Tag Archives: victorian era

The Franklin Expedition (or People Who Eat People Are The Luckiest People In The World)

In 1845 Capt. Sir John Franklin, famed Artic explorer, set off to finish what he started: mapping a sailing route through the Arctic above Canada so ships could sail from Greenland to Russia across a Northwest Passage. He had lead 3 other successful expeditions (although one of those successful expeditions involved 11 out of 20 men dying) and had mapped out significant parts of the theoried route up to this point. This last expedition would finish the job.

The Victorians were dedicated to mapping out the parts of the world still undocumented and explorer after explorer set off to do it in the name of Queen and country. In particular the Arctic was a major challenge and many teams tried desperately to be the first to reach the North Pole. Franklin’s quest was much more practical. A shipping route would be invaluable to trade and commerce.

Franklin was seasoned and knew finding a route to sail above Northern Canada would be tough. He prepared the best equipped expedition in history. His ships “had five years of food supplies, including 8,000 tins (in one-, two-, four-, six-, and eight lb. capacities) of meat, vegetables, and soup.  In addition to the technical innovation of tinned goods, Franklin’s vessels the “Erebus” and “Terror” had cabins which were heated by hot water piped through the floor. The ships’ bows were reinforced with iron planks to help them break through ice. Moreover, each ship was equipped with a specially designed screw propeller driven by a wheel-less steam locomotive from the London and Greenwich Railway.”

On May 19th, 1845, with 134 sailors and officers Sir John Franklin set sail.They were last seen by the crew of two whaling ships, the “Prince of Wales” and the “Enterprise,” in Baffin Bay at the end of July.

Franklin’s expedition had been big news and when years started to pass without word, there was an outcry to find him or what had happened. Newspapers offered rewards, The Toronto Globe offered 20,000 pounds which it later doubled, no small sum at the time. The English government sent 3 seperate relief expeditions, but little was found.

It took years to slowly piece together what happened. In 1850 one of the expeditions sent to find him did manage to find some relics and 3 graves on an island in the Barrow Strait, Beechey Island.  In 1854, explorer John Rae was surveying near the Canadian Arctic coast southeast of King William Island, and heard stories from the Inuit there of  about 40 doomed white men who had trudged throug there some years earlier, dragging a boat behind them, looking really bad and killing seals to feed themselves. Later on, the Inuit said, and some ways south about 30 bodies were found with knife marks in their bones, a sure sign of cannibalism.

in 1859 Francis McClintock discovered a note left on King William Island with further details about the expedition’s fate.

Here is what happened:

The ships sailed from England to Greenland. 10 oxen carried by the transport ship were slaughtered for fresh meat; supplies were transferred to Franklin’s ships Erebus andTerror, and crew members wrote their last letters home. Letters written on board told how Franklin banned swearing and drunkenness. Before the expedition’s final departure, five men were discharged and sent home on Rattler and Barretto Junior, reducing the ships’ final crew size to 129. The expedition was last seen by Europeans in early August 1845, when Captain Dannett of the whaler Prince of Wales and Captain Robert Martin of the whaler Enterprise encountered Terror and Erebus in Baffin Bay.

Franklin’s ships slowly made their way through the never ending maze of ice and islands. Unable to continue as the weather worsened they wintered at Beechey Island. Over the winter 3 crew members died. Their wintering on Beechey was not a problem and to be expected. However even before they set off in the spring to continue their voyage their problems were already beginning.

The 8,000 tins of food they had prepared were prepared hastily, supplied from a cut-rate provisioner, Stephen Goldner, who was awarded the contract on 1 April 1845, just seven weeks before Franklin set sail. Goldner worked in haste on the order of 8,000 tins, which were later found to have lead soldering that was “thick and sloppily done, and dripped like melted candle wax down the inside surface”

The distilled water system in the ships were set up with lead pipes and as the pipes started to wear and tear lead crept into their water. Lead poisoning started to seep into their bodies, but they did not realize this yet.

In the spring, the expedition set off again, going south as North the previous fall had been a bust. They travelled down the western side of King William’s Island, unknown to them, a fatal move. The ice on the eastern side melts in the summer, but rarely on the western side.

Look at this map. Why would you go down and around on the east? You’d just go up and over on the west, right?

Despite what common sense would seem to suggest, going through the HUGE gap in the upper west instead of the narrow long way around at the bottom southeast is actually fatally wrong. The two ships became stuck in ice, locked like this for 2 winters as lead poisoning and scurvy from the bad tins and bad distillation destroyed the crews’ health.

The crew wintered on King William Island the winter of 1846-1847. They waited for the ice to thaw in the summer, but summer never came. Franklin died on 11 June 1847. The crew, unable to get either ship out of the ice was forced to winter again during 1847–48. The next spring proved just as bad as the one before and on April 22, 1848 the Erebus and Terror were abandoned after one year and seven months trapped in the ice

A note dated was found on King William Island from Apr. 25, 1848 stating that 24 men, nine officers and fifteen crew had died and those remaining were planning on leaving on April 26 toward the Back River on the Canadian mainland. However, they were a naval expedition. Only 4 of them had any experience crossing Arctic conditions on foot.

90 or so men set out. They pulled heavy sledges stacked high with food, shelter and firewood across the frozen wastes, but were already overcome with fatigue, malnutrition, scurvy and lead poisoning. By 200 miles, many had died. In 1950 they were seen by Inuits who also found one of the abandoned ships. There were 40 left.

