Tracy S. Morris

Quirky Mysteries, Screwball Fantasy and Sassy History

I Am Not Making This Up: Ep. 35 Sarah Winchester, The Crazy Cat Lady of Architecture

Written By: admin - Feb• 19•18

The Winchester house as it appears today. The large shrub on the left hides a space where a chimney was not replaced. The Brown Family, who purchased the home, changed the exterior colors. Under Mrs. Winchester, the colors were hunter green, deep purple and gray.

We all think we know the story of Sarah Winchester.  Folklore states that the heiress of the Winchester fortune was told by a psychic to go west and build a house for the spirits of everyone who had ever been killed by a Winchester rifle.  In truth, Sarah probably had something in common with the modern Pintrest mom with an arts and crafts hobby that got out of control.  (You know, if that Pintrest mom had an unlimited budget and no one to tell her to stop).

Correction: In the podcast, I stated that Winchester made an income of around $26,000 monthly in today’s dollars.  The correct figure should have been stated as around $26,000 daily.

I Am Not Making This Up: Hope This Diamond Isn’t Cursed.

Written By: Tracy - Feb• 12•18


Hope diamond

The Hope Diamond.


According to the Smithsonian Museum, one of their most popular exhibits (other than their pair of Ruby Slippers from The Wizard Of Oz) is the Hope Diamond.  

The Hope Diamond is a 45 and-slightly-over-a-half-carat phosphorescent blue diamond with a long, sordid history, and (legends say) a curse attached to it.  This makes it among the most famous diamonds in the world. James Cameron even based the Heart Of The Ocean diamond necklace from his film Titanic on it. 
The Tavernier Blue
The diamond’s history begins in India, where some of the world’s largest, most famous gems originate.  In 1666, a French gem dealer and merchant, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier purchased a 116 carat stone from the Kollur Mine.  (This mine also produced the Koh-I-Noor diamond that is part of the British Crown Jewels).

The French Blue overlaid on a drawing of the Tavernier Blue Diamond.

Tavernier described the stone as deep violet (which was, at the time, synonymous with blue).  It weighed 112 carats, and was cut in a rough, triangular shape.  He called the stone the Tavernier Blue Diamond. 
Tavernier took the stone, along with a cache of other big stones back to France where he sold them to the French Nobility, including Louis XIV, the Sun King. (A frequent favorite subject on this blog and podcast.)
The French Blue
Five years later, King Louis had the diamond recut and shaped.  The now smaller (68 carat) stone was christened the Blue Diamond Of The Crown Of France, or more simply, the French Blue.  
This new cut had a low-angled back, unlike today’s brilliant cut stones.  This made the diamond’s center appear clear, causing the entire stone to have a window-like appearance.  When mounted on a golden backing, the stone would appear to have a sunburst in the center. It was then mounted on a stick pin, so it could have been worn in a cravat.  It was also said to have been supported by a ribbon to help hold up its immense weight. (It was said to have been the size of a pigeon’s egg). 
The French Blue
The Sun King’s colors were blue and gold, so having a blue diamond with a gold sun at it’s center was a potent symbol of The King’s power.  Records show that the Sun King kept it in his cabinet of curios to show off to important guests. He may have also worn it during important ceremonies that didn’t call for the Crown Jewels. 
A fragment of the diamond remnant from the Tavernier Blue was said to have been gifted in a ring to Empress Maria Feodorovna, wife of Paul I Of Russia.  The stone in question is on display near St. Petersburg, though some dispute that it came from the Tavernier stone. 
Golden Fleece

An artist’s rendition of Louis XV’s Order Of The Golden Fleece pendant with the French Blue Diamond.

