The Butler Did It

The whodunit murder mystery trope that the butler is the culprit goes back to one book, The Door.

The first known instance of the butler being guilty of a whodunit crime is the 1893 Sherlock Holmes story The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual, where Brunton the butler tries to locate & steal a hidden treasure (spoiler). The next known instance was 1921’s The Strange Case of Mr Challoner by Herbert Jenkins, but being published at the dawn of the Golden Age of Mysteries the work got lost in the shuffle and nobody really took notice (of the butler or the story). It wasn’t until 1930’s The Door by Mary Roberts Rinehart that the trope really took off.

Mary Rinehart was a very successful early 20th century writer, known particularly for her murder mysteries.

Mary Roberts Rinehart was the “American Agatha Christie”. She was a best selling author in the Golden Age of Mysteries who was enormously popular. When her sons launched a new publishing company she wanted to give them a successful novel to produce so she quickly wrote The Door and had the butler be the murderer. Also, as an example of a false memory / Mandela Effect, while the butler did it nobody every says “the butler did it” in the book.

It was around this time however that critic and writer S. S. Van Dine wrote the article Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories where one of his rules was that “A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit.” The success of The Door, combined with the turning literary tide against making a servant the villain, quickly made “the butler did it” both a popular plot device and a cliche joke. It began to pop up in other detective stories, it was satirized, and today it lives on as a trope of early 20th century whodunit stories.

Added info: Mary Rinehart was the victim of a real-life murder attempt. Her chef, Blas Reyes, was angered over not being promoted to the position of butler, which Rinehart filled with an external hire. On June 21, 1947 Reyes couldn’t take his frustration anymore, he walked into the library where Rinehart was, pulled out a gun, and from five feet away he fired … or tried to fire. The bullets were so old they didn’t fire. Rinehart ran for the kitchen door and what followed was a chase through the house with Reyes picking up kitchen knives on his way through the house following Rinehart. Eventually he was subdued by other staff members of the house and turned over to the police.

Also (far less dramatic), in regards to the duties of a butler, they vary greatly by household but a butler is typically the head of the dining room, wine cellar, and pantry. They are not usually an all-around assistant, but they can be depending on the employer.

Quicksand

A plot device that isn’t as dangerous as movies & TV led us to believe.

Quicksand was once a very common plot device in TV shows & movies. From Lawrence of Arabia to The Incredible Hulk, Gilligan’s Island, Batman, and even in space in Lost in Space, quicksand was all over pop culture in the 1960s. Nearly 3% (or 1 in every 35) movies made in the 1960s featured quicksand. Characters step on what looks to be solid ground but, surprise, it’s quicksand. They begin sinking like they’re going down some sort of Earth elevator with the looming possibility of being totally submerged unless a handy vine or person can save them … this is not how quicksand really works. Real quicksand is not as sudden, dramatic, or dangerous as fictional quicksand.

Quicksand has been a serious, and sometimes humorous, plot device for a long time but was especially popular in the 1960s.

Non-Newtonian Fluid

Quicksand is a mixture of water and sand/silt where the sand particles are suspended in water and spaced further apart than typical sand. It’s a non-Newtonian fluid so if you apply pressure you momentarily change the viscosity. Higher viscosity substances move more like mud, lower viscosity substances move more like water. In quicksand’s case stepping on it with your foot applies pressure and changes the viscosity to become momentarily less viscous. The sand particles get pushed out of the way making it more watery, which allows your foot to sink. This is quickly followed by the sand settling into place around your foot which is how you get stuck. The more you move, the more you agitate the mixture, the deeper you go.

The Good News

You can not totally sink into quicksand like some sort of bottomless pit. One reason is that quicksand is rarely more than a few feet deep. Further, the human body is less dense than the density of quicksand which means that, regardless of the quicksand depth, it’s not possible to sink further than your waste. That said there are dangers.

Since quicksand can form beside larger bodies of water there is the possibility of drowning due to flash flooding, tidal changes, etc. Other dangers include hypothermia, sunburn, predators, and/or the pain of having part of your body under pressure for a prolonged period of time. Most of the time though quicksand is fairly harmless as long as you stay calm to get out of it.

To get out of quicksand the first thing you should do is to not go any further in – stop moving around. If you can’t use your other foot to just step back out, and you really feel stuck, it’s time to sit/lay down extending away from the quicksand. Making yourself wider reduces the focalized pressure into the quicksand which helps free your foot. Then slowly work your leg back and forth, lowering the viscosity & making the quicksand more watery, and patiently pull your leg out.

A short video on Why Does Quicksand Make You Sink?

Bonus: The “King of Quicksand” has a whole YouTube channel devoted to intentionally getting stuck, and then escaping from, quicksand. Watching any of his videos shows that you really have to work to get yourself stuck in quicksand, which is reassuring.

