Friday, October 21, 2011


I think of him as one of those self-made right-wing technocrats, who used his fortune to finance an ultra-conservative agenda - a Ross Perot or the Koch family. In this case the technology was the telegraph, and the agenda was the 19th century version of Islamaphobia. Samuel Finley Breese Morse (above) learned to fear the 'Bavarian Illuminati' from his minister father's Sunday sermons. As an adult Samuel proselytized that the Roman Catholic Church was flooding America with Irish and German Catholic immigrants to establish a new Vatican City in the Mississippi valley. Wrote Morse, “Surely American Protestants...(will) discover...the cloven foot of this subtle foreign heresy. They will see that Popery is...a political as well as a religious system; that...differs totally...from all other forms of religion in the country.” In 1836 Morse ran for Mayor of New York City. He lost big. But the poison he was peddling (and funding) would take root.
It sprouted into full flower in the congressional elections of 1854, catching on “like measles”, according to one Democrat. The organization was officially known as “The American Party”, but commonly refereed to as the Know Nothings, because its members were coached to respond to all questions by admitting only, “I don't know”, and because, frankly, in the eyes of their critics, they just seemed to be not very bright. Membership was limited to white males of proven English heritage, and usually evangelical Protestants,. And although most of the new candidates had never been active in politics or held public office before,  they won 61 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. They elected a governor and all the other posts open that year in Massachusetts and Maine. They controlled the state legislatures in Pennsylvania and most of New England. They gained advantage in Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and Tennessee by taking no position on slavery. This hurt them in the south, as did violence and murders in Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, St. Louis, Boston, New York, Columbus, Cincinnati and New Orleans. Still, the Know Nothings looked certain to capture the White House in 1856. And then came Bloody Monday in Louisville, Kentucky.
They held three elections in Louisville in 1855. On April 7th, voters threw out the incumbent mayor, who had converted to Catholicism, and elected a Know Nothing replacement and a majority on the city council. They followed this a month later by electing a Know Nothing majority of county court judges. Then the school board fired every Catholic teacher, save one. The Know Nothings were feeling both confident and paranoid - it was the nature of the party and the movement. Now another Know Nothing, Charles Morehead, was favored to win the governorship on yet another election, Monday August 6th. On the night before, 1,500 Know Nothings staged a torch light march through Catholic neighborhoods, warning them “to keep their elbows in” come morning.
Maybe no one other than Reuben Thomas Durrett (above) could have made the nation face the truth about the Know Nothings. Others wrote about it, but they lacked his resume. R.T., as he preferred to be known, was a defense attorney, and familiar with arguing unpopular causes. He was “intellectually and physically...a magnificent man.” More than that he was a poet, and a lover of truth and history. He had a 50,000 volume personal library. And 300 years earlier, his French Protestant ancestors had barely escaped the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre in France. So when the political spin machine tried to smother every honest voice in Louisville, it was R.T. who validated the reality. “To my mind,” he wrote, “the whole secret of the success of this disgraceful affair was...that the Know Nothing sympathizers were prepared and armed for the conflict...”
According to R.T., the thugs, hired as “special police”, formed a gauntlet in front of the polls. If a would-be voter were an immigrant from Germany or Ireland he was presumed to be Catholic, and was “... ordered by one of the bullies to leave...” And if he refused, “...he was attacked by the whole mob, severely beaten and driven away. If the man showed fight, his life was in great danger. “ Recently ousted Mayor James Speed watched the beatings on the courthouse front lawn from eight in the morning until six. “It was not fighting man to man, but as many as could fall upon a single Irishman or German and beat him with sticks or short clubs...” The clubs were specially made with lead weights in their tips, and mass produced. In the afternoon Speed was told 200 shotgun wielding “Germans” had captured a polling place. Speed knew this to be a fantasy and said so. But the informant, a judge, “replied with warmth showing that he believed it to be true.” About four in the afternoon, things went from bad to worse.