After Louis XIV’s death, his successor and great-grandson, Louis XV had the stone set in an elaborate pendant for his Order Of the Golden Fleece, along with the 32 carat Bazu Diamond, the 105 carat Côte de Bretagne dragonwhich is a red crystal carved in the shape of a dragon and more than 500 lesser diamonds in varying colors.
The French Blue joined the Crown Jewels at that point where it continued to serve as an element of the King’s power. 
The French Blue, along with the rest of the Crown Jewels, was confiscated from the royal family when they tried to flee France in 1791 to escape the French Revolution.  The jewels were put on display for the public, where they no doubt stirred sentiment against the nobility. 
Then, on the nights of September 11-17, thieves crawled into the second story window of the building where the Crown Jewels were being kept.  Each night the thieves took some of the jewels.  The theft was not discovered because the room’s seal remained intact, no guard was posted inside the sealed room and the guards just didn’t check on the jewels.But on the 17th, the thieves grew careless and the guards heard them.  
France was able to reclaim most of the jewels as they were found, but the French Blue as the world knew it disappeared forever. 
The Diamond Resurfaces
20 years later (Just two days after the statute of limitations for crimes committed during the French Revolution had passed), the stone that would become known as the Hope Diamond surfaced in London in the possession of London diamond merchant  Daniel Eliason.  Because the gem had been recut (it was now a 45 carat brilliant-cut stone), it would not be recognized as the French Blue for another 40 years.
Eliason makes no mention of where he got the stone.  But the timing of the new, smaller stone’s appearance is suspicious.  
Circumstantial evidence points to the idea that at least one of the jewel thieves made it to England.  They or whomever they passed the stone to then recut the stone.  At least one gemological historian has suggested that whomever recut the stone did a poor job, since they sheared away 23 carats and damaged the stone’s luster. 
But the shape and cut of the French blue was so distinctive, it may not have been possible to disguise the stone in any other way than to carve something new and (needs must) smaller out of the old stone, thereby completely changing it’s nature. 
For a time, there was speculation that the additional 23 carats had been cut into a second stone.  But experts had no idea how the cuts were made, or how the French Blue “fit around” the new stone.  Then in 2005, a three dimensional model made of lead was discovered in France’s Museum Of Natural History.  
Hope diamond

An illustration of how the Hope Diamond was cut from the French Blue.

Using Computer Aided Design technology, scientists and historians were able to fit the newer stone into the French Blue.  With this knowledge, they were able to rule out several large candidates as “sister stones.”  There are no current candidates for potential sister stones cut from the remaining 23 carats today. 
There are rumors that King George IV Of The United Kingdom next purchased the stone.  If he did, the stone was part of his private collection, not one of the Crown Jewels. Sources at the Smithsonian claim that there are secondary accounts of George IV owning the stone.  However there are no primary records that the stone was ever in his hands. 
If George IV did own the new stone, it may have been stolen by his mistress, or quietly sold to cover personal debts after his death.  
The stone’s next known owner was London banker Henry Phillip Hope, for whom the diamond acquired it’s current name “The Hope Diamond.” 
The Hope Diamond

Henry Phillip Hope had at the time one of the world’s most important gem collections. Consisting of over 700 gems, including the Hope diamond and the Hope Pearl, which was at the time the world’s largest baroque pearl.

