February 23, 2017

Melba toast


February 23 is the anniversary of the 1931 death of Dame Nellie Melba, heroine of theater and toaster.

n. bread sliced thin and dried by heat until brown and crisp
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

It may be hard to believe that saying “I am Melba” once opened doors the world over, but such was the case with the grand opera diva Dame Nellie Melba in the early twentieth century. Regrettably, today it will only get you a side of burned toast.

Helen Porter Mitchell was born outside of Melbourne, Australia, in the spring of 1861. Little Nellie, as her family called her, learned to play the piano but did not even consider pursuing a musical career until adulthood. She married and had a child in 1882 and soon found a rural life in Queensland unbearable. Though she would remain married for two more decades, she abandoned her husband and two-month-old son and fled to London to be an opera star. She was twenty-one years old.

Having no luck in England, Nellie went to study in Paris with Madame Mathilde Marchesi, who quickly identified her incomparable talent, encouraged her to adopt the stage name of Melba (abbreviated from her hometown), and ushered her to stardom. The extraordinary soprano debuted in Rigoletto in Brussels in 1887 and embarked on a spectacular forty-year career, with starring roles in New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, London’s Covent Garden, La Scala, and the Paris Opera. She was even made a Dame of the British Empire in 1918. She was a true prima donna, famous for the silence! silence! signs in her London dressing room; her “I am Melba!” explanations for extravagant requests; and her private train car filled with fresh caviar. So why do we associate her with desiccated bread?

While on her meteoric rise to international fame at the turn of the century, Melba often resided at the Savoy Hotel in London, where Georges Auguste Escoffier was the famed executive chef. Like many opera singers before and since, Melba was frequently concerned about her weight, and she apparently often ordered plain toast in lieu of the heavy French dishes regularly prepared. Legend has it that an assistant chef one day accidentally overtoasted a particularly thin slice of bread and sent it out to the diva, much to the horror of Escoffier. Melba loved it, began ordering it specially, and a culinary legend was born.

Melba prolonged the end of her singing career with four years of farewell concerts from 1924 to 1928, leading to the Australian expression “more farewells than Nellie Melba.” She delivered her swan song in 1931, dying at the age of sixty-nine allegedly from complications following a face-lift. Headlines around the world announced her passing. Dozens of conservatories, music halls, and streets were named for her. Chef Escoffier (who adored the soprano) even named an elaborate dessert of vanilla ice cream, peaches, and raspberry sauce served betwixt the wings of a frozen swan for her (Peach Melba). But it is the inadvertent toast for which she is best remembered today.

February 12, 2017

Cooper's ligaments

February 12 is the anniversary of the death of Astley Cooper (1841). Have an uplifting day!

n. supportive fibrous structures throughout the breast that partially sheathe the lobes shaping the breast; these ligaments affect the image of the glandular tissue on a mammogram
Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary, 20th Edition

Perhaps no other extraordinary medical career has been reduced more pitifully than that of Sir Astley Paston Cooper. He was the Sergeant Surgeon to nineteenth-century royalty, was Vice President of the Royal Society, and is the unfortunate namesake of the perceived condition of a pendulous bosom perhaps resulting from inadequate undergarment support—the slang term for which is Cooper’s Droop.

Cooper was born the son of an English clergyman in 1768. He was an exemplary student of anatomy and eventually became a celebrated surgeon, professor, and lecturer. He was an indefatigable researcher and defended both the comparative anatomy lesson of a dissected elephant and the crucial role of resurrectionists (body snatchers) to provide corpses for medical training (see burke and bishop). He wrote a seminal two-volume treatise on hernias, pioneered work in vascular surgery, removed a royal cyst from the head of King George IV, and was eventually knighted and baroneted.

He was also an authority on mammary glands.

Though he died more than a century before the era of sexual revolution and brassiere tossing, Cooper would likely have warned the newly liberated ladies that the sartorial shackles they were eschewing might help postpone some inevitable sagging (though the jury is still out on whether this is due to gravity or not). Among the myriad anatomical features Cooper identified, studied, and eventually named were the fibrocollegenous septa that attach the breasts to the body. He discovered that, unlike Kegel exercises for the pelvis or sit-ups for a spare tire, there was no treatment to restore elasticity to these Cooper’s ligaments once they were stretched. He believed that even the most pristine mammary profile, if subjected to extended tension, will languish.

Cooper once said “The means by which I preserve my own health are temperance, early rising, and spunging the body every morning with cold water, a practice I have pursued for thirty years; and though I go from this heated theatre into the squares of the Hospital, in the severest winter nights, with merely silk stockings on my legs, yet I scarcely ever have a cold....”

