Fake Histories #39  Were all Model T Ford’s black, as dictated by Henry Ford?

 

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September 27 is a red letter day for transport. Two significant events took place, eighty-three years apart, that revolutionised and democratised the way we get around. In 1825 George Stephenson’s Locomotion Number One became the first steam engine to carry passengers on a public line, the Stockton and Darlington Railway. Within a decade, such was the pace of technological progress, it was obsolete. In the interim, however, it had killed one of its drivers when the boiler exploded in 1828.

The second transportive event, which took place on this date, happened in 1908. That was the appearance of the first ever Model T Ford, which emerged shiny and new from the Piquette motor plant in Detroit, Michigan. It was revolutionary for a number of reasons. Prior to the introduction of the Model T, cars were items beyond the merely luxurious. They were handcrafted, expensive to purchase and costly to maintain. At a stroke Ford’s new brand swept all of that away. The Model T was produced on an assembly line, in far greater numbers than any of its competitors, and was relatively cheap and low maintenance for its time. In his 1922 autobiography My Life and Work, Henry Ford outlined his vision for the Model T. He wrote …

‘ I will build a motor car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one …’

One of the things Ford wanted, for example, was that men who worked on the assembly lines of the Model T could actually afford to buy one themselves. To realise this objective it greatly helped that they were paid a decent wage at a time when industrial unrest was rife and America’s ‘robber baron’ industrialists were often reliant on the National Guard to break strikes.

In its first year of production a modest ten thousand, six hundred and sixty Model T’s were sold. Sales figures doubled the following year and had really taken off by 1917 when almost three quarters of a million units were sold worldwide. The model’s best year was 1923, when Ford shifted around two million of them. Some of those would have been manufactured in the company’s plant in Cork which opened in 1917 to make tractors, but began producing cars in 1921.

But were all fifteen million of them exactly the same colour? Did Henry Ford actually say, ‘You can have any colour you like, as long as it’s black’. The answer to the first question is, ‘no’. As regards the latter question, indeed he did. Once again you need look no further than his autobiography for confirmation. This is how he describes the moment.

‘In 1909 I announced one morning, without any previous warning, that in the future         we were going to build only one model, that the model was going to be the “Model    T,” and that the chassis would be exactly the same for all cars, and I remarked  “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.” I cannot say that any one agreed with me. The selling people could not of course see the advantages that a single model would bring about in production.   More than that, they did not particularly care.’

 Now even though his name was Henry Ford, despite the fact that he was the undisputed boss, and notwithstanding that his name was attached to the car, he didn’t get his monochrome desire until 1914. Before that date not only did his company produce Model T’s that were grey, green, blue and red, the colour black was not even available. The first black Model T came off the assembly line in 1914 and thereafter, until the final year of production,  you could, genuinely, have any colour you wanted, as long as it was black.

By the time production ceased in 1927 a total of fifteen million Model T Ford’s had been manufactured and purchased. The Model T then, graciously, gave way to the Model A, which was available in a variety of shades, to which Henry Ford doubtless turned a colour blind eye

So, while Henry Ford did issue the instruction that all his Model T’s should be monochrome black, that didn’t happen until the seventh year of production. It’s fake history.

 

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Fake Histories #38  Did William Webb Ellis originate the game of rugby?

 

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It’s unlikely the pioneers of the game of rugby in the mid 19thcentury would ever have envisaged such a thing as a ‘World Cup of Rugby’. Still less that it should be taking place in Japan, a place still shrouded in mystery when the game got off the ground.

But, how, precisely, did that happen. The ‘origin myth’ of rugby football is that a young Warwickshire boy who was attending the famous British public school of Rugby picked up the ball and ran with it during a school match in 1823 and, thus, originated the game which is now called after the school. If the story is not true then there should probably be some questions asked on 2 November when the Rugby World Cup trophy is presented, because it’s called after him!

William Webb Ellis, born in 1806, was indeed a seventeen-year-old student at Rugby College in 1823. He had the misfortune to miss the great headmaster of the college, Thomas Arnold, by a few years. He was also well removed from Rugby in the 1830s during the fictional era of Tom Brown’s Schooldays and thus missed the pleasure of being bullied by Flashman. While at Rugby Ellis was known as an excellent cricketer—he would later play for Oxford.  A plaque erected in his name in Rugby school reads as follows.

‘This stone commemorates the exploit of William Webb Ellis, who with a fine        disregard for the rules of football as played in his time first took the ball in his arms and ran with it thus originating the distinctive feature of the rugby game. A.D. 1823.’

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Or so the legend goes anyway!

The problem is finding any supporting evidence for the claim. Nobody ever mentioned it during the lifetime of Webb Ellis, and he himself never shouted about it from the rooftops. Although, as he went on to become a respected clergyman of the Church of England, that might not be altogether surprising.  A former curator of the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham is even on record as asserting that ‘Webb Ellis is like the King Arthur of rugby. He is very important but as soon as you start to analyse the facts behind it, there is really very little or no evidence to support the story.’

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The only source for the Webb Ellis narrative is straight out of the school of  ‘dúirt bean liom go ndúirt bean lei’. A local Warwickshire man, and past pupil of Rugby, one Matthew Bloxam, wrote to the College magazine in 1876 and recounted the story of how Webb Ellis’s infraction—he did cheat after all—had blossomed into a new sport with its own set of rules first laid down in Rugby school. While there is no doubt about the latter element of the story, Bloxam himself had not actually seen Webb’s legendary run. Someone had told him about it, possibly his brother John who was a contemporary of Ellis! The other problem is that he claimed the event had taken place in 1824, at which point Ellis was at Oxford. Four years later Bloxam revised this to 1823.

An investigation into the claim by the Old Rugbean Society in 1895 led to the questioning of a number of Old Rugbeians, including Thomas Hughes, the author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays. He told the inquisitors that in his time at the college in the 1830s ‘a jury of Rugby boys of that day would almost certainly have found a verdict of ‘justifiable homicide’ if a boy had been killed in running with the ball.’

A more likely candidate, according to Hughes, was a boy called Jem Mackie. Mackie had popularised try scoring at the college in the late 1830s and his innovation had been formalised in an 1841 rule book. Problem was Mackie had been expelled from the school for being a bad boy. Is that why Ellis, by then a respectable clergyman, got the nod when the foundation myth was being created? Perhaps, on the 2 November, the newly crowned World Cup champions should be presented with the Jem Mackie Trophy?

Ironically Rugby school has firm credentials when it comes to the origins of another muscular pastime. One of the founders of the game of Australian Rules football, Thomas Wentworth Wills, was a student at Rugby from the age of fourteen.

But did eminent past pupil William Webb Ellis make the crucial, and illegal, run that spawned the game of rugby, possibly not, and definitely susceptible to the Scottish verdict, of ‘not proven’.

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Fake Histories #37   Is there really anything to fear from Friday the thirteenth?

 

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Despite its exalted position as a prime number, indivisible by any number other than itself, thirteen suffers from a very bad press and must get really depressed when it looks back at twelve. Because twelve has it all. Historically it denotes completeness. How many listeners ever did thirteen times tables? No one! You always stopped at twelve by twelve equals one hundred and forty-four. There are twelve months in the year. Twelve hours on the clock. Twelve tribes of Israel. Twelve astrological signs of the zodiac. Twelve apostles of Jesus Christ. Thirteen just never gets a luck in.

Except when it comes to the bad stuff!

Thirteen is so unpopular that many American cities do not have a Thirteenth Street or a Thirteenth Avenue. How many high-rise buildings have you been in without a  thirteenth floor? Hospitals, where ill-luck is a really bad idea, often avoid labelling rooms with the number. You may also have flown through an airport with no Gate thirteen. Even the so-called  ‘bakers dozen’, thirteen loaves, came about only because of the risk that the sale of twelve underweight loaves to a customer might lead to the loss of a baker’s ear or a hand as a punishment ‑ they did that kind of thing back in the mists of time. So a medieval Pat the Baker would toss in a thirteenth, just to be sure of keeping all his appendages.

Now put thirteen together with a Friday, and you have Bonny and Clyde, Torquemada and the Inquisition, and Bros. Lethal combinations all.

Do you by any chance suffer from friggatriskaidekaphobia? You might think not, but if I tell you that Frigga was the Norse goddess of Friday, and that triskaidekaphobia denotes a fear of the number thirteen, perhaps you might be willing to acknowledge that you share, apparently, with twenty million fearful Americans, an aversion to Friday the thirteenth.

Christianity seems to be very much at fault here. Friday is considered to be unlucky because Christ was crucified on that day. Thirteen is ill-starred because that was the number for dinner when Christ sat down with his twelve apostles for the Last Supper. But if that is the case why does the ancient Babylonian code of Hammurabi, dating from 1772 BC not have any law number thirteen? Is it possible that thirteen was already problematic long before Jesus broke bread with his dozen closest disciples?

To demonstrate their utter fearlessness a number of prominent Americans got together in the 1880s and formed The Thirteen Club, promising to root out superstition while tempting fate by sitting down thirteen to a table for their annual dinners. They even walked under ladders to prove how silly that old chestnut was. Members included five US Presidents, among them William McKinley. You might have heard of William McKinley, he was assassinated! However, in the interests of full disclosure it should be pointed out that Theodore Roosevelt was also a member of The Thirteen Club. As he became President when McKinley was shot, it would appear that sitting down thirteen to a table didn’t do him any harm.

