Fake Histories #21  A number of men have been jailed for selling the Brooklyn Bridge?




We do like our bridges in Ireland. One of our very best and most popular Presidents, Mary McAleese, had bridges of the metaphorical kind, at the centre of her election campaign. A book of her selected speeches even contains the word in its title. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was all about building bridges between communities in Northern Ireland.

But once you get beyond metaphor and into the realm of engineering it’s a different matter. We have a few fine Calatrava’s, a bendy toll bridge that opens in the middle to allow ships up the Liffey, and an interesting span across the Boyne near the site of King Billy’s apparent triumph over someone called the anti-Christ [more about that encounter on our 12 July broadcast]. This just happens to have been named after … Mary McAleese. But, let’s be honest with ourselves, we don’t have nearly as many cool bridges as they have on the far side of the unbridgeable Atlantic Ocean.

In America it’s different. Everything is bigger. Even the rivers are wider. So, they need really impressive physical links between each bank,  with not a screed of metaphor in their superstructure. One of the earliest of what is described, in technical terms as ‘really big bridges’ is the Brooklyn Bridge, which opened today, one hundred and thirty-six years ago, in 1883. It is, in what is a genuine technical term, a hybrid cable-stayed suspension bridge, and it linked the New York boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn, whether the posher inhabitants of the former wanted it or not.

Now, as bridges go my personal preference would be for the Golden Gate over the Brooklyn equivalent, but that merely masks a strident prejudice in favour of San Francisco over New York, one that, I acknowledge, would not be shared by very many fellow countrymen, or weekend shoppers and trippers, acquainted with both cities.


No sooner was the bridge finished than one of its major purposes instantly became clear. It had, obviously, been built so that daredevils could show off, by jumping from it into the waters of the East river eighty-four metres below, and survive. For them, surface tension was just something you showed before you jumped, not the phenomenon that was going to kill you. The first to make this leap was a swimming instructor Robert Emmet Odlum, on 19 May 1885. Sadly, he was even less successful than his famous Irish namesake. He somehow managed to forget about the second bit, survival. He died from catastrophic internal injuries, including a ruptured spleen. He was followed a decade later by another Irish adventurer, James Duffy from County Cavan. Duffy recruited a small crowd to watch him jump. He may have been more successful than Odlum, we don’t know, because he was never seen again.

One of the enduring myths about this iconic hybrid cable-stayed suspension bridge is the notion of the out-of-town hick being conned into buying the Brooklyn Bridge from an able grifter. Legend has numerous gullibles falling for this scam. Some even attempted to erect toll booths on the Bridge after the cheque cleared.

Except it’s actually not a myth at all.

Doubtless, your hearts will swell with national pride when you discover that the two best exponents of this particular con were Irish Americans. First into the field was one William McCloundy, who also revelled in the alias I.O.U. O’Brien. He spent two and a half years in jail for selling the bridge to an unsuspecting tourist in 1901.

Even more successful was George C. Parker, son of two Irish immigrants, who was also known to use the name O’Brien as an alias. Parker also successfully sold Madison Square Garden, General Grant’s Tomb, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, wait for it, the Statue of Liberty. Though, I suppose if you can sell the Brooklyn Bridge you can flog just about anything.

Sadly for Parker, he spent the last eight years of his life in Sing Sing Prison, where using one of his more imaginative aliases, Warden Kennedy, would have been inadvisable. He died there in 1936. The familiar American phrase ‘and if you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you’ could have been devised just for George Parker.

So, when it comes to the myth that people went to jail for selling the Brooklyn Bridge, it turns out that it wasn’t a myth at all. It’s true, and verifiably NOT fake history.






Fake Histories #20  Did the concept of ‘separate but equal’ originate with the apartheid regime in South Africa?   



If I was to say ‘Plessy v Ferguson’ to you, you might respond with something like ‘was that a tractor race?’ Well no, actually. It’s got something to do with race all right, but not tractors. Let me just mention for the moment that the Plessy in question was a young man named Homer Plessy, an unassuming French-speaking shoemaker from Louisiana, rather than an electronics conglomerate. Ferguson was John Howard Ferguson, a New Orleans judge, and not a manufacturer of agricultural goods. Now let’s park them both for the moment.

Twenty-five years ago this week Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa. While the architects of apartheid didn’t just turn in their graves, they crawled out and demanded to be relocated. Today is also the anniversary of a pivotal, and unanimous, 1954 US Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education. This ruled that racial segregation in public educational facilities was unconstitutional. The case centred on young Linda Brown an African-American girl who had been refused admission to an elementary school in Topeka, Kansas, because of her race.

Bear with me. All these events are related.

Back in 1994 Mandela and the African National Congress had finally triumphed over an iniquitous system introduced in 1948 to maintain minority white rule. Apartheid, which translates from Afrikaans as ‘separateness’ but really means ‘segregation’, was supposed to be a form of administration that allowed for the separate development of the races in South Africa. In fact, it merely institutionalised racial discrimination. Most of its supporters were fairly upfront about a regime that, for example, banned mix race marriages in 1949, and went one better the following year by forbidding sexual relations across racial lines. But there were a few of the fluffier supporters of apartheid who liked to claim that even though the races were kept apart this didn’t mean that they were not cherished equally. Picture someone watching a child being devoured by a grizzly bear going ‘nice teddy!’


But did this spurious notion of ‘separate but equal’ originate in South Africa?

This brings us back to Plessy v Ferguson. You’ll remember Homer Plessy, our Cajun shoemaker from the top of this item. Homer was something called an ‘octoroon’ – this means, in American parlance, that he was one-eighth black. In other words, one of his great grandparents was African American. In Irish terms, an octoroon is probably somebody who would be one-eighth Viking.

This meant that although he could ‘pass’—another one of those subtly coded American words—he was not legally permitted to travel in the ‘whites only’ carriage of a New Orleans rail car. So, he bought a ticket and did just that. He also arranged to be ‘discovered’ in this vile act and have himself arrested. This was done to challenge the legislation, the Louisiana Separate Car Act of 1890.

And that’s where John Howard Ferguson comes in. He was the judge who fined Homer Plessy twenty-five dollars and whose name was then attached to the case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1896, in what is seen as one of the worst decisions ever by a US Supreme Court–though we have high hopes that the current bench will steal that title—Plessy was told that the penalty imposed on him did not violate the fourteenth amendment, which provides for equal treatment under the law for African Americans. Homer Plessy was, in effect, told by seven of the eight justices, that segregated facilities were perfectly all right in the USA, that he was ‘separate but equal’, and that he couldn’t have his twenty-five dollars back. To this day Plessy v Ferguson has never formally been overruled.


Which brings us back to the sixty-fifth anniversary today of the judgement in the case of Brown v Board of Education, and the desire of eleven-year-old Linda Carol Brown to go to an elementary school close to her home. The school authorities told her she couldn’t because she was black. The Supreme Court, led by Earl Warren, told the city of Topeka Kansas that she could because she was a human being. That decision, and many more like it from the liberal US Supreme Courts of the sixties and seventies, have nullified the impact of the Homer Plessy’s twenty-five dollar fine and everything that flowed from it.

So, in answer to the question did the notion of ‘separate but equal’ originate in apartheid, South Africa. No, it didn’t, the US Supreme Court got there in 1896, way ahead of Henrik Verwoerd. So, that’s fake history.


Some nice people expressing their delight at the result of Brown v Board of Education

Fake Histories #19  –  Rudolf Hess was sent to Britain by Adolf Hitler in 1941 to negotiate peace with the UK?




There is a very famous scatological verse, sung to the melody of the ‘Colonel Bogey March’ which refers to the testicular deficiencies of various leaders of Nazi Germany in World War Two. Hitler, or so the song informs us, only had one of the required pair, Goering’s were of inadequate dimensions, which was also the case with Himmler, and poor old Goebbels was entirely lacking in male reproductive organs of any kind. Obviously, the song itself is far less ponderous than my synopsis.

Missing, however, from this lineup, was the man who entered WW2 as Hitler’s deputy Führer, Rudolf Hess. His absence has nothing to with the fact that, as his surname is monosyllabic, it doesn’t scan very well in an obscene song. It has more to do with a bizarre flight he undertook on 10 May 1941. That was when he decided he’d like nothing better than a day trip to Scotland. We can all understand his yearning I’m sure. Scotland, is, after all a beautiful country, inhabited by some of the most sensible and enlightened people on the planet. But the date of his proposed trip made it extremely unwise. There was a war on, he was German, and he was flying a military plane into enemy territory.

So what was he up to? The answer, in general terms, was that he wanted to take Britain out of the war. Now he wasn’t crazy enough to believe that he would achieve this with a courageous kamikaze attack on some bewildered grouse on an estate in the northern highlands. He was on a diplomatic mission.

Hess, who had been more or less elbowed out of any real position of authority in the Nazi hierarchy, was nonetheless aware of the impending German invasion of Russia. Fearing a war on two fronts he came up with the brilliant idea of removing one of the fronts by dropping in on his old buddy, the Scottish laird Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, Duke of Hamilton. Doug was a Caledonian aristocrat who clearly scorned variety when it came to names. Hess seemed to have got it into his head that all he had to do was sit down with Dougie over half a dram and a haggis and plucky Britain would roll over and sign a peace deal with Germany.

His destination was the ancestral home of the Dukes of Hamilton, Dungavel House. Today it’s an immigration removal centre, which is quite appropriate really as Hess has always been one of the most celebrated illegal immigrants in British history. It’s run by one of those American private prison outfits, which is equally appropriate as he spent more than four decades in an institution also partly run by Americans, Spandau Prison in Berlin.

