Ridiculous Episodes Of History


Tamim Ansary’s book Games Without Rules: The Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan describes the first time Afghanistan sent a diplomatic mission to the United States:

The Afghan delegation came to New York in 1922, but as it happened a ludicrous adventurer hit town at the same time: an old woman named “Princess” Fatima Sultana … She came festooned in jewels and looking like every New Yorker’s image of a Theda Bara-style exotic from the mysterious east. Her jewels included one particularly large diamond she called the Darya-i-Noor (River of Light). She was travelling with a rascal who called himself the Crown Prince of Egypt. …

To make matters worse, these two con artists fell victim themselves to an American con artist named Weymouth, who convinced them he was with the Department of the Navy and said he would present Fatima to the president of the United States — he had his eye on that diamond. The New York press didn’t know which was the real diplomatic delegation, and they picked the one they found more entertaining: Princess Fatima and her entourage.

Princess Fatima would lose her diamond and run out on her hotel bill. The actual Afghans got ignored. And we have to wonder how the United States lived through a bad episode of Top Cat. I don’t mean to make myself sound too intelligent. I was nine before I realized I was smarter than some episodes of Three’s Company. But I was definitely only eight years old before I couldn’t buy the fake-exotic-royalty-in-New-York plot. The heck, people?

But the incident reflects something historians hope you won’t ask about. Until about 1975 the whole world was so casually run that anybody could put anything over on anybody else, anytime they wanted. For example, from 1927 through 1931 the cash-strapped Soviet Union stayed afloat by selling counterfeit trains on the New York Central. Passengers would gather around a marvelous painting of what looked very much like a train. They’d only notice fourteen hours later that neither it nor they had gone anywhere. The scheme finally ended when the United States extended diplomatic recognition to the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad. The Pennsylvania Railroad wanted to laugh about this, but they had just bought track rights through the Canadian province of “Roberta”.

In 1852 a group of Americans hoped to take over Cuba for the benefit of the Cubans, they kept telling themselves and everyone else. So they built a replica of the White House and the Capitol in Havanna out of some wood they had left over from another project, to lure the American government over. As it happens they only managed to fool the vice-president, William R King. He didn’t die of embarrassment at being fooled, but when he left for the real Washington he only got as close as Alabama.

In 1817 Great Britain annexed the Caribbean island of Saint Martin O’The Lee. Its exact location was unknown to everyone and the land was proven in 1932 to never have existed. Despite that, sectarian violence continues along the arbitrarily-drawn border known as Chamberlain’s Belch. That’s named for Neville Chamberlain, but not that Neville Chamberlain. Also not the other Neville Chamberlain you’re telling people you thought of right away because you want to seem smarter to them. It’s the other other one.

In the mid-30s a mysterious figure claiming to be another brother wormed his way into Popeye’s nephews. The hoaxer would appear in shorts for over a decade before vanishing, probably absconding, never to be heard from again. And the amazing thing is that five years after that another of the so-called nephews would vanish, revealing he had been an impostor all along too.

In 1645 an Italian lawyer presented King Louis XIV with a moon for Venus. Astronomers kept insisting they saw it for over a century. It wasn’t until 1762 that everybody involved admitted that they had to be dead of old age by then. And so it they were, and we went back to ignoring that big shiny moon-like thing hovering around Venus. Don’t stare.

Dozens of Rhode Island cities in the 19th century fell for groups of organized rowdies presenting themselves as the state government. The actual state government chased after them, wielding brooms and biographies of Roger Williams, for decades before the last of them finally set up in New London (“Mystic”), Connecticut as a government-in-exile. They’re still there.

We’ve tightened things up since those days. Today, anybody can still put anything over on anybody else. But they have to go through a metal detector and put their keys and loose change in a plastic bin first. It’s progress.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

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