Sunday, July 13, 2008

In Defense of History's Lesser-Knowns

I'm a big fan of documentaries, and channels like the History Channel. However, recent offerings have made me want to scream, "Enough with Hitler and ancient Rome already!" Some alien culture, getting only our documentary channels, would think nothing of note happened on our planet between Caligula and WWII. And worse, that no ONE of note lived between Caligula and WWII.

In that spirit, I offer up a suggestion: enough of Alexander the Great. Julius Caesar? Been there, done that. And no more Nazis, please. Instead, let us begin to truly educate the populace by celebrating history's "lesser-knowns." Villians who have been forgotten, eccentrics whose delights are long past, heroes no one knows, but should. We all know who Marco Polo was. But how many of us know the details of China's pirate queen? We're familiar with the Freemasons. Bring on the Disumbrationists!

And of course, I would never dream of offering up this suggestion without a list of my own and candidates at the ready. And so here, in no particular order, are...


1) IKKYU SOJUN: THE MAD MONK. A Zen master and poet in 15th-century Japan, who believed that enlightenment and pleasure were one...which is why he often sought both in taverns and brothels.

2) FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS: THE WORST OPERA SINGER IN HISTORY. Which was evident to everyone but her. I've been searching for her RCA/Victor recording, "A Florence Foster Jenkins Recital," for years in vain, so I cannot attest to the extent of her bad singing from a first-hand viewpoint, alas.

3)BELLE GUNNESS: AMERICA'S FIRST FEMALE SERIAL KILLER. I'm a fan of history (obviously). Some years ago, when the Charleze Theron film "Monster" was released, I was regularly irked by society's pitifully short memory. Time and time again, I heard the film's subject, murderess Aileen Wuornos, being referred to as "America's first female serial killer." Irked, because it's not true. Not even close. For that title, you'd have to go back to 1906, and look into the life of a mother of three who killed numerous men (a popular song about her sang, "Some say Belle killed only ten, and some say 42. It was hard to tell exactly, but there were quite a few"). And unlike Wuornos, Belle Gunness escaped...and was never brought to justice. An intriguing subject...and frankly, I'd just like to see the historical record set straight once and far all.

4) FRANCES GRIFFITHS & ELSIE WRIGHT: NAUGHTY SPRITES. The story of the Cottingly fairy photographs is one of my favorites. They fooled a nation for decades into believing they played with fairies and other otherwordly creatures. You might be surprised which famous author they fooled, too.

5) DR. JAMES BARRY, BILLY TIPTON & FRANK THOMPSON: MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE. Three cases of men...who were actually women.

6) FATTY ARBUCKLE: THE TRAGIC CLOWN. There is great debate over just what happened on that fateful night at the famous comic's hotel party...but at the end of the evening, one woman would be dead, one career would be forever ruined and one sad urban legend was born. His trial was the OJ Simpson case of his day. We've got scandal, controversy, celebrity why no docu's on him?

7) DR. JOHN HARVEY KELLOGG. The man who created your morning's corn flakes was much more than just a savvy businessman...he was a radical proponent of healthy living and the occassional corn flake enema.

8) CLEVELAND TURNER: THE FLOWER MAN. Turner's home in Houston is a technicolor monument to one man's creativity and ability to recycle.

9) H.L. MENCKEN: THE TUB HEARD ROUND THE WORLD. The interesting story of a writer who changed US history...but certainly didn't mean to. As a result, many people still believe that President Fillmore was best noted for installing a bathtub in the White House.

10) CHARLES PONZI: THE MAN BEHIND THE SCHEME. Still in use today, the phrase "Ponzi scheme" brings to mind pyramid scams and dubious business practices. Yet few know just who the Ponzi in those Ponzi schemes really was.

11) CHING SHIH: CHINA'S PIRATE QUEEN. Forget "Pirates of the Carribean." The real story of this woman who ruled the seas is far better than anything Hollywood could dream up.

12) WILBUR GLENN VOLIVA, AKA ELIJAH THE RESTORER: THE LEADER OF A NEW ZION. A faith-healer in the 1890's, he ruled the city of New Zion, Illinois with an iron and eratic fist, outlawing pork, whisky and humming.

13) ELAINE YOUNG: THE PRICE OF VANITY. The story of a Beverly Hills real estate agent who ended up deformed and in horrible a result of bad plastic surgery.

14) NICO MOLENAAR: THANK YOU FOR SMOKING. Dutch artist who created beautiful mosaics...from the bands of cigars alone.

15) ANNA HELD: QUEEN OF ZIEGFELD'S FOLLIES. The oft-overlooked actress with the hourglass figure so many men admired and so many women envied.

16) GEOFFREY OF MONMOUTH: THE KING OF BRITISH HISTORY. If you think the controversy over Marco Polo is a fierce one, take Geoffrey on Monmouth, author of one of the most successful books of the 13th century and the source of the Arthuriana craze that I myself suffer gladly. He has been the subject of heated debate almost as soon as the ink dried on the page...and still is, today.

17) LENNY BRUCE: CURSING FOR YOUR FIRST AMENDMENT RIGHTS. Comedian, author, and defendant.

18) EDGAR ALLAN POE: QUOTH THE POET... It's sad that he's known mostly for "The Raven." His life was quite interesting.

19) TOM KEATING: FAKING IT. Created fakes of everyone from Rembrandt to Renoir prior to his death in 1984.

20) CHARLES ATLAS: NO MORE 97-POUND WEAKLING. We all know the comic-strip story of Mac, the scrawny boy who got sand kicked in has face, but thanks to Charles Atlas, became "a real man after all." The real story behind Atlas is much more compelling.

21) GLENN GOULD: CANADA'S PIANO GENIUS. Highly talented and extraordinarily eccentric...and so much the hypochrondriac, he would not have a telephone call with a sick friend.

22) ELIZABETH TAHJIAN: SOMETIMES YOU FEEL LIKE A NUT. Curator of the Nut Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut...and believer that man is not only nuts, but they evolved from them as well.

23) LYLE ALZADO: DIABOLICAL DIANABOL. Before Jose Conseco made headlines with his baseball steroids tell-all "Juiced," there was the All-American football player with a secret, Lyle Alzado, dead at 43 from cancer caused by "the juice."

24) PAUL JORDAN SMITH & THE DISUMBRATIONIST SCHOOL OF PAINTING. Irked at the fact that cubism and other modern schools of art had made his wife's more classical works unfavorable, he grabbed a paintbrush and embarked on a mission to show the world that art critics just aren't as smart as they claim to be.

25) JOSHUA NORTON: THE EMPEROR OF SAN FRANCISCO. A weathly and eccentric man who declared himself Emperor of the United States...and the city of San Francisco agreed.

26) MAX FACTOR: THE BRAINS BEHIND THE BEAUTY. He did much more than make make-up...he made Hollywood. His story deserves to be told.

27) PRINCESS CARABOO: THE LADY AND THE LIAR. I've always been a fan of this particular tale, an oddly enduring hoax involving a runaway maiden and a false identity. This was once a very popular item, but has fallen out of vogue for quite some time.

28) LE PETOMANE: BOMBS AWAY. This man's claim to fame? He was, until his death in the 1940's, "the world's most famous farter." As part of his successful stage act, he would make his winds sound like thunderstorms or canon fire.

29) PROHIBITION ROSE: A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME WOULDN'T GET YOU HALF AS DRUNK. Portland's bootlegging queen and a denizen of our famous Shanghai tunnels. Little is known about her, and what is known, has certainly left me with a desire to know more.

30) SIR THOMAS MALORY: THE FIRST BESTSELLING AUTHOR. Writer of "Le Morte D'Arthur," which is still considered one of the best and most important works of literary fiction, is a mystery in many ways. I'd love to see an in-depth investigation into who this man was.

31) WILMA MANKILLER: FIRST FEMALE CHEIF OF THE WESTERN CHEROKEE. I don't agree with all of her politics, but she isn't a woman who should be ignored.

32) MARK HOFFMAN: FORGER, LIAR, MURDERER. Man who forged several shocking "early Mormon" documents...and killed to cover it up.

33) WILFRED LUNN: CREATOR OF LUNACY. Inventor of such items as the Fat Child and Reluctant Obese Pensioner Exerciser and the ice cream cone that licks you back.

34) LEONARD AUTIER: THE BIG MAN BEHIND BIG HAIR. He did the hair of royalty and wrote the first hair how-to manual in the 1770's. His creations were so big, they were often dangerous.

35) ZIGMUND JAN ADAMSKI: AN EERY DISAPPEARANCE. This story has a lot of strange coincidences, unexplainable facets and an enduring mystery yet to be solved in the death of this Polish-born coal miner who many believe had a close encounter...of the third kind, at the very least.

36) THE COUNT DE SAINT GERMAINE: IMMORTAL BELOVED? My husband's favorite historical mystery...who was this man, and just how long DID he live, anyway?

