Tag Archives: US History

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 picture 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.

John Frum, messiah

“This ain’t one body’s story. It’s the story of us all.
We got it mouth-to-mouth. You got to listen it and ‘member.
‘Cause what you hears today you got to tell the birthed tomorrow.
I’m looking behind us now. . . .across the count of time. . . .down the long haul, into history back.
I sees the end what were the start. It’s Pox-Eclipse, full of pain!
And out of it were birthed crackling dust and fearsome time.
It were full-on winter. . .and Mr. Dead chasing them all. But one he couldn’t catch.
That were Captain Walker.

He gathers up a gang, takes to the air and flies to the sky!
So they left their homes, said bidey-bye to the high-scrapers. . .and what were left of the knowing, they left behind.
Some say the wind just stoppered. Others reckon it were a gang called Turbulence. And after the wreck. . .some had been jumped by Mr. Dead. . .
but some had got the luck, and it leads them here.
One look and they’s got the hots for it. They word it “Planet Earth. ” And they says, “We don’t need the knowing. We can live here. “

(all)”We don’t need the knowing. We can live here. “

Time counts and keeps counting. They gets missing what they had.
They get so lonely for the high-scrapers and the video.
And they does the pictures so they’d ‘member all the knowing that they lost.
‘Member this? (Holds a viewfinder toy to Max’s eyes- picture of a city scape)

(all) Tomorrow-morrow Land!
‘Member this? (time lapse picture of a motorway at night)
(all) The River of Light!
‘Member this? (picture of an aircraft)
(all) Skyraft!
‘Member this? (a pilot)
(all) Captain Walker!
‘Member this? (a burlesque dancer)
(all) Mrs. Walker!

The Tell of Captain Walker – from Mad Max – Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

I may be the only one who thinks of Mad Max – Beyond Thunderdome when I think Cargo Cults, but hey I was 9 when the film was released, and maybe 10 or 11 when I first saw the film. It is one of those silly, formative things which has stuck with me forever. This Tale of History and Imagination involves a group who would look strangely familiar to Savannah Nix and her Cargo Cult of Captain Walker.

On 15th February every year a fascinating ritual takes place on the Island of Tanna, Vanuatu (known for the longest time as the New Hebrides). It is the holiest of holy days on the island. Large groups of ‘Ni Vanuatu’, the people of Vanuatu gather beside a home-made landing strip. Some are stripped down to just a pair of jeans or cargo pants; the letters ‘USA’ painted on their chests, others are in full military uniform. In the shadow of Mount Yasur – bamboo ‘guns’ in hand – they get into formation and drill before their gods. The sacred hoisting of the flags follows – first the Stars and Stripes, then the US Marine corps insignia, then finally the state flag for the American state of Georgia. Having paid observance for another year they depart, hopeful this year their messiah returns, bringing on a golden age.

Who is their saviour you may ask? Jesus? Muhammad? Siddhartha Gautama?

Their saviour is an American soldier named John Frum. He first appeared during the second world war. The first many folk would have seen of the cult of John Frum would be a 1960 documentary by Sir David Attenborough called “The People of Paradise”. Attenborough is on the island and asks one of the locals to describe Frum, the local replies…

“E look like you. E got white face. E tall man. E live long in South America”

The tale of John Frum has fascinated me for years. It is an insight into how a religion can form, the significance of folk heroes, and the need for ‘noble myths’ to bring people together for a greater good. To understand this tale, first we needs must discuss the history of the Ni Vanuatu.

Origins.

The Melanesian adventurers we now call Ni Vanuatu first came to the islands by boat around 3,300 years ago. Archaeological evidence confirms this approximate timeline. All indications are once arrived they stayed put, and thrived. In 1606 the Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernandes de Queiros landed on the archipelago, and claimed the chain for his employers, Spain. He established a small, short lived colony, who gave up and decided to sail for home. The Spanish forgot the location of Vanuatu, leaving them free to be claimed by the French admiral Louis Antoine de Bougainville in 1768. Captain James Cook came across the archipelago in 1774, naming them the New Hebrides – after the Scottish Island chain the mystery of Eilean Mor was set on. For the better part of the following century they were left to their own devices by these strange, pale visitors, however colonization would wreak havoc on the Ni Vanuatu soon after.

The first encroachment came in the mid 19th century, after Europeans discovered sandalwood on the island of Erromango. European traders landed large crews of Polynesians from other island chains to cut down the trees. This led to violent skirmishes between the groups.

In 1862 a practice known as ‘Blackbirding’ also came to the island chain. Blackbirding was a name given to the indentured, long term servitude of tribal peoples. This sometimes came in the form of conning tribes into signing predatory contracts with horrendously bad terms. Sometimes it involved kidnapping locals and forcing them to work. It was slavery by another name, occasionally with a pittance of a wage which would disappear in the cost of the victim’s keep. The first blackbirder to find them was an Irishman named J.C Byrne, who was on the prowl for cheap labour for the plantations of Peru. Unfortunately for Vanuatu, in 1862 a blight had killed off much of their supply of coconuts and there was a famine – a large number of men jumped voluntarily at the work. Once word got out Byrne had so easily conned 253 Ni Vanuatu to work in Peru, many other ships arrived. Between September 1862 and April 1863 over 30 European ships arrived, looking for wage slaves for South and Central American plantations. At it’s height several Vanuatuan islands had lost over half their male populations to blackbirding. To this day their population numbers have not fully bounced back.

Soon after, with less locals to defend the islands, white settlers settled on the archipelago. They established their own plantations – first to plant cotton, then later bananas, coconuts, and other tropical fruit.

This was also around the time God arrived. Both Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries arriving to spread the gospel. By the 1880s an insidious takeover had well and truly occured. The British were offloading more and more, mostly Australian, settlers. The French, reminded he who the spiky bougainvillea is named after found the archipelago earlier, were now arriving 2 to 1 to every British settler. Rather than come to blows, Britain and France decided to jointly rule the island chain – first by gentleman’s agreement in the 1880s, then a written joint agreement in 1906, then the Anglo-French protocol of 1914 – then finally a formal ratification in 1922. The Ni Vanuatu were suddenly overrun, told what to think, where they can and cannot go. Only marginally less slaves than the men Blackbirded away decades earlier. Did they need another hero? A handsome stranger with an odd accent to descend, deus ex-machina, to save them? Too bloody right they did. We will look at this in part two next week.
[Edit: for reposting purposes I rewrote this post as a one parter. Simone]

Part Two: He came to them with thunder and lightning…

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indestinguishable from magic”
Arthur C Clarke – Hazards of Prophecy: The failure of imagination.

