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.

The Record Offensive


I’ve been reading Kenneth Bilby’s biography of David Sarnoff, the pioneer in organizing multinational corporations to enthusiastically crush inventors who foolishly develop critical radio and television technologies, and came across one of those passages in Chapter 7 (“Chapter Seven”) that just captivates a mind like mine:

The tools that [ Sarnoff ] proposed for winning [ the Cold War ] were electronic, to be made available at cost by American manufacturing concerns, led by RCA. Tiny record players, costing less than $1 to manufacture, would be parachuted in clusters inside Russia along with small vinyl records. The recorded messages in Russian would tell the populace that America was their friend and call upon them to overthrow their Marxist masters. [ … ] The idea of parachuted phonographs was dropped as too hazardous, and thus possibly counterproductive.

Imagine the world if come the late 50s RCA had cranked out millions of cheap record players that were parachute-dropped into the Soviet Union, carrying messages of friendship and goodwill and apologies for any record players that hit someone on the head as they landed, which would probably be the counterproductive part. “We love you,” I can picture the recording of President Eisenhower saying, “Sorry about the bumps on the head! Overthrow your masters!” Well, maybe that doesn’t exactly capture Eisenhower’s voice, since he was born in Kansas or something in the late 19th century, where they only used exclamation points for weirdly passionate arguments about silver coinage. So imagine something with those sentiments, then, but expressed using his own punctuation.

Of course, on top of the counterproductivity of bonking Russians on the head with record players of love and rebellion there’s also the potential for retaliation. Surely something fewer than two billion record players could be dropped onto Moscow before the Soviets would decide it’s time to retaliate, and they’d start whipping up their own record players for dropping into Western Europe, increasing the rate of head injury from the Oder to the English Channel, and maybe a bit farther, if the winds are up to it. By 1962 West and East Germany could be covered hip-deep in one-dollar record players, and traffic in anything smaller than a bulldozer would be impossible.

Since by this point it’d be clear the record-player-drop wasn’t working the only thing to do would be to step it up, with even more record players and far more discs plummeting onto the East European Plain when the Central Siberian Plateau turend out to be too hard to find. The President couldn’t possibly have time to record all the messages, and probably wouldn’t even review them after a couple dozen times. The record-makers would start slipping in popular music, comedians, maybe read some stuff from the newspaper they thought was neat and the only people to suspect would be the actual Russians, who, if they understand English, would naturally wonder why the United States was going to all this effort to read them Charles Henry Goren’s columns about playing bridge, or why anyone plays bridge.

To achieve better market saturation bombers would give way to rockets, and by the mid-1960s the Soviets and the Americans would have hundreds of Intercontinental Ballistic Muzak weapons, ready on a moment’s notice to shower the population with enough Ferrante and Teicher to background the world with music twelve times over. The contest would leap inevitably to space, where the first long-playing rockets threaten to light up the entire ionosphere with an inescapable mass of Mexicali Singers, at what risk to the ozone layer we can only imagine. (And none of this even considers how the Non-Aligned Movement might react to a blanketing of Vaughn Meader.) The first men on the Moon could well look back to Earth and remark how from that distance there are no 45’s, no 33 1/3’s, no 78’s, just a universal matrix message of brotherhood.

So aren’t you captivated by this? And yet the real world decided this was maybe one Cold War scheme too many. But that’s probably just as well. If we were making record players for a dollar to parachute onto unsuspecting people, how much would we be spending on the parachutes? I grant a cheap parachute isn’t necessarily a bad one, but, would you want to take that risk?

Next, the Comics


Over on my mathematics blog I had a fresh collection of mathematics-themed comic strips to talk about, and I want to make sure people who missed that had some kind of warning about it. So, ah, warning.

Mort Walker's _Beetle Baily_ of 24 August 1957. Apparently the General has a niece.

For those who weren’t so interested in that, I offer the above installment of Mort Walker’s Beetle Bailey, from the vintage comics collection at comicskingdom.com. One of the wonderful things about the Internet has been that comics syndicates have made the ancient runs of comics more available. At its best, this lets you see now-stagnant comics in their prime and understand why (say) Hi and Lois became part of the default comics page. When it’s not doing that, you can at least get interesting observations such as (a) apparently General Halftrack had a niece, at least in August of 1957, and (b) this comic strip originally ran three days after the Soviet Union launched the world’s first successful intercontinental ballistic missile.