HM Holloway Prison

The Dastardly Past:  HM Holloway Prison.


In London in 1903, HM Holloway Prison became a single-sex prison for women.  For the previous fifty years it housed both men and women, but the growing number of female felons demanded a larger facility for housing them.  At one point, Holloway was the largest institution for the incarceration of women in Europe.  In the twentieth century it housed many of Britain’s notable suffragettes, including Emmeline Pankhurst and, during the second world war, several English fascists, including Diana Mitford (wife of Sir Oswald Mosley).  Holloway was rebuilt during the 1970s and 1980s and closed in 2016.

The Spoonseller’s Sapphire

The Dastardly Past:  The Spoonseller’s Sapphire.


Discovered in Bengal by a seller of wooden spoons, this 135 carat, velvet blue stone was previously known as the Spoonseller’s Sapphire.  Over the centuries it passed through many hands, including those of the Ruspoli famiy of Italy, who gave it its new name.  in the nineteenth century, it was acquired by the tsar of Russia, and was set in a kind of Russian crown/headdress called a kokoshnik, by Cartier in 1909 for the Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna.  It later came into the possession of Queen Marie of Romania, and afterwards her daughter, Ileana, who sold it to “a famous New York jeweler” in 1951.  Its current whereabouts are unknown.

The Ruspoli Sapphire was the subject of a research effort described in the journal Gems and Gemology 51 no. 4 (Winter 2015): . In this study, the authors unravel the tangled lines of provenance of the Ruspoli sapphire and the Grand Sapphire of France, now housed in the French national museum of natural history in Paris, with which it has traditionally been confused.  The article also provides insight into the murky history of famous jewels and how they are so often at the center of mysteries large and small.

The Tiffany Yellow Diamond

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.


In Praise of Persephone Books

The Dastardly Past: In Praise of Persephone Books.


There is little of a dastardly nature is today’s post, mostly because I have been sick and not doing much research.  Instead, I’d like to praise Persephone Books of London.  If you are unfamiliar with them, rejoice in the lacunae about to be filled in your life and library.  Persephone specializes in reprinting neglected twentieth-century books, mostly by women writers.  They produce visually and tactilely pleasing volumes at reasonable prices.  If you enjoyed the film adaptation of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, for example, you’ll be delighted with the novel on which it was based, by Winifred Watson.  In addition to humor, Persephone’s list encompasses a wide variety of categories, fiction and non-fiction, basically something for everyone.  I cannot praise them too highly, but I leave it to you to discover them for yourself.  You will not be disappointed.



The Dastardly Past: Kodak

The Dastardly Past:  Kodak.

kodak kite photo

Like Laurel with Hardy, like peanut butter with jelly, like Waffle House with people of the land, so too do cameras and detection belong together.  In 1888-89, Kodak introduced the first cameras that allowed people to simply point and shoot.  With the press of a button, photography shifted from a specialist’s pursuit to something almost anyone could do.  And they did—in droves—making Kodak the leader of popular photographic equipment, film, and film processing in the world.

The Dastardly Past: on this day, the pencil.

The Dastardly Past:  on this day, the pencil.

chandler_2624086b Raymond Chandler with pipe in mouth and pencil poised.

In the olden days, writing mysteries (or anything else) wasn’t even possible without a pad and pencil.  Even today, many authors prefer the flexibility of outlining, brainstorming, writing, editing, or revising with a pencil in their hands.  And with pencils come erasers.  Naturally.  We don’t even think about it.  Before the 1850s, however, we’d have had to.

Pencils and erasers were two separate items until Hyman L. Lipman, a stationer in Philadelphia, came up with the idea of combining them.  (He was a wizard of a stationer, also establishing the first envelope company in the United States.)  Lipman received a patent for his idea on March 30, 1858.  His model differed from today’s Ticonderogas in the placement of the eraser.  Rather than using a metal collar to attach a rubber tip to the end of a pencil, he actually inserted the rubber into one end of the hollow core that held the lead.  Despite this difference, he was onto something.  So much so that it’s hard to even imagine life without it.


From the Archives of Human Folly

From the Archives of Human Folly:  Mankind vs. Cats.


Let us all take a moment to pity poor Philip McGloin of San Patricio County, Texas, whose circumstances we can all relate to.  Twenty-five-year-old Philip, sound asleep in the middle of the night, was rudely awakened by the yowls of an unfulfilled cat.  In 1906 few, if any, people neutered cats and dogs.  He might have tried a number of methods to quiet the animal or drive it away by shouting and throwing objects; as this was probably not the first night’s slumber the creature had disturbed.  Is it any wonder that Philip took up his shotgun with the intention of eliminating the noise at its source?  In a bizarre twist, however, the goddess of cats intervened to protect the feline.  As Philip strode onto the porch steps, they gave way and his gun went off as he fell.  Philip died of a shot to his head—a martyr to interrupted slumber.