January 31, 2016

Miranda (Warning and Rights)

Today is the anniversary of the death of Ernesto Mirando in 1976. As this is little cause for celebration, you can feel free to invoke your right to withhold best wishes.

adj. of, relating to, or being the legal rights of an arrested person to have an attorney and to remain silent so as to avoid self-incrimination
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition

Despite the Constitutional warm fuzzies invoked in the United States by the Amendment-imbued words “You have the right to remain silent…,” the namesake of the pop culturally clichéd “Miranda Warning” was an extraordinarily sad scumbag.

Ernesto Arturo Miranda was born in 1941 in Mesa, Arizona, and was a convicted criminal before finishing the eighth grade. By his eighteenth birthday, he had additionally been convicted of burglary, arrested on suspicion of armed robbery and assorted sex offenses, spent several years in reform school, and deported back to Arizona from California. A brief and dishonorably discharged stint in the Army was followed by arrests and jail time for vagrancy in Texas and driving a stolen car in Tennessee before Miranda finally settled down in Arizona in the early 1960s.

In March of 1963, Miranda was arrested in Phoenix and confessed (after interrogation) to the rape of an eighteen-year-old girl, and his voice was positively identified by the victim. He dutifully wrote down his confessions on police stationery with printed certification on the top of each page that all statements were made “with full knowledge of my legal rights.” During his trial, Miranda’s court-appointed lawyer raised the objection that his client had not been informed of his Constitutional rights to remain silent (and avoid self-incrimination) or to have an attorney present during his confession. The judge overruled the objections and sentenced Miranda to twenty to thirty years each for charges of rape and kidnapping.

Miranda appealed the decision to the Arizona Supreme Court only to have it uphold the original ruling. In 1966, the United States Supreme Court ultimately overturned his conviction with Chief Justice Earl Warren insisting that the Fifth Amendment’s self-incrimination clause and the Sixth Amendment’s right to an attorney meant that a confession could be used as admissible evidence only if a suspect had been made aware of his rights and then waived them. Following Miranda v. Arizona, police across the United States were required to issue a “Miranda Warning” to all criminal suspects in custody, making them aware of their Constitutional rights—somewhat erroneously now identified as Miranda rights. Despite the rote treatment it gets on television cop shows, there is remarkably no single wording that has to be used for the warning as long as the gist is conveyed.

Miranda still went back to jail. His case was retried using evidence besides his confession, he was convicted again, and he served eleven more years. He was turned down for parole four times before finally being released. He made the most of his ongoing notoriety by selling autographed Miranda Warning cards, getting arrested for moving violations and gun possession, working as a delivery driver, and gambling. Miranda was killed in a knife fight at a Phoenix bar in 1976 at the age of thirty-four.

The prime suspect in Miranda’s killing had the Miranda warning read to him from a small card, invoked his right to remain silent, and allegedly escaped to Mexico to avoid prosecution.

January 30, 2016


Today is the anniversary of the death of Harmen Knickerbocker (1885), New York blueblood and notorious namesake of two things best not discussed in polite company—the New York Knicks and underwear.

n. pl. a short-legged (orig. knee-length), freq. loose-fitting, pair of pants worn by women and children as an undergarment
Oxford English Dictionary

The word knickers comes from the leggings worn by the fictional Diedrich Knickerbocker, whose name was derived from the austere and very real Harmen Knickerbocker. Suffice it to say that many members of the Knickerbocker lineage in New York have had their knickers in a twist over this for the last two hundred years.

Harmen Knickerbocker was the clan patriarch of a prominent social and political family in upstate New York in the early 1800s. He was friends with the legendary writer and historian Washington Irving, who used “Knickerbocker” as a pseudonym for his creation of a crotchety Dutch historian.

Irving is most famous for his short stories “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” but it was his 1809 satire A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty that made its fictional author—Diedrich Knickerbocker—a household name. Irving’s mockery of inflated local history and small-minded politics was a huge success, and the name Knickerbocker eventually became a nickname for anyone living in Manhattan (shortened to Knicks for those who merely play basketball there).