Two Catholic activists, Theodore Rhodes and David Doughtery were warning everyone in their east side neighborhood off Main Street. They stopped at Micheal O'Connor's grocery store, at the corner of 10th street and warned him to close. As they came out of the store a man ran up to them. Basil Rhodes, Theodore's father, who lived a block away, saw the man shoot his son dead. The gun shot drew Know Nothings from all directions, and it quickly became common knowledge that the reverse was true, that a Catholic had killed a Know Nothing. What followed was wholesale murder.
The worst of it was Quinn's Row, a block of 12 three story row houses along Main between 11th and 12th streets. Around eight that evening a Know Nothing mob set fire to a ground floor corner grocery run by a family named Long. Recorded a Catholic newspaper, “Seeking to escape...the wretched inhabitants reached the street only to meet death in another form. As soon as one appeared at a door he was fired at...” Mr. Long and two of his sons died that night, as did several of the residents of the upper floor apartments. “A number were taken off badly wounded, and others...returned to the burning houses, preferring rather to be burned than to meet the infuriated mob. One man escaped in woman’s clothes, was detected and shot. Another, who came out covered with a blanket, and, leaning on the arm of his wife, was torn away, and deliberately shot.”
While the first building was still raging, the feed store next door and its apartments went up, followed by a vacant house, then a tobacconist. Noted the newspaper, “How many of these miserable people thus caged in their own houses were burned alive there can be no computation.... Two men were hanged from their banisters of their own homes and also consumed in the flames.” In the last structure on the street, a rooming house, Patrick Quinn, who owned the entire block, was driven outside like the others. Recognized because of his investments around the city (and his brother who was a priest) , he was singled out, beaten to death, and his corpse was thrown back into the fire.
The official version said that 22 people had been killed in the entire city on Bloody Monday It is much more likely that the number was at least 100. The death toll would have been higher but in the German district one of the first buildings looted was Armbruster's brewery. The rioters got so drunk they could only satisfy themselves with torching the building before passing out. The new Know Nothing Mayor, John Barbee, managed to save two Catholic Churches from the rioters, but no one was ever prosecuted for the murders, the beatings or the arson. In response the despised immigrants voted with their feet. Ten thousand left Louisville over the next few months, almost 25% of the cities' population. In the city left behind businesses failed, unemployment soared and city coffers dried up. Charles Morehead was easily elected governor. but it was the classic tale of “be careful what you wish for”.
Most of the Irish moved to Chicago. Typical was ex-Mayor Speed, who became active in Republican Party politics and served in the Lincoln administration. The Germans mostly moved to St. Louis and Milwaukee, and some to Kansas City, Kansas – ensuring that state would remain in the Union come the Civil War. It was that war which put the entire Know Nothing movement into perspective.
The Civil War made the Know Nothing agenda obsolete. Immigration was the great enemy in the eyes of Samuel Morse. But the actual cause of the war was the industrial revolution, and the refusal of one half of the nation to recognize mechanization was making human slavery obsolete. The mathematician Alfred Whitehead observed, “The major advances in civilization....all but wreck the societies in which they occur.” And in his book “War and Peace in the Global Village” Marshall McLuhan explains why that is so. “When one has been hurt by a new technology, when the private person or corporate body finds its entire identity endangered...it lashes back in a fury of self-defense...But... the symptom against which we lash out may be caused by something about which we know nothing.” McLuhan calls that symptom “Phantom Pain”, and compares it to the agony amputees report they feel in missing limbs.
Although America has institutionalized such cultural revolutions, and has succeeded by taking advantage of them in the past, that does not make our politics, and did not make the politics of our ancestors, any easier to live with. Politics are never a solution. Politics are only another symptom.
- 30 - 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


I doubt Galileo ever considered the full human implications of his experiments with falling objects. The formula he came up with reduces the problem to startling simplicity. Six and one half seconds after she threw herself off the 86th floor Observatory of the Empire State Building, Evelyn McHale landed on the roof of a limousine parked on West 33rd Street, 1,050 feet below. The science of that event was very simple. The humanity - not so simple.
