Sunday, February 28, 2010

Going Around The World By Taking A Shortcut

With thanks to s.a.
Donald Crowhurst (1932–1969) was a British businessman and amateur sailor who died while competing in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, a single-handed, round-the-world yacht race. Crowhurst had entered the race in hopes of winning a cash prize from the Sunday Times to aid his failing business. Instead, he encountered difficulty early in the voyage, and secretly abandoned the race while reporting false positions, in an attempt to appear to complete a circumnavigation without actually circling the world. Evidence found after his disappearance indicates that this attempt ended in insanity and suicide.

Crowhurst was born in 1932 in Ghaziabad, British India. His mother was a school teacher and his father worked on the Indian railways. After India gained its independence, his family moved back to England. The family's retirement savings were invested in an Indian sporting goods factory, which later burned down during rioting after the Partition of India.

Crowhurst's father died in 1948. Due to family financial problems, he was forced to leave school early and started a five-year apprenticeship at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough Airfield. He later received a Royal Air Force commission as a pilot, but was asked to leave the Royal Air Force. He later joined the British Army. After leaving the Army due to a disciplinary incident, he eventually moved to Bridgwater and started a business called Electron Utilisation Ltd. He was active in his local community as a member of the Liberal Party and in 1967 was elected to represent the Central Ward of Bridgwater Town Council.

Crowhurst, a weekend sailor, designed and built a radio direction finder called the Navicator. This device allowed the user to take bearings on marine and aviation radio beacons with a handheld device. While he did have some success selling his navigational equipment, his business began to fail. In an effort to gain publicity, he started trying to gain sponsors to enter the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race. His main sponsor was English entrepreneur Stanley Best, who had invested heavily in Crowhurst's failing business. Once committed to the race, Crowhurst leveraged both his business and home against Best's continued financial support, placing himself in a grave financial situation.

The Golden Globe Race was inspired by Francis Chichester's successful single-handed round-the-world voyage, stopping in Sydney. The considerable publicity to which his achievement gave rise led a number of sailors to plan the next logical step — a non-stop, single-handed, round-the-world sail.

The Sunday Times had sponsored Chichester, with highly profitable results, and was interested in being involved with the first non-stop circumnavigation; but they had the problem of not knowing which sailor to sponsor. They solved this by declaring the Golden Globe Race, a single-handed round-the-world race, open to all comers, with automatic entry. This was in contrast to other races of the time, for which entrants were required to demonstrate their single-handed sailing ability prior to entry. Entrants were required to start between June 1 and October 31 1968, in order to pass through the Southern Ocean in summer. The prizes offered were the Golden Globe trophy for the first single-handed circumnavigation, and a £5,000 cash prize for the fastest. This was a considerable sum then, equivalent to £58,100 in 2005.

The other contestants were Robin Knox-Johnston, Nigel Tetley, Bernard Moitessier, Chay Blyth, John Ridgway, William King, Alex Carozzo, and Loïck Fougeron. "Tahiti" Bill Howell, a noted multihull sailor and competitor in the 1964 and 1968 OSTAR races, originally signed up as an entrant but did not actually race.

Crowhurst hired Rodney Hallworth, a crime reporter for the Daily Mail and then Daily Express, as his public relations officer.

The boat Crowhurst built for the trip, Teignmouth Electron, was a 40-foot (12 m) trimaran designed by Californian Arthur Piver. At the time, this was an unproven type of sailing boat for a voyage of such length. Trimarans have the potential to sail much more quickly than monohulled sailboats, but early designs in particular could be very slow if overloaded, and had considerable difficulty sailing close to the wind. Trimarans are popular with many sailors for their stability; however, if capsized (for example by a rogue wave), they are virtually impossible to right, in contrast to monohulls, and this would typically be a fatal disaster for the boat's crew.

To improve the safety of the boat, Crowhurst had planned to add an inflatable buoyancy bag on the top of the mast to prevent capsizing; the bag would be activated by water sensors on the hull designed to detect an impending capsize. This innovation would hold the boat horizontal, and a clever arrangement of pumps would allow him to flood the uppermost outer hull, which would (in conjunction with wave action) pull the boat upright. His scheme was to prove these devices by sailing round the world with them, then go into business manufacturing the system.

However, Crowhurst had a very short time in which to build and equip his boat while securing financing and sponsors for the race. In the end, all of his safety devices were left uncompleted; he planned to complete them while underway. Also, many of his spares and supplies were left behind in the confusion of the final preparations. On top of it all, Crowhurst had never sailed on a trimaran before taking delivery of his boat several weeks before the beginning of the race.

Crowhurst left from Teignmouth, Devon, on the last day permitted by the rules: 31 October 1968. He encountered immediate problems with his boat and equipment, and in the first few weeks was making less than half of his planned speed. According to his logs, he gave himself only 50/50 odds of surviving the trip, assuming that he was able to complete some of the safety equipment before reaching the dangerous Southern Ocean. Crowhurst was thus faced with the choice of either quitting the race and facing financial ruin and humiliation, or continuing to an almost certain death in his unsafe boat. Over the course of November and December 1968, the hopelessness of his situation pushed him into an elaborate deception. He planned to loiter in the South Atlantic for several months while the other boats sailed the Southern Ocean, falsify his navigation logs, then slip back in for the return leg to England. As last place finisher, he assumed his false logs would not receive the scrutiny of the winner.

