Dog Head

07 25 saint christopherToday is the feast day of Saint Christopher. For anyone who has ever had a Saint Christopher medallion to protect them on their travels and come to think of it, a fair few who haven’t, I should probably deal with this image first. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Christopher is often pictured with the head of a dog. Probably it is due to a mistranslation. Someone who meant to say that he was a person who came from the land of Caanan (in Latin, Cananeus) accidentally said that he was a dog (canineus). Alternatively it might have been because, in less enlightened times, people thought that there really were tribes of people who had the heads of dogs, who barked instead of speaking and who dined on human flesh. The medieval mind was extremely credulous and people believed all sorts of unexpected things about people from lands far away.

You’ll also notice that Saint Christopher’s tunic is rather short and that his stockings only come up to his knees. This is because Christopher was also a giant. According to wikipedia, he was five cubits tall, that’s seven and a half feet (2.3 metres). If we look at the Golden Legend though, which was written some time in the thirteenth century and much more fun, we find that he was twelve cubits, that’s eighteen feet (just over five and a half metres)

Christopher was in the employment of the king of Caanan but decided that he wanted to serve a more powerful master. He travelled until he met the most powerful king in the world and was received into his court. The king was a Christian and Christopher noticed that he crossed himself whenever the Devil was mentioned. Surely, if the king was afraid, the Devil must be more powerful. So Christopher thought he should be serving the Devil instead and went in search of his new master. He met a group of Knights who demanded to know what he was about. He explained that he was looking for the Devil so he could serve him. So one of the knights said ‘That would be me then…’ and Christopher became his servant. But when the saint found out that his new master was afraid of the cross, he set about finding out about how he could serve God.

He met a hermit who suggested a life of fasting and prayer, but Christopher didn’t think he’d be very good at that. Fair enough really, we expect giants get pretty hungry. Instead he settled on helping people across a dangerous and fast-flowing river. Then one day a child appeared asking to be carried. The tiny boy proved to be so heavy that Christopher was almost drowned. When he set him on the opposite bank the saint said that he didn’t think the whole world would be as heavy as his passenger. The child replied: “You had on your shoulders not only the whole world but Him who made it. I am Christ your king, whom you are serving by this work.”

Saint Christopher was also a martyr and the Golden Legend has a couple of interesting things to tell us about that too. When Christopher refused to worship other gods, a pagan king had him tied to a red hot iron stool which melted like wax beneath him and Christopher was unhurt. Then he had him tied to a stake and made his knights shoot arrows at the saint. But all the arrows stopped short and hung in mid-air. When the king approached to find out what was going on, one of the arrows turned about and shot him in the eye. Christopher explained that the king must cut off his head, mix the saint’s blood with a little earth, apply it to his wounded eye and he would be healed. Christopher was then beheaded and his instructions successfully followed. The Pagan king immediately became a Christian.



07 24 william gilletteToday I want to tell you about William Gillette, who was born in Hartford, Connecticut on this day in 1853. He was an actor who quickly realised that he could earn a lot more money if he was also a playwright and director as well. Luckily he was really good at all three.

He is best known for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. Although he was not the very first to play the part on stage, he was the first to do so with the approval of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In 1893, Doyle had killed off his famous character at the Reichenbach Falls but found that he missed the income that his stories provided. So he started looking at the possibility of putting Holmes on the stage. Doyle wrote a play and approached a couple of people about the leading rôle including Henry Irving but he failed to engage their interest. Reading between the lines, it might not have been very good. Eventually it was sent to Broadway theatre producer Charles Frohman who suggested that Gillette would be the man to help with a re-write.

Doyle agreed on condition that the Holmes character should have no love interest. “Trust me” replied Gillette. At that point he had not read a single word of the Sherlock Holmes Canon. Gillette began to work on the script whilst in San Francisco touring another of his plays. Telegrams flew back and forth between the two which show that Doyle had either got over his misgivings or just given up trying to get his way. Gillette writes “May I marry Holmes?” Doyle replies “You may marry him, or murder or do what you like with him.”

It was Gillette’s play that firmly established many of the props we associate with Holmes character. The magnifying glass, the violin and the syringe are all drawn from the Canon. The famous deerstalker hat had appeared in the illustrations of Sydney Padget in the original Strand Magazine publications. The curved pipe was Gillette’s own addition along with the really fancy dressing-gown that you see in this picture. He also introduced the phrase: “Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow” which would become “Elementary, my dear Watson.” So when we think about what an archetypal Sherlock Holmes would look like it is really Gillette’s vision we are seeing, not Conan Doyle’s.

During the whole writing process Gillette and Doyle had not met in person. When they finally met, much to Doyle’s surprise, Gillette alighted form his train dressed as Holmes and entirely in character. He whipped out a magnifying glass and examined Doyle’s face closely before declaring “Unquestionably an author!” The two became lifelong friends.

Gillette’s play, in which of course he took the leading rôle, was a huge success and was performed many times in both America and Britain. He played the detective around 1,300 times. He even starred in a 1916 silent movie which was believed to be lost until quite recently. It is likely that it was this success and the friendship between the two men that lead to Conan Doyle reviving his famous character in later years. In a story called The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone, Doyle includes the character of Billy the Buttons (a page boy) who was first named by Gillette in his play.

In a 1903 London production of the play, the character of Billy was played by a very young Charlie Chaplin which I mentioned in a couple of earlier tumblr posts back in April and May.

Gillette’s portrayal of Holmes was so popular that he had great difficulty in retiring. He began a farewell tour in 1929 aged 76. It didn’t finish until 1932. His success did allow him to build himself a pretty splendid castle for himself in Connecticut with 24 rooms and it’s own miniature railway. You can read about it here, or even visit if you’re in the area.

Leap Of The Imagination

07 23 steve brodie

On this day in 1886 a man either did or didn’t jump from the Brooklyn Bridge into the East River. Of course you could argue that quite a lot of men didn’t jump from the Brooklyn Bridge on the twenty-third of July 1886, and you’d be right but I’m talking about one man in particular. His name was Steve Brodie.

The bridge, then known as the East River Bridge, had only opened three years earlier and had already claimed one life. The previous year a swimming instructor named Robert Emmet Odlum had attempted the same thing. He intended to prove that one did not die simply from falling, hoping to encourage people who were trapped in a burning building to jump into a net. Sadly,the jump killed him. Brodie began to brag that he could make the same jump and live to tell the tale. His reasons were not so altruistic. He took bets on his survival, including one from a man who offered to set him up in a bar in the Bowery if he lived.

Brodie never told anyone at what time of day he was going to make his 135 ft leap (the equivalent of a fourteen storey building) Witnesses only saw something fall from the bridge and Brodie was certainly pulled from the river by the captain of a passing barge. Many claimed that he had thrown a dummy from the bridge before swimming out from the bank and surfacing near the boat. The New York Times believed him though. They reported that he had practised by jumping from other bridges, piers and the masts of ships. Those who lost their bets were more sceptical but Brodie did collect around $200 dollars (which would be worth around $5,000 today) and also got to open that bar. His bar was decorated with a large painting of his supposed leap and an affidavit from the boat captain who had pulled him from the water. The floor was inlaid with silver dollars, just to make it extra flashy. He loved to tell his story to anyone that would listen, and in 1894 he starred in a Broadway play about his feat called On the Bowery.

Steve Brodie’s name became synonymous with taking a massive and stupid risk. There is even a Bugs Bunny cartoon about him. You can see it here, go on, it’s only about six minutes long. He may or may not also have made another leap from the Niagara Falls in 1889. Though people seem even more sceptical about that than they did about the first one. But you can read about it here.