Tracy S. Morris

Quirky Mysteries, Screwball Fantasy and Sassy History

I Am Not Making This Up: A Jumbo-Sized Story

Written By: Tracy - May• 22•17

When you buy something that’s “Jumbo-sized,” like bread, or large jars of peanut butter, you may not think about where that term comes from. But the original Jumbo was a circus elephant. 
We associate the word with bigness thanks to P. T. Barnum, and his gift at promotion. And while Jumbo’s story is painted with rosy colors, the reality is anything but happy. 

Jumbo didn’t start life in the circus. He was born like any African Bush Elephant, in the Sudan. His mother was killed by hunters, and he was captured and sold to animal dealers, who sold him to a French Zoo. From there he was sold to the London zoo.

Jumbo’s handlers gave him his name, which is various stories claim is possibly a play on the Swahili words for “hello”and “chief”, the Zulu word for a large package, or Mumbai-Jumbo” a West-African deity. It’s hard to tell. Jumbo’s story is so filled with smoke and mirrors and circus magic, that the truth is distorted. 

As a resident of the London zoo, jumbo would give children rides, and even pull a sleigh in winter. 

In November 1881, James Anthony Bailey purchased Jumbo for the circus he co-owned with P.T. Barnum.  

When the plan became known, there was immediate public outcry (perhaps stirred up by Barnum himself. Because all publicity was good publicity, and because Barnum was kind of a jerk that way.) 100,000 school children sent letters to Queen Victoria begging her not to sell Jumbo. 

The sale went through and Barnum exhibited Jumbo at Madison Square Garden, where he made back his money in short order. 

Thanks to the kerfuffle over the sale, combined with the sensation of the new Jumbo-sized attraction in Madison Square Garden, Jumbo became a word associated with bigness. Thomas Edison named one of his newest gadgets “jumbo”. Disney named the baby elephant in his movie Dumbo, and the mother Jumbo. Everywhere you looked, you had jumbo-sized things. Jumbo burgers, jumbo packs. (Eventually even the jumbo jet, but that would be much later. )

Jumbo lived just five more years in Barnum’s care. In 1884, he was one of Barnum’s 21 elephants that crossed the Brooklyn bridge to prove that it was safe. 

In 1885, while exercising on a train track, Jumbo tripped and impaled himself on his own tusk, dying instantly. In a strange twist, an unexpected train ran over the body of the elephant. 

Of course, Barnum spun the tragedy. That’s what he did. His story claimed that Jumbo died saving a baby elephant from an out of control speeding locomotive. (Possibly after changing into a cape in a Jumbo-sized phone booth). 

Barnum had the body separated and sent bits of it around with his various museums and sideshows, charging admission to see it. 

Eventually the whole body was reassembled, stuffed and donated to Tufts university, where it became the school’s mascot. The body burned in a fire in 1975 (the year I was born, so that’s one elephant I’ll never see). The school’s mascot remains an elephant to this day. 

Jumbo only lived 24 years. In the wild, an African Bush Elephant may live 70 years. A well-cared for animal in captivity may live 80 years. There is a temptation to draw parallels to actors or rock stars who live fast and die young, but Jumbo was no pampered diva. He was a working animal and he was treated like one. 

So the next time you get a Jumbo-sized anything, think of the original Jumbo. His life may not have been Jumbo-sized, even if his reputation was.

I Am Not Making This Up: Ep. 17 Warrior, Princess, Badass

Written By: Tracy - May• 15•17


For 100 of these, you can wrestle for her hand in matrimony.

If I asked you to name a badass warrior princess, you might mention Xena or Wonder Woman.  But one real life woman left them all behind.  Her name was Khutulun, and she was the great-great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan.

I Am Not Making This Up: What Explorers Lewis and Clark Have to Do With the Kentucky Derby

Written By: Tracy - May• 08•17

Because “tiny people racing big horses” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Last weekend was the Kentucky derby, which is like the Super Bowl of Horse Racing, with a little bit of the Oscar’s red carpet mixed in. 

While the race is an interesting diversion for two minutes, in Kentucky the festivities last through a two week’s worth of balls and parties, parades and pageantry. 

And the whole thing was started by the grandson of William Clark (one of those two guys who explored the west), Colonel Meriweather Lewis Clark Jr. 