Since leaving, Crowhurst had been deliberately ambiguous in his radio report of his location. Starting on 6 December 1968, he continued reporting further vague but false positions and possibly fabricating a log book; rather than continuing to the Southern Ocean, he sailed erratically in the southern Atlantic Ocean, and stopped once in South America (in violation of the rules) to make repairs to his boat. A great deal of the voyage was spent in radio silence, while his supposed position was inferred by extrapolation based on his earlier reports. By early December, based on his false reports, he was being cheered worldwide as the likely winner of the race, though Francis Chichester publicly expressed doubts about the plausibility of Crowhurst's progress.

After rounding the tip of South America in early February, Moitessier had made a dramatic decision in March to drop out of the race and recircle the globe. On 22 April 1969, Robin Knox-Johnston was the first to complete the race, leaving Crowhurst supposedly in the running against Tetley for second to finish, and possibly still able to beat Knox-Johnston's time (due to his later starting date). In reality, Tetley was far in the lead, having long ago passed within 150 nautical miles (278 km) of Crowhurst's hiding place; but believing himself to be running neck-and neck with Crowhurst, Tetley pushed his failing boat (also a 40-foot (12 m) Piver trimaran) to the breaking point, and had to abandon ship on 30 May. The pressure on Crowhurst had therefore increased, since he now looked certain to win the "elapsed time" race. If he appeared to have completed the fastest circumnavigation, his log books would be closely examined by experienced sailors, including Chichester, and the deception in all probability would be exposed. It is also likely that he felt guilty about wrecking Tetley's genuine circumnavigation so near its completion. He had by this time begun to make his way back as if he had rounded Cape Horn.

Crowhurst ended radio transmissions on 29 June. The last log book entry is dated 1 July. Teignmouth Electron was found adrift, unoccupied, on 10 July.

Crowhurst's behavior as recorded in his logs indicates a complex and conflicted psychological state. His commitment to faking the trip seemed incomplete and self-defeating, as he reported unrealistically fast progress that was sure to arouse suspicion. By contrast, he spent many hours meticulously constructing false log entries, often more difficult to complete than real entries, due to the celestial navigation research required.

The last several weeks of his log entries, once he was facing a real possibility of winning the prize, showed increasing irrationality. In the end, his writings during the voyage - poems, quotations, real and fake log entries, and random thoughts - amounted to more than 25,000 words. The log books include an attempt to construct a philosophical reinterpretation of the human condition that would provide an escape from his impossible situation. The number 243 shows up several times in these writings: he originally planned to finish the trip in 243 days, recorded a false distance of 243 nautical miles (450 km) in one day's sailing (which if valid would have been a record day's run at the time), and may have ended his life on the 243rd day (1 July) of his voyage.

His last log entry was on 1 July 1969; it is assumed that he then jumped overboard and drowned. The state of the boat gave no indication that it had been overrun by a rogue wave, or that any accident had occurred which might have caused Crowhurst to fall overboard. He may have taken with him a single deceptive log book and the ship's clock. Three log books (two navigational logs and a radio log) and a large mass of other papers were left on his boat in order to communicate his philosophical ideas and to reveal his actual navigational course during the voyage.

Although his biographers, Tomalin and Hall, discounted the possibility that some sort of food poisoning contributed to his mental deterioration, they acknowledged that there is insufficient evidence to rule it out.

Teignmouth Electron was found adrift and abandoned on July 10, 1969 by the RMV Picardy (latitude 33 degrees 11 minutes North & longitude 40 degrees 28 minutes West). News of Crowhurst's disappearance led to an air and sea search in the vicinity of the boat and its last estimated course. Examination of his recovered logbooks and papers revealed the attempt at deception, his mental breakdown, and eventual suicide. This was reported in the press at the end of July, creating a media sensation.

Robin Knox-Johnston donated his winnings for fastest circumnavigation (£5,000) to Donald Crowhurst's widow and children. Nigel Tetley was awarded a consolation prize and built a new trimaran, but committed suicide (for unknown reasons) in 1972.

Teignmouth Electron was later taken to Jamaica and was sold multiple times, most recently in 2007, to American artist Michael Jones McKean. The boat still lies in the dunes on the southwest shore of Cayman Brac.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Dark Roasted Weirdsville

A brand new Dark Roasted Blend piece I did just went up: this time about some beautiful - and eccentric - architectural plans for the future.

For as long as humans have had the concept of 'tomorrow,' they've dreamed about what a better world might be, and fantasized about living in a utopia.

Sure, those early fantasies were probably pretty crude: bigger bison, fewer big critters waiting in the shadows to eat you, plenty of fire ... that kind of thing. But as humans got more sophisticated so did their fantasies of what tomorrow -- and the day after that and the day after that -- might be.

