Hamburger WhoDunIt Part III: The Texas Two Step

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(The third part in a series of seven)

“Heroes stand not in my presence: they fall to earth beneath my hand.”

“He answered, like a wave on a rock, who in this land appears like me? Heroes stand not in my presence: they fall to earth beneath my hand. None can meet Swaran in the fight but Fingal, king of stormy hills. Once we wrestled on the heath of Malmor, and our heels overturned the wood. Rocks fell from their place; and rivulets, changing their course, fled murmuring from our strife.”

From FINGAL, An Ancient Epic Poem. In Six Books, Together with Several other Poems, composed by OSSIAN the Son of FINGAL, Translated from the Gallic Language, By James MacPherson. (Published by Richard Fitzsimons, Dublin, 1762)

James MacPherson, a Scottish poet stunned the literary world when he published an English translation of the epic Gaelic poems of Ossian, son of Fingal. MacPherson had discovered the original Gaelic verse from this ancient Celtic bard, whose eloquence rivaled Homer. Indeed Ossian – and MacPherson – instantly found international fame. Napoleon, Diderot, and Voltaire all appreciated the work. Thomas Jefferson said of Ossian “I am not ashamed to own that I think this rude bard of the North the greatest Poet that has ever existed” and vowed to learn Gaelic just so he could read Ossian in the original.1

Ossian’s influence continued well into the nineteenth century, inspiring composers like Felix Mendelson, artists like Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and poets like William Wordsworth. Yet, the Ossian works were met with controversy from the moment they were first published. It seemed the Irish laid claim to their Celtic origins, and would have none of MacPherson’s Scottish origin story. Fortunately, the writing itself provided clues that good literary trackers could use to prove Ossian’s actual heritage.

Think of this “tracking” the same way an old west posse might track a fleeing horse thief. Every story leaves a set of literary hoofprints any good scout can follow. This is the technique we’ll use as we analyze the three hamburger origin stories that remain standing.

Last week we left off with three remaining suspects in our search for who sold the first hamburger: Fletcher Davis of Athens, Texas (in the late 1880s), Charles Nagreen from Seymour, Wisconsin (1885), and the Menches Brothers (Charles and Frank, 1885). Each has their own story. We’ll apply a form of modern forensic analysis to see if we can dig up corroborating evidence from independent contemporary sources.

Let’s start with Fletcher Davis. Others have already provided most of the legwork here, so I will merely summarize. First, Fletcher Davis is reputed to be the “unknown vender” interviewed for the New York Tribune story about the hamburger. The reporter is quoted as saying the popular sandwich was “the innovation of a food vendor on the pike.” This was the story “painstakingly” researched and reported by Dallas Morning News columnist Frank X. Tolbert from 1974-1976 at the prompting of Dallas Cowboys owner Clint Murchison, Jr.

Murchison was upset by the New York Times story highlighting Louis’ Lunch claim to have been the first joint to serve a burger. Tolbert wrote that the incensed Murchison said, “If we let the Yankees get away with claiming the invention of the hamburgers, they’ll be going after chili con carne next.”

Now, that New York Times story offered the Cowboys’ owner a hole big enough to run through, and run he did, as lead blocker for the investigating reporter Tolbert. The Times wrote of Louis’ Lunch claim, “The only other serious challenge to the title is a theory supported by the McDonald’s Corporation, the giant nationwide hamburger chain. Historians at McDonald’s Hamburger University have researched the problem, the company says, and claim the inventor was an unknown food vender at the St. Louis Fair of 1904.” (The New York Times, Saturday, January 12, 1974, p.35, – “Burger ‘Birthplace’ Faces Bulldozer.”)

In his initial column on the topic (Dallas Morning News, February 3, 1974, – “Tolbert’s Texas – Hamburger ‘Invented’ In Athens Drug Store?”), Frank Tolbert quotes Murchison saying Fletcher Davis’ sandwich “became so appreciated locally that the Athens Chamber of Commerce got together a kitty and send Dave to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis to advertise the city. A fancy dan reporter from the old New York Tribune interviewed Dave about his hamburger.”

