In October 1822, Gregor MacGregor, a native of Glengyle, Scotland, made a striking announcement. He was, he said, not only a local banker’s son, but the Cazique, or prince, of the land of Poyais along Honduras’s Black River.
A little larger than Wales, the country was so fertile it could yield three maize harvests a year. The water, so pure and refreshing it could quench any thirst – and as if that weren’t enough, chunks of gold lined the riverbeds. The trees overflowed with fruit, and the forest teemed with game. Painting an exotic, Edenic vision of a new life abroad, his proposal offered quite the contrast with the rainy darkness and rocky soils of Scotland.
What Poyais lacked, he said, was willing investors and settlers to develop and leverage its resources to the fullest. At the time, investments in Central and South America were gaining in popularity, and Poyais appeared to be a particularly appealing proposition.
Scotland didn’t have any colonies of her own, after all. Could this not be a corner of the new world for her own use?…
Gregor MacGregor’s massive fraud and how he brought it off: “The con-man who pulled off history’s most audacious scam” (excerpted from Maria Konnikova’s The Confidence Game).
* John Dryden
As we demur from accepting wooden nickels, we might recall that it was on this date in 1922 that Los Angles police were summoned to the home of silent film director William Desmond Taylor by a call about a “natural death” that had occurred the night before. When they arrived they found actors, actresses, and studio executives rummaging through the director’s belongings… and Taylor lying dead on the living room floor with a bullet in his back.
Mary Miles Minter, a teenager, had become a star in Taylor’s films and had fallen in love with him– much to the dismay of her mother, Charlotte Shelby. After Taylor’s murder, a love note to Taylor from Minter was found in his home, along with her nightgown in the bedroom. Then other damning facts came to light: Minter had once tried to shoot herself with the same type of gun used in Taylor’s murder; Shelby had previously threatened the life of another director who had made a pass at her daughter; and most portentously, Shelby’s alibi witness received suspiciously large sums of money after the murder. Still, no one was ever prosecuted for Taylor’s death– the case remains officially unsolved.
The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification turns ten in 2016. Created by artist Julian Montague [bio here], the book attempts to bring clarity to a world littered with shopping carts far away from their birth stores. Written in the voice of a character who takes the project as seriously as a birder would take a birding guide, the book is as complex as it is wry…
A winner of the 2006 award for Oddest Book Title of the Year [c.f. this earlier visit to that list], Montague’s guide received a decent amount of media attention when it came out. But, published in the rudimentary years of social media, it missed out on a chance for the level of virality it may have achieved today. So far, there are few, if any, efforts to add to Montague’s research. Perhaps it’s too good. Perhaps it’s too insane…
See for yourself at “A Look Back at the Greatest (and Only) Stray Shopping Cart Identification Guide Ever Made.”
* Benjamin Franklin
As we return our baskets to the queue, we might recall that it was on this date in 1904 that “CQD” (Morse code – · – · – – · – – · ·) became the official distress signal to be used by Marconi wireless radio operators. A few years later, judging that “CQD” was too easily mistaken for the general call “CQ” in conditions of poor reception, the signal was changed to the now-ubiquitous “SOS” (· · · – – – · · · ).
In 1912, RMS Titanic radio operator Jack Phillips initially sent “CQD”, which was still commonly used by British ships. Harold Bride, the junior radio operator, jokingly suggested using the new code, “SOS”. Thinking it might be the only time he would get to use it, Phillips began to alternate between the two.
Known for his debauched lifestyle, his flirtations with criminality, and the sheer volume of his output, the Elizabethan writer Robert Greene was a fascinating figure. Ed Simon explores the literary merits and bohemian traits of the man who penned the earliest known (and far from flattering) reference to Shakespeare as a playwright: “Robert Greene, the First Bohemian.”
* Willie Nelson
As we frolic on the fringes, we might recall that it was on this date in 1750 that the first issue of the first college student magazine, Student, or the Oxford and Cambridge Miscellany, was published.