You can also watch a playlist full of scenes from TV shows and movies (old and new) of characters getting stuck in quicksand.

The Human Cannonball

The most dangerous act in the circus.

William Hunt (aka “The Great Farini”) was a well known Canadian tightrope walker & daredevil. He crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope multiple times performing different tricks. He eventually became an inventor & a (manipulative) talent manager as a safer way to make a living. In 1876 he invented a spring-loaded platform that could launch a person 30ft. He further developed this idea into the first human firing “cannon”.

14-year-old Rossa Richter, aka. “Zazel”, the world’s first human cannonball.

The Cannon

The cannons used in the human cannonball act are not true cannons, there is no gunpowder used to propel the performer. Some are spring loaded but many use compressed air which pushes a small platform up the barrel firing the person out while the platform stays hidden inside. Sometimes a little explosion takes place outside the cannon to create smoke for dramatic effect, but there is no gunpowder used inside the cannon.

On April 10th, 1877 a 14-year-old Rossa Richter (aka. “Zazel”) became the first human cannonball with a performance at the Royal Aquarium in London, flying out of Hunt’s new cannon invention. She was chosen because of her size and her circus experience. The Royal Aquarium was chosen because they were looking to increase their profits, and it worked. The human cannonball act soon became integral to circus performances as it could bring in thousands of paying spectators.

Zazel gained world-wide fame, but little money, as the human cannonball.

The Dangers of Being The Cannon Ball

The upsides of being a human cannonball are usually a fun stage name and that you only have to “work” for about 5 seconds a day. Unfortunately the dangers are obvious and quite real. Today’s cannons can apply 3,000 to 6,000 pounds of pressure on the performer as they accelerate from 0 to 70+ mph into the air. This can put enormous G-force pressure on a performer, sometimes up to 9 times normal gravity. All of this is damaging enough on the human body, but the greatest danger is the landing. After reaching heights up to 75ft in the air and coming down sometimes 200ft away from where they started, human cannonballs have to land in the target area – there’s no other option. Some use nets, some use airbags, but to miss the target is as devastating as you might imagine.

Anton Barker (aka. “The Human Rocket” aka “Capt. George Wernesch”) incorporated a trick where he was inside a shell which he would break out of in mid-air. On March 29, 1937 he was set to travel 84 feet but only went 64, crashing into the ground injuring his spine. Mary Connors wanted to break a record by being shot from one side of the River Avon and land on the other. On August 24, 1974 she failed to make it to the other side and ended up in the river. To make matters worse the rescue boat then capsized so she and the rescue team had to be rescued.

On January 8, 1987 human cannonball Elvin Bale (aka. “the Human Space Shuttle”) knew something was wrong the instant he was in the air. He tried to adjust for it in mid-air but he overshot the airbag by a few feet, landing on the ground feet first. He broke his ankles, knees, and his back in two places.

The Zacchini family performed for 70 years as human cannonballs.

The multi-generational Zacchini family produced numerous human cannonballs, performing for 70 years. Mario Zacchini ended his career as a human cannonball after he flew over a Ferris wheel at the 1939–40 World’s Fair in New York, but landed wrong breaking part of his spine, shoulder, and some ribs. On February 7, 1970 Emmanuel Zacchini and his wife Linda collided after being fired from a double-barreled human cannon. He fractured his spine while she broke her neck.

The Zacchini family performing different versions of their human cannonball act.

The Most Dangerous Act

Breaking bones is bad enough but fatalities are very common. One of the most cited human cannonball statistics comes from British historian A.H. Coxe. He estimates that of the 50+ people who have been human cannonballs, 30 have died while performing their act (almost all of which missed their landing). That’s a fatality rate of around 60%, making the human cannonball the most dangerous act in the circus.

Added info: Being a human cannonball is different than being a human catching a cannonball. Frank “Cannonball” Richards was a carnival performer famous in pop culture for taking a cannonball shot directly to the stomach.

Similar to the cannons used for human cannonballs, Frank Richards used a spring-loaded cannon instead of a real one fired by gunpowder. This slowed down the speed and force of the cannonball considerably … but he still took a 104lb cannonball to the stomach twice a day for years.

Frank “Cannonball” Richards, as parodied by The Simpsons

the 1954 Eldorado Bullet Wheel

Sammy Davis Jr. lost his eye on the steering wheel of a 1954 Cadillac Eldorado.

The Cadillac Eldorado (named for the mythical tribal chief / city of gold) began production in 1953. It was decorated with aeronautically inspired fins and conical “bullets”, as was the style at the time. The “Dagmar bumper” was the chrome front bumper that had two decorative bullet projections, named for the buxom American actress Dagmar. Included in this ‘50s bullet styling was a hard bullet shape at the center of the steering wheel, nicknamed “the bullet wheel”. The car had no seat belts.