Despite these precautions, Cooper died in 1841 in London, and a statue of him was raised in St. Paul’s Cathedral. Both in his own time and shortly after, he was further memorialized through street names, public parks, and schools, as well as through a slew of true clinical eponyms including Cooper’s fascia (covering of the spermatic cord), Cooper’s testis (testicular neuralgia), and Cooper’s hernia, among many others.

The exact date of the first usage of the term Cooper’s Droop is debatable, but it found new pop-culture life in 1978 through Michael Shem’s satirical novel House of God in which a young medical intern waxes poetic on his girlfriend’s bosom: “Oh, how I love her breasts when she dances. Cooper’s ligaments suspend the breasts. Cooper’s Droopers, if they stretch.”

Unfortunately, despite his venerable contributions to medicine, this snickering and rhyming word coupling is the way he is most widely remembered today. 

February 10, 2017

Listerine

February 10 is the anniversary of the death of Sir Joseph Lister (1910), unwitting namesake of mouthwash. Rinse, gargle, and spit.

n. an antiseptic solution
–Oxford English Dictionary


Single women the world over rightfully curse the men who popularized the phrase “often a bridesmaid but never a bride,” many not realizing that it was part of a wildly successful advertising campaign for Listerine in the 1920s that warned young ladies that their bad breath might leave them old maids before their “tragic” thirtieth birthdays. Had he still been living, no one would have been cursing louder than eminent British surgeon Baron Joseph Lister who spent the last years of his life desperately trying to disassociate himself from a product that he neither invented nor endorsed.

Hospital wards in the mid-nineteenth century were stinking, seeping cesspools of infection. Windows were generally closed (limiting the influx of fresh air), surgeons did not wash their instruments or their hands prior to procedures, and wounds were rarely, if ever, flushed clean, providing literal breeding grounds for deadly microorganisms. When Joseph Lister was a young surgeon in the Male Accident Ward of the Glasgow Royal Infirmary in the 1860s, more than half of his amputation patients died from sepsis, a bacterial wound infection.

Lister became fascinated with Louis Pasteur’s emerging theories on rot and fermentation and was convinced that his findings could be applied to medicine. At the time, Britain was more concerned with the cleanliness of its sewers than its hospitals, and carbolic acid had been used for years to improve the odor of its municipal muck. In 1865, Lister decided that what was good enough for British sewage was good enough for British patients, and he began swabbing his surgical tools and his wounds with carbolic acid. His mortality rate instantly dropped by 35 percent. He formalized his sterile operating procedures in 1867 (including forcing surgeons to wear clean gloves and wash their hands before and after surgeries), and they were quickly adopted worldwide.

Lister was made a baron in 1883 and enjoyed an extraordinarily successful medical career and respectable retirement until his death at the age of eighty-four in 1912. For his pioneering efforts, he became the namesake of the Royal Society’s prestigious Lister Medal and England’s Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine. He was commemorated on two postal stamps in 1965 and has public monuments in both London and Glasgow. Unfortunately, it is the now-ubiquitous Listerine that provides him with the most name recognition today.

In 1879, twelve years after Lister’s groundbreaking discoveries, Dr. Joseph Lawrence and Jordan Wheat Lambert used Lister’s research to formulate a surgical antiseptic that was eventually recommended for dentists in 1895. Over the shy and unassuming surgeon’s objections, the Lambert Pharmacal company marketed the product as Listerine and were selling it as the first over-the-counter mouthwash by 1914. According to company legend, once the general manager first heard that there was a medical term for bad breath (halitosis), his ad men embarked on a spectacular 1920s campaign castigating the social disgrace of foul mouth odor and skyrocketing Lambert Pharmacal’s profits into the millions.

Thankfully, for his sake, Lister did not live to witness the decades of absurd and misleading Listerine marketing ploys that hawked his namesake as everything from a dandruff suppressant, deodorant, and sore throat remedy to gonorrhea treatment, aftershave, and floor cleaner. 

January 31, 2017

Miranda (Warning and Rights)

January 31 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, 2017

knickers

January 30 is the anniversary of the death of Harmen Knickerbocker (1855), 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 27, 2017

masochism


January 27 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.

crapper

January 27 is the anniversary of the 1910 death of Sir Thomas Crapper, one of several individuals upon whose name posterity defecates.

crapper 
n. toilet
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition

Mention that you are writing a book on notorious eponyms and you will likely receive a yawn, a condescending eye roll, or an excited outburst that Sir Thomas Crapper invented the flush toilet. The first two responses demonstrate that there is just no accounting for some people’s taste, while the third reflects the remarkable staying power of a satirical pseudobiography that launched one of the most ubiquitous urban legends in history. Let us make several things clear. Thomas Crapper most certainly did not invent the toilet, but it might be possible that we invoke his namesake when we ascend the porcelain throne.