“I use a whole lot of half-assed semicolons; there was one of them just now; that was a semicolon after ‘semicolons,’ and another one after ‘now'”*…
What’s a novel without its words? Just punctuation. But when you take those lines of commas, periods, exclamation points, and quotes, then arrange them in a big spiral, you can still tell something of the character of the original work: the endlessly curious and expository quality of Ishmael’s narrative in Moby Dick, for example, or the titular wonder of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Between the Words by Chicago-based designer Nicholas Rougeux is a series of posters that takes the text of classic novels like Pride and Prejudice, Huckleberry Finn, The Christmas Carol, Peter Pan, The Time Machine, and more, then strips them of all their words until they are mere swirling vortices of punctuation. The project was inspired by Stefanie Posavec’s Writing without Words data visualizations, which colorfully chart the structure—but not the actual prose—of many classic novels…
* Ursula K. Le Guin
As we eat shoots and leaves, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Barbara Wertheim Tuchman; she was born on this date in 1912. A historian, Tuchman wrote two books (The Guns of August and Stilwell and the American Experience in China) that won Pulitzer Prizes, and several others that could/probably should have: e.g., The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890–1914, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century, and The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam.)
The lights begin to dim, ambient noises fade away, suddenly there is a burst of light overhead and you are transported… this is the premise of [photographer and one-time trial attorney Rick] Finkelstein‘s newest body of work: Sitting in the Dark with Strangers. In this latest series Finkelstein uses miniature figurines and meticulously fabricated sets to compose his images and explore the experience of the movies…
Sitting in the Dark with Strangers is on display at Robert Mann Gallery in New York City through the end of this month.
More images (and background) at “Artist Spotlight: Richard Finkelstein” (from whence these images), The Mann Gallery’s site, and “Photos of the Cinema-Going Experience Capture the Magic of Movies in Miniature.”
* Charles Chaplin (before he became famous as Charlie)
As we salt our popcorn, we might that it was on this date in 1941 that Paramount Picture’s released Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels. A picaresque satire that celebrates that movies, it has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, named one of the “Greatest Movies of All Time” by the American Film Institute.
The filmmaker was already on a roll. Not only had he been granted the honor of being one of Hollywood’s first writer/directors, but his last two films,The Great McGinty and The Lady Eve, were critical and commercial hits. Given as much creative freedom as a studio like Paramount could offer in 1941, Sturges crafted a smart, original fable about a comedy film director (Joel McCrea) who takes off to suffer in order to gain the experience necessary to make an “important” serious drama, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (a title later appropriated by the Coen brothers). Along the way, he teams up with “the Girl” (Veronica Lake), an aspiring actress who brings a dose of reality to the director’s noble aim. But just as soon as he learns his lesson, he’s robbed, thrown on a train, then arrested and put in prison in the Deep South. Sturges, who’d wanted to satirize contemporary high-toned depression dramas, was inspired by the tales of John Garfield living as a hobo in the 1930s. Towards the end of the film, Sullivan, who is taken with his prison chain gang to an African-American church, learns the real power of comedy when a Disney carton comes on the screen. This scene, often cited in reviews as demonstration of Sturges’ deft mix of social realism and mad comedy, in many ways accomplishes what Sullivan set off to do by paradoxically dismissing the importance of such social realistic filmmaking. What people in poverty and injustice need is a good laugh. But the scene has resonated for others in far different ways. The secretary of the NAACP wrote Sturges a letter praising his “dignified and decent treatment of Negroes in this scene.” On the other hand, the U.S. government’s Office of Censorship refused to approve the film for export, claiming that its portrayal of a chain gang, showing “the brutality and inhumanity with which the prisoners are treated” might serve as enemy propaganda. Most Americans, however, just found it hilarious, making the film Sturges’ next big hit.
Readers may recall an earlier entry on what was thought to be the very first selfie… and indeed, it may be (at least insofar as that particular form of self-snap is concerned). But as Susan Zalkind reports, self-portraits date back further…
My great-great-great-grandfather, Edward Linley Sambourne (1844–1910), known as “Sammy,” was the principal cartoonist for Punch. Sammy set up a studio at his home in Kensington, London, and photographed not only his servants and children, but also himself—thousands of times! “The Rhodes Colossus,” depicting British colonialist Cecil Rhodes with one foot in Cairo and the other in Cape Town, is his most iconic drawing.
More at “Grandfather of the Selfie.”
* William Shakespeare
As we watch the birdie, we might recall that it was on this date in 1888 that the National Geographic Society was incorporated. Two weeks earlier, the 33 founders of the Society had first met at the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C. to agree to plans; nine months later, the first issue of National Geographic Magazine was published.