Radio Podcast #12 – 1904

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James Errington takes you on another journey back into the forgotten history of recorded sound, this time joined by Liam Higgins, playing cylinders and shellac all from the year 1904. Aside from the usual brass band, banjo and proto-ragtime and barbershop music, you can listen to the last castrato, find out what a ‘gamp’ is and hear a lengthy excoriation of the worst Olympic Games of all time.

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Centuries of Sound on Cambridge 105 Radio – Episode 12 (1904)

Time: 8pm BST, Saturday 20th July 2019

Place: Cambridge 105fm

James Errington takes you on another journey back into the forgotten history of recorded sound, this time joined by Liam Higgins, playing cylinders and shellac all from the year 1904. Aside from the usual brass band, banjo and proto-ragtime and barbershop music, you can listen to the last castrato, find out what a ‘gamp’ is and hear a lengthy excoriation of the worst Olympic Games of all time.

Listen to the show on 105fm in Cambridge, on DAB digital nationwide, on the Cambridge 105 website here, or on any good radio apps. Or if you missed it, which you probably did, you could just stream it here:


1904 in Art

Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis – A Day

Henri Matisse – Luxe, Calme et Volupté

Max Slevogt – Portrait of the Dancer Anna Pavlova

Ilya Repin – Portrait of Leonid Nikolaievich Andreyev

Gwen John – Dorelia in a Black Dress

Isidre Nonell – La Paloma

Pablo Picasso – The Actor

Vilhelm Hammershøi – Interior with Young Woman Seen from the Back

William Godward – Dolce Far Niente

Thomas Cooper Gotch – Innocence

The Congo Horrors

He hadn’t made his rubber quota for the day so the Belgian-appointed overseers had cut off his daughter’s hand and foot. Her name was Boali. She was five years old. Then they killed her. But they weren’t finished. Then they killed his wife too. And because that didn’t seem quite cruel enough, quite strong enough to make their case, they cannibalized both Boali and her mother. And they presented Nsala with the tokens, the leftovers from the once living body of his darling child whom he so loved. His life was destroyed. They had partially destroyed it anyway by forcing his servitude but this act finished it for him. All of this filth had occurred because one man, one man who lived thousands of miles across the sea, one man who couldn’t get rich enough, had decreed that this land was his and that these people should serve his own greed. Leopold had not given any thought to the idea that these African children, these men and women, were our fully human brothers, created equally by the same Hand that had created his own lineage of European Royalty.

Of all the unfathomable atrocities of the 20th century, there are but a few that feel entirely separate from the tides of history and ideology. The genocide perpetrated on the orders of Leopold II of Belgium for his own personal profit is surely one of the most relentlessly bleak stories of all time, but still one that should be more widely known. Here is a brief article about the genocide:

Father stares at the hand and foot of his five-year-old, severed as a punishment for failing to make the daily rubber quota, Belgian Congo, 1904

…and here is a clip from a documentary about the genocide.


It goes without saying that none of this is easy to read or watch.

Strychnine, Egg Whites, Brandy and a Human Zoo: The Terrible 1904 Olympics

The third modern olympiad, despite the dropping of such noble sports as kite flying, pigeon racing, cannon shooting and fire fighting, is still talked about as one of the strangest and most misguided sporting events in history.

A few reasons:

  • The games was moved from the fairly reasonable location of Chicago to the comparative backwater of St Louis, Missouri in order to coincide with the Worlds’ Fair being held there. Consequently most countries didn’t take the event seriously enough to send any athletes
  • The fair featured a ‘human zoo’ where African exchange students dressed up in tribal costumes and acted out an imagining of tribal life for paying visitors. This apparently not being dehumanising enough, the games organisers made these non-athlete exchange students compete in sporting events, in order to demonstrate that “the savage has been a very much overrated man from an athletic point of view” (to repeat once more, 1900s America was really racist)
  • A lack of clarity as to what constituted the ‘Olympics’ meant that the competition ended up stretching over an indeterminate period of time up to around 6 months
  • Some competitors were discovered to be imposters, including local boxing hero Caroll Burton.
  • George Eyser earned three gold medals in gymnastics, despite being encumbered with a wooden leg

The most bizarre and unforgivable moment in the games, however, was the marathon, which proved to be a perfect storm of poor planning, pseudoscience, lack of concern for human wellbeing and sheer bad luck. – a few highlights from this truly astonishing account of the race:

William Garcia of California nearly became the first fatality of an Olympic marathon we he collapsed on the side of the road and was hospitalized with hemorrhaging; the dust had coated his esophagus and ripped his stomach lining. Had he gone unaided an hour longer he might have bled to death. John Lordon suffered a bout of vomiting and gave up. Len Tau, one of the South African participants, was chased a mile off course by wild dogs… At the nine-mile mark cramps plagued Lorz, who decided to hitch a ride in one of the accompanying automobiles, waving at spectators and fellow runners as he passed… Hicks came under the care of a two-man support crew at the 10-mile mark. He begged them for a drink but they refused, instead sponging out his mouth with warm distilled water. Seven miles from the finish, his handlers fed him a concoction of strychnine and egg whites… Meanwhile, Lorz, recovered from his cramps, emerged from his 11-mile ride in the automobile. One of Hicks’ handlers saw him and ordered him off the course, but Lorz kept running and finished with a time of just under three hours. The crowd roared and began chanting, “An American won!” Alice Roosevelt, the 20-year-old daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, placed a wreath upon Lorz’s head and was just about to lower the gold medal around his neck when, one witness reported, “someone called an indignant halt to the proceedings with the charge that Lorz was an impostor.” The cheers turned to boos. Lorz smiled and claimed that he had never intended to accept the honor; he finished only for the sake of a “joke.”… Hicks’ trainers gave him another dose of strychnine and egg whites, this time with some brandy to wash it down… He began hallucinating, believing that the finish line was still 20 miles away. In the last mile he begged for something to eat. Then he begged to lie down. He was given more brandy but refused tea… His trainers carried him over the line, holding him aloft while his feet moved back and forth, and he was declared the winner.

