Tag Archives: American History

Quoth the Raven – The tale of the Poe Toaster

Hi everyone welcome to the final blog tale before we jump back into the podcasts again – and of course the podcast scripts here. As some of you will know, or have guessed I am a fan of Edgar Allan Poe – why steal from his ‘Tales of Mystery and Imagination’ for the name of your blog if not? It seems fitting to do a quick tale on ‘The Tomahawk Man’, Eddy to Mrs Poe, before we jump back into season two of the podcasts.
With Poe there are several tales you could tell, and I am saving most of them for another time. In this episode I want to talk about the mysterious ‘Poe toaster’ – apparently a Poe Superfan?

By way of quick biography, Edgar Allan Poe (January 19th 1809- October 7th 1849), was one of the greats of American literature. Though never receiving the plaundits or monetary rewards he should in life, in the years since his passing much of his work has been recognized for it’s brilliance, often groundbreaking style and the sheer breadth of Mr Poe’s intellectual capabilities. An accomplished poet, short story writer, occasional novellist and critic, Poe also exhibited he knew more than a thing or two about science, cryptography, seafaring, and investigation. While American readers initially struggled to recognize his genius, French writers like Charles Baudelaire and Stephane Mallarme sung his praises loudly – in no small part because they owed much of their style to Poe. His work did have some influence at home however – the seafaring tale ‘The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket’ was a huge influence on Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’. His Auguste Dupin stories, ‘The Murder in the Rue Morgue’, ‘The Murder of Mary Roget’ and ‘The Purloined Letter’ are among the first detective stories written – most critics would consider him the father of detective fiction. He was a master of the horror story, an early sci-fi writer, and a poet of note. If he had only ever written ‘The Raven’ his place in American anthologies of poetry would be assured, but ‘To Helen’, ‘Annabel Lee’, ‘Ulalume’, ‘A dream within a dream’ only reinforce his greatness.

Edgar Allan Poe played a number of roles in his short time on earth; a soldier, an assistant newspaper editor, publisher, at one time a political hopeful… Many remember his as a little creepy beyond his writing when recalling how, aged 26, he married his 13 year old cousin. Some will know he was a little too fond of alcohol. You may recall the time he got into a public spat with another titan of American literature, ‘Tales by a Wayside Inn’s Henry Wadsworth Longfellow after accusing the professor of plaigarism, or the far more consuming battle between he and Rufus Griswold – who got the last word on Mr Poe when he got to write his, unflattering obituary.

On October 3rd 1849 a delirious, disheveled Poe was found outside Gunner’s Hall (an Irish tavern) in Baltimore, Maryland, quoth his rescuer Joseph W. Walker “In great distress and… in need of immediate assistance”. He was taken to The Washington Medical College, where he would die on October 7th. The suspicious nature of his death was cause for much speculation. Why was he found in clothes which didn’t belong to him? Had he been kidnapped by a Cooping gang and forced to vote at multiple polling booths in the local election that day, and if so had he died of poisoning from bad ‘rotgut’, home brewed alcohol often given to cooping victims after each vote cast? Had he died from the DTs from being denied alcohol, either self inflicted or by others? Could it have been heart disease, cholera? meningitis? syphilis? Any were posible at the time in Baltimore. Was he bitten by a rabid dog? Had he been murdered and if so by whom? I doubt we will ever know as his medical records were, all too conveniently, lost soon after.
Edgar Allan Poe was buried two days later, at Westminster Hall, Baltimore. This is where the tale proper starts.

On 19th January 1949, the anniversary of Poe’s birth, and marking 100 years since his death, a shadowy figure was observed holding vigil in the dead of night, at the writer’s grave. Dressed all in black, save a white scarf masking his face. A wide brimmed hat further obscuring the visitor’s identity – the man knelt at Poe’s grave, laid three red roses, and poured a glass of cognac. Having toasted Poe, the stranger left the remainder for the man in the grave then disappeared from whence he came. A handful of onlookers, whose reason for hanging around a graveyard in the murky darkness escapes me, caught sight of the libation. This was the start of a ritual which would run for decades. Every January 19th between midnight and 6 AM, the shadowy stranger would appear, place three roses, drink to the deceased, then leave. Over time the crowds of onlookers would increase. No-one ever tried to detain, or unmask the Poe Toaster. As such no one has ever been able to ascertain his connection to Edgar Allan Poe, and why the Poe Toaster feels this deep obligation to visit the man on his birthday.

The reason for the three roses is equally uncertain. It could represent a rose for Poe, one for his wife Virginia and the third for his mother in law, Maria Clemm – all buried under the cenotaph. No one is sure why cognac – Were he to take a lead from his tales then a glass of the rarer, more expensive Amontillado sherry makes more sense (FYI if you haven’t read ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ before, please do. It is wonderfully unsettling, link to Australian Amazon page here).