Clark, or “Lutie” as his family called him was raised by his aunt and cousins, John and Henry Churchill (remember that name. It will come up again).  

The Churchills raised Lutie to appreciate the finer things in life (some say they spoiled him), including horse racing (which his cousins were passionate about). 

In those days, racing had a seedy reputation. Bets were placed through bookmakers, and there was a lot of cheating. 

Lutie traveled abroad. While in Paris, he observed the automated machines that gamblers would place bets with, eliminating bookmaking.

When he returned to America, it was with an idea of starting a racetrack. He approached his Churchill cousins with the idea. The racetrack would be a place that they could showcase their racehorses, and they would use betting machines. 

The family loved the idea, and donated the land for what would become Churchill Downs.  

As track manager for Churchill downs, Lutie pioneered many of the rules that are racing standards today. He also founded the Kentucky Derby.  

Some of the traditions of the derby were present right from the beginning. For one, dignitaries and high society have always watched from box seats, while the rest of the spectators have always sat in the infield. 

Ladies have always worn derby hats, since formal dress has been a requirement for the box seats from the beginning. Though hats have become particularly outrageous in recent years. 
So next year, when you turn on the derby, try a slice of derby pie, and raise a mint julep in toast to Colonel Meriweather Lewis Clark Jr., founder of the most exciting two minutes in horse racing. 

I Am Not Making This Up: Ep. 16 When Frederick Law Olmsted Changed The World

Written By: Tracy - May• 01•17

Olmsted.jpgIn 1857, if a New Yorker wanted to get away from the city, he or she would go to a cemetery. That all changed with the establishment of Manhattan’s Central Park, and it’s architect and superintendent, Frederick Law Olmsted.

I Am Not Making This Up: Whatever Happened to the Sphinx’s Nose?

Written By: Tracy - Apr• 24•17

Did you ever look at the Venus D’Milo? Most people think of it as that one statue with no arms.

The one imperfection makes it famous.

Another famous statue, the Sphinx, is missing it’s nose. The popular story is that one of Napoleon’s men shot it off with a canon. However, like many popular myths, this one is definitely false.

Napoleon came to Egypt during the French Revolution. During this time he was a rising star in the French army.

To everyone on the French side involved, invading Egypt seemed like a great idea. Napoleon wanted to cut the British access to India, plunder the riches of Egypt and further his own ambitions. Napoleon’s enemies saw the invasion as a win-win situation. If Napoleon won, the British lost. If Napoleon lost, he wouldn’t be a political threat in France.

Ultimately, the invasion would be unsuccessful. But in the process Napoleon and his men invented Egyptology, found the Rosetta Stone, carted many treasures back to Egypt, and spun it all into a political win. So he’s a bit like the Donald Trump of his era.

But as to the question of the Sphinx, there are drawings of it without a nose that predate Napoleon’s invasion. So where did the story blaming him come from?

The answer is probably that he was easy to blame. Like blaming your ex for everything wrong in your life, it was probably easy for the locals to blame someone they were already salty at for one more thing that was wrong.

What really happened to the Sphinx’s nose? An older story claims that a Sufi Muslim demolished the nose and ears after he discovered that local peasants were making offerings there to control the flood cycle. Writings say that the man was later executed for vandalism.

This story may also be incorrect, seeing as the ears of the Sphinx are still there.

I Am Not Making This Up: Ep. 15 Would The Real Anastasia Please Stand Up?

Written By: Tracy - Apr• 17•17

A comparison: Franziska Schanzkowska on the left, and the actual Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia on the right.

It was a cold February night in Berlin, 1920, when Franziska Shanzkowska jumped into the Landwher Canal.

We know why she jumped: she’d lost her fiancee during the war.  She’d also suffered from an accident in the munitions plant where she worked.  She had scars, a head injury, possibly survivors guilt and definitely depression. In an era far removed from modern psychology, her story is tragic, and unfortunately all too common.

She survived her suicide attempt.  Then her story takes a turn into the uncommon. Because while she went into the canal a factory worker, she came out of the water as the Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia.

I Am Not Making This Up: Curious George Vs. The Nazis

Written By: Tracy - Apr• 10•17
Curious George

Although Margaret’s name does not appear on some of the books, she was the writer, while Hans illustrated them.