Wallace Reyburn was a war correspondent, magazine editor, and humorist who wrote a good many books in his life, some more serious (and factual) than others, but 1969’s tongue-in-cheek Flushed with Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper and 1971’s teat-in-sling Bust-up: The Uplifting Tale of Otto Titzling and the Development of the Bra proved to be swallowed whole by a generous portion of their readership. Despite the rampant puns in the latter “bra-ography”—including an assistant named Hans Delving and a female athlete named Lois Lung—the completely fictional Titzling eventually became a supposedly real answer to a Trivial Pursuit question. Meanwhile, Flushed describes Crapper’s good friend “B.S.” and the “many dry runs” required to perfect the “Crapper W.C. Cistern.” People have been spouting this satire as fact for the last forty years.


The truth is that Thomas P. Crapper did exist. He was a British plumber, born around 1836, who owned his own plumbing company and widely popularized flush toilets, but his connection to modern word usage is somewhat murkier. Certainly the word crap, derived from the Dutch krappe, precedes him by centuries, first appearing in English in 1440. Likewise, the prototypes and early patents for our modern flushing toilets are generally attributed to Sir John Harrington at the end of the sixteenth century and Alexander Cummings in the 1770s, decades before Crapper created his first movement. But Crapper’s company in London did pioneer the use of the floating ballcock (to avoid overflow) and outfitted several royal lavatories including those of Edward VII and George V. The resourceful Crapper was never knighted for his contributions, however, as is often alleged.


While fanciful anecdotes and jokes abound, it is still possible that our use of both crapper and crap are connected to the British plumber. Crapper first appears in the Oxford English Dictionary as a privy in 1932 in American usage, and crap is not used to mean defecation until 1937. One prevailing theory is that American soldiers serving in World War I traveled to Britain and spent a fair amount of time staring at “Thomas Crapper & Co. Ltd.” fixtures while dropping personal bombs and brought Thomas’s namesake back to the United States. Crapper thus slowly entered the lexicon over the next decade. Meanwhile, the name’s close connection to the contents carried helped transform crap (a traditional word for chaff, residue, and rubbish) into its stinking incarnation today. Crapper himself retired from the crapper business in 1904 and is immortalized on a series of manhole covers in Westminster Abbey. He passed in 1910.


Yet while Crapper’s offal association might be debatable, there is a solid quartet of historical heroes who share the dubious distinction of having their names (and, sometimes, faces) directly conjoined with voiding vessels. Because only vespasienne appears in modern usage (Oxford English Dictionary), all have been relegated to footnote status here.

vespasienne
In chronological order, our first stop on the Excrement Express is Italy. One year after Nero committed suicide in AD 68, the great military leader Titus Flavius Vespasianus (generally referred to as Vespasian) became Emperor of Rome. His primary goal seemed to be to institute new taxes, wherever possible, to fill the royal coffers and fund his grand new ventures—including construction of the immense Colosseum, which would not be completed until his son’s rule. One of his most creative moneymaking schemes was a “urine tax” imposed on public facilities. To maximize his supply-chain loop, he sold the collected urine to launderers, who aged it in giant vats (until it converted to ammonia) and then used it for bleaching. Italians henceforth called urinals vespianos, leading to the French vespasiennes, which was then absorbed into English. Vespasian was relieved of his mortal strain in AD 79 when he died of a diarrhea-racked fever.

Oliver’s skull 
Roughly 1,500 years later in England, a civil war over haircuts and political succession was under way. The short-haired, Parliament-supporting Roundheads were facing up against the curly tresses of the monarch-loving Royalists. The Roundheads ultimately won a victory in 1651 that would eventually establish a parliamentary monarchy 150 years later, but short-term leadership of the country fell to the alternately revered and reviled Oliver Cromwell. While soothing their wounds from their military losses over a few pints, the Royalists drunkenly stumbled across the hilarious notion of dubbing their chamber pots Oliver’s skulls. The slang stuck well into the 1800s. Cromwell himself died in 1658 (somewhat ironically) from a urinary tract infection. Three years later, after the Royalists had returned to power, his buried body was exhumed, hanged at Tyburn, thrown in a pit, and then beheaded. His head was then placed on a spike above Westminster Hall.