In 1990 Life Magazine ran an article of the toaster, with a photograph of him kneeling at the grave. After this the number of onlookers grew exponentially.

On occasion the toaster woud leave a note for onlookers. One year he left a note stating “Edgar I haven’t forgotten you”. In 1993 a note was left stating “the torch will be passed”, and in 1999 a note stating the original Poe Toaster had passed on, and his sons had now assumed the mantle. In 2001 the Poe Toaster broke completely with tradition and left a note commenting on the Superbowl. A 2004 note was critical of the French criticisms of American action in Iraq. The son of the original toaster was noticeably less sartorial, somewhat less of a dashing and mysterious figure. On one occasion he showed up wearing jeans.

In 2009 the world watched, and waited in anticipation. The year marked 200 years since Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday. A sizeable crowd hunkered down and awaited the Poe Toaster’s arrival – but he never came. He would never be seen again. Quoth the Raven, Nevermore.

Since 2016 a Poe Toaster has returned, to keep the tradition alive. In the wee small hours he enters the former Gothic church, lays the three roses, and drinks a glass to the memory of Mr Poe – however these days the role is played by an actor in the employ of the city. What started as an act of love, admiration or even repentance has now become a tourist trap.

Next week Tuesday I’ll post the first episode of season two of the podcast, and of course the scripts here. I’m tackling the tale of a wild west assassin. There will be added background music, and sharper scripts (everything is getting multiple drafts now) though the same old narrator, always a little weak and weary from pondering over volumes of forgotten lore in the wee small hours. The podcast music of course by New Zealand hard rock band Ishtar, whose “Just One Life’ borrowed Poe’s trick in the Raven – a simple refrain (in his case ‘Nevermore’, theirs ‘So far away’) then dropping the phrase at a vital point, to knock their listeners off kilter. Tomorrow night I will be trying to mix samples from the song into the background and exporting the finished product to Podbean.
Take care all – Simone

Willie the Wimp (and his Cadillac coffin)

Inspiration can come at you from so many ways. For me it sometimes comes in the form of a digression in a book that sticks in my head – I wonder why no-one has told THAT story, till I go chase down the rest of the tale. Sometimes something comes from a conversation you’ve had with someone else.

Sometimes the teenage you is looking through second hand cassettes in a 4 for $5 bin. You are planning to spend the afternoon hand writing a legible copy (I did not get my first computer till I was 22) of a university essay on Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for Measure’ from your completely illegible notes – and you may as well grab a seat in the AV lab, borrow a cassette player, and listen to a little music while you work. Among my picks that day was Stevie Ray Vaughan’s ‘Live Alive’, and on that album a cover song with a back story that has always fascinated me. I find the following quirky. I don’t intend any veiled commentary on society, no judgment or praise. I could make the point funerals are for the living, they often reflect the needs and wishes of those left behind, and why I think, most of the time that is OK – but I’ll leave it to you all to join any dots you see fit. I really just mean this as a quirky tale that found its way to me many moons ago.

Willie ‘Wimp’ Stokes jr. was a notorious figure among the underworld of Chicago’s South Side. Though at the time of his passing, Jet magazine listed him as a ‘flamboyant gambler’, and gamble he sure did – it would be reported later that he was a drug dealer working for his alleged kingpin father, William ‘Flukey’ Stokes. If one is thinking back to the Macks from my Christmas podcast, that is OK – I used a photo of Flukey to represent what a modern day mack looked like. One February night in 1984, Stokes Jr was gunned down on his way to a motel on the South Side. Though nowhere could I find any indication that anyone was arrested for the murder, it is to be noted the murder happened at a time when cheap crack cocaine was starting to flood the streets in many US cities, and a number of young gangsters were suddenly looking to elbow into the business – in spite of the few kingpins who had dominated the narcotics business for years. Stokes Jr, just 28 at the time, left a wife and five children behind.

William ‘Flukey’ Stokes snr.

Willie ‘the wimp’s father, Willie ‘Flukey’ Stokes, was also something of a flamboyant gambler – at least on his income tax forms he claimed most of his money came from gambling. He owned a pool hall – and was, at the time of his own death, reputed to be the owner of as many as 40 drug houses, employing around 200 people in his organization. Like his son he cut a flamboyant figure – silk suits, diamond rings with carat counts into the dozens – a taste for Cadillacs. Flukey, for all the damage his ‘gambling’ did in his community was beloved by most – he was well known in the neighborhood for acts of kindness to the elderly (bringing turkeys to pensioners) the poor (no strings attached financial assistance to many needy folk who approached him for help), and the unfortunate (helping re-house a family whose home had caught fire). All the same, at the time of his own death Stokes Snr was facing murder, conspiracy to murder and racketeering charges. He was also thought to be bringing in a million dollars a week from his drug houses.

