Episode 21 - A Bit Heavy on the Dynamite (America Week)
Updated: Apr 19
Sam's Episode Notes: The (short lived) state of Muskagee.
Before we get into this, I've got a couple of That Was Genius honourable mentions to the parts of the US that aren’t - or haven’t always – been so keen to fly under the stars and stripes.
And there’s been loads – not just the obvious civil war secessionist states, but on many occasions micro states have sprung up within the US and either declared their independence or attempted to get official recognition. Most fizzled out after two or three years and consisted of little more than a town or two between two state or national borders. Plenty more were just independence minded crazy-folk, because why be free when you can be ultra-free?
The Vermont Republic was one of the more interesting ones – When the 13 colonies rebelled against the British, there was a 14th colony, Vermont, which didn’t just declare against the empire – it also declared independence against New York and New Hampshire due to their perceived land grabs in the territory. And when I say it was independent, it really was - to the extent that armed militia known as the Green Mountain boys expelled New York officials from the territory, as well as sending troops to fight the British. They had official diplomatic relations with France and the Netherlands.
Their log-term aim was to be part of the USA – but as a self-governing state, not a series of vassal townships to the other colonies.
At one point, Vermont even at one point made overtures to British Canada to join it and therefore rejoin the British empire, though as the war turned in the colonies’ favour it abandoned that idea and instead demanded recognition as the 14th state.
The republic lasted from 1777 to 1791 and was really very advanced. It constitutionally banned slavery, long before anyone else did. It had a postal service and its own currency, the Vermont Copper.
It was eventually recognised after agreeing to pay New York $30,000 for the settlement of the perceived land grabs.
The Republic of Molossia
And a very brief shout out to the Republic of Molossia, a self-delared microstate and military dictatorship and bordered by the USA on all sides. It’s based in Dayton, Nevada and consists of four houses – not all joined together so there’s some USA between them - on around 6 acres of land. It’s ruled with an iron fist by president Kevin Baugh, who declared independence in 1977, though the modern republic wasn’t formed until 1999. It has a population of 24, speaks Esperanto as the official language, a national anthem, has its own time zone which is 7 hours and 41 minutes behind GMT, and is still at war with East Germany.
But of all the – frankly – dozens of unlikely and/or nutty independent states, there’s one which really sticks out to me.
And that’s the State of Muskogee – an independent nation in what is now Florida made up of native Americans, exiled colonists and Spaniards, and more than a few pirates, which got international recognition from the UK thanks to its charismatic leader, founder and lynchpin, William Augustus Bowles.
Bowles was a loyalist from Maryland. He’d joined the British army in 1778 as a junior officer aged just 14, and was garrisoned in Penascola, Florida. Pretty quickly, he was booted out for insubordination, and fled north to live among the native american tribes, where he quickly found himself much more at home. He became fluent in several languages and marrying several Cherokee and Muscogee wives, becoming heir apparent to one of the local chiefdoms and closely related to several more in the process. He was a feared and respected warrior among the tribes, leading a war band in the Battle of Penascola in 1781 during the Gulf campaign, in which the Spanish seized large parts of Florida and the Gulf from the British.
He became something of an outcast, attacking trading posts (many of which were ironically British owned but trading under Spanish occupation) and began to form the idea of a native American and British seperatist state which would act as a stopper to the USA, which was rapidly expanding South. He put his idea to the Spanish in January 1792, who pretty quickly arrested him instead, given that he’d been repeatedly stirring up trouble, had been attacking trading posts, and had fought against them at Penascola.
Now the Spanish knew that no ordinary wooden stockade would do to imprison a seperatist with a loyal local following and military experience, so they pretty quickly got him the hell out of dodge – first imprisoning him in Cuba, then Madrid, then eventually all the way out in Manilla in the Phillipines. So a real world tour of penal colonies.
And here’s where the adventure really begins. The Spanish were right not to trust someone as troublesome as Bowles. Whilst he was being transported from Manilla back to Spain for another prison swap, he managed to escape and steal a ship headed for Africa, sailing first for Britain, then Nassau to gather supporters before sailing for Florida again.
