Le Pétomane: France’s Fantastically Famous ‘Flatulist’

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By Ken Zurski

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Even at an early age Joseph Pujol knew he had a gift, or curse, he wasn’t sure.

One day while wading in a watering hole, Pujol felt his inside fill with water. Strangely, though, his head was not submerged. Once on shore, the young Pujol was able to expel the water from the same place it entered. Later when asked, he would say matter-of-factly, “I can breathe through my arsehole.”

But not just “breathe,” Pujol could also send air out his backside at an accelerated rate of speed too. Doctors were baffled. But audiences couldn’t get enough. With the stage name Le Pétomane which combined the words “fart” and “maniac,” Pujol delighted late 19th century Parisian crowds with his tricks and sounds.

Many called him “The Fartiste” or “The Flatulist”, a take on the scientific name for accumulating internal gas – or flatulence. The audiences came prepared for a sound and smell experience, but since Pujol sucked outside air in and blew it out just seconds later, there was no offensive odor.

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The stage act was as outrageous as it sounds.

Wearing a form fitting tuxedo with tails, Pujol would set up each stunt with a few carefully chosen words and a combination of hand and face gestures.  Then with a professional confidence he would bend over and proceed to extinguish a candle from a foot away, just as he told the audience he could.

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Pujol smoked a cigarette using a rubber hose and did impressions.  “Now a hen makes a terrible racket,” he would recite in a sing-song voice, “from the sounds that we hear it’s not one but a packet.” Then the sound like a cackling hen would reverberate around the room.

The act’s encore was his take on vocal interpretations . Although no words were spoken, the musical tones coming from Pujol’s backside were clearly distinguishable.

His most popular mimic was a screech he called “the Mother-in-Law.”

Lefty Leonardo and the Foretelling Symbolism of ‘The Last Supper’

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The Tongerlo Last Supper, by Leonardo da Vinci and his studio. Courtesy of the Sheen Center.

By Ken Zurski

In Leonardo da Vinci’s 15th century masterpiece, “The Last Supper,” among the artist’s  many symbolic intentions was in the portrayal of Judas.

Specifically, Judas’ hand.

In the painting, Judas is seen turning his head away and reaching for the same dish as Jesus; a gesture that was seen as an emblematic sign of a thief.  Other depictions also showed this manifestation, but in da Vinci’s work, Judas uses his left hand, rather than the right, to foretell Christ’s fate.

Judas is seated to Jesus’ right so it seems only natural to reach with the closest hand (in the case the left). But as art historians claim, da Vinci may have had more in mind.  That’s because at the time being left-handed was seen as a curse; more fearful and suspicious, rather than enduring.

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On top of that, da Vinci was also left-handed. Therefore, the speculation in theory at least is credible. Did da Vinci purposely paint Judas reaching with his left hand, signifying perhaps that the man who betrayed Jesus was a “cursed” lefty? As with anything so subjective, especially in regards to an artist intent, only the artist truly knows. So that answer left, as Da Vinci did, nearly five centuries ago.

As for the “curse” claim, however, the history of Christianity seems to back it up. In the church, left-handiness was a sign of bad luck, citing Roman auguries, where a bird or other object sitting on the left side of a priest was an indication of evil things to come.

For centuries, the right hand preference was encouraged or strictly enforced. Men fished and would plough fields with their right hand, lest they burden their families with famine. And a mother teaching her baby to eat would only let the right hand stick out of the child’s swaddled clothing. “If they put forth their left hand,” the early Greek biographer Plutarch (45 A.D.) one wrote, “they were corrected.”

Today an estimated 10-percent of the world’s population is born left-handed and many become noteworthy because of it. Da Vinci in particular certainly endured the backlash. Perhaps he dared to mock his own affliction by portraying Christ’s betrayer as a dreaded “southpaw,” all the while creating it with a brush stroke from his chosen left hand.

