Search This Blog

Monday, August 06, 2012

George Gordon and the Great Fire of 1895

From the Depths of the Vault Dept.: As noted in an earlier post, some high-school friends and I called ourselves the Pickwick Club, and, because our hometown of Ridgefield, Conn., was very history-conscious, created a fictional counterpart of misogynists who flourished at the turn of the 20th century. My corresponding character was named George Gordon, and you can easily figure out why. Craig Borders (“Joseph H. Haddau,” pronounced, “Ha-DOY”) and I penned an article that ran in the Ridgefield Press, the editors of which were in on the joke and helpfully provided the photo of the aftermath of what was an actual fire. The politically incorrect moniker “Ah Pong” was swiped from Spike Milligan. The piece is crawling with other in-jokes: its co-byline of “David Lawrence,” for example, uses my late brother’s first and middle names. The piece dates from 1977. The portrait of me below is from 1971.


George Gordon in 1894
This is the fifth in a series of articles about the Pickwick Club of Ridgefield. David Lawrence is compiling them into a book titled The Pickwick Years; Joseph H. Haddau is a professor at Wesleyan University specializing in 19th-century England.

IN THE SPRING OF 1895, a young tailor in Ridgefield named George Gordon met and fell in love with the visiting niece of one of the proprietors of the Bedient and Mead furniture store. Their engagement was announced after two months; meanwhile, the girl took a part-time job at the store and a room above it. Their courtship, according to Gordon’s son, Noel, was unusual; they would meet in the store after hours, where Gordon would design the rooms of the house he and his betrothed would share by moving the display items into approximate settings. Then they would play-act a domestic life.

In December 1895, Gordon received a poison-pen letter accusing his fiancée of infidelity. He confronted her with this letter the evening of Dec. 9, then allegedly produced the bundle of letters he had received from her and set fire to them. She became hysterical and ran out of the store. Gordon followed. At about nine o’clock that evening, passers-by discovered a blaze in the building, which quickly spread to the adjoining telegraph office, destroying both buildings and eight more before firemen and villagers extinguished it the following morning.

That accusatory letter, said to have been scrawled on wrapping paper in a childish hand, was recently discovered to have been the work of Milo Wumbek and Jack O’Diamonds, friends of Gordon, who meant it as a prank and a mild threat to the erstwhile misogynist while he tried to woo and wed in secret. Eight months previously, Wumbek, O’Diamonds, Gordon, and Moisha Fish, all from Ridgefield, and Reddingite Ned Seagoon, had founded the Pickwick Club to protect themselves against what they termed “the treachery of women.” The club survived, in spite of a fluctuating enrollment, until 1973, when Wumbek, the only living charter member, formally dissolved it.

Avuncular Odor

George Gordon was born in England in 1875. He was the son of Sir Henry Gordon, himself brother to the famed General Charles “Chinese” Gordon. Young George revered his uncle and would recall several visits the General made in 1880. “He was a quiet, kind man who always brought me presents,” George recounted to Noel, “but he smelled unpleasantly of tobacco.”

In 1885, General Gordon was beheaded in the palace of Khartoum after a ten-month siege by the Mahdists. This caused an uproar in England, popular opinion maintaining that the fatal delay of necessary reinforcements was through government ineptitude; and, indeed, the government was quickly voted out. To young George, his uncle’s death was a shock. He had hoped to join the army one day and dreamed of serving under his uncle. This ambition no longer possible, he became bitter and withdrawn, and finally ran away from home.

He wandered north into Scotland where he apprenticed himself to a tailor named Rick MacPhyffe, with whom he lived for three years. MacPhyffe was an elderly bachelor who treated the boy as a son. Gordon, too young to appreciate his favorable position, again grew restless and ran away.

Brush with Crime

The stories he would later tell were inconsistent and often fantastic. From Scotland he probably went to Liverpool where he joined a gang of young thieves and pickpockets. Trouble with the police led him to stow away on a freighter to Canada. Once discovered, he was forced to work with the crew, a fortunate alternative to the more popular punishment of incarceration. He apparently jumped ship once they sailed into the Hudson Bay, and he travelled down to nearby Moose Factory, Ontario, a trading outpost which had been in operation since 1671.