Details on the subsequent journeys of the head are mysterious. However, in 1799, what was believed to be the head was sold to three brothers named Hughes who set up an exhibit of Cromwellabilia. Despite an extensive marketing campaign, the exhibit was a failure, and the provenance of the head has been in question ever since.

sacheverell 
Political tensions were not much relieved in the decades that followed, and soon the divine-right-of-kings-supporting Tories and the crown-threatening Whigs were at each other’s throats. In 1709 ardent Tory and clergyman Dr. Henry Sacheverell successfully pissed off the entire Whig party in a series of sermons that accused the Whigs of being too tolerant of religious dissenters. His fomenting language initially led to his short suspension from preaching and an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary as a synonym for a stove blower, the implication being that he was famous for “blowing the coals of dissension.” However, more germane to the topic here, his name also became synonymous with chamber pots after several resourceful Whigs managed to manufacture the common household items with a portrait of Dr. Sacheverell painted on the bottom.

twiss 
The Irish thought this piss-pot portraiture hilarious but had no appropriate target for their streams for nearly seventy years until British travel writer Richard Twiss published his decidedly unflattering Tour in Ireland in 1775. It was an enormous bestseller in his home country of England but struck heavy ire in the land to the west by asserting that the Irish primarily consumed whiskey and were notable for little more than the thickness of their legs—particularly the women. In response, a Dublin pottery company began selling a chamber pot called a “twiss” that included a portrait of its namesake, facing forward, with an open mouth. Accounts (and, perhaps, versions) of its caption vary, but the general gist is as follows:
Here you may behold a liar,
Well deserving of hell-fire:
Every one who likes may piss
Upon the learned Doctor Twiss.


As an editorial footnote to these etymological footnotes, any reader now inspired to sully the most extraordinarily large urinals east of the Mississippi River needs only swing open the saloon doors of the Old Town Bar in New York City, home to the grand porcelain towers of the Hinsdale Company, whose magnificence dwarfs even the mightiest sword. In contrast, the Old Town’s crappers are nothing to speak of.

January 18, 2017

Ponzi scheme


January 18 is the anniversary of the death of Charles Ponzi in 1949. 

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, 2017

Salisbury steak

January 12 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.

January 07, 2017

Maginot Line


January 7 is the anniversary of the 1932 death of André Maginot. Sadly, dying after eating bad oysters was just the start of his unfortunate legacy.

n. a line of fortifications along the frontier of France from Switzerland to Luxembourg, begun in the 1920s as a defense against German invasion and widely considered impregnable, but outflanked in 1940
n. in extended use, indicating a preoccupation with defense (of the status quo, etc.), or with a particular means of defense
—Oxford English Dictionary

Though French foreign minister André Maginot did not live to witness its naming or its inability to withstand the German invasion in World War II, he will forever be associated with one of the greatest military failures in history—the Maginot Line.

Born in Paris in 1877, Maginot advanced through the political landscape to become the French undersecretary of war in 1913. Had it not been for the outbreak of World War I, Maginot might likely have led a quiet bureaucratic life drinking wine and eating cheese. As it was, Maginot quickly enlisted, distinguished himself in combat, and was promoted to sergeant. He was badly wounded in the leg during the defense of Verdun and received France’s highest military honor for his bravery—the médaille militaire—but his experience of a German invasion stayed with him for life.

The French truly took a glove to the face in World War I, and after the war there were fewer young Frenchmen, fewer French babies, and a national sense of dread that a future war might be devastating. So France decided to start nesting. After becoming the minister of war in 1922, Maginot began supporting a plan to build a fortified wall, almost two hundred miles long, along France’s eastern border from Switzerland to Belgium. He successfully argued that it was a better investment to focus on static defense than modern armor and aircraft. It took four more years to secure funding, but construction finally began in 1930. Sadly, Maginot fell ill after an unsuccessful skirmish with tainted oysters and died of typhoid fever in January 1932 (see also Typhoid Mary). Even though he had not conceived of the idea and was not responsible for its actual design (see also guillotine), the French decided to name the fortification after their fallen hero.

The Maginot Line was actually a series of self-sufficient forts dug deep into the ground, interspersed with machine gun posts, tank obstacles, and “pillbox” bunkers. The line was never truly intended as an impregnable defense, only to provide advance warning against a surprise attack. Unfortunately, its construction in the 1930s fostered a false sense of security, and, in 1940, German tanks entered France relatively easily by circumventing the line to the north and entering through the Belgian forests. To be fair to the hapless French, the Germans did also use high-tech gliders and explosives to break through the Belgian line, and the French forts on the line proper did hold. But the subsequent German roughshod run over the French countryside and the fall of Paris within a month led to a lamentable legacy for Maginot and his beloved line.

France constructed a monument to Maginot near Verdun in 1966. Several structures along the Maginot Line were auctioned off to the public in 1969, but the rest lie in decay to this day.