Other Inuits later found 30 something bodies somewhat south with knife chips in the bones, signifying cannibalism.

In 1951, more Inuits, further south, spotted 4 men, the very last 4 survivors trudging along. To paint a picture: these guys had been trudging through the Arctic FOR THREE YEARS. The Inuit sightings have all been verified  over time from various stone cairns with notes or relics from the survivors.

In 1852 there were 2 men sighted by Inuits, one of whom was Captain Crozier, the Captain of the HMS Terror. They had walked for OVER FOUR YEARS THROUGH ALMOST 3,000 MILES OF ARCTIC WILDERNESS.

Crozier and one other unkown crew member made it to the Baker Lake area they were aiming for, but as they were never seen again it is assumed they finally succumbed and died. I would prefer to think they said fuck it shacked up some Inuits, but this is doubtful.

Cairns and bodies have been found in the years since, as over a century the route and fates of the men have been uncovered.

The last question i leave you with is Why didn’t the Inuits help them? There is no simple answer to this question. It is an unquestioned fact that most British eplorers considered themselves and their culture utterly superior to the Inuit and looked down upon them, but if you’ve spent a few months, a year THREE YEARS trekking through the Arctic, i highly doubt you would be full of airs when running across the locals who live and thrive in the environment that’s killing everyone you left with. It is entirely possible certain Inuits helped them along the way. it is entirely possible they observed them from a distance, shrugged, and went back to their business. This answer we do not know.

Franklin’s expedition has been immortalized in poetry, music and books. I leave you with the song Northwest Passage by Stan Rogers.

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Posted by on August 23, 2012 in Uncategorized


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The Derby Day

Hi everybody. The sessions are complete, the entire show is recorded and over the next 2 weeks i will be mixing, mastering and putting the finishing touches on the project.

Since that process isn’t really newsworthy or particularly exciting to discuss (except for me, for whom it’s riveting) the blog will resume it’s regular shenanigans.

Side note: Shenanigans is pretty much the most awesome word ever except for shpielhosen and skullfuck. Not only do i use it a lot in these posts, you may be assured i will continue to use it with the same fervor. The way you’ll know i have been abducted and replaced by an inferior double is when “shenanigans” is no longer used on this blog.

I spent a great deal of down time in London going to museums and in particular i highly enjoy paintings. Here’s on that’s worth mentioning as it’s fun, and a great window into Victorian society: The Derby Day:

It was painted over 15 months by William Frith from 1856 to 1858. It captures the famous Epsom Derby, a series of horse races which occurred once a year around May or June and drew enormous crowds made up of all classes of Victorian society. The attendance is estimated at 500,000, insane even by today’s standards. It is noteable in that while for the rest of the year the various classes of British society did not mix, on Derby Day they did, something that makes it ripe for a complex painting.

The painting was a huge sensation in an age when going to see paintings was a very popular activity and the center of many a date, afternoon or evening out. An hour was the time most commonly accepted to spend looking over The Derby Day and rail had to be put up to block the painting from over enthusiastic crowds who would touch it.

The painting, Frith’s undisputed masterpiece shows an incredible cross section of characters and social situations all happening. The dress and mannerisms of each person are key, since not only is the artist telling numerous stories through simply their positions, but he is representing various caricatures and sterotypes of victorian society through clothing and physical features.

 It can be essentially divided into 3 sections.

“There are three main incidents. On the right is the young woman in the carriage, referred to by Hodgson as a ‘Traviata’, the title of Verdi’s famous opera about a courtesan, and a characteristic Victorian way of referring euphemistically to a ‘fallen woman’. She is the kept mistress of the ‘high class fop leaning against the carriage. Related to her is the woman in brown riding clothes, on the extreme left of the painting, who is one of the ‘pretty horse breakers’, high class prostitutes, who at this period daily paraded in Hyde Park on horseback. These women reflect the phenomenal blossoming of prostitution at every level in London in the middle years of Victoria’s reign, also the subject of Holman Hunt’s ‘Awakening Conscience’.


“In the centre, is a father/son acrobatic team. The father beckons his son to come and begin an act, but the child acrobat  who looks longingly over at a sumptuous picnic being laid out by a footman provides a poignant tableau of the social divide. Behind them are carriages filled with quite high class spectators.”

“On the far left, next to the Reform Club’s private tent, a group of men in top hats focus on the thimble-rigger with his table, inviting the audience to participate in the game. The man taking a note from his pocket is the trickster’s accomplice. He is tempting the rustic-looking man in a smock, whose wife is trying to restrain him. On the right of this group, another man, with his hands in his pockets, has had his gold watch stolen by the man behind. the focus is on the ‘thimble riggers’ who have cheated the ‘city gent’ in his top hat out of his money. On his left, a young countrywoman restrains her man from following the same foolish path.”

“The courtesan in the carriage at the picture’s far right  is balanced on the far left by the woman in a dark riding habit, one of a number of high-class prostitutes who daily paraded on horseback in Hyde Park.”

One may note that absolutely none of the people depicted are actually paying any attention to the actual races.

The painting is on display at the Tate Britain, and indeed exploring the two Tates, (Tate Modern and Tate Britian) were two of the best sections of down time i spent in London.


Posted by on April 20, 2012 in Uncategorized


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The Victrola

Best invention of the Victorian age? Probably the light bulb. Telephone is up there. But where would our ipods and CD players be today without the great grandmother that started it all, the victrola.