Eventually, an English edition of the book featured illustrations by the classic Charles Dickens illustrator George Cruikshank, who drew the fictitious and stodgy Knickerbocker family in loose, knee-length Dutch breeches. Over the next few decades, the short and loose ladies’ undergarments that became popular in England were dubbed “knickers.”

Knickers aside, Washington Irving further lampooned New York’s power brokers in a literary magazine called Salmagundi under the pseudonyms William Wizard and Launcelot Langstaff. It was here that he was the first to describe New York City as “Gotham,” which is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “Goat’s Town.” He was also the first to coin the phrase almighty dollar, in 1837’s “The Creole Village,” and it was a dream sequence in an 1812 revision of A History of New York that first featured old St. Nick cruising the Christmas skies in a flying wagon.

But to return to pantaloons, while knickers (and their twisting) became standard British slang for delicate unmentionables, baggy trousers for women in the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were called “bloomers,” named for early feminist Amelia Jenks Bloomer. But that is another story.

January 28, 2016


No one is quite sure when he was born (the best guess is some time in 1792), but it is well known that serial murderer William Burke was executed today in 1829.

v. to murder (a person) in such a way as to produce no incriminating marks, usually by suffocation, and with the intention of selling the body for dissection
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

This grisly eponym comes from the cursed name of William Burke who, along with his corpse-collecting companion William Hare, became a serial murderer to generate cadavers for the Edinburgh Medical College. Such was the state of British medicine in the 1820s.

Contrary to the twentieth-century film adaptations that focus on the collection of assorted body parts as an essential element of the horror story, the original monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was an entirely new creation of its namesake doctor (also sans the silly electric tables and sparking apparatus)—perhaps due to the fact that body snatching would have been no great shock to readers at the turn of the nineteenth century. At least in the United Kingdom, the market for fresh corpses in the early 1800s was primarily (and almost exclusively) medical schools (see also Cooper’s ligaments), which were allowed to use only cadavers from legal executions. As capital sentences for trivial offences (e.g., pickpocketing) were eventually outlawed, demand quickly outpaced supply—and grave robbers filled the void.

What was frighteningly commonplace at the time is almost inconceivable today. Coffins were made of iron and relatives kept watch over fresh graves to ensure they stayed intact. The unfortunate side effect of these efforts was that some of the body snatchers—who came to be known, euphemistically, as resurrectionists—turned to murder to freshen their produce. Enter Burke and Hare.

William Burke was an Irish immigrant who left his wife and two kids to move to Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1817 and quickly picked up a mistress named Helen MacDougal. Ten years later, Burke and MacDougal moved into a boarding house in the West Port area of Edinburgh owned by another Irish immigrant named William Hare and his common-law wife, and double-daters embarked on a corpses-for-cash killing spree that lasted eighteen months. In a scene straight out of Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace, the plot started out relatively innocently. An elderly tenant of the boarding house died naturally, and Burke and Hare sold his body to anatomist Dr. Robert Knox at the nearby medical college. Burke and Hare quickly discovered that they could receive double payment for particularly fresh bodies and began using intoxication and suffocation to produce a posthumous parade of sixteen more pensioners, prostitutes, and poor people that was not discovered until November of 1828.

Burke and Hare and their partners were all soon arrested, but the ensuing trial proved to be an absurd affair. Of all the participants in what came to be known as the West Port murders, Hare was granted immunity for testifying against Burke, neither his wife nor MacDougal could not be proven to be complicit, and Dr. Knox was not prosecuted at all. Burke, on the other hand, was convicted, sentenced to death, and hanged on the 28th of January, 1829. Three years later, their notoriety, as well as that of the London Burkers (see bishop), led to Britain’s passage of the Anatomy Act of 1832, which finally curbed body snatching.

To bring the story full circle, Burke’s body ended up at his adopted medical school—the Edinburgh Medical College—where it was dissected, tanned, and set up for display.