You can probably guess what happened. He parachuted onto the scented Scottish heather, was picked up immediately and tossed in prison for the remainder of the war. In 1945 he was tried at Nuremberg and, unlike many of his even viler associates got a life sentence and ended up in Spandau with six more of the nicer Nazis.

As to whether he had the imprimatur of Führer Adolf for his madcap flight, well what do you think? Hitler might have been insane, but he wasn’t stupid. At the Nazi cabinet meeting on 11 May, he must have sensed something was odd and inquired,  ‘where’s Rudy?’


Spandau prison might today have its own Visitor’s Centre, Starbuck’s franchise, and a darling little gift shop. Instead, it was demolished in 1987 after Hess’s suicide at the age of 93. This was to avoid it becoming a Nazi shrine. Wasn’t that a clairvoyant move now?

If I can make a massive digression for just a moment. You might be familiar with the music of the British 80s rock group Spandau Ballet and wonder where they got their name. And yes, it is derived from the prison. However, the classical dance in question is a reference to the frequent hangings that took place in the jail before it became downmarket accommodation for misbehaving Fascists.  If there is a better example of, quite literally,  gallows humour I would love to hear about it.

But, to come back to the question of Rudolf Hess’s solo flight to Scotland. Was it made with the knowledge and approval of Adolf Hitler, as some people claim? No, it was all his own really bad idea. So, it’s fake history.


Fake Histories #18   George Lucas mapped out all the Star Wars movies in advance of the original film in 1977?



May the Fourth be with you. That’s ‘Fourth’ as in the day after ‘Third’, just in case you thought I had developed a lithp. Tomorrow is Star Wars Day, so-called because the first Star Wars film was released on 4 May 1977.

Well no, actually! The first Star Wars film, now known as Star Wars: A New Hope, and which is, chronologically the fourth Star Wars film, was actually released on 25 May 1977. But, let’s face it, ‘May the twenty-fifth be with you’ doesn’t sound as catchy. So when and why was tomorrow singled out for such a thoroughly overwhelming honour? Is it the birthday of the genius behind the franchise, George Lucas? Is it the anniversary of the destruction of the Death Star? Is it the day Jar Jar Binks was given his P45? Is it Armistice Day in the Clone War? When do you want me to stop with the spurious suggestions? Because, naturally, it’s none of the above.

The date was chosen, organically, by Star Wars fans themselves, as their annual holy day of obligation and the Lucasfilm empire did not strike back. Instead, the makers of the franchise embraced and encouraged it. It’s actually a pun, ‘May the fourth … be with you’. Geddit? Now, with the Disney organisation in charge of the Millennium Falcon, May the Fourth will probably become to the Star Wars franchise what the equally spurious ‘Black Friday’ is to online retailers.

Back in the mid-70s, it didn’t look as if Star Wars would become the first film ever to make over $300m at the Box Office. It almost didn’t get made. Despite the commercial success of Lucas with American Graffiti, the script was turned down by every major studio except Twentieth Century Fox. When he showed a rough cut to some of his movie-making buddies it didn’t go down well. Brian de Palma described it as the worst movie he’d ever seen – he hadn’t made Mission to Mars at that point in his own career. The only one of Lucas’s mates who predicted a bright future was Steven Spielberg.

As a director, Lucas does not appear to have been very communicative with his actors. His instruction on re-takes was either ‘faster’ or ‘more intense’. Rumour has it that when he lost his voice on the shoot his assistant printed those words on two boards which Lucas used in lieu of vocal commands. He also second-guessed himself on the name of one of his central characters. When shooting began [spoiler alert] Princess Leia’s younger bro and Darth Vader’s little boy was called Luke Starkiller.


There is an assumption, which probably began on the planet Tatooine, that when George Lucas got the idea for writing a film about ‘a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’ that he did a J.K.Rowling and sketched out in advance the basic plots for all nine movies. Rowling, you will recall, had a grand plan for the future of the inhabitants of Hogwarts when she set out to write Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Now, when George Lucas conceived the notion of the Star Wars series he was not an impecunious and unknown British writer dependent on an Edinburgh café for light and heat. He was already a successful Hollywood director with one cult, and one mainstream movie hit to his credit. Neither do the dissimilarities end there. Unlike Rowling, he did not sketch out the plots of the movies in detail. While he DID envisage that Star Wars would be part of a series he did not outline in detail the fate of the characters, or even basic plot lines before he wrote the first film in the franchise. Initially, he appears to have been unsure whether that would run to nine or twelve films. On a scrap of paper on which he scribbled down a tentative plot for the first movie, it appears as number six in the putative series, not number four.

So, did George Lucas have it all figured out before he even began shooting the first Star Wars? That he did not. That’s fake history.