He landed in Apalachiocola Bay in the middle of 1799, after seven years in prison and on the run, and immediately declared the independence of the Muscogee nation, with himself as the commander in chief and Director General. Because if there’s one thing we know about native Americans, it’s their great history of director generals. He claimed independence on the basis that a 1796 treaty between the US and Spain was null and void because it completely ignored the Native American claims and sovreignty on the land – which is fair enough, really, and immediately threatened to declare war on both of them unless they returned the seized lands to their rightful owners. It should be noted at this point that Britain was at war with France and Spain, and that conflict was still being played out in their respective colonies, so he had PLENTY of British support to annoy the Spaniards.
He pretty quickly bought off any tribes and chieftains that weren’t loyal to him with enormous amounts of gunpowder, and promises of much more once they got back to the day job of looting trading posts and store houses. He also pissed off a lot of local landowners by welcoming with open arms any and all escaped slaves, as well as more than a few buccaneers and Spanish deserters.
They had some initial setbacks – the Spanish attacked and forced them to relocate their capital city pretty early on, but they got a pretty strong foothold in the area under Bowles’ leadership. British adventurers from the Bahamas were offered cushty Government jobs as administrators and governors. They even built a navy consisting of three ships which had quite a lot of success at raiding Spanish shipping in the gulf.
This got the Spanish pretty pissed off and they sent several expeditions to destroy the nation, all of which fell foul of some disaster or another. The republic was getting more and more powerful.
Somewhat ironically, it was actually peace that started to crack the republic.
Tom's notes: Elmer McCurdy · A man so useless he couldn’t even die properly
No apologies for bad American accents this week; Americans murder the English accent on a regular basis
· Dick van Dyke
· Russel Crow; famously walked out of an interview when asked by a British journalist to explain his accent
· Don Cheadle in Oceans 11
Setting the scene
· 1976, season 4 of cult American television series the Six Million Dollar Man is being shot in Los Angeles
o A program about NASA Astronaut Colonel Steve Austin, played by Lee Majors, who is rebuild with bionic limbs and a super fancy eye
o The episode is called ‘Carnival of Spies’ and our hero discovers an East German plot to blow up a new B2-Bomber using a device hidden in various carnival rides
§ Shooting a massive bumper car out of a human cannon
§ Flinging an explosive candy floss out of a tea cup ride
§ Whack-a-mole with a dynamite mole
§ Hammer strongman game launching a giant cuddly toy
o Very Scooby doo!
· One of the film crew is investigating a ride called “laff in the dark” when he bumps into a wax mannequin of a man hanging from a noose looking rather worse for wear. The arm falls off to reveal muscle fibres and bones!
· The body is taken to Los Angeles coroner’s office and the following is revealed:
o The individual died from a gunshot wound to the chest
o The body was completely petrified
§ It was covered in a layer of wax
§ Hair was visible in areas
§ Ears, big toes and fingers were missing
§ Arsenic was present; this was used in embalming fluid up until the late 1920s
§ The individual had tuberculosis
§ The bullet jacket was discovered; it was used from around 1905 to 1940
§ Inside the mouth was a 1924 penny and a ticket stub from the Louis Sonney Museum of Crime
o A relative of Louise Sonney was contacted and he told the police that this was the body of one Elmer McCurdy which was confirmed by other means
So who was Elmer McCurdy and how did he end up in the corner of a carnival ride in 1970s Los Angeles?!
Elmer McCurdy was a useless twat.
· I actually have sympathy for him; he had an unpleasant and unfortunate life
· He was the illegitimate child of a 17 year old Washington girl, possibly the result of a consanguineous (con sang gwin eus) relationship – she was bonking her cousin!
o He was more inbred than a sack of wheat
· Born in 1880. By the age of 20 his real mother, adopted father and grandfather had died. He knew he was adopted but didn’t know who his father was. He turned to drink and started being rebellious
· As a young man he drifted from job to job, continually having problems with his alcoholism
· 1907 he joined the US Army and was based in Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.