Some dreamers have tried to be realistic, to ground their fantasies in the brick and mortar of today, to go all out and be outrageous but always with a realistic foundation. But then there are those whose architectural visions of the World Of Tomorrow has been more ... well, visionary.

If not totally hallucinatory.

Frank Lloyd Wright was -- without hyperbole -- brilliant. Looking at his designs, it's easy to view them as simple in their loveliness: elegant mixtures of natural and artificial, Asian and Western, minimal and dramatic. But it's easy to forget that Wright completely rewrote architecture when the cars parked in front of his houses like Falling Water, his Taliesin studios, and the long lost Imperial Hotel in Tokyo were Model T Fords. It's one thing to dream about the future when you're in a world -- like today -- that's always looking forward, always thinking of grandly dramatic tomorrows, but quite another when you're in a time when men are wearing spats, and women hoop skirts -- and the future was relegated to cheap pulps, at best.

And Wright certainly had his eyes to the future. One of his most visionary designs was of a decentralized city, called Broadacre. Although not as striking as some of his other designs, it was radical for its time. But even more radical was what was to be Wright's masterpiece, a single soaring accomplishment: The Illinois.

Soaring is right, as the Illinois was to be a skyscraper -- a rare thing for Wright. But not just any twenty or thirty or forty floor pinnacle of his skill. Nope, The Illinois was to be a Chicago landmark to end all landmarks: a mile-high skyscraper.

Alas, Wright never came close to seeing his creation as anything but sketches and blueprints.

Another architectural visionary with very long-distance sight was Buckminster Fuller. Bucky created what some consider overly practical geodesic and polished steel future with a staggering array of designs and inventions -- many of which had gone beyond the blueprint stage and could be seen, touched, or even driven. Like Wright's, his designs were often even more incredible in light of when they were created. His Dymaxion House, for example, was created in 1929, and his amazing Dymaxion car actually drove the streets of New York in 1933. Fuller's designs were, to put it mildly, rigorously practical: his Dymaxion Houses were to be created on an assembly line with inflexible specifications, not in their manufacture but for those who were to live in them. The houses might have been absolutely brilliant in their design -- integrating many inspired features such as their ability to recycle water -- and his car literally could have driven rings around the cars of 1944, but in Fuller's future visions humanity would have been less flesh and blood and more like uniform parts in his many intricate mechanisms.

Other architects and visionaries have taken a much more natural approach to their far-forward speculations and designs. Luc Schuiten, for instance, looked at tomorrow and saw not steel and chrome, metal and heavy industry but instead a world of living green. His designs are for cities grown and tended like orchards. Living in Luc's world would be like existing in a city of skyscraper trees, hedgerow houses, forest stores, and prairie parks -- a magnificent dream for those who long for man to finally live with -- and not against -- nature ... though maybe a ring of hell if you have an hay fever.

Wright is art, Fuller is cold logic, Luc is nature, but if you want a vision of the future that's none of the above, in every way, you have to look at the work of Superstudio. Created in 1966 by Adolfo Natalini and Cristiano Toraldo, Superstudio's plans for the future are outrageous, disturbing, and -- most of all -- surreal. To be fair, Natalini and Toraldo never really thought about actually creating their visions of the future -- unlike Wright and Fuler and Luc -- and, considering some of their designs, that might be a very good thing.

Take, for example, their plan to make all the buildings in Pisa lean -- every building except for the town's famous tower; or their famous "Brain City" where the residents would be just that: brains in jars, with the concept of a perfect city fed into their cortexes via direct stimulation.

A contemporary of Superstudio, Archigram created designs that weren't quite as avant guard -- in fact they were almost realistic, at least in comparison. One of their most famous visions is for a city that perambulates across the countryside ... and before you leap to your dictionary, they meant for their cities of the future to be monstrous walking machines, strolling from one part of the world to the other. Another of their designs was for a "Plug In" city, where the metropolis would be a framework providing the necessities and the residents would simply connect where they wanted to be at any time. Although it might sound like a Fuller concept, Archigram at least tried to create something the residents might actually enjoy, giving their residents a choice of where and when to go and live.

Tomorrow might not be here yet, but thankfully there have been, and still are, some dreamers who have tried to look forward to how we might be living. All we can do is hope that some of their more outrageous visions become a reality, and that others never do.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Ray That Wasn't -

N-rays (or N rays) are a hypothesized form of radiation, described by French physicist Prosper-René Blondlot, and initially confirmed by others, but subsequently found to be illusory.

In 1903, Blondlot, a distinguished physicist who was one of 8 physicists who were corresponding members of the French Academy of Science announced his discovery while working at the University of Nancy attempting to polarize X-rays. He had perceived changes in the brightness of an electric spark in a spark gap placed in an X-ray beam which he photographed and he later attributed to the novel form of radiation, naming it the N-ray for the University of Nancy. Blondlot, Augustin Charpentier, Arsène d'Arsonval and approximately 120 other scientists in 300 published articles claimed to be able to detect N-rays emanating from most substances, including the human body with the peculiar exception that they were not emitted by green wood and some treated metals. Most researchers of the subject at the time used the perceived light of a dim phosphorescent surface as "detectors", although work in the period clearly showed the change in brightness to be a physiological phenomenon rather than some actual change in the level of illumination. Physicists Gustave le Bon and P. Audollet and spiritualist Carl Huter even claimed the discovery as their own, leading to a commission of the Académie des sciences to decide priority.

