The Sin Ship

In 1924, at the height of Prohibition, rumors began to circulate of rich people partying on a 17,000-ton steamship anchored 15 miles off the New York coast, safely out of the reach of law enforcement. “A Negro jazz orchestra furnishes the music to which millionaires, flappers, and chorus girls whirl on a waxed floor with the tang of salt air in their lungs,” wrote Sanford Jarrell of the New York Herald Tribune, who claimed to have spent a night aboard the mysterious ship.

Other newspapers picked up the story, but none could confirm it. Customs agents began an investigation even as boatloads of intrigued New Yorkers began to search the Atlantic off Fire Island, and Washington ordered a Coast Guard cutter to hunt down the ship.

At first the Herald Tribune defended Jarrell against skeptics, but finally it reported that the story was untrue. The episode had begun with a tip from a reputable source, but Jarrell had followed it up and found nothing. He’d filed his story of the “sin ship” as a hoax, and it had snowballed out of control. Finally he sent a written confession to the paper’s editors.

“In anticipation of the natural penalty for my misdemeanor,” he wrote, “and assuring you of my sincerest regret about the whole affair, I herewith tender you my resignation as a member of the Herald Tribune staff, to take effect at once.”

Air Mail

On Aug. 17, 1921, a bedraggled carrier pigeon landed at the feet of a policeman in Columbus Circle in New York. Tied to its leg was this message:

Notify Dan Singer, Belleclaire Hotel. I am lost in Hoodoo Mountains, Yellowstone Park. Send help, provisions and pack-horses. HELLER. 8-13-21.

At the Belleclaire Hotel police found insurance agent Daniel J. Singer, who identified Heller as naturalist and photographer Edmund H. Heller and recognized the bird as a veteran that had accompanied him on a trip to Africa with Theodore Roosevelt in 1909. Heller had kept it on the roof of the Belleclaire and taken it with him to Yellowstone recently to gather material for a lecture tour.

This was both dramatic and fishy. If the bird had left Wyoming on Aug. 13 then it had flown 1,900 miles in five days, an astonishing feat. Sure enough, when reporters contacted the superintendent of Yellowstone, he responded, “Edmund Heller is here. There is no foundation whatever for the report that he is or has been lost.”

Apparently someone had arranged the hoax in order to publicize Heller’s lectures, forging his signature on the note. The district attorney saw little humor in the stunt and began issuing subpoenas. The New York Times noted, “At the Belleclaire it was said that Singer was out of town, but had disclaimed responsibility and insisted that some person in the hotel perpetrated the hoax.”

Pasted Praise

This “parable against persecution” was a favorite of Benjamin Franklin, who would sometimes pretend to recite it out of a Bible as “the 51st chapter of Genesis.” He wrote that “the remarks of the Scripturians upon it … were sometimes very diverting”:

1. And it came to pass after these things, that Abraham sat in the door of his tent, about the going down of the sun.

2. And behold a man, bowed with age, came from the way of the wilderness, leaning on a staff.

3. And Abraham arose and met him, and said unto him, ‘Turn in, I pray thee, and wash thy feet, and tarry all night, and thou shalt arise early on the morrow, and go on thy way.’

4. But the man said, ‘Nay, for I will abide under this tree.’

5. And Abraham pressed him greatly; so he turned, and they went into the tent; and Abraham baked unleavened bread, and they did eat.

6. And when Abraham saw that the man blessed not God, he said unto him, ‘Wherefore dost thou not worship the most high God, creator of heaven and earth?’

7. And the man answered and said, ‘I do not worship the God thou speakest of; neither do I call upon his name; for I have made to myself a God, which abideth alway in mine house, and provideth me with all things.’

8. And Abraham’s zeal was kindled against the man; and he arose, and fell upon him, and drove him forth with blows into the wilderness.

9. And at midnight God called unto Abraham, saying, ‘Abraham, where is the stranger?’

10. And Abraham answered and said, ‘Lord, he would not worship thee, neither would he call upon thy name; therefore have I driven him out from before my face into the wilderness.’

11. And God said, ‘Have I borne with him these hundred ninety and eight years, and nourished him, and clothed him, notwithstanding his rebellion against me; and couldst not thou, that art thyself a sinner, bear with him one night?’

12. And Abraham said, ‘Let not the anger of my Lord wax hot against his servant; lo, I have sinned; forgive me, I pray thee.’

13. And Abraham arose, and went forth into the wilderness, and sought diligently for the man, and found him, and returned with him to his tent; and when he had entreated him kindly, he sent him away on the morrow with gifts.

14. And God spake again unto Abraham, saying, ‘For this thy sin shall thy seed be afflicted four hundred years in a strange land;

15. ‘But for thy repentance will I deliver them; and they shall come forth with power, and with gladness of heart, and with much substance.’

(In reality it’s thought to have originated with the Persian poet Saadi.)

High-Class Forgery

In 1925, small-time criminal Alves Reis convinced the British firm that printed Portuguese currency to make some for him, and he passed some 5 million phony escudos into the Portuguese economy. Because the unauthorized bills came from official presses, the government at first could detect nothing wrong, but finally it found some duplicate serial numbers in Reis’ accounts and the game was up.

Reis argued that he had cheated no one, but he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Lord Macmillan of Aberfeldy called the scheme “a crime for which, in the ingenuity and audacity of its conception, it would be difficult to find a parallel.”

And it raises an interesting legal question: If currency is produced by an official government printer, can it still be called counterfeit?

Camera Ready

le serrec sea serpent

In December 1964, French photographer Robert Le Serrec, his wife, and his Australian friend Henk de Jong were crossing Stonehaven Bay, Hook Island, Queensland, when a gigantic tadpole-like creature appeared beneath them. Le Serrec and de Jong approached it underwater and had just begun filming when it opened its mouth and they retreated to the boat. The creature was 75 to 80 feet long.

That’s the story that Le Serrec published in Everyone magazine in March 1965; unfortunately, it quickly came to light that he was fleeing creditors in France and had boasted of money-making plans involving a sea serpent. Striking photo, though.

Getting Behind

In London some years ago a man named Pierce Bottom, weary of jokes about his name, spent several days combing through the telephone directories, seeking people who had ‘bottom’ in their names. He found dozens — Bottom, Bottomley, Winterbottom, Throttlebottom, Greenbottom, Sidebottom, Higginbottom, and so on. He arranged for a dinner to be served in the sub-basement of a London building, and sent engraved invitations to all the ‘bottoms.’ Most of them showed up, but Pierce Bottom did not, and the guests found that each of them had to pay his own check. The entree was rump roast.

— H. Allen Smith, The Compleat Practical Joker, 1953

Better Safe

For several years during the Cold War, New York police guarded the Soviet consulate at 9 East 91st Street in Manhattan. Officers manned a pale blue guard post 24 hours a day. “It’s like being a prisoner of war stuck in a telephone booth,” one said.

The Soviets left in 1980, and the police department accordingly canceled the guard, but two months later the 23rd precinct received a call from an Officer Cowans who said that Inspector Whitmore of police intelligence had ordered the guard to be reactivated. So the police resumed their vigil over the now-disused building.

Five months later, in May 1982, the police happened to mention the consulate duty in a report. “What booth?” asked a bewildered intelligence official. It turned out that Officer Cowans and Inspector Whitmore did not exist; the police had been guarding an empty building around the clock for five months, right through Christmas, for no reason.

They closed up shop and removed the booth. “Whoever did this was someone who wanted to break chops or who stood to gain from it,” Lt. Robert McEntire told the New York Times. “We’re not sure which, and we probably never will be.”

Rogue Don

In 1948, while a student at Cambridge, future MP Humphry Berkeley conceived “the only practical joke that I have played in my life.” He invented a public school called Selhurst and, writing on fake letterhead, began to send letters to public figures posing as its eccentric headmaster, H. Rochester Sneath.

Sneath invited George Bernard Shaw to speak, William Reid Dick to erect a statue, and Giles Gilbert Scott to design a new house at Selhurst (all declined). But mostly he plagued and bewildered the masters of English public schools, seeking advice regarding rats, ghosts, and other peculiar problems at his college. In March 1948 he sent a warning to the master of Marlborough College:

Dear Heywood,

I am writing you this letter in the strictest confidence. I understand from a Mr. Robert Agincourt who was Senior French Master at Selhurst, for one term two years ago, that he is applying for a post on the staff of Marlborough College.

