Thursday, October 28, 2010

Debacle Trojan Style

Last Saturday, the Wildcats channeled former head coach Dennis Green in an excruciating loss to Big Ten front-runners Michigan State. Thoughts about State were proven correct. Hooks were let off. Asses may possibly have been crowned.

Although Northwestern fans might react to the game by gnashing their teeth and thrashing their footmen (the old gnash and thrash is a Northwestern tradition), I suggest they stay their hands, their canes, and their sharpened monocles. The Wildcats looked very good against a legitimate Big Ten title contender and have traditionally finished strong in the Pat Fitzgerald era. In particular, the emergence of freshmen Venric Mark, Rashard Lawrence, and Adonis Smith are encouraging, not least because an outstanding game from Smith has crusty sports editors on high pun alert.

A consortium of sports editors stand at the ready to
deploy Adonis-related headlines comparing the
Wildcat running back to the mythical figure
conceived by some sort of combination of incest and


The turning point of the game came on a Michigan State fake punt in which the Spartan offense took a delay of game penalty to disguise their duplicitous intentions, then had the punter heave a strike to a wide-open receiver. Dantonio masterminded a similar trick play against Notre Dame earlier this season. It is no fun to be the victim of a trick play, but losing a football game is a minor consequence compared to some more underhanded trickery. You could, for example, find yourself stranded in a jungle on the Mosquito Coast of Honduras with only your wits and piles of the nineteenth century equivalent of arcade tokens.

That is what happened to the victims of Gregor MacGregor, a Scottish adventurer who managed to sell off large parcels of prime coastal real estate to hopeful would-be colonists whose adventure soured when they realized that the country they had hoped to colonize did not technically exist.

Gregor MacGregor (left), shared with Lord Gordon-Gordon a penchant for
redundantly-named Scottish swindlery, although he came by his name
honestly. Gordon-Gordon was one of many aliases for a nineteenth
century confidence man who also went by Lord Glencairn and the
Honourable Herbert Hamilton

MacGregor was a military adventurer at a time when one could simply traipse over to the Western Hemisphere and start annexing territory with nary an admonishment. MacGregor successfully raised enough money and men to fulfill the reasonable dream of invading Florida in 1817 to remove it from the yoke of Spanish oppression. Instead, he spent the money, his men deserted and he mustered only enough of a force to take Amelia Island (off the coast of Florida near present-day Jacksonville) and set up a republic under the charge of Louis-Michel Aury, who had been building his leadership credentials by running a nest of pirates out of Galveston. The island fell to the United States several months later as part of the U.S. campaign to seize East Florida.

Florida divided into East and West in 1810 during the reign of Napoleon's
brother Joseph over Spain. By the time of the U.S. took over Florida in 1819,
Bourbon Monarch Ferdinand VII (right) had taken over. Ferdinand,
imprisoned for six years during the Napoleonic rule of Spain, fell again to a
coup in 1820, before coming back to power after which, in the words of the
author of his wikipedia page, "he revenged himself with a ferocity which
disgusted his far from liberal allies." The same page notes that he later
became "torpid, bloated and unpleasant to look at" which is sort of a default
Bourbon monarch setting

But MacGregor's greatest coup came after his return to Britain in 1820. There, he ingratiated himself into the horse-racing, muttonchop-growing, rabble-scattering, society types and began telling people that he had become Cacique (prince) of the Principality of Poyais off the coast of Honduras by the blessing of King Frederic Augustus II of the Mosquito Shore. He published a book describing the region as developed and friendly to British settlement and began selling land to colonists eager to live in this earthly paradise.

In 1822 and 1823, two ships full of would-be settlers left for Poyais, but instead of a glistening settlement friendly to the British, they found a jungle friendly mainly to tropical disease and the occasional hermit and nowhere to redeem their worthless Poyais dollars. The wretched survivors escaped on a ship that had come to give gifts to Frderic Augustus (or, as contemporary documents referred to him, the Mosquito King) to Belize. This document is chock-full of details of the Poyasian scheme, with transcripts from a lawsuit against the British Honduran authorities accusing them of seizing property from the Poyais settlers. It not only serves as virtual handbook of eighteenth century synonyms for wretchedness, but also serves as a handbook of miscellaneous Poyasian documents.

A copy of the oath to be taken by Poyasians to swear
loyalty to MacGregor. Other correspondence in the

reveals that MacGregor took, among
his various bogus royal titles, the wonderful alias
Baron Tinto

Undaunted, MacGregor attempted to run the same Poyasian scheme in France, this time calling in the big guns by turning to someone actually named Gustavus Butler Hippisley. The alert French authorities, curious as to why French citizens were attempting to obtain documents to travel to a country that as far as they could tell did not exist, halted the expedition and arrested MacGregor associates including Hippisley and eventually MacGregor himself. Still undeterred, MacGregor continued to fashion Poyasian constitutional documents and sell Poyais-related land and stock until the lat 1830s. The most fascinating part of the story is his investment in the fictional land of Poyais; it seemed not to occur to him that after being caught in a grandiose scheme of making up a country, he could just as easily pull another fake country out of thin air without having to deal with the baggage of the Poyasian legacy of not being a place on the surface of this planet, Earth.


Perhaps the greatest British confidence man was William Chaloner, a forger, counterfeiter, and purveyor of dildos in late seventeenth century London. Chaloner excelled in three main schemes: counterfeiting coins, fabricating Jacobite plots in order to muster government rewards, and turning on associates. Chaloner was not shy about becoming an informant about criminal schemes which he was involved in just before the authorities came in; he named names, he blackmailed accusers, and he funded whimsical bucolic holidays for witnesses that could finger him.

This would normally be the part of the story where I describe how Chaloner went too far and crossed the Royal Mint, but I don't think it was possible for Chaloner to go too far. It's not as if he was some sort of scheming heist mastermind planning one job at a time. Instead, Chaloner existed as the eye of a whirlwind of spectacularly multifaceted and continuous criminal activity on a remarkable scale, and his undoing came from circumstances leading him into the crosshairs of a Sir Isaac Newton.

A BYCTOM estimation of a typical week of Chaloner activity

Newton ran afoul of Chaloner when he became warden of the Royal Mint in 1696 with the job of investigating counterfeiting. He broke up a machine coining operation and arrested one of Chaloner's associates. Chaloner attempted to infiltrate the Mint himself by cooking up false conspiracies of corruption among Mint officials, going so far to name one of his own aliases as a co-conspirator in a flamboyant display of criminal confidence. While gallivanting around Parliament, denouncing schemes that he would certainly take part in if he got a job at the Mint, Newton recognized him as a counterfeiting suspect. By 1699, Newton swore to take Chaloner down and recruited an underworld network of spies and Chaloner associates. Chaloner deployed an unstoppable three-step defense: feigning madness, peppering all particpants in the trial with a barrage of insults, and finally claiming that his operations fell outside of the court's London jurisdiction. He was hanged.


Northwestern will be looking for redemption and continuing a quixotic quest for bowl eligibility on Saturday against Indiana. The Hoosiers will test Northwestern's defense with their prolific offense, and hopefully Pat Fitzgerald will test the Hoosiers with a variety of trick plays and confidence schemes that will baffle the Indiana defense and defraud supporters. When the dust settles, Wildcat fans will be hoping that no one will be who anyone thought they were, there will be no hooks for anyone to be let off of, and asses will remain blissfully crownless.


Tim said...

Despite the endless wealth of blog-readers writing tomes of comments nowadays, I don't see much response literature here. Either you don't have very opinionated readers or you've beaten them into a suppressed and speechless pulp with your academia word-hammer. I'm going with the latter. Go 'Cats!

Leslie Jabara said...

@Tim, I think it's the latter. We are all speechless when presented with BYCTOM's genius.

BYCTOM, please never change.

Anonymous said...

No possible response exists to BYCTOM. You just have to relax and enjoy it.