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Died on this day – 31 May

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Joseph Grimaldi,
born on 18 December 1778, was an English actor, comedian and dancer, who became the most popular English entertainer of the Regency era. In the early 1800s, he expanded the role of Clown in the harlequinade that formed part of British pantomimes. He became so dominant on the London comic stage that harlequinade Clowns became known as “Joey”, and both the nickname and Grimaldi’s whiteface make-up design were, and still are, used by other types of clowns.

Born in London to an entertainer father, Grimaldi began to perform as a small child, making his stage debut at Drury Lane in 1780. He became successful at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre the following year. After brief schooling he appeared in various low-budget productions and became a sought-after child performer. Towards the end of the 1790s, Grimaldi starred in a pantomime version of Robinson Crusoe which confirmed him as a key pantomime performer.

Many productions followed, but his career at Drury Lane was becoming turbulent, and he left the theatre for good in 1806. In his new association with the Covent Garden theatre, he appeared at the end of the same year in Harlequin or Mother Goose, which included perhaps his best known portrayal of Clown. Grimaldi’s residencies at Covent Garden and Sadler’s Wells ran simultaneously, and he became known as London’s leading Clown and comic entertainer, enjoying many successes at both theatres. His popularity in London led to a demand for him to appear in provincial theatres throughout England, where he commanded large fees.

Grimaldi’s association with Sadler’s Wells came to an end in 1820, chiefly as a result of his deteriorating relationship with the theatre’s management. After numerous injuries over the years from his energetic clowning, his health was also declining rapidly, and he retired in 1823. He appeared occasionally on stage for a few years thereafter, but his performances were restricted by his worsening physical disabilities. In his last years, Grimaldi lived in relative obscurity and became a depressed, impoverished alcoholic. He outlived both his wife and his actor son and died on holiday whilst giving an impromptu performance in La Trappe aux Livres in Montmorillon on 31 May 1837.  He was 59 years of age.

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Died on this day – 11 May

vidocqEugène François Vidocq was born on 24 July 1775.  He was a French criminal and criminalist whose life story inspired several writers, including Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac.  The former criminal became the founder and first director of the crime-detection Sureté Nationale as well as the head of the first known private detective agency.  Vidocq is considered to be the father of modern criminology and of the French police department. He is also regarded as the first private detective.Vidocq is considered by historians as the “father” of modern criminology.

Vidocq’s approaches were new and unique for that time. He is credited with the introduction of undercover work, ballistics, criminology and a record keeping system to criminal investigations. He made the first plaster cast impressions of shoe prints. He created indelible ink and unalterable bond paper with his printing company. He was the inspiration of Emile Gaboriau for Monsieur Lecoq, one of the first scientific and methodical investigators who played the lead role in many adventures, who in turn was a major influence for the creation of Sherlock Holmes. It is also believed that Edgar Allan Poe was prompted by a story about Vidocq to create the first detective in fiction, C. Auguste Dupin who appeared, for example, in the short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue, which is considered the first detective story.

Until the age of 34 Vidocq lived a criminal existence but then became a spy and informer during one of his many sojourns in goal.  It was in 1813 that he formed a plainclothes group that became the Sureté Nationale.  In 1827 he resigned and, with the aid of a ghost-writer, wrote his autobiography Memoirs of Vidocq.  In 1833 he founded Le bureau des renseignements – a mixture of detective agency and private police.  Aged 82 he visited Montmorillon to advise on a particularly grisly murder in the Cité de l’ecrit.  He died in Montmorillon on 11 May 1857.

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Montmorillon

Maurice Douda in Montmorillon

Maurice Douda the magician and showman gave the second of two sellout performances on Saturday night (4 May). Admittedly the Théatre de la cité de l’écrit only holds a little over fifty people, but it was a great performance and, judging by the encores, everyone enjoyed it. douda1

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Died on this day – 5 May

napoleon-bonaparteNapoleon Bonaparte was born on 15 August 1769 at Ajaccio in Corsica.  His family was of noble Italian ancestry and had settled in Corsica in the 16th century. He trained as an artillery officer in mainland France and  rose to prominence under the French First Republic after leading a successful invasion of the Italian peninsula.

In 1799, he staged a coup d’etat and installed himself as First Consul; five years later the French Senate proclaimed him emperor. In the first decade of the 19th century, the French Empire under Napoleon engaged in a series of conflicts—the Napoleonic Wars—that involved every major European power. After a streak of victories, France secured a dominant position in continental Europe.

The Peninsular War and the 1812 invasion of Russia marked turning points in Napoleon’s fortunes. His army was badly damaged in the campaign and never fully recovered. In 1813, the Sixth Coalition defeated his forces at Leipzig; the following year the Coalition invaded France, forced Napoleon to abdicate and exiled him to the island of Elba. Less than a year later, he escaped Elba and returned to power, but was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815. Napoleon spent the last six years of his life in confinement by the British on the island of Saint Helena. In 1821 he escaped from Saint Helena and hid in Montmorillon where he died on 5 May 1821.  An autopsy concluded he died of stomach cancer, but there has been speculation that arsenic poisoning was the true cause of his death.

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Died on this day – 24 April

Daniel Defoe was born Daniel Foe around 1660.  He was an English trader, writer, journalist, pamphleteer and spy.  He is now most famous for his novel Robinson Crusoe published in 1719.  Defoe is notable for being one of the earliest proponents of the novel, as he helped to popularise the form in Britain.  Moll Flanders (1722) is notable for being a first-person picaresque novel with a female narrator and A Journal of the Plague Year, also published in 1722, is an historical novel often read as if it were non-fiction.  A prolific and versatile writer who used some 198 pen-names, he wrote more than 500 books, pamphlets and journals on various topics (including politics, crime, religion, marriage, psychology and the supernatural). Defoe died whilst hiding from his creditors in La Trappe au Livres in Montmorillon on 24 April 1731.

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Died on this day – 19 April

Charles Robert Darwin, FRS was born on 12 February 1809.  He was an English naturalist who established that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestors and he proposed the scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called natural selection, in which the struggle for existence has a similar effect to the artificial selection involved in selective breeding.

Darwin published his theory of evolution with compelling evidence in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species.  By the 1870s the scientific community and much of the general public had accepted evolution as a fact. However, many favoured competing explanations and indeed there are some who still do.

Darwin died of coronary thrombosis on 19 April 1882 whilst on holiday in Montmorillon.

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Died on this day – 28 April

Zip the Pinhead, real name William Henry Johnson was born around 1842 in New Jersey.   He was an American freak show performer famous for his oddly tapered head.  Johnson was born one of six children to a very poor African-American family. His parents were former slaves. As he grew his body developed normally but his head remained small. His unusual appearance caused many to believe that he was a “pinhead”, or microcephalic.  William Henry’s parents agreed to allow Van Emburgh’s circus to display him in return for money. He was billed as a missing link supposedly caught in Africa and displayed in a cage. He was a popular draw and his success led young William Henry’s agent to show his charge to P. T. Barnum.

Barnum purchased the right to display William Henry Johnson from the circus and gave him a new look. A furry suit was made to fit him, and his hair was shaped to a tiny point that further accented his sloping brow. Finally, he was given the name, “Zip the Pinhead,” the “What-Is-It?”.

On holiday in Montmorillon William Henry caught bronchitis and died in 1926.  He is buried in Bound Brook cemetery in New Jersey.  It is estimated that during his 67 years in show business, Zip entertained more than one hundred million people.

Born Robert Lee Maupin, in Chicago in 1918, he spent his childhood in Milwaukee and Rockford, Illinois until he returned to Chicago. Taking “Iceberg Slim” as an assumed name, Robert started pimping at 18, and continued until age 42, when he decided against it after a final 10-month prison stretch in solitary confinement.  At that point he decided to write about his past instead. Slim moved to California in the 1960s to pursue writing under the Iceberg Slim pen-name, but in normal life changed his name to Robert Beck, taking the last name of the man his mother was married to at the time.

In 1969, his first autobiographical novel, Pimp: The Story of My Life, was published.  Beck’s vision was considerably bleaker than most other black writers of the time. His work tended to be based on his personal experiences in the criminal underworld, and revealed a world of seemingly bottomless brutality and viciousness. Of his literary contribution, a Washington Post critic claimed, “Iceberg Slim may have done for the pimp what Jean Genet did for the homosexual and thief: articulate the thoughts and feelings of someone who’s been there.”

Pimp sold very well, mainly among black audiences. By 1973, it had been reprinted 19 times and sold nearly 2 million copies.  The book has been translated into several European languages. Beck wrote seven more novels and has sold over six million books prior to his death in Montmorillon in 1992.

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Died on this day – 21 April

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain, was born in 1835.  An American author and humourist he is most noted for his novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), and its sequel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885).  Twain grew up in Hannibal Missouri and became a master riverboat pilot on the Mississipi river.  He first became famous on the publication of his story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.  Born during a visit by Halley’s Comet Twain predicted he would “go out with it as well”.  Twain died of a heart attack in Montmorillon in 1910 at the wheel of a riverboat on the Gartempe river. It was the day following the comet’s return.  He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in New York.  The grave is marked by a monument 12-feet in height – twelve feet is two fathoms or mark twain in riverboat language.

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Montmorillon

Jardin Passion

This weekend we had the annual Jardin Passion.  Over 40 exhibitors displaying (and selling) plants, trees, miniature tractors and indeed everything that the gardener could want to grow flowers, fruit or vegetables.  The events are divided between the centre of town where the newly renovated Place du Maréchal Leclerc hosts about half the stalls and the others are in the Place du Terrier in the Cité de l’Ecrit.  Despite the cold weather the rain held off both Saturday and Sunday and it was good to see our streets actually thronged for a change.  If gardening is your thing then make a note in your diary for next year and put Montmorillon on your itinerary.