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.

Ian Shoales: What I Like


Ian Shoales has this attitude that could be sneering and cynical without being nihilistic, and if that weren’t a neat enough balance, a prose style that just invited me to keep following sharply-crafted sentences to punchy ends. I knew comic writing that was gut-wrenchingly funny; but this could be gut-wrenchingly funny and incisive, occasionally with gripping insights (as in one essay about movies and their intended audience, which just tossed off a hypothesis about why Dracula might be the perfect subject for movies). Coming off Dave Barry or old Bob Newhart albums — and those aren’t bad things, especially for the era I’m speaking of — this was a discovery.

But he had a generally useful lesson even for people facing huge content holes, said most explicitly in an essay that was way too long to include in this little Ian Shoales Week: you do not owe your thoughts gratitude for occurring to you. This may sound particularly cranky, but in context, it amounts to a lesson of expectations. Demand better ideas out of everyone, yourself included. This encouraged a little tradition of self-doubt in me, one I still feel, especially of any writing that seems to come too easily: was I demanding enough of my creation? I inevitably end up publishing stuff that I suspect I could do better if I worked harder at it, but he did push my default to working harder.

I mention Ian Shoales’s sneering because it does look like his most prominent characteristic, especially if you watch the videos he used to do for World News Now and, before that, Nightline. But the character was never all bitterness and rage, and here’s an essay that gathers together a lot of the things that he liked, and that, as far as I can tell, he still likes. It’s a good reminder for people who want to write in comic crankiness: even cranky people have stuff that they enjoy, and that can anchor a character very well. Although, Randy Newman? Really? Huh.


What I Like

I know you people out there are mighty grateful to me for setting you straight on issues of cultural importance, and I’d like to thank you in turn for all the letters I get —

All right, it’s just one letter, a thankful letter from Maryland, who likes my incisive comments but thinks I spend too much time on sarcasm and not enough on constructive criticism. This kind soul is worried about my emotional health and recommends, among other things, that I read the Findhorn Garden Book and take up horseback riding.

In response, let me say that I enjoy sarcasm, but I don’t enjoy horses or gardens. Horses and gardens are large and lumpy, and you have to go outside to appreciate them I don’t go outside until the sun’s set, that’s the way I am. It’s my responsibility to say No in a world that says Yes to every lame idea that comes down the pike. It’s my destiny and my joy to tear down without building up.

But to make you feel better (I feel fine), let me share with you a few of the things I actually like about the modern world.

I like strong beer. I like animated cartoons — not those Oscar-winning political allegories from Hungary, but real cartoons with fuzzy animals trying to kill each other in cute ways. I like electric typewriters and answering machines; I like any machine I can turn off. I like the novels by Elmore Leonard and Thomas Pynchon. I like good sex if it doesn’t last too long. I enjoy playing video games with other people’s quarters. Like most Americans, I enjoy being afraid of Cuba. It’s a harmless fear that makes America feel better and Cuba too. Cuba gets an inflated sense of national worth from the weight of our paranoia. I like getting large checks in the mail, especially if I’ve done nothing to earn them. I like the aroma of popcorn and women who like to hear me talk. I like to laugh at dogs. I like to call toll-free numbers and chat with the operators. I like phones that ring instead of chirp, clocks that have a face, Audie Murphy westerns, duck à l’orange and onion rings, old movies on television, and every tenth video on MTV.

Reggae music, Motown, and the songs of Randy Newman are an undiluted pleasure. I like the way rock singers pronounce the word baby — Bay-Buh. Bay-Buh. It never fails to amuse me. These are a few of my favorite things — about all of my favorite things. Make me feel real loose like a long necked goose and — o-oh bay buh — that’s what I like.

        — Reading my mail, 1/28/83

Finley Peter Dunne: A Book Review


It’s been ages since I featured anything by Finley Peter Dunne, whose columns, presented as the voice of Mister Dooley, fictional owner of an Irish pub in the South Side of Chicago. Dunne reached heights of influence and attention that most writers dream of. His blend of wit, satire, and folksiness achieves a timelessness that belies how much his stuff was written in response to what was news that week. Here, from the 1900 collection Mister Dooley’s Philosophy, is a review of the book describing an implausible character’s experiences in the Cuban War.