That’s actually not quite right. Thomas Edison’s phonograph actually started it all. In 1877 Edison invented the very first means of playing recorded sound, the phonograph. He had already invented the telegraph and had worked out a way to inscribe messages that came over telegraph on paper tape which could be played back later. After doing this he decided the same principle could be applied to that new telephone contraption.

Edison figured sound waves could be recorded onto the paraffin paper and played back, and experimentation proved successful. He decided a rotating cylinder wrapped in tin fold would work better than the paper. He then jotted down a diagram of a machine which he gave to his mechanic John Kruesi to build. Kruesi built the diagram in 30 hours and Edison tested is by reciting ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’. The phonograph was born.

Edison's first phonograph

It was quite a novelty but for a long time only a novelty. It was difficult to operate except by experts, the tin foil would last for only a few playings. Edison’s interest turned to inventing the light bulb. Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone,  and his cousin Chichester A. Bell decided to fool with it and made some improvement, notably using wax instead of tin foil and a floating stylus instead of a rigid needle which would incise, rather than indent, the cylinder.

Let’s fast forward about 20 years, to 1901. Music was starting to appear on phonographs but the market was horribly limited. There were two major problems holding it back. The first was that there was no cheap way to produce the cylinders. The second was that the maximum playing time was 2 minutes. It wasn’t until 1908 that playing time was finally expanded to a whopping 4 minutes.

However, in 1901 Eldridge Johnson founded The Victor Talking Machine Company. His former partner Emile Berliner had come up with a flat wax disc instead of a cylinder. Unfortunately, Berliner’s company, Berliner Gramophone had gone belly up.

One of Berliner’s employees, Frank Seaman, run off with one of these spanking new flat disks and started his own company, Zonophone. Since Zonophone shamelessly stole and marketed Berliner’s flat disk technology, Berliner sued. You’d think it would be over, right?

Oh, poor innocent, naive reader. The check’s in the mail. This won’t hardly hurt at all. Of course i’ll pull out. No, it wasn’t over. See, Frank Seaman offered to merge with this other new company Columbia Records, who was putting out those old cylinders and had some nice patents concerning those syluses Alexander Graham Bell had invented back in our fourth paragraph. Columbia wanted the disk technology and when they got it, countersued Berliner, saying that their stylus patent   applied to any type of recording where a stylus vibrated in a groove and therefor Berliner had to cease and desist.

Ugliness insued and by the end Berliner left the states in disgust and  left Eldridge Johnson with all the tech he needed to found The Victor Talking Machine Company.

You still with me?

The Victor Talking Machine Company naturally began producing Victrolas.

Phonograph from 1907

The big horn on the gramophone, or phonograph or whatever you wanted to call it based on the company manufacturing it,  the was of course the only way to amplify the sound loud enough to be heard. This worked for awhile but many found it unsightly.  The Victor Company had the brilliant idea of redirecting the horn underNEATH the player and making it all into a nice, stylish cabinet. And thus, the victrola was born.

A victrola, circa 1913

Victrolas technically refer to the bell-less players produced by the Victor Talking Machine Company. The company was wildly successful, also because they cultivated a large music recording arm of their company.

Opera tenor Enrico Caruso was a sensation and between 1904–1920 made numerous recordings for the company. Not only did Caruso have one of the greatest voices in opera of all time, but his tenor range perfectly fit the limited acoustic range of the players. An orchestra would sound like crap. the players couldn’t capture and produce that type of range, but a tenor was exactly in the range that would sound decent. It’s fair to say, that in the early 1900s, almost anybody who had a victrola, had a Caruso recording, whether or no they like opera.

After Caruso, Rachmaninoff was the next big star, and once again, piano worked well on the victrola, especially for the period from 1920 to 1942 when he recorded.

In 1926 Eldridge Johnson finally got out of the business. Times were changing. Radio had come along in the early 20s and was giving victrolas a good thrashing. Music was now available over the air free of charge and the sound quality was actually better. Some said the home music player was a thing of the past. (Ah, how they always say that to everything.)

Killer of the victrola

He sold his controlling (but not holding) interest of the company to the banking firm of Seligman & Spyer. In 1929 Seligman and Spyer sold it to the Radio Corporation of America or, RCA. And that folks, is how RCA Records was born.

Fear not for the poor victrola. After WWII came the STEREO. After that came rock and roll. Then came the 60s, The Beatles, pot, the 70s, Dark Side of the Moon, the 80s and the glorious walkman. Etc, etc. The moral is that home music has thrived ever since. Thank you Victrola. And thank you Mr. Edison, you genius you, even if you were a total dick to Nikola Tesla.

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Posted by on March 17, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Sweeney Todd

In continuing our recent discussion about the Penny Dreadfuls that populated the Victorian era, it’s worth pointing out that almost all of the popular characters who once defined the era, Spring Heeled Jack, Varney the Vampire, Dick Turpin, Ching Ching, Jack Harkaway… they’re all gone. Sure some band or clever writer might make an obscure allusion to one of those bygone personalities, but as far as popular imagination and relevance is concerned all are dead.

Except one notable exception.

Sweeney Todd, one of the most popular Penny Dreadful characters, a violent, horrific barber who slit mens’ throat while they sat in his barber chair then dumped their bodies in his basement where his neighbor Mrs. Lovett would then mince them and use them as meat in her pies, THIS character is alive and well and dare i say beloved today.