The "discovery" excited international interest and many physicists worked to replicate the effects. However, the notable physicists Lord Kelvin, William Crookes, Otto Lummer and Heinrich Rubens failed to do so. Following his own failure, self-described as "wasting a whole morning", American physicist Robert Wood, who had a reputation as a popular "debunker" in the period, was prevailed upon by the journal Nature to travel to Blondlot's laboratory in France to investigate further. Wood suggested that Rubens go since he had been the most embarrassed when the Kaiser asked him to repeat the French experiments and then after two weeks he had to report his failure to do so. Rubens, however, felt it would look better if Wood went since Blondlot had been most polite in answering his many questions.

In the darkened room, Wood secretly removed an essential prism from the experimental apparatus, yet the experimenters still said that they observed N-rays. He also secretly replaced a large file that was supposed to be giving off N-rays with an inert piece of wood, yet the N-rays were still "observed". His report on these investigations, published in Nature, suggested that N-rays were a purely subjective phenomenon, with the scientists involved having recorded data that matched their expectations. By 1905 no one outside Nancy believed in N-rays even as Blondlot himself is reported to have still been convinced of their existence in 1926.[1] Martin Gardner, referencing Wood's biographer William Seabrook's account of the affair, attributed a subsequent decline in mental health and eventual death of Blondlot to the resulting scandal, but there is evidence that this is at least an exaggeration of the facts.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Have I Got A Deal For You -

For sale ... NOT by owner ...

Victor Lustig (January 4, 1890 – March 11, 1947) was a con artist who undertook scams in various countries and became best known as "the man who sold the Eiffel Tower. Twice."

Victor Lustig was born in Hostinne, Czech Republic, but soon headed to The West. He was a glib and charming conman, fluent in multiple languages. He established himself by working scams on the ocean liners steaming between Paris and New York City.

One of Lustig's trademark cons involved a "money-printing machine". He would demonstrate the capability of the small box to clients, all the while lamenting that it took the device six hours to copy a $100 bill. The client, sensing huge profits, would buy the machines for a high price, usually over $30,000. Over the next twelve hours, the machine would produce two more $100 bills. After that, it produced only blank paper, as its supply of $100 bills became exhausted. By the time the clients realized that they had been scammed, Lustig was long gone.

In 1925, France had recovered from World War I, and Paris was booming, an excellent environment for a con artist. Lustig's master con came to him one spring day when he was reading a newspaper. An article discussed the problems the city was having maintaining the Eiffel Tower. Even keeping it painted was an expensive chore, and the tower was becoming somewhat run down. Lustig saw the possibilities behind this article and developed a remarkable scheme.

Lustig had a forger produce fake government stationery for him and invited six scrap metal dealers to a confidential meeting at the Hotel de Crillon, one of the most prestigious of the old Paris hotels, to discuss a possible business deal. All six attended the meeting. There, Lustig introduced himself as the deputy director-general of the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs. He explained that they had been selected on the basis of their good reputations as honest businessmen, and then dropped his bombshell.

Lustig told the group that the upkeep on the Eiffel Tower was so outrageous that the city could not maintain it any longer, and wanted to sell it for scrap. Due to the certain public outcry, he went on, the matter was to be kept secret until all the details were thought out. Lustig said that he had been given the responsibility to select the dealer to carry out the task. The idea was not as implausible in 1925 as it would be today. The Eiffel Tower had been built for the 1889 Paris Exposition, and was not intended to be permanent. It was to have been taken down in 1909 and moved somewhere else. It did not fit with the city's other great monuments like the Gothic cathedrals or the Arc de Triomphe, and at the time, it really was in poor condition.

Lustig took the men to the tower in a rented limousine for an inspection tour. It gave Lustig the opportunity to gauge which of them was the most enthusiastic and gullible. Lustig asked for bids to be submitted the next day, and reminded them that the matter was a state secret. In reality, Lustig already knew he would accept the bid from one dealer, Andre Poisson (interestingly, in French the word poisson, which means "fish" in English, is also used as a derogatory epithet for someone who is particularly gullible). Poisson was insecure, feeling he was not in the inner circles of the Parisian business community, and thought that obtaining the Eiffel Tower deal would put him in the big league.

However, Poisson's wife was suspicious, wondering who this official was, why everything was so secret, and why everything was being done so quickly. To deal with her suspicion, Lustig arranged another meeting, and then "confessed". As a government minister, Lustig said, he did not make enough money to pursue the lifestyle he enjoyed, and needed to find ways to supplement his income. This meant that his dealings needed a certain discretion. Poisson understood immediately. He was dealing with another corrupt government official who wanted a bribe. That put Poisson's mind at rest immediately, since he was familiar with the type and had no problems dealing with such people.

