JULY 2020

JULY   2020
Everything Old Is New Again!


Friday, September 18, 2015


I doubt you could have missed the pair, seated in the Swan tavern on Fleet Street in London, that 28 March , 1716.  Last to arrive was the infamous publisher, pornographer and plagiarist Edmund Curll, a scarecrow of a man, very tall and thin, splayfooted, and with gray goggle eyes that threatened to burst from his pale face like a cartoon character. Waiting for him like a spider on his web was one the greatest poets in history, the oft quoted and revered deformed genius Alexander Pope, with a Roman nose and a spine so twisted he stood barely four feet six inches tall from his stylish shoes to the top of the hump on his back. Curll thought he had been invited to settle their disagreements. Pope was about to poison his guest's beer. Later Pope joyfully wrote a mocking obituary of his victim, “A Full and True Account of a Horrid and Barbarous Revenge by Poison on the Body of Mr. Edmund Curll, bookseller...To be published weekly”. Curll was not dead, but he did projectile vomit until he wished his was. It was like a scene from Animal House. Ah, good times among the 18th century London literati.
Publishing was in its youth, as young as the internet is today, and just as chaotic, dishonest, unregulated, and unencumbered with a functional business model. In 1688 there were only 68 printing presses in London, all controlled by members of the Stationer's Company. But in 1695 Parliament refused to renew the company's monopoly, setting off a decade of pure anarchy. Daniel Defoe of Robinson Crusoe fame, noted, “One man studies seven year(s), to bring a finished piece into the world, and a pirate printer....sells it for a quarter of the price ... these things call for an Act of Parliament". So in 1710 Parliament obliged with The Statue of Anne - she was queen at the time - which created a 14 year copyright for authors. Still, six years later one author felt required to strike at a pirate printer – by making him vomit for 24 straight hours, and then attacking him again in print.
“Next o'er his books his eyes begin to roll,
In pleasing memory of all he stole;
How here he sipp'd, how there he plunder'd snug,
And suck'd all o'er like an industrious bug.”
Alexander Pope (above)  The Dunciad (1728)
Pope's justification for the poisoning was revenge for embarrassing the smart and lovely Lady MaryMontagu. The morally pompous poet, so famous for his version of Shakespeare and translations of Homer that he was nicknamed “the Bard”, was smitten with the lady. They even maintained a correspondence. Pope privately published one of her poems. Copies were discretely passed about the English court, but Curll was, of course, soon selling copies on the streets. Cultured nobility were not supposed to engage in publication – it smacked of stooping to actually earning a living. So Pope saw himself as a knight protecting Lady Montagu's honor when he poisoned Curll and attacked him (among others) in his poem, “Dunciad”. Curll responded by pirating the poem, even publishing an annotated version, also called a “key”. Mocked Curll, “How easily two wits agree, one writes the poem, one writes the key”.
Edmund Curll was not quite the “shameless Curll” Pope portrayed – not quite. He was infamous for keeping a revolving stable of struggling quill drivers “three in a bed” in the “low-rent flophouses, brothels, and coffeehouses” jammed into Grub Street (above). Originally “grub” referred to the roots and insect larval uncovered when the street was originally scrapped out. Eventually it was adopted as a badge of honor by the poverty stricken occupants, like the eventual great biographer Samuel Johnson, or Ned Ward, who considered his profession as “scandalous...as whoring....”. These grubs were hack writers, named after the ubiquitous horse drawn Hackney cabs that plied London's streets, going where ever their paying passengers demanded. The occasional advance paid to a hungry writer was a “grub stake”, and the pitiful meals they could afford were “grub”. Jonathan Swift, eventual creator of “Gulliver's Travels”, grandiosely referred to this literary sub-culture as “the Republica Grubstreetaria”, but like Johnson, Swift was clever enough and lucky enough to eventually escape the life of a mere grub.
In fact, Curll employed no more Grub Street warriors than any other Fleet Street baron. But he was particularly adept at supplying what the public wanted - licentious sex, and manufactured controversy. Curll paid grubs to engage in a “pamphlet war” - much like the Fox News war on Christmas - over the 1712 trial of Jane Wehham for witchcraft. (She was convicted). Curll also printed cheap pirated books that sold for a mere shilling, thus undercutting the actual author's authorized editions. His growing empire made Edmund Curll one of the most successful barons on Fleet Street. Acknowledged one critic, “He had no scruples either in business or private life, but he published and sold many good books.”
With Pope's urging, Curll was convicted of obscenity in 1716, and twice more in 1725. In 1726, Curll struck back by befriending the mistress of a Pope confident. She passed him several letters in which the arrogantly moral Pope admitting to lusting after the Blount Sisters, Terresa and Martha. “How gladly would I give all that I am worth,” Pope wrote in one purloined missive, “for one of their maidenheads.” Embarrassed, Pope helped engineer yet another Curll conviction in February of 1727. This time an exasperated court fined Curll and ordered him pilloried for an hour. At the mercy of the mob, Curll was spared the usual assault of rotted food and manure when a pamphlet was read to the well armed crowd, claiming Curll was being punished for defending the departed Queen Anne. Thus misinformed, the mob carried him home on their shoulders. Pope was infuriated and determined to even the score.
One of Edmund Curll's most profitable ventures was what came to be called “Curlicisms”. When a well known figure died, Curll would advertise a forthcoming biography, and ask the public for any anecdotes about or letters from the deceased. Then, without validating the submissions Curll would hire a Grub street hack to string them together into an instant and usually inaccurate biography, creating what one potential subject described as “one of the new terrors of death.” Curll had done this when the Duke of Buckingham died in 1721. But Buckingham was a peer, a member of the House of Lords, and that body summoned Curll for interrogation. Curll was unrepentant, since it was not a crime to publish writings of a peer without their permission. So the Lords made it illegal, and in this Pope saw his opportunity.
In 1731 Curll announced a upcoming “Curlicism” of Alexander Pope; “Nothing shall be wanting,” Curll assured his potential readers, “but his (universally desired) death.” Again Curll called for submissions and a mysterious figured identified only as “P.T.” offered letters written by Pope to the Lord of Oxford. In 1734 Curll published the letters in a vicious biography of Pope. The next year Pope published his own “Literary Correspondence for Thirty Years”, including the same letters to Oxford. But the details in Pope's version did not match those published by Curll, as Pope pointed out when he alleged Curll had violated the privilege of a member of the House of Lords and worse, slandered the Lord while doing it. The trap was sprung.
The only problem was, Curll again refused to repent. Called again before the Lords, Curll quipped, "Pope has a knack of versifying, but in prose I think myself a match for him.” And in fact as well. The Duke of Oxford still had the original letters in his files. So, asked Curll, where had P.T.'s inaccurate versions come from? Curll produced P.T.'s letters so the Lords could judge for themselves who was implicated by the handwriting. For a few days, the city of London, or that section that cared about such things, held its breath. And then an ad appeared in a small newspaper offering 20 guineas if P.T. would come forward to admit he had “acted by the direction of any other person.” P.T., of course did not appear. And the ploy fooled no one – Pope had written the originals and the fakes and even the ad, and everybody knew it. The House found a political solution; since the published letters were fakes, the law had not been broken. Case closed, except Pope now had even more egg on his face.
Wrote Curll, “Crying came our bard into the world, but lying, it is to be feared, he will go out of it.”.
And so he did. Pope died on 30 May, 1744, and Edmund Curll followed him in December of 1747.
Thus, Curll earned the last word. He described his relationship with Pope this way, “A fitter couple was never hatched, Some married are, indeed, but we are matched”.
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Sunday, September 13, 2015


I said at the opening of this series that I don't believe anything Priscilla Grinder said about the night that Meriwether Lewis died, and here is why. In all three versions of her stories, she claims that about 3 A.M. (or “the middle of the night”) she heard a shot, heard a man call, “Oh, Lord”. Then she heard a second shot. Then, sometime later she heard a scratching at the door of the kitchen cabin, and Lewis pleading for water. She said she did not open the door because she did not feel safe. But she knew it was Lewis because she peeked through the open chinks in the wall and saw him wandering around outside between the cabins. And that story is a load of hooey.
On the night of Lewis' death, October 10th, 1809,  there was a new moon, according to the U.S. Naval Observatory, meaning there was no light to illuminate Lewis for Priscilla Grinder to see him. Was Lewis carrying a candle or a lamp? If so Priscilla did not mention it. And any light inside the cabin would have blinded her to anyone moving around outside. No, I don't believe Priscilla's version of events. And the only thing we know for certain is that somebody that night shot Governor Meriwether Lewis, allegedly twice, once in the head and once in the side, and the pool of suspects is pretty shallow. There may have been others at Grinder's Stand that night, but we know of only four individuals who were there - Priscilla Grinder, Meriwether Lewis, his servant John Pernier and the James Neeley's servant. (Priscilla had her two daughters with her in the cooking cabin, but because they were young we can treat the three of them as one person.)