His tale has been told in plays, several movies all the way from the silent era to the 2007 film by Tim Burton (which i really liked), he’s been in a Tony award winning musical by the great Stephen Sondheim, hell he has been in a BALLET. Yes, in 1959 there was Sweeny Todd The Ballet. Which, for the record, is an utterly awesome idea. Black Swan would have been even cooler if the main character was trying to really… you know, REALLY get into the lead role of Sweeney Todd.

Why? Who knows. He’s a great villain.

Originally appearing early in the penny dreadful days of 1846 and written byJames Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest,  teh story was called A String Of Pearls and told in 18 parts. A String Of Pearls involved the mystery of a missing string of pearls expected by Miss Joanna Oakley. Eventually it all leads to Sweeney Todd murdering his patrons for money and Joanna not only finds her pearls but her missing fiance who Sweeney has imprisoned in the basement cooking up the pies for Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop against his will.

Worth mentioning is the fact that unlike all the other anti-heroes so popular at the time who had some saving grace, Sweeney Todd had none. Those familiar with the Sondheim work will know a backstory that did not exist at the time. Sweeney Todd was not out for revenge. He was not wronged. He was a demonic killer who did it for the money. He was the Freddy Kruger of the era. There was no motive beyond simply being bad to the bone.

In 1847, at Hoxton’s Britannia Theatre, this tale from the dreafuls was put up as a melodrama and was quite successful.  From here on in  the character never really died. Two films in the 1920s, another in the 30s and several radio adaptions in the 1940s kept Sweeney Todd alive. Sweeney and Lovett became lovers in some. In a 1946 Sherlock Holmes radio adaption Sweeney was actually sleepwalking when he did it. In a 1970 TV adaption he was insane instead of evil.

Finally, in 1973 playwright Christopher Bond gives us the modern version. Todd becomes wronged, out for revenge, sympathetic instead of purely a boogie man like force of murder. It is the Bond story which Sondheim used to make his 1979 Tony award winning musical, starring Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury.

And thus Todd remains alive and well, happily… or not so happily murdering poor stubbled customers in his specially designed barber chair of death long into the forseeable future. (The barber chair is special because it hflips upside down and deposits the customers into a hole in the floor where they fall to the dark underground tunnel below. In the penny dreadful version they usually dies by cracking their head open due to the fall and Sweeney would only then go down with his razor to “polish them off”. In the 1847 stage version the phrase “I’ll polish him off” became a catch phrase, the “I’ll be back” of the era.)

Thus we have attended the tale.

I end now with a comparison between the original stage version and the film version. One of the reasons i like the film is because of its lower key you can really appreciate the music and melodies in a marvelously well recorded soundtrack. However, one must appreciate that the stage version throws the high emotion from figures on a stage across an entire theater tot eh very back row which was its original intent. Not to mention you can hear Johnny Depp trying as where the theater guy sounds like he eats musical murder sausages for breakfast washed down with a cup of his enemies’s blood before really feeling like getting up and facing the day.


And just because it has Neil Patrick Harris:

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Posted by on March 7, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Spring Heeled Jack: The 1st Super Villain?

One character who was an early fixture of penny dreadfuls was Spring Heeled Jack. He would leap in out of nowhere, slap you, cop a feel, or rip your dress and then leap away. He could leap over tall shrubbery, spit blue fire, and was impervious to bullets.

If this sounds anywhere between interesting and mildly ridiculous, the character was in fact a real life legend. There was indeed a Spring Heeled Jack who leapt around London,  assaulting women, slapping men, breathing blue fire and dodging bullets. This is his story.

In 1808 a letter to the Sheffield Times recounted how in their neighborhood existed a legend about a ghostly figure referred to as The Park Ghost or Spring Heeled Jack who could make enormous leaps and enjoyed frightening passers by.

All well and fine. Fast forward to September, 1837. A man reports he was walking outside a cemetery when a muscular male with devilishly pointed ears and glowing red eyes leapt over the cemetery fence, landed in front of him, then leapt away.

Shortly thereafter a barmaid named Polly Adams and two other women were walking outside Blackheath Fair when a man with the same description leapt in out of nowhere, tore Ms. Adam’s dress, felt up her boob and then scratched her stomach before bounding off again.

One month later, in October, a young servant girl named Mary Stevens was walking to work when the same character leapt in, grabbed her, and began kissing her face while ripping her clothes. She screamed and off he went.

The next day the same guy leapt into the middle of the street causing a carriage to swerve and tip over. Witnesses claim the perpetrator then jumped over a 9 foot wall laughing maniacally. A few days later, same dude appeared again, but this time left deep tracks in the mud from which the police concluded he had leapt from a substantial height. One investigator noted the tracks hinted to some gadgetry being used in his shoes, such as a compressed spring.

In 1838, the Lord Mayor, Sir John Cowan publicized these events and was soon flooded with a barrage of letters all describing similar shenanigans. The mysterious figure was officially dubbed Spring Heeled Jack.

He had two more publicized appearances in 1838, one where Jane Alsop received a knock at her front door from a man claiming to be a police officer, needing a light for “we have caught Spring-heeled Jack here in the lane”. She brought him a candle at which point he threw off his cloak and vomited blue flame at her face, His eyes, as usual were glowing red and he wore a big helmet. He grabbed her and tore at her clothes with his claws. She screamed and tried to get away. He proceeded to tear at her neck and arms but her sister appeared and away he leapt.