He has asked me if I could give him a testimonial to present to you and I told him that by no stretching of veracity was I able to do this. You will understand that nothing that I have to say about Mr. Agincourt is actuated by any personal malice but I feel it my duty to inform you of the impression that he gave while he was at Selhurst.

During his brief stay no less than five boys were removed from the school as a result of his influence, and three of the Matrons had nervous breakdowns. The pictures on the walls of his rooms made a visiting Bishop shudder and would certainly rule out another Royal visit. His practices were described by the Chairman of the County Hospital as ‘Hunnish.’ The prominent wart on his nose was wittily described as ‘the blot on the twentieth century’ by a visiting conjuror.

As you cannot fail to have noticed, his personal appearance is against him, and, after one memorable Carol Service, a titled Lady who was sitting next to him collapsed in a heap. He was once observed climbing a tree in the School Grounds naked at night and on another occasion he threw a flower pot at the wife of the Chairman of the Board of Governors.

Should you wish any further information, I should be glad to furnish it for I could not wish another Headmaster to undergo the purgatory that I suffered that term.

(When the Marlborough master replied that the man had not approached him, Sneath reported that he had abandoned the idea of an academic career and “has now become a waiter in a Greek restaurant in Soho.” He also asked for the name of a good private detective and a nursery maid.)

When Sneath wrote to The Daily Worker complaining that he was being prevented from teaching compulsory Russian at Selhurst, a reporter exposed the hoax. The master of Pembroke College formally rebuked Berkeley and barred him from the college for two years — though, Berkeley wrote, “I think that I saw a twinkle in his eye.”

Double Scotch

In the early 1970s, University of Minnesota chemical engineer Rutherford Aris received a letter from Who’s Who in America requesting a biography of “Aris Rutherford.” Aris wrote back, explaining their mistake, but the requests kept coming. So in 1974 Aris gamely sent in a biography of Aris Rutherford:

  • Born in Scotland, he earned a degree in 1948 from the Glenlivet Institute of Distillation Engineering.
  • In 1955 he became the chief design engineer and tester for the Strath Spey Distillation Company.
  • From 1960 to 1964, he was a visiting professor of distillation practice at the Technological Institute of the Aegean, in Corinth.
  • He was active in the Distillation Club of Edinburgh and wrote three books, including Distillation Procedures (1963).

The news media quickly learned of the hoax, and Who’s Who cut the entry in the following year’s edition. That’s a pity, Aris said — his alter ego was about to publish another book, American Baseball: A Guide for Interested Englishmen.

Book Club

When a visiting Englishman expressed disappointment that New York had revealed none of the bohemian color that he had hoped for, actor (and inveterate joker) Edward Sothern invited him to a dinner for twelve.

While the soup was being served, one man laid a battleax beside his plate, another a knife, and others produced guns, scythes, and staves.

“For heaven’s sake,” whispered the Englishman, “what does this mean?”

“Keep quiet,” replied Sothern, “It is just what I most feared. These gentlemen have been drinking, and they have quarrelled about a friend of theirs, a Mr. Weymyss Jobson, quite an eminent scholar, and a very estimable gentleman, but I hope for our sakes they will not attempt to settle their quarrel here.”

At that one guest leapt to his feet and cried, “Whoever says that the History of the French Revolution, written by my friend, David Weymyss Jobson, is not as good a book in every respect as that written by Tom Carlyle on the same subject, is a liar and a thief, and if there is any fool present who desires to take it up, I am his man!”

In the ensuing melee, someone thrust a knife into the Englishman’s hand and said, “Defend yourself! This is butchery — sheer butchery!”

Sothern sat by and said only, “Keep cool — and don’t get shot.”

Sothern was famous for such jokes; it’s said that few of his friends attended his funeral because they assumed the announcement was a hoax. Once, at a restaurant, he and a friend gathered up all the silverware and hid under the table. Outraged, the waiter ran off to summon the police. When he returned, the two were sitting at their places as if nothing had happened.