Fall River, MA has been described as “a city built to burn.” In this episode Dr. Stefani Koorey takes the listener through the major conflagrations that destroyed large swathes of Fall River throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. This episode also takes the Lizzie Borden Podcast on its first detour away from Lizzie Borden’s personal story, however it remains in Lizzie Borden’s city of Fall River, which has its own richly textured and fascinating history. Fall River’s nineteenth century textile boom brought with it a series of fiery disasters. The Big Fire of 1843 left more than one thousand people homeless and destroyed two hundred buildings, as well as more than twenty acres of land. After the Steiger Store Fire of 1916, mill owners pressured the city to replace its horse-drawn brigades with more modern fire engines. The intense heat from the Kerr Mill Thread Fire of 1987 melted hoses as first responders battled the blaze. Author Stefani Koorey chronicles these and other historic infernos of the Spindle City and celebrates the community’s resilience in the face of adversity. Click here to listen.
Exclusive! Get a sneak peek of our NEW Lizzie Borden, Girl Detective Mystery, The Audible Amnesiac, to be published Feb. 2017 in a new short story collection by Nine Muses Books. The excerpt is available only in our FREE Lizzie Borden, Girl Detective Newsletter. To get your exclusive preview, Sign up to get your free newsletter at http://eepurl.com/bCtr6b.
Happy Holidays from all of us at Lizzie Borden, Girl Detective!
Lizzie Borden Girl Detective Mysteries author and Lizzie Borden Podcaster Richard Behrens finds Lizzie Borden’s photo (lower left) on the wall of Rogues in Sherlock Holmes’ bedroom at 221B Baker Street. Perhaps Mr. Holmes knew something we didn’t, as she was acquitted of the crimes of murdering her father and step mother! Lizzie Borden herself visited London while on her European Grand Tour for her 30th birthday, just a few years before the infamous murders.
Recently Richard was interviewed about the lasting fascination with Lizzie Borden in the UK’s Guardian Newspaper. Read the story here.
In this Episode of The Lizzie Borden Podcast we continue our Lizzie Borden Primer with Sarah Miller, the author of The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden & The Trial of the Century. For those listeners who are unfamiliar with the details of Lizzie Borden’s life and the Borden Murders of 1892, this Primer will help orient them and give them important contexts for future episodes.
This part of the Primer covers the Preliminary Hearing, the Grand Jury Proceedings and the Borden murder trial, which was held before the Superior Court in New Bedford in June 1893 and ended in her acquittal.
The Lizzie Borden Primer series will give the listener a grounding in the historical facts of the Borden Murders of 1892 which have become a part of the American imagination for 124 years, listen to find out why, and form your own informed opinion about her guilt or innocence.
Episode Six of The Lizzie Borden Podcast: Lizzie Borden Live! with Jill Dalton has been published to iTunes and our Podcast Page.
This coming Halloween weekend marks a very special day for Lizzie Borden fans. Lizzie Borden herself will speak once more. She’s being resurrected by a very talented actress and playwright Jill Dalton. Jill wrote Lizzie Borden Live! a one-woman play about our favorite murder suspect back in 2005-2006 and performed it at the East Lynne Theater Company in Cape May NJ. It subsequently went on to open in New York City, Arizona and Fall River where it was enthusiastically received by audiences who found it to be a revelation. Meticulously researched, Jill’s play has set a high bar for plausible interpretations of Lizzie Borden as a suspected murderer and as a Victorian woman. Set in 1905, just after her sister Emma Borden has abandoned her to a solitary life in her home Maplecroft, the play allows Lizzie Borden speak candidly in a way that she was allowed in real life. Jill gives us a complex Lizzie, alternating between dream, reality, and memory, confirming and denying our worst suspicions, and finding stunning but plausible nuances of her personality and psyche.
Jill Dalton and her creative partner Jack McCullough the director of the show are resurrecting Lizzie Borden Live this Halloween season with performances at Polaris North in New York City, 245 W 29th Street (bet. 7th & 8th Aves.) 4th floor. The performances will be Oct 28, the 29th and the 30th and best of all ITS FREE TO THE GENERAL PUBLIC. More information about the play and how to get tickets is available on their web site lizziebordenlive.net. If you can make it, I guarantee you it will be a wild night of quality theater and a great eye opener about the real Lizzie Borden.
We’ve invited Jill back on the show and she’s graciously accepted so let’s take a listen and hear her talk about her career, her play, and of course, Lizzie Borden.