Some more on this here:

The 1904 Olympic Marathon May Have Been the Strangest Ever (

Citrus, Altus, Fortius, Horrendius (The Memory Palace)


The Panama Canal

A man, a plan, a canal; Panama! Not just a palindrome, but a rejected heading for this blog post. 1904 saw the apex of Theodore Roosevelt’s super-sized presidency with work finally beginning on the digging of a canal between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans – a project whose scale remains impressive in 2018.

Here is a History Channel documentary on the building of the thing


…and here’s Teddy hanging out at the site, having dug the entire thing himself without catching malaria or yellow fever or even getting a smudge on his snappy suit.

Alessandro Moreschi, the Last Castrato

This month’s mix features one of the only recordings in existence by a ‘castrato’ – a man who was castrated as a youth in order to maintain his choirboy-like vocal range. Most recordings featured in my mixes have little, if any, information available about them, and few of the artists even have a biography online, but Alessandro Moreschi has multiple books and documentaries dedicated to him. Naturally, this is less to do with his qualities as a performer than the sheer alienness of his existence to a 21st century audience. The music industry has done some terrible things recently, but the idea of permanently mutilating children in order to dedicate them to a life as an artist has such a bizarre combination of brutality and aestheticism to it that it’s simply incomprehensible that people could let such things happen. But with the horrors of the 20th century in mind, we should know that humans are capable of this and worse.

And of course there’s the curiosity. The sound of an extinct (human) creature lost to time until these recordings emerged, and then, well… Most listeners – that is, people interested in the history of opera, so not exactly representative of the public at large – find Moreschi’s voice not only strange, but actually not very nice to listen to. It isn’t just in a higher octave, the manner of singing is distinctly different, highly mannered, with a deliberately emotional style which sounds like the cheesiest of melodrama. Judging Moreschi on these lines betrays an understandable lack of experience of listening to opera recordings from the first years of the 20th Century.

Recording into a brass horn always changed a performance. Most singers would naturally attempt to do what they always did, perform as if they were on a grand stage in a theatre to a packed crowd, with all the theatricality that would entail. A few – notably Enrico Caruso – realised that an entirely different approach was needed, directing their voice carefully into the horn, exploiting the particular dynamics of the medium, and working with engineers to ensure that the instrumentation was matched to their voice. Most important, perhaps, was the move from ‘chest voice’ to ‘head voice’ – which made most of this possible. This different style fueled the boom in home listening, and formed not just the expectations of audiences, but the earliest training of the next generation of singers. Within a couple of decades the chesty emoting style of the Victorian stage would be forgotten, save for a few forgotten cylinders and discs. And maybe that’s a shame.

Here is Moreschi’s recording of ‘Ave Maria’. I’ve decided that I quite like it.


Here is very good article by Samantha Ellis about castrati, and here is a really quite excellent episode of an actually-always-excellent podcast called ‘Between The Liner Notes’ on Moreschi and castrati in general.

The Landlord’s Game

Samuel Hynes described the Edwardian era as a “leisurely time when women wore picture hats and did not vote, when the rich were not ashamed to live conspicuously, and the sun really never set on the British flag” – but aside from the fashionable cliques of the upper class, nothing could be further from the truth. Radical politics was in the air on both sides of the Atlantic, with Socialist and Suffragist movements gaining strength all the way up to the start of the First World War.

Most of the cultural artifacts of the age bear the mark of this turbulence in one way or another, and no more so than The Landlord’s Game – a board game designed by American Socialist Elizabeth Magie as a “practical demonstration of the present system of land grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences.” It ended up in the hands of Parker Brothers within three decades, now morphed into Monopoly, a game which celebrated the same terrible forces its predecessor aimed to eradicate.

99% Invisible have an episode on the topic, and of their usual high standard. You can listen to it here:


Elsewhere in 1904

January 8 – The Blackstone Library is dedicated, marking the beginning of the Chicago Public Library system

January 18 – The Herero Rebellion in German South-West Africa begins

January 23 – The Ålesund Fire destroys most buildings in the town of Ålesund, Norway, leaving about 10,000 people without shelter

February 7 – The Great Baltimore Fire in Baltimore, Maryland, destroys over 1,500 buildings in 30 hours

February 8–9 – A surprise Japanese naval attack on Port Arthur (Lüshun) in Manchuria starts the Russo-Japanese War

March 31 – British expedition to Tibet – Battle of Guru- British troops under Colonel Francis Younghusband defeat ill-equipped Tibetan troops

April 19 – The Great Toronto Fire destroys much of that city’s downtown, but there are no fatalities.

April 30 – The Louisiana Purchase Exposition World’s Fair opens in St. Louis, Missouri

July 1 – The third Modern Olympic Games opens in St. Louis, Missouri, United States as part of the World’s Fair

August 11 – Battle of Waterberg- Lothar von Trotha defeats the Herero people in German South-West Africa, and drives them into the Omaheke desert, starting the Herero and Namaqua Genocide

October 21 – The Russian Baltic Fleet fires on British trawlers it mistakes for Japanese torpedo boats, in the North Sea.

November 8 – U.S. presidential election, 1904- Republican incumbent Theodore Roosevelt defeats Democrat Alton B. Parker.

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