Gordon spent four years as a trapper, working independently at first, eventually teaming up with an Englishman named Bullingdon. Gordon had a short encounter with a Chinese worker named Ah Pong, who cleaned pelts at the post. Ah Pong took an unnatural interest in Gordon, questioning him repeatedly about his family background. He seemed pleased to hear about Gordon’s famous uncle. In 1893, a buyer from Danbury persuaded Gordon to pursue his skills as a hat manufacturer and move to Connecticut.

Hatter to Tailor

Aftermath of the Great Fire of 1895
Hats always appealed to Gordon. He was never seen without one, and his son once noted that “it was a fixation. He had dozens of hats and scarves. His head and neck were always covered. He was very superstitious about those things.”

He hadn’t worked long in Danbury before he showed symptoms of mercury poisoning, the dreaded “hatter’s disease,” so he decided to go into business on his own. He rented a room in a house on North Salem Road, Ridgefield, just north of the village center, which he set up as a tailor shop. He slept on a couch and cooked his meals over a small wood-burning stove.

Tippling with a Tinker

Milo Wumbek, a 19-year-old plumber’s assistant, brought a dress suit to Gordon to be altered. As Wumbek later told It, he needed the suit for a date planned for the following week, so Gordon promised to have it ready by the morning of that day. When Wumbek came by to pick up his suit, the shop was closed. The landlady advised Wumbek to search the local taverns.

It was late afternoon when Gordon was discovered, drinking at the Horse and Hound Inn in South Salem. Wumbek demanded to know why the shop was closed. Gordon suggested a round of drinks. Wumbek insisted that Gordon fetch the suit. Gordon repeated his suggestion. Wumbek demanded the key to the shop. Gordon suggested a round of drinks. Wumbek threatened to become violent, finally educing the confession that Gordon had not begun work on the clothing. Gordon bought Wumbek a drink. By the evening’s end they had become good friends.


When the Pickwick Club began meeting as a group, Gordon invited Wumbek and friends to the Horse and Hound, where the proprietor, Mr. Von Norden, set aside a special table. After Gordon’s mishap with the furniture store girl, he adhered quite closely to the social standards of the club, and was, for almost 15 years, an exemplary member.

In 1910, he met a young lady named Clara Foxe and secretly courted her. As their relationship grew more intimate he was forced to hide her from both his landlady and the Pickwicks. Gordon remembered it as late November of that year when the rest of the club discovered his girlfriend. He was ignobly ostracized. He lost interest in his business and was on the verge of leaving Ridgefield when he was visited by an unkempt, elderly Oriental.

Ah Pong’s Visit

The man introduced himself as Ah Pong from Moose Factory. He went on to say that he had been born in China but never knew his father owing to the latter’s death, allegedly at the hands of General Charles Gordon. Ah Pong then produced a scimitar and explained that he was planning to avenge that death. What followed has never been clear. Gordon always maintained that he talked the Chinaman out of his proposed murder; nevertheless, Ah Pong was never heard from again.

Gordon did move, one month later, to Brooklyn, Conn., with his new bride, Clara. He opened a real-estate business and his wife eventually took a job as a travel agent. Their only child, Noel, was born In 1911. He was fascinated by his father’s stories about the Pickwick Club, and eventually moved to Ridgefield to become a member In 1931. He was released in 1936 for confusing reasons, went back to Brooklyn, and worked with his mother.

George Gordon sold his business in 1945 and moved his family to Florida. They travelled extensively, visiting Europe, Latin America, and Australia. In 1956 they took a cruise around the Mediterranean Sea, disembarking at Port Said, Egypt, on Oct. 26, for a proposed week’s visit. Two days later President Eisenhower ordered all Americans evacuated, owing to the threatening war. Gordon chose to stay. His wife and son also remained.

Noel recalled the subsequent air-raid by the English and French forces:

He Ran Outside

“We were in the hotel when it happened. When the sirens went off, nothing happened for about ten minutes, then we heard the planes coming, dropping bombs in the distance. Everybody panicked. We ran to the basement along with the rest, but my father was having a difficult time. He stopped to rest in the foyer. I tried to help him, but he pushed me away and said something about his uncle. Then he ran outside and we never saw him again.”

Gordon’s remains were never located, but the town of Brooklyn commemorated him with a plaque in the town center. His wife and son, who died in 1960 and 1976 respectively, are buried in a cemetery nearby.

(Author’s note: On Sept. 22 of this year, Milo Wumbek celebrated his 101st birthday at his home in Orlando, Fla., where he has been living since 1968.)

– Ridgefield (Conn.) Press, Oct. 13, 1977

No comments: