Clerihew Day

July 10

7/11 might be a more appropriate day to extol the virtues of poetry, but as it is, we’ll celebrate on 7/10, the birthday of poet, journalist, and author Edmund Clerihew Bentley, who created the most venerated form of poetry in all the English language: the Clerihew.

Edmund Clerihew Bentley

The Clerihew is a four-line verse where the end of the first line, or more often the full first line, is the subject’s name. Clerihews have an AABB rhyme scheme and meter is of secondary (or no) importance:

Even Steven
Will be leavin’
To get mugged in Chicago
After watching Dr. Zhivago

— the author, age 11

According to Steven Gale’s Encyclopedia of British Humorists, Clerihew composed the first such poem as a 16 year-old student in science class, in honor of a British chemist.

Sir Humphry Davy
Was not fond of gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.

Evidently the poem was a big hit with his fellow students, for he never stopped writing them. He published his first collection in his 1905 classic, Biography for Beginners. Other favorite clerihews include:

Sir Christopher Wren
Said, “I am going to dine with some men.
If anyone calls,
Say I am designing St Paul’s.

And from the Boston Globe’s Clerihew contest:

Edmund C. Bentley
Wrote intently,
But would now be anonymous
Were it not for the verse form for which his middle name is eponymous.

Clerihew was also a mystery author. He wrote one of the great detective stories of the early 20th century, Trent’s Last Case.

“Cupples, I have absolutely nothing left to say, except this: you have beaten me. I drink your health in a spirit of self- abasement. And you shall pay for the dinner.” — Trent’s Last Case, 1913

It wasn’t Trent’s Last Case. Bentley wrote two sequels, Trent Intervenes and Trent’s Own Case.

So before you go off and celebrate Clerihew Day with the reverence it deserves, remember,

Edmund Bentley
Was born in the U.K.
On Clerihew Day

anti-Valentine’s Day in Russia?

July 8

From Q++ Worldwide Public Holidays

“Russia’s First Lady, Svetlana Medvedeva, is chairing a comittee to celebrate July 8th as a Russian “anti-Valentine’s Day”, with emphasis on family, mariage and long-term faithfulness, rather than what she (and many in Russia) considers the shallowness of Saint-Valentine’s celebration of short-term infatuation.

“If this year’s first July 8 celebration of SS. Piotr and Fevronia (two 13th century Russian Orthodox Saints who were married and buried in the same coffin) is a success, Mrs. Medvedev has promised to make it an official public holiday in Russia.”

Here lies (and cheats) Soapy Smith

July 8

Every July 8th, citizens of Skagway, Alaska, hold a wake for a citizen who died on this day in 1898: Jefferson Randolph ‘Soapy’ Smith, the “king of the frontier confidence men.”

Soapy Smith, 1860-1898
Soapy Smith, 1860-1898

Smith got his nickname Soapy from an old scam he played selling soap to miners in Colorado.

It’s hard to believe someone so concerned about the hygiene of his fellow men could get such a bad rep. But you see, Smith wrapped bars of soap in $20 to $50 bills in front of the miners, then double wrapped those in brown paper, claiming that one in ten bars had been wrapped in money. Miners would pay $5 for a nickel’s worth of soap to try their luck.

Miraculously, no one ever won the big bills. Soapy was a master at sleight-of-hand, a skill he picked up in his teens playing the “shell game” with peas and thimbles in back in Texas.

But it was in Denver that Soapy made his real mark. With his “earnings” he opened a gambling establishment known as the Tivoli Club, and organized a gang of pickpockets, muggers, disbarred lawyers, and bribed politicians.

Soapy was as good with words and he was with his hands. Once when Denver authorities brought him to trial, he explained that the Tivoli Club performed a public service, curing gamblers of their addiction, by ensuring they lost. And the court acquitted him.

When the Klondike Gold Rush began, Soapy made his way up north to Alaska, but he let others do the digging.

Smith opened his own parlor and within a few months the 38 year-old was running the town, with a supporting cast of the unusual suspects.