37) THOMAS CHATTERTON: THE "MARVELLOUS BOY." A poet who wrote fakes, then his own works...before committing suicide in 1770. After his death, his work was finally recognized as truly wonderful, prompting William Wordsworth to call him "the marvellous boy."

38) JAMES A. HARDEN-HICKEY: SELF-PROCLAIMED SOVEREIGN OF TRINIDAD. An adventurer, wanderer and author of the highly-controversial "Euthanasia: The Aesthetics of Suicide," a collection of favorable comments on offing oneself.

39) JERRY ORBACH: STAR OF STAGE & SCREEN. I'm a firm believer that this man doesn't get the credit he so richly deserved.

40) KASPAR HAUSER: THE "APPEARING MAN." Found wandering in Germany in the early 1800s, we know little to nothing about him...and sadly, he knew little or nothing about himself, either...and his murder prevented his sad mystery from being solved.

41) EUGENE ARAM: INNOCENT OR GUILTY? I do so love a good crime story...and it doesn't get much better than this. I recommend the poem "The Dream of Eugene Aram" by Thomas Hood for anyone wanting to get to know this shady character a bit better...but a documentary would be even better!

42) AMADEO MODIGLIANI: IT'S A LONG WAY TO LIVORNO. Artist who was so hated in his hometown in Italy during the early 20th century that he fled for Paris. Unable to win over the art world with his sculpturs, he came back to Livorno and, according to legend, dumped many of them in the local canal. By 1984, he was recognized as a genius...and got his revenge, in a strange way, on the town that scorned him.

43) JOSEPH PALMER: IT'S HARD TO BE HAIRY. A man whose 1873 epitaph sums it up: "Persecuted for wearing the beard." If you're a man with whiskers today, or just aspire to them, you owe a lot to this man and his refusal to shave, no matter what.

44) WILLIAM HENRY IRELAND: THE BARD, HE'S NOT. A man who forged Shakespearian documents--and eventually, an entire play--to please his Bard-loving father.

45) THE GREEN CHILDREN OF WOOLPIT: A CLEVER HOAX OR VISITORS FROM THE UNKNOWN? Two children suddenly appear in a mysterious manner in the UK in the 12th century. They spoke no language anyone knew, seemed completely unfamiliar with common foods of Europe...and their skin was a very definite shade of green.

46) LOUIS T. HARDIN: THE MOONDOG. A blind composer-conductor and famous street musician.

47) THE SEVEN SUTHERLAND SISTERS: IT'S A FAMILY A-HAIR. Seven sisters, over 36 feet of hair. How those locks built and empire, and then watched it come tumbling down.

48) RICHARD PRYOR: MAN OF THE PEOPLE. His life was, in so many ways, very tragic. He didn't let it break him. He made fun of it instead.

49) NICOLE BARBE CLICQUOT: THE WIDOW'S GOOD WORKS. Known better in French as "Veuve Clicquot." After the death of her husband, she grieved. Then she invented better champagne, pink champagne and the mushroom cork...because as Mae West once said, "There comes a time in every woman's life when the only thing that helps is a glass of champagne."

50) FRITZ KREISLER: WHAT'S A VIOLINIST TO DO? A renowned violinist, Kreisler bemoaned the lack of old masterpieces for him to he created some himself.

51) WILLIAM LYON MACKENZIE KING: PRIME MINISTER OF THE LIVING AND THE DEAD. Canada's PM for over two decades, he was a famous recluse whose secret world of seances and dogs sent by his dead mother was made known only after his own retreat into the grave.

52) JAKOB FUGGER: THE POWER BEHIND THE THRONES. The most powerful man of the 16th century you've never heard of.

53) MADAME C.J. WALKER: WONDERFUL HAIR, WONDERFUL YOU. At a time when Jim Crowe laws were a fact of life and working women were rare indeed, this African-American entrepreneur created her own door-to-door hair products line...and made millions. She trained other African-American women to be her salespeople, and as a result, took countless families out of poverty and used her status to fight against discrimination and the terrible scourge of lynching. I don't know why she has been largely forgotten. She deserves to be remembered.

54) JAMU VERHEYLEWEGEN: UNDERWATER PAINTER. Literally...he creates his works while submerged under water with the help of lead weights and scuba gear.

55) SEBASTIAN OF PORTUGAL: THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING? Handsome, headstrong, beloved...King Sebastian was all three. But he disappeared in 1578 after an ill-advised attempt to renew the Crusades. And almost three centuries later...some still wait for his return.

