Category Archives: Pop Culture

Three Short Tales…

Hey folks the internet tells me you all like lists, so I thought I’d fill a gap in the schedule with a short list, of short tales. This week’s tale is a triptych – a little like the Francis Bacon piece I borrowed for the featured image today…

One – Pirates!

Our first tale takes place on a Merchant vessel, off the coast of Honduras in 1717. This was an unsettling time to be a sailor in the Caribbean – The War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) was a great time to be a privateer, but the resolution of the conflict (Philip V was allowed to ascend to the throne, but ceded numerous territories to Britain, Savoy and Austria) left many said privateers out of work. Large numbers of British and American pirates flooded into the Caribbean, making easy pickings of the merchant ships sailing through the region.

Picture this, the crew of a merchant vessel is completely blindsided by pirates. In the early hours of morning a boarding party sidled up to them in a sloop. Before the crew could react all hellfire and thunder breaks loose – as large, heavily bearded men threw the sailors around like rag dolls, brandished swords in their faces and corralled the crew onto the quarter deck. The crew are then forced onto their knees, then poked and prodded. “Look at the noggin on that one” I imagine one pirate commenting – “he’d do you right Pete”. I get an image of Pete passing comment that he must be a smart man, big headed people always are, while he runs a length of twine around the man’s forehead. I recall another passing one of the men over. “Nah, far too threadbare. I do have standards, you know”. The crew beg the pirates for mercy,
“Please spare us, take anything you wish – we just want to make it home to our loved ones”

A particularly terrifying pirate steps forward, demanding “Who’s the captain?” This pirate is Benjamin Hornigold – an up and coming buccaneer with five ships and 350 men under his command. Among his men one Edward Teach – known to history as Blackbeard.

“Why, sir… I… I am. Please sir, as a good Christian I beg you, spare our lives” The captain responded, meekly.

“Well, captain. What size hat do you wear?”

The night before Hornigold and his crew were out carousing. A good time was had by all. The drinks flowed, and the men partied into the wee small hours – when it struck them as a smart thing to do to throw one’s hat into the air – on a moving ship – with a wind strong enough to send the hats scattering. From there the hats all sank to the bottom of Davy Jones’ locker. As daylight came, and the men worried that sailing on bareheaded would lead to disaster, a plan was hatched to steal all the hats from a merchant ship spotted in the distance.

The pirates took the hats they needed, and nothing else. They returned to their own ship and let the merchant ship return to their business.


Two – Mr. 380.

Though really not big on ‘Big History’, I’ve heard it said a student once asked the anthropologist Margaret Mead what she considered the first sign of civilization. Her answer? A broken femur which has healed. In my time I have read a sum total of three books on Big History, little specific to anthropology, so am in no way qualified to offer an opinion – but I think it is a great anecdote to open my next short Tale…. Which is definitely not Big History.


The Lombards were a tribe of Germanic people who conquered and ruled much of Italy from 568 AD, till they were conquered themselves in 774 AD by the Frankish king Charlemagne. They are of indeterminate origin – their own 8th century historians stating they were from Southern Scandinavia – but Roman historians in the 1st Century BC count them among the Suebi, a group which originated in the Elbe river region of modern Germany and the Czech Republic. Their name lives on in the Northern Italian region of Lombardy.

Over two seasons 1985-86 and 1991-92 a group of archeologists came across, then excavated a Lombard graveyard in Veneto, Northern Italy. They uncovered 164 bodies, buried between the 6th and 8th centuries AD. One is of particular interest to our next tale.


The man in tomb T US 380 is a man of mystery. Examination of his remains suggest he was a warrior – not uncommon for a Lombard male. At the time of his death he would have been somewhere between 40 and 50; for this time and place in history that was a reasonably good age to make it to. His grave was not filled with earthly treasures, or his favorite horse, or a team of slaves to serve him in the afterlife. By all accounts T US 380 was an average Joe – in all ways but one – Mr. 380 was missing his right hand, and part of his forearm. In place of the missing limb, it appears he had a knife attached to his stump.

No-one knows exactly how Mr. 380 lost his limb. It looks like it was removed in one heavy blow – though it could have been done in battle, or it could have been an amputation of a limb too badly damaged to heal itself. There is a possibility Mr. 380 had a hand cut off as punishment for theft – this was not unheard of among the Lombards. The stump showed signs of a callous built up, suggesting a (probably leather) device used to attach the blade. Signs of wear on the man’s teeth and shoulder suggest a daily routine of using his teeth, and spare hand, to fasten the prosthesis with laces.

In medieval times people generally didn’t survive amputations. If the blood loss didn’t kill you, the post amputation infection would likely finish the job. Margaret Mead’s rationale at the top of this tale – if a group takes care of it’s damaged members, cares for them, nurses them back to health – then that’s a civilized society. There is no question the Lombards were a civilization, but knowing their tough as nails, warrior reputation – Hardcore History’s Dan Carlin for one described them as like an Outlaw Biker gang – it is remarkable to think of the group of people who handled the tourniquet, who sewed him back together, and who nursed Mr. 380 through the inevitable days of normally deadly fevers.


Three – Doll Babies.

In November 1983 a wave of madness broke out across America, leading to a number of riots and physical altercations. The tale most often told took place in a Zayre department store in Wilkes- Barre, Pennsylvania. 1,000 Adults pushed, and punched, pulled hair and tussled with one another. Boxes flew across the store, shelves were sent sprawling over. Weapons may have been used on one another. Store manager William Shigo, surrounded by the melee grabbed a baseball bat, climbed atop the counter and yelled at the horde to leave immediately. His requests fell upon deaf ears as the assembled continued to beat the living daylights out of one another, hoping to defend their prized item. This scene played out at toy shops all across the United States that year. Of course opportunists swooped in, buying up stock then selling on the black market for huge mark ups. Some parents drove hundreds of miles looking for this elusive item. Others resorted to bribery. Zayre resorted to issuing tickets to lucky parents, then serving the lucky ones out back, but this hardly solved the problem. What was the cause of all this kerfuffle? This thing, a Cabbage Patch Kids doll… If I may offer an opinion, a doll as ugly as the behavior of the parents willing to beat another parent down to get one.


Legend has it the Cabbage Patch Kids started their lives as ‘Doll Babies’, developed by Martha Nelson Thomas of Louisville, Kentucky. Thomas was a folk artist, specializing in doll making. She developed her doll babies some time in the early 1970s, and would exhibit them at local art and crafts fairs in the area. Though running a business, she appears to have had no intention of ever selling in large numbers.

In 1976 she met a then 21 year old Xavier Roberts at a fair. Roberts, an aspiring artist living in Georgia convinced Thomas to let him sell some of her dolls in his state for a cut of the profits. The two would do business till 1978, when they had a falling out. It was at this point that it’s alleged Roberts stole Thomas’ idea, and began working towards scaling up the business. Martha would begin a protracted legal battle with Xavier in 1979.

In 1982 Roberts signed a contract with toy company Coleco to produce the re-branded ‘Cabbage Patch Kids’. While the agreement was to mass produce the dolls, they had two things working against them. 1. Production was always to be a little laborious – no two dolls were alike, from their appearance to the packaging which contained a personalized name for each of the dolls and 2. This angle contributed to the dolls becoming the most desired toy of Christmas 1983.

Martha Nelson Thomas would settle her $1 Million lawsuit against Xavier Roberts in 1984, out of court for an undisclosed sum. In the meantime Xavier Roberts continued to rake in much more money than that. There was now a 9 month waiting list for one of the dolls – and the price had skyrocketed from $30 to $150 per doll.

The Strange Death of Dorothy Kilgallen (Part Three)

Content warning! This episode mentions sudden death, multiple suicides… and may have turned out to be one great big shaggy dog tale in itself. Reader discretion advised.


Hi all welcome back, let’s do part three of the Dorothy Kilgallen Tale. Parts one and two can be found on the links.

To state categorically John F Kennedy was not assassinated by some cabal, or some bigger power than Oswald, is a bit of a stretch. While the Warren Commission found no evidence of a conspiracy, the 1979 US House Select Committee on Assassinations stated their view a second shooter was involved. This conclusion rested largely on acoustic evidence that has been disproved in recent years as better acoustic modelling came along. The Assassination Records Review Board, tasked in the 1990s to preserve evidence, found inconsistencies which leave the door open to a conspiracy, most notably they claimed the photos of Kennedy’s brain were not the correct photos. They also question an inconsistency between the accepted story of Kennedy having been struck from behind, with eyewitness accounts which suggested a far bigger hole in the back of his head – suggesting a second shooter, in front of the president.

Conspiracy theorists often point to the number of people connected to the Kennedy assassination in some way, who died young, is on the high side – some theorists claiming as many as 104 suspicious deaths. This list includes people like
Mafia Don Sam Giancana, often implicated as a conspirator -gunned down in his apartment in 1966.
Lee Bowers – a witness who died in a car crash in 1966.
CIA agent Gary Underhill – an agent Jim Garrison claimed had information on the killing, who committed suicide in 1964.
FBI bigwig William Sullivan, who was accidentally shot while out hunting in 1972.
David Ferrie – a friend of Oswald’s who claimed not to know him, who was considered a possible co-conspirator by Garrison, and who also committed suicide in 1967.
George de Mohenschildt – a Russian American heavily questioned by the Warren Commission as a friend of Oswald’s, whose testimony helped link him back to the attempted assassination of General Edwin Walker. He committed suicide in 1977, after contacting George H.W Bush (a friend of a friend) to ask he call the CIA investigation into him off.

Two unusual deaths were Rose Cheramie, brought into hospital with minor injuries after being hit by a car. Rose claimed, two days before the assassination to have been travelling with two Italians who told her they were travelling to Dallas to kill the president. She would die in 1965, again struck by a vehicle. Joseph Milteer, a high ranking member of the Georgia KKK was secretly tape recorded 13 days before the assassination, claiming a hit was being prepared for the president. He would die in a freak heater explosion in 1974.

The magic of statistics shows a lot of the people who died on this list died of natural causes, some (i.e. mobsters) lived lifestyles that upped the risks of being murdered. When you adjust for everything else, the number is about what one can expect for the sample size, at that time.

I did have screeds of notes on motives – who would want JFK dead, and why. Last week, with news of the worst American president ever catching COVID, I redacted that section – not wanting to be accused of having an agenda in choosing this topic. For the record, I’m quite open about my disdain for Mr. Trump. I am erring on the side of caution however, dear reader you know the lore around this – a lot of people, on paper at least had a motive to conspire to kill Kennedy. Some had the wherewithal to hatch such a plot.

