military Intelligence and the Foreign Office.  He had been a delegate to the League of Nations. In the 1920s, he even published two novels set in revolutionary Russia. He was a rich, respected, highly respectable family man, justly proud of his illustrious heritage. Unfortunately, as events would shortly prove, he was also utterly lacking in humor or any sense of proportionate response.

On the morning of May 26, as Londoners read their "Evening Standard," they saw featured within the pages of the newspaper an ad for a yo-yo company. It told the tale of a "worthy citizen" named "Mr. Blennerhassett," who became addicted to playing with yo-yos. It closed with the words, "To-day, he is happy in a quiet place in the country, and under sympathetic surveillance he practises Yo-Yo tricks...So beware of Yo-Yo, which starts as a hobby and ends as a habit."

I'm not sure of the wisdom of an ad that touts its product as a likely gateway to madness and the asylum, but never mind that.

Image via Blennerhassett Family Tree

That day, when our Mr. Blennerhassett went to work, he found himself the target of a great amount of good-natured teasing about his fondness for children's toys and his descent into insanity. He was horrified to be greeted by the same light-hearted mockery when he visited his club.

Blennerhassett was distinguished. Blennerhassett was dignified. Blennerhassett was a pompous ass. He found this raillery quite galling. The more he thought about this appalling insult to his reputation, the more he fumed.

Aside from his slightly unusual name, and the fact that, like the fictional yo-yo maniac, he occasionally lunched at Pimm's, there was no resemblance between the imaginary Mr. B. and the real thing. However, William decided there was nothing for it but to scream for his solicitor and slap these defamatory toy peddlers with a libel suit.

Hell hath no fury like a Blennerhassett scorned. Faster than you could flick a yo-yo, a special jury was called to solemnly sit in the Royal Court of Justice, where our outraged stockbroker hoped to see his grievances redressed.

Prosecution witnesses, when endeavoring to show what damages the plaintiff had suffered as a result of this ad, made the argument that, as members of his profession were forbidden to advertise, this yo-yo ad might be mistaken for an unlawful bit of self-promotion. Therefore, it was "defamatory innuendo."

The defense countered this with, "If you wanted to advertise yourself as a member of the Stock Exchange, would you select a picture of yourself being escorted into a madhouse with a Yo-Yo?"

When the plaintiff himself took the stand, all he could do was pout about how his co-worker's teasing made his workday so unpleasant, he was reluctant to go to the office each morning.

The defense lawyers had great fun with Mr. Blennerhassett.

"Has not the name Blennerhassett been used for years by comic writers, here and in America?"

The plaintiff had to admit the truth of that remark.

"Is the portrait in the advertisement in the least like you?"

Blennerhassett declined to answer that question.

"Do you play Yo-Yo?" they asked him.

"No!" he replied.

He was asked if, like his fictional counterpart, he had ever played golf at Walton Heath?

Again he replied in the negative.

"Were you in the habit of eating lobster at Pimm's?"

"Much to my cost, I'm afraid I was," he replied.

"And are you a regular there for luncheon?"

"Yes," said Blennerhassett.

"When was the last time you ate there?"


"Apart from the name, is that the only matter in which you resemble the gentleman in the advertisement?"

Understandably reluctant to describe himself as a yo-yo addicted maniac, Blennerhassett had to answer in the affirmative.

"Do you know of a single living person who has thought a penny worse of you because of the advertisement for Yo-Yo?"

Blennerhassett was forced to say, "No."

The defense's parting shot was, "Tell me, have you any sense of humour?"

"You must ask other people about that," Blennerhassett huffed.

Luckily, the defense refrained from pursuing the topic with the plaintiff's acquaintances. This could have been embarrassing.

Before both sides had even finished with their evidence, the judge put a halt to Blennerhassett vs. Novelty Sales Services Ltd. The ad in question, he sighed, could not be called defamatory. Judgment was entered for Novelty Sales Services. With costs.

The suit could hardly have been called a complete waste of time. The audience in the courtroom was kept in gales of laughter throughout the proceedings, and the British newspaper-reading public was also greatly amused by it all.

Sadly, all the amusement was directed at William Blennerhassett. His lawsuit, by bringing such attention to him and the dreaded yo-yo ad, did exactly what he had sought to prevent.  Our upright, clean-living, reputable stockbroker transformed himself into a national laughingstock. It took him a long time to live the episode down at the Stock Exchange and his club.

But on the bright side, at least he had the satisfaction of knowing that he brought additional, indelible fame to the grand name of Blennerhassett.


  1. That's hilarious, especially since I had read about Blennerhassett years ago in my studies of intelligence services. He was one of the first officers of the British Army's Intelligence Corps. hH may have lacked a sense of humour but not dedication: determined to get into the army, he lied about being able to ride a motorcycle and nearly killed himself demonstrating it.

    Well, hopefully, he learned his lesson with this trial; though I doubt that he gained much more of a sense of humour from it.

    1. He actually sounded like an estimable fellow in many ways. It's a pity someone with his best interests at heart failed to stop him from making a bit of a jerk of himself.

      But I suppose if they had, I'd be out one blog post!

  2. I agree. It shows what trouble an otherwise fine fellow can get into without a sense of humour.

  3. Apparently the name Blennerhassett had been used by WB Gilbert in one of his Bob Ballads, which is where the creators of the "Yo-Yo" ad got it from.


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