Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A Stone-Cold "Lead Pipe" Update

A "Lead Pipe" Update

In a recent post, Horseracing andSuicide – the Heavy History and Etymology of “Lead-Pipe Cinch,”  I looked at the origins of the idiom, “lead pipe cinch.”  The phrase, which dates to at least 1888, came from the world of horserace gambling.  The word “cinch,” derived from the Spanish word for a type of rope used to secure saddles to horses, had developed a secondary meaning, “to get a grip on, metaphorically,” by as early as 1880. 

(See my post - Lead Pipe III - the Final Chapter - for new insight into the origin of "lead pipe cinch".)

By 1888, the words, “lead pipe,” were appended to “cinch” as a means of intensifying the strength of the metaphorical grip.  If a “cinch” has a grip on something, a “lead pipe cinch” has a very strong grip on it.

In 1890, an article purporting to explain the origin of the idiom, suggested that the idiom referred to a “plumber who, while traveling on the 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.”  Although the origin story smacks of a folk-etymology, or urban legend, it does not seem to have been cut from whole cloth.  It agreed in several details with a drowning incident that had occurred seven years earlier.

In 1883, a destitute feather merchant jumped from a ferry in the East River and drowned.  Witness statements (to the effect that he had jumped), his mounting debts, his recently acquired insurance policies, and several pounds of lead strapped to his body, suggested that he had committed suicide; the insurance companies demanded a coroner’s inquest.  But when jury failed to make a finding of suicide, the way was cleared for his family to receive the insurance payments.  It was a lead pipe cinch.

Similarities between the 1890 origin story and the 1883 suicide, suggested that the origin story, if not the idiom, had been based on the actual, apparent suicide.  It is also possible, that 1883 drowning could have inspired the original idiom, or may have become associated with an existing idiom, based on the literal and figurative lead pipe cinches inherent to the story. 

Yet Another Story

Since posting my earlier piece, I have identified an earlier purported origin story, from 1888.  The earlier story also involves a man with lead strapped to his body falling to his death from a ferry boat, but switches the location from the East River to the New Jersey side of the Hudson.  The story involves a gambler, a thief, an aborted crime, and the gambler’s first-ever sure thing.  When the thief, whom the gambler knew to be burdened with lead pipe cinched to his body, fell into the water, the gambler gave odds on whether the man would surface – it was a “lead pipe cinch”:

Origin of the “Lead Pipe Cinch” – a Few Wanted Just Now.

If any man has made a corner in “cinches” he should in all conscience let up this week and throw a few on the market for the benefit of the old guard of racegoers who are striving to get even before the season closes.  Only six days of grace remain for squaring accounts with the ring.  Oh, for three or four real, old-fashioned “lead pipes,” such as the gambler had on the thief.  The gambler had been looking for “cinches” all his life, but none had ever come his way.  The thief persuaded him on a certain occasion to join a quiet expedition to Jersey City which promised to be highly profitable.  The undertaking failed, however, and the pair set out on their return to New-York.

“I never give up a job without takin’ along a little reminder of it,” the thief remarked, and finding a piece of lead pipe he proceeded to coil it around his waist.  When his coat was buttoned over it he looked a little lumpy, to be sure, but aroused no suspicion.  The two reached the ferry as the boat started out of the slip.  Both ran to catch it and jumped.  The gambler got safely aboard, but, alas, the poor thief, loaded with lead pipe, fell short and with a yell of agony disappeared beneath the yellow foam.  Deck-hands and passengers rushed to the stern of the boat and looked at the seething waters. 

“He’ll come up in a second,” shouted one, getting ready to cast a line.
“Ten to one he don’t!” screamed the gambler, shaking a wad of bank-notes over the heads of the crowd.

“I tell you he will,” yelled the other, furious over the contradiction.

“Fifty to one he don’t! A hundred to one he don’t! A thousand to one he don’t come up!”

The gambler raved and waved his money, but found no takers.

“Ten thousand to one he don’t come up!” he bawled.” I’ve been looking all my life for a dead sure thing, and now I’ve got it.  Who wants to back ‘em?  Fifty thousand to one he don’t come up!”

And he was right.  The dead sure thing had come at last, for the thief never rose again.

Such is the origin of the “lead pipe cinch.”  Perhaps there is one in the programme to-day.  The fields are small, but they are made up of good horses, and promise exciting sport.  The dry wind yesterday and last night, improved the track so much that there will be little mud to complain of this afternoon.

New York Tribune, October 8, 1888, page 12. 

The existence of this origin story from 1888, raises the question of whether the origin story from 1890 was based on the original drowning, or was a mangled retelling of the 1888 story.  It is also possible that the notoriety of the feather merchant’s drowning in 1883 may have spawned a number of jokes, stories or anecdotes, based on the then-novel idiom, “lead pipe cinch.”

Or perhaps the 1888 origin story is the iron-clad, copper-riveted, stone-cold truth.

I’m not takin’ that bet – it’s no “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: Please read my further update, Lead Pipe IV - A Lead Pipe could be a "Sure Thing" even before it was a "Cinch".  An alternate version of the story discussed above appeared in 1886, before the idiom, "lead pipe cinch," even existed. That story may well have helped inspire the development of the idiom.

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