So when Willie the wimp is gunned down, Flukey put on a funeral which caught the imagination of a number of journalists. There laid out in all his finery was the younger Willie – propped up at the wheel of a Cadillac coffin. Before Willie the wimp had been loaded into the coffin it had been taken to a local panel beaters, and had a genuine Cadillac front grille and boot added to it. Working front and tail lights were installed. A plastic windshield, a big floral steering wheel, a dashboard were added, as were four wheels to the chassis. All up it is believed the coffin, modelled after a 1984 Cadillac Seville, cost Stokes Snr around $7,000. It also had a vanity licence plate W.I.M.P. Willie himself was dressed in a hot pink three piece suit with a matching tie, a rather pimping looking hat, and a giant diamond ring just like his father wore. He went driving into the great unknown clutching what most newspapers report as a wad of $100 bills, and Flukey’s own biography claimed to be $1,000 notes.


When interviewed about the funeral Flukey advised “He (Wimp) had a brand new Cadillac every year for the past eight years or so… Furthermore, one year I was in debt and he sold his Cadillac to help me out, so I owed him one”. Willie the Wimp’s mother Jean added “I think he would have really liked it because that’s the way he was. He was flashy, and he believed in style”

Two years later Flukey Stokes would make the news again, after spending $200,000 on a lavish party to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his wedding to Jean. They hired the Staples Sisters and Chi-Lites to play, and Flukey threw $50 and $100 bills to the guests at one point in the night. It has always astonished me the party was held at the South Side motel where Willie the Wimp was gunned down. Not long after Flukey himself would be gunned down. Having just been acquitted of attempting to kill a rival drug boss, he was killed in a hit organized by his own bodyguard, on his way back from a night at the movies with his girlfriend.

One morning Texan musician and songwriter Bill Carter is reading the local paper, when an article grabs his attention. He shows it to his wife, and co-writer Ruth Ellsworth, commenting “This isn’t a column, it is a song”. That morning, on their two mile drive to the studio the songwriting partners have a song out of it, and cut the track that day. In the studio, Carter’s friend The Fabulous Thunderbirds Jimmy Vaughan, who lays down guitars on the track. Jimmy called his brother, blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughan that night, raving about how good a song Willie The Wimp (And His Cadillac Coffin) is. SRV agreed, adding the song to his live set. And that folks is that tale of Willie the Wimp Stokes.

Dorothy Martin’s Flying Saucer

“A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree, and he turns away. Show him facts and figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”
Leon Festinger- ‘When Prophecy Fails’

“The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.”
John Maynard Keynes – ‘The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money’.

Hi all welcome back to the blog. If you haven’t read last week’s blog on Sabbatai Zevi I’d suggest go check that out first. This week we’re headed in an arc back in that direction as the tale goes on.

Today we join our tale towards it’s climax, in a suburban home in Oak Park, Illinois. The time and date, 6pm on 21st December 1954. At the home that day are a dozen or so suburbanites who have become convinced the lady of the house has supernatural powers. They have been camped out at the house for several days now. Most have sacrificed greatly to be there. Nearly every article I’ve read states it is Christmas, and at 6pm our subjects are at the roadside singing Christmas carols – but the source material states otherwise – it is the 21st. Were they singing carols to the large number of onlookers anyway? Maybe. They were outside looking for the people from Clarion, for Sanada – but they head back into the house after a while. If Sanada can travel galaxies to find them, Sanada’s not going to have any great trouble finding 847 West School Street (address likely changed to protect the privacy of the lady in the house).

the ‘burbs’, did ‘847 West Street’ look a little like this?


The dozen or so people in the house are there because they believe tonight the world is going to end in a giant flood, and a spacecraft from the far off planet of Clarion is going to rescue them. Them alone, a select few. Outside there is a crowd of curious onlookers and reporters. Inside, amongst the believers, a small number of interlopers, led by a young psychology lecturer named Leon Festinger. The lady with the direct line to the aliens? Festinger identifies her as Mrs Marian Keech – in the years since she has been identified as Mrs Dorothy Martin. One must presume the other named figures in this tale are still under Noms de Plumes.

Dorothy Martin was a woman who believed in various forms of mysticism. From a young age she had been drawn to the Theosophical movement of Helena Blavatsky. This led to her studying a local offshoot which would go on to influence later New Age spiritualist movements, Guy and Edna Ballard’s ‘I AM’ movement. From there she discovered ‘Oahspe: A New Bible’, a spiritualist tome, allegedly written by ‘automatic writing’ (where the writer is merely the conduit for a supernatural force providing them the information) by John Newbrough in 1882. Finally she had recently discovered Scientology, and something about the writings of it’s sci-fi author founder L. Ron Hubbard just clicked with her.

In April 1954 Martin had begun trying to use automatic writing to speak with her deceased father, but found more than she was looking for. First it was just earthbound spirits, but she soon claimed she was getting ‘Astral messages’ from across the universe. First from the mysterious ‘Elder Brother’ then aliens from the planets Clarion (this seems to be a name which pops up with a few UFO believers in the 50s) and Cerus (based on the real dwarf planet Ceres in the Asteroid Belt maybe?). By mid April she was getting a lot of messages from a Clarion alien called Sanada. At first Sanada tells her they have regularly visited Earth. Word gets out among other spiritualist folk of the conversations. Martin gains a small following. On 23rd July 1954 Sanada states they will be flying past Lyons Field on 1st August. A dozen people go. No-one sees a spacecraft, but Dorothy and a number of others remember a strange man who stopped to speak with them. The man subsequently disappeared into thin air. While 7 of the 12 call bullshit on Dorothy at this point, the rest- thanks in part to the lecturer and former missionary ‘Dr. Thomas Armstrong’ and his wife – are convinced something strange happened. That man was strange. They all had a feeling something happened, but maybe someone wiped out their memory of it like Will Smith’s Men in Black do?


2nd August Sanada wrote. Yes, all of what Dr. Armstrong said. I was there. I wiped your minds. You saw the flying saucers. Sanada also warned Dorothy, for the first time, something bad was about to happen.

Without getting too tied up in the details – 15th August Sanada writes again, the bad thing is the Americas will be flooded after a flash of light. 27th August, the whole world will flood. Soon after they have a date – 21st December 1954. Dr. Armstrong went public with this information – sending notice to all the papers he could find. One paper, The Lake City Herald ran the story in a small article on their back page in late September. Prof. Festinger happened to be reading that day. Seeing this as an opportunity to observe what happens to a group when a strongly held belief gets obliterated – surely there is not going to be any great flood, let alone UFOs come the 21st – he devised a plan to infiltrate the group.


Now we have a lot to cover in this so I will buzz through the main points. In the months leading up to the night in question, they picked up a number of followers. There is ‘Fred Purden’, a student who had a falling out with his parents over Mrs Martin. He is so tied up in preparing for Armageddon he is about to flunk his whole year. There is ‘Laura Brooks’ who has given away all her belongings, cause who needs Earth stuff on Clarion, right? ‘Susan Heath’ a fanatic who has fallen out badly with her dorm-mate and has been banned by her college from proselyting there. As the day draws closer those who are working made a pact to give up their jobs. ‘Mark Post’ walked out of the hardware store. ‘Edna Post’ was running a daycare centre. She got an extremely judgmental look from the owners when she handed in her notice. ‘Bertha Blatsky’ packed in her job as a secretary. Dr. Armstrong is fired.

Now this is how the day played out.
10:00 AM. Dorothy gets a message. “At the hour of midnight you shall be put into parked cars and taken to a place where ye shall be put aboard a porch(UFO)”
That evening – the aforementioned media circus outside of the house. They wait, bored. Every hour on the hour Dorothy is supposed to be waiting for a message from Sanada.
11.15 PM. A message from Sanada telling them to get ready to leave, to put on their overcoats.
12.00 AM Nothing happens.
12.05 AM one of the followers notices one of the walls on the clock still says 11.55, they all decide it mustn’t be midnight yet.
12:10 AM. The UFOs send a message. Traffic must be killing them and it is taking longer than expected to get there.
12:15 AM the phone rings. It is not ET calling, but reporters. ‘What has happened?” ‘Have the aliens arrived yet?’

At 2 AM a younger follower leaves, stating his mum told him she would call the cops if he was not back by 2. Unshaken, the rest state this was probably a good thing, he had the least commitment anyway.
At 4 AM the first signs of doubt when one of the followers states they have turned their back on the world and burned every bridge they have, but this one. They feel they should leave but they have to stay, till the bitter end.
At 4:45 AM FINALLY!!! A new message from the aliens. They are no longer coming, but wanted to explain how big a thing these believers did tonight. Through their great faith they have saved the planet. Earth will no longer flood, and the people of Earth can thank them that humankind is now in God’s good graces.
5:00 AM, a P.S. from the aliens this news is “…to be released immediately to the newspapers.” They do, finding little tidbits along the way which fit with their narrative. ‘There were small earthquakes in Italy and California last night?… that must’ve been the start of the great disaster we averted’.

Now- at this point – I want to drop back in to the story on Sabbatai Zevi again, to add a little bit of context I conveniently left out last time.

Sabbatai Zevi claimed a number of times that the world was coming to an end, and he was there to usher in a new, golden age. From 1648, when he announced he was the son of God he began saying it. When he was thrown out of Smyrna, circa 1651, he had built up a reasonably large following – many of whom had sacrificed to follow his cause. A number sacrificed all the good things they had in Smyrna to follow him across Europe.
As he went from strength to strength a bit of a bandwagon effect happened. More people on board meant it seemed less a crazy thing to follow this heretic. Add to this the more people gave, the more justifications came as to why this guy was worth following. Tales arose of Sabbatai performing miracles. This drove the bandwagon effect, leading to more miracles and so forth.
By the time he came back to Smyrna to make his Jewish New Years speech (sorry I didn’t mention he went to Smyrna to make it) he was welcomed as a hero, a local boy made good, among the Jewish diaspora there. This built on top of his, already inflated, image.
This had a flow on effect. Across Europe Jewish populations began to party. The messiah was here, and he was going to defeat the Turks – then lead us back to Jerusalem. Many thousands of them packed up their belongings and began to make the pilgrimage to see the great Sabbatai Zevi.
In cities where trade was largely dependent on the Jewish community, like Amsterdam and Hamburg, the cities all but ground to a halt.
When he was arrested and taken to Adrianople, Muslim citizens mocked the Jews in the streets with chants of “Is he coming, Is he coming?” If they didn’t feel committed to this guy yet, this mockery sure pushed some over the edge. To almost all the Jews this guy was their guy. Thousands of Jews picketed outside his prison, demanding his release. The assassination plot may have been the last straw, but Sultan Mehmet IV was feeling immense pressure over this. The last thing he wanted was a civil war or a bloody insurrection. The Turks saw their best chance to get out of this mess bloodlessly was to try to trick Sabbatai Zevi into converting to Islam.

And, when he did, of course a number of these ‘donmeh’ would follow suit. The longer you are committed to something, the harder it is to accept hard truths about that thing, or person. Even if this runs contrary to everything you have previously stood for. Did the absurdity of their conversion matter? No, because when one is suffering from cognitive dissonance – the word was coined by Prof. Festinger by the way – you find a way of bending reality to reflect your ‘facts’. It is dangerous to think of the cognitively dissonant as dumb – they are smart enough to seize little bits and pieces and dissimulate them into a narrative which matches their preferred reality. The post truth society is not a new thing – it pops into existence numerous times over history.

To re-iterate Leon Festinger’s quote at the top of this piece. Someone with a conviction is a hard person to change. Tell them you disagree, and they turn away. Show them facts and figures and they question your sources. Appeal to logic and they fail to see your point.

Thanks for joining me, please remember to share this site – just one person who you know digs history does wonders. I’ll be back same time next week. – Simone

Nellie Bly: the heroine who took on a mad-house.

“I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me for my action, which has proven their ability, to take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 A. M. until 8 P. M. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane. Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck.”

Nellie Bly, ‘Ten Days in a Mad House’ (1887).


In 1885 an ‘anxious father’ of 5 unmarried daughters wrote a letter to the Pittsburgh Dispatch desperate for advice, and worried about how his girls would cope out in the big, bad world without men to look after them. The paper replied in an editorial piece from their columnist Erasmus Wilson entitled ‘What girls are good for’. So, according to Wilson what are girls good for? Not a lot. In his diatribe Wilson decried working women as “A monstrosity”, stating the only place for a woman was in the home. He lambasted parents of working women for allowing them to enter the workforce, and suggested perhaps America should follow China’s 2 millennia long practice of some parents drowning female babies. If you imagine that even in 1885 such an exhibit of he-man woman hating misogyny would get some heat, you would be correct. A mountain of letters of complaint to the editor came flooding in. One in particular, an anonymous piece signed “lonely orphan girl” stood out for it’s remarkably direct and persuasive use of language, even if, allegedly, the riposte broke many grammatical conventions. The letter never got published, but so impressed managing editor George Madden that he wrote an open letter inviting the writer to come see him, all the same. The next day a 20 year old woman named Elizabeth Cochran, a former trainee teacher at Indiana Teacher’s college who had to drop out to help her mother run a boarding house, arrived at the office. Madden offered her a job as a reporter, which she took unhesitatingly. Cochran took on the nom de plume Nellie Bly, a name she borrowed from a minstrel song written by “Father of American Music” Stephen Foster.


Bly wrote for the Pittsburgh Dispatch for a few years, covering the lives of working women, the poor of Pittsburgh, and for some time official corruption and wealth inequality in Mexico; but looking for bigger opportunities, she moved to New York in 1887. That year she approached Joseph Pulitzer’s ‘The New York World’ (yes, that Pulitzer, of the prize… if you recall the mountebank Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln also wrote for them on occasion) wanting to report on the lives of poor immigrants in the Big Apple. While the New York World was not at all interested in that story they did have a challenging job for Nellie Bly, if she felt she was up to the task- infiltrate the remote, secretive Blackwell Island insane asylum. As she would a to a number of big challenges in her life, Bly took up the challenge.

Joseph Pulitzer.

On 22nd September 1887 Nellie Bly came up with a plan to get herself committed with the least amount of collateral damage. Under the guise of a young out of towner looking for work, she booked herself into a boarding house for working women, then began to act one part paranoid, one part clinically depressed, one part retrograde amnesiac. She, in turns, acted ‘mad’ till the boarding house owners called for two police officers to come over and take Nellie away. The police arrived and took her, first, back to the station, then second before the kindly Judge Duffy, who took some convincing to send Nellie to Bellevue hospital for examination. At Bellevue, Nellie easily convinced the doctors she was “positively demented” and beyond help, after a short examination by a couple of what passed for expert doctors at the time. While at Bellevue you get the first sense of a few things she would find at Blackwell Island later – but more of that in a second.
She was soon sent off to the asylum.

In her ten days in the asylum, Nellie Bly uncovered a litany of horrors and mistreatment. First there was the ubiquitous chill – Although the asylum was freezing cold (she references this several times including talk on seeing others skin going blue with the cold) the staff refused to turn on the heat or provide sufficient clothing to keep inmates warm. Second, the long hours of sitting around in a main room; unadorned and overcrowded, on backless benches (six people crammed onto five spaces) – where one dare not speak, or move around for fear of abuse from the staff. Third the food sounded absolutely Dickensian. Bly describes on their arrival to the island the sickening stench coming from one particular building,

“We passed one low building, and the stench was so horrible that I was compelled to hold my breath….” This turned out to be the kitchen. Bly goes on stating she
“…smiled at the signboard at the end of the walk: “Visitors are not allowed on this road”. I don’t think the sign would be necessary if they once tried the road, especially on a warm day”. She goes on to describe inedible food, soups which were little more than water, blackened (possibly moldy?) bread, rancid butter.

It was clear from Bly’s description of bathing conditions the inmates were not bathed enough, and when they were, they bathed in ice cold water, were scrubbed by the same few flannels and were dried off with the same few towels – this included inmates with untreated sores. The inmates were also dressed in the same clothes for up to a month at a time. Adding to the horrors, sleep for any decent length of time was out of the question – the noise of the nurses moving up and down the hallways at night reverberated like they were in an echo chamber. If that didn’t wake you, then he nurses opening the door to look in – having to turn a heavy, noisy lock each time to do so, was bound to wake you up. Speaking of those doors, they were death traps, should a fire break out. All individually locked, with no safety to unlock all the rooms at once should an emergency occur, there would be no chance of getting anyone out alive if the worst happened.


That Bly comments that, in her opinion, many of the women incarcerated are as sane as herself one might choose to accept, or dismiss as they see fit. Certainly in some of her conversations it seems clear some of the inmates were suffering from, at most, depression or anxiety. Some you do question if they are suffering from anything besides being trapped in an asylum. Bly mentions of a French inmate, Josephine Despreau, who appeared to have been locked up over a misunderstanding, and who did not have enough English to defend herself. A Sarah Fishbaum, who was locked away on the word of her husband, after she either flirted with or had an affair with a man other than her husband. She mentions a German maid by the name of Margaret, who was locked up after getting into a fight with co-workers who had deliberately messed up a floor she had spent hours scrubbing. What does seem pretty obvious is both the unprofessionalism of the doctors (one gossiping with the nurse in front of Bly, asking if she had read the newspaper articles on her case, in front of Bly), and of their great disinterest in helping, or even properly assessing their inmates.
The nurses are disturbing in other ways, Bly reporting of their propensity to act violently towards the inmates. She mentions one case where “an insane woman” was dropped off to the island, and the nurses greeted her with a beating. When a doctor noticed the inmate’s black eye the nurses claimed the beating must have happened before the inmate arrived. Then there was the case of Mrs Cotter, to quote Bly

“One of the patients, Mrs Cotter, a pretty, delicate woman, one day thought she saw her husband coming up the walk. She left the line in which she was marching and ran to meet him. For this act she was sent to the Retreat. She afterward said:
“The remembrance of that is enough to make me mad. For crying the nurses beat me with a broom- handle and jumped on me, injuring me internally, so that I shall never get over it. Then they tied my hands and feet, and, throwing a sheet over my head, twisted it tightly around my throat, so I could not scream, and thus put me in a bath tub filled with cold water. They held me under until I gave up every hope and became senseless.”

After ten days she was rescued by her colleagues at the New York World. She would record her experiences of Blackwell Island in a six part expose, which would later be compiled into a book, ‘Ten Days in a Mad House’. The uproar over the treatment of the inmates would lead to a grand jury investigation, which led to an overhaul of the asylum.

