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  • That Was Genius Team

Episode 82 - Elton John (Alcohol Week)

Updated: Oct 12, 2020

Sam's Notes: Toe cocktails

Well, Tom. Today I've got a particularly silly urban legend for you. It's a little bit dubious history, but mostly it's just a very real and horrible drinking game.

I started off looking at great drunken mistakes or bets of history, but it's all stuff that's fairly well known about – Cleopatra drinking her pearls in drunken bet with Marc Anthony that she could spend ten million sisterci on dinner, that kind of thing.

Then I went down the path of great booze related disasters, such as the Boston molasses flood of 1919, in which a tank containing some 2.3 million gallons of molasses owned by the purity distilling company burst due to hot weather and flooded the streets with a wall of tracle travelling at 35mph, killing 21 people. There was a similar disaster in Tottenham court road in London in 1814 in which a number of breweries were competing to have the biggest vats around, and one at the Horse Show Brewery finally burst, taking another one with it and releasing around 350,000 gallons of beer in a 15 foot high wave into the slum behind the brewery, flooding several cellars and killing 7 people. But that, whilst interesting, isn't especially fun.

So instead I went down the route of local drinking legends, because I grew up near Salisbury Cathedral, Zdrazvuytya to our four regular Russian listeners. Tallest in Europe. Big respect. And near the cathedral there's a pub called the haunch of venison, built for the cathedral workers in medieval times. It's still open today - where a hand was found in the wall, supposedly severed from a gambler caught cheating at cards.

It's probably nonsense, but that got me down the route of other drinking legends, and I've found a horrible and stupid one that probably isn't true, but has turned into a very real and equally horrible tradition. Unless you have a foot fetish, that is.

Yes, Tom. Today I'm talking about Louie Linken and the Sourtoe cocktail, a rather grim tale from Dawson City in Yukon, Canada. It's the second largest town in all of Yukon, with a gargantuan population of something like 1,300. BUT it's got a lot of history, being a major part of the klondike gold rush in the late 19th century.

It's also, being on the border with Alaska, the perfect spot for a bit of smuggling, to the nearby big cities of Chicken, population 7, and Eagle, population 86. All the fun of naming your frontier settlement after any old shit that you can see. In fact, someone named one settlement Eagle Village, after the nearby village of Eagle. Which was named after an eagle. There's also a nearby town of Jack Wade, named after someone they could see called Jack Wade, Salcha, named by someone with mouth braces and a jar of tangy Mexican condiment, and Tena Cross, named after two sanitary towels laid one on top of the other at right angles.

And it's among this frontier lifestyle of gold digging and rum running that we find Louie and Otto linkin, a pair of hardy 1930s Danish emigrees to the Canadian wilderness with an eye on a profit, and not a weather forecast. Because on one trip, dogsledding moonshine over the border, the two men were caught in a blizzard. Whilst they made it to a nearby shelter, Louie had the bad fortune to step in a puddle or stream on the way. He got frostbite, and his toe froze solid in the brutal north-west Canadian winter.

Fearing gangrene and over 60 miles from the nearest doctor in the middle of nowhere, he took the decision to chop off the dead toe with an axe or a chisel – some stories suggest his brother did it, before pickled his own toe in salt and the moonshine he was smuggling, God knows why, presumably to stop it rotting out their cabin when spring came. They then took it home to Dawson city. The thing is, whilst spring came, no one else did. The cabin, and the toe, were abandoned for over 50 years until the appendage was discovered by one Captain Dick Stevenson, a local tourist boat owner who was cleaning up after buying the shack in 1973.

He got drunk with some local reporters, and told them about the toe – and together they hatched a bizarre idea. Why not turn it into a cocktail?

And so they did. Cocktail is a stretch, it's just a shot with a toe bobbing in it – but the toe is real. I cannot stress that enough. Your lips have to touch the toe. For safety, it was kept at a couple of pubs in town before settling in the the sourdough bar, and punters who fancied a shot could order the sour toe cocktail, and join the club if they managed to neck it.

Incidentally, a sourdough is a Yukon name for someone who manages to last an entire winter in the area.

This went on just fine as a slightly odd hobby until 1980, where a drunk miner named Gary Younger, on his 13th toe cocktail, accidentally leaned too far back and drank the original toe.

All seemed lost, but no, Tom! And this is where it gets really very strange. The bar was inundated with offers of amputated toes from around the world.

In just a few weeks, seven had been provided, ranging from medical amputations and frostbite to a lawnmower accident.

Incidentally, during the toeless gap, the cocktail was replaced with a shot containing a pickled bear testicle, with a penis bone used as a swizzle stick. It was known as the “Better Bitter Bear Ball Highball”.

Over the years, several more toes have been drunk, stolen or lost, but dozens more have been donated, including from Captain Dick Stevenson, who left a special request in his will that his toes be pickled and drunk. Other offers come in from members of the sourtoe club, locals, and explorers. In fact, people have taken in particular to donating rather grisly toes with inoperable corns and the like, just for a laugh. You can even join the soggy foot club, by downing a shot with the full house of five toes in it. Yum.

The bar employs a dedicated toe master, who prepares and keeps an eye on the body parts strewn about the place, each of which can last around five years and several thousand shots.

In fact, it's taken so seriously that there are even specific laws regarding the sourtoe cocktail. The Yukon health department have sanctioned it, as long as the cocktail is at least 80 proof or 40% alocohol – so a neat spirit, basically. You can't have it with beer. Initially the toe had to be taken with a half pint of champagne, so that's scuppered. It's health and safety gone mad, I tell you.

AND the city of Dawson has a law that you cannot deliberately swallow a toe. Initially the fine was $500 but after a number of incidents that was raised to $2500 to discourage the practice.

To date, some 90,000 people are members of the club, whose mantra is “You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but your lips must touch the toe.”

And, to celebrate the tradition, the Captain who started it all off is now interred – minus a few extremities – in an urn shaped like a giant toe above the bar.

Tom's Notes: Phrases and Idioms with origins in Civil Wars

I found this one quite tricky. Not for lack of civil wars mind you. There have been plenty of them. A widely accepted criterion for a civil war is that there need to be over thousand casualties, with at least 100 coming from each side. That means there have been a lot of civil wars! I’m hoping the person who suggested this topic didn’t mean the American Civil War, because in different countries, ‘Civil War’ can refer to one particular war. In the UK for example, ‘Civil War’ refers to the civil war of the 17th Century, Roundheads and Cavaliers, Oliver Cromwell, Charles I losing his head etc. In reality, there have been a lot more than that; the Wars of the Roses, The Anarchy and the Barons’ Wars to name a few.

Anyhow, lots of civil wars are very well documented and they are usually very interesting but not inherently funny. So, to find anything funny, you have to do shit loads of research in the hope of stumbling across a general who fell in a pile of cow shit or a battle that was fought with over ripe bananas or a mission to rescue a flatulent king from a whoopee cushion factory.

I found this a bit too hard work! Lots of dull skim reading in the hope of hitting jackpot. I did find one rather silly civil war, although it was probably more of a peasant uprising, that I will detail as an honourable mention.

Let me introduce Basil Copper-Hand of 10th Century Byzantium. It’s started well so far hasn’t it! Unfortunately, I couldn’t find out too much about this dude, just a paragraph in the Synopsis of Histories by John Skylitzes an 11th Century Greek Historian. Despite Basil being Macedonian, I think he rather suits a Leslie Phillips, posh post war English accent. Ding dong, I think I tarnished my copper hands last night, not for lack of lubricant. Hello! I’ll give it a good polish later. Sorry, I mean a good Polish. Her name’s Lena. Woof! Interestingly, he’s a cockney who didn’t have a particularly posh upbringing at all. He lost his cockney accent when his mother sent him to elocution lessons to help him as a young actor.

So it turns out that Basil Copper Hand was wandering around modern Turkey pretending to be a popular nobleman called Contantine Doukas (not to be mixed up with his namesake, an Emperor about a century later). Getting free mushy peas when he went to the chip shop (POSH VOICE do you know who I am?) and getting off his chariot speeding tickets (POLICEMAN VOICE; do you know this is a cantering zone? Your steed looked awfully like he was at a canter). POSH VOICE From one copper to another, I’m actually Doukas.

Eventually, a chap called Elephantinos, go knows how he got that name, maybe a very large nose, dobbed him in and he was brought before the emperor and had his hand chopped off. Off Basil went to get a new hand, with attached sword, made of copper. Iron being a tad too heavy and steel being a bit expensive for a not-quite-nobleman. He then continued to pretend he was Doukas, incited resurrection, and by all accounts made quite a good go of it before being captured. The real Emperor/Emperors eventually had to take him seriously, defeated him and burnt him alive, presumably with onlookers wearing appropriate PPE to avoid inhaling the copper, which burns green, which would have been quite the sight.

Right. On to my main contribution to today, which is idioms in the English language with Civil War origins. I’d like to shout-out to a wonderful website that I have used as a base for my research called The chap who produces the content for this website is wonderfully factual and healthily sceptical. I’d now like to quote him on the page dedicated to the phrase ‘the hole nine yards’.

Here's a warning for you. If you are thinking of writing a web page about the origin of the phrase 'the whole nine yards', prepare yourself for a snowstorm of email. Over the years that I've been publishing such a page I have had hundreds of emails from people who pity my ignorance of the source of the phrase and wish to inform the world that they KNOW the origin. The capital letters are a common feature of these emails and, if emails can have a body language, then these examples convey an impression of a puce-faced gentleman (and congratulate your gender ladies, my correspondents are always male), pounding the keyboard with his fists and shouting a lot. I've left in the numerous spellings mistakes - personally, I prefer to limit my belief in someone who knows they are 'CATAGORICALLY!' right to people who can spell categorically.

You don’t need social media to be an opinionated, self-important ignoramus folks. You can create your own podcast like Sam and I!

As a segway, here is an interesting fact, the etymology of the word copper comes from Roman times when the metal was called, obviously in Latin, Cyprus metal. Talking of Romans! There are plenty of good idioms and phrases that come from the Caesar’s Civil War from 49 to 45BC.

Crossing the Rubicon is an easy one; a phrase meaning to commit fully to a course of action from which there can be no return. Caesar did this when he took his troops south across the Rubicon river, marking the northern most boundary of Rome’s heartland, despite the Senate telling him to disband his army, and in doing so he essentially committed war on Rome.

At the same time, Caesar also came out with ‘the die is cast’ according to Suetonius.

We also have ‘veni, vidi, vici’; I came I saw, I conquered. According to Plutarch and Suetonius, this was apparently written by Caesar in a letter to the Senate after a victory over the Bosporan Kingdom in 47BC.

If we now move to William Shakespeare’s play ‘Julius Caesar’ where get ‘beware the Ides of March’ which has become an idiom for, watch out!

‘It’s all Greek to me’ stems from this play, meaning, I don’t understand it. Also the first recorded use of the phrase ‘itchy palm’, i.e. someone who wants a payment for information comes from this play.

‘Bite the bullet’ is often attested to the American Civil War where surgeons would give patients a bullet to bite on. However, this seems very unlikely because ether and chloroform were widely used as anaesthetic in the 1840s (the American Civil War started in 1861) and were a much better pain reliever than a lead filled bullet. Other evidence is also scarce (paintings, photos etc.).

Another possibly origin for this phrase is the Indian Rebellion against the British in 1857. The phrase ‘bite the cartridge’ comes from the act of biting open a paper cartridge before loading a rifle and could have evolved into ‘bite the bullet’.

Sticking with the American Civil War, the phrase ‘absent without leave’ or ‘AWOL’ has been attested to the Confederate forces who would make a soldier who was absent for a short duration wear a placard with AWOL written on it has a gentle form of punishment. The Merriam Website dictionary however claims that the first recorded use of this phrase is from 1743 although I couldn’t find out any more. Regardless, it does seem to have been an American military phrase that became more commonplace during the two world wars.

Here’s another good one from the American Civil War; START HUMMING MARVIN GAYE, yes, ‘heard it through the grapevine’ comes from around the time of the American Civil War. The grapevine telegraph was spreading across America during the 1800s and became a very important means of communication during the American Civil War. It doesn’t take a great imagination to see why these telegraph wires were called ‘grapevine telegraphs’. They were also called ‘washing lines telegraphs’ on occasion. During the Civil War, the veracity of news sent and received using the telegraph system was dubious and hence the phrase, ‘heard it through the grapevine’, or if the course of history had taken a different turn, ‘heard it through your white undies that still have the remnants of that embarrassing soiling incident at the restaurant with Mr. Bigwig, when just as you were about to shake hands on a life-changing deal, you sharted, much to the shock and disgust of the other patrons’.

Let’s move to the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s. ‘Fifth column’ has become an idiom for secret enemy collaborators working within an organisation to bring it down. In 1936 Madrid was besieged by the army of the Nationalist General Mola. He had 4 columns and was relying on a fifth column of supporters from within the city to join his cause when his forces entered the city. Ernest Hemingway wrote a play called the Fifth Column a year later.

Here’s an interesting one that is likely to be untrue, for various specific reason all underpinned by the fact that it’s a very simple phrase and probably just evolved over time. ‘His name is mud’ has been attributed to Samuel A. Mudd, who was alleged to be complicit in the ultimately successful plans to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. This relates to the topic because the assassination took place right at the end of the civil war in 1865. How much Mudd was involved in the assassination is hotly debated but what is for sure is he was sentenced to life in prison for his part in events. He actually mended the assassin, John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg immediately after the assassination and didn’t report the crime for 24 hours, possibly to allow Booth and his accomplice, David Herold, to escape. Anyway, Mudd was tried, narrowly avoided the death penalty and was later pardoned and released from prison in 1869, 4 years after Lincoln’s death, however, the reputation of the doctor was wrecked by all of this, hence the phrase, ‘his name is Mudd’.

I’m going to finish with a poem by John Donne. Donne was English and lived from 1572 to 1631, so dying a decade before the English Civil War started. Amongst other things, he was a writer and poet. In his book, ‘Devotions’, there is a short mediation, number 17 in fact, quote:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine[Pg 109] own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

So in this mediation we have the origins of two phrase, ‘for whom the bell tolls’ and ‘no man is an island’. What Donne is possibly trying to say in this rather heavy work, is that we are part of a greater plan, we are all on earth together, and no matter our race or religion, our behaviour affects everyone else. Put more simply, I think he is trying to say, “why can’t we all just get on?”.

Ernest Hemingway uses the phrase ‘for whom the bell tolls’ as the title of a famous book about the Spanish Civil War. He also uses the phrase ‘no man is an island’ in this book. In very simple terms, I think Hemingway is agreeing with Donne that people just need to get on with each other, but also that we are all part of the human race, and that the death of one person affects us all in some way, and allowing fascism to spread will affect everyone, which it did!

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