Also in Feb 1838, 18 year old Lucy Sales and her sister were passing along Green Dragon Alley when a figure suddenly spat blue flames her. She was blinded and suddenly dropped to ground having a violent fit that ended up lasting for hours (seizure?). When this happened, the figure turned and quickly walked away.

Spring Heeled Jack became a darling of the penny dreadfuls. Tales of his evil exploits abounded for years and his face gradually acquired a devil-mask that had never existed in the reports prior. After many, many years, as the dreadfuls were cleaning up a bit and catering to a youthful audience, Jack became a good guy, leaping in to save damsels in distress.

As to who he was, Polly Adams claimed among other things that he looked a great deal like the Marquis of Waterford, which was notable since rumors were consecutively flying that the Marquis had agreed to a bet put forth by several friends one night while they were drinking. The Marquis, a known dickhead with a terrible reputation regarding women had bragged he could create a notorious character as a way of “getting even” with police and women in general.

The Marquis of Waterford was in fact frequently in the news in the late 1830s for drunken brawling, brutal jokes and vandalism, and was said to do anything for a bet. His shenanigans and his contempt for women earned him the moniker the Mad Marquis, and it was indeed established that he was present in the London area when the first Spring Heeled Jack incidents took place.

He was a major suspect. However, after 1838, confirmed Spring Heeled Jack sightings dried up until 1843 when a new wave suddenly appeared. However, by this time, the Marquis was married and living in Ireland.

Spring Heeled Jack had some appearances in 1843, in the 1850s and the last confirmed incidents throughout the 1870s. The very last confimred sighting in 1877 is interesting. Spring Heeled Jack leapt into the midst of a squad of soldiers and “slapped one soundly”. One of the soldiers claimed to have shot Spring Heeled Jack and heard a hollow, metallic sound, at which point Jack belched blue flame at him and leapt away perfectly unharmed.  A few days later a mob caught sight of Jack, and laid chase. Though they too claim to have shot him, he never slowed, and jumped right out of the area.

Unconfirmed sightings of jack have continued into the 20th century. There was spree in the 1970s and a sighting in 1986. By the late 20th century demonic ghosts were no longer in fashion and so of course out comes the UFO speculations, claiming that he was/is an extraterrestrial.

If you ask me, most likely he began as the Marquis, but subsequent persons have picked up the prank. Certainly some sightings are probably imagination and embellishment. My bet is every so often some strange lad decides to take his turn as Spring Heeled Jack and delights in a notorious small spree .

Or it’s a demonic alien ghost. Hell, i don’t know. But there you have it, the Legend Of Spring Heeled Jack.


Posted by on February 18, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Penny Gaffs

From 1830 to 1870, the exact time the macabre and violent incarnations of the penny dreadful were being published, otherwise known as penny bloods, a complementary form of theater was also taking place, Penny Gaffs.

The penny gaff alludes to attending a cock fight for a penny, but the actual penny gaff had lost the chickens and put bawdy performances in their place. The penny dreadful and the penny gaff entwine in many ways, beginning with the obvious; both cost a penny.

As such they were clearly for the lower, barely or non educated classes. Penny gaffs even more so, because you at least needed to be literate to read a penny dreadful. The gaffs being a live event didn’t even require that. It was especially  popular amongst a younger crowd; 20 somethings, teenagers, even many poor children would attend. Because of the high number of underage attendees, there was no price reduction for age otherwise it would cut drastically into the profit margin. Large or small you paid your penny and went in.

You might go into a shop which doubled as a temporary theater at night, or the backroom of a pub, where some makeshift stage had been assembled. The idea was to emulate the popular music hall that the middle classes were enjoying. In the poor areas of London there might be 20 penny gaffs going on in a 5 mile radius.

Each performance would last and hour and a half to 2 hours, then everybody OUT and the next round in and the next show is on. You would pay your penny, go to a room to wait for the performance area to clear, then be herded in.

A Master of Ceremonies of sorts would appear to warm up the audience and introduce the acts. The humor was overwhelming raunchy and low brow. Some singers would sing, often bawdy or patriotic, jingoistic song, some clowing would ensue and short plays and vignettes would be performed.

The short plays are where we find another connection with the penny dreadfuls. They were most often about the same highwaymen, robbers and criminals which appeared the dreadfuls. In fact both the dreadful and the gaff took their criminal protagonists from the same source.

The Newgate Calender was one of the most popular periodicals of the 18th and 19th centuries. It was originally a monthly bulletin of executions. Biographies of some of the executed criminals would appear and by the mid 19th century it was fully of immensely embellished anecdotes about criminals who became infamous and the stars of the penny gaffs and penny dreadfuls.

The Newgate Calender contained heavy handed lessons about the horrors of Catholicism, foreigners,  and every manner of vice while practically bursting into loving tears over the subjects of Protestantism, patriotism, capital, punishment and royalty. Just in case you think things are any different today than they’ve ever been.

The plays and vignettes would feature the exploits of some famous criminal like Dick Turpin or Jack Sheppard. Some would retell and dramatize the incidents of a famous bloody crime, the more Manson-like the better.

The crowd would eat it up. Between the raunchy sex and the violence it was enormously popular amongst both young men and women of the lower classes. The shows were roudy affairs, although with a large degree of patriotism thrown in whenever possible.

Naturally the more puritan aspects of British society considered the penny gaffs to be a hotbed of vice and criminals and labored for years to have them banned.

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Posted by on February 15, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Penny Dreadfuls II: From Blood To Boys

For decades, since their conception in 1832, Penny Dreadfuls, 8 pages of lurid tales printed on cheap paper and sold for a penny, specialized in highly gruesome material.

For the first 10 years or so there was a fair amount of romance mixed in as they initially attempted to rip off gothic novels, but the fact is, the horror and crime titles are what sold and they eventually dominated the penny dreadful landscape. In fact, another name for Penny Dreadfuls were Penny Bloods.

The typical reader of the dreadful was barely literate. The 8 pages were not dedicated to character development and layered themes. The point was to get to the action. Often a literate working class man at the pub would read the latest installment of Sweeney Todd and his murderous shenanigans to a table of his illiterate mates.

However more and more children were becoming literate too. In 1866 Edwin J Brent began publishing The Boys Of England, which featured tales of adventure with schoolboys as the heroes. It introduced the character of Jack Harkaway, who became beloved by an entire generation of british boys, and Boys Of England soared to record sales.

Thus penny dreadfuls began the shift to the youth market. Sweeny Todd and Varney the Vampire continued to sell well and heaven knows, boys ate their adventures up with great relish also, but despite everyone’s assumption that the working class youth was out of their minds with lust for the high gore content of the penny bloods, the truth was that they perferred high adventure and heroism with protagonists they could identify with over the murderous content that had thrilled their fathers.

As far as their fathers went, as the 1800s rolled on more and more periodicals began to be printed cheaply for a working class audience. Newspapers were a little expensive and difficult to read, but sure enough, tabloid press started to appear, culminating in the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail, the father of tabloid rags, still around today.

Thus the adult audience drifted away and the youth audience drifted in. From the 1870s to 1900 penny dreadfuls became cheap adventure serials for boys. (We’ll touch on what on earth girls had to bloody well amuse themselves with, although Victorian society being victorian society the content is not nearly as interesting and indeed was mostly morality and virtue lessons.) Dreadful after dreadful started throwing the word ‘Boy’ into every title.

Boys could not often afford the penny to buy their favorite dreadfuls, especially if they wanted to follow more than one. And thus the great tradition of the Boys’ Club came to the rescue.

Men form clubs. Boys form clubs. Groups of boys would pool their money together to buy their favorite dreadful(s) and pass them around.

New stars emerged.  Tom Wildrake, Jack Harkaway, Tom Merry, Billy Bunter… Tom Wildrake, introduced in 1870 was particularly influential on the genre as it established certain tropes most later heroes followed. The story goes through the hero’s school days after which he gets on a boat and sets sail for some exotic location, like the Wild West or the Orient and of course high adventure ensues.

By the 1880s the transition was complete. Penny dreadful were entirely youth based and many groups concerned with the corrupting infulence of the penny dreadfuls on their children were publishing their own versions, with careful morality tales always built in.

Dime novels were big in the states. They were the cheap mass market paperbacks on the 1800s and they would be imported to England and serialized in the dreadfuls.  The American West was in fact a source of never ending fascination and gave rise to characters such as Deadwood Dick, an immensely popular wild west outlaw who, along with Sexton Blake, lived long past the end of the dreadfuls. Deadwood Dick not only found himself the subject of many pulp adventures but starred in movie serials in the 1930s. He was so well known, that a number of actual American men living in infamous Deadwood, South Dakota adopted the name to increase their notoriety.

As the 20th century hit, perdiocals featuring adventure tales were being put out which were longer, featured more stories, and cost a bit more. Thus the transition to pulp books began.

The moral watchdogs of Victorian society had been decrying the dreadfuls for decades. Interestingly, the transformation of the penny dreadful from lurid to youth entertainment had done nothing to silence the critics. Indeed, the most vocal elements against them were opposed to escapist fiction of any type, especially for the the young. They blamed escapist fiction for juvenile crime utterly ignoring such petty reasons as poverty and prostitution. Actually, at the height of the storypaper boom juvenile crime went down.

In 1893 published Alfred Harmsworth took it upon himself to end the penny dreadful market and its corrupting influence upon the young by publishing story rags at a HALF penny, but with well written, highly moral tales. He began The Union Jack. The Union Jack story is quite famous as within a few years the Hamrsworth publication had resorted to the exact same level as the penny dreadfuls he was trying to run out. The creator of Winnie The Pooh, A.A. Milne was quoted as saying “Harmsworth killed the penny dreadful by the simple process of producing the ha’penny dreadfuller.”

Leading up the WWI another change that signaled the end of the penny dreadful was the invention of the comic. Basically, the cheap rags that were the penny dreadful started becoming devoted to reprinting comic strips and eventually serialized comics, which attracted the young and the barely literate formally wooed by the dreadful. Adventure tales moved to pulp magazines and with the paper drives of WWI the era penny dreadful was well and truly finished. Afterwards it was comics and pulps.

By the late 20th century of course the comic book had become dominant and people such as myself grew up reading the fantastic, serialized adventures of mighty heroes battling nefarious villains in fantastic and often cosmic settings. Comic books combined what had been the comic and the pulp.

As for the literate once catered to by the pulp, in recent years there has been a sudden explosion in the market for childrens and young adult books. Spurred on by Harry Potter the young adult book market occupies a place the penny dreadful and the pulp novel once did. Supernatural elements, gothic romances, adventure stories, fantastical heroes, it’s all there. Hell, VAMPIRES! Remember the runaway success of the Varney the Vampire penny dreadful? Well….vampires, still around. Still selling. Still dominating the same market.  And even better, the writing of young adult fiction, while not always pulitzer prize winning, is consistently better then many of the predecessors AND is quite friendly to the female market, offering girls also fantastic and imaginative adventures.


Posted by on February 13, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Penny Dreadfuls. Before the comic book, before the pulp…

The comic book probably remains the dominant medium for fanciful, fantastic literature pumped out industriously for youth consumption. Actually if you ask me, the comic book has been replaced by the video game, but if we stick to just literature it’s the comic book. Before the comic book were the pulps, which ruled the mental landscape of the young for decades and gave us characters such as Tarzan, Conan, The Shadow, Doc Savage, Sexton Blake (we’ll get to him later this week), The Spider, etc.

But the pulps did not invent the wheel nor start the fire. (It was always burning since the wor… ow! Okay, stop throwing things at me) Before the pulps, there were the penny dreadfuls.

Penny dreadfuls began the entire concept of the continuing adventures of some action hero,  as well as featuring numerous other types of stories from gothic horror to robber barons, famous criminals and pirates to tales of young street urchins battling out gang wars in the alleys of London.

In the 1830s a peculiar situation arose in Britain due in no small part to decades of tireless effort from liberalists. It was a situation which had never before been seen in Europe, or indeed much in the entire world. A significant portion of the non elite, now in the industrial revolution known as ‘the working class’, were literate. Non wealthy people could read.

Britain being the bastion of capitalism, it was only a matter of time before markets arose to cater to this phenomenon, and in the 1830s they did.

Gothic novels were all the rage and in the mid 1830s Dickens achieved great fame serializing his novels. However, for the worker and his family, these things were bloody well expensive. The swarm of gothic novels popular at the time featured melancholy star fated lovers, family curses, huge, moody castles and dungeons, some supernatural element, some air of menace and mystery, and of course women poised to faint at any given moment. Gothic novels were hardly the shining stars of literature (until Poe came along). Indeed, they were lit-candy for the upper and burgeoning middle classes.

In the 1830s a few enterprising individuals, in particular Edward Lloyd, had the idea of taking these popular Gothic stories and some knock offs of this new Dickens chap who was all the rage, and printing them on very cheap paper, in short formats of 8 pages. Each one sold for a penny. For a penny you could buy some dreadful tales of criminality, gothic tales, horror or eventually adventure stories.

For a long time the tales of various criminals and horror sold the best. They were not aimed at youth in particular, and the working man, after a long, brutal day at the factory could sit home in the evening and enjoy the same kind of literary escapism as the classes above him. Obviously it’s no big mystery why tales of daring men working outside the law to make fortunes at the expense of rich dandies sold so well.

William Strange began the entire enterprise in 1832 with The Penny Story-Teller. However it was Edward Lloyd in 1836 who really blew it up. The son of a farmer, he began by producing monthly story collections, tales of pirates and highwaymen as well as The Calendar of Horrors, all at 6 pence for 24-32 pages. He soon moved to the 8 pages for a penny weekly format and became insanely successful.

For one thing, the first thing he did upon moving to the new format was to shamelessly rip off Dickens. Dickens had his wildly successful weekly installment of The Pickwick Papers? Well, Lloyd churned out The Penny Pickwick,a cheap imitation that did its job. Remember, this was in the age before copyright, and indeed it was through such things as this that copyright law came to be in the first place.

Eventually Lloyd realized he had stumbled onto something that produced endless sales that went far beyond Dickens knock offs. He realized it was the very notion of a continuing adventure. He started experimenting with characters who would feature in their own never ending series of episodic tales, and this was indeed the magic idea.

Characters such as Dick Turpin, a robber and smuggler executed a century before became an enormous success and by the mid 1800s, there were numerous, different publications featuring his adventures, one even dedicated to the adventures of his horse. Robin Hood also became a popular penny dreadful figure and it because of the dreadfuls that he remains known today. (The dreadfuls led to pulp and children’s novelizations which led to the Erryl Flynn movie which led to….)

Horror was a huge part of the penny dreadfuls and one of the most popular characters introduced in that genre was the infamous Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. For all of you familiar with the Sondheim musical, yes, this is where he comes from.

Also worth mentioning is Varney The Vampire. Many fun staples which continue to thrill readers today can be traced back to the dreadfuls. Varney predates Dracula and it is from Varney (ridiculous name, i know) that we get the majority of the all the present day vampire tropes we know and love.

Edward Lloyd used all his earnings to start a newspaper empire and in his later years became utterly ashamed of his penny dreadful enterprise and would employ young men to go around town, find his old dreadfuls, buy them and destroy them. One however did the opposite. He went around town, bought them all with Lloyd’s money and saved them. He eventually sold them for a fortune and thus they remain preserved today.

By the 1860s however the audience had shifted and it was boys and teenagers who were purchasing dreadfuls. We shall look at how the dreadful evolved because of this and follow them to the pulps tomorrow.