You would not know it to read the headlines but every year twice as many Americans kill them selves as kill each other. Suicide is the dirty little secret about being human. There is another suicide in the United States every 17 minutes. It is only the 11th leading cause of death overall ( 7th leading cause of death in males, 16th in females), but suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death between the ages of 15 and 24 year olds, and the second leading cause of death in college students. And the working theory seems to be that if we just don't talk about it, it will go away. Honestly, that simply does not seem to be working.
In 1947 Evelyn McHale was a 20 year old bookkeeper at the Kitab engraving company, in the Long Island community of Baldwin. Over the weekend of April 19th she traveled by rail the 67 miles to the little town of Easton, Pennsylvania. It was known as the “City of Churches”, with the highest ratio of houses of Christian worship to overall population in America.
But it had also been known during prohibition as “The Little Apple” where police protected the speakeasies, which were, every weekend, filled with New York City tourists. On the hill overlooking Easton was the (then) all male Lafayette College, a military school of higher learning. And one of the 2,000 students attending Lafayette College in 1947 was Evelyn McHale’s fiancee.
In 1929 the twin luxury hotels, the Waldorf and the Astoria, occupied a block on Fifth Avenue, between 33rd and 34th streets. For over fifty years these jointly managed edifices were the social abode of the vaunted Four Hundred, the supposed cream of New York society. (The number represented how many could comfortably fit in Mrs. Astor’s ballroom.) Between the four star restaurants in each hotel ran a winding corridor, lined with marble Corinthian columns, dubbed “Peacock Alley”, for all the elegantly dressed women who strolled there to be seen. That year the management company sold the properties for $13.5 million to the Empire State Corporation. And the instant the sale was finalized the president of Empire State, John Jacob Raskob, led the contractors through the front doors. He was intent upon capturing for his Connecticut estate the peacock alley columns he had often admired. To his disappointment, those symbols of Gilded Age luxury and extravagance proved to have been plaster impostors.
Construction began on the Empire State Building on March 17, 1930. The frame rose at the astounding rate of 4 ½ floors a week. Midway into the construction, one of the steelworkers was given his notice while on the job. He threw himself down an open elevator shaft, becoming the first person to commit suicide on the premises.
John Jacob Raskob may have thought about joining him, because 410 days later, a month and a half ahead of schedule, the building opened. The final cost was $5 million under budget, mostly because the depression had so devalued the dollar. And on opening day, May Day 1931, the Empire State Building was well over half empty. It remained so for years. A decade later the press was still referring to The Empire State Building as a financial disaster.
Her visit to Pennsylvania had proven to be a disaster. Evelyn McHale’s fiance had broken off their engagement. In some ways it was to be expected. So many lives had been placed on hold during the Second World War, and so many lives had changed and were still changing once the war had ended. The divorce rate, which pre-war had been two out of every one thousand marriages, had doubled in 1946. But those were statistics, and when Evelyn returned to her own bookkeeping on Monday morning, she returned with a broken heart. And in the weeks that followed she obsessed on her disappointment.
People do not commit suicide (from the Latin “sui caedere”; to kill yourself) because they are depressed. But add depression to alcohol or other drugs, and the risk of suicide increases by 90%. If there is a family history of suicide, a history of physical or sexual abuse, or if friends have recently committed suicide, the risk grows even greater. And finally, if the person at risk is a Christian the risk is greater still. Protestants and Catholics kill themselves much more often than do Jews, or Buddhists.
In the first fifteen years after its opening 16 people threw themselves to their deaths from the Empire State Building. But 1947 was a very bad year. In January a suicide injured an innocent pedestrian on the street below, and a lawsuit was threatened. The Empire State Corporation, which still owned the building, began to slowly consider alternatives. Still, at about 10:30 on the morning of Thursday May 1st, 1947, when Evelyn McHale stepped from the elevator on the 86th floor observatory, there was nothing between her and eternity, except the impulse to take the step.
First she took off her grey cloth coat and draped it over the low wall near the south west corner of the observation deck. Then she laid her purse on the floor. Then she deliberately let her scarf float from her fingers into the void. She watched it swirl and float in the wind eddies. And when she saw it begin to slip downward, she clambered atop the lip of the chest high wall and threw herself into space.
Six seconds is long enough to think, and if Evelyn McHale was not radically different than those who attempted suicide from the Golden Gate Bridge and lived, then we know what she was thinking as she plummeted weightless toward the pavement. Universally these failed California suicides report that their first thought after jumping was, “This is the worst mistake of my life.” After that first second, however, the sensory overload would likely have not left her with the ability to even think of a prayer.
In the first second of the end of her life Evelyn McHale dropped 32 feet, or about three stories. Over the next second she fell an additional 64 feet. Over the third second she traveled another 128 feet. Over the fourth second she fell 238 feet. By the fifth second she was traveling over 60 miles an hour, and the sensation of falling would have caused her body to release massive amounts of adrenalin. But she would never feel its effects. She would have felt an eerily calm, which I suspect surprised her. She might have realized she was falling away from the building, driven by the wind and by her effort to avoid the abutments and ledges. And she would have felt the regret for her decision, but it was now too late. At the speed of about 100 miles an hour, her body slammed into the sheet steel roof of a Cadillac limousine parked 200 feet up 34th Street.
Something caught traffic cop John Morrissey’s eye. He was working at the corner of 34th Street and Fifth Avenue. When he looked up he saw a white cloth, dancing lightly about the upper floors of the Empire State Building. It was just 10:40 A.M. and suddenly there was a loud crash, and the wrenching sound of bending metal. Officer Morrissey ran west on 34th Street. He found a crowd gathered around the big black limo, with United Nations’ license plates, parked on the north side of the street. All of the windows were shattered, and the roof had been caved in. There, embraced by the folded steel, was the body of a young woman.
Her white gloved left hand seemed to be playing with the pearls strung around her neck, almost as if counting a rosary. Her white gloved right hand was cautiously raised as if seeking permission to interrupt. She was barefooted. One stocking was bunched about her crossed ankles, as if she had been caught in the act of undressing. There was no visible blood, no dismemberment. She was a sleeping beauty. But images can be deceiving, as the workers from the medical examiners office could have testified.
When they picked her up, her once firm body must have behaved more like Jell-O. Every bone would have been fractured and splintered, and her internal organs turned to mush by the violence of her death. Those who contemplate suicide should consider the impact of their actions on the innocent who must clean up after them. Suicide is the rudest way to exit this world.
A few minutes after her death, Robert Wiles, a young photography student, approached the scene. He had been eating breakfast across the street, at the same lunch counter as the limo’s driver. Now he approached the scene and snapped a single photo. He immortalized Evelyn McHale. He sold the photo to Life Magazine, which published it a week later, on page 43. The caption read; “At the bottom of the Empire State Building the body of Evelyn McHale reposes calmly in the grotesque bier her body punched into the top of a car.” Robert Wiles never took another professional photograph. Each suicide, it is figured, shatters the lives of six other people. I suspect, his was one.
The New York Times headlined the story, “Empire State Leap Ends Life of Girl, 20”. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said, “Doubting Woman Dives to Death”, and the Chicago Tribune claimed, “Afraid to Wed, Girl Plunges to Death from Empire State.” The photograph, now labeled as "The Most Beautiful Suicide”, may have been at least partly responsible for the July 14th, 1947 leap of a 22 year old man from the same observation deck. Guards were now stationed to stop any copycats.  And during October and November, they managed to stop avert five more deaths.
Finally the management was forced to admit this was not a temporary trend, and in December the now iconic inwardly curving fencing was installed to discourage those possessed by the impulse to end their lives.
If you think someone might be suicidal, then they are. Do not leave them alone. Immediately remove their access to firearms and all drugs, and call 911. Death can be a release, but it is never beautiful. Never.