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When Soap was Taxed and Personal Cleanliness an Option

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By Ken Zurski

Beginning in 1712 and continuing for nearly 150 years, the British monarchy used soap to raise revenue, specifically by taxing the luxury item.  The tax itself was on the production of soap, not the participation. But due to the high levy’s imposed, the soap makers left the country hoping to find more acceptance and less taxes in the new American colonies.

Cleanliness was not the issue, although it never really was. Soap itself had been around for ages and used for a variety of reasons not necessarily associated with good hygiene. The Gauls, for example, dating back to the 5th Century B.C., made a variation of soap from goat’s tallow and beech ashes. They used it to shiny up their hair, like a pomade.

Even before soap was introduced, rather ingenious ways of cleaning oneself emerged. The Hittites in the 16th century washed their hands with plant ashes dissolved in water. And the Greeks and Romans, who never used soap, would soak in hot baths then beat their bodies with twigs or use an instrument called a strigil, basically a scrapper with a blade, that would scrape away sweat and dirt of the body, similar to what a razor does with hair stubble.

So when actual soap was introduced in the late Middle Ages it had always been considered exclusively for the privileged. Therefore, later when it was mass produced, the British imposed hefty taxes on it as did many other luxury items, like wallpaper, windows and playing cards.

Thank goodness in centuries to follow some common sense emerged.

Or did it.

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William Thomas Sedgwick

In 1902, psychologist and chemist, William Thomas Sedgwick released a book titled Principles of Sanitary Science and Public Heath which was a compilation of lectures he gave as a professor of biological sciences at MIT.

In it, Sedgwick extolled the virtues of good personal hygiene to keep infectious diseases away. “The absence of dirt,” he urged with conviction, “is not merely an aesthetic adornment.”

Basically, he was telling everyone to take a bath.

It wasn’t that most people didn’t understand the merits of taking a bath, but it was a chore. Water had to be warmed and transported and would chill quickly. Oftentimes families would use the same water in a pecking order that surely forced the last in line to take a much quicker one than the first. When the baths were over the water had to be lugged outside and dumped.

In the later half of the 19th century, as running water became more widespread, bathtubs became less mobile. Most were still bulky, steel cased and rimmed in cherry or oak. Fancy bronzed iron legs held the tub above the floor.

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Ads from the time encouraged consumers to think of the tub as something other than just a cleaning vessel. “Why shouldn’t the bathtub be part of the architecture of the house?” the ads asked.  After all, if there is going to be such a large object in the home, it might as well be aesthetically pleasing.

Getting people to actually use it, however, that was another matter.

Sedgwick had medical reasons to back up his claims. As an epidemiologist, he studied diseases caused by poor drinking water and inferior sanitation practices. Good scientific research,  he implied, should be all the proof needed. But attitudes and decades old habits needed to be amended too. “It follows as a matter of principle,” Sedgwick wrote, “that personal cleanliness is more important than public cleanliness.” He had a point. Largely populated cities were dirty messes, full of billowing black smoke from factories, coal dust, and discarded garbage and waste. Affixing blame for such conditions was more popular than actually doing something about it. Sedgwick focused on self-awareness to make his point.  “A clean body is more important than a clean street,” he stressed.”Sanitation alone cannot hope to effect these changes. They must come from scientific hygiene carefully applied throughout long generations.”

People, it seemed, had to literally be frightened into washing up.

Something Sedgwick understood, but fought to change.

“Cleanness,” he wrote in his book, ”was an acquired taste.”

By this time, soap was being widely used, relatively inexpensive, and no longer taxed in Great Britain. William Ewart Gladstone, the Prime Minister at the time, finally put an end to the soap tax in 1853, nearly a century and a half after it was imposed. In doing so, however, he faced a substantial revenue loss. So to make up for this financial scourge he introduced death duties, basically a tax on the widow of a dead spouse.

“This woman by the death of her husband became absolutely penniless,” announced the Common Cause, citing a recurring example.

With that, Gladstone might have argued that using soap might actually help your cause.