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Posted by on February 12, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Cossacks: The Hell’s Angels of Imperialist Russia

“The Zaporozhe Cossacks Write a Mocking Letter to the Turkish Sultan” (Ilya Repin, 1880)

In Imperialist Russia, the Cossacks roamed the plains and mountains of the vast empire, nomadic badasses whose legends survive even today.

What is interesting, is that unlike their gypsy Roma counterparts, they were not a specific race or bloodline. They were basically the Hell’s Angels of Imperialist Russia.

Cossacks in early 16th century

The first Cossack societies were formed in the 14 and 15th centuries by runaway serfs and organized robber troupes. If you were a disgruntled serf, could manage to run away and survive int he wild long enough to find them, you could be one.

They created a society based on freedom and violence, forming nomadic enclaves throughout southern Russia that preyed on Turkey and Iran. They would pick up women in their raids who would become… “wives” and thus a tribe was born.

They were a pain to the Tsars, but every attempt to subjugate them failed, and finally compromises were worked out. The Cossacks roamed the borderlands which made them excellent defenders of Russia’s far borders.

While the Cossacks always remained wary of the Royalty and authority in general, mostere never the less devout Orthodox Christians and extremely devoted and loyal to the Church. There were a clan or two of fierce Jewish Cossacks, and it must re remembered numerous clans of Cossacks wandered different areas of the enormous Empire.

The Cossacks were instrumental in keeping the Turkish Empire off Russia’s back. Over time many Cossacks grew to prominence within the Russian army proper, although they never truly integrated culturally with mainstream Russia.

The time of the Cossacks ended with the 1917 revolution. The new Communists made the Cossacks a top priority and over the next several years hunted them down like Palpatine hunted the Jedi. No, seriously. The entire Red Army would be sent out to hunt down and exterminate various enclaves. Clans of Cossacks were systematically isolated then purged.

There were a series of Cossack uprisings, but the Bolsheviks couldn’t be stopped. They isolated different Cossack tribes and gradually took them out. Then of course you had the famine of 1932/33 which not only wiped out scores more, but the government especially focused on taking crops from Cossack areas to feed other starving towns and cities.

By the time WWII came around, the few remaining Cossacks sided with Germany. They lost, so there’s some more dead, but those left surrendered to the Allies, hoping for some mercy. Alas, there was the yalta agreement, where the Western Allies had agreed to hand over to the USSR any Soviet collaborators who fell into their hands. So the Cossacks got handed over the Stalin. Stalin, Mr. I Bathe In The Blood Of My Own Slaughtered People. AS we can all imagine, it did not go well and the Cossacks vanished from history.

A few survive in Poland and Ukraine. It is popular today for Russian ultra nationalists to liken themselves to or insist they are Cossacks, but the truth is, the Cossack are gone and only imitators remain.


Posted by on February 10, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Faberge Eggs From The Lost Russian Dynasty

Faberge Winter Egg, 1913

Meanwhile, in Victorian era Russia, an entire other universe of interesting things were happening. The Tsars were at their most opulent and various seeds of unrest were stirring, led by self proclaimed anarchists long before the communists, which would one day coalesce into the Revolution.

But we are will not concern ourselves with such heady matters. Today we are interested in the most batshit, over the top easter eggs ever conceived.

Seriously. These are Easter eggs. Because nothing celebrates the death and resurrection of the man who made famous the phrase “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven” better then taking a bloody EGG, A (expletive) EGG, and putting enough bling on it to feed the entirety of Siberia for 3 years.

The first Faberge egg was made in 1885 by the goldsmith Peter Faberge, by request of Tsar Alexander III. His wife, the Empress Maria Fedorovna had had a fancy easter egg as a little girl which she had adored but had long since lost.

The first Faberge egg: The Hen

Peter Faberge created the Hen Egg which the Tsar then presented to his wife. Maria was nothing short of delighted by it. Alexander gave Faberge a pat on the back and told him to make more, do whatever he wanted, and go nuts with it.

Peter The Great Egg, 1903

So he did. The designs became more and more elaborate and the entire royal court would wait with baited breath to see what faberge would pull off each easter. No one, not even eh Tsar was allowed to know ahead of time what the year’s egg would look like, although the one thing that could be counted on was that each egg must contain some type of surprise inside the egg itself.

Gatchina Palace Egg, 1901

50 egss were made specifically for the royal family, although the Faberge house became the darling of the royal court and eventually all of Europe.

Faberge Coronation Egg 1897

The true Faberge eggs are those made between the first one in 1885 and the last one, unfinished in 1917 when the Russian revolution hit. The Romanovs were all killed of course and when in 1918 the Bolsheviks nationalised Peter Faberge’s company, he and his family left Russia on the last diplomatic train out of the country. The overthrow of Russia by the Communists broke Faberge’s heart and he never recovered emotionally and he died in 1920 in Switzerland.

The Caucasus Egg, 1893

In 1927, Stalin, desperate for cash, sold most of the eggs. Of the 50 original eggs only 42 are currently accounted for and of the 8 lost eggs, photos exist of only 2.

Basket Of Wild Flowers Egg, 1901

Faberge’s descendants have kept the family name and jewellry business alive and well, continuing to make fine jewelry.

Moscow Kremlin Egg, 1906

Napoleanic Egg, 1912

Rose Trellis Egg, 1907

Romanov Tercentenary Egg, 1913

Rose Cross With Triptych, 1915

Trans Siberian Egg, 1900

Azov Egg, 1891

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Posted by on February 9, 2012 in Uncategorized


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