A typical scam: Smith had a monopoly on the local telegraph and charged $5 to send messages. Only the telegraph wasn’t connected to anything but the wall. (Skagway didn’t get a real telegraph office until 1901.)

His last swindle involved a prospector named John Stewart, who made the mistake of walking into Smith’s Parlor with a bag of $2700 (in 1898 dollars) in gold. When Stewart’s money was stolen by men in Smith’s parlor, Stewart took his cause to anyone who would listen. A group known as the Committee of 101, which had been after Smith for years, held a meeting to stop him for good. Smith tried breaking into the meeting with a Winchester, but was stopped by the city surveyor Frank Reid. A gun battle ensued, and Smith died on the spot, bullet through the heart. Reid died 12 days later.

Though not an official holiday, the traditional toast to Soapy Smith is held by the residents of Skagway—and for some reason at Hollywood’s Magic Castle—at 9:15 pm each July 8th, the approximate time of Smith’s death.

Soapy’s wakes may lack the reverence of others, but as wakes go, it’s supposed to be one hell of a party.


Soapy Smith: Con Man’s Empire –

Soapy Smith’s Soap Box –

Alias Soapy Smith –

World UFO Day

July 2

No, July 2 is not Uterus Falling Out Day (occurs up to twelve times yearly depending on one’s menstrual cycle). It’s Unidentified Flying Object Day.


Some celebrate UFO Day on June 24, recalling the day in 1947 that pilot Ken Arnold witnessed several UFOs hovering over Mt. Rainier, Washington. But most aficionados observe UFO Day on July 2, the accepted date of the 1947 discovery by ranch foreman Mac Brazel of the wreckage of an unusual aircraft on Foster ranch, just outside Roswell, New Mexico. Brazel later heard reports of “flying discs” and put 2 and 2 together. After Brazel reported his findings to the Roswell Daily Record, the U.S. Army tried to cover up the find with claims of a “weather balloon” experiment gone wrong.

But we know better.

The public didn’t buy it either. Or maybe they did, but only for like 30 years. Since the 1970s a slew of books, articles, and tv specials have come out detailing the Roswell incident and the holes in the army’s stories, and have turned Roswell into the holy grail of UFO lore.

Brazel’s disc plays a vital role in the motion picture Independence Day, in which the heroes learn that alien corpses from said vessels have been kept in storage since 1947. In homage to Brazel’s discovery, the movie begins on July 2.


Towel Day – in memory of Douglas Adams

Today hitchhikers across the galaxy remember Douglas Adams by celebrating International Towel Day. “Why a towel?” readers of the classic scifi comedy series often asked Adams. His response was very similar to the reasons cited by the Guide itself:

A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitch hiker can have. Partly it has great practical value – you can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon…

“More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitch hiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have “lost”. What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with.”

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

My favorite Douglas Adams story has nothing to do with alien spaceships, but on the etiquette of the British people. While waiting for a train one day, Adams purchased a newspaper and a small box of biscuits (like cookies, but British), and sat down at a table where another commuter was waiting.

Without a word, the other commuter reached over to Adams’ box of biscuits on the table and ate one.

Anywhere else in the world this act of thievery would be reprimanded with a curse, a dirty glare, or at least a chopped-off body part. But Adams’, being a polite Brit, simply reached over to the box and grabbed a biscuit for himself, reclaiming his dominion.

Again the commuter reached over and took another biscuit. Then Adams. Then the commuter. The two went through the entire box of biscuits this way, sitting in the center of the table, without exchanging a single word. Finally a train arrived–not Adams’–and the other man boarded.

As Adams shook his head at the gall of departed commuter until his own train arrived, at which time he stood and picked up the rest of his newspaper, only to discover his own, unopened box of biscuits lying underneath it.

It goes to show, that rude bastard sitting across from you, could very well be you.

[Adams retold this incident in “So Long and Thanks For All the Fish“, the third and penultimate novel of the Hitchhiker’s ‘trilogy’ — Ed.]

Celebrating the Life & Work of Douglas Adams —

Tweed Day

April 3

Tweed is so awesome,
Woolen clothing from Scotland
That’s fashionable.