NEW! Watch the Visual Edition of Episode 5 of the Lizzie Borden Podcast, which details the happenings on the day of the Borden Murders of 1892. With author Sarah Miller!
Episode Five of The Lizzie Borden Podcast continues A Lizzie Borden Primer, a three-part series that will present the life and times of Lizzie Borden. This episode is an exceptionally good starting part for anyone who has no more knowledge of Lizzie Borden and the Borden Murders than what they have heard in the notorious jump rope jingle. This episode covers the day of the Borden murders on August 4, 1892, the police investigation, and the arrest of Lizzie Borden.
Sarah Miller is the author of two historical fiction novels, Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller, which was called “an accomplished debut” in a starred review from Booklist and was named an ALA-ALSC Notable Children’s Book, and The Lost Crown, about the Romanovs, hailed as “fascinating” in a starred review from Kirkus Reviews and named an ALA-YALSA Best Book for Young Adults. The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden & The Trial of the Century is her first non-fiction book and has been hailed by Kirkus and the New York Times as a perfectly concise and lively historical account of the Borden Murders of 1892.
Visit http://www.sarahmillerbooks.com for more information.
Producer: Nine Muses Books
Engineer: Mason Amadeus
Writer/Director: Richard Behrens
Music: Melora Creager
Cartoons: Chip Cooper
In this Episode Sarah Miller, the author of The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden & The Trial of the Century, helps out with a Lizzie Borden Primer. For those listeners who are unfamiliar with the details of Lizzie Borden’s life and the Borden Murders of 1892, this Primer will help orient them and give them important contexts for future episodes. This part of the Primer covers the day of the murders and the events leading up to Lizzie Borden’s arrest. This is a must-listen for anyone who wants to know what happened on August 4, 1892 and why Lizzie Borden was suspected and then arrested for the crime. The Lizzie Borden Primer series will give you a grounding in the historical facts. We can’t answer the question of whether she was guilty or not, but we can give you the evidence available at the time of her arrest. The Borden Murders of 1892 have been a part of the American imagination for 124 years, listen to find out why, and form your own informed opinion about her guilt or innocence. Listen now, as we mark the 124th anniversary of the August 4th 1892 unsolved murders. click here to listen
Listen to the fourth episode of The Lizzie Borden Podcast, produced and directed by Richard Behrens for Nine Muses Books. In this Episode Joe Radza discusses the dramatizations at the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast this August 4th and his role as John Vinnicum Morse.
John Vinnicum Morse (1833-1912) was the brother of Sarah Anthony Morse Borden, who was the wife of Andrew Jackson Borden, and he was the biological uncle to Lizzie Andrew Borden. Sarah died when Lizzie was very young, but “Uncle” John stayed in touch with the family even after Andrew remarried a few years later, marrying Abigail Durfee Borden who then became Lizzie Borden’s step-mother.
Morse was a guest in Andrew’s house on Second Street the morning the murders occurred, arriving the previous afternoon. His alibi, however, was air-tight since he left early that morning to visit some relatives on Weybosset Street, who later corroborated his story. He left Andrew and Abby Borden who had just finished breakfast and were preparing to perform their daily chores. When Uncle John returned early that afternoon, both of his hosts were dead, brutally murdered with a hatchet. For several days he remained confined to the house on Second Street. When he ventured out to mail a letter, he was surrounded by a hostile crowd and had to be rescued by the police. He testified at the Inquest, the Preliminary Hearing, and the Trial. He was never seriously suspected to be the murderer but many researchers have doubted that he was entirely innocent.
In the late 16th century, it became quite fashionable for young aristocratic men to travel abroad to France and Italy to complete their classical education. There they studied literature, art and architecture in such cities as Paris, Florence, Venice and especially Rome, giving birth to what would become known as the Grand Tour. By the late 19th century when steamship and train modes made travel somewhat less arduous, chaperoned young women of means were also embarking on Grand Tours of Europe.