“Well sir,” said Mr. Dooley, “I jus’ got hold iv a book, Hinnissy, that suits me up to th’ handle, a gran’ book, th’ grandest iver seen. Ye know I’m not much throubled be lithrachoor, havin’ manny worries iv me own, but I’m not prejudiced again’ books. I am not. Whin a rale good book comes along I’m as quick as anny wan to say it isn’t so bad, an’ this here book is fine. I tell ye ’tis fine.”

“What is it?” Mr. Hennessy asked languidly.

“‘Tis ‘Th’ Biography iv a Hero be Wan who Knows.’ ‘Tis ‘Th’ Darin’ Exploits iv a Brave Man be an Actual Eye Witness.’ ‘Tis ‘Th’ Account iv th’ Desthruction iv Spanish Power in th’ Ant Hills,’ as it fell fr’m th’ lips iv Tiddy Rosenfelt an’ was took down be his own hands. Ye see ’twas this way, Hinnissy, as I r-read th’ book. Whin Tiddy was blowed up in th’ harbor iv Havana he instantly con-cluded they must be war. He debated th’ question long an’ earnestly an’ fin’lly passed a jint resolution declarin’ war. So far so good. But there was no wan to carry it on. What shud he do? I will lave th’ janial author tell th’ story in his own wurruds.

“‘Th’ sicrety iv war had offered me,’ he says, ‘th’ command of a rig’mint,’ he says, ‘but I cud not consint to remain in Tampa while perhaps less audacious heroes was at th’ front,’ he says. ‘Besides,’ he says, ‘I felt I was incompetent f’r to command a rig’mint raised be another,’ he says. ‘I detarmined to raise wan iv me own,’ he says. ‘I selected fr’m me acquaintances in th’ West,’ he says, ‘men that had thravelled with me acrost th’ desert an’ th’ storm-wreathed mountain,’ he says, ‘sharin’ me burdens an’ at times confrontin’ perils almost as gr-reat as anny that beset me path,’ he says. ‘Together we had faced th’ turrors iv th’ large but vilent West,’ he says, ‘an’ these brave men had seen me with me trusty rifle shootin’ down th’ buffalo, th’ elk, th’ moose, th’ grizzly bear, th’ mountain goat,’ he says, ‘th’ silver man, an’ other ferocious beasts iv thim parts,’ he says. ‘An’ they niver flinched,’ he says. ‘In a few days I had thim perfectly tamed,’ he says, ‘an’ ready to go annywhere I led,’ he says. ‘On th’ thransport goi’n to Cubia,’ he says, ‘I wud stand beside wan iv these r-rough men threatin’ him as a akel, which he was in ivrything but birth, education, rank an’ courage, an’ together we wud look up at th’ admirable stars iv that tolerable southern sky an’ quote th’ bible fr’m Walt Whitman,’ he says. ‘Honest, loyal, thrue-hearted la-ads, how kind I was to thim,’ he says.”