— Tweed Haiku, blahblahblahger

Today we sing the virtues of that most durable fabric, tweed.

Wait, no, wrong tweed.

Tweed Day remembers the corrupt politician who held New York City in the palm of his hand in the mid-1800s.

'Boss' Tweed
'Boss' Tweed

William Magear Tweed was “Boss” Tweed of Tammany Hall, the Democratic political machine that essentially ran New York. Tweed was born on this day (April 3) in 1823. The son of a Scottish-American chair-maker on the Lower East Side, he began his political career by organizing volunteer fire departments. He and Tammany Hall earned the support of New York’s working-class Irish immigrants, granting citizenship to potential constituents at the rate of 2,000 voters a day. (It Happened on Washington Square, Emily Kies Folpe)

He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives at the tender age of 29, to the New York State Senate in 1867, and in 1868 was made “grand sachem” (Big Poobah) of Tammany Hall.

It’s estimated that Tweed stole—I mean “misappropriated” between $40 and$200 million dollars from the public during his tenure, which back in the 1860s was considered a lot of money. (We’re talking 1860’s dollars here, so billions by today’s standards.)

Boss Tweed’s downfall is often attributed to the satirical political cartoons of Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly starting in 1868. Legend has it, Tweed said of the cartoons, Stop them damn pictures. I don’t care what the papers write about me. My constituents can’t read. But, damn it, they can see the pictures.”

Boss Tweed cartoon

But in truth Tweed was still at the height of his power in late 1870 when an investigation by “six businessmen with unimpeachable reputations” found that Tweed’s books had been “faithfully kept” and could find no wrong-doing. Tweed was expected to run for and win the New York U.S. Senate seat in 1872.

Tweed’s real downfall wasn’t the papers. It was a holiday: the Glorious Twelfth. No, not Grouse-hunting day, the other Glorious Twelfth. July 12th is a Northern Irish Protestant holiday celebrating King William of Orange’s victory over the largely Irish Catholic forces of King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

In July 1871, Irish Protestants in New York City (the Loyal Order of Orange) sought permission to throw an Orange Parade.

“Irish Catholic organizations protested that the parade would be an insult to their community and pointed to the Orangemen’s behavior the previous July 12, when they had marched up Eighth Avenue…”

— Gotham, by Edwin Burrows & Mike Wallace

The marchers the previous year had the ingenious idea of hurling epithets at Irish workers who were laying pipe along the streets they passed, and sang such rousing hits as “Croppies, Lie Down.” Eight people were killed in the violence that ensued.

Tweed nixed the 1871 parade, and the Protestants, fearing that Irish Catholics had taken over their city, laid into Tweed. Public tide rapidly turned against him until Tweed and the Governor were forced to reverse the decision and allowed the parade to take place.

In the infamous “Orange Riots of July 12th” that started as a parade, between thirty and sixty people were killed, including two police officers. Over a hundred citizens were wounded, and twenty policemen.

Orange riots
Orange riots

After the riot, both sides were fed up with the Boss. And someone upset at Tweed for the whole parade debacle supplied the Times with the incriminating evidence they needed to convict him in the court of public approval.

“On July 22, ten days after the Boyne Day battle, the Times began publishing solid evidence of Ring rascality, turned over to the paper by an aggrieved insider. Day after Day, publisher George Jones reproduced whole pages from the cooked account books of James Watson, who until his recent death in a sleighing accident up in Harlem Lane had been the Ring’s trusted bookkeeper.” (Gotham)

The investigation revealed a plague of graft and corruption unprecedented in American politics.

In one example, New York City paid more for a single courthouse under Tweed than Secretary of State Seward had just paid for the territory of Alaska.

In fact the courthouse cost twice as much as Alaska, and four times as much as Britain’s Houses of Parliament. [Now that’s fiscal stimulus!]

When news of New York City’s debt spread overseas, European officials cut off the city’s line of credit and removed NYC bonds from the Berlin Stock Exchange.