So Lustig not only received the funds for the Eiffel Tower, he also collected a large bribe. Lustig and his personal secretary, a Franco American con man Robert Arthur Tourbillon also known as Dan Collins, hastily took a train for Vienna with a suitcase full of cash.

Surprisingly, nothing happened. Poisson was too humiliated to complain to the police. A month later, Lustig returned to Paris, selected six more scrap dealers, and tried to sell the Tower once more. This time, the chosen victim went to the police before Lustig could close the deal, but Lustig and Collins managed to evade arrest.

Later, Lustig convinced Al Capone to invest $50,000 in a stock deal. Lustig kept Capone's money in a safe deposit box for two months, then returned it to him, claiming that the deal had fallen through. Impressed with Lustig's integrity, Capone gave him $5,000. It was, of course, all that Lustig was after.

There were others who made a profit selling civic landmarks, of course. In the early 1920s, a rival to Lustig was the fast-talking Scotsman Arthur Furguson.

In 1930, Lustig went into partnership with a middle-aged chemist from Nebraska named Tom Shaw. Shaw had the job of engraving plates for the manufacture of counterfeit banknotes. They then organised a counterfeit ring for the purpose of circulating the hundreds of thousands of forged notes throughout the country. Lustig was successful in keeping it a secret by making sure that not even the underlings knew anything about it.

On the evening of 10 May 1935, Lustig was arrested by federal agents on charges of counterfeiting after an anonymous phone call was made, out of jealousy, by his mistress Billy May, who became jealous when she learned of the romance between him and Shaw's young mistress Marie.[4] The day before his trial, he managed to escape from the Federal House of Detention in New York City, but was recaptured 27 days later in Pittsburgh. Lustig pleaded guilty at his trial and was sentenced to 20 years in Alcatraz Island, California. On March 9, 1947, he contracted pneumonia and died two days later at the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri. On his death certificate, his name is listed as Robert V. Miller and his occupation was listed as "apprentice salesman."

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

I Wanted The Money

The Great Gold Robbery took place on the night of 15 May 1855, when three London firms sent a box of gold bars and coins each from London Bridge station for Paris via the South Eastern Railway. The gold bars alone were worth £12,000 at the time (about £782 thousand in present day terms). A total of 200 lb (91 kg) weight of gold (worth around £12,000) was stolen en route to Folkestone, where the gold was shipped across the English Channel to Boulogne.

On the night of 15 May 1855, three boxes containing gold belonging to Abell and Co., Spielmann, and Bult were delivered by a firm of carriers to the South Eastern Railway at London Bridge station where they were put aboard the guard's van.

The boxes were sealed and bound with iron bars and were placed in safes secured by Chubb locks. The duplicate keys to the safes were held by confidential servants of the railway company in London and Folkestone, and also by the captains of the South Eastern railway's boats.

When the boxes were taken out of the safes at Boulogne and weighed, it was discovered that one weighed 40 lb (18 kg) less than it should have, while the other two each weighed a little more. Despite this discrepancy, the boxes were transferred to a train for Paris. Upon arrival in Paris they were weighed again and when they were opened, it was discovered that lead shot had been substituted for the gold. It was clear that the robbery had not taken place between Paris and Boulogne due to the weights corresponding.

Inquiries were made as soon as the news of the robbery came from Paris to discover where the robbery had been carried out. After an investigation it was concluded that it could not have taken place at Folkestone or aboard the cross-Channel boat, or prior to the arrival of the boxes at London Bridge station, and it must therefore have taken place aboard the train.

Four police forces in Britain and France made extensive inquiries for months and arrested hundreds of suspects for questioning but found nothing. Afterwards many of those who had handled the boxes reported small discrepancies like holes and broken seals. The main suspects were railway staff members at Folkestone. The South Eastern Railway offered a sizable reward and named its own investigator but received only false information. The official British theory was that the robbery had taken place on the continent, while the French police claimed it had happened in England because of the discrepancy in the boxes' weights at Boulogne.

One hundred years on from 1855, Michael Robbins wrote a detailed feature about this incident called The Great South-Eastern Bullion Robbery in The Railway Magazine May 1955 issue.

In August 1855 Edward Agar, a professional criminal and associate of crooked barrister James Townsend Saward, was arrested for passing a false cheque; in fact, he had been set up by a rival. Agar was sentenced for penal transportation to Australia for life, and meanwhile sent to Pentonville prison. From prison Agar wrote to Fanny Kay, mother of his illegitimate child, and mentioned that William Pierce, a former railway employee, was supposed to have paid her £7,000 (equal to £456,386 today). Pierce, in fact, had given her no money.

Kay grew suspicious and in the summer of 1856 visited the governor of Newgate prison. The governor contacted Mr Rees, the investigator for the railway company, and took her to see him. When Kay told Rees about the money, he went to see Agar who, at the time, was in a prison hulk at Portland. When Agar heard what had happened, he decided to tell Rees what had happened and eventually described the robbery at length.

Agar had met Pierce years earlier when Pierce had worked as a ticket printer for the railway company. When Agar returned to England after some time in Australia and America, he met Pierce again and they discussed the possibility of stealing some of the gold frequently shipped between London and Paris on the South Eastern railway. Pierce appears to have been the originator of the plan, and suggested that he could get hold of impressions of the keys to the safes which protected the gold. He was assisted by his associate, railway guard James Burgess.

Pierce and Agar travelled to Folkestone to watch the delivery of the luggage, and make their plans, and attracted the suspicion of the police and the railway authorities with their observation of the booking clerks and the luggage porters. They separated, Pierce returning to London, and Agar remaining behind, where he managed to discover where the key to the bullion safe was kept, though he despaired of ever managing to get hold of it.

Pierce decided to recruit one William George Tester, who was a clerk in the railway superintendent's office. In July or August Pierce discovered that the safe locks were to be returned to Chubb for alterations and Agar was informed that Tester would briefly have the new keys in his possession after this was done. The new safe had two locks, with two different keys, Chubb at first sending only one key to each safe. Tester took these keys to Agar, who made an impression of them in wax.

The difficulty now was to get an impression of the safe's second key. In October 1851 Agar arranged to have a box of bullion worth £200 (equal to £16,823 today) sent on the train to Folkestone, where he would collect it under an assumed name. Agar watched as the safe was opened by a clerk using a key taken from a cupboard. He and Pierce then met in Folkestone where Pierce took advantage of the absence of the booking clerks from the office to simply walk in, and take the safe key from the cupboard - which had been left with its key in the lock - to Agar, who made a wax impression, then returned it to where he had found it.

Having made duplicate keys from the impressions, Agar travelled down to Folkestone several times in the guard's van with Burgess, to test the keys and adjust them until they fitted the safe's locks.

The conspirators decided not to steal any bullion until a good haul could be made. In the meantime they prepared for their robbery by obtaining lead shot equal in weight to the gold which was to be stolen, so as to delay discovery of the theft, preparing 200 lb (91 kg) of shot equal to what £12,000 of gold would weigh. They divided the shot for easier handling, placing some in carpet bags and some in courier bags, which could be carried on their person and hidden by a cloak.

Finally, on 15 May 1855, Tester met Agar at the station, and told him it was "all right" and Agar and Pierce drove to the station dressed as gentlemen, and bought first-class tickets for Folkestone. They gave their carpet bags of lead shot to a porter, who in turn gave them to the guard, Burgess, who put them in his van. Agar boarded the guard's van with Burgess, while Pierce got into a first-class carriage.

As soon as the train began to move, Agar opened the safe and found the three bullion boxes. He removed the iron bands from one of the boxes using a mallet and chisel, took out the gold bars and subsituted lead shot, then replaced the bands and replaced the box's wax seal with a wax taper and an ordinary seal.

It had been arranged beforehand that when the train halted at Redhill Tester should relieve Agar and Pierce of a share of the gold and at that station a bar of gold was placed in a black bag which Tester had brought. In the confusion of the train stopping and starting off again, Pierce got into the van with Agar and Burgess, and when it had set off again they opened up a second box. The third and final box contained small bars of Californian gold. Pierce and Agar could not take all of this, but took a large portion of it, substituting lead shot as before.

When the train arrived at Folkestone the boxes of "gold" were unloaded, and Burgess, Pierce, and Tester carried on to Dover on the train. At Dover they took their carpet bags from the guard's van and proceeded to the Dover Castle Inn, where they ordered refreshments before returning to London by train.

In the following weeks, Agar and Pierce melted down the gold and sold some of it. Burgess received £700 (equal to £45,393 today) and others £600 (equal to £38,909 today). When Agar was arrested, Pierce buried some of the gold in the pantry under the front steps of his house.

Fanny Kay was taken to lodge in the house of police inspector Thorton for safekeeping. Further investigation corroborated Agar's story. Rees recovered gold worth £2,000 (equal to £129,696 today). Some railway employees Agar had dealt with recognised him.

William Pierce, Jeremy Forsyth and James Burgess were arrested in London in November 1856. William Tester, who had left to work as a general manager for Swedish Railways, was arrested when he visited relatives in England.

The trial at the Old Bailey began on 10 January 1857. The main witnesses were Agar and Kay. On 12 January Burgess and Tester were sentenced to penal transportation for 14 years. Pierce received two years for larceny with periodical solitary confinement.

Michael Crichton's novel The Great Train Robbery and subsequent feature film presents a cinematic version of the event, portraying Pierce (played by Sean Connery), as a gentleman master criminal who eventually escapes.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Why is a raven like a writing desk?

Theophilus Carter (? - died after 1894) was an eccentric British inventor and furniture dealer most famous for his combination of an alarm clock and a bed, and thought to be an inspiration for the illustration by Sir John Tenniel of Lewis Carrol's characters the Mad Hatter in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Hatta in Through the Looking-Glass.

