When John Wilkes Booth was crouching in Richard H. Garrett’s tobacco barn, listening to Lieutenant Colonel Everton Conger’s orders to surrender, he decided to go out with a bang. He refused the surrender, then once the barn was lit on fire he took a bullet to the neck, delivered by Sergeant Boston Corbett. He was dead by the break of dawn, less than two weeks after he had prematurely terminated the presidency of Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre.
Or was he?
Way out in the sprawling suburbs of historical perception there exists the notion that the man whose life was snuffed to a nub in that barn was actually a man named James William Boyd, a Confederate soldier who looked enough like Booth that his body passed through ten pairs of identifying eyes (not counting the pair that aimed the gun that took his life), as well as an official autopsy. The composers of this theory also posit that the government knew about the mix-up and let it happen. Because where is the fun in a murder without a deep and sinister government conspiracy?
As for the “real” John Wilkes Booth… well, on the off-chance that this is all true, we can say with a relative certainty that Booth was, in fact, this guy:
One day in 1873, some eight years after the furor over the Lincoln assassination had been pressed between the leaves of history, Memphis lawyer Finis L. Bates met and befriended a liquor and tobacco merchant named John St. Helen. It’s good to get to know the man who sells you booze and smokes, and Bates was particularly taken by John’s ability to spout Shakespeare from memory. The two became good friends outside the seller-consumer relationship.
Five years later, John St. Helen was on what he believed to be his deathbed, profoundly ill. He confided in Finis Bates that he was in fact John Wilkes Booth. He asked Finis to advise his brother, Edwin Booth, of his demise. Then he recovered. Read more…
While I’m anything but the most amateur of amateur historians, I’ve got a feeling that people went missing all the time in the 16th century. You dig yourself into some serious debt, maybe sleep with a nobleman’s wife or abscond with the goodies from the church collection plate, making yourself scarce would be a pretty easy feat. Got yourself murdered? Bad news for you – forensics don’t exist and if your killer knows even a little about properly hiding a body, you’ll simply make the ranks of the missing.
But how do 115 people disappear? Ruling out a violent attack (since there would be some leftover evidence of such) or a sudden collective yen for new surroundings, a mass vanishing of this scale has to turn some heads. Some four centuries later, we still don’t know for certain what became of the residents of the Roanoke Colony.
There are theories, of course. And investigators are trying to use modern scientific gadgetry to uncover the mystery, but it’s not easy reconstructing an event when your only crime scene photos are a handful of 400-year-old etchings and there’s a good chance your archeological data may be presently sitting beneath a Walmart parking lot. But historians love a good challenge, so chances are this hunt will remain at the forefront of someone’s life’s work for the foreseeable future.
Sir Walter Raleigh: Quite a flowery collar for such a stupid git. (yes, that’s a Beatles joke for you)
In March of 1584, Queen Elizabeth I decided it was time to slap down some English tootsies into the North American mud and start earning a profit and staking out some land. England was at war with Spain, and she thought North America would be a good vantage point from which they could mess with the Spanish treasure fleets. She put Sir Walter Raleigh on the job, which he immediately subcontracted because hey, Walter was a busy Sir and he had other things to do. Read more…
No matter what you’ll be doing today, there will be no escaping that subtle shift in the light, the quirky zigzag of distorted collective energy – it’s Christmas, and the world always looks, sounds and smells a little different on Christmas. For some it’s a holy day, for others a welcome day off, and for many it’s simply a day to eat and drink to excess in an effort to counterbalance the unspeakable chore of having to spend the day with one’s extended family.
I don’t get sentimental around Christmas, a trait (some might say a flaw) that has caused my wife no end of irk. It would be foolish, however, to deny the power of the day.
Ninety-nine years ago, Christmas may have executed its most formidable coup, bringing an oasis of calm and reason to the most grotesquely bloody conflict in the history of the world to date, and providing a common ground – indeed the only common ground – among men who had literally devoted their lives to destroying one another. As cynical as many will be for the next few hours, there is nary a heart on this planet that couldn’t be softened somewhat by the tale of the Great Christmas Truce of 1914.
World War I was topping the hit parade in December of 1914, with German, British, French, Russian… well, mostly every European soldier trying to shoot some other European soldier. The war had been raging for five months, and the Germans had blasted through Belgium into France, only scantly repelled from entering Paris. They dropped back to the Aisne valley, where both sides dug their trenches and subsequently fell into a stalemate. No one could advance, and no one was willing to retreat. Read more…
Every so often I come across a topic so bereft of logic and reason, so astoundingly zapped with surrealism and unfathomable strangeness, I feel I may as well be writing a piece of fiction. And while any tall tale from the eighteenth century is certainly subject to hyperbole and the exaggerated and skull-warping lens of loosely-transcribed anecdotery, this tale appears to be rooted in fact. Actual sources, like the London Medical & Physical Journal are cited. This guy was real.