In terms of “tracking,” there’s no bigger hoofprint than a reference to an article in a major metropolitan newspaper. More so when we have a direct quote from that article.

There’s only one problem. No such New York Tribune story exists. I searched the complete digitized records of the New York Tribune and found nothing. It turns out I’m not the first to do this. Josh Ozersky wrote “My research assistant, Andrea Murphy, and I have painstakingly looked through the Tribune’s archives and can safely say that this report does not exist,” (“Want lies with your burger?” Los Angeles Times, January 29, 2007).

This isn’t corroborating evidence. It’s quite the opposite. In fact, the first reference to a “New York Tribune article” that I can see is Murchison’s quote in that very first column Tolbert wrote.

Things get worse for “Old Dave” and Tolbert’s assertion that he was the “unknown vendor on the pike.” According to the book Beyond The Ice Cream Cone – The Whole Scoop on Food at the 1904 World’s Fair by Pamela J. Vaccaro, “There is no Fletcher Davis on the official concessionaire’s list or on the final financial balance sheet of the LPE Co., and the company certainly would not have let anyone exert any kind of ‘squatter’s rights.’”

Sounds pretty bad, right? It turns out some of Fletch’s kinfolk remember going to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and seeing Old Dave there. They even showed Gary Cartwright, a writer for Texas Monthly (“The World’s First Hamburger,” August, 2009) the vender ticket stubs Fletch used to get into the St. Louis event. So much for the veracity of those “vendor’s lists.”

Wait a minute. Upon further review, Cartwright “saw that the vendor’s tickets issued to Fletcher Davis identified him as ‘a pottery turner’ representing W. S. Ceramics Co. at the fair’s Palace of Mines and Metallurgy.”

None of this helps Davis’ case. Worse, Cartwright reports the family says the earliest newspaper account of him cooking hamburgers didn’t appear until at least 1896 and it’s likely he didn’t even move to Athens until 1894.

So much for corroborating evidence. Most of what we’ve seen comes closer to refuting the Davis claim. Worse, Kent Biffle wrote in the Dallas Morning News, (“Time to chew on some chili and burger yore,” October 30, 1994, p. 47A) that the Davis theory “isn’t helped by the reputations of Mr. Tolbert and Mr. Murchison as notorious pranksters. Mr. Tolbert would order an unwanted load of fertilizer dumped on one’s front yard. Mr. Murchison would move one’s 40 foot-yacht into one’s 42-foot swimming pool while one was out of town. Things like that.”’

It also doesn’t help that one of Tolbert’s columns on the matter appeared on April Fools’ Day.

I don’t know if this is enough to fully eliminate Davis. If, however, he did start cooking hamburgers in 1896, or even 1894, as we’ve already pointed out in Part II of this series, we’ve got evidence that folks were already gaga over hamburgers. That means he likely wasn’t the first to sell a hamburger.

Oh, and, by the way, the Poems of Ossian turned out to be one of literary history’s greatest hoaxes. Nonetheless, it remains in print and is still taught in college level literature classes. So much for the endurance of fake news being a recent phenomenon.

And then there were two. Next week we’ll take a look a Charles “Hamburger Charlie” Nagreen’s story. We’ll tell you right off the bat, as far as we can tell, of all the claimants, he sold hamburgers for the longest time. But was he the first? Find out what our research uncovered in…

A (Swiss) Cheesehead Tale

(continued next week)

1Wilson, D.L., ed., Jefferson’s Literary Commonplace Book, Princeton University Press, 1989, page 172

Hamburger WhoDunit Part II: The Shrine of the Four (and a half?)

