As I read through hundreds of old newspaper articles researching a couple of past columns, I came across a handful of ridiculous stories that I couldn’t turn into standalone columns. That’s when I remembered that John Cheese is the head of columns, and he gives about 2 percent of exactly one fuck. He was like, “Write that shit up. Also, can I have four dollars?”
These stories span a good chunk of the 20th century, and even extend a little into the latter years of the 19th. Regardless of when they came from, they have two things in common: 1) They’re old news threatening to be washed away by time, and 2) they’re bonkers.5
“Hijack No Stunt By Allen Funt”
From the late 1950s to the early 1970s, plane hijackings that diverted flights to Cuba were as popular as lava lamps and sobbing in a field after taking bad acid. There’s even an unsettlingly long Wikipedia entry dedicated to this very specific kind of hijacking, the Golden Age of which stretched from 1968 to 1972. In February of 1969, a guy named Allen Funt was on one of those flights. He was flying Newark to Miami, and the fun began when the captain announced they’d first be making a quick stop in Havana at the request of a particularly insistent set of passengers.
Fear rippled throughout the cabin — save for a handful of passengers who immediately got the joke. What joke? Well, see, before Ashton Kutcher donned the iconic trucker hat that bestowed upon him the mystical ancient power of annoying celebrities with ridiculous pranks, Allen Funt hosted America’s original hidden camera prank show, Candid Camera, from 1948 to 1967. Some of the passengers looked at the hijackers, then looked at Funt, then back at the hijackers, and then reached the very logical conclusion that they were on Candid Camera.
There were a couple of problems with that assumption. Candid Camera had been canceled two years earlier, for starters. But of course, that’s just what the Candid Camera guy would want you to think. The second was that this was extremely real. Funt couldn’t convince the few passengers who thought otherwise until the plane landed in Havana hours later. He, his wife and children, and all his fellow passengers eventually made it back to the states safely — and so did Funt’s camera crew, who were flying to Miami with him to film an entire movie made of hidden camera footage.
The story has been exaggerated over the years. Some versions of it have the passengers exploding into uproarious applause at the committed performances of the actors playing the hijackers. According to Funt, only about four people were convinced it was a setup. Everyone else was soiling themselves in frightened silence, hoping there wasn’t a camera watching them do it.
“DOESN’T TRUST HORSES”
Just southeast of Sacramento is where you’ll find Amador County. It’s one of those small rural parts of California that Americans fled to hoping to strike it rich during the Gold Rush, but instead they got syphilis from an old-timey saloon prostitute. Before its local newspaper was The Amador Ledger-Dispatch, it was just The Amador Ledger.
In the October 3rd, 1902 edition of The Ledger was an article published with no byline. It’s fairly short, clocking in at just over 230 words, not counting it’s very, very good title and subtitle. “DOESN’T TRUST HORSES” reads the headline, followed by “Part Maniac And Part Idiot Is What One Man Calls Them.” What follows is the rant of a person who despised horses with every fiber of their being:
In case you can’t read that, I’m going to transcribe it. And in case you can read it, I’m still going to transcribe it, because it needs to be read as many times as humanly possible.
I have spent much of a long life in the observation of horses. I have reared them, broken them, trained them, ridden them, driven them in every form from the plow to four-in-hand. The result of these years of study is summed up in one sentence — I believe the horse to be part maniac and part idiot.
To middle school and high school students reading this, that opening is a perfect example of a great thesis statement you can use as an example the next time you have to write a five-paragraph essay.
Every horse at some time in his life develops into a homicidal maniac.
And then he goes right off into horse madness.
I believe any man who trusts himself or his family to the power of a horse stronger than himself to be lacking in common sense and wholly devoid of ordinary prudence, writes a Kentuckian to Harper’s Weekly.
To be fair, it doesn’t sound like this guy’s against all horses as much as he is against the use of strong horses. He’d prefer if people who were moving from Wyoming to California in their covered wagons use weak, wheezing, pathetic horses covered in flies and reeking of their own impending doom to haul their 20 children across multiple states.
I have driven one commonplace horse every other day for six years over the same road and then had him go crazy and try to kill himself and me because a leaf fluttered down in front of him. I have known scores of horses, apparently trustworthy, apparently creatures of routine, go wild and insane over equally regular and recurring phenomena. No amount of observation can tell when the brute will break out. One mare took two generations of children to school over the same quiet road and then in her nineteenth year went crazy because a rooster crowed alongside the road. She killed two of the children. If anyone can tell me of one good reason why man should trust a horse, I should be glad to know.