Lizzie Borden was no exception, and in July of 1890, Lizzie sailed on the Cunard Line’s steamship RMS Scythia from Boston to Liverpool, England to begin her 19 week Grand Tour. Lizzie was joined by four young ladies from wealthy Fall River families, as well as a female chaperone, a Fall River high school teacher. The girls were all unmarried, living with their parents and ranging in age from 25-32. Lizzie would celebrate her 30th birthday during her travel abroad, the tour itself likely being a birthday gift, along with a fashionable seal skin cape, gifted by her father Andrew Jackson Borden. As was custom of the time prior to photography, a passport contained physical descriptions of its holder, Lizzie’s describing her as having a full face, gray eyes and light brown hair. It also described her as having a pointed chin, a medium forehead and mouth, as well as a straight nose. Her height was listed as a diminutive 5’3” and her age as 29 years, 11 months.
According to the Fall River Historical Society’s tome Parallel Lives, Lizzie likely met her travel companions through her church, the Central Congregational, and through her work for church-related charities. Unlike many other parts of society of its day, church was a place where members of different social classes mingled superficially. Although Lizzie was traveling with two fellow Bordens (Anna and Carrie) who shared a common great-great grandfather with her, Lizzie was not known to them outside of church activities. At Lizzie’s trial nearly three years later, Anna, who shared a cabin with Lizzie on their return journey, testified that she was not a relative of Lizzie’s. Anna went on to testify that during conversations that she had with her while on the ship, Lizzie regretted returning home after such an enjoyable trip because her home was such an unhappy one.
By all accounts the Grand Tour was indeed a happy time for Lizzie. Traveling first class with wealthy companions likely gave Lizzie her first taste of what it was like to be a member of high society. Lizzie collected more than 168 photographs of various sites throughout her travel, and after her return in November 1890, she painstakingly collected them into two large albums. She included quotes from famous authors such as Byron, Shakespeare, Twain and Hawthorne as well as information from travel guides she had brought on her trip, which she neatly hand wrote above and below the photographs. Lizzie proudly shared these albums when she spoke of her trip, particularly the British Isles.
Although the exact itinerary is unknown, Lizzie’s albums indicate she first traveled to Ireland, seeing such sites as the Blarney Castle and then she visited Scotland with its magnificent lochs and Highlands castles. She had an affinity for Scotland in particular, and in future years would name her beloved Boston terriers with Scottish names such as Donald Stewart, Royal Nelson and Laddie Miller. “My Ain Countrie,” a Scottish hymn from a temperance songbook was sung at her funeral and words from it are carved into Maplecroft’s second floor library mantelpiece.
Lizzie traveled extensively throughout England, including the Lake District, Oxford and Windsor Castle, likely viewing the statue of Queen Victoria erected for her Jubilee only a few years earlier. Anyone who prefers the image of Lizzie as one of the infamous murderers of the Victorian Age should note that in 1890, England was still reeling from the Jack the Ripper serial murders that occurred just two years earlier.
Lizzie also visited The Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland, including such sites as the Statue of Bavaria in Munich and the Clock Tower in Bern. In Italy Lizzie visited art galleries in Florence, the Milan Cathedral and took a gondola down the Grand Canal in Venice. She bought most of her photos in Italy, many of them reproductions of the great works of art she undoubtedly viewed in the galleries and cathedrals. In Rome she viewed such sites as St. Peter’s Basilica and the Coliseum, and in France she traveled to Nice and then on to Monte Carlo. In Paris she went to the Louvre and Notre Dame, among other great sites. Lizzie spent nearly five months traveling through places of great beauty and history, viewing classic art and architecture, and all with first class accommodations.
Traveling first class with wealthy companions may have given Lizzie her first taste of what it was like to be a member of high society, but she did need to request additional funds be wired by her father while away on the trip. The trip itself, a possible 30th birthday gift, or perhaps a way to appease Lizzie by offering something equal to her after Emma was sent to the prestigious Wheaton Female Seminary. Either way, shortly after Lizzie’s return, she would inexplicably switch bedrooms with her sister Emma, taking the much larger, sunnier room while older sister Emma took the cramped, darker adjoining room, that had formerly been Lizzie’s. The sisters would remain in these rooms up until the hatchet murders of their father Andrew and step-mother Abby Borden, less than two years later.
Although Lizzie was arrested for the crimes, she was subsequently acquitted and she and her sister then purchased Maplecroft, a large and stately home in a wealthier part of Fall River, after inheriting their father’s fortune. Although Lizzie would travel later in life, there is no evidence that she ever again traveled to Europe.
The impact of the European Grand Tour on Lizzie’s imagination and sensibilities can only be guessed at, but if the crafted care that she put into the composition of her scrapbooks is any indication, she was mesmerized and possibly transformed as a person. Her return to a life of church service, domestic tasks and spinsterhood with only her scrapbooks to remind her of an elegant and romantic life beyond the sea may have changed the way she experienced her home life and the relatively provincial nature of her own Fall River.