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(The second episode in a series of seven)

“You will not apply my precept,” he said, shaking his head. “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”

Illustration from the Monday, July 23, 1894 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle

Thus spoke crime fighting sleuth Sherlock Holmes in The Sign of the Four, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s second novel featuring his most-popular character, as published in the February 1890 issue of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. By coincidence, the most noted hamburger origin stories occurred within a few years on either side of this date. It’s fitting, then, that we employ the deductive techniques of the Baker Street mastermind in attempting to solve one of histories greatest culinary mysteries: Who sold the first hamburger.

First, as in all good police thrillers, let’s take a look at our line-up of suspects (in reverse chronological order). In each case, their hometowns have created what amounts to a shrine to their claims. We count them as four and a half because two are inexorably tied together. Still, for our purposes we’ll untie them. Here’s the line-up:Continue Reading “Hamburger WhoDunit Part II: The Shrine of the Four (and a half?)”

Hamburger Helper – Solving the Greatest WhoDunIt? In Culinary History

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(The first part in a series of seven)

“I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a Hamburger today.”

When J. Wellington Wimpy first voiced that phrase on December 28, 1934 in Fleischer Studios short “We Aim to Please,” Popeye’s 17th theatrical cartoon, [] the White Castle hamburger chain had already been around for 13 years. By the time E.C. Segar added the character of Wimpy to his King Features Syndicate cartoon Thimble Theatre in 1931, White Castle was well on its way to selling 50 million hamburgers. It would achieve that mark in 1941.

A year earlier, brothers Dick and Mac McDonald moved their father’s food stand from Route 66 in Monrovia, California to the streets of San Bernardino. They rechristened their Continue Reading “Hamburger Helper – Solving the Greatest WhoDunIt? In Culinary History”

John Cleese and the Affectionate Tease

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Many, many years ago, most likely 1985 but possibly 1986, I decided to do something different. I was living on Oliver Street in downtown Rochester. I hadn’t taken a vacation in a while and I needed to spend those precious vacation days or risk losing them. What to do… what to do…

Even now, I’m not the kind of person who dreams of the traditional vacation. In fact, I Continue Reading “John Cleese and the Affectionate Tease”

A Tribute to Animal House 40 Years in the Making

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The year was 1978. For some, it was to be remembered as “Peak Disco.” For others, (like me), it represented the beginning of the end for Disco. We kind of hoped the whole fad would blow over, but then that Beatles-wannabe group – the Bee Gees – went and made disco go mainstream with their soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever. For many fans, this was the low point of rock and roll. Thankfully, by the time Paul McCartney & Wings succumbed to Disco Fever when the band released “Goodnight Tonight” in 1979, the genre was already past its prime.

Music doctors officially called Disco on the night of July 12, 1979, when the Chicago White Sox hosted a Disco Demolition Night. The promotion featured an explosion of Disco records in between games of the twi-night doubleheader. Enthusiasm for the death of Disco turned out to be far greater than anticipated. The fans rushed the field following the fiery demise of those discs. The resulting damage to the playing surface caused the White Sox to forfeit the second game.

In the summer of 1978, that fiasco was still a year away. That summer, a different culture-defining event occurred. On July 28, Continue Reading “A Tribute to Animal House 40 Years in the Making”

A Confession from a Hypocrite: Alas, I, too, am a Free Rider

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It was the most regrettable thing I had ever done in my entire life. At the time I thought it was a giant step forward, a statement that, because of who I was, because of who we were, would make a difference.

Organizing the protest had other alluring advantages. Our teacher encouraged us. We respected her and she respected us. She treated us like adults. We liked that. It presented us with the ultimate reward: greater self-esteem. In addition, the entire class participated. That meant we could be with our friends, and all the social rewards that brings. Finally, only our class was allowed to participate. It was a reward for getting our schoolwork done in a timely fashion. There’s nothing like the feeling of accomplishment to fill the soul with self-confidence.