 - 30 -

Sunday, October 16, 2011

LIVE BAIT Part Three

I suppose that the first great scientific insight into Lumbricus terrestris was written by Charles Darwain; “The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through The Action of Worms, With Observations On Their Habits’, which was published in October of 1881. According to the old man (he would die just 6 months later at the age of 73 and this was his last published work), there were 26,886 earthworms per acre in England, and every year those little wigglies passed ten tons of soil through their guts, turning, aerating and fertilizing a new inch of topsoil every five years. “The plough is one of the most ancient and valuable of man’s inventions; but long before he existed the land was regularly ploughed, and still continues to be thus ploughed by earthworms. It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as these lowly organized creatures.”
Darwin was so clearly charmed by Lumbricus terrestris that he decided to return the favor. “Worms do not possess any sense of hearing”, he noted. “They took no notice of the shrill notes from a metal whistle, which was repeatedly sounded near them; nor did they of the deepest and loudest tones of a bassoon. They were indifferent to shouts, if care was taken that the breath did not strike them.
"When placed on a table close to the keys of a piano, which was played as loudly as possible, they remained perfectly quiet….When pots containing two worms which had remained quite indifferent to the sound of the piano were placed on this instrument, and the note C in the bass clef was struck, both instantly retreated into their burrows…and when G above the line in the treble clef was struck they again retreated.”. How could you not admire and trust a man who was so utterly and gently fascinated with such a beguiling creature that he was drawn to play the piano for them?
Continued Darwin, “The whole body of the worm is sensitive to contact….Judging by their eagerness for certain kinds of food, they must enjoy the pleasure of eating. Their sexual passion is strong enough to overcome for a time their dread of light. They perhaps have a trace of social feeling, for they are not disturbed by crawling over each other’s bodies, and they sometimes lie in contact…” This man loved his worms. Of course Darwin also cut them open to see what made them tick, but that was the scientist within him. And it is important to note that before Darwin wrote his book, Lumbricus terrestris was considered a garden pest, and killed on sight. His insights have thus saved millions of worms over the last 150 years; for one thing, few people eat worm pie anymore.
Because of their simple soft body plan the only record we have of the evolution of worms are their lithic trails and fossilized castings – otherwise known as ‘worm poop. We do know that the wigglies' developed at least 550 million years ago, making them pre-pre-Cambrian. That also makes them the ancestors to us and the red-billed oxpecker pecking at ticks on a hippo’s back, the hippo, the tick and everything in between.
By the Cambrian explosion (350 million years ago -more of a fast fuse really) worms had evolved into four groups; flatworms, ribbonworms, roundworms and Annelida, or segmented worms. It is the Annelida that includes Lubricous terrestris, the so-called “common European earthworm”, which is hunted with such furor and fancy on the field of the Wallaston School.
Lubricous terrestris is the creature so nice they named it twice. Lubricous is Latin for ‘earthworm’ and terrestris means ‘of the earth’. In North America they are called ‘Night crawlers’, because that is when what they do is visible, or ‘Dew Worms’ because that is often present when and where they are visible. But they are also called Vitials and ‘fish bait’ because that is the only value they have to most humans. And initially I must admit to a certain lack of enthusiasm myself for this creature with 5 hearts, one head but no brain. However, on closer inspection, the behavior of these slimy little wigglers speaks of a creature with hidden attributes.
For example, contrary to “common knowledge”, Lubricous terrestris does not come to the surface when it rains. They come to the surface every summer night, rain or shine. They wiggle out of their shallow borrows to eat, to defecate, and to mate. And when an eagle-eyed American Robin (which is actually a wren) or a droll English black bird stomps about a lawn or garden, weaving their head back and forth, bent upon vermiphagia (worm eating), they are not charming their prey out of the ground. They are maneuvering for a better vantage point, the better to spy discretely down the narrow worm hole to spot the tasty resident slumbering the hot day away near the surface. You might even say the birds go fishing for worms.