The veracity of the specific details may merit some scrutiny, but I’m going to pour these words all over the page like freshly-squeezed fact-juice, letting the weirdness dribble down the sides of my screen and collect in a Technicolor puddle between my toes because this is a story that I need to tell, dammit.
This is the tale of Tarrare: eating machine, freedom fighter, unbelievably crappy spy, and possible cannibal. Had he lived in the modern era, he would have quickly graduated beyond circus freak into an internet sensation. He might have even dated a Kardashian. Or eaten one. Either way, it’s a hell of a story.
Decide for yourself how much of this you choose to believe.
Tarrare – and we only know him by that one name – was born in rural France sometime around 1772. He was a normal child, except for his voracious appetite. The kid could eat and eat and never find that plateau of satisfaction. In his teens he could reportedly devour a quarter of a bullock (that’s a steer, not a British testicle or the Oscar-winning Sandra) in a single day. That was his entire weight. I can’t imagine where he found the time, let alone the physical space. Read more…
When we last left our heroes (our heroes being those plucky little cannabis plants that were allegedly tugging at the tablecloth upon which the fine china of our fragile society was laid), things weren’t looking good. It was 1937, and the American government had come up with a complicated taxation-punishment strategy that didn’t technically make marijuana illegal, but came close enough.
Where once the plant had been offered up by the medical world for various therapeutic uses, now it was contraband, the stuff of pure evil. It lured young people into a Satanic spiral, driving them to unprovoked violent acts, inspiring unrestrained jazz-orgies and turning upstanding citizens into paranoid, sex-crazed rape-o-trons.
..with great pointy hair.
Along with the demonized wicked weed, the legitimate hemp industry was also kicked in the legislative nads by the Marihuana Tax Act. Back then, no one knew about THC, the ingredient in marijuana that makes jam bands sound better than they actually are. All we knew was that cannabis was a drug, and since hemp and cannabis share the same fingerprints, it was all deemed to be bad.
People like to shoo away conspiracy theories, but there was no question that William Randolph Hearst was pumping as much bogus fear-mongering as he could fit into his empire of news-rags. Whether it was because he feared the newly-invented decorticator would make hemp-based paper cheap to manufacture and thus threaten his massive timber investments (which it totally would have), or whether he was truly afraid of the drug’s effects on society, that’s up to you to decide. Read more…
Children, pull up a spot o’ rug and pass the old man his USS Enterprise-shaped bong. I’d like to tell you a tale of corruption and weirdness, of cruel and unusual punishment and a nation that has only recently begun to peel back the charred scab of failed policy and misdirected prosecution.
Most committed connoisseurs of the cannabinical arts (you probably know them as ‘potheads’) will tell you that marijuana is illegal due to a conspiracy. Some will blame the alcohol industry, others point their finger at William Randolph Hearst. No doubt some will ascribe some sort of otherworldly shenanigans that extend as far up the ladder as FDR’s personal toenail buffer. The reality is more complex, but well worthy of your suspicion.
So let’s see if we can’t untangle this murky monkey’s fist and come up with some semblance of the truth, hopefully before I get distracted by that bag of Cheetos over there. The beginning of this tale takes us back to colonial times, back before the D.E.A., before the F.B.N., even before Willie Nelson.
King James I – you know, the guy whose stamp of A-OK approval is all over that Bible in your hotel room drawer – decreed via the Virginia Company that every colonist in the New World was to grow 100 hemp plants specifically for export to England. Hemp was used extensively for rope, blankets and Phish t-shirts all over the world at that time, but it was a savvy young Irishman named William Brooke O’Shaughnessy – whose research would eventually lead to the invention of intravenous therapy – who first came up with the idea to use cannabis sativa for medicinal purposes. Read more…
Greetings, fellow passengers aboard this swirling turntable among the stars, as we swivel along at a brisk and oft-terrifying 45rpm, propelling our lives up the charts of human history for a brief fireworks splash before plopping back into obscurity, into the 49-cent discount bin of faded immortality. It’s time to get real, my adoring thous-manauts. These kilographs can’t always dance among the platinum sunshine and giggling gardenias of topics like murder hotels and tax-funded mass graves.
I need to get serious about an affliction that could strike any of us at any time and without warning, provided we are gainfully employed in the string section of a major philharmonic orchestra.