Some writers claim that Carter was a servitor at Christ Church, one of the University of Oxford's colleges during the 1850s and 1860s, at the same time that Lewis Carroll was there. However, there is no evidence for this claim (see below). Carter invented The Alarm Clock Bed, exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851, and which tipped out the sleeper at waking-up time into a tub of cold water. He was a cabinet-maker and owned a furniture and upholstery shop at 48-49 High Street in Oxford from 1875 to 1883 at No. 48, and from 1861 to 1894 at No.49, where he employed five men. Census records for 1881 show that Carter lived above this shop with his wife, daughter, grand-daughter and two servants.

It is often claimed that Carter is Lewis Carroll's inspiration for the character of the Mad Hatter, due to his habit of standing in the door of his shop in Oxford wearing a top hat on the back of his head.

In 1935 H. W. Greene wrote a letter to The Times asserting that Carroll had Tenniel model his drawing of the Mad Hatter on Carter. According to Greene, Carter "was the doubtless unconscious model for the Mad Hatter in 'Through the Looking-Glass' [sic] as depicted by Tenniel, who was brought down to Oxford by the author, as I have heard, on purpose to see him. The likeness was unmistakable." A few days later, the Reverend W. Gordon Baillie disputed the notion that Carter did not know he had been the model for the Mad Hatter:

"Your correspondent, Mr. H.W. Greene, thinks that Theophilus Carter was unaware that he figured in "Through the Looking Glass" [sic] But all Oxford called him "The Mad Hatter," and surely his friends, or enemies, must have chaffed him about it. He would stand at the door of his furniture shop in the High, sometimes in an apron, always with a top-hat at the back of his head, which, with a well-developed nose and a somewhat receding chin, made him an easy target for the caricaturist. The story went that Mr. Dodgson ("Lewis Carroll"), thinking T. C. had imposed upon him, took this revenge. Injustice to the man's memory, I may say that I possess a carved oak armchair which I bought from him, second-hand, 50 years ago. It is as good as ever, and the price was very moderate."

Further to this correspondence, W. J. Ryland, who had originally mentioned Carter in connection with the clockwork bed, testified that he had not known "that Carter was the original of the 'Mad Hatter,' but on looking again at the Tenniel drawing I see it is he to the life. To me," he went on, "he was the living image of the late W. E. Gladstone, and, being well aware of the fact, was always careful to wear the high collar and black stock so often depicted in Punch in cartoons of the 'Grand Old Man."

All three witnesses agreed that Carter looked like Tenniel's Mad Hatter, and according to Baillie the resemblance was widely noticed, but the explanation of this resemblance is clearly based on hearsay. Over the years the Carter legend has often been retold, but no evidence has come to light, either in Carroll's diaries, letters, or elsewhere, that Carroll ever brought Tenniel to Oxford for any purpose.

According to Dodgson's nephew, Stuart Dodgson Collingwood, who wrote a biography of his uncle in 1898, during Carroll's undergraduate days at Christ Church he had a place at a dining table along with an unidentified person who was the model for the Mad Hatter. The author Derek Hudson, in his biography of Carroll, believed that Collingwood's reference to a model for the Mad Hatter must be referring to Carter. In the first edition of his biography of Carroll he claimed that Carter was "once of Christ Church" and "later a furniture dealer in the High."

Roger Lancelyn Green failed to find Carter listed in Alumni Oxonienses and concluded that he "may simply have waited" on Carroll's table, and identified Carter as "at one time a servitor at Christ Church and later a furniture dealer with a shop in the High at Oxford." For the second edition of his biography, Hudson revised his description to come into line with Green's, now stating that Carter was "once a servitor of Christ Church" before he became a furniture dealer. However, there is no evidence that either Collingwood or Greene was right about the Mad Hatter, let alone that they both were.

In his reference Collingwood seems to be claiming that the model for the Mad Hatter was an undergraduate colleague of Carroll's, and not a waiter. "In those days," he wrote, "the undergraduates dining in hall were divided into 'messes.' Each mess consisted of about half a dozen men, who had a table to themselves. In Mr. Dodgson's mess were Philip Pusey [son of Edward Pusey, the theologian], the late Rev. G. C. Woodhouse, and, among others, one who still lives in 'Alice in Wonderland' as the 'Hatter.' "

Theophilus Carter is buried in Oxford's Holywell Cemetery.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Dark Roasted Weirdsville

Here's a brand new Dark Roasted Blend piece, this time about some very weird -- and very wonderful fairs and festivals around the world.

Weird festivals? Strange celebrations? Bizarre events? Those of us in the United States have our share. I mean – sheesh: how about giant balloons in the shape of long-cancelled cartoon characters? Celebrities waving from flower-covered 'floats'?

Weird, strange, bizarre, though, really is in the eyes of the beholder. As one travels the globe and observes the variety of fairs, festivals, and frivolities, that point becomes crystal clear. Although human behavior doesn't vary much, the methods of public celebrations certainly do.