Of course, it helped that we hooked our wagon to a national movement. It was the first Continue Reading “A Confession from a Hypocrite: Alas, I, too, am a Free Rider”

Why 7-15-60 is the Winning Combination of Every Group that Wants Lasting Influence

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Civic associations represent the backbone of a vibrant democracy. They have fueled American Exceptionalism since the very beginning of our country. But don’t take my word. Read what one of history’s most quoted experts had to say on this very subject.

“Among democratic nations, on the contrary, all the citizens are independent and feeble; they can do hardly anything by themselves, and none of them can oblige his fellow men to lend him their assistance. They all, therefore, become powerless if they do not learn voluntarily to help one another. …if they never acquired the habit of forming associations in ordinary life, civilization itself would be endangered.”

“Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations… The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools… Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.”

Continue Reading “Why 7-15-60 is the Winning Combination of Every Group that Wants Lasting Influence”

Today’s Columnists Find Their Roots in Revolutionary War Era Pamphleteers

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On the afternoon of June 9, while chasing the fugitive sloop Hannah, the unthinkable happened. The HMS Gaspee ran aground in low waters off the Rhode Island shore on what was then called Namquit Point. Unnamed Sons of Liberty, once alerted, sprang into action. In the early morning hours of June 10, before high tide could rescue the British man-of-war, the rebels boarded it, shot its commander, and burned the ill-fated vessel to its waterline.

The year was 1772 and the newspaper industry was dying. Of the thirty-seven weekly broadsheets published in the thirteen colonies, only eleven reported on what came to be known as “The Gaspee Affair.” By 1783, primarily due to lack of revenue and the logistical problems caused by the Revolutionary War, the Colonies would be down to only about twenty newspapers.

Still, the story of the Gaspee Affair stirred the American patriots. Why? Because an itinerant Continue Reading “Today’s Columnists Find Their Roots in Revolutionary War Era Pamphleteers”

Merrymaking in the ‘Nati

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The Championship Winners flank either side of the affable play-by-lay announcer. NSNC Photo

As I sat down to write this account, a profound thought struck me: It’s much easier to go from writer to talker than from talker to writer. I’ve been both. I’ve had fun at both. But never, until now, have I ever attempted to shift from play-by-play announcer to sportswriter. But here goes…

Named for George Washington’s Roman protégé, with a nod to that ancient empire’s capital the city of Cincinnati has long been called the City of Seven Hills. Indeed, for a hundred or so of the nation’s finest columnists, the undulating topography of Cincinnati’s inclined streets no doubt left an ache in the shins that echoed for several days.

Nonetheless, it was in this Queen City of the West that they gathered. At once to dine at the Mecklenburg Gardens – a dinner that lasted well past its “sell-by” date – and to cavort with the giraffes during happy hour at the Cincinnati Zoo.

For many, though, the highlight of the event wasn’t Jerry Springer apologizing for ruining the culture, or even George Clooney’s equally famous dad Nick regaling the crowd with stories of Walter Cronkite and ruffage. For attendees, and at least a handful of the hotel staff, the pinnacle of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists Annual Conference was Continue Reading “Merrymaking in the ‘Nati”

Graduates: How to Let Your Passion Become Your Talent

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It’s a perfectly acceptable question: How does a trained astrophysicist become a nationally recognized newspaper columnist? The answer, obviously, is by spending three decades working as a registered investment adviser.

OK, OK, maybe this requires some explaining.

Let me begin, however, by talking about you. You and I are very similar. We both want things we can’t have, we’re not “supposed” to have, and we aren’t even at the right station in life to come close to having. And there’s nothing wrong with desiring more – more renown, more wealth, more satisfaction. Don’t ever let someone tell you “You can’t do that.” Dream. Dream big. Never stop dreaming big.


Because such dreams spur you to far greater heights than you can imagine. They possess these three critical components for consistent success: Continue Reading “Graduates: How to Let Your Passion Become Your Talent”