Yes, I’m talking today about Cello Scrotum.
Known in the music business as ‘Yo-Yo-M-AAAUUUGGHHH!!!’
Perhaps you’re more familiar with Surfer’s Ear, Golfer’s Elbow, Jogger’s Nipple or Nintendo Thumb. Apart from the surfing condition, these are repetitive-strain injuries that can afflict those who delve obsessively into their preferred pursuit. Much like Jogger’s Nipple, Cello Scrotum is a form of contact dermatitis that, according to a 1974 article in the British Medical Journal, can afflict the non-detachable tote-bags of males who devote their lives to the glorious timbre of the cello. Read more…
As I twist off the wrapper of my final Candy Week installment, I quietly hope my sweet tooth has been suitably sated. In actual fact, the only time my words brought an unconquerable craving to my lips was the night after my Kit Kat piece. I felt no guilt in this indulgence – one flavorful reward in seven days shows an impressive forbearance on my part. Well, one so far. The jury will remain in deliberation so long as the taste of today’s kilograph on licorice remains on my fingertips.
To be more precise, today’s topic is that of liquorice, not licorice. The distinction in spelling is mostly regional, but I’m going to stick with the North American ‘licorice’, primarily because it appears in Microsoft Word’s dictionary, and I don’t feel like looking at a bunch of squiggly red lines this morning.
Unless they’re made of red licorice. Ha. See what I did there? Yep, this is a promising start.
The licorice plant is technically a legume, like beans, peanuts or alfalfa. This could be the most innocuously unimportant snippet of trivia you will hear all day. Somewhat more interesting is the fact that more than 60% of the licorice harvested and sold each year doesn’t get made into candy, but actually finds its way into tobacco. This number is down from about 90% back in 1975, when practically every American cigarette or dollop of snuff, chewing tobacco and pipe tobacco featured a touch of licorice among its myriad of carcinogenic chemicals. Read more…
Yesterday I marveled at the frantic scramble (or, ‘framble’) to be the first to fly across the Atlantic. It seems only right that I dial back the clock and look at the previous trans-ocean pioneers, those who packed their loved ones and a whole wack o’ pestilence onto rickety wooden boats and set their course for the new world, hoping not to fall off the edge of the old one.
We all know the story of Christopher Columbus, who in 1492 steered three vessels from Europe to Nebraska, trying to prove to the girl he loved that he was more bad-ass than Reggie the blacksmith, and also that he looked good in a buckled hat. Or something. It doesn’t matter – this isn’t about him.
I’m interested in peeling back the known history. Our Native population has been calling this particular chunk of rock home since around 10,000 BC, but I’m more interested in the rumored appearance of other peoples. I’m talking about those who didn’t saunter across the Bering Strait back before it dipped its nose into the sea, never to return. These are the ones we can’t quite confirm – the debated pre-Columbian pioneers.
We’ll skip right over Space-Jesus.
Let’s start with what we know. The Norsemen (also known as Vikings, but without the horns – we have learned those helmet-horns are a myth) set up shop on Greenland back in the 10th century, and they hung around until sometime in the 15th century, even venturing into Canada where they dropped off some archeological evidence for us to scoop up a few centuries later. Read more…
Maybe it’s simply the distorted perspective of having a daughter who believes the original Teen Wolf film is ‘old’, the Woodstock concert is ‘ancient’ and Elvis Presley is ‘ancestor-esque’, but I think our culture is in danger of losing its sense of history. This is why we curators of trivia are necessary. Someone needs to remind the younger generation that phones and cameras used to be mutually exclusive, that paying for music and movies wasn’t always an optional thing, and that getting together with friends used to mean someone invariably had to leave their house.
So in the interest of trivia, I’m going to plant an easy landmark and turn the calendar back by a century, commemorating some of the creations that entered the world back in 1913.
This was the year L. Frank Baum introduced Betsy Bobbin to the Land of Oz, the year Fu Manchu first graced a novel with his chick-magnet facial hair, and the year Colorado began issuing license plates for vehicles. But I’m more interested in the inventions that changed little corners of our world, those which turn 100 this year.
Elias Howe, who by inventing the sewing machine had already ensured his seat was taped off and reserved at the Table Of Awesome, came up with an ‘automatic continuous clothing closure’ back in 1851. It was more of an elaborate draw-string than anything else, but it got other inventors thinking. People like Gideon Sundback, a Swedish-American engineer who found himself working at the Fastener Manufacturing and Machine Company in Meadville, Pennsylvania decades later. Read more…