Now, it is unlikely that Agent Neeley's servant had a weapon. He was a slave, and handing a weapon to a slave was the equivalent of freeing him - so that makes it unlikely he was the shooter. Secondly, John Pernier was described as a “free mulatto”, meaning he had “negro blood”. Given the racism of the age, and the elitism of Lewis' Virginia heritage, I think it unlikely Lewis would have allowed him to possess a weapon. As evidence of this, no one asked Pernier what had happened that night, or bothered to write down his version of events, although I suspect that James Neeley's letter to President Jefferson was based on what Pernier told him had happened. Pernier did share his story with Meriwether Lewis' mother, but her reaction was to accuse him of killing her son. She did not do that to his face, and she never offered any justification for her suspicions. Pernier cannot be completely ruled out as a possible shooter, but it is difficult to accept a grieving racist mother's opinion at face value.
We know that Governor Lewis himself had four weapons. He had a hunting knife and a long gun, a smooth bore flintlock musket. However the size of the long gun ( about 5' in length) makes it impossible that Lewis shot himself in the head with this gun, then reloaded and shot himself a second time.
But Lewis also had a “brace” of pistols, meaning two. The ones he was most likely carrying were called “horse pistols” because they were too large (9 inches long) and too heavy (three pounds each) to wear in your belt on foot. These fired the same .69 caliber lead ball as the long rifle, 1 ½ inches in diameter, weighing an ounce and a third each. Black powder weapons compensated for their relatively low muzzle velocities – about 600 feet per second - with large mass - .58 to .79 caliber. They varied in size because they were all hand made, but they could still deliver on impact  450 to 500 pounds per inch. The wounds these weapons made were horrific. If Governor Lewis shot himself, he used the horse pistols, which would account for the two shots Priscilla supposedly heard.
Finally, Priscilla Grinder must have had at least one weapon to defend herself and her daughters, else her husband would have never left her alone on The Trace. Her weapon was probably a blunderbuss, also called a “coach gun”, a muzzle loading shotgun with a short barrel and relatively lite in weight. They were a superb weapon for intimidation and required little marksmanship. They fired a hand full of lead balls, but could also be loaded with whatever scrap metal or whatever stones were within reach. Or Priscilla could have been proficient with a standard flintlock musket or her own pistol. Self defense is just part of the cost of running a small business in a rough neighborhood. And along The Trace, you could call a cop but it might be six months before anybody showed up
So of the four people who most likely were responsible for the death of Governor Meriwether Lewis, only two likely had the means and opportunity to have committed this crime, Priscilla Grinder or Lewis himself. There were other less likely possibilities, primarily Priscilla's husband, Robert. But if he had been at the Stand, why would not John Prenier or Neeley's servant have mentioned him, then or later?
The same can be said for highwaymen or Indians, who have also been accused of Lewis' murder. The most valuable things that Meriwether Lewis possessed were not his papers. That was what he valued. But what highwaymen or renegade Indians in 1809 would have valued were the five or six horses Lewis' party rode in on - worth about $25 each or about $150.00 total (over $2,000 today). Stealing the horses would have been quick and safe, with little risk of having a confrontation with a motivated citizen with a gun.
And if there had been “secret agents” sent to murder Governor Lewis, then why not attack him while he was camped out in the wilderness, as he was on several nights during this trip? Why wait until he was in Grinder's Stand, where the risk was greater that another traveler or the staff would stumble upon the scene? And remember, Grinder's Stand was suffering from a loss of business because of the toll road by-pass. How could these secret agents know he would even stop in Grinder's Stand? There would have to have been dozens of “agents” descending upon the Natchez Trace to assure the elimination of Governor Lewis. And in an age before photographs, would all of them have been carrying a portrait of the hero so they didn't murder the wrong man? And would all of them have refrained from drunken boasting later on?
There was a lot of money to be made by land speculation in St. Louis. But there is no evidence that Governor Lewis was not perfectly willing to do business with mercantile interests, as his investment in the St. Louis and Missouri Company showed. It is extremely unlikely there was ever an economic conspiracy to murder the Governor. And there seem to be only rumors to indicate a political motivation in Lewis' death.
It is interesting to note, however, that according to modern multi-cultural studies, although suicide can affect anyone, those at the greatest risk of committing suicide are single white males from an affluent background who are moderate alcoholics and/or drug abusers, with few friends, and who are also dealing with a health problem while suffering from a diagnosable mental-health disorder such as depression. Emile Durkheim, the Frenchman who established the field of Sociology, described this condition as “excessive individuation”. Applying this description, Meriwether Lewis was the poster child for suicide.
I wish we had John Prenier's version of events that night. I wish experts could exhume Governor Lewis' body, to determine exactly what his wounds were. But honestly, I do not think either of those missing pieces of evidence are likely to ever be supplied. So what we are left with the death of a man who was far from perfect even when judged by the standards of his own time, but who was still more than an American hero. Meriwether Lewis was an American Archetype, even in his mode of death - self murder.
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