All this is to say, while I am disparaging of Dorothy Kilgallen’s findings, I personally believe there are enough inconsistencies to allow for any number of possible cabals to have taken Kennedy out. I will say Jim Garrison’s 1967 attempted prosecution of the businessman Clay Shaw – the only person to be tried for the murder of President Kennedy, seems baseless and quixotic to me. Oliver Stone’s film on Garrison’s quest, which hinted at a cabal made up of…. Well, pretty much everyone except Garrison himself seemed to get together to kill the president one afternoon – well, common sense tells you the more people involved, the higher the probability someone would have spilled the beans by now. To date, no-one of any substance has spilled the beans.
But, back to those deaths. Some were very strange. One in particular seemed to spook Dorothy.

Bill Hunter was far from a conspiracy theorist. The journalist from California went to Dallas to cover the killing, and subsequent investigation. He wrote a sixteen page special report on the assassination, “Three Days in Dallas”, where he concluded Oswald killed Kennedy, Ruby then killed Oswald. Hunter gave no indication of conspiracy at work. He enters the conspiracy as one of the 104. On 23rd April 1964, Hunter was hanging around the press room of the Long Beach police department, when he was accidentally killed by a police officer Creighton Wiggins. Initially claiming he’d accidentally dropped his handgun, which then discharged into Hunter, he changed his story to claim he was playing quick draw with another officer, Erroll Greenleaf. Greenleaf testified this was nonsense as he had his back to Wiggins at the time. When Hunter’s partner on the Dallas story, Jim Koethe, was murdered in a home invasion – the invader karate chopping him in the throat. A further air of mystery surrounded Hunter when Tom Howard – one of Jack Ruby’s attorneys, who let Hunter and Koethe into Ruby’s apartment – died aged only 48, of a heart attack. This led to Dorothy giving her friend Florence Pritchett-Smith (who initially introduced Dorothy to Kennedy) a copy of her manuscript of the chapter on the assassination, as insurance should she be accidentally shot by a dueling policeman too.


Which brings us back to the scene on the morning of 8th November 1965, what was so odd about Dorothy Kilgallen’s death?

First, let’s sketch the scene out again. If you recall, her hairdresser Marc Sinclaire arrived at 9am to find Dorothy was not yet up. When he checked her bedroom on the 5th floor – she was not there. Her body was found in the 3rd floor master bedroom. She was sitting up in bed in a blue robe Sinclaire had never seen before. Her makeup was still on. A decorative hairpiece was still in, as were her false eyelashes. If you recall episode one, Robert Ruark’s novel The Honey Badger was open beside her.
All of this was strange for a number of reasons.

First to the room, as discussed in an earlier episode, Dorothy and husband Richard Kollmar had an open marriage. The couple had all but split because Richard was foolish with Dorothy’s money, and slept around – some say a lot. Whether due to the lucrative nature of Dorothy and Richard’s morning radio show, or a concern for their reputation, or out of a desire to give their three children a normal upbringing – or Dorothy’s Catholicism making divorce very difficult – at some point both began living more or less separate lives, only giving the appearance of a loving relationship to the general public. One particular incident seemed to really upset Dorothy – finding Richard in bed with another woman in their 3rd floor master bedroom. Dorothy swore she would never sleep in that room again. Since that day she slept in a fifth floor room, Richard on the 4th floor.

Her appearance was rather unlike her also. That she wore a robe Sinclaire didn’t recognize could mean something – or she could have just bought a new robe. She was, however, meticulous about removing her makeup, hairpiece, and false eyelashes every night. The book also seemed odd. Robert Ruark’s posthumous final novel had been a big hit that year – Dorothy, a voracious reader, had already finished The Honey Badger months ago. What was really odd, however, Dorothy had exceedingly poor eyesight and could not read without her glasses. Her glasses were nowhere to be found. A light had been left on.

After some time the police arrived to examine the scene. Strangely, an officer had been parked outside the residence when Sinclaire arrived, but disappeared soon after. They would find no sign of foul play – no signs of a struggle, no bruising, cuts, or other marks. Her body would be transported to the coroner, not in her own borough of Manhattan, but Brooklyn – where a number of writers claim the office was infiltrated by the Mafia. They would find Dorothy had suffocated from a deadly mixture of barbiturates and alcohol – the same fate as Marilyn Monroe. A Dr. James Luke actually carried out the autopsy, however a Dr. De Meo, to Dr. Luke’s consternation ended up with their signature on the document. Samples of Dorothy’s fluids from her brain and stomach were kept, and examined decades later. when examined by modern machinery, the tests showed three different kinds of sleeping pills – and a dosage in the blood equivalent to between 15 and 20 pills in her body.

Though determined an accidental overdose, Dorothy’s death would be re-examined in 1966. After an 8 month investigation, the case was closed, having found no evidence of foul play.

A few other strange elements need to be discussed, however. First, the manuscript Dorothy was so concerned over – and all her notes concerning the Kennedy assassination – all disappeared in the course of the investigation. You recall Bill Hunter’s death prompted her to give a copy to her friend, writer and socialite Florence Pritchett-Smith? She died the following day, of a cerebral hemorrhage. Dorothy’s backup manuscript was never found among her belongings.

On the night before Dorothy’s funeral Dorothy’s friend and producer Bob Bach – the man you recall had drinks with her on the night she passed; the same man who dropped her off to meet the ‘mystery man’ – he sat with estranged husband Richard Kollmar. Asking Richard just what he made of the whole hullabaloo over Kennedy’s assassination, and Dorothy’s death – what had Dorothy found exactly? Kollmar replied “Robert, I’m afraid that will have to go to the grave with me.”

If this Tale feels a little cyclical – we’ve gone all around the world to find hints of a conspiracy, but nothing of substance, let me add to that feeling. I started this tale with a quote from Dorothy herself, about Marilyn Monroe. If you recall, Marilyn died under similar circumstances. Both ladies were insomniacs, and used sleeping pills. Both would become linked to John F Kennedy – though for very different reasons. Both deaths have been speculated over, writers asking did these ladies die because they knew too much? I personally have to say, I don’t know. I believe it possible they were murdered to protect the guilty. I believe it possible Kennedy was assassinated by a wider conspiracy, though it is more probable Oswald acted alone. I’m a firm believer extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence to move from possible to probable… but in Dorothy’s case one piece of evidence does speak to me a little louder than the others – the light.
She wrote of Marilyn “If she was just trying to get to sleep, and took the overdose of pills accidentally, why was the light on? Usually people sleep better in the dark” While this may have been the case for Marilyn, it certainly was for Dorothy – it represents her actively reflecting on her own needs when drifting off to sleep. Take your pills, turn off the light, wait for the pills to kick in. I’m unconvinced she found anything of note on her friend the president, but I feel it highly likely she was murdered for things others believed she knew.

The New Colossus

Hi there folks, I’m doing something different this week. The tale of Dorothy Kilgallen goes on a short pause till I get a chance to review what I still had to cover about John F Kennedy, in the light of day. I still need to speak a little on why some people wanted a sitting president dead – but the worst president in America’s history coming down with Coronavirus – still clearly ill despite his claims otherwise – gives me reason to pause. I don’t do this out of deference for Trump, I just don’t want to release something that could be misconstrued as an allegory for or against the old bastard, when it’s not.

Laugh not dear reader – I wrote Willie the Wimp and his Cadillac Coffin well before the murder of George Floyd. I meant no overt political commentary. It was just a fun story about a couple of larger than life characters that have fascinated me for many years. In the wake of Floyd Mayweather jr’s generous donation of a gold coffin to the Floyd family, Alt Right shit-posters began commenting on their forums. Imagine my joy at an email from WordPress telling me I was trending, several thousand clicks in a few minutes. Then imagine my disgust when I found out why Willie the Wimp was being shared by folk like that … Their comments for the most part ran along the lines of ‘this is why black people should not be allowed to have money’… though in language I don’t feel at ease repeating in this post.

Yeah, I’m being a little overly cautious. Everything is political at the best of times, more so right now. This week please permit me to be overtly so.

In the weeks leading up to the American election I have no doubt many bloggers, podcasters and YouTubers will release content about previous American elections – to directly comment on the coming election. I had a note in my scrapbook – The Election of 1876. America, I fear you’re staring down the barrel of a repeat to that constitutional crisis this year – Trump’s Alt Right militias ‘observing’ the ballot boxes has the stench of the Southern militias employed by the Democrats (Non-American readers, broadly speaking the two parties swapped positions on a couple of things since 1876). Tampering with post boxes, the restriction of places to cast your ballot in Texas etc. it all seems all too familiar already. Mark Chrisler beat me to the punch on this week’s episode of The Constant. He does the story far better than I ever could. Also, as an American his critique should carry more weight for you all. Anything I say, however well intentioned, I am some interloper from Hobbitland after all.

All the same, Americans I urge you to vote early, vote Biden – and be very vocal in your demands that Donald Trump be removed from office when – if he hasn’t popped his clogs from the great plague of 2020 – he refuses to leave office.

All that said, I suppose I should write something historical with the rest of this post?

Let’s talk about the statue the French gave the USA, why I think it’s intended meaning is a noble one… and why I think the meaning subsequently placed on the statue by the followers of the poet Emma Lazarus is not only also permissible on this occasion, but truly aspirational.

The statue being constructed in France, 1884.


This week’s tale starts at a private home in Versailles, France. The date, June 1865. The French jurist, poet, historian, and anti-slavery activist Edouard de Laboulaye called a meeting of fellow abolitionists to his home. An extremely vocal commentator against slavery, and a big fan of the Union who had written three books on the USA – Laboulaye was ecstatic at the news the Union had won the Civil War. Slavery was over. Decency had won. At the meeting he proposed the construction of a giant statue in honor of the USA’s great achievement.

Based on the Roman figure of Libertas, ‘Liberty Enlightening the World’ would symbolize an America Laboulaye hoped would finally be a nation of equals – having thrown off the British crown in 1776, and now slavery in 1865. It would serve as a symbol of friendship between the two nations. Thirdly, Laboulaye hoped the fervor for democracy and freedom would strengthen the resolve of his own nation to, once and for all, cast off their own despot. For context, France’s first President was a man named Charles-Louis Napoleon Bonaparte. The nephew of the more famous Napoleon, he decided he really didn’t want to leave office, so proclaimed himself King in 1851, hanging in there till 1870.

Laboulaye famously brought the sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi on board. With a proposed deadline of 1876 – the centenary of the Declaration of Independence. Planning began. France would build the statue, the USA would construct the podium. Work, however would not start on the statue till 1875 – Bartholdi bringing in Alexandre- Gustave Eiffel and Eugene Viollet-de-Duc to help with the framework. While it’s believed Bartholdi based Lady Liberty on his own mother, I’ve also read he recycled sketches for a statue proposed for the Suez Canal but never used. It is possible her face is in fact Egyptian. Given where I’m headed I like that idea. The statue wouldn’t be completed in Paris till 1884. It was then packed into over 200 crates and shipped off to the USA.