· For around 3 years worked as a machine gun operator and he had some training in the use of nitro-glycerine; although not enough as we will find out!
· In late 1910 he finds himself in a Kansas jail for carrying a bag full of gear for robberies. This is the start of the end of McCurdy; it’s the start of his turning to crime.
o Crime doesn’t pay
o “The only bag McCurdy was carrying was a first class bag to a life of crime”
McCurdy was a shit criminal
· This is the era of Al Capone, Baby Face Nelson, Bonnie and Clyde, Nucky Johnson, Bugsy Siegel, John Dillinger
· March 1911 he and some chums decide to rob the Iron Mountain-Missouri Pacific train because they’d heard that it contained $4000.
o They stopped the train, located the safe and McCurdy used his nitro-glycerine skills to completely demolish the safe so that most of the money was destroyed in the completely excessive blast. Much of the coinage was actually melted to the inside of the remains of the safe! They managed to get away with around $450.
· September 1911 he and some chums decided to rob a bank in a small town in Kansas.
o The gang spend 2 hours using hammers to get through a wall
§ How did no one spot this!?
o When they got through the wall, McCurdy again used his nitro-glycerine skills to attempt to blow up the door to one of the bank’s vaults.
§ He used so much nitro-glycerine again that the door flew off and completely demolished the inside of the bank
§ You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off
o Anyway, they locate a safe and McCurdy gets to work again - stand back boys!
§ This time, probably a good thing, the fuse doesn’t light and McCurdy’s accomplices decided to bugger off rather than risk witnessing more of McCurdy’s skills!
· They get away with a mere $150
· October 1911 he and his gang attempt to rob a Katy Train; Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railway line
o They’d heard that it contained $400,000 as a royalty payment to the Osage Nation – a major Native American Tribe.
o However, he stopped the bloody wrong train!
§ A passenger train
o He gets away with $46 from a mail clerk, two demi-johns of whiskey and the conductors watch.
· Now I run a small business Sam and I like to see returns on my investments. If I take risks, I do so if the rewards are great. McCurdy took great risks, and gained fuck all!
A few days later McCurdy is discovered by police with bloodhounds sleeping in a hay loft. McCurdy is pissed as a fart and decided to shoot at them. The police unload on him and he is killed by a bullet to the chest.
This is 1911! How did it take him 75 years to get buried!!!?
So McCurdy is taken to an undertaker who embalms his body whilst he waited for a next of kin to request the body.
· Nobody requested it. So what do you do? You dress him up and put him on display outside your premises and charge people to see him!
· Clearly this was a brilliant idea with no ethical issues, because the undertake was constantly receiving offers for the corpse!
o Not from relatives, but from circuses, carnivals and freak shows
· This era really does seem to have the origins of the honourable American pastime of gawking at the less fortunate and more retarded members of society – Jerry Springer
· In 1916 the undertaker receives a few phone calls from people claiming to be McCurdy’s relatives. They demand the body and are duly given it.
o It turns out that they are the Patterson brothers, owners of a Kansas travelling carnival
o Damn those Patterson brothers!
· In 1922 this carnival is sold to Louis Sonney who displays McCurdy in his museum of crime alongside wax-works of famous criminals
· In 1928 it was displayed as part of the trans-American foot race – a multi-day running race
o If our story about doping the early years of the Tour De France is anything to go by, the competitors were probably as alert as McCurdy’s corpse by the end of the race
· In the 1930s the corpse was displayed in cinemas alongside a film about the dangers or narcotic
· In the 1950s and 1960s the body was stored in a warehouse before being sold to the owner of the Hollywood Wax Museum alongside wax works of criminals
o Presumably it is at this point that people forget it’s actually a corpse
· The body was briefly used in a show at Mount Rushmore before ending up in the ‘Laff in the Dark’ show at ‘The Pike’ and amusement zone in Long Beach California
o Nothing funny than a misfortunate man’s body being mutilated, played with and gawked at for 75 years.
o “It’s what they should do to peados sam”