“‘We had no sooner landed in Cubia than it become nicessry f’r me to take command iv th’ ar-rmy which I did at wanst. A number of days was spint be me in reconnoitring, attinded on’y be me brave an’ fluent body guard, Richard Harding Davis. I discovered that th’ inimy was heavily inthrenched on th’ top iv San Juon hill immejiately in front iv me. At this time it become apparent that I was handicapped be th’ prisence iv th’ ar-rmy,’ he says. ‘Wan day whin I was about to charge a block house sturdily definded be an ar-rmy corps undher Gin’ral Tamale, th’ brave Castile that I aftherwards killed with a small ink-eraser that I always carry, I r-ran into th’ entire military force iv th’ United States lying on its stomach. ‘If ye won’t fight,’ says I, ‘let me go through, ‘I says. ‘Who ar-re ye?’ says they. ‘Colonel Rosenfelt,’ says I. ‘Oh, excuse me,’ says the gin’ral in command (if me mimry serves me thrue it was Miles) r-risin’ to his knees an’ salutin’. This showed me ‘twud be impossible f’r to carry th’ war to a successful con-clusion unless I was free, so I sint th’ ar-rmy home an’ attackted San Juon hill. Ar-rmed on’y with a small thirty-two which I used in th’ West to shoot th’ fleet prairie dog, I climbed that precipitous ascent in th’ face iv th’ most gallin’ fire I iver knew or heerd iv. But I had a few r-rounds iv gall mesilf an’ what cared I? I dashed madly on cheerin’ as I wint. Th’ Spanish throops was dhrawn up in a long line in th’ formation known among military men as a long line. I fired at th’ man nearest to me an’ I knew be th’ expression iv his face that th’ trusty bullet wint home. It passed through his frame, he fell, an’ wan little home in far-off Catalonia was made happy be th’ thought that their riprisintative had been kilt be th’ future governor iv New York. Th’ bullet sped on its mad flight an’ passed through th’ intire line fin’lly imbeddin’ itself in th’ abdomen iv th’ Ar-rch-bishop iv Santiago eight miles away. This ended th’ war.’

“‘They has been some discussion as to who was th’ first man to r-reach th’ summit iv San Juon hill. I will not attempt to dispute th’ merits iv th’ manny gallant sojers, statesmen, corryspondints an’ kinetoscope men who claim th’ distinction. They ar-re all brave men an’ if they wish to wear my laurels they may. I have so manny annyhow that it keeps me broke havin’ thim blocked an’ irned. But I will say f’r th’ binifit iv Posterity that I was th’ on’y man I see. An I had a tillyscope.'”

“I have thried, Hinnissy,” Mr. Dooley continued, “to give you a fair idee iv th’ contints iv this remarkable book, but what I’ve tol’ ye is on’y what Hogan calls an outline iv th’ principal pints. Ye’ll have to r-read th’ book ye’ersilf to get a thrue conciption. I haven’t time f’r to tell ye th’ wurruk Tiddy did in ar-rmin’ an’ equippin’ himself, how he fed himsilf, how he steadied himsilf in battle an’ encouraged himsilf with a few well-chosen wurruds whin th’ sky was darkest. Ye’ll have to take a squint into th’ book ye’ersilf to l’arn thim things.”

“I won’t do it,” said Mr. Hennessy. “I think Tiddy Rosenfelt is all r-right an’ if he wants to blow his hor-rn lave him do it.”

“Thrue f’r ye,” said Mr. Dooley, “an’ if his valliant deeds didn’t get into this book ‘twud be a long time befure they appeared in Shafter’s histhry iv th’ war. No man that bears a gredge again’ himsilf ‘ll iver be governor iv a state. An’ if Tiddy done it all he ought to say so an’ relieve th’ suspinse. But if I was him I’d call th’ book ‘Alone in Cubia.'”

Finley Peter Dunne: The Names of a Week


Today I’d like to return to Finley Peter Dunne and his Mister Dooley here, in a piece from Observations By Mister Dooley going over the news of the week. This should all sound extremely vivid if you’re well-versed in the daily news of 1902 (in July of 1902 when the campanille in Venice’s Piazza San Marco collapsed, an incident which brought a lot of attention to that rather famous one in Pisa, which hasn’t yet fallen down or over), but I don’t imagine that annotating every bit of this is necessary. It’s to me a marvelous way to see figures of the era, such as Theodore Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryant, and Whitelaw Reid as more vivid figures than just what history books give you; and if you don’t know the era.

“What’s goin’ on this week in th’ papers?” asked Mr. Hennessy.