Either way, she was about to go down in history in a way none of the Fall River debutantes on the steamship R.M.S. Scythia could have ever predicted about their mysterious cousin from below the Hill.
Happy Birthday Lizzie Borden! Born July 19, 1860.
The second episode of The Lizzie Borden Podcast, produced and directed by Richard Behrens for Nine Muses Books is now available on iTunes and on this blog. This episode was recorded on June 5, 2016. In this Episode we interview Sarah Miller, the author of The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden & The Trial of the Century, published by Random House Children’s Books. Sarah discusses the challenges of researching Lizzie Borden and the Borden Murders of 1892 and how she came to write a children’s book that has since been recognized to be one of the best general purpose book on Lizzie Borden for readers of all ages.
Sarah Miller is the author of two historical fiction novels, Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller, which was called “an accomplished debut” in a starred review from Booklist and was named an ALA-ALSC Notable Children’s Book, andThe Lost Crown, about the Romanovs, hailed as “fascinating” in a starred review from Kirkus Reviews and named an ALA-YALSA Best Book for Young Adults. The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden & The Trial of the Century is her first non-fiction book and has been hailed by Kirkus and the New York Times as a perfectly concise and lively historical account of the Borden Murders of 1892.
Excellent video featuring Michael Martins of the Fall River Historical Society
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Folklore suggests that this jump rope rhyme that assumes Lizzie’s guilt was written anonymously by a reporter and used to sell newspapers during Lizzie’s trial. Whatever the true origin of the rhyme, it has remained part of our pop culture for more than a century despite its myriad of inaccuracies.
Hear more about this rhyme, or doggerel, on the premier episode of The Lizzie Borden Podcast produced by Nine Muses Books, now available on Youtube at https://youtu.be/15lU5bKeVKc
The Lizzie Borden Podcast is written and produced by Richard Behrens and Nine Muses Books, Episode One: The Doggerel (recorded in 2011) provides an insight into the famous “jump rope” song about Lizzie Borden (“Lizzie Borden took an ax, etc.”), its history, its mystery and its legacy in our cultural imagination. Fall River historian and Lizzie Borden scholar Dr. Stefani Koorey and actress/playwright Jill Dalton join us to discuss this naughtily inaccurate ditty. More information on The Lizzie Borden Podcast can be found at http://www.lizziebordenpodcast.com and http://www.lizziebordengirldetective.com.
Dr. Stefani Koorey
Richard Behrens: Writer, Producer, Host
Melora Creager: Music
Additional Music from Lizzie Borden Live by Larry Hockman
Reflecting upon the character the Minuscule Monk, I can’t help but think of Yosemite Sam. This diminutive gunslinger or prospector or pirate or whatever he did for a living was the creation of animator Fritz Freleng for the Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies cartoons in the 1940s. Yosemite Sam was, along with animal hunter Elmer Fudd, the natural enemy of Bugs Bunny (he hated rabbits) and was certainly the tougher hombre. Trapped under prodigious red mustaches that doubled as a bifurcated beard, he toted two blazing Colt .45s that he often fired in every direction as he hopped and leaped in frustration at his failure to catch Bugs Bunny. This hot-headed cowboy appeared under different occupations and names (Chilkoot Sam and Sam Von Schamm the Hessian Soldier were but a few), but his main moniker, derived from Yosemite National Park, suggests a gold rush prospector.
Above all, Yosemite Sam was short, but I never really considered him a midget, The cartoon universe had its own surreal logic (think of Bugs slamming a door on Sam flattening him like a pancake only to see him shrug off his flatness and restore himself to normal shape) and I accepted the name changes, the professional morphing, and the shortness (he didn’t seem that much shorter than Elmer Fudd).
One day in 2008, I was driving through Philadelphia and took out my mini-recorder and proceeded to tell the tale of the Minuscule Monk, a Five Points native transported to the wild West where he had become a notorious gunslinger. It was a spontaneous dictation and lasted all of two minutes, but I did establish the essentials of the character. I even included the long standing bet on whether he possessed certain anatomy in his operatic region. There was no rhyme nor reason to this bit of nonsense, and certainly not any plan to include him into a Lizzie Borden Girl Detective mystery. But it was typical of some of the low brow ideas that hit me while driving through Philadelphia.