At what point do you start to wonder “Are the horses insane, or am I driving them insane?”3
“Dying Boy Learns Of Plight On National Television”
Bobby Murcer played for the Chicago Cubs in the late 1970s. He was 12-year-old Scott Crull’s favorite player. Scott had talked to Bobby on the phone earlier in the day before a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates that would be nationally televised as the ABC Game of the Week. It was a prime-time spectacle like Monday Night Football — a big game that drew big ratings. Murcer told Scott he’d try to hit a home run for him, and if possible, maybe a double too.
He did better than that. Murcer hit two home runs. Amazing! It’s like something out of a movie! But as Murcer rounded the bases after the first homer, play-by-play announcer Keith Jackson was handed a note from his stat crew which he read aloud to drizzle some poignancy on the home run trot: That dinger was smacked in honor of little Scott Crull, a boy dying of bone cancer.
Scott was watching the game on TV with his family. His parents hadn’t told him he had cancer, and they sure as hell didn’t tell him that the doctors only had given him only little over a month to live. Scott knew he was sick, but now he knew that he had cancer and was going to die.
Scott’s father had set up it all up, but either he never told anyone with the Cubs that his son didn’t know of his terminal affliction, or someone forgot to tell someone else, like it was a tragic game of Cancer Telephone. Either way, he probably didn’t think a baseball announcer would tell the word, which would have been the worst idea for breaking bad news this galaxy has ever seen.
Scott died two weeks later.
And now for a story about a guy in a hot air balloon fighting a bald eagle.2
“Battle With A Bald Eagle”
An old-timey aeronaut in 1891 named Arthur Cleveland was riding in a hot air balloon around 3,000 feet in the air, presumably en route to the moon to meet the face and cheese that call it home. He had a red handkerchief tied to the side of the basket which a bald eagle with a six-foot wingspan began to attack. The handkerchief steadfastly withstood the eagle’s powerful jerks and yanks, but at the expense of Cleveland’s intended flight path.
So Cleveland started beating the shit out of the bird with a stick. Because he just had a stick of sufficient resilience to pummel a bald eagle 3,000 feet in the air. He whacked it so hard that the eagle backed up, but then it regained composure and swooped into the basket to attack Cleveland, the handkerchief now a trophy to be collected upon his demise. They got into this crazy aerial fight, with the eagle trying to peck Cleveland’s eyes out and Cleveland bashing its face with his skyward bashing rod, until Cleveland bashed so much that the eagle started getting a little woozy. Like Ali exploding out of a rope-a-dope, Cleveland bounced to his feet and delivered a coup de grace to the eagle’s head that sent it spiraling to the Earth below.
His body unable to process how astoundingly badass all that was, Cleveland momentarily passed out. When he regained consciousness shortly thereafter, he dropped anchor and landed. He retraced his path who knows how many miles until he found the body of the bald eagle that tried to commit a sky crime against him. There’s no record of what he did or said once he got to the corpse, so let’s say he grimaced at its twitching body as it held onto its final moments of life and said, “What you did was … ILL-EAGLE.” And then he beat it until it met Bird-Satan in Bird-Hell.
But seriously, it’s illegal to kill bald eagles, so after all that shit, Cleveland was nearly arrested. Luckily, he was only fined $550, which is still an insult, considering he should’ve been anointed as America’s first and only official Sky Lord.1
“Robber Robs Taxi Robbers”
Reporters back in the day were terrible people who often left out the vital pieces of information from fascinating articles, knowing it would infuriate me over 100 years later. Details like how a scrawny little guy in New York in April of 1912 named Matteo Arbano walked into a bar and by “pure bluff” walked out with $10,000 of the $25,000 five thieves had stolen from bank messengers a couple weeks earlier, which they were evidently dividing amongst themselves out in the open.
How did he get them to part ways with that kind of loot? Telling them an Irish immigrant breathed on it? Pulling their bowler hats over their eyes and running off with it? Telling them he was raising money for the families of those lost when the Titanic sunk?
As Arbano walked out of the bar, he was held up by what The Sausalito News described as “two companions,” who left him with only $3,000. Either “companion” was a colorful way of describing complete strangers, or Arbano got jacked by his two worst friends 15 seconds later after swindling hoodlums out of their stolen money. You could break your neck on this roller coaster of self-esteem.
Now down to $3,000, Arbano fled to Havana. He met a woman. They got wasted. He woke up to find that she stole $2,500. He made it back to America with probably less than $500 and turned himself in to the cops, because prison is a better fate than having even a penny of this goddamn cursed money.
A little further down on that same newspaper page is a tiny story about a 74-year-old Civil War vet who was divorcing his wife because he couldn’t stand her 35 cats.
Luis is reading old newspaper political cartoons from the 1940s, when we knew who the fat cats were because it said so on their stomachs. In the meantime, you can find him on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook.