Night Of The Living Dead

10 31 halloweenToday is Halloween. For some it has it’s roots in Pagan festivals such as the Gaelic Samhain, the Welsh Calan Gaeaf or the Cornish Allentide. For others it is a festival of purely Christian origin. Either way, it’s definitely about death. At the end of October everything around you seems to be dying. The leaves are falling from the trees, plants wither away, even the sun is not looking too good. It’s really not surprising that, gathered around a fire, surrounded by flickering shadows and contemplating the long winter ahead, the thoughts of our ancestors turned a bit morbid.

The transition between the very end of harvest and the darker half of the year was seen as a liminal time, which means ‘on the threshold’. Celtic people believed whatever separated our world from the world of gods, powerful spirits and the dead became less distinct. For Gaelic people this meant that the aos sí, the fairy folk, could easily pass into our world. So you had to be pretty careful. Gaelic fairies are not at all like the ones you meet in children’s fairy stories. They are volatile and capricious. If you left offerings of food and drink outside their dwellings at Samhain, they might allow your livestock to survive the winter. The aos sí lived underground, beneath great mounds of earth. When the mounds were excavated in later times by archaeologists, they were found to be ancient burial mounds. So likely the aos sí are a folk memory of ancient, long dead ancestors. This explains why people also believed Samhain was a time when their dead relatives might be able to return to them. This doesn’t seem to be something they were afraid of. Candles would be left burning to guide the dead back home.

10 31 horseFrom at least the sixteenth century, the celebrations often included people dressing up and going form house to house asking for small gifts in return for a verse or a song. In some areas of Ireland and Wales, they also brought along the decorated skull of a horse. In the early 1850s, a man named William Hackett of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society describes a parade of youths, blowing cow horns and led by a man dressed in a white sheet topped with a horses head. The poem they recited, he said, was obviously pagan and contained two names that would not be tolerated, had they been uttered elsewhere. Mysteriously, he goes on to say that archaeologists will know which names he means. I, however, do not know. The homes visited by such processions could expect good fortune as a reward for their gifts or terrible disasters if they refused to comply. Perhaps originally the visitors represented the fairies or the souls of the dead and were accepting gifts on their behalf. It’s easy to see how the tradition of trick or treating might have come about. The Halloween lanterns, which were carved from turnips and carried on the procession, may have represented the souls of the dead. But perhaps they were just added to make the whole ordeal seem more frightening.

10 31 mirrorAs well as honouring the dead, people also believed that the blurring of the world of fairies and magic with our own gave them powers of divination. There are many games and customs associated with Halloween which are about predicting who a person will marry, or who will die in the following year. Roasting nuts over a fire was supposed to indicate whether your lover would be faithful or not. If the nut cracks or jumps, that is not a good sign. Apples were often used in divining your future spouse. If you could cut off the peel in one single length and throw it over your shoulder, the way it landed would reveal the first letter of your future partner’s name. Or if you ate an apple while gazing into a mirror, their face would appear behind your shoulder. If you saw a skull however, it meant that you would die before you married. Most of these seem to have been games played by young women, but the Scottish poet Robert Burns tells us about one played by men. Three luggies (dishes) would be placed on the hearth. One contained clean water, one dirty water and the third was empty. Each man would be blindfolded and asked to dip his fingers in one of the bowls, which had been shuffled about to prevent cheating. If he chose the bowl of clean water, he would marry a maid, the dirty water meant he would marry a widow and the empty bowl, that he would die a bachelor. Speaking as a widow myself, I don’t much care for being likened to a bowl of dirty water, but luckily, we live in more enlightened times.

Death was very much on the minds of people celebrating Calan Gaeaf in Wales. There, everyone would write their names on stones and place them around a bonfire. When the fire died down, everyone would run home because there was an evil spirit about. This spirit took the form of a tailless black sow and a headless woman who would devour their souls, which is pretty disquieting. In the morning, they would go back and look at the stones. If anyone’s was missing, it meant that they would die in the following year.

10 31 allantideApples feature very heavily in the Cornish Halloween festival of Allentide, named for Saint Allen, about whom we know nothing. The most important part of the celebration was the giving of shiny red apples to family and friends as tokens of good luck. There was a time when no child would sleep happily on Halloween night without an Allen Apple tucked safely beneath their pillow. Apples are a pretty big feature of Halloween in general. Bobbing for apples is well known, but we came across a more dangerous version associated with Allentide. A cross would be made from two pieces of wood and four candles would be placed on each arm of the cross. It would be hung from the ceiling with apples dangling on strings underneath. The purpose was the same, to get a bite of the apple, but if you weren’t quick enough, the hot wax from the candles would drip in your face.

10 31 danse macabreSome of the older Christian beliefs connected with Halloween are no less disturbing. All Hallows Eve was a day to pray for the souls of the recently departed. You might find groups of men dressed in black walking the streets and ringing a mournful sounding bell to remind us all about it. People believed that the souls of people who had died during the year could not get to heaven until All Saints Day on November 1st. So if any of the dead had any grievance with you, Halloween was their last chance to get at you. So it was best to go about in disguise on that day. It was also possible that all the dead could rise up from their graves on that night, for a wild and hideous carnival known as the Danse Macabre. The image features in many medieval church decorations and reminds us that whoever we are, death awaits us all.


10 30 orson wellesToday is the anniversary of the 1938 CBS radio broadcast of ‘The War of the Worlds’ which was directed and narrated by Orson Welles. It was one of a series of plays called ‘Mercury Theatre on the Air’, broadcast live between 8 and 9 pm Eastern Standard time on a Sunday night. History would have you believe that it caused nationwide panic and hysteria. This is not really true.

The play was an adaptation of the 1898 novel of the same name by H G Wells about a Martian invasion of Earth. The play used a modern setting and transferred the action from the south of England to New Jersey. The broadcast almost didn’t happen at all. Five days before it was due to air, its writer, Howard Koch, was finding it almost impossible to adapt the novel into a play. Together with his secretary and producer he managed to work out a script, but it was still quite boring. Welles heard a recording of the first draft two days later and thought it needed more urgency and excitement; eyewitness accounts and newsflashes. The script was reworked overnight and the names of real people and places were added. But CBS thought that made it too real and several had to be changed, which was probably just as well. The following day, Saturday, the play was rehearsed with a sound effects team and on Sunday the orchestra arrived and they were all set for their live broadcast of the play.

10 30 martian attackThe programme was listed in the Sunday newspapers as a drama and the New York Times had it among their leading events of the week as “Tonight – Play: H G Wells War of the Worlds.” It was also stated clearly at the beginning of the broadcast that it was a play. Yet popular myth makes us think that everyone who listened to it believed that they were really being invaded by Martians. The first two thirds of the drama are presented as new flashes interspersed with musical interludes. If you tuned in during this part, as some people clearly did, it would be easy to believe that you were listening to a news story unfolding in real time. Though if you were paying attention, you might notice that events escalate rather quickly. But radio was in its infancy and perhaps people weren’t wise to that sort of thing.

Just over half an hour into the performance, the station supervisor received a telephone call asking him to interrupt the broadcast to make an announcement about its fictional content. With the planned break less than a minute away, he waited. The planned break announcement clearly stated that it was a play. By this time a few policemen had begun to arrive. Soon the room was full of policemen, and CBS employees struggled with them to prevent them from breaking into the studio and stopping the show. As the play ended, the producer’s phone began to ring. It was the mayor of a mid-western town who was furious because he said there was rioting in the streets. But he had to hang up on the angry mayor, because, at that moment, the police burst in. Everyone involved in the play was hustled straight into a back room and locked in. Meanwhile other network employees gathered up all scripts and records of the broadcast and either destroyed them or locked them away.

Then, the press were let loose on the cast. They were faced with a barrage of questions. How many deaths did they think they had caused? Did they know about the riots? The traffic accidents? The suicides? Of course, they had been shut up in a studio and didn’t know anything. They were mortified. The station’s telephone switchboard was jammed with incoming calls and Welles thought his career was over.

The cast were eventually let out by a back door and Welles went straight to an all night rehearsal of a play at the Mercury Theatre that was due to open the following week. One of the cast members arrived late, shortly after midnight, and told everyone that the news about War of the Worlds was being flashed in Times Square. They all went out to have a look. The lighted bulletin that surrounded the New York Times building read: “ORSON WELLES CAUSES PANIC.”

After the night rehearsal, Wells had only three hours sleep before he was called to a press conference. Reporters accused him of making his play too dramatic. While he was very sorry, and not a little surprised, to hear that his broadcast had caused so much upset, he does point out it is not the business of a melodrama to be more boring than real life.

While there was some panic amongst listeners, particularly those who had tuned in part way through, the widespread hysteria was largely an invention of the press. Very few, if any, people believed America was being invaded by Martians, because people aren’t generally that stupid. In 1938 the world was an uncertain place, teetering on the brink of world war. Radio broadcasts were often interrupted by news from Europe. For the most part, the people contacting radio stations, newspaper and the police thought that the Germans were invading New York. If you missed the bit where they mentioned the Martians, this could be an easy mistake to make. Many newspapers assumed that all the phone calls and scattered reports of people fleeing their homes was evidence of a mass panic. In fact, this kind of reaction was not a common one. There was a problem in the town of Concrete, Washington, where the broadcast coincided with a power blackout. This meant that the phone lines were also down and they were unable to call friends to calm their fears, or hear the assurance that it was just fiction. So people were pretty upset there. Once the press heard about it, their experience was soon known all over America.

The New York Times would have us believe that the streets of the city were heaving with people anxious to leave town. Yet a reporter from another newspaper remembers, as he sped in a taxi towards the CBS studio that evening, that the streets were almost deserted. Only a tiny amount of listeners had actually heard the broadcast, and if they had anything to complain about it they had mostly forgotten about it in a few days. Newspapers, on the other hand, went on and on for weeks about what a terrible and unreliable thing radio was.

It’s interesting to learn that, in the late thirties, newspapers were losing a lot of advertising revenue to the new medium of radio. So they had a vested interest in discrediting it. Meanwhile, a short and hastily written play that was heard by almost no one, secured Welles’s fame as a dramatist.

Night At The Museum

photo credit: daniel torres jr.
photo credit: daniel torres jr.

On this day in 1964, a pair of amateur jewel thieves, Allan Kuhn and Jack Murphy, broke into the American Museum of Natural History in New York and got away with stones worth $410,000. The gems were part of the Morgan-Tiffany collection and included the ‘Star of India’, a star sapphire the size of a golf ball. It is one of the largest such stones in the world. Also taken were the Midnight Star Sapphire which is a large violet stone, the DeLong Star Ruby, the Eagle Diamond, several emeralds, two large aquamarines and over a hundred other natural diamonds. Historically speaking, the collection was priceless, but because the premiums were prohibitively high, it was not insured.

Murphy and Kuhn, along with their accomplice Roger Clark, had come to New York from Miami to visit the World’s Fair. They also saw a film, Topkapi, which is about a jewellery theft at a Museum in Istanbul. The prosecution would later suggest that they were inspired by the plot. When they visited the City’s Natural History Museum and saw the gems, they began to hatch their plan. They made frequent visits to the museum and thought they could easily get in by climbing up the outside and getting in through a window.

It does seem to have been remarkably easy. They climbed over an eight-foot fence and up a ladder on the outside of the building. This took them up to the fourth floor, where the Gem Hall was situated. From there, they climbed to the floor above, tied a rope to a pillar and used it to swing down to a window ledge. Every one of the nineteen sash windows of the Gem Hall had been left open. A gap of two inches at the top provided ventilation. It was an easy matter to slide down the window and get in. Using a glass cutter, they emptied a case of diamonds and a case of emeralds. Then, they turned their attention to the case containing the Star of India, the DeLong Ruby and the Midnight Star. Here, the glass cutting went less well and they had to smash their way into the case. It was noisy, but no one seemed to hear. When they lifted the Star of India from its display, they saw a needle pop up. It was the only stone that had been attached to an alarm. When they heard nothing, they assumed it was a silent alarm and left quickly with their haul. In fact the battery on the device had been dead for months and no alarm sounded anywhere.

The theft was not discovered until the following morning. No prints were found, but the men hadn’t been very discreet about their operation. The place where they had been staying was soon found and searched. There, the police found a floor plan of the museum, books about gems and their accomplice Roger Clark. He told them that Murphy and Kuhn had flown to Miami. There was a bit of a fiasco in which they were all arrested, released on bail and then arrested again for a different crime. Then the police were faced with the problem that the men they had under lock and key were the only ones who could help them recover the jewels. Kuhn was allowed to return to Miami under a heavy police escort. The case had been highly publicised and they found themselves struggling to stay one step ahead of the reporters that pursued them everywhere. On January 8th 1965, two bags were recovered from a locker at Miami’s bus station. Inside were the Star of India, the Midnight Star, five emeralds and two aquamarines. The ruby and smaller gems were still missing.

The three men were sentenced to three years on Riker’s Island for their crime. The DeLong Ruby was recovered eight months later, after a $25,000 dollar ransom was paid, from inside the roof on a Miami telephone box. The Eagle Diamond and other smaller stones were never recovered.