The flashing stab of the beak is often followed by a tug of war to determine if the avian gets a meal or if Vitials earns a reprieve. When threatened, Lubricous terrestris extends minute hairs, called setae, and grabs hold of his burrow walls as if his life depended on it, which it does. The bird tugs. The worm resists. Usually the bird wins. Sometimes, if the worm is slimy enough and quick enough, the worm slides back into mother earth as if in a miniature dramatization of the novel “Dune”.
In the occasional case of a tie, occasionally everybody wins. When the worm snaps into two pieces the bird gets a protein rich meal and, if the worm keeps it's head (end) it grows a new tail, eventually. But if the remorseless carnivore gobbles down the head end or stuffs it into the upturned beaks of her offspring, the wiggling remainder left behind is pretty much worm meat..
In the heavy rain Lubricous terrestris does come to the surface during daylight; but why? The logical answer is, of course, to avoid drowning. Lacking even a single lung, Lubricous terrestrisis has no place to hold their breath. This would appear to be a serious design flaw and if Lubricous terrestris did not have such an impressive survival record I would have thought they were surely on the verge extinction; proof yet again, that evolution has no respect for human logic. But more to the logical point, as any freshwater fisherman can tell you, a Night crawler can live for a surprising long time suspended under water, perhaps indefinitely. We may never know how long they can survive submerged because what usually kills them is the enormous fishing hook jammed through their bodies; that, or hopefully, being eaten by a fish.
All of which begs the question: how do you “charm” such a creature? If rising to the surface in daylight is so often suicidal, why do they do it on the Wallaston School's worm pitch? The recommended technique for worm charming offers a clue. IFCWCAP Rule number seven states that, “A garden fork (in American-ese, a pitch fork) may be stuck into the ground and vibrated by any manual means to encourage worms to the surface”. The process clearly works, as proven by the legendary Tom Shufflebotham, of Chesire, England, who at the first championship in 1980, charmed 511 worms in the 30 minutes allotted time. But why did Tom’s method work so well? Not being able to ask Lubricous terrestris we can only surmise. So we shall.
As stated earlier, Lubricous terrestris has no brain, no lungs and no ears. But they are not without a perception of reality. They have rudimentary “light sensitive cells” that let them distinguish between light and dark. They are also able to use those powerful and  sensitive ‘setae’ to detect the vibrations of burrowing, ravenous grubs or even something as massive, horrifying and relentlessly hungry as a shrew or a mole. So obviously, Lubricous terrestris only leaves it's burrow in daylight when it becomes more dangerous to stay underground. So worm charming, to the worm, must resemble those wild fires set by Native Americans, which drove the terrified, stampeding buffalo over a cliff; except, of course, the worms are “put back” after they stampede to the surface of the Wallaston Primary School . Alas, the buffalo were not.
It was that venerable optimist Ann Sexton who wrote merrily on “The Flurry of Flowers and Worms”; “Bit of the field on my table, close to the worms, who struggle blinding, moving deep in their slime, moving deep into God’s abdomen, moving like oil through water, sliding through the good brown.” But this charming poetic view of our wiggly little friends’ was countered in 1923 by the far more prosaic poet William Stevens, when he gave them voice in his couplet on the Princess Badroulbadour, who had married  Aladdin in "A Thousand and One Nights”. Said Mr. Steven’s worms, “Out of the tomb, we bring Badrouldour, within our bellies, we her chariot”. The passage reveals the function of most “charming stories”, to camouflage an unpleasant reality. Worms are not likely to be “charmed” in the conventional sense by a process that mimic’s their worst terrors. You might as well describe a lion stalking a child on the African Savanna as “human charming”. But that may be taking worm charming far too seriously, which has been known to happen.
On average Lumbricus terrestrsis lives four to eight years in the wild, assuming there is no intervention from a ravenous Robin. For Earthworms seem to have a double lock on evolutionary success; they are detritvorous, and hermaphroditic. Once they reach sexual maternity, at about one year of age, Lumbricus terrestrsis wiggles from one brief sexual encounter after another, always on the surface, lining up side by side, head to tail with their “mate”. And they are indefferent as to the sex of their partner, which is okay since their partner's sex is bisexual, just like thiers.