56) JOHN JAMES AUDUBAN: STRICTLY FOR THE BIRDS. Most people know him only for the society that bears his name today...but he was a richly fascinating character.

57) HARVEY MILK: NO MORE CLOSET. The inspiring life and tragic death of gay politician Harvey Milk is not one that should ever be forgotten.

58) KING FAROUK: EGYPT'S KLEPTOMANIACAL BOY KING. The last king of Egypt took his throne at age 16, was overthrown in 1952...and in the interim, managed to steal from everyone from Churchill to a dead emir.

59) FRANK ZAPPA: BRINGING EXPERIMENTAL ROCK TO THE MASSES. Did you know he once appeared on a talk show to play music...on a bicycle?

60) CHARLES FREDERICK WORTH: MAKING FASHION FASHIONABLE. Arguably the world's first "fashion designer."

61) GEORGE PSALMANAZAR: THE PHONY FORMOSAN. In the 18th century, he convinced a continent that he was a "Formosan native," and to prove it, he wrote a book...complete with alphabet and religion...all of it, a figment of his imagination.

62) LEONARD CASLEY: ONLY ROYAL RULER IN AUSTRALIA. An interesting man who took a feud with the government over wheat quotas to an declaring his land the Hutt River country and himself its king.

63) MAD JACK MYTTON: DAREDEVIL. He once set himself aflame to cure hiccups and was known to take any bet, no matter how foolhardy. Sort of an 18th-century Steve-O.

64) DONNA OLIMPIA MAIDALCHINI: ROME'S GREEDIEST WOMAN. We have so many documentaries on ancient Rome...and yet this infamous villian, a woman who stole, bartered and manipulated her way into unspeakable riches by her unrelenting control of Pope Innocent X, has been swept under the rug. More's the pity.

65) SIR GERALD HUGH TYRWHITT-WILSON: FOURTEENTH BARON BERNERS. Artistic and eccentric...among his creations, the tune "Funeral March for a Wealthy Aunt" Today, the doves of his former home, Faringdon House, are still dyed pink, yellow and mauve in his honor.

66) LILY LANGTRY: THE FAIREST FLOWER OF THE STAGE. Women wanted to be her, men wanted to be with her, everyone wanted to see her perform.

67) CHAMPAGNE CHARLIE AND THE GREAT VANCE: STARDOM FOR SALE. In the late 1800's, these two "champagne swells" created popular music that was adored by fans...and invented the product placement.

68) DOROTHY PARKER: QUEEN OF THE ROUND TABLE. The only female member of the famous Algonquin Round Table and a founder of The New Yorker.

69) BENJAMIN LAY: A MAN AHEAD OF HIS TIME. Born a Quaker in Philadelphia in 1732, he lobbied against slavery with a zealous nature that landed him in the stocks and prison on more than one occasion. One example: when outraged that a neighbor purchased a young slave-girl away from her family, he decided to let said neighbor know how that child must briefly kidnapping their 6-year-old son.

70) JOHN CHAPMAN: AKA JOHNNY APPLESEED. We all know he went about America planting apple trees near and far...but not for the reasons most people think!

71) DIVINE: THE BIGGEST DRAG QUEEN OF THEM ALL. How can you not love Divine?

72) JOHN FARINGTON: FATHER OF THE YEAR. To entertain his young autistic child, he created a menagerie of animals and famous persons in the family's backyard that remains today.

73) DAVID WILBUR: THE STARMAN. Known as "the astronomer" by his Rhode Island neighbors, he predicted the weather with startling accuracy...when he could be persuaded to speak to other human beings at all. The strange symbols and writing he left behind puzzle people to this day.

74) MARY PICKFORD: AMERICA'S SWEETHEART. From her humble stage beginnings in childhood to becoming one of the founders of United Artists, Mary did it all, and did most of it in curls.

75) HETTY GREEN: THE WITCH OF WALL STREET. Probably history's greatest miser; while she was the wealthiest woman on Earth, she never bathed or washed more than the hem of the black dress she wore every day. Her family history has to be read to be believed.

76) DAVID SUTCH: SCREAMING LOONY. A musician in the UK, he performed as Screaming Lord Sutch, a character that began each show by rising out of a coffin. He then turned his eye to politics, heading the Monster Raving Loony party...that actually managed to get a member elected to public office.