The rest of the Tweed timeline goes like this:

  • October 1871: Tweed arrested
  • November 1871: Tweed wins re-election
  • December 1871: Tweed booted out as “grand sachem” of Tammany Hall
  • January 1873: First trial results in hung jury, possibly bribed
  • November 1873: Tweed convicted, sentenced to 12 years
  • 1875: Conviction overturned, Tweed is released
  • 1875-1878: Tweed is immediately sued for 6 million by creditors. Unable to repay the debts, he’s re-incarcerated. He escapes to Cuba, but is returned by Spanish authorities.
  • 1878: Boss Tweed, once the third largest property owner in New York City, dies in prison, a broken man. He is 55.

Moral of the story: You can lie, cheat, and steal, but don’t mess with people’s parades. Or their holidays.

Today is Tweed Day.

I’ve no idea who started this holiday, or why we remember a corrupt politician. The earliest references I’ve found are only a few decades old, in Chase’s Calendar of Events. But for the record, neither condones nor condemns this holiday, and we wholly support the right of the God-loving people of this land to celebrate the durable Scottish fabric we call Tweed.

“If everyone wears a tweed cap on April 3rd, after having endured the proper amount of ridicule from co-workers, you can all meet up in State House Square and re-enact the big dance scene from Newsies in celebration of Tweed.”


April Fool’s Day

April 1

In the west, the first day of this month starts with a funny thing called the First April Fools day. The day might be a day of befooling others with fun and jokes, however, here in the east it brings endless tales of happiness but mostly sad stories, accidents and tragedies out of this nonsensical fools day on first of this month.

— Jatta ayi Vaisakhi

The first of April some do say,
Is set apart for All Fools Day
But why the people call it so,
Nor I nor they themselves do know.

— Poor Robin’s Almanack, 1760

April Fools Day is one of those grand traditions, handed down from generation to generation, where one generation along the line forgot to tell the next precisely WHY we observe it. Which begs the question:

Who’s more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows?

— “Old Ben” Kenobi, 1977

No one really knows from where the bizarre April ritual originated. For centuries the English and Scottish on April 1 sent fools on “sleeveless errands”—fruitless or futile tasks. “That like ‘bootless’ cries?” No, the English have no grudge against uncovered limbs. Bootless comes from the same root as ‘booty’—the treasure, not the footware (or the 3am call). A bootless offense was an unforgivable one, for which no amount of monetary payment, or booty, could bring absolution or pardon. A sleeveless errand on the other hand, probably comes from sleave, meaning a thread or something tangled. The classic sleeveless errands were sending fools on the hunt for the “History of Eve’s Mother” or for “pigeon’s milk.”

“My landlady had a falling out with him about a fortnight ago for sending every one of her children upon some sleeveless errand, as she terms it. Her eldest son went to buy a halfpenny worth of incle at a shoemaker’s; the eldest daughter was despatched half a mile to see a monster; and, in short, the whole family of innocent children made April fools.”

Joseph Addison, The Spectator, April 24, 1711

In Scotland the phrase of the day was “Hunting the Gowk.” Gowk meant cuckoo. The leading Gowk trick in Scotland was to

“get some unsuspecting rustic to take a note to another man who is in the scheme. The envelope is sealed, of course, and inside is the sentence:

“This is the First of Aprile; Hunt the gowk another mile.”

The man to whom the note is addressed says he is not the right person to receive it, and sends the bearer on another mile by the directions inclosed.”

NY Times, 4/10/1904

The French have been April fooling since at least the 16th century when New Year’s was changed from late March to January. The story goes that people would make fun of those throwbacks who still celebrated in spring, the Old New Year’s. Such fools living in the past were called “April fish.”

19th century writers suggested that April Fool’s Day roughly corresponded with the Hebrew month during which Noah sent the dove on the fruitless mission to find land after the Genesis flood.

But many also noted that April 1 was about the same time as the Indian festival of “Huli” (Holi), during which time similar customs, or at least good old-fashioned merry-making took place. During Holi Hindu social roles are forgotten, and neighbors blast each other with brightly colored powders.

The Persians meanwhile celebrated (and still do) Sizdah Bedar 13 days after the spring equinox. But that’s a story for tomorrow…