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President Taft Received The Ball: How the Newspaper Covered the First ‘First Pitch’ in Baseball

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President Taft Tosses First Ball

Great Opening for American League

All Attendance Records Broken in Washington

Washington, April 14, 1910 — The opening of the American League season in Washington today between the local and Philadelphia clubs, was a most auspicious one. President and Mrs. Taft, Vice president Sherman and many other notables were present and the Nationals won by the shut out score of 3 to 0. For the first time on record, a president of the United States tossed out the first ball and what was more he sat through the entire nine innings and seemed greatly to enjoy the contest. The attendance broke all records.

Last year, President Taft saw Washington play Boston late in the season, but then the local players got stage fright when the President arrived and threw the game. Mr. Taft remarked then that he must be “hoo-doo” and remained away from the ball park the rest of the season. This morning President Noyes of the Washington Club went to the White House and presented to Mr. Taft baseball pass No. 1

Just before play was started Umpire “Billy” Evans made his way to the Taft box on the right wing of the grandstand and handed the President a new ball. Mr. Taft took the ball in his hand as though he was expected to throw it over the plate when he gave the signal. He handed the ball to Mrs. Taft who weighed it carefully in her hand while the President was doffing his gloves in preparation for his debut as a pitcher.

Mr. Taft watched as the players warm up and a few minutes later shook hands with Managers MacAleer and Mack. When the bell rang for the beginning of the game, Mr. Taft shifted uneasily in his seat, the umpire gave the signal and the President raised his arm. Catcher Street stood at the home plate ready to receive the ball, but the President threw it straight to Pitcher Walter Johnson. The throw was low, but the pitcher struck out his long arm and grabbed the ball before it hit the ground. The ball was never put in play as it is to be retained as a souvenir of the occasion.

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Hartford Courant Friday April 15, 1910 (Source: Newspapers.com)

President William Howard Taft throwing out a ceremonial pitch. (Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images)

In 1884, Grover Cleveland was Accused of Rape. Two Days Later He Was Elected President of the United States

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By Ken Zurski

In July 1884, only two years after being elected the governor of New York, a little known lawyer and relatively new politician named Stephen Grover Cleveland became the Democratic nominee for president of the United States.

Cleveland’s quick rise in party ranks was no fluke. The Republicans were in disarray. Due to failing health, Chester Arthur the incumbent and former vice president who inherited the White House after James Garfield’s assassination, made only a meager effort to win his parties affections for a full term. Instead Republicans chose James Blaine, a longtime congressman from Maine.  The Democrats seized on the opportunity to elect someone who was considered an outsider.

Cleveland fit the bill.

 

Grover Cleveland

 

Conservative, religious, and “remarkable unperceptive to new ideas,” Cleveland easily won election to New York state governorship in 1882 and even though he would vote against the public’s favor on issues ranging from reducing fares on New York City’s elevated trains to limiting carriage driver’s work day hours, the public generally liked his “refreshing moral correctness,”  so much so he earned the nickname “Grover the good.”

All that would change, however, shortly after Cleveland became the nominee for president.

A Buffalo, New York newspaper, the Evening Telegraph, published a story that put the rotund candidate at the head of a scandal, claiming he had ruined a “respectable” woman’s reputation, seduced her with the promise of marriage, taken away a son that she claimed was Cleveland’s, and dumped her in an insane asylum. Cleveland was a bachelor so there was nothing particularly scurrilous about the relationship with a young woman, especially a widow. But the rest of the accusations, if true, clashed with proper conduct and conventions of a man of Cleveland’s stature. Partisan newspapers throughout the country waved their biased banners; either championing the cause or ignoring and downplaying the reports.

Cleveland’s associates gave an explanation. Without denying the rumors, they claimed a man’s private actions should not be a qualification for political office. A Democratic newspaper, the New York World, run by Joseph Pulitzer, reinforced the claims: “The issue of the campaign is not one of personal character,” the paper reported.