January 27, 2016


Today is the birthday of the original masochist—Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch.

n. the getting of sexual pleasure from being dominated, mistreated, or hurt physically or otherwise by one's partner
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

Our psychological term for this sexual fetish was coined by an Austrian psychiatrist in 1886 but inspired by author Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch, who is destined to be remembered not for his writings on Anti-Semitism or women’s suffrage but for his secret penchant for domination by women wearing fur.

Von Sacher-Masoch was born in 1836 in a province of the Austrian Empire that is now part of Ukraine. Raised in Roman Catholic household with a police chief as a father, Masoch’s early writings as a professor were fairly standard Austrian fare—history, folklore, and ethnic short stories. But it was 1870’s Venus in Furs, the only one of his short novels still commonly available in English, that brought him notoriety. It was the first glimpse into his particular fetishes and described in detail his fantasy of dominant fur-clad women.

Masoch found a willing partner with an early mistress, Baroness Fanny Pistor—herself an emerging writer who approached him for help with her work. Masoch eventually coaxed Pistor into signing a contract that enslaved him to her for a period of six months in 1869 with his only stipulation being that she should wear furs as much as possible. Their experiences served as the fodder for Venus in Furs, in which the main character asks to be degraded by his dominatrix and is eventually further abused by a trio of African women. Unfortunately, he found less willingness to indulge his fantasies from his first wife, Aurora von Römelin, whom he married in 1873 and eventually divorced over obvious “irreconcilable differences.” He eventually married his assistant.

It was around Masoch’s fiftieth birthday that Austrian psychiatrist Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing introduced the term masochism in his famous series of case studies of sexual perversity—Psychopathia Sexualis. The Latin title was a deliberate attempt to discouraging reading by an enthusiastic lay audience with purely prurient interests in such formerly taboo topics as female sexual pleasure and “contrary sexual desires.” Krafft-Ebing was a strict procreationist and believed that any sexual activity strictly for gratification was perverse (interestingly, while rape was considered deviant, it was not strictly perverse in that pregnancy could still result).

To the great dismay of Masoch, Krafft-Ebing co-opted the author’s name to describe gratification derived from receiving pain or humiliation. “...I feel justified in calling this sexual anomaly ‘Masochism,’ because the author Sacher-Masoch frequently made this perversion, which up to his time was quite unknown to the scientific world as such, the substratum of his writings…. During recent years facts have been advanced which prove that Sacher-Masoch was not only the poet of Masochism, but that he himself was afflicted with the anomaly.” In fact, the specific details of Masoch’s private life were relatively unknown until his first wife’s memoirs were published in 1905.

Sigmund Freud, a contemporary of Krafft-Ebing, would eventually assert that the impulse for masochism is often accompanied by an impulse for sadism (gratification derived from inflicting pain or humiliation)—a term based on the life and writings of Marquis de Sade (see sadism)—leading to a completely new term, sadomasochism.

Despite founding an association for adult education with his second wife in 1893 and becoming a tireless opponent of anti-Semitism and equally tireless supporter of women’s rights late in his life, Masoch’s name is inextricably linked with sexual deviance—beyond the clinical diagnoses, he and Venus in Furs have been pop-referenced by bands ranging from The Velvet Underground to Marilyn Manson to Bauhaus.

Masoch spent the last years of his life under psychiatric care in Germany. He died in 1895.

January 21, 2016


Today is the anniversary of the death Edward Askew Sothern, the spectacularly sideburned actor who played the comical Lord Dundreary on the night Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. A notorious prankster his entire life, his funeral was largely unattended because so many friends and family assumed it was a hoax.

n. long flowing sideburns
Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary Eleventh Edition

Perhaps no one has ever carried facial hair to such rapunzelesque lengths (see sideburns) as Edward Askew Sothern did in the late 1850s for the foppish character of Lord Dundreary in Tom Taylor’s comic play Our American Cousin. Though they were sometimes referred to as Picadilly weepers or Newgate knockers, it is unclear why his unusual sideburns came to be called dundrearies instead of adopting the name of their creator. Perhaps it was felt that calling them sotherns during the height of the American Civil War would have needlessly prolonged the duration of the conflict.