Anyway, along came my first attempt at a Lizzie Borden novel and I had need of what Alfred Hitchcock called a MacGuffin, some object like the Maltese Falcon or the Lost Ark that helps drive the logic of the plot but is ultimately just a fetish object that makes everyone in the story go nuts. In my storyline it had to be an easterner who had escaped into the wild West and has returned as a dangerous outlaw. Of course, I thought, The Minuscule Monk!
This is not to say I didn’t have other diminutive gunslinger influences. The most obvious (at least to me) is a 1938 musical western that was filmed with an exclusive cast of little people. The Terror of Tiny Town (dir. Sam Newfield) had been included in a book that used to be my bible: The Fifty Worst Films of All Time by Harry Medved and Randy Dreyfuss. First released in 1979, this whimsical tome introduced me to films such as Robot Monster, Plan 9 from Outer Space and The Conqueror which featured John Wayne as Ghengis Khan. It also included The Terror of Tiny Town which eventually got re-released on VHS tape and is now available , for those who dare, on YouTube.
It is a movie as short as its stars, and lacking in most of the qualities that make up a good film. Even if you ignore the fact that the cowboys, cattle rustlers, outlaws, lawmen, saloon crooners, town drunks, wacky comedy relief, barber shop quartet, bartender, heroes, villains and ranch owners are all midgets, the movie makes for a very boring and clichéd western. The entire novelty of the film is the cast. No one watches this film for its dramatic content or its completely forgettable songs such as “Mister Jack and Missus Jill” and “Laugh Your Troubles Away,” unless of course you watch the film several times like I did and then you can’t get the songs out of your head even if you employ hypnotism.
The Terror of Tiny Town was the brain child of producer Jed Buell, a veteran of the Mack Sennett studios who had been responsible for the Fred Scott singing cowboy movies. Here’s a clip from one of Scott’s films, Moonlight on the Range (a.k.a. Moonlight on the Trail) and is of particular interest since it co-stars Al St. John, Fatty Arbuckle’s nephew and ex-co-star of Buster Keaton. St. John had a second career acting in westerns as the grizzled bean-chowing cowpoke Fuzzy Jones. This clip shows what The Terror of Tiny Town may have been like if Fred Scott has made it as a big star or the actors were full sized. Can you smell an Oscar?
Buell got the concept for The Terror of Tiny Town after a colleague complained that if the economy continues to hurt the film industry, they’ll all have to start hiring midgets as actors to save money. Somehow this sparked a creative storm inside Buell’s head and he quickly arranged for what claims to be the world’s only musical western performed entirely by midgets.
Buell recruited his actors from a vaudeville act called Singer’s Midgets. Produced and managed by Austrian-born Leo Singer who fled to America before WWI with his little troupe in tow, the act was extremely popular in the decades before WWII. The Terror of Tiny Town was their first major foray into motion pictures. Their second film as a troupe was The Wizard of Oz (1939). While the musical western earned a ranking in lists of the worst films ever made, The Wizard of Oz achieved cultural immortality. Several of the Munchkin cast (many of whom doubled as Flying Monkeys) became famous and appeared in high profile films.
The most famous was Billy Curtis who played City Father of Munchkinland and went on to have a fifty year career in Hollywood. He can be seen in High Plains Drifter and Planet of the Apes. He acted the role of Mayor McCheese on McDonald’s TV commercials. There is a Pinterest page to showcase his unsung career.
In The Terror of Tiny Town Curtis plays Buck Lawson, the handsome lead, a cowboy dressed in white, the guitar twanging son of a wealthy ranch owner whose herd is being wrangled by the villain Bat Haines. Bat is played by Little Billy Rhodes, otherwise known as the Barrister of Munchkin City. Bat Haines is rustling cattle from both the Lawson ranch and Tex Preston’s ranch, cross-wiring the two ranch owners and trying to trick them into killing each other. Buck sets out to save his father’s ranch from destruction and eventually uncovers Bat’s conspiracy. Along the way he falls in love with Preston’s niece, played by Yvonne Moray (one of the Lullaby League in Oz) whose speaking voice sounds like she’s from Brooklyn and who provides complete blank stares that pose as emotional responses to deadly situations.