But it got worse. More unsubstantiated reports of women scorned by Cleveland surfaced. It seemed only a matter of time before the Democratic party dropped Cleveland and picked another nominee, a move that would almost certainly tip the general election in the Republicans favor. Cleveland offered another choice. “Tell them the truth” he demanded.

Cleveland never denied knowing the woman named Maria Halpin, but according to him, she was the instigator and ultimately the problem. He was only trying to help a disillusioned woman get her life back together, especially after the birth of an illegitimate child.

Others jumped to Cleveland’s defense. The child in question was not Cleveland’s but Halpin’s other suitor, a businessman named Oscar Folsom. Folsom was also an acquaintance of Cleveland’s. He was also dead. In July of 1875, Folsom was killed in a buggy accident. When the baby was born that September, Cleveland reportedly named the boy Oscar Folsom after his friend.

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Maria Halpin

Halpin wanted more than just help. She wanted a husband and father for a child she was now forced to care for on her own. She claims Cleveland promised to marry her, but didn’t. She also felt betrayed by a man she says took advantage of her. What she wanted now was respect from a man she once trusted. What she got was indifference.

So she cried “rape.”

The rape claim was nothing new to Halpin’s family and close friends, but she kept quiet hoping Cleveland would change his mind. Now, facing misleading reports about her own character, she went public.

Halpin was a 38 -year-old sales clerk at the time working for one of Folsum’s businesses. In her account, Cleveland approached her on the street (actually he had been courting her for some time) and they wined and dined together. Upon returning to her boardinghouse one night, Halpin recalled, Cleveland forced himself upon her. “Violently and without my consent,” she insisted. She remembers Cleveland saying he would ruin her if she ever spoke out. So she asked him to leave and never come back. Six months later, Halpin discovered she was pregnant.

The press mostly ignored her, choosing instead to listen to men like the outspoken preacher Henry Ward Beecher, who defended Cleveland’s honor. Beecher had some womanizing issues of his own to answer to, but Cleveland needed more friends than enemies. He hired an investigator to do some digging and came back with sympathetic results. “He [Cleveland] accepted responsibilities that one man in a thousand has shouldered and acted honorably in the matter,” the report read. Beecher who was still an influential voice, especially among his throng of loyal parishioners, reinstated his support of Cleveland.

Pulitzer’s World went even further by publishing an article which claimed Halpin called Cleveland “a good, plain, honest man,” in an interview. Halpin, the paper reported, disavowed any previous statements against his character. The statement seemed to echo an affidavit drawn up by Cleveland’s lawyers that they wanted Halpin to sign. It read in part: “Shortly after the death of my husband twelve years ago, I removed to Buffalo with my children. Some time after that I met Mr. Cleveland and made his acquaintance which his acquaintance extended over a period of several months. During that time I received from Mr. Cleveland uniform kindness and courtesy. I now have and have always had a high esteem for Mr. Cleveland.”

Halpin under oath said the affidavit’s “statements contained therein are untrue” and refused to sign it. The affidavit also contradicted Halpin’s earlier claims that she would rather “put a bullet trough my heart,” than exonerate Cleveland.

Halpin filed two affidavits of her own, each within days of  each other. The first one claimed the circumstances under which her “ruin” was attained, was too “revolting to revel.” The second one, was more forthright. Cleveland, she attested, “accomplished her ruin by the use of force and violence and without my consent.” None of it mattered. Two days after her second affidavit was filed, Grover Cleveland was elected the 22nd President of the United States. “In Gov. Cleveland, in my judgement, we have a leader who is peculiarly fitted to discharge the great trust of his high office and to redeem these pledges to the satisfaction of the American people,” a Cleveland supporter crowed shortly after the results were in.

After Cleveland’s victory, according to author Patrica Miller, “Maria Halpin went down in the history books as a whore.”

The scandal behind her, Halpin went on to marry a tin store owner named Wallace Hunt and died of a prolonged illness at the age of 55. Her only request was that her funeral not be “too public” for fear of “strangers studying her dead face.”