“Ivrything,” said Mr. Dooley. “It’s been a turbylint week. I can hardly sleep iv nights thinkin’ iv th’ doin’s iv people. Th’ campinily at Venice has fallen down. ‘Twas built in 1604 be th’ Beezantiums an’ raystored in 1402 be th’ Dogs. It fell down because th’ foundations was weak, because th’ wind blew, because th’ beautiful figure iv th’ goolden angel on top iv it was fifteen feet high. It will be rebuilt or maybe not. Th’ king iv Italy has given thirty-three billion liars to put it up again, an’ siv’ral ladin’ American archytects have offered to do th’ job, makin’ an office buildin’ iv it. Th’ campinily was wan iv th’ proudest monymints iv Italy an’ was used as a bell-tower at times, an’ at other times as a gazabo where anny American cud take a peek at th’ gran’ canal an’ compare it with th’ Erie, th’ Pannyma an’ th’ dhrainage iv the same name.

“Th’ king iv England is betther. He’s off in his yacht. So ar-re Laking, Treves, Smith, Barlow, Jones, Casey, Lister, thank Hiven! A hard life is science. Th’ Hon’rable Joseph Choate is raycoverin’ more slowly. He still sobs occas’nally in his sleep an’ has ordhered all th’ undher sicreties to have their vermyform appindixes raymoved as a token iv rayspict f’r th’ sthricken nation. Th’ Hon’rable Whitelaw Reid is havin’ a cast iv his knee breeches made, which will be exhibited in New York durin’ th’ comin’ winter.

“Me frind, J. Pierpont Morgan, has been takin’ dinner with th’ Impror Willum. It is undherstud he will presint him to th’ Methropolytan Museem iv Art. There are said to be worse things there.

“Lord Salisberry has thrun up his job. Lord Salisberry was wan iv th’ grandest an’ mos’ succissful statesmen iv modhren times. He niver did annything. He is succeeded be his nevvew, Misther Balfour, if I get th’ name right, who has done less. It is expicted that Misther Balfour will have a good time. On rayceivin’ th’ congrathylations iv his colleague, Misther Chamberlain, he bought himsilf a rayvolver an’ took out a policy on his life.

“A lady down east woke her husband up to tell him there was a burglar in th’ house. Th’ foolish woman. They’se always burglars in th’ house. That’s what burglars are f’r, an’ houses. Instead iv argyin’ th’ pint in a loud voice, coughin’ an’ givin’ th’ burglar a chance to lave with dignity, this man got up an’ was kilt. Now th’ pa-apers with th’ assistance iv th’ officers iv th’ law has discovered that th’ lady took a boat ride with a gintleman frind in th’ summer iv sixty-two, that she wanst quarreled with her husband about th’ price iv a hat, that wan iv her lower teeth is plugged, that she wears a switch an’ that she weeps whin she sees her childher. They’se a moral in this. It’s ayether don’t wake a man up out iv a sound sleep, or don’t get out iv bed till ye have to, or don’t bother a burglar whin ye see he’s busy, or kill th’ iditor. I don’t know which it is.

“Willum Jennings Bryan is readin’ me frind Grover Cleveland out iv th’ party. He’s usin’ the Commoner to read him out. That’s a sure way.

“Mary MeLane has been in town. I didn’t see her, me place not bein’ a raysort f’r th’ young an’ yearnin’, an’ especially me duckin’ all lithry ladies iv whativer sex. Mary McLane is th’ author iv a book called: ‘Whin I am older I’ll know betther.’ Ye ought to read it, Hinnissy.

“Th’ Newport season is opened with gr-reat gayety an’ th’ aim iv rayturnin’ husbands is much more sure.

“Gin’ral Bragg fr’m up in Wisconsin has been gettin’ into throuble with our haughty allies, th’ Cubians, he writin’ home to his wife that ye might as well thry to make a whistle out iv a pig’s tail as a dacint man out iv a Cubian. Gin’ral Bragg will be bounced an’ he ought to be. He don’t belong in pollytics. His place is iditor iv a losin’ newspaper.

“Gov’nor Taft has been in Rome showin’ th’ wurruld how succissful, sthraightforward, downright, outspoken, manly, frank, fourteen ounces to th’ pound American business dalings can be again’ th’ worn-out di-plomacy iv th’ papal coort. Whin last heerd fr’m this astoot an’ able man, backed up be th’ advice iv Elihoo Root iv York state, was makin’ his way tow’rd Manila on foot, an’ siv’ral mimbers iv th’ colledge iv cardinals was heerd to regret that American statesmen were so thin they cudden’t find anything to fit thim in his thrunk.

“Cholera is ragin’ in th’ Ph’lippeens vice Gin’ral Jake Smith, raymoved.

“Th’ stock market is boomin’ an’ business has become so dull elsewhere that some iv th’ best known outside operators ar-re obliged to increase th’ depth iv th’ goold coatin’ on th’ brick to nearly an inch.

“Th’ capital iv th’ nation has raymoved to Eyesther Bay, a city on th’ north shore iv Long Island, with a popylation iv three millyion clams, an’ a number iv mosquitos with pianola attachments an’ steel rams. There day be day th’ head iv th’ nation thransacts th’ nation’s business as follows: four A.M., a plunge into th’ salt, salt sea an’ a swim iv twenty miles; five A.M., horse-back ride, th’ prisidint insthructin’ his two sons, aged two and four rayspictively, to jump th’ first Methodist church without knockin’ off th’ shingles; six A.M., wrestles with a thrained grizzly bear; sivin A.M., breakfast; eight A.M., Indyan clubs; nine A.M., boxes with Sharkey; tin A.M., bates th’ tinnis champeen; iliven A.M., rayceives a band iv rough riders an’ person’lly supervises th’ sindin’ iv th’ ambylance to look afther th’ injured in th’ village; noon, dinner with Sharkey, Oscar Featherstone, th’ champeen roller-skater iv Harvard, ’98, Pro-fissor McGlue, th’ archyologist, Lord Dum de Dum, Mike Kehoe, Immanuel Kant Gumbo, th’ naygro pote, Horrible Hank, t’ bad lands scout, Sinitor Lodge, Lucy Emerson Tick, th’ writer on female sufferage, Mud-in-the-Eye, th’ chief iv th’ Ogallas, Gin’ral Powell Clayton, th’ Mexican mine expert, four rough riders with their spurs on, th’ Ambassadure iv France an’ th’ Cinquovasti fam’ly, jugglers. Th’ conversation, we larn fr’m wan iv th’ guests who’s our spoortin’ iditor, was jined in be th’ prisidint an’ dealt with art, boxin’, lithrachoor, horse-breakin’, science, shootin’, pollytics, how to kill a mountain line, di-plomacy, lobbing, pothry, th’ pivot blow, rayform, an’ th’ campaign in Cubia. Whin our rayporther was dhriven off th’ premises be wan iv th’ rough riders, th’ head iv th’ nation was tachin’ Lord Dum de Dum an’ Sicrety Hay how to do a hand-spring, an’ th’ other guests was scattered about th’ lawn, boxin’, rasslin’, swingin’ on th’ thrapeze, ridin’ th’ buckin’ bronco an’ shootin’ at th’ naygro pote f’r th’ dhrinks–in short enjyin’ an ideel day in th’ counthry.

“An’ that’s all th’ news,” said Mr. Dooley. “There ye ar-re jus’ as if ye cud read. That’s all that’s happened. Ain’t I a good newspaper? Not a dull line in me. Sind in ye’er small ads.”

“Sure, all that’s no news,” said Mr. Hennessy, discontentedly. “Hasn’t there annything happened? Hasn’t anny wan been–been kilt?”

“There ye ar-re,” said Mr. Dooley. “Be news ye mane misfortune. I suppose near ivry wan does. What’s wan man’s news is another man’s throubles. In these hot days, I’d like to see a pa-aper with nawthin’ in it but affectionate wives an’ loyal husbands an’ prosp’rous, smilin’ people an’ money in th’ bank an’ three a day. That’s what I’m lookin’ f’r in th’ hot weather.”

“Th’ newspapers have got to print what happens,” said Mr. Hennessy.

“No,” said Mr. Dooley, “they’ve got to print what’s diff’rent. Whiniver they begin to put headlines on happiness, contint, varchoo, an’ charity, I’ll know things is goin’ as wrong with this counthry as I think they ar-re ivry naytional campaign.”