When my daughter turned 2, we threw her a Curious George birthday party.  The mischievous money is known to children, and the parents who grew up on his stories, for his adventures with the Man With the Yellow Hat. 
But his greatest adventure isn’t in print.  Before the book, Curious George saved his creators from the Nazis. 
Margarete Elisabethe Waldstein met Hans Augusto Reyersbach when she quite literally slid down a banister and into his life.  It wasn’t love at first sight.  She was eight years younger than him at the time.
Instead, World War I saw Hans serving in the German Army on the Russian front.  Post war, he made an income out of illustrating posters for the Circus before moving to Rio de Janeiro to sell sinks and bathtubs along the Amazon. During this time, he wore a yellow hat.
Meanwhile, Margarete studied art.  As Hitler rose to power she moved to London to work as a photographer.  In 1935, she moved to Rio and looked up her old family friend Hans. 
The two hit it off.  Margarete, now going by the more English Margaret (Hans called her Peggy), convinced Hans to start an advertising firm with her.  Their working relationship turned personal, and they married. 
Hand shortened his name to H.A. Rey, and the two applied for and received Brazilian citizenship.  
For their honeymoon, they planned to spend a month in Paris.  Their one month stay turned into an open-ended stay.  They simply never checked out of their hotel.

George is also known as Zozo in England, where the king at the time of publication was also named George.

During their time in Paris, Hans’s animal drawings came to the attention of a publisher, who commissioned a book.  The book, Raffy And The Nine Monkeys had one character that caught they Reys’ fancy: a very curious monkey named Fifi.
The Reys thought they could build a book around that character. By 1940, they had material for what would become Curious George. 
Then Germany invaded France.  As Jewish Germans, the Reys knew that they needed to leave Paris. The problem was that anyone else who could leave Paris was doing so.  There were no cars, no seats on trains, nothing but a tandem bike available.
Fortunately, Hans knew how to tinker.  He took some extra bicycle parts, and turned the tandem bike into two bikes.  Then he and Margaret rode away with their most important possessions, including their manuscripts. 
The Reys had several advantages in their escape: a French publisher had given them an advance for the proposed monkey book, which financed their escape.  Their Brazilian citizenship helped them to procure exit visas.  And their drawings of Fifi  inspired kindness in others. 
At one point, the Reys were not going to be allowed onto a train, but a guard who searched their bags saw their artwork for the book, and allowed them to pass.  At another point, passengers on a train worried that they were German spies.  But before they could be put off the train, officials saw the artwork and decided that they couldn’t be spies. 
They made their way to Spain, Portugal, Brazil and eventually to Margaret’s sister in New York.  There Houghten Mifflin purchased Curious George (and renamed Fifi).
The Reys published eight books. They had no children, but Margaret described George as their child.  “He’s the best sort of child,” she once said.  “He takes care of his parents in their old age.” 

I am Not Making This Up: Ep. 14 Agatha Christie’s Personal Mystery

Written By: Tracy - Apr• 03•17

christieAgatha Christie is the bestselling author of all time.  Her works outsell Shakespeare, J. K. Rowling, and Stephen King.  Even if you’ve never read her work, you’ve probably heard of Murder on the Orient Express, or And Then There Were None.

But a greater mystery sits at the heard of Christie’s life.  In 1926, after an argument with her husband, Christie got into a car and vanished, kicking off an 11 day manhunt.  At the end of it, Christie was found at a spa under an assumed name. When questioned the author had no idea that she was Agatha Christie.

I Am Not Making This Up: Cleopatra Had Butter Face

Written By: Tracy - Mar• 27•17

Cleopatra as played by Liz Taylor.

When you think of Cleopatra, you probably think beautiful, seductive, irresistible.  In truth, one of the most famous women rulers was probably none of these.  What she was, was a skilled administrator, an amazing diplomat, and a ball of charisma. 

So let’s dissect the legend, and the facts about Cleopatra. 

Most people know the basics: she ruled Egypt, slept with Julius Caesar, slept with Marc Antony, rebelled against Rome and when that failed, killed herself by hugging a snake. But if that’s all you know, you know nothing Jon Snow.

To start with, Cleopatra wasn’t Egyptian.  Her ancestors were descended from the Macedonian Greeks.  When Alexander the Great ruled the world one of his generals was named Ptolemy Lagides.  When Alexander died, his generals divided his empire up like pieces of a giant pizza, with Ptolemy getting the slice that included Egypt. The Ptolemy dynasty ruled Egypt for nearly over 250 years when Cleopatra came to power. 