The Eldorado’s “Dagmar bumper”, named for the buxom figure of American actress Dagmar
The “bullet wheel” of the 1954 Cadillac Eldorado had a hard “bullet” at the center of the steering wheel, similar to the styling found elsewhere on the car.

Sammy Davis Jr.’s career as a song & dance man started when he was a child in the 1930s. In the early 1950s his career was on the rise and he was performing in the clubs of Las Vegas while also working on projects down in LA. On November 18, 1954 Davis and his valet Charles Head left the New Frontier Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas in Davis’s Eldorado to drive through the night to Studio City in LA the next morning.

Helen Boss was a widower from Akron, Ohio that liked to live as a snowbird, traveling to LA in the winters to avoid the cold of Ohio. She was traveling down Route 66, not far from San Bernadino around 7:00am on November 19th, when she missed her turn. Instead of turning the car around she simply put it in reverse and went backwards to the fork in the road where she went wrong. At the same time Sammy Davis Jr. was driving the same road and before he realized the car in his lane was driving backwards, slammed directly into the back of Boss’s car.

The Accident

The resulting accident sent people flying. Charles Head, who had been sleeping in the backseat, was launched into the front seat where he broke his jaw. Helen and her friend broke bones when they were sent into the backseat of their car. The V-8 engine of Davis’s car was pushed backwards into the dashboard as Davis was sent forward, his head colliding with the steering wheel. He hit his head hard enough that he dislocated his left eye on the bullet portion of the wheel.

The accident was a front-page story around the country. This brush with death, combined with a visit by a rabbi chaplain, led Davis to convert to Judaism. In the hospital Davis’s damaged eye was removed by doctors. He wore an eye patch for the next few months. His debut album, Starring Sammy Davis Jr., was released the following year and the album cover features Davis wearing an eye patch. Eventually he switched to a glass eye. Later in life Davis would say “I’m a one-eyed Negro who’s Jewish.”

Davis initially wore an eye patch but eventually switched to a glass eye.

Form Follows Function

In the words of architect Louis Sullivan, “Form follows function”. The bullet wheel was a costly example that the style of the steering wheel (its form) was less important than its purpose (its function). After Davis’s accident the Eldorado’s bullet wheel was discontinued and replaced with a safer design.

the Vulcan Salute

Leonard Nimoy got the Vulcan hand sign from a Jewish blessing.

For a 1967 episode of Star Trek: The Original Series Leonard Nimoy’s Vulcan character Spock was to, for the first time in the series, appear with other Vulcans. He decided Vulcans would have their own greeting that isn’t a human handshake or bow. Nimoy thought back to his childhood and remembered an Orthodox religious service he attended. The Jewish Kohanim performed a blessing where they brought their hands together, thumb to thumb, and parted their fingers between their middle and ring fingers (forming two Vs). This hand sign forms the Hebrew letter Shin which is the first letter of “Shaddai”, one of the names of God.

Nimoy took this two-handed blessing and turned it into the one-handed Vulcan salute. This gesture is often accompanied by one of the most famous phrases from Star Trek, “Live long and prosper.” When the “Amok Time” episode aired the hand sign instantly became famous. People would make the sign to Nimoy everywhere he went. Many people thought it was just a fun variation on the peace sign but unbeknownst to them they were (in a way) actually blessing one another.

On the history of the Vulcan salute

Marlene Dietrich & Queen

One of the most iconic photos of Queen was inspired by a photograph of Marlene Dietrich

For their second album, Queen II, Queen wanted to explore the theme of duality. This was visually explored through black and white imagery and even labeling the two sides of the album Side White and Side Black. They went to photographer Mick Rock (who had worked with David Bowie, Lou Reed, and others in the mid ‘70s glam rock scene) to photograph the album cover.

Rock had recently been shown a 1932 photograph of Marlene Dietrich from the film Shanghai Express. Dietrich was lit with a technique known as “butterfly lighting” where one of the lights is positioned in-front and above the subject, casting shadows down from the subject’s brow, cheeks, and nose (the shadow below the nose produces a butterfly looking image, hence the name). This was a technique frequently used with Dietrich to accentuate her facial features, especially in her collaborations with director Josef von Sternberg.

When Rock showed this photograph to the band, Freddy Mercury loved the idea that they could recreate it for the album cover.

“I don’t know if it was the shot itself or the idea that [Freddie] could be like Marlene Dietrich—probably a combination of the two,”

Mick Rock

This Dietrich inspired pose was used again in the music video for Queen’s greatest masterpiece Bohemian Rhapsody. The video for Bohemian Rhapsody, at over 1 billion views on YouTube, extends Marlene Dietrich’s influence even further, despite some viewers not even knowing it.