“He came to them with thunder and lightning, you know- and they had never seen anything like it”
Joseph Conrad- Heart of Darkness.

Hey everyone welcome back to part two of the legend of John Frum. In part one I sketched out for colonization encroached upon the lives of the Ni Vanuatu. Leaving the Mad Max metaphor behind I would like to propose that, blinded by science, they would find their own Captain Walker, but the heroic struggle to break the manacles of oppression was all on them. I would also invite you all to re-read the quotes directly above; the first generally referred to as Arthur C Clarke’s Third Law, the latter from a conversation in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where Mr Kurtz’s Russian acolyte explains to Marlow how Kurtz took over the tribe – fairly accurately portraying the tactics of the likes of Leon Rom – who Kurtz is believed to be based on. No doubt the British and French came with requisite thunder and lightning – though in the Ni Vanuatu’s case, thunder and lightning would also be their salvation.

Think for a second on the conquistador Hernan Cortes, conquerer of Montezuma’s Aztecs. He used modern weapons to convinc the Aztecs he was their god Quetzacoatl. Captain James Cook and the crew of the Endeavor were mistaken for the ghost of the ancestors by the Australian Aborigines when he arrived on his first voyage. On his final voyage, this time on the Resolution, he was thought a god by the people of Hawaii. Unfortunately for Cook, gods, like mortals, can outwear their welcome – and he was stabbed to death and dismembered.
My favourite example from history, where an advanced person used technology to seem magical is in 585BC; where the philosopher Thales of Miletus, had calculated an eclipse, and managed to convince the warring Medes and Lydians the event signified the gods were displeased with the war. When the world went dark, fighting stopped and a truce was signed.

Back to Vanuatu, we pick up the tale in the late 1930s. With a world on the verge of war, the USA decided it may need a military presence looking after their Pacific interests. They sent soldiers to Tanna Island, Vanuatu – brandishing technology sufficiently advanced that to the people of Vanuatu, it did seem like magic. Unlike plantation owners or missionaries these new people, with their magical wonders, never worked … at least not in a way understood by the people of Tanna as work. When something broke for the plantation owner, it had to be fixed. When something broke for the soldiers, new things just appeared; dropped out of the sky by giant iron birds. The Americans prayed to the magic box with the poles, and long wires. The magic box, with it’s glowing lights, spoke back to them in strange voices. Record players seemed magic. Cameras seemed so. Their food was magic, as they never needed to harvest it.

The Ni Vanuatu saw the radio masts as a totem to their gods. They saw their uniforms, and marching, and drills as rituals to please their gods. Their radio operators were the priests. And the cargo, dropped by magical giant birds, was manna from heaven. The Ni Vanuatu began to ask if they were to imitate these rituals, would the gods be so kind to them too?

Around 1940 a legend began to spread of the messianic American soldier. The first recorded ‘sightings’ of John Frum occur. Some of the villagers tell tales of a white visitor appearing to them, stating he used to be called Manehivi, before he was blackbirded to South America. Now he had come back with a new look, and name, to save them. Follow me and you will have more cargo than you know what to do with. To others he claims to be a manifestation of their old, abandoned god, Keraperamun; returned to take the island back, and usher in a golden age. To all Frum promises a better, happier future.

In 1941 the villagers of Tanna act. Frum has spoken, telling them to quit the schools and churches. Down tools and walk away from the plantations. Rid themselves of the white man’s money, and go back to their old ways. He was coming to save them – so they did. The missionaries and plantation owners went to the colonial administrators to kick up a fuss. The colonial office sent some soldiers in to force the people back to the fields, churches and classrooms. They found them inland; feasting, dancing, and practicing the old rituals as they best remembered them. They refused to leave. The officers did arrest the ringleaders, and exiled them to another island in the archipelago, but this had no effect on the Ni Vanuatu of Tanna. The people of Tanna had turned on, tuned in, and dropped out. Over time some equalibrium would return; some would pick up some work in the plantations, but they would never be beholden to the colonizers and their ways again.

After World War Two the Americans left. The villagers took over what was left of the base, and rebuilt the runway. Often they would try to flag passing planes down, in the hope one would land – carrying John Frum – laden with cargo. In 1957, under the command of a priest called Nakomaha, they formed the ‘Tanna Army’, to march and drill in uniform,- hoping this would bring John Frum home. In the 1970’s, as legal independance beckoned; members of the religion of John Frum worried an independant Vanuatu would be a Christian Vanuatu. They formed a political party to safeguard their interests. In 2011 they had their first female leader of the religion of Frum; a Vietnamese born lady named Thi Tam Goiset. For a short time Ms Goiset was Vanuatu’s ambassador to Russia, though her appointment would end in scandal in 2013.

To this day the people of Tanna believe their messiah, the American soldier John Frum, will return, He has not forgotten them. Every February 15th they march, raise the flag, and wait. Their messiah shall come again.

Originally posted 17th and 24th April 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Reedited 2020. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow

Andrew Jackson’s parrot

Hi all just a quick update across all the socials. The final episode of the Batavia saga has been waylaid by needing to move home. The house I’ve been living at for close to 12 years has recently been sold, although I do have a new house to move to in the coming weeks.

I’ve got a couple of tales set up in reserve, for next week Tuesday, and the week following. I’ll let those drop as planned, so there is a possibility Batavia part 7 may release the same day as one, or even later.

In the meantime, a short tale for this week. As many of you may know the man in the main picture today (sorry email subscribers, I know main photos get lost) was Andrew Jackson. To anyone unsure of who he was, Jackson was the seventh president of the USA. He fought in the revolutionary war, and it’s sequel – the war of 1812 with great distinction. He was a lawyer and land speculator. As president he brought a dozen spittoons to the White House, and a giant wheel of cheese. He fought duels. He was also a monster, responsible for the deaths of a great many native Americans, but that is a tale for another day.

