The Dastardly Past: the Cuerdale Hoard.
Around May 15 in 1840, some workmen repairing an embankment along the River Ribble in Lancashire discovered a large cache of silver. It contained over 7500 coins, 350 ingots, and assorted fragments of jewelry and other objects, dating from the era of the Vikings. The location of the find was along the main land route between the Irish Sea and York, but scholars remain undecided about the whys and wherefores of this deposit of riches. Most of it has, over time, been acquired by the British Museum, which has published a handsome book, by James Graham-Campbell, on the Cuerdale Hoard.
The Dastardly Past: Button Gwinnett:
On May 15, 1777, signer of the Declaration of Independence Button Gwinnett engaged in a duel with General Lachlan McIntosh, who had publicly referred to Gwinnett as a “Scoundrell and lying Rascal.” (Gwinnett’s signature is at the top of the left-most column of the Declaration–see below.) The duel, which took place in Savannah, Georgia, resulted in both men getting shot in the leg. McIntosh’s was a flesh wound, but Gwinnett’s thigh bone had been broken. Gangrene set in quickly and Gwinnett died in a matter of days. He is buried in Savannah’s Colonial Park Cemetery, although the exact location of his grave remains a mystery.
The Dastardly Past: the Tiffany Yellow Diamond.
“What a bonny thing,” he said. “Think what crimes are committed for such playthings as this. Great jewels are the devil’s pet bait.” Sherlock Holmes, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”
From time to time, I plan to showcase examples of “the devil’s pet bait” in this blog, partly because jewels are an inducement to dastardly activity and partly because historic jewelry and jewelers fascinate me. Today’s feature is the Tiffany Yellow Diamond. This is a South African stone that weighed 287 carats when discovered at the Kimberley Mine in the 1870s. It was cut into a modified antique cushion brilliant that reduced its weight to 128.5 carats. It’s considered one of the largest yellow diamonds in the world. It was purchased by Charles Tiffany and his eponymous company still owns it. In 1961 they allowed Audrey Hepburn to wear it for publicity photos for the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
The Dastardly Past: The Scarlet Clue
On May 11, 1945 Monogram Pictures released The Scarlet Clue, a Charlie Chan mystery starring Sidney Toler. Toler had played Chan in the series since 1939, taking over from another non-Asian actor, Warner Oland. Benson Fong continued his ongoing role as Number Three Son, Tommy.
Apart from being great fun due to their hokeyness, the Charlie Chan movies raise serious questions. At the top of the list, of course, is why Hollywood insisted on Anglos in make-up playing the lead role? Perhaps studio moguls thought they were being sufficiently sensitive by casting Chinese actors as Chan’s sons, including Keye Luke, Victor Sen Yung, and the aforementioned Fong. It’s a mystery I intend to explore with Yunte Huang’s 2010 book, Charlie Chan: the Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History—which should arrive within the week. So please stay tuned. I’ll post on this topic again once I’ve read it.
The Dastardly Past: Sir Thomas Lipton
What better to accompany a good crime thriller or mystery novel than a cozy room and a cup of tea? Today (May 10) we celebrate the 1850 birth of grocer and tea magnate Thomas Johnston Lipton, who popularized tea drinking in the United States and among the working classes of Great Britain. Deciding that the cost of tea was far too high, Lipton purchased his own plantation in Ceylon in 1890. He kept growing and shipping costs at a minimum, and sold his tea in packages of full, half and quarter, making it much more affordable for the masses to enjoy.
The Dastardly Past: Eddie Cicotte and the Chicago Black Sox.
May 5 marks the anniversary of the death, in 1969, of Eddie Cicotte. Cicotte was one of eight Chicago White Sox baseball players alleged to have thrown the 1919 World Series. Cicotte was a right-handed knuckle-baller who, according to legend, was promised a $10,000 by team owner Charles Comiskey if he won 30 games that season. When Cicotte won game 29, Comiskey is said to have had him benched for fear of having to part with the bonus money. The embittered Cicotte was therefore willing to listen when approached by a gambling syndicate proposing to throw the Series.
While Cicotte was acquitted of criminal conspiracy charges in the aftermath of the Black Sox Scandal, he was banned from baseball for life. He returned to his home state of Michigan where he worked for Ford Motor Company, then retired to a strawberry farm.
The Dastardly Past: the Death of Sherlock Holmes.
Forget Star Wars. The true importance of May the 4th is that it’s the day Sherlock Holmes died. In Arthur Conan-Doyle’s story “The Final Problem,” set in 1891, Holmes and Moriarty meet at the Riechenbach Falls in the Bernese Oberland of Switzerland. They glare at one another. They charge. They fight. They plunge into the torrent, locked in battle, and fall to their deaths. Finis.
The reading public, however, rejected this (or any) end to their analytical hero. Conan Doyle, who had wanted to pursue other projects, held out from 1893, when the story was published, to 1901, when he relented and produced The Hound of the Baskervilles, set prior to 1891. Aficionados refer to this period as The Great Hiatus. A year later Holmes came back for good in “The Adventure of the Empty House.” Set in 1894, it details his remarkable escape from the clutches of Moriarty and his henchmen. Holmes stories appeared regularly after that and no more thought was given to a permanent end to the immortal detective.
J. W. Turner’s view of the Reichenbach Falls.