For some baffling reason, for instance, people like to throw things. And depending on the country, what they throw is likely to be different. In Binche, a small town in Belgium, the projectile of choice is a fruit. On Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday Binche the town is visited by masked figures called Gilles who – later on in the festivities – carry large baskets of oranges through the town. Many of these oranges are calmly, orderly, handed to residents as well as tourists. Others, though, are rather vigorously … well, thrown at wary residents and unfortunate tourists.

Meanwhile, if you happen to be in Buñol, Spain, on the last Wednesday in August, you also might want to duck as the fruit thrown there – while not as hard or potentially damaging as an orange – can still sting a bit. What's fun about Buñol isn't just the hurled tomatoes but that the town, which normally has a population around 10,000, swells to closer to 60,000 as folks from all over come to throw -- and get thrown at.

If you happen to be in Taihape, New Zealand, things will be flying through the air but none of them – at least as far as we know – have been thrown at anyone. Nevertheless, a festival where people try to throw a gumboot as far as possible could pose some risks to passersby and participants alike.

"Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!" are words you might want to keep an ear open for if you're in Japan during Setsubun, and happen to see a member of your household holding a handful of roasted soybeans. Mamemaki is the term for it, and "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!" ("Demons out! Luck in!") is what is traditionally said before the beans are thrown out the front door – or at another member of the family.

If you happen to be in India during Holi, the festival of color, you also might want to avoid wearing your best suit of clothes. As part of the celebration, a brightly dyed powder called abir is merrily thrown everywhere – and especially at each other.

Fortunately, not all festivals in the world include hurled objects. Some just have unique themes. Japan's Hōnen Matsuri is a fertility festival, uniquely celebrated in the city of Komaki. By unique we mean prodigious, tumescent, large, and … okay, enough with the jokes, especially since the object of the fertility being celebrated is that certain part of the male anatomy. A similar festival is also held in Kawasaki, called Kanamara Matsuri.

While nothing is thrown, and nothing terribly phallic is evident, there's a festival that absolutely has to be mentioned: an event featuring tremendous beauty that ends with ashes and smoke.

Around the middle of March, the city of Valencia, Spain, has a festival called Falles – a celebration of Saint Joseph. But long before the Falles, Valencia, the third largest city in Spain, begins to prepare: neighborhoods and a wide variety of organizations form groups called Casal Fallers who raise money for their own contributions to the festivities.

It's these contributions that make the event so incredible. Each group – working from a common theme selected for that year – creates a ninot, or puppet. Fashioned from paper, wax, Styrofoam, and a few other materials, ninots are whimsical, outrageous, profane, comical, political, and every one is incredibly beautiful.

The artisans of Valencia have had a very long time to perfect their craft, and it shows in each and every minot. Each figure and tableau is a hallucinatory mixture of a Renaissance masterpiece and a three-dimensional cartoon. Each one, too, is frequently a wildly executed satirical jab at everything from politics to tradition, from pop culture to the Falles celebrants themselves. Nothing is sacred, nothing is spared.

Then come the fires, and then the ashes. Yes, you guessed correctly: each and every minot, every figure and tableau is lit – exploding into the night sky in a roaring conclusion called La Cremà. In the morning there is nothing but ashes, and the memory of the wonders of the falles.

Regardless of location, the one thing every fantastic fair, festival, and frivolity has in common is that they all show how we're all very much the same – and that all humans, no matter where we live, are more than just a bit bonkers.

Tiny Murders


The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death were a series of intricately designed doll house-style dioramas created by Frances Glessner Lee, a millionaire heiress with an interest in forensic science.

She designed detailed scenarios, based on composites of real criminal acts, and presented them physically in miniature. Students were instructed to study the scene and draw conclusions from the evidence presented. Lee used her inheritance to set up Harvard's department of legal medicine, and donated the Nutshell dioramas in 1945 for use in her lectures on the subject of crime scene investigation. In 1966 the department was dissolved, and the dioramas went to the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office; there, Harvard Magazine reports that they are still used for forensic seminars.

Of Dolls and Murder is a documentary film about a morbid collection of dollhouse crime scenes and society's collective fascination with death. The film is still fundraising to finish post-production

In the 1930s and 1940s, heiress Frances Glessner Lee, created dollhouse crime scenes to help train detectives in the art of reading crimes scenes. The dollhouses, known as The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, reside in Baltimore, Maryland, and are not open to the public.

The film follows how these intricate dioramas are still used to train homicide detectives, despite all the technological advances in death investigation. The dioramas also provided inspiration for The Miniature Killer, a recurring villain in season seven of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. The villain's modus operandi is to leave behind accurate dioramas of her crime scenes.

In a further exploration of morbid curiosity, the filmmakers also shadow a Baltimore City Homicide Detective, and visit The Body Farm, a famous forensic anthropology site in Tennessee where researchers study the decay of bodies.


It may have taken a wee bit longer than I thought but - whew - I am now moved in and ready to begin to live again. Thank you all for your patience and understanding. Going forward I promise not just the same as before but bigger, better, wilder, stranger, and (better yet) even more fun!