Thursday, September 4, 2014

Horseracing and Suicide - the Heavy History and Etymology of "Lead-Pipe Cinch"

Horseracing and Suicide - the Heavy History and Etymology of "Lead-Pipe Cinch"
Image courtesy of Lead Pipe Cinch

The idiom, “it’s a lead pipe cinch,” meaning that something is a “sure thing,” is attested from 1888.  The earliest known appearance of the idiom in print is from a cautionary tale about horserace gambling in New York City; beware, not every bet pays off, even if you think that it is a “lead pipe cinch”:

In his third race, when intrusted with thousands of dollars by his stable and the public and looked upon as a “lead pipe cinch” of the best manufacture, tested and warranted in every manner, his dickey leg gives way and the faithful are left to mourn.  The moral is plain.

New York Tribune, October 4, 1888, page 4, column 1.

But how does a “lead pipe” relate to something being a “sure thing”? 

The word “cinch,” meaning a strap for tightening a saddle to a horse, was borrowed from Spanish by western cowboys, and had been used in English since at least 1859,[i] as both a noun and a verb.[ii]  

By 1880, the verb, “to cinch,” had developed an alternate meaning:

Cinch. To get a grip on, metaphorically; to corner and put the screw on any one.

Alfred Trumble, Slang Dictionary of New York, London and Paris, New York, National Police Gazette Office, 1880.
Sylva Clapin, A New Dictionary of Americanisms, New York, Louis Weiss & Co. (190-?)

An article from 1878, about the pre-Christmas horse races in Florence, Arizona Territory, illustrates the figurative use of “cinch,” as a verb:

But the “boys” got “cinched” at the races to the extent of their pocket funds, as the Mexicans happened to have the winning horse.

Salt River Herald (Phoenix, Arizona), December 28, 1878, page 3.

An article about racetrack slang, from 1890, illustrates the figurative use of “cinch” as a noun:

A very peculiar but emphatic bit of turf slang is the word “cinch.”  When a person has a cock-sure thing, when he can pick out without fail the winning horse, he is said to have a “cinch.”  This word, taken from the Spanish, is used by cowboys to denote the way in which their saddles are tightened on their ponies.  There are no buckles on the belly-band, but in their place there is a “cinch-strap,” which passes through two rings and is tied by the “cinch-knot.”  The Western phrase, “cinching up,” means simply tightening the girth.  And it is significant that, on the race-track, you hear the expression “an air-tight.”  The most emphatic form is a “lead pipe cinch,” but how that intensifies the certainty I am unable to say.

American Notes and Queries, volume 5, number 17, August 23, 1890, page 197.

Although the writer of the racetrack slang article did not know the origin of “lead-pipe” as an intensifier of “cinch,” an apparently far-fetched, old-wives’ tale about the phrase’s origins appeared a few weeks later:

New Way of Saying It.
When One Has a Dead Sure Thing He Has the Hilton Cinch.
St. Louis Republic.]

“The Hilton cinch” is the latest slang phrase for a dead sure thing, and has grown out of the recent publication of the way Judge Hilton manipulated the Stewart estates to his own advantage.  It has replaced the “lead pipe cinch” in vogue some time ago, which referred to the plumber who, while traveling on East River ferry, fell overboard with a coil of lead pipe around his body.  The “lead pipe cinch” was too much for him, and he never came up again.

Pittsburg Dispatch, April 27, 1890, page 20, column 8 (citing St. Louis Republic).

Etymologists have long been aware of this origin story, but have generally dismissed it as fantasy.  Michael Quinion’s thorough discussion of “lead-pipe cinch” on, for example, recommends taking the drowned-plumber explanation with a “substantial pinch of salt.”  “Some ingenious individual at the time took the idea of a cinch made of lead pipe and cooked up a story to explain where the expression came from.”

Quinion was right.  The story is untrue; the man was a feather merchant, not a plumber.  In all other particulars, the story is true.  In 1883, five years before “lead-pipe cinch” first appeared in print, a man jumped from the East River ferry and drowned.  Only his hat was found.  The insurance companies cried foul and the Pinkerton Agency investigated. 