Sothern was an English actor, born in Liverpool in 1826. His first professional acting gig was in 1849 in Lady of Lyons by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (whose now-infamous story opener “It was a dark and stormy night” provides the basis for the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for bad writing). Eventually moving to America, and wanting to be regarded as a serious actor, Sothern was somewhat hesitant to take on the supporting role of the weak-minded aristocrat Lord Dundreary in Our American Cousin. However, soon after the comedy premiered in New York in 1858, Sothern came to own the role and began ad-libbing and injecting exaggerated mannerisms into his performance that made him a sensation in the United States and in England.

A key element of his comedic presence was his flowing whiskers that drooped down to his shoulders—a style that would eventually bear his character’s name. Sothern’s performance also helped coin another short-lived term—dundrearyisms—for his nonsensical combinations of colloquial phrases. Lord Dundreary famously remarked that “Birds of a feather gather no moss.” Sothern’s characterization was so popular that it spawned a number of sequels including Dundreary Married and Done For and Our American Cousin at Home, or Lord Dundreary Abroad.

The original Our American Cousin was the play being performed at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. the night Abraham Lincoln was shot. John Wilkes Booth used as cover the riotous laughter following the line “You sockdologizing old man-trap!” to shoot the President.

Sothern himself died at the age of fifty-four in 1881.

January 18, 2016

Ponzi scheme

Today is the anniversary of the death of Charles Ponzi in 1949. Any gifts will be turned over to the receiver.

n. a form of fraud in which belief in the success of a non-existent enterprise is fostered by payment of quick returns to first investors using money invested by others
Oxford English Dictionary

Bernard Madoff’s $50 billion swindling operation was described as the largest Ponzi scheme in history, and it's only appropriate to draw attention to the original Ponzi schemer—Charles Ponzi.

Born Carlo Ponzi in Italy in 1882, this natural rogue dropped out of the University of Rome in 1903 and headed to America to make his fortune. He worked as an assistant teller in a failing Canadian bank that catered to Italian immigrants and used the money from new accounts to pay off interest payments of bad real-estate loans. He later became a check forger and immigrant smuggler and spent five years in prison before finally making his way to Boston in 1917.

Always keen to find a get-rich-quick scheme, Ponzi fell upon an unglamorous but shrewd investment loophole. Nine years earlier, in 1906, the Universal Postal Union congress in Rome started issuing international reply coupons (IRCs)—vouchers that could be sent to a participating foreign country in lieu of a self-addressed stamped envelope that a recipient could exchange for local postage to send a reply. Ponzi realized that American inflation after WWI resulted in postage in Italy costing far less than its equivalent in America, which meant that IRCs purchased cheaply in Italy could be cashed in for stamps in the United States and then sold at a tidy profit, all perfectly legally. Of course, to make real money with the system would require millions of coupons to be purchased and traded in for millions of stamps to be sold. Ponzi needed a few saps.

Ponzi was dapper and charismatic, and his slogan of a 50 percent return on investment in ninety days attracted enough early interest to get him rolling. He formed the Securities Exchange Company and paid back initial investors handsomely with funds from later investors, which led to a flurry of investment from regular Joes hoping to beat the system. Between December of 1919 and August of 1920, a mere eight months, he had collected around $8 million from more than 10,000 individuals investing their life savings, mortgaging their homes, and reinvesting earlier earnings instead of cashing out. Meanwhile, Ponzi had never purchased a single coupon. What he did purchase was a mansion, a limousine, and passage for his mother to come from Italy to the land of opportunity.

There were eventually a few skeptics, including some investigators from the Boston Post, Clarence Barron (the financial analyst for the Barron’s financial paper), and a number of state officials. It was Barron who revealed that Ponzi’s company would require 160 million postal coupons to cover all investments—while the United States Post Office confirmed there were only 27,000 circulating, with none being bought in serious quantities in the United States or Italy. In August of 1920, federal agents raided the Securities Exchange Company and found no coupons. Ponzi was arrested, pleaded guilty to mail fraud, and spent three and a half years in federal prison before facing a nine-year state prison sentence. He quickly jumped bail, fled to Florida to set up a property scam, was deported to Italy where he was less successful as a swindler, and finally died penniless in a Rio de Janeiro charity hospital in 1949.