Bly would go on to write several similar exposes in her career, taking down sweatshops, corruption in jails, and bribery from lobbyists; though perhaps today is best known for having taken on the challenge of following in the footsteps of Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg (Around the World in Eighty Days, 1873), documenting her circumnavigation of the globe in just 72 days. Nellie Bly would retire from journalism in 1895, after marrying the wealthy industrialist Robert Seaman. When Seaman died in 1903 she took the reigns of his factory, but would return to journalism in 1920. Elizabeth Cochran, known to the world as Nellie Bly, star investigative reporter, would herself pass on, from pneumonia, January 27th 1922.

Charles Lennox Richardson and The Namamugi Incident.

Hey everyone just a quick foreword. The blog and podcast are going to slightly different places over the next month, as, in an effort to buy myself a little free time to work on polishing the podcast up a little I am running shows on Altamont and Spring Heeled Jack – two topics I have blogged about earlier. For the next few weeks I am going to blog a few short tales which interest me but are mostly too short to make into a podcast episode.

Today’s tale owes a huge debt of gratitude to New Zealand singer songwriter Emma G. Back in August she posted a meme to her personal Facebook profile along the lines of some text “So in the middle of the Civil War someone was like “You know what this country needs? A delicious steak sauce” followed by a close up on a bottle of A1 steak sauce, est. 1862. This did catch my imagination for a second, for what little I did know about this – and I started to wonder, like seriously.

I knew that pre Civil war, America’s favourite meat was pork, post war it became steak. Much of this did come down to the very land that the union and confederate states were arguing over in the lead up to the war. To simplify, many confederates felt they should have the option to settle in the land the union had acquired through land purchases, war and genocide… and bring their slaves with them. The union wanted these states not to be slave states. After the war of course much of the land got seized at way more than the 160 acres per person guaranteed by Abraham Lincoln’s Homestead act… coincidentally also of 1862… by the ‘Beef Barons’.
Please note I am glossing over something here with way more moving parts than I make it out to have… But I wondered was there some underlying political motive? Some social phenomenon I had not come across before? Some eminent historian I had not even heard of before with a book about how the war was fought over cattle, not slavery?

Well…. Before too long I found that was the wrong question. A1 Sauce was invented in Britain. What was happening in Britain in 1862 you might ask? I did. Quite a bit, but today I want to look at the story I had never heard of before. Thanks Emma for leading me towards it – That of Charles Lennox Richardson and the Namamugi Incident.


When in Rome…
“When in Rome do as the Romans do”. If anyone has ever wondered where the old proverb comes from, it came from the pen of 4th Century AD ‘Doctor of the Catholic church’ St Augustine, recalling the advice of the older priest St Ambrose- probably some time around 387AD. It’s origins are nothing earth shattering.
He arrived at a new job, teaching rhetoric to the wealthy kids of Milan. When he observed to Ambrose how odd it was in Rome they fasted on a Saturday, but in Milan they didn’t Ambrose uttered something similar to the proverb. It changed wording slightly over hundreds of years, till, in 1777 a book of letters by Pope Clement XIV were published with the exact phrase ‘When in Rome do as the Romans do’. I think we all understand what it means right? If you’re holidaying in Amsterdam it is OK to partake in a little weed at a cafe. If in Tehran, say, sorry women, headscarves and cover those pins out in public. Be like the locals, for their joyous excesses or for their bronze age prudishness. Be a respectful guest. I think most travellers do their best on this count… but then we also get our share of Westerners- these days often social media influencers are the ones we hear of – who fail at this in a major way. The first thing I should say is if Charles Lennox Richardson was around in 2019 I think he may well have been a Logan Paul type character.

So… who was Charles Lennox Richardson?


I really couldn’t find much on our protagonist, but all sources say Charles Lennox Richardson was born in London, England on 16th April 1834. He came from enough money to launch a career for himself as a merchant in his late teens, and in 1853 he moved to Shanghai, China. His product of choice was Chinese export ceramics. The Chinese had been exporting their porcelain for hundreds of years, largely with Central Asia and the Near East, before Europeans discovered their intricate – extraordinarily difficult to imitate pottery – the first pieces to reach Europe having first come to Europe via Istanbul in the 15th Century. In the 17th century it was in hot demand in Europe – the Dutch East India Company – the VOC- brought in an estimated 35 million pieces between 1600 and 1685. In Richardson’s time it was still crazy popular and in 1862, a 28 year old Richardson announced he had made his fortune, was retiring and would be headed back to England with his takings. On the way back he planned to stop in Yokohama, Japan.