Most of the stones taken in the robbery have a well documented provenance, we know where they came from. This is not so with the Star of India. We know that it was mined in Sri Lanka. George Frederick Kunz, who acquired it for the collection, told us that it had a three hundred year history, but he never told us what it was or how he got hold of the stone in the first place. Perhaps October 29th 1964 was not the first time it was stolen.

Crime And Punishment

A Serenade of 'Rough Music'My favourite fact for October 28th is an event mentioned by Robert Chambers in his Book of Days. It involves a form of punishment meted out by a community on one of its members. Although it can happen at any time, Chambers tell us that he definitely heard of it happening on this day, though he doesn’t tell us where or to whom. But it’s pretty good, so let’s go with it.

Known as ‘Riding the Stang’ in the north of England and ‘Rough Music’ in the South, in this instance it was a punishment for a husband who mistreated his wife. It was intended to draw attention to the person, humiliate them and generally make them take a long, hard look at themselves.

Everyone would gather together all their pans, kettles, tin lids, shovels, buckets, pokers, cow horns, really anything they could find that would make an awful noise when rattled and banged. Then they would go to the persons house in the early hours of the morning and give them a bit of a concert. They would also shout and jeer and implore the miscreant to show himself. Often the proceedings would be led by someone who took the part of a herald who would read the charges in the form of a short poem, with the crowd joining in where appropriate. Here is an example:

Ran, tan, tan; ran, tan, tan,
To the sound of this pan
This is to give notice that (insert name)
Has beaten his good woman!
For what, and for why?
‘Cause she ate when she was hungry,
And drank when she was dry.
Ran, tan, ran, tan, tan;
Hurrah hurrah! for this good woman!
He beat her, he beat her, he beat her indeed,
For spending a penny when she had need.
He beat her black, he beat her blue;
When Old Nick gets him, he’ll give him his due;
Ran, tan, tan; ran, tan, tan;
We’ll send him there in this old frying-pan;
Hurrah hurrah! for his good woman.

Unsurprisingly, it’s also known as ‘rantantaning’. This treatment could go on for several days. Sometimes they would build an effigy of the person and tie it, facing backwards, to a mule and parade it around the town. Sometimes the offender himself would be hoisted onto a pole and carried about. It’s really the same thing as being rode out of town on a rail. Chambers assures us that, in the case he describes, the community managed to achieve what the local constabulary and magistrates had failed to do. They reformed a brutal husband. Of course, whether this is a good thing or not rather depends on what your fellow villagers decide is a bad thing.

10 28 drunkard's cloakRobert Chambers helpfully provides us with a list of other punishments that have used public humiliation as the key to reform, such as the stocks and pillory which had all been banned by 1862. There was one we hadn’t heard of though. It is the ‘Drunkard’s Cloak’. Drunkenness had been made an offence in 1551, and was particularly frowned upon during the Commonwealth. The culprit was forced to parade around the town wearing a barrel. It was also known as a Newcastle Cloak. It looks pretty uncomfortable and quite heavy. It would definitely stop you drinking though, as there’s no way you could get a glass up to your mouth when you’ve got a barrel on.

Seasoned Traveller

10 27 ida pfeifferToday I am celebrating the life of Ida Pfieffer who died on this day in 1858. She had a fairly unassuming but difficult life until she was forty-five. Then she became an explorer, she journeyed alone and went around the world, not once, but twice. She travelled a total of 150,000 miles over sea and 20,000 miles over land.

Ida was born in Vienna in 1797 and grew up with five brothers. She enjoyed all sorts of sports and outdoor games and was allowed to dress in boy’s clothes and she dreamed of a life of adventure. When she was nine, her father died and her mother tried to make her wear dresses instead. She was so upset by the idea that she made herself ill. Her boys clothes were returned to her on the advice of her doctor. She didn’t really take to female attire until she was thirteen. Around that time her mother employed a tutor for her. As they later fell in love, these two events are probably not unconnected.

Unfortunately, they were forbidden to marry and she eventually married a lawyer called Mark Pfeiffer when she was twenty-two. He was twenty-four years older than her and had a grown up son. Pfeiffer lost his job after exposing corruption amongst government officials. Then he managed to lose the money she had inherited from her father by lending it to someone who didn’t pay it back. She struggled to support herself, her two sons and sometimes her husband by teaching drawing and music. When her mother died in 1831, she inherited enough to give her sons a good education and have a little left over. Her husband died in 1838 and once her sons had grown up and left home, she started to make travel plans.

When she told everyone of her plans to visit the Holy Land, they thought she was mad. So, in 1842 she told them she was off to visit a friend in Constantinople. She set off there by way of the Danube and the Black Sea. But then she went on to Syria and Palestine, then back via Egypt, Sicily and Italy. She was gone for nine months. The book she published of her travels funded her next journey. Her style of writing is pretty straightforward and matter-of-fact. She can be a little judgemental sometimes but often she is surprisingly open-minded, considering the time she was writing. In Constantinople, she found the Turkish people more honest than the Europeans she met, which was not a commonly held opinion.

In 1845 she travelled through Iceland and Scandinavia. This time, as well as publishing her journals she also sold geological and botanical specimens that she had collected along the way. She seems to have found the people she met kind and helpful for the most part. Though in Iceland, she found the diet rather dull and admitted that it was her ‘misfortune not to be fond of fish’.

10 27 ida dressed for travelThe proceeds from that expedition funded a much grander plan. In May 1846, she set off around the world. She told her family that she was only going to Brazil. She did go to Brazil, but from there she went round Cape Horn, across the Pacific to Tahiti, then on to China, across India, Persia and Asia Minor, back to Constantinople and down to Greece, before returning to Vienna in November 1848. Her account of this journey was published as ‘A Lady’s Voyage Round the World.’ It was extremely successful and was translated into both English and French. Her journals are packed with details about her journey. We learn that monkey is much nicer to eat than parrot. At Cape Horn, when the captain told her that on one journey, the current was so strong that his ship: “danced, turning round in the passage at least a thousand times.” Far from being afraid, she was disappointed that the ship didn’t turn even once.

This was still not enough for Ida. In 1851, with a grant of £150, she set off around the world again, this time in the other direction. She travelled to Capetown, then on to Singapore and Borneo. Here, against the advice of others she visited the Dyak tribe, who were known to be headhunters. When she met them and saw their display of shrunken heads, she thought the Europeans had really done far worse things in their history. Ida found the Dyak to be good-natured and honest and said: “I should be inclined to place them, in these respects, above any of the races I have ever known.”

In Sumatra, again against the wishes of her advisers, she met with the Batak. They were known cannibals who had never let any Europeans into their territory. They treated her as an object of curiosity and passed her from tribe to tribe. She was uncomfortable, as they made it clear they might eat her. But she managed to persuade them that she was far too old and tough to make a good meal. From Indonesia, she recrossed the Pacific to California, travelled down to South America, then up to New Orleans, onward to the Great Lakes and Niagara, over to New York and back across the Atlantic, arriving in Liverpool in 1854. She travelled home via the Azores, where she visited her son.

Her last trip was to Madagascar in 1857. She accidentally became involved in a coup and was imprisoned for a time by Queen Ranavalona. On her journey home, she contracted malaria, from which she never recovered. She died in Vienna, a year later.

Ida Pfeiffer had dreamed of adventures and travelling the world as a child. Although she had to let go of those dreams for a long time, the financial hardships she endured during her marriage coupled with her boisterous upbringing gave her the confidence to face the many challenges she encountered. I love it when I come across a woman who, freed from the shackles of domestic responsibility, manages to build a whole new life for herself. Ida is all the more remarkable for having done it all in the mid-nineteenth century.

A Warning From History

10 26 bluebeardUnusually today, I am celebrating someone’s death. Gilles de Rais was executed on this day in 1440 and, if the charges brought against him were true, the world was a better place for it. He was accused and found guilty of torturing and killing perhaps over a hundred children between 1431 and 1440. No one knows how many. I have no desire to go into the nature of these crimes, and beyond a certain point, I cannot do so, as many of the details were so shocking that they were stricken from the record.

What I can do is take a look at his increasingly odd behaviour that led up to the point where he thought it would be okay to lure children into his castle and murder them. De Rais was born into a wealthy family. His parents both died when he was ten and he was raised by his maternal grandfather. He inherited a great deal of wealth and acquired more through his marriage to Catherine de Thouars in 1420.

De Rais was a soldier who fought bravely alongside Joan of Arc and seems to have saved her life more than once. He was recognised for his valour following the siege of Orleans in 1429. He even officiated at the coronation of King Charles VII. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431 and, although he wasn’t present, he seems to have gone a bit wrong after that. The following year his grandfather died, leaving the sword and breastplate that should have gone to Gilles to his younger brother René. It was a protest against Gilles’s profligate spending of his fortune. It didn’t stop him because the year after that, he’d sold most of his property and was down to his last two castles.