77) KARP OSIPOVICH LYKOV: THE LAST OF THE OLD BELIEVERS. In Russia, the Old Believers were a group of people who blamed Peter the Great for every societal ill and rejected any modern change in Russia. Lykov withdrew from the world...but then the world came knocking at his hovel door.

78) THE LEATHER MAN OF CONNECTICUT RIVER: AN ENDURING MYSTERY. No one knows his name, why he dressed in leathers and wood, or why he walked, over and over, the same 34-day route through New York and Connecticut until his death in 1889.

79) ABBE ADOFE JULIEN: CARVING THE MARTYRS. On a cliff in Brittany, this holy man carved out numerous images of martyrs and heroes.

80) WILLIAM 'TOPAZ' MCGONAGALL: HISTORY'S WORST POET. Born in Scotland in the 1830's, this man took the high art of poetry, and subjected it to the worst twists of language ever conceived.

81) PLENNIE WINGO: TAKING ON THE WORLD, ONE BACKWARDS STEP AT A TIME. The Texas man who determined to walk the world...backwards.

82) JEFF MCKISSACK: ORANGE YOU GLAD. Creator of the Orange Show, Florida's only monument to the citrus fruit.

83) ANTOINE LAVOISIER: OFF WITH HIS BRILLANT HEAD. Believed by many to be the father of modern chemistry, he was a leading French scientist who lost his the guillotine.

84) ULRICH VON LICHTENSTEIN: TAKING CHIVALRY TO HEART...AND PINKIE. A 13th-century knight whom historian Richard Zachs calls "the Inspector Clousseau of chivalrous knights." He won at least 307 jousts in his career. As for the pinkie...think Van Gogh, only with a finger instead of an ear.

85) SEQUOYAH: A MAN AND HIS LETTERS. Scholar and creator of the Cherokee syllabry.

86) GRACE KELLY: THE AMERICAN PRINCESS. The actress who became royal. What little girl didn't dream of THAT?

87) PETE GRAY: THE ONE-ARMED HERO. He played major league ball, had a comic book segment written about him and was a hero to WWII disabled vets.

88) BILL WILSON: MY NAME IS BILL W. Co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous...and a man many still call "friend."

89) CHANG AND ENG: THE ORIGINAL SIAMESE TWINS. Performers, farmers...and not always friends. But always family, and always...together.

90) JUDI CHAMBERLIN: A HELPING HAND. Mental-health activist extraordinaire, author and co-founder of the Mental Patients Liberation Front.

91) CHARLES SCHULTZ: FROM PENNIES TO PEANUTS. The creator of Charlie Brown, Snoopy and a host of other characters we grew up on and loved.

92) THE DOLL FAMILY: LIVING DOLLS. Four German siblings who made their fortune and fame as sideshow "midgets" in the 1920's-1950's. During their heyday, they sang, danced and rode horses with Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus.

93) JOHN SHIPPEN, JR.: THE MAN WITH THE SWING. An African-American golfer who nearly shut down a playing in it.

94) NORMAN COLLINS: SAILOR JERRY. Probably the most famous tattoo artist of all time.

95) SOJOURNER TRUTH: SPEAKING OUT. Anti-slavery activist who somehow always gets pushed aside for Harriet Tubman. Not to take anything away from Tubman (who certainly deserves all the kudos and more), but it's time Truth came to light.

96) DUKE PAOA KAHANAMOKU: HAWAI'I'S ORIGINAL SURFER DUDE. Olympic swimmer and ambassador of surfing.

97) GENE RODDENBERRY: WHERE NO MAN WENT BEFORE. The creator of the "Star Trek" universe, and a man who gave us a vision of a future that was promising, optimistic...and amazingly applicable in today's world.

98) THOR HEYERDAHL: EXPLORER AND SCIENTIST. A unique man who was more than willing to put his money where his mouth was...even if it meant crossing the Pacific on a raft!

99) JOHNNY CASH: THE MAN IN BLACK. Because he deserved it.

100) CHARLES CURTIS: THE INDIAN IN THE OFFICE. Yes, we had a Native American Vice President. And he was a Repulican to boot. Why we don't teach this man's life in schools, I've no idea...but it's time he had a documentary, don't you think?

So there you go. Anyone you'd love to see honored?


At 6:51 PM, Blogger 53comet said...

I have a Florence Foster Jenkins Recital, red seal 33 1/2 recording, trying to find out what it is worth.

At 2:47 PM, Anonymous cliff heck said...

Great list, but you need to add Richard Haliburton and One-Eyed Charlie Parkhurst.


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