The diamond was still in the Hope family when it was displayed at the London Exhibition in 1851, and then again in 1855 at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Shortly after this, people began linking the Hope Diamond to the French Blue. 
In 1876, Lord Francis Hope, grandson of Henry Thomas, inherited the stone along with most of the Hope fortune.  But due to his extravagant lifestyle, he eventually sold the diamond to pay off his debts. 
The diamond changed hands several times, landing in the safe of jewelry merchant Simon Frankel.  From 1902-1907, Frankel may have tried to sell the stone unsuccessfully.  He may have entered into several deals to sell the stone, only to have the deals fall through.  Or he may have sold the stone, only to have to take it back from the buyers due to their failing to pay.  Whatever the case, the stone fell out of the public eye at this time. 
During the depression of 1907, Frankel, in financial trouble and unable to sell the diamond, referred to it as the hoodoo diamond. This may be where rumors of the Hope Diamond Curse come from.  It doesn’t help that the diamond has  phosphorescent properties that cause it to glow red under ultraviolet light. 
In 1908 the stone was sold to a Turkish diamond collector, who sold it again a year later to cover his debts (rumor said that the stone was actually bought and then sold on behalf of an Ottoman sultan). 
The gem once again changed hands, this time returning to France.  Or at least to Famed French jeweler Cartier. Cartier was known for presenting his Jewels in a flamboyant manner and exaggerating the stories associated with them.  Cartier wildly inflated the curse associated with the Hope Diamond as he showcased the gem to potential buyers. 
Shortly after purchasing the diamond, Cartier earmarked it for potential sale to American couple Edward and Evalyn Walsh McLean.  Edward was the publisher of the Washington Post.  Evalyn was heiress to a vast fortune made from Colorado mining interests.
Intrigued by the stories of the Hope Diamond Curse, Evalyn told Cartier that she believed that objects that brought misfortune to others would bring good luck to her.  However, she disliked the diamond’s setting, and refused to purchase the stone.  
Undaunted, Cartier had the stone set in a different setting – the one visible in the Smithsonian today. After seeing the Hope Diamond a second time, the McLeans purchased the gem. 

Evalyn Walsh McLean wearing the Hope Diamond in the setting Cartier had made for her.

From that day forward the diamond became Evalyn’s signature piece.  She wore the jewel to every major event she attended, sometimes placing another massive diamond, her 100 carat, pear-shaped Star Of The East on the same pendant hanging below the Hope Diamond. At times she even placed the Hope Diamond around the neck of her Great Dane.  Some reports say that she would misplace, or even deliberately hide the necklace and then make a game of having everyone find it. 
Though Evalyn refused to believe the stone was cursed, she did suffer numerous misfortunes in her life.  Edward became entangled in the Teapot Dome bribery scandal during the Harding Presidential Administration.  The couple’s first son was killed in a car accident. After which Edward fell into alcoholism and took a mistress, prompting Evalyn to divorce him. 
Eventually Edward was declared legally insane and confined to a sanitarium, where he died.  The Washington Post went bankrupt, forcing the family to sell the newspaper off. 
Still later, Evalyn and Edward’s daughter died of a drug overdose.  Shortly afterward, Evalyn died of pneumonia.  
Throughout her life, Evalyn maintained that her misfortunes had nothing to do with a curse.  She continued to wear the diamond.  After she died, her will stipulated that her jewels be held in trust until her oldest grandchild turned 25, at which time the jewels were to be divided up between the grandchildren.  However, the trustees gained permission to sell her jewels to pay her debts. 
The Hope Diamond was then sold to diamond merchant Harry Winston.  Winston had the bottom facet slightly recut to increase the stone’s brilliance.   He exhibited the Hope Diamond until 1958. At which point he donated the stone to the Smithsonian Museum’s National Museum of Natural History. 
Other than four worldwide tours (none of which were on the Titanic), the diamond has remained on display in the Smithsonian ever since.  Today it remains the centerpiece of the National Gem Collection. Officials say that if there is a curse, it appears to have gone dormant. 

I Am Not Making This Up: Ep. 34 Vladimir Putin Liked It (So He Allegedly Took A Ring)

Written By: admin - Feb• 05•18

Patriots owner Robert Kraft

If Russian hackers crash this podcast and website, you’ll know that this episode is why.

Yesterday, the New England Patriots met the Philadelphia Eagles in the Superbowl for the first time in 13 years.  The last time the two met, the Patriots narrowly squeaked out a win for their third consecutive Superbowl victory.

Shortly after, Patriots owner Robert Kraft  received his copy of the $25,000 championship ring. Then he took it to Russia (as you do) and showed it to Russian President Vladimir Putin.  You know, the guy who uses his own biker gang as his personal security.   What could possibly go wrong?

I Am Not Making This Up: When Suffragettes Used Jujitsu

Written By: Tracy - Jan• 29•18

Suffrajujitsu In 1913, being a Suffragette (or a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, WSPU for short) was a hazard to one’s health. Women campaigning for the right to vote faced vigilante attacks and police brutality.