On the American side, construction was much slower. A site was chosen on Bedloes Island – a former fort for the Dutch, then quarantine station for smallpox sufferers, then summer house for the Scottish Earl of Cassilis, and most recently, Fort Wood – which withstood British attacks in the war of 1812. The star-shaped walls of the fort would mark out the shape and position of the podium itself. Beyond this, work was slow. Public interest in the statue was very limited, not helped no doubt by the Jim Crow laws enacted in the post 1876 South, and lynchings making an absolute mockery of the statue’s raison d’être. Had The New York World’s Joseph Pulitzer not put his weight behind the project it would have fallen completely flat. Auctions, crowdfunding campaigns and exhibitions were put on to get the money together. In 1883 an exhibition was put on, showing various plans for the statue, and containing dramatic readings of poetry written for the occasion. Mark Twain and Walt Whitman wrote for the exhibition, as did 34 year old poet Emma Lazarus – a former student of Ralph Waldo Emerson who was on the rise. Her piece, The New Colossus, was something else.

Emma Lazarus

As a child of Sephardic Jewish immigrants, and a strong advocate for the Jewish refugees arriving in America at the time, having fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe – Lazarus had a very different take on the significance of the statue that would greet those on their way to be processed through Paris Island.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Her moving poem, as exquisite a Petrarchan sonnet as anyone ever wrote, struck a chord with a number of literary types. They felt it gave a purpose to the giant edifice. This is not to say they were racists, dismissing the original meaning; just the newspapers in America never mentioned the purpose of the statue in their coverage. Without that meaning the statue must have seemed a massive folly to all. A lot of writers and their milieu clicked with Lazarus’ interpretation. So it was immortalized in a plaque in 1886 and America never looked back right?

Not exactly. When Grover Cleveland opened the landmark in 1886, Emma Lazarus’ poem garnered not so much as a mention. While Lazarus’ work won the hearts of other writers, she went more or less unnoticed by the general public. Emma Lazarus would pass on, most likely from Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1887. She was only 38 years old at the time of her passing. Her obituary never mentioned The New Colossus. The meaninglessness of this giant folly did not escape African American press either, one writer in the Cleveland Gazette stating

“Shove the Bartholdi statue, torch and all, into the ocean until the ‘liberty’ of this country is such as to make it possible for an industrious and inoffensive colored man in the South to earn a respectable living for himself and family … The idea of the ‘liberty’ of this country ‘enlightening the world,’ or even Patagonia, is ridiculous in the extreme”

In 1901 Georgina Schuyler, a friend of Emma Lazarus, was thumbing through a book of poetry in a bookstore – when she came across The New Colossus. It struck her not only did her work need immortalizing, but Lady Liberty needed the rehabilitation such a poem would provide. Once a symbol of hope, equality and liberty for all, then really of nothing in particular save maybe a little jingoism, re-christening the statue a ‘mother of exiles’ seemed a really good thing. As Laboulaye hoped the statue would move his Frenchmen back towards liberty, Schuyler no doubt hoped for a kinder, more welcoming America. After two years of campaigning the plaque, bearing the poem, was attached to the base of the statue.


Statues are more hagiography than history, in my humble opinion. They capture spin. They are erected for a specific purpose. Sometimes that purpose is as horrid as the subject – monuments to Confederate General, and KKK Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest an example of a statue being erected as a clear threat to the African American community – ‘stop demanding your civil rights, or we will have to resurrect this asshole’. Sometimes a statue is put up out of toadyism – the myriad statues of Queen Victoria of Britain built on her 50th and 60th jubilees prime examples. Occasionally it really as simple as a wish to honour someone – a proposed statue to New Zealand suffragette Kate Shepherd, planned for the grounds of our government buildings an example of this. I personally love all the proposed meanings for the Statue of Liberty, but feel they are aspirational goals at best at the time of writing.

While we’re discussing immigrants, rest in peace Edward Van Halen (1955 – 2020); a half Dutch, half Indonesian kid whose family arrived in America in 1962 with little more than $50 and a piano. It is easy to present Eddie as proof positive the American Dream is achievable; he would revolutionize the electric guitar, sell over 60 million records and have a hand in some of the best rock music of the late 70s and 1980s. When interviewers cared to ask him, he also spoke candidly on his childhood. He attended a mixed race school where black kids were segregated from the white mainstream. As a Eurasian he was counted as black and bullied by the white kids – in one interview he recalled feeling like an animal in a cage. His classical musician father Jan struggled to find the kinds of jobs available to him in Holland, and spent years working lowly paid janitorial jobs. The family were too poor on arrival to rent their own place, so the four of them had to cram into a single room in a house co- tenanted by two other immigrant families. Eddie became wildly successful but his tale is undeniably also one of opportunity denied by mainstream America for not being ‘one of us’.

The ‘Last of the Guitar Gods’, Edward Van Halen.

Please America, get out and vote. Be kind to one another. Value diversity, and right the wrongs of your past. I’m stepping off my soapbox – Normal service will resume on this channel next week.

The Strange Death of Dorothy Kilgallen (Part Two)

Warning! This tale contains more shaggy dog tales. It also contains a description of the JFK assassination which might upset some people. Reader discretion is advised.

Today, dear readers, we pick up our Tale on Dorothy Kilgallen, on the morning of Friday 22nd November 1963. The location, the Hilton, Fort Worth Texas. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his entourage rolled in the night before on a five city, two day charm offensive on Texas. Several thousand well wishers mill around the hotel parking lot in the pouring rain, waiting to glimpse the president. JFK does not disappoint. venturing out in the rain -sans umbrella – he speaks to the crowd. He shakes hands, delivers a speech on the need to win the space, and arms races, then returns to the hotel to dry off. He has a planned speech to the Fort Worth chamber of commerce on the importance of staying prepared for war, inside the building. Some time that morning Kennedy reads the local paper – on the front page an article discussing his visit – local segregationists and John Birchers are accusing the president of treason. Some time that morning he made a phone call to former vice president John Nance Garner to wish him a happy 95th birthday. From there they boarded a plane to Love Field – Next stop Dallas.

At Love Field Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy greet more well wishers, before being ushered to the motorcade. The rain had stopped by now so the decision was made to remove the bubble top on the 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible John and Jackie, would travel in -with State Governor John Connally and his wife Nellie. For security’s sake it was suggested Kennedy keep the bubble top on, and to surround himself with secret service agents – but Kennedy insisted on as few barriers between himself and the people as possible. He was aware of the risk – US Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson came very close to being attacked by a mob of conservatives (led by Edwin Walker, who we mention later) while giving a speech in Dallas only weeks earlier – but JFK had to balance safety with some accessibility if he hoped to win re-election.

The plan was to parade through the CBD, give a speech at the Trade Mart, then on to Austin – before staying the weekend at vice president Lyndon Johnson’s ranch. Just on 12.30 the motorcade arrived at Dealey Plaza, Dallas.

The incident which followed has been examined in minute detail by writers far more qualified than myself so, to sum up briefly –


On 12.29 the president’s limo turns onto Elm Street. A shot rings out, missing the motorcade. A car salesman named James Tague caught a minor injury to his cheek, either struck from a fragment of the bullet itself, or concrete gorged out of the sidewalk by the errant bullet. Seconds later, 12.30, a second bullet peeled out – this one strikes the president in the back, then hits Governor Connally. Much has been written on this ‘magic bullet’ – some suggesting a second shooter from the grassy knoll nearby, and claiming Kennedy was clearly struck from the front (film footage from garment manufacturer Abraham Zapruder shows Kennedy reflexively lifting his arm towards his throat, but medical experts counter this movement is an example of the ‘Thorburn position’ – a neurological reaction to spinal damage. For anyone interested, frames 225- 226 show the movement.) The third shot struck Kennedy in the back of the head. Within five minutes the president is admitted to Parkland Memorial Hospital as patient 24740. Within half an hour he would be pronounced dead.

At 12.45pm Lee Harvey Oswald left work at the Texas School Book Depository building, then enters and immediately leaves a bus, seven blocks from the building. The bus can’t move due to heavy traffic. He finds a cab back to his boarding house. Oswald changes his clothes, grabs his pistol, and leaves the premises. Earlier that morning Oswald had been with his mostly estranged wife Marina. They had been together the night before. He left his wedding ring and $170 cash on a table in the early hours that morning – a significant sum of money, considering he was paid $1.25 an hour at the School Book Depository. He then left for work.

Lee Harvey Oswald.


Oswald was a former marine, diagnosed with a personality disorder as a child. He defected to the Soviet Union in 1959. While in Minsk, Belarus, he married Marina – the two were allowed to return to the USA in 1962 when Oswald managed to convince the US Embassy the boredom of the USSR had cured him of his communism. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, Oswald had previously attempted to shoot a white segregationist politician named General Edwin Walker in his home on April 10th 1963. At the time of Kennedy’s assassination this was an unsolved crime with no solid leads.

At around 12.54pm veteran police officer J.D. Tippit is given instructions to keep his eyes peeled for a shooting suspect; a slender white male, approximately 5,10” tall, in his early 30s. In the Oak Cliff area of Dallas at 1.15pm Tippit comes across such a man, and is gunned down by him. The man of course, Oswald – flees on foot, stopping at a movie theater -where he would be arrested at around 2pm. The film, if anyone is wondering, a Korean war flick called War is Hell, narrated by real life war hero Audie Murphy.
By day’s end Lyndon Johnson would be sworn in as president aboard Air Force One, flanked by his wife Lady Bird to his left, Jacqueline Kennedy to his right. Jackie still wore the pink Chanel suit that bore her husband’s blood stains, and brain matter, wanting the world to see what really happened in any little way she could. President Kennedy would be autopsied. Oswald would be interrogated and charged with the murders, first of officer Tippit, then the president.

Also this day, Jack Ruby – a local bar owner with ties to organized crime – would show up at the police station to ask policemen he knew about the assassin. Ruby would return on the 24th, shooting Oswald with a .38 pistol as officers led the assassin through the police station basement. Ruby would be charged and eventually sentenced to death for the murder of Oswald. His death sentence was later downgraded to a life sentence, however he was on borrowed time. Ruby had lung cancer and would die of a pulmonary embolism, a blockage of an artery of the lungs, on January 3rd 1967.

Ruby shoots Oswald.

Dallas police were convinced they had their killer, and the killer of that killer. The FBI – now is as good a place as any to mention J. Edgar Hoover called Robert Kennedy on the night of the assassination to advise they had the killer, before Oswald was even charged – they closed their investigation in early December. President Lyndon Johnson established a commission, chaired by US Supreme Court chief justice Earl Warren on the 29th November. The Warren Commission’s role was to investigate the killing, and provide the grieving nation the definitive report on what happened.


Now we have covered the main facts of John F Kennedy’s murder, let’s turn our attention back to Dorothy.


Dorothy Kilgallen, herself grieving at the loss of her friend, was extremely skeptical of the initial findings. The most powerful man in the world is murdered in your city, in a decade which contained a number of high profile political assassinations and police were willing to write the killing off as the actions of a crazed loner? As a successful crime reporter, this story would have been irresistible to Dorothy regardless. As someone who knew, and adored the deceased, she felt the need to ensure justice was served. On November 29th 1963 she wrote, in relation to what she saw as an effort to sweep the case under the rug.

The case is closed, is it? Well, I’d like to know how, in a big, smart town like Dallas, a man like Jack Ruby—owner of a strip tease honky tonk—can stroll in and out of police headquarters as if it was at a health club at a time when a small army of law enforcers is keeping a “tight security guard” on Oswald. Security! What a word for it.

I will not try to speak for the people of Dallas, but around here, the people I talk to really believe that a man has the right to be tried in court. When that right is taken away from any man by the incredible combination of a Jack Ruby and insufficient security, we feel chilled. Justice is a big rug. When you pull it out from under one man, a lot of others fall too.

That is why so many people are saying there is “something queer” about the killing of Oswald, something strange about the way his case was handled, a great deal missing in the official account of his crime. The American people have just lost a beloved President. It is a dark chapter in our history, but we have the right to read every word of it. It cannot be kept locked in a file in Dallas
.”

Dorothy Kilgallen, investigative journalist thus entered the affray.


So… What did Dorothy find out?


I’ll let you all make up your own minds if anything holds any value. To me most of what she published carries little weight. It does interest me however, that Dorothy was collecting notes for a book she was writing, Murder One, which would feature the assassination. She was planning to meet a mysterious informant in New Orleans she claimed was the key to the murder. All her notes relating to that chapter mysteriously vanished after her death.

One of her first observations related to Dallas police chief Jesse Curry. Curry, who was in the lead car of the motorcade, would state categorically he heard the shots ringing out from the School Book Depository. Kilgallen got copies of the police communications from the day, showing Curry noticed a group of men standing on the triple overpass – and when the first shot rang out, called for officers to get up there and see what was happening. This would harm Curry’s credibility, and cast doubt on the official narrative. Curry had already gone from hero to zero in short order after he allowed the press, and Jack Ruby, into the police station basement.

In late 1964 Dorothy began working with Mark Lane, an early JFK conspiracy theorist whose own work was yet to make much traction. Following Lane’s leads she published a number of articles which have entered the JFK conspiracy canon.


Lane pointed Dorothy to a local journalist named Thayer Waldo. Waldo was a reporter for the Fort Worth Star Telegram, who was present at the police station on both the 22nd and 24th November. On November 22 Waldo struck up a conversation with Jack Ruby – Ruby clearly wasn’t press and Waldo wondered what’s his line? At least until the Oswald murder. Curious, Waldo began digging, claiming to uncover something he felt put his own life at risk if he published it himself. He alleged eight days prior to the assassination, Oswald met Ruby at his Carousel Club. Also at the meeting, Bernard Weissman – a member of the alt right John Birch Society, and co-author of the pamphlet accusing Kennedy of treason; a shady character about we know only as a ‘Texan Oil Man’ – and veteran police officer J.D. Tippit. Waldo never stated what the men discussed. All the same, over the years the alleged meeting – had it even occurred – has been taken on as proof of a shadowy cabal plotting to kill the president.

The Warren Commission was also privy to this information, finding a link to Oswald and a G.W Tippit (of no connection to officer Tippit), and that Weissman claimed he’d never been to the Carousel club, when questioned. They placed no credence in the alleged meeting.

She would also claim to have discovered a police cover up with the murder weapon, stating they booked in a completely different weapon at the scene – which was replaced by Oswald’s rifle later. She publicly questioned, via another Lane lead, if Lee Harvey Oswald had even shot officer Tippit. She would report a tale Lane had been openly discussing also, of a witness to the Tippit shooting named Acquilla Clemens. Clemens claimed two men shot Tippit – neither of them Oswald.

In the months that followed, Dorothy wrote little publicly on the assassination. She was known to openly discuss her findings, and her mistrust of the Warren Commission with colleagues. One wonders how this played out with What’s My Line’s John Charles Daly? Not so much as he himself was a renowned reporter – but because he was married to Chief Justice Earl Warren’s daughter. Rumours persisted Dorothy had a connection on the Warren Commission who was leaking information to her, but there were no career defining leads. In this time she secured the only press interview given by Jack Ruby – but we have no idea what Ruby had to say – it was never published, and the notes disappeared when Dorothy passed. She became paranoid the FBI were tapping her phones. Around this time she began dating an ‘out of towner’. The consensus of writers on Kilgallen state her mystery man was an Ohio based film critic named Ron Potaky. The same writers all suspect, without any evidence I could come across, that Potaky was a CIA plant, and that the two met on the night Dorothy died.

In summary, Dorothy Kilgallen had conducted an investigation where, thus far, she found a few interesting connections – were they true. Much of her writing was guided by Mark Lane, who had a few well thought of supporters – most notably the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper (yes the same guy taken in by the fraudulent Hitler Diaries in 1983 – in the 1960s he was still taken very seriously). – but who was mostly thought a kook. She allegedly had notes from several leads which vanished. Importantly she did meet and interview Jack Ruby. There was also the man in New Orleans some believe she was killed over. I can’t claim he was just Jim Garrison – we don’t know who he was. He could have been Garrison, looking for an outlet for his conspiracy theories. The mystery man from New Orleans may legitimately have had some information that would lay bare a vast conspiracy to kill John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Truthfully, the more I read into the Kilgallen case, the more I’m convinced she was tilting at windmills. There are details I’ve omitted in this tale, like the night she stood a few doors down from her townhouse, in the dark – husband Richard Kollmar peering out of a fifth story window with a broomstick for a gun – to prove Howard Brennan, the eyewitness who saw Oswald in a sixth floor window – in the cold light of day – could not have seen the killer…. or that ten other eyewitnesses to the Tippit killing identified Oswald as Tippit’s killer.

What does interest me however, is Dorothy Kilgallen’s death IS strange. She had received death threats prior to her death. Given some of the names who do appear in Kennedy assassination lore; the Mafia, the CIA, even Fidel Castro, was Dorothy silenced not even necessarily for something she found so much as for poking her nose into places where she may stumble into something equally dangerous?

Next week we’ll discuss the strange death of Dorothy Kilgallen – or at least why I find it strange and disturbing.

The Strange Death of Dorothy Kilgallen (Part One)

If she was just trying to get to sleep, and took the overdose of pills accidentally, why was the light on? Usually people sleep better in the dark. – Dorothy Kilgallen on Marilyn Monroe.

Warning! This Tale begins with a shaggy dog tale involving YouTube and my recurring insomnia.

I’ve no idea why YouTube algorithms saw fit to drop episodes of the 1950’s-60’s gameshow What’s My Line? in my feed – maybe my love of ephemera, or the time I watched every episode of A.J. Benza’s ‘Mysteries and Scandals’ (a 1990s series on the scandals of Hollywood’s Golden Age). Maybe the suggestion came after a session of looking in vain for live footage of 1940s jump blues shouter Wynonie Harris… I wanted to see if Elvis really did steal all his moves. Whatever the site’s rationale I’m glad they did. On many a night where I’ve woken at 3am, old episodes of What’s My Line? Have become a bit of a guilty pleasure.

Running from 1951 to 1967, then rebooted several times after that – What’s My Line? was an American game show that pitted a celebrity panel of sleuths against hundreds, if not thousands of contestants. The contestant could be a dynamite salesperson, the man who made President Kennedy’s inauguration top hat, a hotel detective, a flight instructor – at one point an unknown Colonel Harland Sanders – the year before he sold Kentucky Fried Chicken and became the public face of the franchise. By asking questions the sleuths had to work out the contestant’s job. If the panel got ten ‘no’s, the contestant would walk away with $50 winnings. There was always a celebrity mystery guest where the panel wore blindfolds while guessing – the celebs are the primary reason most of the show footage survives to this day.

Colonel Sanders and John Charles Daly on What’s My Line, 1963.

For this bleary-eyed writer, struggling to get back to sleep in the wee small hours, these shows were a godsend… not because they would bore you to sleep either. I think as much as I like the concept itself, I think (yes the same me who loves The Sopranos and Breaking Bad) it’s refreshing to watch a cast so intelligent, personable and so damned charming just being so mannered and respectful to one another. The actress Arlene Francis would enter and formally introduce comedian Steve Allen, who would welcome journalist Dorothy Kilgallen, who would in turn welcome book publisher Bennett Cerf, who would in turn welcome the host, John Charles Daly to the stage. The cast wore evening attire – evening gowns or tuxedos – they stood on ceremony and manners. The show was nicer, and more wholesome – probably by a factor of 1,000s than my usual fare. It was because of this I was shocked, one night to click on a partial episode aired on November 14th 1965, where the cast made an announcement.


John Charles Daly: “Now, until next week, good night Arlene Francis”
Arlene: “Thank you John, and I just want to say that in the… more than 15 years of Sundays that we’ve spent together on this programme, we have become, not just associated but a kind of family. And, it is not so much as a co-worker that we miss Dorothy, though certainly she was a game player that was better than almost all the rest of us – it is really as a family that we are saddened by her absence.”

And so they go on down the line, Steve Allen eulogized her stating “the world knows her as a very brilliant woman, very quick- minded and very intelligent. A writer of a very fine newspaper column… but we also think it is very important that she was a very fine wife and a mother, and we all miss her in those capacities”. Dorothy’s ringer for the night, actress and panelist on the similarly themed show To Tell the Truth, Kitty Carlisle, briefly spoke her condolences, passing to Bennett Cerf.

Well, a lot of people knew Dorothy as a very tough game player, others knew her as a tough newspaper woman. When she went after a story nothing could get in her way. But we got to know her as a human being, and a more lovable, softer, loyal person never lived; and we’re going to miss her terribly.”

John Charles Daly, it turns out when I found the complete episode, said his piece up front. The poor guy looked and sounded completely devastated by the loss.

Dorothy! What the hell happened to you? I thought. Though it does happen, as a general rule most middle aged people don’t just die suddenly. Yes, her death occurred half a century ago, but healthy, well heeled, middle aged folk tended not to die suddenly, even then. On some digging, I uncovered her immediate family all lived well into their 90s, making a sudden demise all the more shocking.

It turns out she had been out filming an episode of What’s My Line? the day before her death. Stopping at a bar after for a drink with producer Bob Bach, she then left to meet a ‘mystery man’ at the Regency Hotel. The two were seen in the bar of the Regency at around 2am, where it was believed she made a phone call to a friend around 2.20am. At 9am, her friend and hairdresser Marc Sinclaire would drop by Dorothy’s Manhattan townhouse, finding Dorothy not yet awake, or in her usual bedroom. He would find her body, sat upright in bed in the master bedroom – her makeup and false eyelashes still on, decorative hairpiece in, wearing a dressing gown he’d never seen her in before. Open beside her, Robert Ruark’s final novel The Honey Badger. Rigor Mortis had set in, which put her time of death somewhere between 2am and 4am.

A modern photo of Dorothy’s 16 room townhouse.


