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 writing 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 sent 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 idea that fake news is a recent phenomenon.

And then there were two. Next week we’ll take a look at 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

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