Would the insurance policies pay off? It was no "lead-pipe cinch" - or was it?

(You can read an alternate origin story, from 1888, in my "Lead Pipe" Update.)

Insurance Fraud - The First Lead-Pipe Cinch

The story was not cooked up.  On June 8, 1883, Robert Cunningham, a feather merchant from Brooklyn, jumped to his death from an East River ferry, weeks after paying up on tens of thousands of dollars worth of insurance policies.  The suicide, the insurance policy, the suggestion of fraud, the missing body and the ten pounds of lead were widely reported for weeks after the incident:   

Investigating a Death.
Robert Cunningham’s Jump from a Ferry-Boat Last Friday.
It was reported on Friday last that an unknown man had jumped overboard from the ferry-boat New-York, of the Hamilton Ferry, on the 11:30 A. M. trip from New York, and that a passenger named Henry Nichols had jumped overboard to rescue the man, but failed in his efforts.  He, however, picked up a hat which was supposed to have been worn by the man who had jumped overboard, and which bore on the inside the name “Robert Cunningham, No. 148 Fourteenth-street, Brooklyn.”  Mr. Cunningham did business as a feather dealer at No. 131 Mercer-street, New-York, and had left home that morning to go to his office, but he has not since returned.

The New York Times, June 14, 1883.

There were no late-night talk shows to make light of the tragedy in 1883, but the New York Sunday Times did its best:

No Money on hats.  
When Cunningham’s hat was found in the East river somebody went to the New York Life Insurance company where Cunningham was insured and said, “Cunningham’s drowned, his hat has been found.”[iii] “You will have to get a body,” said the vice-president.  “We don’t pay on hats.” – New York Sunday Times.

The Bee (Washington DC), July 14, 1883, page 2, column 2.

Too soon?

When the body was recovered later in the week, they found something suspicious tied to his body:

Killed Himself for the Benefit of His Creditors.
Brooklyn, N. Y., June 18. 

The body of Robert Cunningham, the New York merchant, whose suicide was disputed, and whose policies the insurance companies announced they would not pay without positive proof of death, was found Friday floating in Buttermilk Channel.  When sighted by two watermen only the head was found in sight, a bar of lead having been securely fastened to the vest by a piece of wire.  Its weight was about ten pounds.  This left no doubt about the intent of suicide, and overthrew the police theory that there had been no death at all, but only an attempt to swindle the Insurance companies. 

But in a surprise verdict, the Brooklyn Coroner’s jury could not establish that it was a suicide – in fact, they censured the ferry company:

The Union Ferry Company Censured
The Brooklyn Coroner’s jury in the case of Robert T. Cunningham, whose body was found in Buttermilk Channel, and who is supposed to have jumped or fallen overboard from a ferry-boat on June 8, rendered a verdict last night stating that they were unable to determine whether the death of Cunningham was accidental or suicidal, and censuring the Union Ferry Company “for not using proper means to quickly save persons who have jumped or fallen into the water from their boats.”

The New York Times, June 26, 1883.

Although I could not find an article definitively stating that the insurance companies were made to pay out, the jury verdict suggests that Cunningham’s policies may have actually paid. 

His gamble paid off.

It was a “lead-pipe cinch.”

Racetrack gamblers, who could have followed the events in the New York papers, may have been able to relate to various details of the story.  Several large insurance policies purchased just before an apparent suicide attempt might seem like a man’s biggest and last bet.  Would he actually die?  Would the insurance company pay off?  The lead “bar” tied (cinched?) to his body was certainly intended to ensure the death and make the ‘bet’ pay off.

An interesting wrinkle in the story, about which contemporary accounts leave few details, is that the insurance policies were signed over to creditors before he died.  His family was not going to profit from his insurance policies – all of the money was to be paid to the creditors.  Who were these creditors? Were they feather suppliers?, - shipping companies? – banks?  Or were they racetrack loan-sharks, out to recoup their investment from a man deep in gambling debt?  That’s pure speculation, of course, but it would make a good story.  I wonder whether the records of the coroner’s inquest would shed any light on the issue.