Today’s tale is about an African Grey just like this beautiful creature, below.

On winning the presidency in 1828 Andrew Jackson bought a companion for his wife Rachel; an African Grey parrot called Poll. He would be especially busy. Being relative political outsiders, Andrew worried his wife would be a fish out of water and need some company. Poor Rachel, heavily stressed from the brutal presidential race, would pass from a massive heart attack before her husband took office. President Jackson took on the rearing of Poll the parrot himself. Thinking it hilarious, he taught the young parrot to swear like a trooper.

Old Hickory would stay in office till 1837. He would pass on June 8th 1845 of dropsy and heart failure.


His funeral looked to be a dignified affair, that was until a lone voice reverberated from the back of the church. Someone was volubly swearing up a storm.
Poll the parrot, visibly distressed at the gathering, was escorted from the church, all the while swearing up a blue streak.

Merle Oberon – Dark Angel

Hi folks, welcome back to the blog. This week I want to delve into Hollywood a little, and look at a tale I personally find tragic, disturbing, and a little window into just how much our mores have changed in the last couple of generations. Today I think the reaction by many to our subject’s twin secrets would be on the first count, so what? And on the second, to show great sympathy for our subject’s hellish upbringing – her mother’s too for that matter. Hopefully some righteous anger towards her deadbeat father- but I am getting ahead of myself a little. In her, less enlightened, less woke time her secrets hung on her like a scarlet letter, and if exposed to the more puritanical folk of her time, would likely have ruined her. She bore these secrets heavily. In 1978 her façade began to crumble, the effects of this possibly bringing on her early death the following year. Today I want to shine a light on the tale of one time Hollywood starlet Merle Oberon, a Dark Angel if ever there was one. Apologies ahead of time if this comes out remotely Kenneth Anger-esque – this is not my intention.


To start we should begin in Hobart, Tasmania in 1978. In the numerous texts exact dates are scarce, but it appeared to be in November, maybe early December. Several months earlier the Lord Mayor of Hobart (also never named in the sources, but it has to be Doug Plaister, a former competitive swimmer, turned business owner, turned Lord Mayor from 1976 to 1984.) well, Mayor Doug contacts Merle Oberon directly. ‘As one of our most famous and successful expatriates, the city of Hobart would love to throw a shindig in our town hall in your honour. We’ll put on some food and drink, get the press out – even put on a band – and then there’ll be speeches and stuff- it’ll be a blast’. This is how I imagine the conversation going anyway. Truthfully it was to be quite a flashy, and formal shindig, probably with a very formal letter. The town hall had been host to another famous guest that year, thanks to Mayor Doug – none other than Queen Elizabeth II. Merle accepted the invitation.

Now the story of Merle Oberon that everyone knew at that time was she was born in Tasmania, to an aristocratic British family in 1911. When she was young her father died while away on a hunting expedition, and she moved to India to live with her wealthy, aristocratic godparents. As can happen there was a fire in the building holding her birth certificate and other official documentation, and all official papers concerning her origins went up in smoke. In 1928 Merle left India for Britain to be in the movies, eventually catching the eye of acclaimed film director Sir Alexander Korda in 1933. Korda cast Merle as Anne Boleyn opposite Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). Whether Korda, or anyone else thought her a great actor – and I suspect probably not, what film I could find of her online lacks all subtlety and nuance… basically she recites lines in a breathy, Mid Atlantic accent: all melodrama – I doubt anyone questioned her X factor in front of a camera. Strikingly beautiful, luminous; a raven-haired, almond eyed beauty with an aristocratic air – Merle Oberon certainly commanded one’s attention. Besides being beautiful, she also looked kind of exotic – there was something almost oriental about her appearance, but nothing you could pin down for certain. Given the racial politics at the time, being slightly exotic looking made one quite bankable, but actually being from an exotic place would limit the amount of work, and the type of work you might get… but this was ok for Merle, she was an English blue blood after all – even if born in Tasmania.

To run a potted history of Merle Oberon’s acting career – it went pretty well for her. She may not have been in the first rank of actresses, but she did play the lead in a number of films opposite some top leading men. Besides her role in The Private life of Henry VIII she had a leading role in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) opposite Leslie Howard, played a love interest caught in a love triangle in Dark Angel alongside Fredric March and Herbert Marshall. She had the role of Claudius’ wife Messalina in a 1937 production of I Claudius, which got canned after Oberon was involved in a serious car crash. She starred opposite Sir Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights (1939), played Napoleon’s first wife, Josephine opposite Marlon Brando in 1954’s Désirée. Her career stretched all the way out to 1973.

She had four marriages, first to director Alexander Korda (1939- 45), then a cinematographer called Lucien Ballard (1945-49), third a wealthy Italian industrialist called Bruno Pagliai (1957-73) and finally Robert Wolders, a television actor, from 1975 till her death. She was nominated for a best actress Oscar in 1935 for her role in Dark Angel, but lost out to Bette Davis – clearly a lot of people disagree with my claim she was an awful actress. She had a couple of notable off screen dramas – a car crash in 1937 left her badly injured. In 1940 her biographers claimed she got a bad skin infection from an allergic reaction to antibiotics, and had to spend a small fortune on dermabrasion treatments to try and fix the damage. The sources also claim she used skin whitening cream early in her career, and over time began to look more and more olive skinned – so I guess you can take that with a grain of salt. She became Lady Korda in 1942 after then hubby Alexander was knighted. She had two known affairs, one in 1941 with a disfigured RAF fighter pilot called Richard Hillary. The other affair was an on again- off again thing with the Duke, John Wayne, throughout most of the 1940s. For her affairs and multiple marriages however, she maintained an elegant, respectable public image.


Back to 1978, Merle Oberon arrives in Hobart for her shindig. Things have been going on at the council however – after the Lord Mayor had invited, and Merle accepted someone decided to go do a little research. Sure, Merle Oberon claimed to have come from Hobart, and sure over the years people popped up to claim they remembered the time in school when Merle did this or that, and how they knew she was destined to be a star and so forth – but people lie, and sometimes memories are nowhere near as sharp as we like to believe. It soon became apparent to the researcher in the council’s employ that Merle’s origin story was bullshit. There was no aristocratic father killed out hunting. There was no fire which destroyed a bunch of birth records. No documentation full stop. The problem the council faced however was they discovered this a little too late. The advertising was out, Merle Oberon’s arrival was imminent. The decision was made to just keep quiet, have the shindig, let her go on her way. The problem was, when she did show up she was clearly under huge pressure. At the ceremony she broke down during her acceptance speech and fled the room.

During the rest of her stay she remained hidden in her hotel room, refusing to speak with reporters – allegedly, well actually almost certainly correctly claiming she was very unwell. Friends and family have claimed the stress from the Hobart incident did send her health into a downward spiral, from which she never recovered. She died November 23rd 1979, after having a stroke.


So, who was Merle Oberon exactly? What were these twin mysteries which dogged her career and ultimately sent her into a downward spiral. Well, firstly that she was, shock – horror, Anglo-Indian in origin – I know right, in a day and age where the entertainment industry is at least making an effort to cast a little more diverse some of us might shrug that off – I don’t know if Anglo Indian, or Iranian, or Afro-American, or anyone other than white actors would feel that imbalance is anywhere near redressed today- but I think we can all agree Hollywood at the time was very very white. Often when the role required a non white, they cast white actors anyway – Anna May Wong, Lupe Valez and Sabu the Elephant boy were rarities, and very often typecast into one type of role for their short careers. The second part, is genuinely disturbing.

Charlotte Selby was born sometime around 1885 in Ceylon – modern day Sri Lanka. The sources say she was part Indian, part Maori. Many also refer to her as Eurasian so she may have had some European blood too. For many years though, she was known in Hollywood circles as Merle Oberon’s Indian valet. Aged only 13 or 14 she met an Irish tea planter out on the plantations, and had a brief relationship which left her with baby. Soon after Constance Selby was born. Clearly Charlotte and the unnamed Irishman (in two dozen articles and two books!!) never married, Constance carried her mother’s maiden name – and whether out of a sense of having brought shame to the family, or because the opportunities were better elsewhere, Charlotte Selby – a child with a child – moved to Bombay, India – known as Mumbai since 1995.

Things looked on the up and up when Charlotte met a young railway engineer from Darlington UK named Arthur Thompson. The two fell in love, and married…. And Arthur impregnated Charlotte’s 12 year old daughter Constance, who gave birth to Estelle Merle Thompson in 1911.

To avoid a repeat of what I imagine was a great scandal which befell Charlotte, she adopted Estelle as her own, claiming to all who would ask, Constance was her elder sister and not the mother. Arthur high-tailed it out of Bombay, joining the army soon after. His death certificate states he died of pneumonia in 1915, caught in the trenches at the Battle of the Somme.


Now the next part of the tale I only have commentary of friends, confidants and Hollywood gossipmongers to go on, in a handful of online documentaries. The family, it is said, lived in extreme, subsistence poverty for several years in the less attractive parts of Bombay. Constance would come of age and marry a guy called Alexander Soares – she would have four more children who all called their older sister aunty – at least till later in life Harry, the oldest son, discovered the truth chasing up Aunty Merle’s birth certificate. Some sources suggested a teenaged Merle may have sold herself as a high end escort to get the money together to escape India, others stating she continued doing this in England till discovered by Alexander Korda – but somehow Merle and mother/grandmother Charlotte scraped the money together to get over to London in 1928, where Merle was sure she could become a big name actress. I completely understand why she would not have wanted this public knowledge – but ultimately none of this is on her. I hope at least that the vast majority of us in this age would not slut shame a Merle Oberon for a sordid family secret not of her making. In an age of #metoo Arthur Thompson would be excoriated by public opinion – probably shamed out of his job and off all social media. Merle Oberon was probably right though to suspect, in her time, she would have been the one shamed – the one to carry the Scarlet Letter.

The Nature Boys, Part One… A Supermarket in California

“What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon”
Allen Ginsberg – A Supermarket in California.

Hi folks welcome back to this week’s Tale of History and Imagination. Since completing the piece on Altamont (if you haven’t read yet please scroll down the page a little – it was a 4 parter) I have been a little curious about something I know, or suspect I know, only the outlines of. Being a little time poor for a few weeks I haven’t done all the spade work on this yet, but I figured this week I’d share my thought process, and next week look at a chunk of it. I had a question:

If you take it that the fallout from The Altamont free concert was the beginning of the end for the hippy, peace and love mass movement (and let’s face it there was quite a bit going on in 1969 that contributed) – then where does the hippy movement begin? Who were the first hippies?

Now, on a page in a notebook I keep on my bedside table I have a brainstorm, a mind map. It contains the outlines of my current knowledge on this question. In the middle, encircled “who was Hippy patient zero?” In a circle close to this are a handful of names. One of these ‘Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters’. Now Kesey, an author whose best known work “One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest” became a major film in 1975, starring Jack Nicholson and featuring a cast which included Taxi’s Danny Devito and Christopher Lloyd, was definitely an early hippy. He had come from the Beat Generation, and thus was a bridge between the two movements. He was an early adopter of LSD. With his entourage of non-conformists which included the Grateful Dead (then called The Warlocks) ,he, and his ‘merry pranksters’ hopped aboard a psychedelic patterned bus in 1964 and travelled the USA spreading peace, love… and acid. The Red Dog Saloon, a bar in the largely abandoned former gold mining town of Virginia City, Nevada is also in this circle. All the cool people hung out there. There was a sense of commune about the place. People did a lot of peyote there, and many of the jam bands which became associated with the summer of love got their starts playing there.

In an outer circle I have a handful of philosophers. Now Diogenes of Sinope has to be considered right? Living in Greece in the 4th century BC, he had come from a well off family, but very publicly walked away from materialism when he ‘defaced the money’ then hit the road, leaving all he owned behind. Diogenes lived in a turned up barrel, or tub. He hung out with the animals – having all but joined with a pack of stray dogs. He did outrageous things like walking through the streets in the middle of the day with a lantern proclaiming he is looking for an honest man, but cannot find one. He was a fierce critic of society, feuded with Plato for a while, and challenged authority wherever he could. Legend has it Alexander The Great just had to meet Diogenes when travelling through Corinth on his way to conquer the world, so he made his way out to the barrel. Spotting him sunbathing and staring intently at a human bone he came rushing up asking the philosopher if there was anything he could do for him.

“Yes” Diogenes replied “Stand out of my sunlight” A little taken aback Alexander replies “If I were not Alexander I should wish to be Diogenes”. Unimpressed Diogenes replies “If I were not Diogenes, I would still wish to be Diogenes” and went back to staring at his bone. I think at least in terms of anti-authoritarianism Diogenes would have found kinship with the hippies?

In this circle I have several other philosophical names- Epicurus, who lived in a commune and believed in a lot of the same peace, love and nature messages of the hippies. The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama who pondered on the meaning of existence while sitting under the Bodhi tree, who gave up a life of comfort for something more meaningful, and whose philosophies filter down to the hippies. Ditto Lao Tse, who dropped some seriously laid back wisdom in the Tao Te Ching for the Chinese people in the 6th Century BC, before jumping on the back of an oxen and riding off into the sunset.

Much closer to the centre I have the Mazdakian movement written down. I currently do not know a lot about Mazdak, here’s what I can tell you, off the top of my head. Mazdak was a Zoroastrian priest with a commune in Persia around the early 6th century. Though Zoroastrianism was still the religion of choice in the empire, his brand was quite heretical. He preached peace, love, communal living, free love, and a vegetarian diet. More down to politics than anything else Mazdak fell foul of the authorities and the Mazdakians were rounded up. Mazdak himself hung upside down and used for target practice by the archers some time around 528 AD.

Closer again, the Merrymount colony of Quincy, Massachusetts. The Merrymount colony turned on, tuned in and dropped out. They found free love, eschewed much of their clothes, fell in love with nature and grew their hair long… till the Puritans showed up in the 1620s and told them to get a haircut and a real job. I have a little question mark next to Henry David Thoreau , author of the transcendentalist novel Walden (and last weeks opening quote). A bigger question mark next to St Francis of Assisi. A big circle around their precursor, The Beat Generation. Both movements were similar, and a number of beatniks, maybe most notably the poet Allen Ginsberg, who struck up a close friendship with Bob Dylan and was heavily involved in the anti-war movement.

The Nature Boys, however – a group who largely centred round a raw foods supermarket in Laurel Canyon, Southern California are the group which most interests me at the moment. In my opinion they are absolutely fascinating, and on occasion pop up in some odd cultural places…. And no I don’t mean
styling and profiling, jet plane riding, rolex wearing, womanizing professional wrestlers.

Next week, the Southern California Nature Boys, and the story of eden ahbez – the non-capitalization is very deliberate, he thought only God and Infinity were important enough to have capital letters.

This Tale is part one of a two part series. To read the rest of this story click here.

Originally published 28th July 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow.

The Carrington Event

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Hi folks welcome to this week’s Tale of History and Imagination. First thing I should say, I often play fast and loose with the quotes and today this is especially true. Sorry fans of Henry David Thoreau. Second I am putting the Somerton man topic to one side for a while – it is a multi- parter, and I am stretched thin as it is at the moment. Once the podcast is up we’ll take a trip to Sommerton beach, I promise.
This week I wanted to do something a little different. Let’s just jump in and I’ll explain why I am fascinated by this tale at the end.

The date of today’s tale, September 2nd 1859. The location, many – but let’s start off where I started the first blog – in Boston, Massachusetts. It is 9.30 am at the telegraph office on 31 State Street and the air is positively electric – quite literally electric. The telegraph operators, like many others across the country had fired up the machine that day only to find sparks coming from the telegraph machines. In some cases the sparks had set fire to nearby objects. Any time I have heard this story operators got electrical shocks or burns – though none of the dozen secondary sources I have read on this make this claim. In Boston, if you remember my bit on Samuel Morse, the home of the telegraph – they simply unhooked the batteries. Imagine their shock and amazement when the telegraphs kept running anyway. The air was so charged that day, that the machines kept on going, as if they were somehow possessed. A telegraph station in Portland, Maine had gotten the same idea, and shared their amazement with 31 State Street. Across much of the USA this behaviour was observed.

That night people stared up to the sky in amazement. That, in the dead of night it was bright enough to read a newspaper is one thing, but the Aurora Borealis, the northern lights normally only ever seen at far north latitudes, could be seen in the tropics – reports coming from places as far afield as Cuba and Hawaii. On the same night the Aurora Australis, the southern lights were on display. As far north as Santiago, Chile people stared in wonder, and perhaps a little dread. The New York Times wrote, the following day

“With this a beautiful tint of pink finally mingled. The clouds of this colour were most abundant to the North East and North West of the zenith… There they shot across one another, intermingling and deepening until the sky was painfully lurid”

You may wonder what on earth could cause such a thing. Some at the time, no doubt attributed it to the divine. Others at the time put forward suggestions which included volcanoes giving off a massive amount of gas all at once, or a meteor shower turning to a pink mush in our atmosphere. An amateur astronomer in Surrey, UK by the name of Richard Christopher Carrington had a pretty fair inkling what had caused the phenomenon. On the 28th August 1859 he had been staring out 150 million kilometers away, at the surface of our sun. for five years he had spent many an hour staring out to space, and had noticed solar flares – explosions of energy with an average power rating of 1,000 atomic bombs going off- before. Carrington observed a number of solar flares over the following day, till there was a particularly large one on September 1st. This was the one which caused what is now known as a Coronal Mass ejection. I’m not super clued into science (hence not Tales of Science and Imagination) but my understanding is the Corona is a huge ring of plasma which surrounds the sun – this is the halo you can see in a solar eclipse. Occasionally, when a solar flare is powerful enough, it ejects huge sums of plama out of the Corona, out into the wilds of space- often followed by a powerful wave of electro-magnetic energy. Of course we are on a tiny spheroid, a very long way from the sun. We rarely get hit, but this wave – hereafter known as the Carrington event – hurtled towards us, clearing 150 million kilometers in a little over 17 hours. At the time the experts of the day, Lord Kelvin included, dismissed Carrington’s explanation as preposterous. Over time he was proved Oll Korrect, in the Boston speak of the time. Carrington’s event would be the most powerful of it’s kind – scientific measurements of nitrogen levels in ice show, at least in the last 500 years, his solar storm was twice as powerful as the next most powerful event to hit the earth.

But what would happen if we got hit with a Carrington event part two? It would be pretty right? Free electricity? Well… this is how I got to thinking this story would make a good post.

Last weekend I got thinking about the precariousness of the ones and zeros which make up our lives so much these days. First it was going through a collection of CDs full of legal downloads from the iTunes store. When iTunes first came along I was an early adopter- and I spent a tonne of money on my music collection – several hundred CDs worth of music. In 2015 I was sent into a mad panic when my laptop died, taking many gigabytes of data with it. Of course the music library was still on the cloud – I could still download it when I got a new hard drive. I only got as far as the letter E. Spotify had been the new thing for a little while, and iTunes will be up there forever right? Last month Apple announced they were closing down the platform. A second incident jumped out at me – waiting round at my parents’ place to go out shopping with my mum, I stopped to look at the photo albums they have over there – actual physical wooden boxes, with glass covers, and wood bound volumes which sit like upside down files in a filing cabinet. Volume after volume of family memories, some going as far back as my great- grandparents. We may curate our lives in an almost hyper-graphic intensity these days, but you know there is something more ‘real’ to one of George Eastman’s kodak moments… or at the very least, less transitory. Well the scary news is, if Carrington part two happens we may well lose our cloud based existence as easily as I lost that hard drive. Add to this any travel requiring a GPS would be impossible, GPS would bite the dust. Satellites would become useless space junk. The electrical grid, wherever the CME hit, would become worthless as transformer after transformer blew. Potentially we could be plunged back into the past for years.

In a 2011 National Geographic article I read, Daniel Baker of The University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics estimated the costs of such an incident, if it hit the USA in 2011, at 2 Trillion dollars. Of course we have only become more reliant on vulnerable technologies – electronic banking among them – since then. Oh, and in 2012, that apocalyptic Mayan year, the Earth only narrowly avoided being hit by another CME almost as big as the solar storm of 1859.

This week’s Tale of History and Imagination is brought to you by well… anywhere which sells solar storm proof external hard drives I guess?

Catch you all next week, for another Tale. As always please share us around, like, comment.

Originally posted 19th July 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow.

Lord Timothy Dexter

Jaques. “Is not this a rare fellow, my lord? He’s as good at any thing, and yet a fool.”
Duke Senior. “He uses his folly like a stalking-horse, and under the presentation of that he shoots his wit.”

William Shakespeare – As You Like It.

Hi folks welcome back to Tales of History and Imagination. This week I figured it was time to get back to a few one parters. Tonight’s piece is a re-working of a question I answered on Quora a few years ago. Generally most of my writing on that site was off the cuff – 15 minute compositions in quiet time, while I was temping at a job that often had an hour in the doldrums in the middle of the day, and managers who encouraged me to jump on a quiz site or answer a Quora question or two till the phones started ringing again. I did delete, or hide dozens of my answers after this job however in case it looked really bad to a prospective employer. This one is still up. The question that day was.

“Who is the most foolish person ever to live on Earth?”

Other answers were mostly stories of hubris – successful, seemingly clever folk who were doing well – till something stupid, or unfortunate happened. Some guy who let his dream girl get away. Politicians who found that power corrupts (to corrupt Lord Acton’s quote)…. One writer stated anyone who bought modern art – something which doesn’t sit too well with me, I love a lot of modern art – but I get what he means. Two Billionaires going to war over a work of art – the victor spending tens of millions is, in my opinion, not foolish so much as grotesque that two people would have that much money to buy something so functionally ‘useless’ (to corrupt Oscar Wilde’s quote). My thought process: let’s write a short piece on a world class dullard who succeeded in a huge way BECAUSE he was a fool. No folks, I am not taking a sly dig at the 45th president of America – May I present to you ‘Lord’ Timothy Dexter.

Timothy Dexter was born to a poor farming family in Malden, Massachusetts on January 22nd 1747. Seeing I am writing this on the 4th of July (in the USA at least) as a random aside the small town of Malden was an early antagonist of British taxation, and boycotted British tea in 1770. Back to Lord Dexter, his family barely subsisted on their farm, and took Timothy out of school, aged 8, to labour alongside his family. At the age of 16 the emancipated Timothy took off for the coastal city of Newburyport, Massachusetts, where he found work as an apprentice leather-dresser (a job which involved colouring and working tanned leather into a usable state). Aged 21 he met, and fell in love with Elizabeth Frothingham, an older, wealthy widow. Dexter gave up his job at the tannery and moved in to a house on the wealthy side of Newburyport.

How did the wealthy people of Newburyport see Timothy Dexter? Well, think back to the CBS TV series The Beverly Hillbillies – think of the snooty, nonplussed neighbours living next to Kirkeby Mansion, the house used for the series… and Dexter was a Clampett. The circles Dexter found himself moving in found him uncouth, poorly educated – not ‘one of us’. In the spirit of the ‘real housewives of…’ genre, rather than shun Dexter, they decided to be sly, and duplicitous, and feed him bad business advice till he had spent Elizabeth’s fortune, and had to move back to the poor side of town. How did that work out for them? Well… let’s say I could have answered ‘Lord’ Timothy to a Quora question ‘Who was the luckiest person ever to live on Earth?’

In 1775, tensions between Britain and the 13 colonies who would become the first version of the USA broke out into all out war. Needing funds to fight the redcoats, the Continental Congress began issuing paper money, known as ‘Continental currency’ to fill their war chest. They would issue around $241 million in these promissory notes. During the war of Independence these notes took a hiding and become all but worthless, in part down to some people expecting the British would win the war, but mostly cause the Continental Congress printed way too many of these dollars. There was a saying at the time ‘not worth a Continental’ for something of little or no value. At the start of the war Timothy had a little money to play with, and members of the wealthy set urged him to buy as many bills as he could. Dexter bought a lot of Continental currency, and in spite of expectations came out of the War of Independence extraordinarily wealthy. This scenario would play out time and time again.

Warming pans were a wonderful idea in places which had icy winters, long before we had electric blankets. One might imagine them worthless in the tropics. On bad advice Dexter began shipping them to the West Indies. They did become a massive seller there however, as a frying pan shaped object on a long pole was the perfect ladle to stir molasses with in the Caribbean nations. “While you’re at it why not sell them woolen mittens?” someone said, and Dexter, not understanding his incredible luck, sent container loads of mittens there. This time a passing merchant ship on its way up to Siberia saw an opportunity and bought the lot, selling them on for a healthy profit to the Cossacks who had begun colonizing the freezing Siberian Tundra a century and a half ago. What else could the Caribbean Islands need? “Cats would be a capital idea young Timothy! Who doesn’t love cats?” – I imagine a Milburn Drysdale type saying to him. Well I don’t know if they loved cats, but the many ships coming and going from the plantations had left the Caribbean with a rodent problem, and cats were just what they needed. On a whim Dexter bought a huge pile of whale bone, 340 tonnes of the stuff, not even knowing what he had bought. The following season corsets became all the rage on the continent, and again he made a killing.

One day someone said to Dexter, you should put all of your money into sending coal to Newcastle, England. Not knowing coal mining around Newcastle had been a huge part of the economy since the 13th century, and odds were the coal Dexter was looking to buy had come from there in the first place. Dexter sent boatloads back over. Luckily for him there was a miners strike at the time, and Newcastle needed the coal to power its industrial factories and boat yards. Again what should have been ruinous turned a handsome profit.

Now in middle age, Timothy spends some of his fortune on a mansion worthy of the Clampett clan, and began to decorate his home with gaudy wooden statues of great men from history. He took on the appellation ‘Lord’ claiming himself the first ‘lord of the younited states’. Though to date he seemed not to have questioned the advice of others, or picked up any sense of how much others loathed him, the penny began to drop for him. Ironically it appears to have been prompted out of his mistrust of a few recent, real friends he had picked up. In an effort to test them he faked his own death and plotted to watch the reaction of the crowd at the funeral. His family were in on the ruse, and were coached on how to mourn for him. The funeral was a massive affair, with over 3,000 attendees (mostly curious to hear a few stories about crazy old Lord Dexter). When Dexter saw his wife laughing and talking with people at the wake he lost it, and in the kitchen began to cane Mrs Dexter for not mourning him enough. This brought in onlookers and the game was up.

One final thing I should mention about Lord Dexter, towards the end of his life he wrote a book titled ‘A Pickle for the knowing ones or plain truth in a homespun dress’, a thankfully short book (it completely lacks punctuation, and some of the spellings are enough to make someone who studied medieval literature all through university (me) want to pull my hair out at times. The short version is Lord Timothy Dexter planned to leave his wisdom for others to wonder at, but instead complains about politicians, the church, and his wife. The book went through 8 editions, along the way picking up a page full of commas at the end, with instructions to “distribute them as you pleased”. If you are wondering the photo I sent out earlier in the week is an excerpt, and yes, the book is available for download on Google Books. If looking for unintentional comedy I will always recommend Pedro Carolino’s ‘English as She is Spoke’ before ‘A Pickle for the knowing ones’ but it is ok. Lord Timothy Dexter, the man who sold coals to Newcastle died October 23rd 1806 at the age of 59.

Thanks as always for checking out our page, and welcome to our new followers. As always folks please like, comment, share. Recommend Tales of History and Imagination to a friend who digs the quirkier stories from our past. Check in with us again next week for more Tales of History and Imagination – Simone.

Originally published 5th July 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page, based on an earlier piece I wrote for Quora. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow

Women’s History Month 3, Five trailblazing ladies

Hi folks it is time for the latest in Tales of History and Imagination. We are still in Womans History Month, and still not wanting to use any of my long form pieces till the podcast is up I thought I would do five quick pieces involving remarkable women I haven’t seen written on this month by anyone else – well at least not as far as I am aware of?
So today’s tale, Five Trailblazing Ladies!

Who was the first black woman to win an Oscar you ask? Well that was Hattie McDaniel (10th June 1893 – 26th October 1952) for best supporting actor. The role was as ‘Mammy’, Scarlett O’Hara’s house servant in Gone with The Wind (the oscar was in 1940). Yes it is a troublesome role in a troubling film by today’s more enlightened standards, but Ms MacDaniel was the first… and sadly only black female oscar winner in an acting role till Halle Berry’s 2002 win as best actress for her role as Leticia Musgrove in Monsters Ball.
Hattie MacDaniel was also a trailblazer, in a path more frequently taken – as a blues singer hers was the first black, female voice beamed out across American airwaves with ‘I Thought I’d do it’ in 1927. She acted in over 300 films, but only got credited for 86.

Margaret Mitchell

Keeping with Gone With the Wind, the 1939 film was of course based on a 1936 novel America went crazy for, written by the journalist Margaret Mitchell (8th November 1900 – 16th August 1949). The novel went on to win a Pulitzer prize in 1937, and was written – in a life gives you lemons so let’s make lemonade moment – while Mitchell was off work with a broken ankle. I don’t know very much about Margaret Mitchell but I do know that as an author she courted controversy in her time, for things we would not be offended about now… or perhaps take offense for other reasons entirely. In one article she wrote about four of her home state of Georgia, USA’s hometown heroines

  • America’s first female senator Rebecca Latimer Felton (who would court controversy today for being rabidly white supremacist in her views).
  • Frontiers-woman Nancy Morgan Hart, who fought the British in the War of Independence
  • Cultural mediator between settlers and native tribes Mary Musgrove
  • and Lucy Mathilda Kenny, who cut her hair, rather Mulan-esque, and fought alongside her husband in the American Civil War under the name Private Bill Thompson.
    All rather shocking stuff for the time, heroines???

Turning to the skies, french aeronaut Sophie Blanchard (25th March 1778 – 6th July 1819) was the first woman to pilot a hot air balloon, in 1803. Married to fellow pioneering balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard, she did not let his untimely death in a ballooning accident put her off, in her lifetime making over 60 flights, and on occasion surviving some close calls. Napoleon Bonaparte was impressed with her flying skills so much he made her “Aeronaut of the Official Festivals”.
Unfortunately Sophie Blanchard was also the world’s first female death by aeronautical accident. In 1819, while shooting off fireworks for an appreciative crowd below, she accidentally set her balloon on fire and tumbled onto a roof far below. It is said she survived this but then slipped from the roof and died.

Someone whose derring do and love of heights, once climbing to a height of 8,848 Metres, did not take her life was Japanese mountain climbing legend Junko Tabei (22nd September 1939 – 20th October 2016). Already a highly thought of and experienced mountaineer, Tabei did what some misogynists believed impossible. In 1975 she became the first woman to climb Mount Everest, taking the same route traveled in 1953 by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. The climb was no picnic – at one point 6,300 metres up, the resting party were hit by an avalanche and had to dig themselves out. A few days later, on 16th May 1975 Junko Tabei reached the summit.

Finally, we all know the USSR were a force to be reckoned with. Laika the Russian dog beat NASA’s Ham the chimp into orbit- though sadly Laika died while up there. Yuri Gagarin beat Alan Shepard as the first man in space. American Sally Ride may have been America’s first woman in space in 1983 – but Valentina Tereshkova (b, 6th March 1937) holds the Official record (there is a very spooky recording by Italian brothers Archille and Giovanni Judica-Cordiglia that has been suggested may be radio communication with an earlier female cosmonaut, who may have burned up in the atmosphere- it is dubious) having orbited the earth 48 times in Vostok 6, from 16th June 1963. To date she is the only woman to have performed a solo space mission.
Valentina Tereshkova entered politics in the years following her mission, and still serves on The Duma till this day.

Final Woman’s history month post next week, though hardly the last time I will post about a powerful female lead this year. Next week I’m also thinking about starting a weekly poll…. We need some more noise here people, in teaching parlance we call this too much TTT (teacher talk time) let’s get some noise happening! 🙂
As always, please share my posts round, like and comment.

Originally published 22nd March 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow.

Why O is for Owesome, and OK is Oll Korrect

Hi there folks thanks for liking the page. If you’re wondering where I’m up to, I do have scripts together for the first 4 months, at a podcast a fortnight… and a shortlist of ideas years long. I want to run these weekly, but need to stockpile a bunch of these scripts first.

When will the first podcast be? I have a Blue Yeti mic I bought a few months ago… it seems to hate Windows 10. As an ex lease laptop with Windows 7 costs about the same as the mic, I’m looking to pick one up on my next pay.

Show hosting? Well that’s the next stage. In the meantime I figured I’d start writing a weekly article up here, and drop these back to every other week once the podcasts start. Going on what a toastmasters for dummies site I found online says I’ve been writing the podcasts at around 3,500 words an episode… it’ll be nice to have an off week where I’m just doing a few hundred words on something else.

This week’s topic why O is for awesome and why that may be Ok.

So, New Zealanders will remember in the 1990s we had so many TV game shows, mostly borrowing from American formats. Kiwis may also remember the night -10th October 1992 – when Moana Robinson of New Plymouth swore at the television – no doubt till she was blue in the face. You see, non kiwis, Moana had been picked as an at home contestant on a celebrity episode of Wheel of Fortune. The prizes were great. A 2013 Dominion Post article listed a $4781 porcelain set, and a $36,000 Ford Telstar. Moana was represented by a young Commonwealth games bronze medallist, the boxer David ‘Terminator’ Tua.

David the Terminator aka The Tuaman Tua.

Now I’m the last to criticize anyone’s performance on a game show- my experience on Mastermind was terrifying. You silently pick off all your opponents questions, but when the camera is on you, you do freeze a little…. well I did. David Tua had a shocker though! We might forget where, looking for the word Facelift, he asked to buy a vowel – then asked for P. What we do remember though was when he seemed to ask for an “O for Awesome”. Moana swore, her four kids probably swore, her brother swore -apparently – and at the end of the night all she had was a commemorative pen (I’m not sure if it was a nice pen but as of 2013 Moana still had it). Was Tua O for Awesome after that? A little embarrassed maybe, but it became a part of his story that he embraced. He had a licence plate O4OSUM made for his 1973 mini, though has always stated he said “O for (his friend) Orson”.

But, you see, – and let’s just put aside for a second he asked for a vowel, not a consonant – if David Tua said O for Awesome that is OK, cause we play a little fast and loose with language all the time – just look at the word OK.

In Boston, Massachusetts in 1838, a new fad was taking hold. I’m unsure if it was in response to one of Massachusetts’ greatest sons, Samuel Morse, developing the telegraph in the 1830s and 1840s, but Boston was crazy for abbreviating words at the time. The wealthier citizens of Boston, for example, became OFM, our first men. NG was no go, GT gone to Texas, and if something was no big deal it was SP, small potatoes. There was another trend at the time, ‘comic misspelling’ … well it was the 1830s, Americans had only just gotten their first dictionary of American English in 1828, written by Noah Webster. It had 212 new spellings of English words. If Webster could reinvent the language, why not some barfly in a Boston pub? All right became Oll Wright, abbreviated to OW in Boston.
All correct became OK by the same process… Oll Korrect.

So why do we say OK now, but not OW? That comes down to the man in the third picture, the 8th President of America, Martin Van Buren. Van Buren, who lived in Kinderhook New York, ran in the 1840 election. His campaign slogan was “Vote for OK” standing for Old Kinderhook. It may have also been meant as a sly dig at his opponent, Andrew Jackson, who was really not a man of letters. This embedded OK in the wider public lexis.

Martin ‘Old Kinderhook’ Van Buren

Now OMG has an origin from before the internet too, Admiral Lord John Fisher first used the phrase in an 1917 letter to Winston Churchill; but the practice of abbreviating words, LOL, SMH, BRB, all began in the drinking holes of 1838 Boston.

This blog was originally posted to Tales of History and Imagination’s Facebook page, on 16th January 2019. Edited July 2020. Copyright Simone T Whitlow.

DavidTua #Wheeloffortune #Oisforawesome #Ok #Samuelmorse #MartinVanBuren #History