The term Ponzi scheme is generally an American usage. Elsewhere in the world, it is almost always described as a “pyramid scheme,” although there are several important differences, the most important of which is that pyramid schemes are often quite explicit in their admissions that new investors will be the sole source of payout for early investors (i.e., a portion of each new investor’s money is directed to earlier investors, who cash out of the system). The problem with this exponential model is that it is unsustainable, and the funds generated by new participants are soon vastly outpaced by the number of earlier investors expecting payout, at which point the system crashes.

In contrast, a true Ponzi scheme requires that the schemer be directly involved with every investor, usually under the guise of some innovative new investment approach, and there have been many, both before and after the rise and fall of its namesake. In 1880, Sarah Howe opened the bogus “Ladies Deposit” in Boston promising 8 percent interest “for women only” before she vanished with the money. More than 100 years later, Louis Jay Pearlman ran an extraordinary Ponzi scheme in the 1990s in which he bilked more than $300 million from individuals investing in the fictitious Trans Continental Airlines, Inc. (though his greater crime against humanity is surely the fact that he was the one-time manager for American boy bands ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys).

Since Ponzi’s day, the selling price and exchange value in stamps for international reply coupons have been adjusted to remove the potential for profit that he exploited. Regrettably, no similar regulations exist to remove the potential for profit from boy bands.

January 12, 2016

Salisbury steak

Today is the birthday of the titan of TV dinners—Dr. James Salisbury. Bon appétit.

n. Hamburg steak
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

Is it more regrettable that Dr. Salisbury’s medical legacy is his chopped beefsteak namesake or that his professional recommendation was to eat it three times a day?

James Henry Salisbury was born in New York state in 1823 and worked as a chemist before becoming a physician in 1850. Like Sylvester Graham before him (see graham cracker), Salisbury was convinced that personal diet was the cornerstone of good health, though their theories could not have been more different. Graham was a staunch vegetarian who believed that a carnivorous diet led to lustful urges, while Salisbury was convinced that a daily beef tripleheader could thwart pulmonary tuberculosis, asthma, anemia, and gout.

In addition to other battlefield horrors, Salisbury witnessed widespread diarrhea during his stint as a field doctor in the American Civil War. He eventually posited that a steady flow of coffee and ground beef was the best treatment. By 1888, he was the proponent of a full-fledged fad that called for two-thirds of one’s diet to be filled with meat and claimed that too many vegetables and starch produced poisons in the digestive system that led to heart disease and even mental illness. Salisbury further advised that the beef be well-done and accompanied by hot water before and after meals.

By the time of his death in 1905, the ground-beef patty Dr. Salisbury was prescribing was referred to in many parts as Hamburg steak, though historians (and business owners) often argue whether this refers to Hamburg, Germany, or Hamburg, New York. Regardless, the association with Germany was somewhat inescapable, and the advent of World War I and then World War II prompted some unusual patriotic revisionism. At the same time that sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage” and the German measles became “liberty measles,” the Hamburg steak officially became the Salisbury steak.

This was by no means the last time such nationalistic menu-tweaking took place. Following the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, restaurants in Greece began serving “Ellinikos kafes” (Greek coffee) instead of “Turkikos kafes” (Turkish coffee). In 2003, following French opposition to the United States invasion of Iraq, the U.S. House of Representatives changed the menus in its cafeterias to serve “freedom fries” and “freedom toast” instead of their French counterparts. Meanwhile, the producers of French’s mustard issued a press release assuring a worried public that its family name should imply no lack of patriotism.

While the original names for hamburgers and sauerkraut have since largely returned to general usage, the Salisbury steak remains a jingoistic holdout. Today, Dr. Salisbury’s prescription—a minced beef patty, shaped like a steak, and typically served with thick gravy—is an all-American icon.