Coincidentally, as reported in the New York Times on the same day that Robert Cunningham, feather dealer from Brooklyn, committed suicide in an apparent effort to receive improper death benefits  – a man named Robert Cunningham had been found not guilty in Philadelphia, just one day earlier, of defrauding the American Legion of Honor out of a $5,000 death benefit.[v]  Hmmm?

But regardless of the precise connection between Cunningham’s tragic death (he left behind a wife and four children)[vi] could have formed the inspiration, at least in part, for the new idiom, “lead-pipe cinch.”  It just seems unlikely to me that a reporter from St. Louis, Missouri would dig up a seven-year old drowning case from New York City to explain the origins of a then-current slang phrase in 1890.   

You be the judge.

It seems plausible that Cunningham’s death could have inspired the phrase.  The “lead bar” might have been a pipe, or the person or persons who coined the expression may have just used the word “lead pipe” because it sounded better, or because they were more familiar with lead pipes than lead bars.  The word, “cinch,” would naturally lend itself to literally describe how the lead bar was attached – it was tied to, or literally cinched to, Cunningham’s coat.  A racetrack gambler, fascinated by the gambling nature of Cunningham’s suicide could well have associated the racetrack slang “cinch” to the actual bar of lead cinched to Cunningham’s coat, to create the expression, “lead-pipe cinch.”

“Lead-Pipe Cinch” is Off to the Races

Whether inspired by Robert Cunningham’s misfortune or not, the idiom “lead-pipe cinch” appeared in print five years later, in 1888.  Many of the early appearances of the phrase relate to horseracing in New York City, but that is not the case for all of them:

The idiom was used in an article speculating, using gamblers’ terms, about who would become the first tenant of the Collier building in Memphis, Tennessee:

Another man had a “lead-pipe cinch” that a big Cincinnati house will take it to make it lively for Lowenstein.  Another fellow was willing to bet $100 to $10 in Pioneer Mills stock that a St. Louis concern had captured the prize . . . .

The Memphis Appeal, January 6, 1889, page 4.

The idiom appears to have been familiar to readers in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1890 when the following double, or is it a triple, pun appeared in a piece about the plumber’s union:

Could the agreement which the master plumbers are trying to saddle upon the journeymen be denominated a “lead pipe cinch?” 

St. Paul Daily Globe, May 4, 1890, page 12.

In 1890, sixty years before Mr.Ed made talking horses cool, famed, thoroughbred racehorse, Salvatore, gave an “interview” to a reporter from the Herald, from his stables in New York City.  In the course of a wide-ranging discussion, Salvatore “discussed” the topic of race-fixing and “lead-pipe cinches”:

A Photographic Interview With a Monarch of the Turf.
New York, Sept. 25, 1890 – [Special correspondence of The Herald.]

[Interviewer] “I’ll be as delicate as possible.  You have said nothing which justifies the conclusion that races are run on their merits.  Are horses in the habit of coming to what you call an understanding with each other?”

[Salvatore] “Why, my dear boy, your guilelessness is perfectly refreshing.  Can’t you see that we are the real protectors of the public? Everybody knows that owners combine, that races are fixed in advance, that in other words, the trusting public has no show unless we take the matter in hand.  We are constantly trying to preserve the purity of the turf.  You’ve heard of a lead pipe cinch?  Well, if you haven’t its time you did.  I could tell you of a dozen cases in which either owners or jockeys have put up a job, and in which their calculations were upset.  When you hear of another sure thing gone wrong you can make up your mind that nothing but an honest horse broke the combination.  You didn’t know, I suppose, that I am the president of our anti-crookedness society?”

The Salt Lake Herald, September 28, 1890, page 14.

Salvatore, The Salt Lake Herald, September 28, 1890

The idiom, “lead-pipe cinch” appeared in print only infrequently from 1888 through 1890.  In 1891 and thereafter, the phrase appears frequently in papers in all corners of the United States.

In 1895, a popular novel, set in the world of horserace gambling, used the term "lead-pipe," standing alone without the word "cinch," as an adjective indicative of a sure thing:

If I can see you somewhere just before the race I'll put you on.  It'll be a 'hot' one. . . .
The owner himself is going to 'put me next' . . . , it'll be a lead pipe.

Henry Blossom, Checkers: a Hard Luck Story, Chicago, Herbert S. Stone & Co. (1896), page 19.
(The book Checkers also introduced the idiom, to be "on the wagon," in the sense of abstaining from alcohol.  See my post on the History and Etymology of Getting on and Falling Off the "Wagon.")

Other Factors


One factor that could have played a role in the origin of the phrase, “lead-pipe cinch,” is the importance of weight in horse race handicapping:

Secretary Mcintyre has furnished the patrons of the Brooklyn Jockey Club with a most excellent programme for its fall meeting . . . .  The Oriental Handicap was a grand race last year when Kingston won with 127 pounds up, with four others at his neck.  Mr. McIntyre has again adjusted the weight very nicely, giving Kingston and Tenny the top weights, 127 pounds, the others ranging down to 90 pounds for Anaconda, a three year-old in Senator Hearst’s stable, who was most promising as a two-year-old.

The Sun (New York), September 15, 1890, page 5.

In handicap races today, “lead pads” on a horse’s saddle carry the appropriate weight, as determined the racing secretary for a particular horse, in a particular race.[i]    I imagine (mere speculation), that someone out to fix, or affect the outcome of a race, might strap extra lead onto a horse between the weigh-in and the race, perhaps, slipping lead in some form (a pipe?) onto the cinch strap when cinching the horse’s saddle prior to the race, much like Robert Cunningham strapped ten pounds of lead to his coat to affect the outcome of his suicide and insurance payments.  If so, the idiom might have developed independently of Cunningham’s suicide.

Or maybe not.  I have no idea how race preparations were controlled in 1883.  I have no idea whether it would have been possible to unobtrusively cinch lead onto a horse.  But I do know that Robert Cunningham cinched ten pounds of lead to his body in 1883.


Michael Quinion, writing in WorldWideWords,org, suggests that “lead pipe” may refer to the strength of a lead pipe.  “The idea was presumably that if a leather cinch was effective, one made of lead would be even more so.” He based the suggestion on an early sense of "lead-pipe cinch," illustrated in Jonathon Lighter's Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang; namely of having an especially strong grip on something.  This suggestion may have merit.  If a cinch is a sure thing – and lead pipe cinch is stronger, then a “[fill-in-the-blank] lead-pipe cinch” might naturally be stronger:

In race course language, the owners look on it as a copper-lined lead-pipe cinch.

The Sun (New York), November 22, 1891, page 3.

– well, the sporty writers on the St. Louis papers at the beginning of the season just ended heralded [the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team] as a world-beater; a blown-in-the-bottle, air-tight, copper-riveted, lead-pipe cinch for first honors in the highest crust of baseball society.  St. Louis finished sixth in the race.

The St. Louis Republic, January 8, 1901, page 4.

Another early variation of the phrase, the “grapevine cinch,” also appears to have been intended to emphasize the strength of the figurative binding material of the thing being metaphorically cinched.  An example of the idiom (one of only two examples I could find outside of slang dictionaries - the phrase does not appear to have ever been very common) illustrates the allusion to strength:

The feature of yesterday’s moves on the political checker board was the inception and partial execution of a plan to mass the personal following of Senator Washburn in a direction which would have a tendency to unwind the grapevine cinch which Knute Nelson had enjoyed for the preceding twenty-four hours.

St. Paul Daily Globe, January 21, 1895, page 1.

The “unwind the grapevine” is suggestive of unwinding a tangle of vines which, wound together like a grapevine, would have been stronger than a single-strand cinch.