Just as well for retailers that the spurious American import, Black Friday, falls at the end of the month of November because according to something called the North Carolina Stress Management Centre and Phobia Institute more than $800m is lost each year due to shoppers staying home on Friday the thirteenth.

In 1993 the august British Medical Journal decided to test the superstition in a research piece entitled ‘Is Friday the thirteenth bad for your health’. They looked at a range of traffic accident statistics over a period of years on two different dates, Friday the sixth and Friday the thirteenth. While they found that more drivers stayed at home on the latter date, they discovered that the former was a safer day on which to travel. Their conclusion was that ‘Friday the thirteenth is unlucky for some. The risk of hospital admission as a result of a transport accident may be increased by as much as fifty-two percent. Staying at home is recommended.’

Oh, and by the way, it appears that if you break a mirror that old ‘seven years of bad luck’ thing is only applicable if you do so on Friday the thirteenth. If you want to experiment you still have a few hours left, but maybe don’t check the makeup until after midnight, just in case.

So, is there anything to fear from Friday the thirteenth? Not at all, relax. What can possibly go wrong just because the thirteenth day of the month falls on a Friday? Is it ok if I uncross my fingers now?

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Fake Histories #36   Jack the Ripper was a member of the royal family?

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Imagine you are a woman living in the poverty trap of the East End of London in the autumn of 1888. Queen Victoria is on the throne, Lord Salisbury is Prime Minister. But high politics are of little interest to you. Making ends meet is a more pertinent concern. That, and avoiding a serial killer, stalking the Whitechapel district, who is about to be given a name, Jack the Ripper. A week ago the body of the first of his five victims, Mary Anne Nicholls was found. Two days from now he will kill Annie Chapman. Then there will be two more, Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes, at the end of this month, before a gap of almost six weeks to his final victim, Mary Jane Kelly.

If you do fall to the knife of Jack the Ripper there is an excellent chance you will go down in history as a prostitute, although there is no solid evidence that three of the Ripper’s five victims were ever involved in that line of work. So, although you will be immortalised by hundreds of ‘true-crime’ writers, each convinced they have identified your killer, there will be an implicit question in all of their writing. What were you doing wandering around the streets of Whitechapel late at night? As we are unable, definitively, to blame your killer for his crimes, it is almost as convenient to blame you for your own death.

Behind the Whitechapel murders of 1888, there was undoubtedly a form of lunacy, but the frenzy exhibited by Jack the Ripper has been almost matched by the craziness unleashed in thousands of ex post facto attempts to identify him. Never has a subject given rise to so much special pleading, dodgy theses, outright lies, and ingenious hoaxes.

Welcome to the Rippersphere!  Not an arena for the faint-hearted. Ripperology might sound like an intellectual discipline but it’s actually a blood sport, where, it would appear, you identify your Ripper in advance and get the facts to fit afterwards.  You then defend your position with as much venom as possible, a phenomenon greatly facilitated these days by the unidentifiable basement trolling of social media. The internet, as we know, was developed purely for the proliferation of cute cat videos, and to encourage the multiplication of even more outrageous Jack the Ripper narratives.

The Rippersphere is a realm where your choice of the guilty party might well depend on your politics. So that Boris Johnson’s Ripper would probably be one of the thousands of immigrants who populated the East End of London in the 1880s. While Jeremy Corbyn’s would be a deviant member of the privileged upper classes.

While there is every likelihood Corbyn would be spot on, there is one particular myth that has grown and festered over the years, that is not worthy of the gallons of printer’s ink that have been expended on it. A constant Ripperological theme has been the ‘Royal Conspiracy’ theory.  This holds that the Duke of Clarence, Albert Victor, was the killer. Known to his family as ‘Eddie’ he was the eldest grandson of Queen Victoria, and next in line to the throne after his father, Edward, Prince of Wales.

            This canard began to emerge as late as the 1970s when a Dr Thomas Stowell published an article in a magazine called The Criminologist implicating the Duke of Clarence without actually naming him. Stowell claimed that a royal family member he called simply ‘S’  had been driven insane from syphilis. He further claimed that the Royal family was aware of the killings, and interfered with the investigation of the crimes. ‘S’ was quickly identified as Clarence and the chase began.

The Duke of Clarence pre-deceased his father in an influenza epidemic in 1892, but Ripperologists who subscribe to the Royal Conspiracy theory have him dying of syphilis.

Even a cursory examination of Royal court records blows the entire ‘Clarence the Ripper’ theory out of the water. It can easily be established that Eddie was well away from London, in Yorkshire and Scotland, at the time of the first four murders. He was at his father’s birthday party on the night of the murder of Mary Kelly. All alibis which, of course, were ingeniously fabricated by Buckingham Palace, according to the more deluded Royal Conspiracy theorists.

So, did the Duke of Clarence go on a murderous rampage in the East End of London over a seventy day period in 1888 and brutally murder five women? No, he did not, that is fake history.

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