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The Mysterious Disappearance and Reappearance of Roger Tichborne

It’s a Victorian mystery Sherlock Holmes himself couldn’t have passed up: A tangled case of stolen identity made possible by a deadly shipwreck, complete with wealth, a baronetcy, and fabulous estates at stake. Thought it was one of the most celebrated legal cases of the 19th century, the intriguing tale of the Tichborne Claimant has been all but forgotten today.

THE BACKGROUND

Born into wealth, given an impressive education, and raised in Paris, Roger Tichborne was a worldly man. On April 20, 1854, at age 25, Tichborne finished up a tour of South America and boarded the Bella, a ship headed from Rio De Janeiro to Jamaica. Four days later, its wreckage was found off the Brazilian coast, devoid of any survivors.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Sir James Tichborne, Roger's father, passed away in June 1862, which would have made Roger the 11th Baronet of Tichborne, if he'd been alive. Instead, the title passed to his younger brother Alfred. Perhaps realizing that young Alfred, a man known for his dissolute habits, was not the best choice to head up the family finances, Lady Tichborne contacted a clairvoyant, who assured her that her eldest son was alive and well.

THE DISCOVERY

In addition to the seer’s declaration, rumors swirled that survivors of the Bella wreck had been picked up by a passing ship and dropped off in Australia. Between the rumors and the clairvoyant's report, Lady Tichborne came to believe that her son was still alive, and she was determined to find him. She took out newspaper advertisements, offering “a handsome reward” to anyone who could provide information.

Sydney Morning Herald // Public Domain

After expanding her search to Australian newspapers, Lady Tichborne received her first clue in October 1865, over 10 years after her son's disappearance. During a bankruptcy examination, a butcher named Thomas Castro from Wagga Wagga, Australia, had revealed some interesting information, including the fact that he had survived a shipwreck and owned properties in England. He also happened to smoke a pipe engraved with the initials RCT—Roger's initials.

Pressed by the lawyer (who had seen the newspaper advertisements), Castro admitted that he was, indeed, the long-lost baronet, and began communicating with Lady Tichborne. Though he was a bit cagey about answering certain questions, she became convinced the butcher was her son. Some experts think Lady Tichborne may have been particularly eager to believe that Roger had survived after Alfred drank himself to death in 1866.

Castro/Tichborne, or “the claimant,” as he was often referred to in 19th century accounts, said that after the Bella had sunk, he'd been rescued by a ship called the Osprey, which was bound for Melbourne. Afterward, he'd wandered Australia and eventually took up life in Wagga Wagga as a butcher. His reasons for staying in Australia and not contacting his family remained unclear.

After communicating with Lady Tichborne, the claimant moved to Sydney to make plans to return to England, including borrowing travel money under the strength of the Tichborne name. At the urging of the lawyer who "discovered" him, the butcher also wrote a will, which raised a few eyebrows. It wasn’t the act itself that was surprising, but some of the contents within: He mentioned family properties that didn’t exist and referred to his mother as “Hannah Frances” when her name was Henrietta.

While the claimant was in Sydney, he happened to run into two former Tichborne family servants, men that had known Roger well. Both of them believed the claimant was Roger, though one of them quickly recanted after “Roger” badgered him for money.

Identifying the man wasn’t exactly straightforward—if it was Roger, he had gained quite a bit of weight. Before he left for South America, Tichborne had been very thin. When the servants ran into him more than a decade later, he was up to nearly 200 pounds. He put on an additional 20 during his time in Sydney and gained another 40 pounds by the time he arrived back in England on Christmas Day 1866. By 1871, the claimant was nearly 400 pounds. While some believed that he was merely enjoying being a man of means once again, others wondered if he was trying to purposely obscure his appearance.

THE REUNION

Upon his arrival in England, the claimant tried to call on Lady Tichborne, but found she was away in Paris. Next, he went to East London and inquired after a family named Orton. They, too, were unavailable, having moved away from the area entirely. He told a neighbor that he was friends with Arthur Orton, who, he mentioned, was now one of the richest men in Australia.

When the claimant eventually reunited with his mother, she immediately proclaimed him her son and gave him a monthly allowance of £1000. However, Lady Tichborne was practically alone in her acceptance of the man. A few family acquaintances were in the claimant’s corner, including a family doctor who claimed he saw a physical resemblance. Also helping his case was the fact that he remembered small details from his childhood, such as a fly fishing tackle he liked to use, specific clothing he used to wear, and the name of a family dog.

But there were also things working against him. His correspondence with his mother was full of misspellings and grammatical errors, though Roger had been extremely well educated. And the claimant lacked a French accent or even an understanding of the language, both of which Roger had, since he was raised largely in Paris. He didn’t recognize his father’s handwriting, and couldn’t remember anything about the boarding college he went to. Also, before Roger left for South America, he left a package with a family servant. The claimant wasn’t able to describe what was in the package.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Of course, he explained all this away by claiming that the shipwreck had been extremely traumatic, scrambling his memory and affecting him in other mysterious ways. And even with all of those suspicious issues, Lady Tichborne believed in the claimant, so there was little that anyone could do about it. Then in 1868 she died, eliminating his only advocate and costing him emotional and financial support.

THE TRIALS

In May 1871, the claimant was part of a civil trial that required him to prove that he was, indeed, Roger Tichborne. Investigators had done plenty of digging on him over the years in Australia, and had found a plethora of people who identified him as Arthur Orton, the son of a butcher from Wapping, London, who had made his way to Australia to make a living and at some point taken the name of Tom Castro. The prosecutors theorized that when Lady Tichborne’s advertisements were published in Australia, Orton saw an opportunity to improve his standing in life. The servants he happened upon in Sydney may have provided pertinent details about Roger's life in exchange for money or the promise of money.

At the trial, the claimant avoided answering questions about his relationship with Arthur Orton and denied that they were one and the same. The prosecution was prepared to call in more than 200 witnesses to argue the point, but in the end, it turned out that Tichborne had tattoos the claimant didn’t possess.

The jury rejected the suit, but a criminal trial now had to be held to determine if the claimant was guilty of perjury. The resulting trial ended up being the longest ever in English court, lasting 188 court days. The evidence against the claimant was abundant, including testimony from a handwriting expert who said that the claimant’s penmanship matched Orton’s, not Tichborne’s. Another damning piece of evidence: While a ship called the Osprey had, indeed, arrived in Australia, it didn’t match the claimant's description. Furthermore, he couldn’t name the crew members or captain, and ship logs didn’t mention picking up shipwreck survivors—an event that probably would have been noteworthy enough to jot down.

It took the jury just half an hour to find the mystery man guilty; he ended up serving 10 years of a 14-year prison sentence. In all that time, he only admitted that he was Arthur Orton once—and it was because a journalist paid him for the confession. Once he had the money, the claimant immediately retracted the statement and went back to asserting that he was Roger Tichborne, even though he no longer sought the money, fame, or properties associated with the name.

THE CONCLUSION

When he died in 1898—fittingly, perhaps, on April Fool’s Day—the claimant was buried as a pauper. However, in a confusing move, the Tichborne family allowed a plaque to be placed on the coffin identifying the man within as “Sir Roger Charles Doughty Tichborne.” The same name was also listed on the death certificate, and registered with the cemetery burial records.

More than a century later, we still don't definitively know the fate of Roger Tichborne—and unless the family consents to DNA testing, we probably never will.

[h/t: Futility Closet]

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Pop Culture
Fumbled: The Story of the United States Football League
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davi_deste via eBay

There were supposed to be 44 players marching to the field when the visiting Los Angeles Express played their final regular season game against the Orlando Renegades in June 1985.

Thirty-six of them showed up. The team couldn’t afford more.

“We didn’t even have money for tape,” Express quarterback Steve Young said in 1986. “Or ice.” The squad was so poor that Young played fullback during the game. They only had one, and he was injured.

Other teams had ridden school buses to practice, driven three hours for “home games,” or shared dressing room space with the local rodeo. In August 1986, the cash-strapped United States Football League called off the coming season. The league itself would soon vaporize entirely after gambling its future on an antitrust lawsuit against the National Football League. The USFL argued the NFL was monopolizing television time; the NFL countered that the USFL—once seen as a promising upstart—was being victimized by its own reckless expansion and the wild spending of team owners like Donald Trump.

They were both right.

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Spring football. That was David Dixon’s pitch. The New Orleans businessman and football advocate—he helped get the Saints in his state—was a fan of college ball and noticed that spring scrimmages at Tulane University led to a little more excitement in the air. With a fiscally responsible salary cap in place and a 12-team roster, he figured his idea could be profitable. Market research agreed: a hired broadcast research firm asserted 76 percent of fans would watch what Dixon had planned.

He had no intention of grappling with the NFL for viewers. That league’s season aired from September through January, leaving a football drought March through July. And in 1982, a players’ strike led to a shortened NFL season, making the idea of an alternative even more appealing to networks. Along with investors for each team region, Dixon got ABC and the recently-formed ESPN signed to broadcast deals worth a combined $35 million over two years.

When the Chicago Blitz faced the Washington Federals on the USFL’s opening day March 6, 1983, over 39,000 fans braved rain at RFK Stadium in Washington to see it. The Federals lost 28-7, foreshadowing their overall performance as one of the league’s worst. Owner Berl Bernhard would later complain the team played like “untrained gerbils.”

Anything more coordinated might have been too expensive. The USFL had instituted a strict $1.8 million salary cap that first year to avoid franchise overspending, but there were allowances made so each team could grab one or two standout rookies. In 1983, the big acquisition was Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, who opted out of his senior year at Georgia to turn pro. Walker signed with the New Jersey Generals in a three-year, $5 million deal.

Jim Kelly and Steve Young followed. Stan White left the Detroit Lions. Marcus Dupree left college. The rosters were built up from scratch using NFL cast-offs or prospects from nearby colleges, where teams had rights to “territorial” drafts.

To draw a line in the sand, the USFL had advertising play up the differences between the NFL’s product and their own. Their slogan, “When Football Was Fun,” was a swipe at the NFL’s increasingly draconian rules regarding players having any personality. They also advised teams to run a series of marketable halftime attractions. The Denver Gold once offered a money-back guarantee for attendees who weren’t satisfied. During one Houston Gamblers game, boxer George Foreman officiated a wedding. Cars were given away at Tampa Bay Bandits games. The NFL, the upstart argued, stood for the No Fun League.

For a while, it appeared to be working. The Panthers, which had invaded the city occupied by the Detroit Lions, averaged 60,000 fans per game, higher than their NFL counterparts. ABC was pleased with steady ratings. The league was still conservative in their spending.

That would change—many would argue for the worse—with the arrival of Donald Trump.

Despite Walker’s abilities on the field, his New Jersey Generals ended the inaugural 1983 season at 6-12, one of the worst records in the league. The excitement having worn off, owner J. Walter Duncan decided to sell the team to real estate investor Trump for a reported $5-9 million.

A fixture of New York media who was putting the finishing touches on Trump Tower, Trump introduced two extremes to the USFL. His presence gave the league far more press attention than it had ever received, but his bombastic approach to business guaranteed he wouldn’t be satisfied with an informal salary cap. Trump spent and spent some more, recruiting players to improve the Generals. Another Heisman winner, quarterback Doug Flutie, was signed to a five-year, $7 million contract, the largest in pro football at the time. Trump even pursued Lawrence Taylor, then a player for the New York Giants, who signed a contract saying that, after his Giants contract expired, he’d join Trump’s team. The Giants wound up buying out the Taylor/Trump contract for $750,000 and quadrupled Taylor’s salary, and Trump wound up with pages of publicity.

Trump’s approach was effective: the Generals improved to 14-4 in their sophomore season. But it also had a domino effect. In order to compete with the elevated bar of talent, other team owners began spending more, too. In a race to defray costs, the USFL approved six expansion teams that paid a buy-in of $6 million each to the league.

It did little to patch the seams. Teams were so cash-strapped that simple amenities became luxuries. The Michigan Panthers dined on burnt spaghetti and took yellow school buses to training camp; players would race to cash checks knowing the last in line stood a chance of having one bounce. When losses became too great, teams began to merge with one another: The Washington Federals became the Orlando Renegades. By the 1985 season, the USFL was down to 14 teams. And because the ABC contract required the league to have teams in certain top TV markets, ABC started withholding checks.

Trump was unmoved. Since taking over the Generals, he had been petitioning behind the scenes for the other owners to pursue a shift to a fall season, where they would compete with the NFL head on. A few owners countered that fans had already voiced their preference for a spring schedule. Some thought it would be tantamount to league suicide.

Trump continued to push. By the end of the 1984 season, he had swayed opinion enough for the USFL to plan on one final spring block in 1985 before making the move to fall in 1986.

In order to make that transition, they would have to win a massive lawsuit against the NFL.

In the mid-1980s, three major networks meant that three major broadcast contracts would be up for grabs—and the NFL owned all three. To Trump and the USFL, this constituted a monopoly. They filed suit in October 1984. By the time it went to trial in May 1986, the league had shrunk from 18 teams to 14, hadn’t hosted a game since July 1985, kept only threadbare rosters, and was losing what existing television deals it had by migrating to smaller markets (a major part of the NFL’s case was that the real reason for the lawsuit, and the moves to smaller markets, was to make the league an attractive takeover prospect for the NFL). The ruling—which could have forced the NFL to drop one of the three network deals—would effectively become the deciding factor of whether the USFL would continue operations.

They came close. A New York jury deliberated for 31 hours over five days. After the verdict, jurors told press that half believed the NFL was guilty of being a monopoly and were prepared to offer the USFL up to $300 million in damages; the other half thought the USFL had been crippled by its own irresponsible expansion efforts. Neither side would budge.

To avoid a hung jury, it was decided they would find in favor of the USFL but only award damages in the amount of $1. One juror told the Los Angeles Times that she thought it would be an indication for the judge to calculate proper damages.

He didn’t. The USFL was awarded treble damages for $3 in total, an amount that grew slightly with interest after time for appeal. The NFL sent them a payment of $3.76. (Less famously, the NFL was also ordered to pay $5.5 million in legal fees.)

Rudy Shiffer, vice-president of the Memphis Showboats, summed up the USFL's fate shortly after the ruling was handed down. “We’re dead,” he said.

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entertainment
The Time Douglas Adams Met Jim Henson
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On September 13, 1983, Jim Henson and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams had dinner for the first time. Henson, who was born on this day in 1936, noted the event in his "Red Book" journal, in characteristic short-form style: "Dinner with Douglas Adams – 1st met." Over the next few years the men discussed how they might work together—they shared interests in technology, entertainment, and education, and ended up collaborating on several projects (including a Labyrinth video game). They also came up with the idea for a "Muppet Institute of Technology" project, a computer literacy TV special that was never produced. Henson historians described the project as follows:

Adams had been working with the Henson team that year on the Muppet Institute of Technology project. Collaborating with Digital Productions (the computer animation people), Chris Cerf, Jon Stone, Joe Bailey, Mark Salzman and Douglas Adams, Jim’s goal was to raise awareness about the potential for personal computer use and dispel fears about their complexity. In a one-hour television special, the familiar Muppets would (according to the pitch material), “spark the public’s interest in computing,” in an entertaining fashion, highlighting all sorts of hardware and software being used in special effects, digital animation, and robotics. Viewers would get a tour of the fictional institute – a series of computer-generated rooms manipulated by the dean, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and stumble on various characters taking advantage of computers’ capabilities. Fozzie, for example, would be hard at work in the “Department of Artificial Stupidity,” proving that computers are only as funny as the bears that program them. Hinting at what would come in The Jim Henson Hour, viewers, “…might even see Jim Henson himself using an input device called a ‘Waldo’ to manipulate a digitally-controlled puppet.”

While the show was never produced, the development process gave Jim and Douglas Adams a chance to get to know each other and explore a shared passion. It seems fitting that when production started on the 2005 film of Adams’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would create animatronic creatures like the slovenly Vogons, the Babel Fish, and Marvin the robot, perhaps a relative of the robot designed by Michael Frith for the MIT project.

You can read a bit on the project more from Muppet Wiki, largely based on the same article.

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