Once their sexual organs are in joint contact, the happy pair cover themselves with a mucus wrapping and exchange eggs and sperm. They then separate, never to “see” each other again…probably, but then who the heck really knows – least of all, the worms? Eventually they produce a mucous sheath from their Clitellum (the bump about 1/3 of the way up from their tail). This slides forward over the ovum, where it captures an egg, and then over the packet of sperm, stored since the worm’s last brief encounter on a dewy summer night.

Then the Lumbricus terrestris works the entire sticky clump over its head-end and abandons it as a lemon shaped amber colored egg or cocoon in the soil. The average worm produces up to 80 cocoons in a year, which, depending on soil moisture and temperature, hatch in as little as 3 weeks, or not until next spring. And it is by this convoluted mechanism that Lumbricus terrestrsis, described by Aristotle as the “gut of the soil”, has conquered the earth, and us..
Our dependence upon worms is illustrated by Ms. Celia Warren who wrote the following lyrical amusement; “Noah let his sons go fishing, Only on the strictest terms: Sit still, keep quiet and concentrate, We’ve only got two worms”. On such a precarious foundation is the American $100 million live bait industry balanced, on the back of a creature without a spine which sells for a few pennies each even in the derivities devalued America. And that is only the beginning of our debt to this creature underfoot. 
In High Ridge, Missouri, the Jefferson County Public Library holds an annual Worm Race, won last year by a wiggler named River. And since 2000 the “Worm Gruntuin’” festival has been a tourist attraction in Sopchoppy, Florida, including a ball and the crowning of a “Worm Gruntin’ Queen”, who, presumably, along with her other duties, is charged with droppin’ her final “g’s”. “Grunters” drive a wooden stake into the ground and “whack” it rhythmically, to coax the worms to abandon their burrows, and is probably just as effective although not nearly as attractive a sport as “Charming”.
There is a variation on “Charming” practiced in the English community of Devon which encourages the use of the stimulants outlawed in Wallaston; water, tea, beer and ale. Claims an Wallaston organizer, “The worms just get drunk and drown.” But now the Devon wormers have proposed “The Olympic Worm Charming Championship” to be held in 2012 on Edlesborough Green in Devon. It would coincide with the British Olympics, and is sufficiently far off in time to allow for a negotiated truce between those for whom worm charming is pure sport (and to benefit a primary school) and those for whom charming is an excuse to imbibe alcohol.  
More to the point, in 13 years of competition the Devin Charmers, for all their liberalization of the rules, have never come close to Tom Shufflebotham’s magic number. And the Devon group has even been accused of supporting the International Worm Liberation Front, a member of which handcuffed the chief Wallaston Primary School organizer for a time. But I suspect these “rebels” are more interested in charming their fellow humans  then in charming the worms.
I suspect that before the arrival of the Worm Charming Championship in 1980 the most important event to have occurred in the neighborhood of the Wallaston Primary School was the Great Fire of Nantwich in 1583, or perhaps the Battle of Nantwich during the English Civil War. But compared to these minor disruptions, the annual fundraiser for the 1,377 young students beside the A509 is best described as earth shaking, certainly for the worms.
This past year the worms “turned out” on Saturday, June 25th. Gates opened at one, (admission was one pound), and you could claim a charming plot by paying five pounds. But the assignment of a specific plot was made by a random drawing. Charming began promptly at two, and the official count began at 2:30. The Trophy, :”…in the shape of a golden rampant worm”, was awarded at four. In 2011 the most worms charmed was 256, (Dave and Sam Ashman) and the heaviest (and a record setter) at 12 and 8/100ths grams was charmed by daughter Amy and father Nick Sproston. So now everyone can get started training for next year. I'll bet the worms will be ready. To enter you may contact Mike Forrester at chiefwormer@wormcharming.com. And I hope you do. 
- 30 -

Blog Archive