The film gets a lot of mileage out of indirectly making fun of the actors’ height, having them walk under fences and saloon doors without ducking, clambering up and down front stoops, standing on platforms to reach the saloon bar, and holding over-sized pistols that look like they would break every bone in their hands if they ever fired. In fact, most of the sets are full sized, including tremendously tall doors, over sized armchairs, beer mugs and stage coaches. A few exceptions include the use of Shetland ponies as their mounts, giving us the hilarious image of the pint-sized hero riding into heroic deeds on a trotting pony.
What is the secret of the place called Tiny Town? Was it built deliberately out of scale? Were the inhabitants once some lost tribe wandering the desert, finding their oasis in a city abandoned by full sized western folk? Perhaps it’s best not to let your mind go in that direction for that way madness lies. The metaphysics of cinema has many mysteries.
The songs in the film were written by Lew Porter, a prolific soundtrack composer whose credits include mostly B-grade Westerns. As a working musician, he had found his niche that brought home the beans and bacon and he stuck to his guns till the very end. One can dismiss him completely from the stage of world cinema, but The Terror of Tiny Town has the potential to put “Laugh Your Troubles Away” into your mind and then you are stuck with him forever.
The Terror of Tiny Town remains unique in film history. No other filmmaker ever dared to repeat its gimmick, unless you count Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone, but that was made with children, so it cheated. Werner Herzog’s Even Dwarves Started Small wasn’t a Western or a Musical. Yet it is the most extreme exploitation of little people on film that I’ve ever seen. Tiny Town is a rather conventional and cliched movie. Herzog’s film is an art house surrealist nightmare.
The irony of all this is that the Minuscule Monk never found his Tiny Town. He wandered from one full sized camp to another, forever humiliated for his otherness. Along the way he became as mean and hair triggered as Yosemite Sam. The horrors of war twisted him even further. Killing became as natural to him as brushing his teeth – even more so since he was never known to brush his teeth.
As for his childhood in the Five Points of New York, his adventures in the Kansas-Missouri Border Wars, his eventual assassination and mummification, I’ll leave that tale for other posts.
In the meantime, watch (on purpose) a transfer of a battered old VHS copy of The Terror of Tiny Town courtesy of YouTube.
Get your FREE Copy of The Exhausted Amanuensis: A Lizzie Borden Girl Detective Mini-Mystery on Amazon for the next three days.
Introducing Miss Lizzie Borden of Fall River, Massachusetts, a most excellent girl detective and the most remarkable young woman ever to take on the criminal underworld. Many years before her infamous arrest and trial for the murders of her father and stepmother, Lizzie Borden pursued a career as a private consulting detective as chronicled in this clever and imaginative series of short stories. When exiled math professor J. Wellington Welles believes that he is moving backwards in time, Lizzie Borden goes undercover as his personal amanuensis to discover the exact moment of his future murder as well as the name of the killer! Joined by her sister Emma in the somewhat reluctant role of maid-of-all-work, the Girl Detective faces her most puzzling challenge yet, and races against time to solve the problem of the Dark Conclusion. You have met Lizzie Borden before, but never like this!
The Minuscule Monk: A Lizzie Borden Girl, Detective Mystery begins with a quotation from “Antigonish”, a poem by Hughes Mearns (1875–1965).
Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away
I chose this quotation because it perfectly describes the theme that I had woven into the story as a whole. The little man who wasn’t there obviously resonates with the Minuscule Monk himself, and his doubtful existence mirrors the “subjective idealism” coveted by C.B.M. Borden, the boy detective, and his weird delusion that his own mother doesn’t exist.
My first introduction to the lines was a David Bowie album that I bought in 1978 at a West Village record store. Bowie had re-conceived the poem with surrealistic lyrics for the song “The Man Who Sold the World.” It was only after Nirvana resurrected it in a 1994 acoustic grunge version that I discovered the lyrics were referencing the Hughes Mearns poem.
Mearns was a teacher, notably at the Philadelphia School of Pedagogy and later at Columbia University, and part of the progressive movement in American education started by John Dewey. The poem is a logical absurdity, similar to the mind twisting paradoxes in poems by Lewis Carol or Dr. Seuss. One can imagine a school room full of children laughing uproariously at this “little man who wasn’t there,” a sort of anti-matter doppelganger to the poem’s narrator. It isn’t a far leap from this non-existent imp to other tricksters such as Rumpelstiltskin, Superman’s Mr. Mxyzptlk or the Great Gazoo from the Flintstones. One could also think of Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation or Bugs Bunny, all agents of chaos and logical confusion.