I’m getting a little ahead of myself, we’ll come back to the scene, going over it’s oddities later. What I think germane to our understanding of the tale right now though, Dorothy was on a mission. Convinced there was much more to the assassination of her friend John F. Kennedy. For 18 months she had investigated his murder, publishing a number of articles already which cast doubt on the Warren Commission’s findings that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. She claimed she had uncovered a lead which would expose a conspiracy to kill the president, and planned to travel to New Orleans to meet a source. She never made that trip. Before I lay all this out it pays to first discuss What’s Dorothy’s Line? as I believe she has largely faded from the public consciousness.

What’s Her Line?

Dorothy Mae Kilgallen was born in Chicago, Illinois, July 3rd 1913 to James and Mae Kilgallen. Mae had been a promising singer before her marriage. James was an accomplished journalist himself, having covered, among a great many other tales, the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and Germany’s surrender in World War Two. James once commented on his own career he had

…covered railroad wrecks, airplane and ship disasters, sitdown strikes, beauty contests in Atlantic City, eucharistic congresses in New Orleans and Barcelona, Spain, the World Series, golf championships, major prize fights, courtroom dramas, executions and national political conventions – in fact every conceivable type of story in this country and abroad.”

Dorothy had shown an early interest in her father’s work, and on graduating Erasmus Hall High School, then two semesters at The College of New Rochelle, she took a writing job at the New York Evening Journal. Though initially there for work experience, once she got her first by-line (a story about a child who was hospitalized in some accident my secondary sources don’t explain) she decided to leave college and take on a full-time role at the paper. By age 20 she had covered many stories, including a number of murder trials.

She came to national prominence in 1936, when she took part in a race around the world using only public transport. Reminiscent of our earlier tale of Nellie Bly, she raced against two male journalists, filing updates for the paper as she went. Dorothy came second, but got the lions share of the publicity, and the material for her first book ‘Girl Around the World’. Her book would inspire a 1937 movie, Fly-Away Baby – itself the second in a series featuring the intrepid reporter Torchy Blane, a character believed to be based on Dorothy herself. (As an aside, Torchy, played by Glenda Farrell, would in turn influence Jerry Siegel to write Lois Lane into the Superman universe). In 1938 Dorothy would become “The Voice of Broadway” in William Randolph Hearst’s ‘New York Journal- American’ newspaper – a role which would see her eventually syndicated with 146 papers, to 20 million readers across the country.

Dorothy married an actor named Richard Kollmar in 1940. The couple met while she was writing on, and he acting in a play called Knickerbocker Holiday (a play which both loosely adapted a Washington Irving tale, and was a thinly veiled attack on Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal). They would have three children together, and from 1945, host a morning radio show from their townhouse called ‘Breakfast With Dorothy and Dick’. The couple would have a less than functional marriage – which plays into the tale later – though, being Catholic, they never divorced. Richard’s extravagant spending and womanizing led to the couple becoming estranged. They continued to live at the townhouse together, in separate rooms, and never let on to the public they had grown apart. In private they had an open relationship for many years.

Besides her entertainment column, Dorothy also continued to cover a number of murders. Prior to the John F. Kennedy assassination, one of the most famous cases she covered was of Dr Sam Sheppard. I’ll do a short blog post on Shepherd as a coda to this tale – but if you have not come across his tale before – what you need to know for now is Dr Sheppard was a neurosurgeon accused of murdering his wife, Marilyn in 1954. The media circus around the trial ensured he would not get an unbiased trial. Trial by media found him guilty. Dorothy was one of the few who believed Sheppard was innocent, and used her influence, investigative skills, and pen to help the doctor overturn his conviction.

I could write on the myriad connections Dorothy made in high places, or her more colourful feuds with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Tonight Show host Jack Paar; her cruel literary hit job on Nina Khrushcheva – wife of Soviet Chairman Nikita Khrushchev, or her ongoing campaign against Cuba’s Fidel Castro. I should quickly mention she was famous enough in her time she has one of the initial 500 stars in the Hollywood walk of fame. It is important to discuss her friendship and admiration for former President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. She had met the president on occasion through friends in common. One particular friend, the fashion editor and journalist Florence ‘Flo’ Pritchett-Smith, dated a young JFK, and remained close friends until the president’s death. Flo had first introduced the two. As a fellow catholic of Irish extraction, with similar political leanings, Kennedy and Kilgallen got on very well together. Dorothy would become an active supporter of the president, and would be absolutely crushed by his assassination.

Next week we’ll look at the death of the president, and Dorothy Kilgallen’s 18 month investigation into the murder. Join us next week.

Charles Lightoller’s worst night ever

Today’s tale is set in the North Atlantic ocean, around 400 miles off the coast of the then Dominion of Newfoundland. The date 15th April 1912. The time, around 2.30am. Picture our subject, a 38 year old former Navy officer named Charles Lightoller. Tonight may well be his worst day on the job.

Sitting in a lifeboat watching his expensive new ship sink below the waves, something he was assured could not happen – he must have paused to think if he bore any responsibility for the disaster. Just two and a half hours earlier the scene aboard the ship had been anarchic. The unsinkable ship, on her maiden voyage, was sinking! Torn to shreds below the waterline, she was taking on much more water than one could hope to keep pumping back out. With no chance of caulking up the gaping hole, many would die before the night was out.

As men tried to muscle their way onto the scant few lifeboats, ahead of women and children, Lightoller stood in their way, pointing an empty service revolver at their heads – cursing them for their cowardice, and threatening to murder the first man who stepped forward. Many women and children would survive because of his bravery – that is good right?

He must have questioned his culpability. It was hardly as if he was in charge at the time of the disaster. He’d only just been commanding the bridge watch, but had handed responsibility on to William Murdoch. He was asleep, in his pajamas, when it hit… something attested to by the fact he still had them on under his hastily thrown on uniform.

Lightoller must have looked on, aghast, as the ship sunk below the waves. 1,503 souls onboard would be dragged down to Davy Jones Locker that night. How could you not look on so? Only 705 passengers and crew would survive the shipwreck. Of the more prominent victims were John Jacob Astor – science fiction writer, socialite and co-founder of New York’s iconic Waldorf-Astoria hotel; the investigative journalist W.T Stead; Macy’s department store part owners Isidor and Ida Straus; Benjamin Guggenheim, the mining magnate, and Archibald Butt, a military aide to presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Various other executives, and even investors in the company drowned in the wreck. Even Thomas Andrews, the man who designed the ship, drowned in the disaster.



Lightoller was not the highest ranking member of the organization to get off safe – that honor would go to a cad named J. Bruce Ismay – a White Star executive who was one of the first to get into a life boat; and who later commented to press he flat out refused to look at the sinking ship – and was glad he hadn’t.

J. Bruce Ismay.


But still, for whatever public ire comes the company’s way, he WAS the highest ranking officer on the ship to escape; and Ismay was just some toff, born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Some rich guy who ascended to chairman on his father’s death in 1899. Ismay never steered the ship…. If anyone was likely to be a scapegoat… could it be him?
Well… here’s the thing, there are a number of reasons the RMS Titanic sank – disasters like this usually are a combination of factors. Much of which could be laid at Ismay’s feet (well maybe not the claims by William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers, of Ismay ordering Captain Smith to push the ship faster than it should safely go – there is no evidence this ever happened).. Most everything else requiring executive sign off perhaps… But there is one element – often overlooked – for which Charles Lightoller does bear a little responsibility… a locker key which could have saved everyone from this mess.


You see, Lightoller was appointed second officer aboard the Titanic only two weeks before the ship was set to sail. There had been a number of changes in positions among the officer class in the lead up to the maiden voyage, leading to promotions, and demotions – and the original second officer, Davy Blair, being dismissed from the ship rather hastily on 9th April. He left, accidentally taking the only key for a locker which held the binoculars – much needed up in the crow’s nest. This was discovered while out at sea. While lockers are really only designed to keep honest people out, when brought to Lightoller’s attention he advised to leave the locker as is. When they got to New York he would buy a new pair of binoculars from his own pay-check.

Did Charles Lightoller know the risk of hitting an iceberg? It appears so. On his watch that night he gave orders to the lookout to continually watch for “small ice… (and) particularly growlers” till sun up. At congressional hearings after the disaster lookouts Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee both brought up the lack of binoculars as the main reason for the wreck. How much sooner would they have spotted the iceberg, congress asked “well, soon enough to get out of the way” was the reply.

If one is looking for a moral in this tale, maybe you could go with ‘you have to break a few eggs to make an omelette’. Yes it wasn’t great Charles Lightoller was faced with the prospect of vandalizing a locker… but which holds more value, a cheap locker or 1500 lives? Perhaps the moral is one for greedy organizations to empower your employees to make the hard decisions? Lightoller had every right to be scared of vandalizing the locker – in the wake of the tragedy, the White Star Line sent bills to the families of deceased staff asking them to pay for the brass buttons on the deceaseds’ uniforms. Maybe it is a tale about hubris; when they claimed the ship couldn’t sink you knew exactly how that tale would end. I don’t know, take you pick.

As a post note, however, I should comment briefly on that key. Davy Blair went to his grave feeling guilty for the sinking of The Titanic. At some time he gave the locker key to his daughter, who passed it on to The International Sailor’s Society. In 2007 the key was sold for £32,000.00, and has since resold to a Chinese businessman for £90,000.00.
I should also speak a little more about Charles Lightoller. He was a highly respected mariner before the Titanic, and would remain so after. He would serve with distinction in World War One, and would become a footnote in another landmark historical moment of the 20th century. In what became known as ‘The Miracle of Dunkirk’, 26th May- 4th June 1940 – Lightoller was one of thousands of civilian sailors who crossed the English Channel to rescue the Allied Expeditionary force from certain destruction at the hands of Nazi Germany.

Repost: Spring Heeled Jack: The Terror of London.

One: Backward and Forward He Switched His Long Tail….

Over the hills and over the dale,
And he went over the plain,
And backward and forward he switched his long tail,
As a gentleman switches his cane.

  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge “The Devil’s Thoughts”

Murderers are not monsters, they’re men. And that’s the most frightening thing about them”.

  • Alice Sebold, “The Lovely Bones”.

In October 1837 Londoner Mary Stevens was walking to her place of employment, a house in Lavender Hill where she worked as a servant. While passing through Clapham Common in the early hours, a demonic- looking figure leapt out at her; seizing her in his vice-like grip, kissing her face frenetically. With claws, described by Stevens as “cold and clammy as those of a corpse” he then tore at her clothes. Screaming at the top of her lungs, Mary brought locals from nearby houses out onto the common. Startled, the demon took of at a superhuman speed.

The following day the attacker reappeared, near Mary’s home in Battersea. Reports tell of a demonic figure leaping from the shadows, directly into the path of a horse drawn carriage. The coachman swerved, crashing and badly injuring himself. Again locals investigated, catching sight of the attacker, henceforth known as Spring Heeled Jack. Several men gave chase, but Jack took off at great speed towards a 9 foot brick wall. The assembled pursuers were astonished as the cackling demon cleared the wall in a single bound.

Public reports of the revenant went quiet for some time after this. Ghost sightings were not uncommon in London in the years preceeding. Sightings of the Hammersmith Ghost of 1803 they had spread like wildfire, but the ghost was only ever seen by a solitary witness. Spring Heeled Jack was witnessed by dozens on two occasions. This picture changed at a public meeting held by Lord Mayor of London Sir John Cowan on the 9th January 1838. On the agenda that night one tale which would soon grip the imagination of London, and the wider United Kingdom.

Lord Mayor Cowan reported to the onlookers he had received a complaint, in writing, from a source he only referred to as “a resident of Peckham” an excerpt below.

It appears that some individuals (of, as the writer believes, the highest ranks of life) have laid a wager with a mischievous and foolhardy companion, that he durst not take upon himself the task of visiting many of the villages near London in three different disguises—a ghost, a bear, and a devil; and moreover, that he will not enter a gentleman’s gardens for the purpose of alarming the inmates of the house. The wager has, however, been accepted, and the unmanly villain has succeeded in depriving seven ladies of their senses, two of whom are not likely to recover, but to become burdens to their families.
At one house the man rang the bell, and on the servant coming to open door, this worse than brute stood in no less dreadful figure than a spectre clad most perfectly. The consequence was that the poor girl immediately swooned, and has never from that moment been in her senses.
The affair has now been going on for some time, and, strange to say, the papers are still silent on the subject. The writer has reason to believe that they have the whole history at their finger-ends but, through interested motives, are induced to remain silent.”

Lord Mayor Cowan stated his doubts these assaults occured, but citizen after citizen testified to reports of terrified, scarred, fondled servants. Dozens of assaulted women from Kensington, to Hammersmith, to Ealing between October 1837 and January 1838. Later that day a reporter from The Times ran the story. This was subsequently picked up by newspapers across the United Kingdom on January 10th 1838. At this point dozens of letters flooded in to Lord Mayor Cowan’s office recounting frightened women, all stalked, spied upon or attacked by a shadowy, demonic figure. Several bore deep wounds from his claws. A few claimed the victim had gone into a ‘fit’ after. One report even claimed Spring Heeled Jack had scared a victim to death. Cowan remained sceptical, until a trusted friend came to him to report an assault on a servant in his employ by Spring Heeled Jack.

Lord Mayor Sir John Cowan ordered police across the city to make a top priority to locate the revenant, and bring him to justice.

Two: It was a Dark and Stormy Night….

“It was a dark and stormy night, the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. Through one of the obscurest quarters of London, and among haunts little loved by the gentlemen of the police, a man evidently of the lowest orders was wending his solitary way”
Edward Bulwer Lytton – Paul Clifford.

Let’s talk about Spring Heeled Jack’s two most famous attacks – the Alsop and Scales assaults.

On 20th February 1838 a stranger rang the bell at the Alsop residence, in the East London village of Old Ford. 18 year old Jane Alsop got up cautiously to see who had stopped by. While not terribly late at quarter to nine, it was – to borrow Lord Lytton’s phrase – a dark and stormy night. Old Ford was an isolated village. The Alsops were not used to visitors so late at night in the best of weather. Staring through the glass Jane could vaguely make out a tall, imposing, claoked figure. “What is the matter?” she enquired.

“I am a policeman. For God’s sake bring me a light, for we have caught Spring Heeled Jack here in the lane”.

Jane scrambled to fetch a candle for the officer. Back in a matter of seconds she handed a lit candle to the man. The stranger then dropped his cape, holding the candle under his face so as to cast himself in the most terrifying light. Jane Alsop stared in horror at the stranger. Tall. “Hideously ugly”. demonic, with glowing red eyes. He wore a helmet, a tight fitting shiny suit, and had what appeared to be a lamp attached to his chest.

As Jane screamed, recoiling in horror, the attacker leapt forward, exhaling a blue and white flame at her. Grabbing her by the neck and pinning her in a headlock, the assailant tore at Jane’s face and clothes with his clawed hands. Mustering all of her strength Jane struggled free of Spring Heeled Jack, and ran for her door – but Jack grabbed her hair, ripping out tufts from her scalp. Jane’s younger sister Mary leapt up to save her, but froze in fear. Her older sister, Sarah Hanson, entered the affray, shoving Jack off of Jane, then dragging her sister to safety. She slammed the door in the attacker’s face. Violently and frenetically the assailant repeatedly struck the door, as the family screamed for help. In an instant their attacker disappeared into the dark, stormy night from whence he came.

Eight days later he was to terrify another young lady – 18 year old Lucy Scales – on her way home from her brother’s house. Seconds after she stepped out onto the street, a blood curdling scream woke the neighbourhood. Locals rushed out to find Lucy sprawled out on the cobble stones. Spring Heeled Jack had sprung from the shadows. Lucy screamed, then fainted. Jack then ran off before an attack could occur.

Who is ‘W’?

Between these two incidents a third attempted assault happened. This one left a clue. On another dark and stormy night in Turner Street a man came knocking on a door, asking for the occupant by name – Mr Ashworth. A servant boy got up to answer. This night Spring Heeled Jack was a little too trigger happy. As the servant opened the door Jack threw off his cloak, exposing his demonic visage. The boy screamed, slamming the door in his face. Spring Heeled Jack then disappeared. The boy noticed something no other victim had. On his cloak a letter W was embroidered.

At this point in the tale the diabolical Jack exits London for the better part of three decades. In following years similar attacks occur all over the South of Britain. Historian and guru of all things Forteana Mike Dash notes sightings from Warwickshire in the North to Devon in the South, Yarmouth in the East to Herefordshire in the West. These attacks bore all the hallmarks. Surprise an unsuspecting traveller at night. Rip at them with clawed hands, often leaving the victim with deep scars. An escape familiar to watchers of parcour videos today perhaps, seemingly superhuman… or supernatural, in their age. The attacker would leap over hedges, walls, even horse drawn carriages. The same tall, diabolical figure. The helmet. The piercing, red eyes.

He briefly reappeared in London in 1872, to the distress of the Londoners – then again in 1877. The latter seems an odd choice of target for Spring Heeled Jack, to date a sex pest assaulting lone women. He picked what had to be the worst property in all of London to terrorize.

Aldershot Barracks.

In Aldershot, Surrey is an army barracks. Guarded around the clock by men with guns, the barracks held as many as 10,000 soilders at a time. In the spring of 1877 a tall, diabolical man who leapt buildings in a single bound began sneaking up on lone sentries in the dead of night; grabbing their faces while perched atop sentry boxes. Some guards broke down in a mad panic. A few managed to regain their senses and fire off a volley or two in his direction as he bounded away. He returned in the Autumn of 1877 to pull the same prank on a number of occasions.

Later in 1877 he drew gunfire again, this time from locals, while leaping from rooftop to rooftop in the town of Newport. Locals claim to have hit him but Spring Heeled jack just shrugged it off and kept moving. He then disappears until, in one final reign of terror; this time way up north in Liverpool, in 1904. After several night time attacks he was seen one final time, in daylight bounding through the streets. Legend has it he came to a building, leapt the 25 feet to its roof, then bounded away never to be seen again.

Three: Mad Marquesses and Comic Books.

He knew what those jubillant crowds did not know, but could have learned from books, that the plague bacillus never dies, or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for all the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.” Albert Camus- The Plague (translated by Stuart Gilbert)

So we’ll go no more a roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.”

Lord Byron – So we’ll go no more a roving.

So, how to make sense of this tale? First I feel it’s safe to say the devil did not come to London. What is clear is in the earliest attacks someone very corporeal, either a sexual attacker or someone motivated more out of mysogyny, was operating. By 1877, when the Aldershot Barracks incidents occured, Jack had taken on a more purely mischevious dimension. By 1904 Spring Heeled Jack had become a superhero whose ability to scale obstacles had expanded to clearing two storey buildings in a bound.

In his development, Spring Heleed Jack had become a boogeyman; a scary tale you tell children to scare them into being home by curfew. He had also become a meme, in the sense evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins first used the term – an idea which replicated in a viral manner. Memes often take on many forms, but the stronger forms replicate while the weaker fall away. As a birthed concept the meme takes on a life outside it’s creator. Memes, like Camus’s “peste” can have long, dormant periods where they hide “in cellars, trunks and bookshelves”. Spring Heeled Jack would have the strangest of re-emergences in Czechoslovakia in the years 1939- 1945. During World War 2 a folk tale of a Pérák, the spring man of Prague appeared – a tall, diabolical folk hero who could jump buildings in a single bound, and who harrassed the occupying Nazis in the city.

We’ll come back to the reality of Spring Heeled Jack in a second – and discuss who possibly assaulted a number of women from 1837 to 1838 – but it’s worth taking one quick digression

Comic Books

After the Aldershot Barracks incidents, in 1878 Spring Heeled Jack was immortalized in print, getting his own ‘Penny Dreadful’ – ‘Spring Heeled Jack the Terror of London’. The series of tales, written by George Augustus Sala put the figure of Spring Heeled Jack in an unusual position probably not to be said of any other person mentioned in Tales of History and Imagination. Alongside Hugo Hercules (1902), John Carter of Mars (1911), The Gray Seal (1914), Zorro (1919), The Shadow (1930), The Green Hornet and Kato (1931), Doc Savage (1933) Mandrake the Magician (1935), Doctor Occult (1935), The Clock (1936) and The Phantom (1936); Spring Heeled Jack has become a noted ante-cedant to Siegel and Shuster’s Superman.

The Alsop attack revisited.

Returning to the home invasion on the Alsop family on 20th February 1838 we do have a viable suspect, a man who was brought in, but let go because he could not have carried out the other attacks. He was identified leaving the crime scene by an acquaintance, and when caught still had Jane Alsop’s candle in his possession. The man in question was a carpenter named Thomas Millbank. He avoided prosecution on two grounds. First he had iron clad alibis for the other attacks, and second, because he was blackout drunk on the night of the Alsop attack. The Alsop family claimed, wrongly I believe, their attacker was stone-cold sober. He walked without a single charge. I believe Thomas Millbank was a copycat Spring Heeled Jack in the Alsop attack.

Another man is believed to have been Spring Heeled Jack on the other occasions – a young nobleman known in high society as the mad marquess, Henry de La Poer Beresford, the 3rd Marquess of Waterford.

Paint the Town Red.

On 6th April 1837 the young Marquess, recently expelled from Oxford university for conduct unbecoming a gentleman, arrived at Melton Mowbray’s Thorpe end tollgate. He was heavily intoxicated and has an entourage of fellow young inebriates in tow. When asked to pay the toll, a belligerent marquess attacked the tollkeeper. The bridge had just been painted and tins of red paint and brushes were left nearby. Waterford’s entourage held the tollkeeper down, while the marquess painted him. A constable stepped in, only to be beaten, held down and painted also.

The drunken entourage then rioted throughout the town, painting doors and walls, destroying flower pots and business signs as they went. They vandalized the post office, and tried to upturn a caravan. Several police officers tried to stop the gang, but were also beaten and painted for their trouble. An officer finally managed to collar one of the group, Edward Reynard, and throw him into a cell. The next day a hungover Marquess bailed Reynard, paying many times the cost at the tollbridge to release him. They were all charged with several counts of common assault, paying £100 a piece.

This incident gave rise to the term ‘Paint the town red”, to describe a riotous night out on the town.

Not long after, the Marquess and his entourage caused an international incident in Norway. Waterford harassed a local woman, and was knocked unconscious by a local with a morningstar. He soon returned to London, just before the first Spring Heeled Jack attacks happened. He remained in London till 1842, making the news regularly in his own name for a series of drunken, churlish incidents. In 1842 he married the socialite Louisa Stuart, and moved to Curraghmore House, Ireland. Whether he was a reformed man via marriage and behaved himself is debatable, but he avoided further charges and scandals till his death in 1859. The mad marquess died of a broken neck after being thrown from a horse.

The Marquess of Waterford was an athlete, and normally an excellent horseman. His garments bore his family crest, a shield with a giant W on them. His entourage contained a skilled engineer who could have made spring-loaded shoes some believe Spring Heeled Jack must have used. High society long suspected him of being Spring Heeled Jack, and that the slew of attacks were revenge for perceived sleights at Moulton Mowbray, and the Norwegian incident.

Though hardly conclusive, Henry Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford remains the prime suspect in the early Spring Heeled Jack assaults.

A version of this tale was Episode three of Season one of the podcast. Click here to listen to the episode.

Originally posted 1st May 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow. Edited by Simone, 2020.

Marsha Albert’s Letter

Edward Bulwer Lytton, a man of letters, once wrote ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’. He wrote several other memorable phrases, one of which has led to his name adorning an annual competition, the goal of which is to write the most hilariously bad, convoluted opening sentences ever written. Just go and download an e-book of Paul Clifford and you will see why. It is a great phrase though isn’t it? The pen is mightier than the sword. Think about it for a second.

In 1860 presidential hopeful Abraham Lincoln, then very much a fan of the barber’s chair, got a letter from an 11 year old girl named Grace Bedell. She told Honest Abe his unshaven face looked too thin. He should grow a beard cause “all the ladies liked whiskers”. In 1894 an anonymous letter containing various state secrets was handed to French intelligence. It led to the wrongful arrest of a Jewish officer named Alfred Dreyfus. He would languish on the infamous Devil’s Island until 1906; but lest we forget it was an 1898 public letter “J’Accuse” written by the author Emile Zola which sparked the public outrage that finally freed him. A 1917 telegram sent by German Foreign secretary Arthur Zimmermann to his counterpart in Mexico, promising them the return of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico to them if they invaded the USA the moment the States entered World War One was a precipitating moment in the Great war. Needless to say it backfired horribly for the Germans when the letter was intercepted then leaked by British intelligence.

Einstein wrote a letter to Franklin Roosevelt, which warned of the dangerous possibility Nazi Germany could build a superweapon. His letter kicked off the Atomic Age. Martin Luther King’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, which stated “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”, kicked the civil rights movement into high gear. My focus this week, however, is a letter sent by a 14 year old girl at Sligo Junior High School to a man known as CJ the DJ, and how that letter may have changed the course of popular music forever.

On November 22nd 1963 CBS Morning News ran a piece on an all but unknown British band whose very presence back in Old Blighty was a sight to behold. A bona fide phenomenon, girls, and no doubt some boys fell head over heels at the very mention of their name. It may have garnered more attention but for an incident in Dallas that afternoon which would eclipse everything else that day. The Kennedy assassination overshadowed the 95th birthday of Franklin Roosevelt’s former vice president John Nance Garner, the deaths of CS Lewis and Aldous Huxley, and Walt Disney’s announcement of the planned site for Disneyworld. The unnoticed piece on this group of mop topped Liverpudlians was to be re-run that evening on Walter Cronkite’s CBS evening news, but as you could imagine, it got shelved, and passed more or less unnoticed.

The piece would resurface on the evening news, however, on 10th December. Cronkite felt the USA, deep in mourning over President Kennedy, needed something to lighten the mood. What better than a tale on four charming British entertainers you never knew you needed in your life? The piece did not spark a revolution, but Marsha Albert of Silver Spring, Maryland was bowled over by the group. A motivated Marsha wrote a letter to WWDC-AM radio DJ Carroll James jr, which begged him to play some songs by this group, asking “Why can’t we have music like that here in America?”.

(This author chooses to ignore that America was making some fantastic music at the time, when you got away from Fabian and teen idols named Bobby, and that the group in question’s first album contained covers of songs by Arthur Alexander, The Cookies, The Shirelles, Lenny Welch, and The Isley Brothers. Their second album, released in the UK on the day of the Kennedy Assassination featured covers of Peggy Lee, The Marvelettes, Chuck Berry, The Miracles, The Donays and Barrett Strong songs.)

This author too, is a fan of the group in question and, anyway the point is America was missing out on this cultural phenomenon that was taking off across the Atlantic.

Marsha’s letter got CJ the DJ seriously thinking about this, and how to get an advance copy of this record that had been released in the UK but was not planned for any release until early 1964 in the USA. CJ the DJ spoke with station management, then a friend who worked for British Airways, and within a few days had a copy of I Want To Hold Your Hand, in his hot little hand.

On 17th December Marsha Albert was invited to the WWDC-AM studio to introduce the record, by her new favorite band, The Beatles. The US release of their album was brought forward, just in time for Christmas, and they were on their way to massive fame and fortune stateside, and around the world.

Thank you, Marsha Albert, for caring enough to put pen to paper.

Carroll James Jr and Marsha Albert.

Before Rock and Roll – A Playlist (part two)

Hi all, sorry for the delay. For part one, which includes the Spotify playlist itself, Click Here


Hi all, let’s put that playlist to bed. Apologies for missing the Thursday timeline two weeks running – if the worst thing to happen to me from COVID is having to suddenly find a new home I’ll consider myself lucky… but that said, I’ve been waylaid a little this week by having to look for a new home – ad all te joys which come with that.

The playlist itself can be found here

Oh, and anyone who has enjoyed this rock and roll bonus series, I will do some more at some time. I feel there is a story to tell, of which I have only scratched the surface in these short tales

Birmingham Bounce (1950) by Hardrock Gunter and the Pebbles. I am not just including this track as I think Sidney Gunter had the best stage name ever – which he arguably did – but because it was somewhat ahead of it’s time, pointing towards elements of rockabilly. Some writers will tell you the record was important because it was the first Western Swing song to sing about rocking out on the dance floor – I don’t know nearly enough to challenge, or confirm this. Others will point to how Gunter’s sound was making steps towards rockabilly. To my ears I’m hearing something like this – the musical timbre seems very much of the western swing of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. At the same time there is that prominent boogie woogie piano, and a noticeable back beat. Maybe it was more on it’s way to the Northern band rock and roll of Bill Haley?

Birmingham Bounce would not chart for Hardrock Gunter. Decca Records offered to buy the masters, and take the song to the world. Gunter’s songwriting partner did not want to sell his portion of the royalties, as he had promised the money to his church when it hit the big time. A disappointed Decca called in Red Foley to cut his own copycat single, which – as they had done to many a small label R&B record – killed Gunter’s version dead in the water.

Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee–O-Dee (1949) by Stick McGhee and his Buddies. Yet another song put forward as ‘the first rock and roll song’. I have included it to the playlist for a number of reasons. 1. It is a great little 8 bar blues track with rock and roll sensibilities. 2. It was an early hit for Atlantic Records, the then tiny label which would go on to have some of the biggest records of the 1950s and 60s. They may have been the house Ruth Brown built, but ‘Spo-dee-o-dee’ had great crossover appeal – going to #1 on the R&B charts and #26 on the pop charts. 3. The song foreshadowed the gibberish lyrics of many early rock and roll hits (Little Richards ‘Wop bop a loo bop, a lop bam boom’ of Tutti Frutti. The Chords ‘Day dong da ding-dong, A-lang-da-lang-da-lang, Ah, whoa, whoa, bip, Ah bi-ba-do-da-dip, whoa’ of Sh-Boom. Nappy Brown’s ‘So li li li la li li li la li li li la don’t be angry’ of Don’t Be Angry). He was hardly the first – but still. Of course wine spo-dee-o-dee was a real thing – it is when you mix wine, or sherry with bourbon. 4. How about I just really like the song, and wanted to share it with you all?


The Fat Man (1950) by Fats Domino. Champion Jack Dupree’s Junkers Blues (1942) probably should be the song I’m sharing here, as it lit a fire under a bunch of New Orleans piano professors, who stole the melody for rock and roll (or rock adjacent) songs. Professor Longhair’s Tipitina, Lloyd Price’s Lawdy Miss Clawdy, and Fats Domino’s The Fat Man all bear the mark of the song – but of course junkers blues was still very much a blues song. The Fat Man launched one of the all time great rock and roll innovators. It has always seemed to me New Orleans rock and roll, with its melting pot of influences, seems so sizzle a little more. The rolling, barrel house piano, the tricillo rhythm which pervades it. Again I share as I really like this song.

Have Mercy Baby (1952) by Billy Ward and The Dominoes. The Dominoes were a R&B vocal group put together by a Julliard trained pianist and arranger named Billy Ward. Though Ward himself got top billing in the band, and the lion’s share of the money, the voices of a couple of really great singers propelled the group to fame. In their first single, Sixty Minute Man (1950) bass singer Bill Brown was in the lead. With Have Mercy Baby it was very much lead tenor Clyde McPhatter’s song. The song is a landmark because it was one of the first songs to capture an exuberant gospel vocal performance within an R&B format. Earlier vocal groups like The Orioles had caught something of the mournful side of Gospel singing with tracks like it’s Too Soon to Know back in 1947. In both acts, in very different ways, their lead vocalists were doing something pop singers didn’t. Most pop singers were stylists who would recite a song – not sans emotion- but if they were actors you might admire their craft, well aware of their craft on display. Rock singers in the mold of Clyde McPhatter lived, ate and breathed the song. They inhabited it and the song inhabited them. If they were actors they would be a Robert De Niro – a method actor being that role.

McPhatter would tire of getting paid a stipend, while making Ward rich, and would head off to form the first version of The Drifters, before becoming a soloist in his own right. He was the first person inducted twice into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – even if he had, sadly, drunk himself to death before the honour could be conveyed to him. All multiple inductees are said to have joined the Clyde McPhatter Club.

It’s Too Soon to Know (1947) by The Orioles. In 1941 a vocal group called The Ink Spots sparked a revolution in the world of vocal music. Having seized upon an opportunity (the preeminent vocal group before them, a ‘coffee pot group’* called The Mills Brothers became trapped overseas for the duration of World War Two) they revolutionized vocal harmony singing. Though formulaic, they set the standard for much of the 1940s. The acoustic intro. The plaintive ‘Irish tenor’ vocal sings a verse. The bass singer copies that verse, only lower. The tenor revisits the hook, taking the song home. Throughout the 1940s a group of ‘bird groups’ so named as they mostly took their names from birds. Some followed the high – low vocal. Others, like The Ravens, put the bass singer front and centre. The Orioles put their lead tenor out front, and were a kind of missing link between The Ink Spots and the Doo Wop bands which followed.

*coffee pot groups used to imitate big band instruments using their voices, often through coffee pots and kazoos, to back the lead vocalist. The coffee pot would be passed through the bar for tips at the end of the show.

Speaking of Doo Wop. I’ve previously mentioned The Chords ‘Sh-Boom’, which should have been the first rock and roll record to go to number one on the pop charts, but for a white copycat record. Gee (1953) by The Crows had no such problem – though it was a slow burner, released almost a year before Sh-Boom, then finally seeing chart success just after The Chords had. It gets a little pitchy at the end of the track, but does share a number of similarities to Sh-Boom. Perhaps of note, The Crows eschew the honking sax solo for a guitar solo – likely played by Tiny Grimes, a jazz player and session ace whose ‘Tiny’s Boogie’ (1947) is yet another contender for first rock and roll song. Grimes also gifted the world Screaming Jay Hawkins – Hawkins having got his first big break singing for Tiny.

Teardrops From My Eyes (1950) by Ruth Brown. Atlantic records were a small label, making interesting ‘race records’ – and then there was Ruth Brown. Atlantic records, musical powerhouse it is to this day, is the House that Ruth Built. Teardrops from my Eyes was a huge, runaway hit for Ruth – hitting #1 on the R&B charts and staying there for 11 weeks. The song set Brown up as the reigning queen of R&B, and as an influence for future female rock and roll singers.


It’s All Right Baby (1938) by Big Joe Turner and Pete Johnson. I have already written the first music blog on this song here. I just figured it would be nice to end this where I started.

Before Rock and Roll – a playlist (part 1).

Hi all welcome back for the fifth installment of my early rock and roll, Thursday series- I know it’s a little late, I’ve suddenly had to look for a new home, and as such lost a few evenings to flat hunting. Sorry everyone. This week I’m just going to drop a playlist of songs – all preceding Elvis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Most pre-date or are roughly contemporaneous with Ike Turner/Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats’ Rocket 88. I am not trying to answer which was the first rock and roll song – there isn’t one first rock and roll song, just a handful of songs which sound increasingly like something DJ Alan Freed retroactively named rock and roll. I’m just capping off something I was doing, daily – one song at a time – on my personal Facebook page to distract myself during the COVID lockdown. let’s just jump into it.

Edit: Oh, as I started writing this it became apparent the text would need to be in two parts, I’ll publish the 2nd next Thursday.

First up Tomorrow Night (1948) by Lonnie Johnson makes my list, first because I think it is a beautiful song. Second, it was a country blues song written by a couple of Tin Pan Alley writers who normally catered for the likes of Bing Crosby. It topped the R&B charts and made it as far as #19 on the pop charts. Several rock and rollers would do their own covers of the song, including Elvis Presley, last week’s star LaVern Baker, Episode 1’s star Big Joe Turner…. And in 1992 Bob Dylan. Johnson delivers both vocally in his plaintive, almost country-esque vocal, and exquisite guitar work, while a piano and bass pad the track out – way in the background. Johnson had been a recording artist since the early 1920s, and counted among his early fans Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian and Robert Johnson.


Strange Things Happening Every Day (1945) by Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the Sam Price Trio on the other hand is an old African American spiritual, rocked up. When listening to Sister Rosetta on an electric guitar, backed by Lucky Millinder’s orchestra circa 1944 there’s no doubt she helped build rock and roll. Check out This Train, or Rock Me, or Rock Daniel and you soon get the idea. In Strange things she is on a dobro, and a little bit more laid back – but I believe it still counts as proto rock – just check out that guitar solo. Tharpe was a guitar virtuoso, Gospel singer who made a name for herself playing at the Cotton Club in 1938. She was on the bill at the Spirituals to Swing concert mentioned in the first rock and roll episode. As a heavily religious Pentecostal church member, a bisexual woman who lived most of her life with her partner Marie Knight, and a true originator of ‘the devil’s music’ there is so much to unpack with Sister Rosetta – more than a paragraph could do justice to.

I don’t know near enough about Hillbilly Boogie – I’m going to tackle two of them at once. Growing up I was told rock and roll was born when R&B met country. This is not exactly correct, country had little to do with rock and roll. Western Swing (typified by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, none of his songs in this list) and Hillbilly Boogie had much more to do with rock and roll. True country music had no drums, none of that walking bass line we associate with rock and roll. It was far more genteel. Guitar Boogie (1945) by Arthur Smith and his Crackerjacks, and Hot Rod Race (1950) by Arkie Shibley and his Mountain Dew Boys, are two examples of the Hillbilly Boogie that would influence the rockabilly players especially. Smith’s instrumental went to #25 in the pop charts… though this would happen on a later 1948 re-release which came about because James Petrillo’s 1948 musicians’ strike, which had record labels looking through their catalogues for anything in lieu of new material. Hot Rod Race makes the list for it’s subject matter, which influenced Chuck Berry’s writing on his first single Maybelline. Maybelline, incidentally also had Wills’ Ida Red all over it, the verses sound very similar.

Choo Choo Ch’Boogie (1946) by Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five. Rock and roll owed much to the big Swing Orchestras of the pre war era. Their demise was one major stream for rock and roll.

A musicians strike from 1942 to 1944 (led by James Petrillo, see the ‘Nature Boy’ entry) , combined with the effects of World War Two on music – namely fuel scarcity made transporting big bands around untenable; band members being drafted to fight (not to mention maybe half their audiences)… as well as a sudden scarcity of shellac to make the records with – Shellac is a byproduct from a beetle found only in Vietnam and parts of India – led to the disintegration of the big band, in favor of smaller units who often played heavier to make up for their smaller size.
Louis Jordan was well ahead of the pack. A featured vocalist and saxophonist for one of the greatest big bands ever – Chick Webb’s orchestra – Jordan had tried and failed to execute a coup de tat on Mr Webb. Webb, the drummer and band leader fired Jordan in 1939. Necessity being the mother of invention, Jordan formed a smaller group unlike anything else at the time. Much of his music has a rock and roll leaning to it, even if a lot of it relies heavily on a swing beat rather than the backbeat. When you listen to his ‘Caldonia’ you can’t help but think of singers like Little Richard. As tempting as it is to claim rock and roll was all about guitars so many of the early groups were driven by the horns and a boogie woogie piano – following the formula set down by Louis Jordan.

One Mint Julep (1951) by The Clovers. I don’t know anywhere near enough about this group, but I love this song. Vocal R&B groups play a big role in early rock and roll, especially in what came to be known as doo wop. The first vocal groups sounded like the Ink Spots, and the various ‘bird groups’ they inspired (the Ravens, The Orioles, The Wrens…). Generally they were of a certain mold – a high tenor, a bass singer who often parroted the tenors first verse but in a much lower voice, a couple of others singing oohs and ahhs behind them. The Clovers wanted to be the Ink Spots, but Atlantic Records head Ahmet Ertegan had bigger plans for them – a newer, less maudlin sound based on Billy Ward and the Dominoes. There is an urban legend The Clovers rebelled against Ertegan’s demands for more of that newfangled vocal music by wasting his studio time recording an a-Capella parody of the jazz standard ‘Darktown Strutters Ball’ called ‘Rotten C**ks**kers Ball’ – which a disappointed Ertegan buried. The song surfaced in the 80s – although it turns out it was the kind of thing often made for music industry insiders ears only… limited run Christmas gifts.

This song however is a good example of a vocal group moving towards a rock and roll sound, sax solo and all…. And an early drinking song.


Rock the Joint (1949) by Jimmy Preston and his Prestonians is the kind of song most of us probably think of when looking for a first rock and roll song. It’s got that walking bassline we all know. It’s got a backbeat. There is the honking saxophone first popularized by Illinois Jacquet in the early 1940s. It has a big gang vocal chanting ‘we’re gonna rock, we’re gonna rock this joint” – Alan Freed may have coined it rock and roll, but there were a slew of songs, well before his time, to sing of rocking (Tiny Grimes’ Rock the House, Wynonie Harris’ Good Rockin’ Tonight, Wild Bill Moore’s We’re Gonna Rock three examples). This is the song that convinced former Indiana state yodeling champion and then country singer Bill Haley he needed to try this new thing the kids were doing. To my ear several tracks from around 1948-49 are undeniably rock and roll – but where I think 70s rock critics fixed on Ike Turner/Jackie Brenston’s Rocket 88 is that rock music to them was only something you played on guitar. I disagree.

Good Rockin’ Tonight (1947) by Wynonie Harris. One of the songs put forwards when arguing for a first rock and roll song. Wynonie Harris was a blues shouter who had come to prominence in 1944, after he joined Lucky Millinder’s orchestra – one of the swing era big bands who were managing to stay relevant in a more jump blues and boogie inflected 1940s. Millinder’s band had a decent sized hit in 1944 with ‘Who put the whiskey in the well?’ – a jump blues piece with a boogie bassline and strong backbeat, which still ends up sounding a million miles away from rock and roll to my ears. Feeling aggrieved band leader Millinder (who did not play an instrument himself) got the credit for the disc, Harris struck out on his own. Wynonie Harris, mercurial as he was, has always seemed a bit of an ass to me. On the upside you’d hear he was electrifying on stage, gyrating his hips a decade before anyone had heard of Elvis. On the downside, the man owned two Cadillacs, employing two chauffers. At the end of the night he would decide which driver would take him home – and which driver had been sitting outside all night for naught. Yeah I’m sure both got paid, but I can’t be the only one who feels this was a little capricious – especially if one particular chauffer was the perpetual bridesmaid?

In 1947 a fan of Harris, and decent vocalist in his own right named Roy Brown brought Harris a song called Good Rockin’ Tonight. Though it was exactly the kind of song Harris did, he passed – till he heard Brown’s own version on the jukeboxes. When trying to sell the song to another jump blues singer called Cecil Gant, Gant passed too but immediately called his record company head (at 2.30 in the morning) to say ‘hey, you have to listen to this’. Brown was soon in the studio himself, laying down a version of the song. Harris quickly knocked together a cover, adding the ‘O when the saints’ intro, a couple of ‘’hoy, hoy, hoy”s at the end – and, most importantly, a back beat. The back beat is exactly why some say his version, not Roy Brown’s, is the first true rock and roll song.

Ok, I’ll do write ups for the second half next week. Spotify playlist below.