Sunday, February 1, 2015

Lead Pipe IV - A Lead Pipe Could Be a "Sure Thing" even before it was a "Cinch"

Lead Pipe IV - A Lead Pipe Could be a "Sure Thing" even before it was a "Cinch"

A “Lead Pipe Cinch” is a sure thing.  But pin-pointing its origin has been anything but.  It has long been known that the phrase dates to at least October 4, 1888.  A purported origin story, published in 1890, asserted that the phrase “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.” The story has generally been dismissed as a fanciful, after-the-fact fabrication.

A recently discovered story from 1886, about a burglar whose drowning in the East River was a “sure thing” - but not a “lead pipe cinch”- raises more questions about origins of the idiom.


In my first “Lead Pipe” post, I discussed an actual drowning event that could have inspired the later origin story, and could also have helped inspire the idiom.  In 1883, feather merchant apparently committed suicide by jumping from the East River Ferry with a ten-pound “bar of lead having been securely fastened to the vest by a piece of wire.”  The event was widely reported, in part because of the fact that he had recently purchased several high-value insurance policies; when the coroner’s inquest failed to rule the drowning a suicide, the policies apparently paid off.

In my second “Lead Pipe” post, I reported that I had discovered an alternate, purported origin story that appeared in print just four days after the earliest known use of the idiom.  The alternate origin story also involved a “coil of lead pipe,” a drowning, and a ferry; but transferred the action to the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, and involved a pair of burglars, instead of a plumber.  When one burglar fell into the water with piece of lead pipe coiled around his waist, his partner took bets on whether he would come to the surface or not – since he knew about the lead pipe, the bet was a “lead pipe cinch.”

In my third “Lead Pipe” post, I analyzed what it is about lead pipes that made them amenable to use as an intensifier for the word, “cinch.”  A cinch is a sure thing; and a “lead pipe” cinch is a very sure thing.  The idiomatic use of “cinch” is based on a cinch strap used to secure a saddle to a horse.  Lead pipe is soft and malleable, and can be (relatively) easily twisted and bent.  It was easy to imagine bending a lead pipe around the belly of a horse to make a very strong cinch.  The two early, purported origin stories even refer to a “coil of lead pipe” or lead pipe “coiled” around someone’s waist.

New Evidence

An anecdote published 1886 (after Cunningham's actual drowning in 1883 and before the earliest known use of “lead pipe cinch” in print, and before the 1888 version of the origin story), is nearly identical to the 1888 origin story, except that the action is transferred back to the East River (where Cunningham actually drowned in 1883 and where the 1890 origin story took place).  Surprisingly, however, the 1886 story does not invoke the idiom, “lead pipe cinch.”

Did the author consciously avoid the idiom; instead making a sly allusion to allusion to an already familiar idiom?  Or did the story, itself (and the memory of Cunningham's unfortunate death), inspire the idiom later?

A Lead Pipe was a “Sure Thing” Even Before it was a “Cinch”

Betting on Life and Death.

Philadelphia Press: The passion of betting takes precedence of everything with some men.  No opportunity to make wages is ever permitted to go by.   Illustrative of this a good story is told of a New York gambler, who was in the habit of getting drunk occasionally, and when in that condition was not at all particular as to his associates.  One night, before the Brooklyn bridge was built, he fell in with two professional cracksmen in a saloon near the old Fulton ferry, and the three drank heavily.  Toward midnight it was proposed to take a trip to Brooklyn, and the gambler, easily persuaded, accompanied the other two.  Arrived in Brooklyn, a house was selected, and the gambler requested to wait outside while the burglars entered.  He did so, and they returned in a few moments disgusted.  The house was unoccupied and nothing had been found except a coil of soft lead pipe.  Determined not to go back empty-handed, one of the burglars wrapped the pipe around his waist and buttoned his coat over it.  When the party arrived at the ferry entrance they found a boat just starting.  All three ran for it.  The gambler and one burglar got aboard safely.  The man with the lead pipe came last.  He jumped and fell into the water.  Immediately there was great consternation and the boat was stopped.

“Throw him a line,” was shouted.  “Get a life preserver.”  “Heave a block overboard!”

Then the smart man – there is one in every crowd stepped forward and remarked cooly.

“That’ll be all right.  There’s no hurry.  He’s bound to come up three times before he drowns.”

Instantly the gambler’s right hand went up.

“I’ll bet you a hundred dollars he don’t.”
And he didn’t.  The gambler was betting on a sure thing.

Omaha Daily Bee, January 5, 1886, page 5, column 7.

Similarities between Robert Cunningham's tragic end, in 1883, and the “humorous” story of the burglar's lead-pipe drowning in 1886, may suggest that the latter story was concocted as a sort of joke, based on vague recollections, perhaps, of the earlier drowning.  Or perhaps there were other, actual drownings that might have individually, or collectively, inspired the idiom.

In March 1888, a deep-sea diver recollected an encounter he had had with a corpse in the East River (I was surprised to learn that there even were professional deep-sea divers in the 1880s):

We divers never touch bodies in this state [(of decomposition)], because it brings the worst luck possible.  The only exception to the rule I know was the body of a man who had committed suicide.  He had tied around his neck a bag of some heavy stuff, shot or lead pipe, it may have been, and had jumped in from the ferry-boat or a pier-head near to shore.  When I came across it it was dilated with its own gases and seemed in the half light under the water to be a stout man trying to swim to the surface, but anchored down by a heavy weight.

The Abilene Reflector, March 8, 1888, page 2, column 5.
Was the diver talking about Cunningham's body? a burglar's body? or someone else? A cartoon published in 1883, just a few weeks after Cunningham's coroner's inquest, suggests that ferry-jumping suicides may have been a regular occurrence. 

Puck, Volume 13, Number 333, July 25, 1883, page 330.


Cunningham's suicide shares several common elements with the 1886 "sure thing" anecdote and the "lead pipe cinch" origin stories from 1888 and 1890.  They all feature gambling (Cunningham's gamble paid off - the life insurance company paid, despite the obvious suicide attempt), lead pipes, a ferry and drowning.  It seems plausible that Cunningham's widely reported death, inquest, and insurance payments could have inspired the later stories, and perhaps the idiom, itself.  Early examples of the idiom suggest that it first found traction among racetrack gamblers who would have appreciated the gambling angle in the stories. 

The fact that a lead pipe was referred to as "a sure thing" years before "lead pipe cinch" appeared in print suggests that the humorous story could have inspired the idiom; and not the other way around.  But if we read the 1886 reference to a "sure thing" as a subtle nod to a previously known idiom, the story would be evidence that the idiom is older than previously believed.  We seem to be right back where we started.

The Puck cartoon, however, does suggest that ferry-assisted suicides were not isolated events.  Perhaps other, unreported (or at least undiscovered) ferry-boat drownings may also have, individually, or collectively, inspired the idiom, "a lead pipe." It is at least plausible. 

But one thing is for certain; a lead pipe would make jumping from the ferry a sure thing - "a lead pipe cinch."

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