Now it should be pointed out that Yokohama was a ‘Treaty Port’ in 1862. One way of describing a treaty port is to say they were cities who were open to trade with the ‘Occidental’ nations of the west. Another way of putting it is to say they were bullied into ‘unequal treaties’ with occidental powers; the victims of ‘gunboat diplomacy’. In other words the Chinese and Japanese had seen it in their best interests to let European powers establish little enclaves on their land and trade largely by their terms because option B would have been a hiding from the better armed Europeans. Treaty ports had sizeable enclaves for the Occidentals too, little slices of European life for them too – European looking buildings, clubs, churches, restaurants… race courses even. The occidentals had an easy life in these ports in many respects…Even people who would have been doing modestly in Europe could afford comfy lodgings, and servants to look after their every need. Inside the treaty port ‘When in Rome…” did not apply. You were governed by European rules, and no expectation existed to not treat the locals like garbage. Rules outside the treaty port? Well we’ll come to that. Japan did finally shake off the burden of treaty ports in 1899, after an incredibly fast modernization process meant they no longer had to put up with them.


Sowhen outside Yokohama?


Well, let’s say Charles Lennox Richardson did not get much of a chance to reflect on the words of St Ambrose.
On 14th September 1862, Richardson, alongside three other British subjects; Woodthorpe Charles Clark, William Marshall and Margaret Borradaile, rented some horses and went sightseeing. Their intended destination was the temple of Kawasaki Daishi. While picking up the horses the party was instructed that things were different outside the treaty port, and to ‘do as the Romans do’. In 1862, at the tail end of the Tokugawa Shogunate (please check out my blog on Yasuke the African samurai for more on earlier in the shogunate here), local warlords – Daimyo – ruled, in a feudal system with similarities to medieval Europe. The local daimyo was one Shimazu Hisamitsu. It was made very clear to the party, should you meet the Daimyo, you get off your horse and bow to the man.


The party were travelling along the Tokaido road, through the village of Namamugi, when they met the Daimyo coming the other way – carried on a palanquin (a litter carried by several men) and surrounded by a bodyguard of samurai. At this point Richardson could have been like St Augustine among the people of Milan… of he could have been like Czech fitness models Soloina Dolezalova and Zdenk Slouka- who disrespected a Hindu temple in Ubud, Indonesia in 2019 after ‘frolicking’ in the holy water. Dolezalova and Slouka did get away with a public apology, and having to attend and pray at the purification ceremony. Richardson wasn’t so lucky. In spite of repeated warnings he rode towards the palanquin, some reports stated boasting he had lived for years among the Chinese and he ‘knew how to deal with these people’ He was cut to shreds by the bodyguards. Marshall and Clark were also seriously injured in the incident.

So…. What happened next?


Well… his body was recovered, and brought back to Yokohama to be buried. In spite of word having preceded his arrival among the enclave of his arrogance, and mistreatment of the Chinese in Shanghai, and word his own uncle allegedly (I could only find this statement in Wikipedia, not other sources and well… Wikipedia… take it with a grain of salt) laying the blame for the incident squarely on Richardson’s foolhardiness and arrogance, the British needed to demand restitution. If you have bullied your way into ports all around the region you cannot be seen to do nothing over a challenge to your authority. The traders got this, they had been bastards to the locals, and the locals have yet to revolt because Britain carried a big stick. Not to act put their lives in danger.

Britain demanded a huge settlement (of which £25,000 would eventually be paid) and the arrest and prosecution of the killers (which never did). The daimyo stalled, so Britain, in August 1863, sent in a squadron of warships, to Kagoshima, the Daimyo’s capital, and proceeded to bomb the living daylights out of the place. Now if you were looking at casualties, the death count in what they called the Kagoshima bombardment, and the Japanese called the Anglo- Satsuma war, they were small. The Japanese had time to move the civilians out, leaving several men to fire back at them from their boats, equipped with around 80 cannons. All up 3 British warships were damaged, 3 Japanese ships sunk. British casualties ran to 20 with a further 53 wounded, while the Daimyo lost 5 men with 20 more injured. The British inflicted heavy property damage to the capital however, destroying 500 buildings. So much destruction arose out of the arrogance of one young English merchant.


And…. there we have it. Probably safe to file this one under ‘Tales of History and Imagination are all around us’ one of those odd tales you come upon by happenstance. Please feel free to drop a comment, maybe a like? What do you think? – should we ‘do as the Romans’? Would Charles Lennox Richardson have been a star of Instagram if he were around in 2019? Were some Japanese right to be angry over the ‘Treaty ports’ they had forced upon them since Commodore Perry’s famed arrival and Convention of Kanagawa in 1854?


I’ll be back next week, this time looking at something which happened in Central Asia several centuries earlier. Keep an eye out for new posts and stuff on our Facebook page.
Simone.