Cleopatra wasn’t the first Cleopatra to rule, either.  You could almost look at the name as a title. Women regents in the Ptolemaic dynasty were all either named Cleopatra, Berenice or Arsinoe.  

She was politically savvy.  In the past, the Ptolemies refused to speak Egyptian. Only their ancestral Greek.  (We have them to thank for the Rosetta Stone ). 

Cleopatra made more of an effort to connect with her Egyptian subjects. She learned to speak Egyptian, and styled herself as Isis reborn.  In a way, she was the people’s princess thousands of years before princess Diana. She wrenched a wobbly dynasty on the decline back into prominence.

According to Stacy Schiff, author of “Cleopatra: A Life” She built an army, and later a fleet, suppressed insurrection, controlled currency, and alleviated famine.  At least one imminent Roman general vouched for her grasp of military affairs. 

In Cleopatra’s time (the transition from Roman Republic to Roman Empire) even strong nations were devoured by Rome.  That’s how one made a name for oneself, by conquering land.  And in a patriarchal society like Rome, a woman ruler would have seemed weak. Not to mention that her younger brother-husband wanted her dead. 

Egypt was on shaky ground with Julius Caesar. Through Cleopatra’s father, they’d had an alliance with Caesar’s onetime friend turned rival Pompey.  So when Pompey fled Rome, he ran to Egypt,  where Cleopatra’s brother had him killed. And while Caesar and Pompey were rivals, Caesar didn’t want him dead. So Caesar went to Egypt to sort things out.  

He arrived during a three-way civil war between Cleopatra, her brother and her sister.  In  a kill-two-birds-with-one-stone move, Cleopatra made “friends” with the new leader of the Roman world, and with his backing, put herself on the throne (she fought her own battles against her siblings). She even convinced Caesar not to annex Rome, but to leave it as a client state in her hands. 

An alliance with Marc Antony also made political sense.  After all, Antony was Caesar’s protégée. The duo were also said to have cared for one another, and had three children together. But no amount of political savvy could help when Antony and Octavian’s relationship splintered. She hitched herself to Antony’s star, and when his star fell, hers did as well. 

History is written by the winners.  Thus, the image we have of Cleopatra today is one shaped by Rome.  So it’s unsurprising that it’s wrong. When the Roman’s wondered how she could have gotten two powerful men to do her bidding, they imagined that she “enslaved” them with love potions, feminine wiles, and beauty.  

Cleopatra was dangerous and threatening, concluded Roman writers.  Therefore, she must be sexually alluring.

Coins minted with Cleopatra’s face may have exaggerated her politically best features.

So was Cleopatra ugly?  Egyptian coins minted in Cleopatra’s image are the closest thing that we have to an accurate depiction of her. These show a hook-nosed, masculine woman with an Adam’s apple. 

Yet, art is subjective.  Look on the walls of Egyptian temples, and you will see stylized paintings of pharaohs and Gods “walking like an Egyptian.”  It’s doubtful that any Egyptian stood like that in real life. 

In the case of the Cleopatra coins, some of the queen’s features may have been exaggerated to make her look more masculine.  A bit like how sculpture of Nefertiti is portrayed wearing a masculine beard to show that she has taken on the masculine traits of kingship. Or even how millennia later, Queen Elizabeth the first would say that she has the frail body of a woman, but the heart of a king.

Add to that, what we consider attractive changes.  In Roman times, a prominent nose signified strength of character and power.  

The famous Greek Philosopher Plutarch described Cleopatra in a biography of Marc Antony written about 100 years after her death.  In it he says that her beauty was not exceptional, but she was well spoken-with a sweet voice and a charming way of conversing.  


So in other words, Cleopatra was no great beauty, but not ugly either.  And she more than made up for it in charisma and intellect. 


I Am Not Making This Up: Ep. 13 Tale Literally As Old As Time

Written By: Tracy - Mar• 20•17

Crane_beauty5Out of all the fairy tales known worldwide, Beauty and the Beast, or “La Belle et la bete” as it is known in French, may be one of the most popular.  The themes of the fairy tale are even recycled in such popular and well-known works as The Phantom of the Opera and Twilight.

Versions of this story appear around the world, and may date back 4,000 years, making Beauty and the Beast a literal tale as old as time.