Caught in a web of lies

Lalit Mohan on good stories on the Net that eventually die, tainted by the truth

He was many a time saved from going to prison by his lawyer Easy Eddie.
Chicago don Al Capone: He was many a time saved from going to prison by his lawyer Easy Eddie.

It is sad when a good story gets killed. Two really great ones about the symbiotic father and son relationship, which were doing the rounds on the Net, suffered this tragic fate.

The first concerned a man called Easy Eddie. He was the lawyer who kept notorious Chicago gangster of the 1920s, Al Capone, out of prison for long. Eddie was rewarded well for his services.

He had a son whom he loved very much and to whom he wanted to bequeath a legacy that carried no taint of his having been the consigliore of a racketeer, murderer and smuggler. So, one day, impelled by a twinge of his conscience, he went to the Feds and spilled the beans on ‘Scarface’ Capone. A few days later, Easy Eddie died in a hail of gunfire on a Chicago street.

The story then moves on to World War II. One of the great American war heroes was Lieutenant Commander Butch O’Hare. He was a fighter pilot assigned to the aircraft carrier Lexington in the South Pacific.

Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin.
Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin.

One day short of fuel and returning alone from a sortie, he saw something that turned his blood cold. A squadron of Japanese aircraft were speeding toward the American fleet. He had to somehow divert them away, because the rest of his bunch was still out on their mission. Laying aside all thoughts of personal safety, he dived into the formation of Japanese planes. Wing-mounted guns blazed as he charged in, attacking one surprised enemy plane after another, and taking several hits himself. He downed five of them and forced them to disperse in another direction, before limping back to the mother ship.

This happened on February 20, 1942, and for that action Butch became the first naval aviator to win the Congressional Medal of Honor. A year later, Butch was killed in combat over the Pacific. He was 29. O’Hare Airport in Chicago is named in tribute to his courage. The punch line in the story is: Butch O’Hare was Easy Eddie’s son.

The second story is about a poor Scottish farmer, Fleming. One day, he rescued a child from drowning in a bog close to his field.

The next day, a fancy carriage pulled up to the Scotsman’s sparse surroundings. An elegantly dressed nobleman stepped out and introduced himself as the father of the boy Fleming had saved. There he also saw the farmer’s son and offered to finance the boy’s education as a token of his gratitude. Thus, farmer Fleming’s son attended the very best schools and, in time, graduated from St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London, and went on to become known throughout the world as Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin.

There is no evidence to suggest that the drug discovered by Fleming came to the rescue of Winston Churchill when he was stricken with pneumonia.
There is no evidence to suggest that the drug discovered by Fleming came to the rescue of Winston Churchill when he was stricken with pneumonia

Years afterward, the same nobleman’s son who was saved from the bog was stricken with pneumonia. What saved his life this time? Penicillin. The name of the nobleman? Lord Randolph Churchill. His son’s name? Winston Churchill. Alas, further probing on the Net revealed that this was not exactly what happened. According to several narrators, Easy Eddie’s change of heart was not on account of his conscience bothering him, but because the cops had caught up with him and had enough to nail him with.

And though Butch O’Hare did actually fight bravely to divert danger from his fleet, deserving all the medals and other honours he received, he did not eventually die in combat. He was shot down mistakenly at night by friendly fire.

Still, the contrast between the lives of the father and the son are enough to furnish all the ingredients of a good human-interest story.

But the second one is more dubious. Churchill’s official biographer Martin Gilbert says that his age and that of Fleming do not support the story; Alexander was seven years younger than Winston. If he was plowing a field at say age 13, Churchill would have been 20. There is no record of Churchill nearly drowning in Scotland at that or any other age; or of Lord Randolph paying for Alexander Fleming’s education.

Dr John Mather, referred to by the Churchill Centre, London, writes: "A fundamental problem with the story is that Churchill was treated for this very serious strain of pneumonia not with penicillin but with M&B, a short name for sulfadiazine produced by May and Baker Pharmaceuticals. In fact, Kay Halle, in her book Irrepressible Churchill comments that Churchill ‘delighted in referring to his doctors, Lord Moran and Dr Bedford, as M&B.’ There is no evidence in the record that he received penicillin for any of his wartime pneumonias. He did have infections, but much in later life, and I suspect he was given penicillin or some other antibiotic that would have by then become available, such as ampicillin."

That said, Sir Alexander Fleming was indeed the discoverer of penicillin, and Churchill did apparently consult with the brilliant physician once in 1946 when he had a staph infection that proved resistant to the drug.

Unfortunately, tainted by the truth, the two stories don’t sound quite as exciting.