These women defended themselves and in some cases literally struck back with Jujitsu.

The push for Jujitsu as a suffrage self-defense came through Edith Margaret Garrud. Edith’s husband William was a physical culture instructor (an early version of a physical fitness instructor).

The duo were introduced to Jujitsu in 1899 by Edward William Barton-Wright (a man whose mustache was as lethal as his fists). Wright also developed Bartitsu, which is known today mostly as the fighting style practiced by Sherlock Holmes.

Both William and Edith studied Jujitsu, eventually learning under Sadakazu Uyenishi, one of the first men to bring Asian Martial Arts into the West. Under his tutelage, the Garruds became proficient. Edith was featured in a short film in 1907 entitled Ju-jitsu Downs The Footpads in which she fended off attackers using Martial Arts.

In 1908, the Garruds took over Sadakazu Uyenishi’s school when he returned to Japan. At the school, Edith taught classes for women and children.

Around this time, the women’s suffrage movement in England was taking a violent turn. Women were increasingly resorting to civil disobedience, using techniques like setting post boxes on fire, chaining themselves to railings, smashing windows and bombing churches. Women who marched claimed that they were beaten and groped by police and vigilantes.

On November 18, 1910, over 300 marching women clashed with police outside parliament. Many were assaulted. Two died and more than 100 were arrested.

A poster dramatizing a woman being force fed. In prison, the women were beaten, doused in cold water and left without blankets in cold cells. When they went on hunger strikes as a scare tactic, they were force fed. Force feeding involved being strapped down, having a too-large tube shoved down the throat and being fed a disgusting concoction that had goose fat in it.

Edith and William had already been active with the WSPU, teaching self defense classes. William would talk while 4ft 11 inch Edith would demonstrate. One night, William was home sick, so Edith took on both roles.

From that moment on, she became the primary facilitator of self defense. She emphasized pressure-point techniques, and using an attacker’s larger size against them.

The press took notice, dubbing the women the Jiu-jitsuffragettes. Their martial arts training became known as suffrajitsu.

By 1913, the government allowed hunger striking women to be temporarily released so that they could regain their health.

Emmeline Pankhurst To protect Emmeline Pankhurst and the other politically-active leaders of the movement, and prevent their re-arrest, the WSPU and Edith formed a guard unit of women, whom they called The Bodyguard (but the press quickly nicknamed them The Amazons). Up to 30 women were armed, trained and ready to go at a moment’s notice.

On several occasions, The Bodyguard saved WSPU leader Emmeline Pankhurst from arrest by brawling with police.

With the advent of WWI, the WSPU’s activism took a backseat. Instead members focused on supporting the war effort. At the end of the war, women over 30 were granted the right to vote. In another ten years the age restriction was lowered to 21.

As the focus of the WSPU shifted, their need for The Bodyguard ended. Edith and her husband continued to teach Jujitsu until 1925. At that point they sold their school and retired. Edith was 53. She died in 1971 at age 99.

I Am Not Making This Up: Weaponized Honey

Written By: Tracy - Jan• 22•18

Honey is not just a sweetener for your tea. It has been used for everything from mummies to medicine. Honey has even been used as a weapon in war.

The first account we have of honey in warfare comes to us from Xenophon of Athens, a historian, soldier, mercenary and student of Socrates. Xenophon wrote that in 401 BCE, he was leading a group of Greek soldiers back after a battle in which they had defeated the Persians.

Near the Black Sea, in present-day Northeastern Turkey the men foraged (stole) honey from local beehives (as armies then would do). Hours after consuming the honey, the men began to vomit, suffered diarrhea and hallucinations.

Xenophon recounted that the men became disoriented and lost the ability to stand. The effects wore of the next day. Whereupon the men continued back to Greece.

Xenophon’s men had an encounter with mad honey. Mad honey occurs when bees collect nectar from some species of rhododendron flowers, which contain a neurotoxin. These flowers are native to that area of Turkey.

They honey that is produced is dark red. The Turkish people call it deli bal. In small amounts, mad honey is like a drug. Some even use it to treat conditions ranging from hypertension to erectile disfunction.

But larger quantities can make one sick, cause seizures and in rare cases can be fatal. The honey has no effect on bees.

Mad honey would pop up again, this time as a weapon of war. In 67 BCE, Pompey the Great and his men were pursuing King Mithridates along the Black Sea. The Persians, savvy to the effects the local honey had, gathered pots of it and left them behind. As of the fleeing army had abandoned them in their haste to get away.

A Roman’s food rations while on campaign included a ration of grain, salted meat and whatever they could forage for. So free honey would have seemed like a treat.

The men ate the honey and succumbed to it’s effects. Disoriented and unable to fight, the men were easy pickings. The Persians returned and killed over 1,000 Roman troops.

While ultimately Mithridates would lose to the Romans, he would be remembered as one of Rome’s most formidable enemies.

Mad honey is still produced in Turkey. It sells for more than $100/pound.

I Am Not Making This Up: Ep. 33 That Time Bunnies Attacked Napoleon

Written By: Tracy - Jan• 16•18

Napoleon is widely regarded as one of the greatest military leaders of all time, up there with Alexander the Great. But one of his most humiliating defeats actually came from a pack of domesticated rabbits.

I am Not Making This Up: Who Was That (Iron) Masked Man?

Written By: Tracy - Jan• 08•18

Man in the Iron MaskIn May 1687, Bénigne Dauvergne de Saint-Mars took over as prison governor (a sort of warden) for the island prison of Sante-Marguerite, a mile of the coast of Cannes.

Saint-Mars was a special kind of prison warden. King Louis XIV Of France (the Sun King, I’ve written a lot about him, here and even a podcast here) trusted Saint-Mars with VIPs (Very Important Prisoners). The type who couldn’t be executed, but also couldn’t run around free.

So when Saint-Mars moved prisons, his VIPs went with him.

One of these prisoners garnered special notice, due to the velvet mask that he wore, concealing his face (and therefore his identity) from the curious public.

Ten years later, when Saint-Mars became Governor (warden) of the Bastille, the masked man moved with him.

Prison guards and prisoners who had been released later told stories that fueled public imagination (or at the very least, court gossip around Versailles).

They said that the mystery man served other prisoners as a valet. That he had to wear a mask of iron and that he was guarded by two musketeers. If he ever uttered a single word, his guards had orders to shoot him.

And, like fans of the Lone Ranger centuries later, all of France wondered: who was that masked man?

Theories ranged from King Louis XIV’s (theoretical) older twin brother, to his (theoretical) peasant father, to Henry Cromwell, son of Oliver Cromwell.

While the complete truth may never be known, historians think that the man’s name was Eustache Dauger.

During his imprisonment, he stayed in a cell with an “airlock”- style door to prevent anyone from listening at his cell and hearing secrets. He was allowed to serve as a valet to prisoners who would never be released. But never when they were in contact with prisoners who would someday go free. And Saint-Mars was ordered to kill the masked man if he ever talked of anything except his own basic needs.

Based on the evidence, experts theorize that Dauger was valet to a high-ranking French government official. That he simply saw too much and refused to stay silent about it.

Historians believe this because Sant-Mars and the nobles he held as prisoners (hidebound to tradition under King Louis XIV) would never have put another noble to work as a common valet.

A competing theory is that Dauger was a high ranking supplier in the Affair of the Poisons (which I’ve podcasted about). However, many of the prime suppliers were executed. If Dauger was lowly enough to serve as a valet, he would also be lowly enough to be executed, rather than imprisoned to silence.

The popular stories about the man in the mask only grew once influential writers got ahold of it. Voltaire learned of the masked prisoner from others imprisoned in the Bastille. In his writings, he changed the mask from Velvet to iron. Alexandre Dumas hypothesized that the masked man was King Louis’s older twin brother.

Although these stories grew in the telling, historians are adept at separating fact from fiction. But one thing may never be clear: what did the masked man, Dauger, know?

I Am Not Making This Up: Ep. 32 One Way To Spend An Afternoon When Visiting The City in 1848

Written By: admin - Jan• 01•18

Imagine you’re an American farmer 170 years ago. Depending on where you live, you may go to a big city once a year, when it’s time to sell off your surplus livestock. 

A daguerreotype of a daguerreotypist showing off his daguerreotypes. Didn’t this happen in Inception?

And, after you’ve done that, you might go have one of those fancy daguerreotype light paintings made. 

Having a Daguerreotype image made was the 1850’s fad equivalent to taking a selfie at Disneyland while performing in a flash mob in front of Cinderella’s castle.  And if you adjust for inflation, the price was about the same. 

I Am Not Making This Up: Peace On Earth, Even In War

Written By: Tracy - Dec• 25•17

Peace is an interesting concept. Writers and poets and philosophers wax rhapsodic about the fragility of peace. Like it’s a soap bubble that could be popped any second.

Yet when you strip away the poetry and the fluff, peace is a thousand – or a million individual decisions not to participate in War.

In wartime, officers punish common soldiers for insubordination for choosing peace – against their orders.

Yet during postwar, the winning side will punish soldiers of the losing side for particularly egregious acts. Just following orders is not a defense. Choosing War over peace is punishable when it a soldier is choosing to disregard their basic humanity.

During the 1914 Christmas of World War I, spontaneous peace broke out. And to the officers in charge, spontaneous peace was received just as badly as spontaneous warfare would be.

World War I was a massive paradigm shift. Conflicts prior to this were basically games of RISK between kings and chancellors: trading “acceptable losses” of men in exchange for a few more miles of territory to add to the map

But technology changed the nature of warefare. Soldiers went into the WWI meat grinder wearing cloth hats and riding horses. The ones who survived emerged out the other side wearing metal helmets and riding tanks. After this, war would be so expensive that England, France and their allies would let Hitler take part of Czechoslovakia before they would consider going to war.

But all that was in the future. Soldiers entering this first war thought they’d be home by Christmas. And as the war devolved into trench warfare, they felt more kinship for the soldiers in the other trench than for the leaders telling them to go cross no man’s land and kill those other guys.

Just one generation back, The German Prince Albert brought many Christmas Traditions into England when he married Queen Victoria. King Edward even resembled his cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm.

After weeks of rain that turned the whole battlefield into a quagmire, there came a hard freeze on Christmas Eve that turned everything an ethereal frosty white.

So when the Germans started singing Silent Night, The British soldiers naturally answered with the first Noel.

There was never an official truce. In some places, there was no cease fire at all. Russians celebrated Christmas on a different day, and the French were more sensitive to the fact that the Germans were invading their homeland.

But in some places, pockets of men simply laid down their arms and crawled out into no man’s land to meet their German counterparts. They exchanged items from their Christmas care packages from home, sang carols, drank and some that had them kicked around soccer balls. By some estimates, two thirds of the front line in Belgium lay down their arms.

In some places, the unofficial truce ended at midnight. In some, it lasted into the new year, when officers of both sides stepped in to order troops back to war. After all, it wouldn’t do to fraternize with the enemy. That might lead to peace.

There would be no repeat of the Christmas truce the next year. Peace would have to wait until the armistice of November 1918. By then, many of the soldiers who experienced the Christmas truce would be dead. But the story would live on.

After all, it’s nice to think that spontaneous peace can break out as easily as spontaneous war.

I Am Not Making This Up: Ep. 31 When Special Snowflake Wasn’t An Insult

Written By: admin - Dec• 18•17
You probably already know that no two snowflakes are alike.  Every school child knows that.  But before 1931, no one knew that. The man who changed our perspective on snowflakes was Wilson “snowflake” Bentley.

Photography revealed that the crystaline structure is unique to each snowflake.

Bently pioneered the scientific study of snowflakes.  He invented techniques for photographing them that are still in use today.