December 31, 2015

tommy gun

Today is the birthday of John Taliaferro Thompson, co-inventor of the infamous Prohibition-era firearm.

n. a Thompson submachine gun
n. loosely, any machine gun
­—Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

The 1920s provided dark fodder for the introduction of new words into our lexicon. The gangster era “hijacked” us, took us “for a ride,” and served us “bathtub gin.” But the “gun that made the twenties roar” was the invention of a World War I general and one-time bovine executioner who wanted a compact “trench sweeper” for close-quarter encounters.

Born into a military family in 1860, John T. Thompson quickly distinguished himself as a soldier and, during the Spanish American War in 1898, became the youngest colonel appointed in the Army. He became a munitions expert and even helped form a Gatling gun unit (see Gatling gun) that supported then-Colonel Theodore Roosevelt’s bloody charge at San Juan Hill. Three years later, then-President Roosevelt requested ordnance tests that would eventually bring Thompson to the Chicago stockyards in 1904 to fire different handguns, calibers, and bullet styles at live cattle (in fairness to the steers, Thompson also used human cadavers to assess various ammunitions). Thompson would have an on-again, off-again relationship with the military forever after.

Thompson retired from the Army in 1914 and became a chief engineer for Remington. As World War I was marching along without involvement from the U.S. Armed Forces, Thompson became fascinated by the increased use of trench warfare and convinced that troops could really use a handheld, one-man machine gun that could clear out an enemy’s position. Working with the designer of a similar weapon, he began work on a prototype for a charming, new, compact, large-caliber submachine gun called “The Annihilator.” Thompson briefly returned to the military after the United States joined the fight and was a brigadier general in charge of small-arms production before retiring at the war’s end in 1918.

Though The Annihilator arrived too late to be used by the military, post-war marketing meetings led its manufacturers to rename it the “Thompson submachine gun” and "Thompson Anti-Bandit Gun" for civilian sales. Costing nearly the half the price of a new car, the Thompson soon experienced illicit distribution into the Prohibition-era underworld where it acquired its street names of “tommy gun,” “Chicago Typewriter,” and “Chopper.” Gangsters loved it, and it achieved peak notoriety in 1929 following the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in which Al Capone’s henchmen delivered seventy machine-gun bullets and two shotgun blasts into seven of “Bugs” Moran’s gang.

It was not until after Thompson’s death at the age of seventy-nine in 1940 that the U.S. military bought substantial numbers of the weapon for eventual use in World War II, the Korean War, and even Vietnam. Thompson was buried at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Though his namesake was eventually embraced by gangsters and generals alike, its earliest proponent was an unlikely customer—The United States Postal Service—which purchased the first tommy guns in 1921 following a rash of mail robberies. Decades later, the now-infamous “going postal” madness of the early 1990s led to the eventual prohibition of firearms in all mail facilities. 

December 29, 2015


Today is the birthday of Madame de Pompadour, magnificently bouffanted and one of the most stylish women of eighteenth-century France. 

n. a woman’s hairdo in which the hair is swept up high from the forehead, usually over a roll
n. a man’s hairdo in which the hair is brushed up straight from the forehead­­
­—Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

The somewhat absurd hairstyle beloved by French courtesans and Elvis impersonators alike is the namesake of Madame de Pompadour, former mistress of King Louis XV.

Madame de Pompadour was born Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson in Paris in 1721. By all accounts she was extraordinarily beautiful, intelligent, and well-educated. She also had a bit of a stage mother who ensured that she would learn to play the clavichord, paint, get married, become friends with Voltaire, and charm the pantaloons off the king, all before her twenty-fourth birthday.

Within a month of their meeting, Louis XV had established Jeanne-Antoinette at Versailles as his mistress. He wooed her with an estate at Pompadour and gave her the title of marquise (more hoity than a countess, but not as toity as a duchess) so that she could appear in his court. Six months after seducing the king, the new Madame de Pompadour legally separated from her husband and began a lifelong crusade to have things named for her.

Despite being loathed by the upper crust for her bourgeoisie background, she became a trusted advisor to the king, and it was she who recommended the hiring of her dear friend 
Étienne de Silhouette to be France's new Controller-General (see silhouette). Outside of politics, she was a devoted patron of the decorative arts, and the unrivaled center of the Parisian fashion scene. Her support of porcelain manufacturing led to the creation of Pompadour pink, a specific color for fine ceramics. Handbags, silks embroidered with sprigs of flowers, and even richly plumed birds (Xipholena punicea, the pompadour cotinga) all bore her name. Though she was only his mistress for five years, legend has it that, after she died at age forty-three from congested lungs, a grieving Louis XV commissioned his craftsmen to create the oblong marquise or navette cut for diamonds to remind him of the delicate shape of her mouth.

Well after her death, a purple-uniformed regiment of the British Army in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was nicknamed The Pompadours owing either to purple being her favorite color or—depending on the discretion of your source—the color of her underwear. Urban legend has also suggested that the classic French Champagne coupe may have been modeled from her breast—Marie Antoinette is another contender for this distinction—despite being designed several decades before either’s bosom sprung into public consciousness.

But it was her hair that brought her infamy. Though she classically wore it in loose rolls around her face, the style that became associated with her name eventually involved sweeping the hair upward to hang high above the forehead. And it was not simply for the ladies. As early as 1885, no less than the Atlanta Constitution newspaper recommended it for the gents:

“The pompadour is the most convenient way possible to wear the hair. It is cool, and simply running your fingers through it when you get up dresses it for the day.”

Elvis surely agreed. 

December 10, 2015

Nobel Prize

Today is the anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel (1896) who both invented dynamite and established the Nobel Peace Prize.

n. each of six (formerly five) prizes awarded annually to individuals who are judged to have contributed most in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, the promotion of peace, and economics
Oxford English Dictionary

It is hardly notorious to have one’s name associated with an internationally recognized award for peace, but it is important to realize that Alfred Nobel bought his legacy of good will to avoid a fate similar to Joseph Ignace Guillotin (see guillotine). Nobel simply did not want to be remembered as the inventor of dynamite.

Premature obituaries occur more often than one might expect. In 1922, a New York newspaper mistakenly announced “Pope Benedict XV Is Dead,” only to feature a later edition headlined “Pope Has Remarkable Recovery.” In 2003, CNN.com famously leaked in-progress obituaries and templates for numerous celebrities. Fidel Castro’s was apparently derived from Ronald Reagan’s and described the Cuban leader as “lifeguard, athlete, movie star,” while Dick Cheney’s was based on a template from Queen Elizabeth and described him as “UK’s favorite grandmother.” Finally, though not technically an obituary, when an 1897 journalist was sent to ask Mark Twain about his health (mistaking the author with an ill cousin), the humorist later wrote the oft-misquoted “The report of my death is an exaggeration.”

But the premature obituary with the greatest lasting impact on humanity is surely that of Alfred Nobel. In 1888, several newspapers mistakenly published his death notice following the passing of his brother Ludvig. One French newspaper used the opportunity to condemn Nobel’s invention of dynamite and wrote “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.” Nobel was apparently so horrified by his potential legacy that he ultimately rewrote his will in 1895 to dedicate approximately $9 million to establish the Nobel Prize Foundation.

Nobel was born in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1833. Trained as a chemist, Nobel became fascinated with explosives and worked to develop a safe way to handle the recently discovered nitroglycerine, which he combined with rock powder and then sawdust to create “Nobel’s Blasting Powder” (i.e., dynamite). He patented his creation in 1867, did the same for blasting gelatin (gelignite) in 1876, and made a fortune. Just as Guillotin believed his invention would humanize capital punishment and Gatling believed his weapon would reduce military casualties (see Gatling gun), Nobel likewise had a naïve faith in humanity’s willingness to eliminate human suffering. Though he invented dynamite to be used in construction, he recognized its potential military use and wrote “My factories may end war sooner than your congresses. The day when two army corps will be able to destroy each other in one second, all civilized nations will recoil away from war in horror and disband their armies.”

It is ironic that Nobel’s legacy of promoting peace should be borne of a newspaper article describing him as a “merchant of death.” Perhaps it is then fitting that at least three of the recipients of his prize (philosopher Bertrand Russell, president Nelson Mandela, and playwright Harold Pinter) share with him a singularly peculiar distinction—all received premature obituaries.