Meanwhile, while in office, Cleveland took a wife. Francis Folsum was a young lady Cleveland had been courting since she was a teenager. Folsum was also the daughter of the late Oscar Folsum, the man Cleveland suspected of fathering Maria Halpin’s son and ultimately the person who posthumously exonerated the president in the public’s eye. Cleveland had guardianship of Francis, Oscar’s daughter from a previous marriage. She called him “Uncle Cleve.”

They were married in the Blue Room of the White House and Francis became the youngest First Lady in history at the age of 21.

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Frances Folsum Cleveland

(Sources: “Bringing Down the Colonel” by Patricia Miller; Newspaper.com; various interest sites)

 

 

 

 

Amy Johnson: Britain’s Famous Female Flyer’s Legacy is Eerily Familiar

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By Ken Zurski

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Amy Johnson

Amy Johnson is considered the English counterpart to American Amelia Earhart which is a fair comparison since both pioneer women aviators have similar adventures and equally mysterious fates.

Johnson, however, is not quite as well known.

Born in Yorkshire, Johnson earned an economic degree at the University of Sheffield and received her pilot’s license through the London Aeroplane Club in July of 1929. Flying was just a hobby for the 26-year-old Johnson at first. But that would change. “I have an immense belief in the future of flying”, she wrote. Soon enough she had her sights on breaking solo flying records in Europe, similar to what Charles Lindbergh and Earhart were doing in the States.

Her father and biggest supporter, Lord Charles Wakefield helped finance her flights. The wealthy Wakefield, a well-known figure in London, founded an oil lubricant company that bared his name (later it was changed to Castrol Oil). Wakefield bought Johnson her planes which carried family trademark nicknames, like “Jason.”

In May of 1930, aboard “Jason,” Johnson set off alone from Croydon, England and 19 days later landed in Darwin, Australia a distance of 11,000 miles. She was given a hero’s welcome upon returning home. 

Later along with several co-pilot’s, including her husband Scottish aviator Jim Mollison, Johnson completed more globetrotting flights and set distance records from London to Moscow and Japan. Accomplishments that received international recognition. Even Lindbergh, the most famous pilot in the world, sent Johnson a letter of praise. 

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Then in 1941, while working for the Royal Air Force, Johnson was lost during a flight over the Thames Esturay where the River Thames meets the North Sea. The weather was especially bad that day and she reportedly went off course, ran out of fuel, and ditched the plane.

Johnson was last spotted parachuting into the water.

Even today, her fate is debated and rumors circulate about why the plane went down. Some claim Johnson forgot – or failed – to give the correct security codes needed to identify herself as a British pilot and was shot down by friendly fire. Others report she and her aircraft was mistaken for a German bomber. Still others believe she may have been on a secret government mission. All speculation, of course. Like Earhart, who vanished in 1937 while flying over the Pacific, Johnson, who was assumed drowned, never resurfaced.

A search for her body turned up nothing.

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The Not So Original Idea to Extend Day’s Light

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By Ken Zurski

It was late on March 31, 1918, a Saturday night soon to be a Sunday morning and the beginning of a new month, when Daylight Saving Time officially became a household phrase in America.

It started with a crowd of gawkers lining the streets surrounding the Metropolitan Building in Manhattan. At exactly midnight, the crowd strained their necks and looked up at the huge lighted clocks, each 26 feet in diameter, one on each side of the building. A signal was given and the lights shut down—the largest four-dial clock tower in the world went dark.

A hush came over the crowd.

Time was literally at a standstill.

Then there was a cheer!

The crowd was festive despite the late hour and the start of Easter Sunday. A community chorus sang the “Star Spangled Banner,” and the New York Police band and Borough of Manhattan bands took turns playing “Over There.” The excited throng kept staring at the clock dials frozen in time. It just couldn’t be, they thought.

It was deep in the tower’s belly where all the work was taking place. Hired mechanics had made their way up to the tower’s inner workings and begun the arduous task of advancing the 13-foot hour hands manually. They had two hours to get the job done. Then promptly at 2 a.m., the lights flickered on again. Like magic, the clock tower was once again illuminated. Hundreds of late-night souls strained their necks again to see the clock dials’ hour hands in the glowing beams. The hands were pointing to the number … 3.

Three! It was 3 o’clock! For the first time in history, the nation had moved itself ahead one hour. The crowd shouted and cheered. Daylight Saving Time had officially begun.

“Blasé New Yorkers for whom New Year’s Eve celebrations have lost their thrill,” wrote a reporter for the New York Times, “rubbed their eyes and marveled at the novelty of an Easter Sunday of only twenty-three hours.”

The idea for daylight saving is most often attributed to Benjamin Franklin during his years as an American delegate in Paris in the late 1700s. Thanks to the oil lamp, Franklin would stay up late, usually playing chess, and sleep until noon the next day. One morning, quite early, he was awakened by a sudden noise. He threw open the tight window shutters and was even more startled by the amount of daylight coming into his room. “I looked at my watch,” Franklin later wrote in an article that appeared in the Journal De Paris on April 26, 1784, “which goes very well, and found that it was but six o’clock; and still thinking it something extraordinary that the sun should rise so early. I looked at the almanac, where I found it to be the hour given for his rising on the day.” Perhaps with a mix of astonishment and dry humor, Franklin wrote “that having repeated this observation the three following mornings, I found precisely the same result.”

Ever resourceful, Franklin had an intriguing thought. If he had slept six hours until noon through daylight and “lived” six hours the night before in candlelight, then wasn’t that just a waste of precious light and expense? “This event has given rise in my mind to several serious and important reflections,” he wrote. Franklin went to work figuring out the math. Assuming that 100,000 Parisians burned half a pound of candles per hour for an average of seven hours a day, and calculating the average time during summer months between dusk and the time Parisians went to bed, Franklin concluded that the amount saved, as he put it, would be an “immense sum.” Franklin proposed that all Parisians rise with him, when the sun rises, and to compel the naysayers, he proposed “a tax [be laid] per window, on every window that is provided with shutters to keep the light out.”

“Let guards posted after sunset to stop all the coaches that would pass the streets,” he bravely declared. “Let the church bells ring every time the sun rises. Let cannon(s) be fired in every street, to wake the sluggards effectually, and make them open their eyes to see their true interest.”

Franklin’s dry wit and humor notwithstanding, his scheme alarmed Parisians who weren’t ready for change. They thought Franklin’s idea was madness, and a surprising one at that, coming from an American intellectual and a figure that was so well-liked in France. After he left Paris, Franklin mulled over the idea and marveled at “inhabitants,” this time Londoners, who continued “to live much by candlelight and sleep by sunshine.” Franklin used the economy as an example, saying residents had little regard to the costs of candlewax and tallow. “For I love economy exceedingly,” he explained.

Eventually the idea of extending the day during the summer months was proposed. Instead of getting up by daylight, usually too early, then why not just move daylight later in the day and prolong the evening sun?

“Everyone appreciates the long, light evenings,” wrote William Willett, a London Builder who is credited with the idea of extending daylight. “Everyone laments their shortage as Autumn approaches; and everyone has given utterance to regret that the clear, bright light of an early morning during Spring and Summer months is so seldom seen or used.”

Like Franklin, Willett was struck by the amount of people who kept their blinds shut in the morning hours even though the sun was fully out. If getting up too earlier was the crutch, thought Willett, then why not just stretch the light of the evening hours. European countries would adopt the idea first in an effort to conserve fuel supplies during World War I.

On April 1, Easter Sunday of 1918, Americans did as well.

(Excerpt from “The Wreck of the Columbia: A Broken Boat, a Town’s Sorrow & the End of the Steamboat Era” on the Illinois River © 2012 by Ken Zurski. Used with permission from Amika Press.