Leave it to avant-rock star David Bowie to refashion this elusive but playful character into a much more haunting and surrealistic one.
On a 1970 album release whose lyric references ranged from Friedrich Nietzsche to H.P. Lovecraft to Kahlil Gibran, Bowie inserted a mysterious track called “The Man Who Sold the World”:
We passed upon the stair, we spoke of was and when
Although I wasn’t there, he said I was his friend
Which came as some surprise, I spoke into his eyes
I thought you died alone, a long long time ago
The overall mystical tone of the album is unmistakable. Here the encounter with the Little Man Who Wasn’t There, a relatively amusing character for children who appreciate fairy creatures, is turned into a breakdown of identity and a descent into madness.
Here it is the narrator who is non-existent (“Although I wasn’t there”). They seem to have a past together and the man may or may not be a ghost (“I thought you died alone”). Bowie’s characteristic bending of lyrics into dark paradoxes is reflected in the phrase, “I spoke into his eyes” which is an act that is hard to visualize but is stylistically perfect for this dreamlike song.
Oh no, not me, I never lost control
You’re face to face, With The Man Who Sold The World
“Not me” is reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s “Not I”, another exploration of the fracturing of self-consciousness. Perhaps the “world” that the man in the song has “sold” is a total state of being, experienced only by the narrator in the depths of a madhouse. It could also mean a frightening bout of mental illness in which reality becomes elusive and the victim cannot distinguish between himself and other people.
Some people have speculated if there had been a political message in the song, accented by the cartoon cover art in which a cowboy walks by a Federal-style building with a concealed rifle tucked under his arm. I tend to doubt this interpretation since the cover art really depicts the Cane Hill Mental Asylum in England where David Bowie’s brother Terry had been treated for schizophrenia (Charlie Chaplin’s mother Hannah had been treated at Cane Hill as well). If anything, the song could be an homage to his brother who committed suicide in 1985, too late for the song to be referring to Terry’s death. Bowie was wise to keep the meaning of the song mysterious. It is much more effective that way.
SNL recently posted a video of David Bowie performing this song in 1979 accompanied by back up singers Joey Arias and Klaus Nomi. The surreal costume and make-up were to an American audience used to more conventional rock-and-roll attire. It seemed closer to punk, but was too theatrical, too clean. Bowie had just spent several years working in Berlin where he recorded a trilogy of albums with Brian Eno and had a lot of exposure to the European art and music scene. His act with clownish costumes and mime-like gestures would have fit in beautifully at a Dada festival. In regard to the song, the theatrical effects heightened its sense of otherworldliness.
The song was revived again in 1993 when Nirvana, just months before their lead singers’ suicide, performed an acoustic version on MTV’s unplugged series. In stark contrast to the SNL theatricality, the song is performed by an unshaven grunge artist with uncombed hair and shabby clothing. Cobain’s vocals are gruff with less acting but no less haunting. He makes no eye contact with the audience and at times mumbles the lyrics, but he seems inwardly focused.
Considering that “The Man Who Sold the World” had been an obscure Bowie track from a pre-Ziggy album, the Nirvana performance was many Generation X-ers introduction to the song. The contrast between German 80s art-rock and Seattle 90s grunge can’t be greater, but the song thrived in both treatments because of its timeless and unsettling elements.
While The Minuscule Monk is a few cry from a David Bowie or a Nirvana album, it does depict several characters having crises of consciousness. They all respond in their own characteristic way. Andrew Borden grows increasingly frustrated and becomes mentally confused. C.B.M. Borden, having been raised by a woman of dubious mental stability, is already skeptical of reality and tries to cover it up with philosophical rationalization and a forced self-confidence. Herr Hugo von Trotter, the Truth-Telling Dog, fights back with a violent campaign against human lies, refusing to let them get away with it.
It is only Lizzie who plows forward with a determination to reconstruct reality and expose the truth. But her evidence keeps disappearing, people turn out to be other than what they claimed, and those about her are weaving alternate realities that is counter-productive to her investigation.
For these reasons, the Mearns poem seemed appropriate. It struck a tone, announced a theme. And I have to admit, I had more than a few musical hooks from David Bowie’s song in my mind as I wrote.
It was nice to wake up this morning to see that The Minuscule Monk has been reviewed in the Keene Sentinel. It was a very generous and enthusiastic review. You can read it online. Thanks Steve Sherman!