By 1434 he had left the army to pursue his own interests. He built a Chapel of Holy Innocents, where he officiated wearing robes of his own design. He also poured a lot of his financial resources into a mystery play about the Siege of Orleans. The play had 140 speaking parts and required 400 extras. He also provided unlimited food and drink for his audience and lavish costumes that were worn once, discarded and made anew for subsequent performances. His family became increasingly concerned about his spending habits and gained a royal edict that forbade him from selling any more property and anyone else from doing business with him.

In 1435 he fled to Brittany and by 1438, according to witnesses at his trial, he had become involved with the occult. He was trying to use alchemy to summon a demon in the hope that it could restore his wealth. When the demon failed to appear, he was asked for, and happily provided, the body parts of a child as a sacrifice. He was arrested and tried in 1440 after he kidnapped and imprisoned a cleric. He was sentenced to be hanged and the burned along with two of his servants, but spared the burning part at the last moment.

His daughter Marie built a memorial on the site of his execution, which oddly became a place of pilgrimage for pregnant mothers who wished to pray for an abundance of breast milk. There have been efforts in recent years to exonerate Gilles de Rais and many have suggested that the charges were made up by his enemies. I am very wary of absolving anyone who may have been guilty of such horrific crimes. I also think it’s as well to be circumspect when looking at people who are apparently very public spirited, dress flamboyantly and enjoy the company of children.

10 26 fitcher's birdThe crimes of Gilles de Rais are often thought to be the inspiration behind the story of Bluebeard, a man who murders not children, but his wives and hides their bodies in a cellar for his subsequent wives to discover. Quite when or why it was decided that murdering wives was less of a problem than murdering children isn’t clear. It seems the same to me. It’s an extremely bloodthirsty story and it’s heroine is rather a passive character who is eventually rescued by her brothers. If you’re looking for a heroine with a bit more about her, have a look at Fitcher’s Bird, which clearly has the same roots as Bluebeard. She fools her murdering magician husband, rescues her sisters, escapes in disguise and lures him to his death with a decorated skull.

Band Of Brothers

10 25 agincourtToday is Saint Crispin’s Day which, if you know your Shakespeare, you might recognise as the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. This was a battle in which the English army, led by King Henry V, beat the French. The odds were against the English. They had just fought another battle at Harfleur, were ravaged by dysentery, had marched for miles and were outnumbered six to one. The English won mainly because they were pretty great with a longbow. King Edward III had made a law that every man in England must practise his longbow skills every Sunday. There is evidence of where the practice grounds were all over the country in places called things like ‘Butt Road’. A butt was the name for a target. Hence, the people of Shepshed, Leicestershire who live on Butthole Lane are very proud of its name and refuse to change it, despite all the jokes.

But I digress, The Battle of Agincourt is also famous because of the rousing speech Shakespeare gave to the king in his play Henry V. It’s all about how much more glorious their victory will be because there are so few of them and how everyone at home will be sorry they missed it. It ends like this:

And gentlemen in England, now a bed,
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here;
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon St. Crispin’s day.’

10 25 crispin and crispinianAs for Saint Crispin himself, we don’t know much about him. He shares his feast day with his twin brother Crispinian. They fled from Rome, or from Canterbury, after their father was killed. In some stories they settled in Soissons in France and in others in Faversham, Kent. They preached Christianity in the day and at night, they earned their living making shoes. Perhaps they provided cheap shoes for the poor, perhaps an angel provided them with leather. They seem to have been martyred some time in the third century. The story of their martyrdom includes them having thongs cut from their flesh and being thrown into the sea with millstones around their necks. Also maybe the man who was torturing them became so angry and frustrated that he fell into a vat of boiling oil.

None of these vague stories explain why they were martyred or how they came to be venerated. But they became the patron saints of shoemakers. Anyone who made shoes got a day off to celebrate Saint Crispin’s Day and choose from among their number, a King Crispin. Emperor Charles V once tried to get his shoes fixed on Saint Crispin’s day and found himself invited to a massive party instead. The only other interesting reference I could find to Saint Crispin’s day celebrations was in the town of Tenby in Wales, some time previous to 1858. The people of the town would build an effigy of the saint on the eve of his feast day and hang it from a steeple. The next day they would cut it down and carry it round in a procession to visit every shoemaker in town. There, they would read a document which they said was the last will and testament of Saint Crispin and leave behind an article of the effigy’s clothing in what Robert Chambers tells us was ‘a memento of the noisy visit’. When there was nothing left of Saint Crispin but his padding, they made it into a football and kicked it round the town until they were tired. I don’t think this was meant to be an honour to Saint Crispin or the shoemakers. Possibly the shoemakers didn’t think so either because they used to do exactly the same thing to Saint Clement on his feast day. Saint Clement is the patron saint of blacksmiths. I can only assume that the shoemakers and blacksmiths of Tenby didn’t get on.

Roll Out The Barrel

10 24 annie taylor and her barrelAnnie Edson Taylor was born on this day in 1838 in Auburn, New York. On October 24th 1901, her sixty-third birthday, she was sealed into a large barrel along with a mattress, a 200 pound anvil and her favourite heart-shaped pillow. She was then set adrift in the Niagara River on her historic journey over the famous Horseshoe Falls.

Annie worked most of her life as a teacher. Her husband had died during the Civil War when she was only twenty-five and their only son died in infancy. She moved around from place to place and in 1901 she was living in Bay City Michigan. As she approached retirement, with her savings dwindling, her future was far from financially secure. She feared spending the remainder of her life in the poorhouse. Probably thinking that she didn’t have much to lose, she came up with a plan that she thought would win her fame and fortune, if she survived. She would be the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

She found a barrel making company who were reluctant to take on the job once they found out what she wanted it for, but eventually supplied her with a custom designed, sturdy oak barrel. Then she contacted Frank M Russell, a well known promoter of carnivals in the Michigan area, who would handle her publicity. Russell contacted the papers in September and in early October the barrel went on display in a local store.

Russell was told that if Annie Taylor should be killed in her attempt, he would face manslaughter charges in both the US and Canada. On October 19th his wife gave an interview to the Bay City Times stating that her husband was making a test run over the falls with an empty barrel. The following day, it was revealed that the barrel had not been empty. There was a cat in it. That day’s newspaper report tells us that the cat sprang out unharmed when the barrel was opened and that the barrel itself was undamaged..

10 24 after her trip over the fallsAnnie Taylor climbed into her barrel on the afternoon of October 24th. It was weighted with an anvil to keep it floating upright and padded inside with a mattress. The lid was secured and the barrel was pressurised using a bicycle pump. She was cast adrift at 4.05 pm and went over the falls at 4.23 pm. Anxious onlookers downstream waited to catch sight of the barrel, or signs of its wreckage. The barrel was hauled from river below the falls at 4.40 pm. No one expected that Annie would have survived her daredevil plunge. But when the lid was opened, she was not only alive, but conscious. They had to saw through part of the barrel to get her out, but she was able to walk with some assistance. Physically she suffered only a cut behind her right ear and later a pain between her shoulders which had been thrown back in the fall. She was very shaken and had this to say about her experience: “If it was with my dying breath, I would caution anyone against attempting the feat… I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces than make another trip over the Falls.”

Sadly Annie didn’t really achieve the fame and fortune she hoped for in her lifetime. Although she was the first person to ride the Falls in a barrel, a sixty-three year old lady was not really the hero everyone was looking for. Her manager, Russell, ran away with her barrel and displayed it alongside a completely different and more glamorous lady, claiming that she was Annie Taylor. The real Annie spent the rest of her days scratching a living selling souvenirs and posing for photographs with tourists.

The second person to survive going over the falls in a barrel, a man named Bobby Leach, did gain some fame and notoriety from his feat. However, whilst on a publicity tour in New Zealand, he slipped on a piece of orange peel and broke his leg. He later developed gangrene and, although his leg was amputated, he died as a result. So perhaps Annie did get the better deal in the end.

Also I cannot talk about things going over Niagara Falls without mentioning that in 1827, a hotel owner called William Forsyth bought himself a schooner. Into it he put a buffalo, two small bears, two raccoons, a dog and perhaps two foxes, fifteen geese, and an eagle. He set it adrift above the Falls. I don’t know why. I don’t want to know, but it happened. The bears swam to safety, presumably the geese and eagle flew away. The other animals did not fare so well. People are weird.

Lost In Time

10 23 swatch .beat timeOn this day in 1998, in a colossal act of hubris, the Swatch company announced that they were going to restructure time. They felt that having twenty-four hours in a day, sixty minutes in an hour and sixty seconds in a minute was a bit confusing and untidy. Swatch wanted to decimalise time. Each day was divided into 1,000 .beats. Each .beat is equivalent to 1 minute and 26.4 seconds. Time would be notated as a three digit number between 000 and 999. So, as we write this it is @775 .beats, that is 775 .beats after midnight. You might have noticed the dot at the beginning of the word .beats, that isn’t a typing error on my part, it’s probably a combination of copyright issues and pretentiousness.

This happened in the early days of the internet and it was intended to be a way of standardising time across the world. There are no time zones with .beat time. Instead, everyone operates on BMT, which stands for Biel Mean Time. Biel, in Switzerland, is the location of Swatch’s headquarters. They felt that communication via the world wide web would be easier if everyone used .beat time. No more confusion, no more missed meetings because people couldn’t work out the time difference between two countries. Swatch produced watches that displayed the time in .beats, they really thought they had something. People didn’t really like it. It’s okay if you’re a computer talking to another computer, but if you’re a human person, it really doesn’t alter the fact that someone, on the other side of the world, trying to contact you at the beginning of their busy working day might be hassling you at bed time.

The following year, they made another gaff. They planned to launch a satellite that would synchronize all .beat watches… from space. Pretty futuristic. They called it the Beatnik satellite (oh dear). Beatnik was also to broadcast messages from Swatch promoting their fantastic new idea of Internet Time. Unfortunately they were using frequencies that belong to amateur radio people and they were pretty upset about it. The use of those frequencies for commercial purposes is forbidden by international treaty. Swatch insisted that they would be sending messages of hope and peace to the world, but others thought it just sounded like junk mail from space. They were forced to abandon the project and instead, donated it’s batteries to the Mir Space Station from which it was to be launched.

10 23 decimal clockDecimalising time seems like a great idea on paper, but it doesn’t really work that well. .Beat time does not allow for daylight saving time. Also, because we travel in an elliptical and slightly irregular orbit around our sun, it is sometimes necessary to add a leap second to our day. Then .beat time is really screwed. The idea has been tried and has failed before. After the Revolution, the French tried to introduce a ten hour day. They divided each hour into a hundred minutes. They pretty much gave up on it after about six months. The problem is really with the size of the time units. If you have a decimal hour equal to 2.4 hours, a decimal minute equal to a little under one and a half earth minutes, and nothing in between, it’s a bit difficult to gauge quite where you are in the day.

Swatch hasn’t completely given up on .beat time. You can still find a converter on their website.

The Train Is Now Leaving The Station

10 22 train wreck at montparnasseToday I am commemorating a spectacular train disaster. I’d like to start by saying that sadly, someone was killed in this accident, so I am dedicating today’s blog post to the memory of Marie-Augustine Aguilard , newspaper seller and mother of two.

On this day in 1895 the Granville to Paris, Montparnasse express train was approaching the Gare de l’Ouest at around four in the afternoon. It was hauling three baggage vans, a post van and six carriages with 131 passengers on board. The train was running a little late, and it’s driver, Guillaume-Marie Pellerin, was trying to make up the lost time by approaching the station rather faster than normal. The air brakes should have brought the engine safely to a halt, but they failed. The conductor should have been able to apply the hand brake, but he was preoccupied with paperwork. The train pulled into the station at between 40 and 60 km per hour (25-37 mph) The train hit the buffers at the end of the track. But the buffers did not stop it. The engine careered across the station’s concourse for around 30 metres (100 feet) before crashing through a 60 centimetre (2 feet) thick wall, over a balustrade and fell into the Place de Rennes 10 metres (33 feet) below. Marie-Augustine Aguilard was working at a newspaper stand outside the station. She was hit by falling masonry and killed instantly. Fortunately, the passenger carriages were at the back of the train and remained inside the station. There were only six other injuries, two guards, a fireman, two passengers and a passer by in the street below.

The engine driver was fined 50 Francs for approaching the station too fast. The guard was find 25 Francs for failing to apply the handbrake. The railway company paid for Marie’s funeral expenses and also provided a pension for her children. The train could not be removed for another forty eight hours. A team of fourteen horses couldn’t shift it and it was eventually lowered to the ground using a winch and then lifted back onto the station. When it was taken to the railway workshops it was found to have received surprisingly little damage. Plenty of people turned up to view the scene of devastation. Many of them took photographs. The picture above was taken by Lévy and Sons . It is one of the most iconic photographs in transport history.

A similar train accident features in a book called ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’ and in it’s film adaptation ‘Hugo’. The book is a work of historical fiction inspired by the life story of film maker, Georges Méliès. It was written and illustrated by Brian Selznick. The film was directed by Martin Scorsese and was the first film he made in 3D. You can see the train crash scene here.10 22 inside station