The strength imagery continues, unabated.  If you watch or listen to ESPN’s Mike and Mike in the Morning, you may be familiar with the modern equivalent of an “air-tight, copper-riveted, lead-pipe cinch,” the very loud “stone cold, lead-pipe lock.”  A lock is one step up from a cinch, and a cold stone is hard to break, I guess.  Of course, a steel lock would be much stronger than a lead lock – lead being a relatively soft metal, but I guess idioms do not have to make sense.

Weight or Strength?

Was the idiom, “lead-pipe cinch” inspired by weight? – the weighing down of a feather dealer or a horse, to affect the outcome of a bet?  Or inspired by strength? – the strength of the strap used to “cinch” the win.  Or both?  The later modifiers, “grapevine,” “copper-riveted,” and “copper-lined”[ii] all seem to suggest an association with strength.   

The place of origin, in and around racetracks, as well as the origin story told when the idiom was still new, seem to suggest weight.  But in either case, perhaps the combination of allusions strengthened the idiom, making it successful.  

Even if the originators of the idiom intended a reference to Robert Cunningham or fixing races, people who heard and repeated the reference later might understand the “lead-pipe” reference to allude to strength, and then use it with that in mind.  The originator of the idiom have no control over how it is understood or used by people who hear it and repeat it. 


It is impossible to divine the intention of the person or persons who coined the expression, “lead-pipe cinch.”  But the drowning story, first reported in 1890 and long thought to be just a cooked-up old-wives’ tale, seems a much more likely candidate as the origin of the expression, in light of the notoriety of the actual suicide and resulting insurance controversy just a few years earlier.  And even if the idiom had developed independently, before Robert Cunningham’s suicide, his suicide may still have played a role in the creation or early spread of the phrase, as metaphor.  

If cinching lead to a saddle had been the source of the phrase, such use would have been, more or less, literal.  Jokingly referring to Cunningham’s insurance payout as a “lead-pipe cinch,” may have been the first metaphoric used of the phrase, outside the possibly literal, original meaning of the phrase in horseracing.  The fact that the story persisted, seven years later, suggests that the drowning may have been at least one of the early, well-known uses of the idiom outside the world of horseracing. 

In either case, Robert Cunningham’s suicide was not entirely in vain.  Whether he inspired its creation, or inspired its early, non-race-related metaphoric use, he enriched the language with a long-lasting idiom.


But it’s no “lead-pipe cinch.”

But he did ensure that his family would not be saddled with debt.

Now, that was a “lead-pipe cinch.”

UPDATE: Please read my follow-up to this article, Lead Pipe III - the Final Chapter, for additional insight into why a "lead pipe" might be used to intensify "cinch."

UPDATE-Update: See also, my Final-Final Chapter -  Lead Pipe IV; A Lead Pipe Could Be a Sure Thing Even Before it was a "Cinch".

[ii] The Weekly Arizona Miner (Prescott, Arizona), June 27, 1879. “Now is the time for you to go and conceal yourself while I am cinching up the animal.”
[iii] Cinephiles may wonder whether John Ganty, one of the Black Lectroids form Planet 10, wrote this article: “John Valuk is dead, he fell on his head.The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1985).
[iv] The same article appeared in the Barbour County Index (Medicine Lodge, Kansas), June 29, 1883, page 2.
[v] The New York Times, June 8, 1883.
[vi] The United States Census for 1880 lists Robert Cunningham (b. Ireland, age 45), feather dealer, living at 148 Fourteenth Street, Brooklyn, Ne w York, with his wife Mary and four children, between the ages 13 and 20.
[vii]Mathew Will D. Holden, Horse Racing Handicapping – The Perfect Neutralizing Yardstick,,  September 25, 2010. “The saddle pads have pockets called lead pads, which hold the balancing lead weights.”
[viii] Lead pipes lined with copper “will stand ten times greater pressure than ordinar Lead Pipe.” S. Barlow Bennett, A Manual of Technical Plumbing and Sanitary Science, London, B. T. Batsford, 1910, page 73.

1 comment:

  1. Looking for an explanation as to the etiology of the term, I was pleasantly surprised by a truly academically rigorous review of the subject, complete with references. You are to be commended for your work