On March 20, 1995, members of the Aum cult released sarin in five Tokyo subway trains. They transported a liquid form of the nerve gas in plastic pouches, disguising the packages by wrapping them in newspaper. Boarding underground trains, cult members placed the poison on the carriage floor and used the sharpened tips of umbrellas to split the plastic, releasing the toxin, a colorless liquid with a smell like fresh paint.
In his 1997 account of the attack, Haruki Murakami describes the actions of cult member Ikuo Hayashi on a Chiyoda line train that morning:
As the subway approached Shin-ochanomizu Station, he dropped the bags of sarin by his right foot, steeled his nerves, and poked one of them with the end of his umbrella. It was resilient and gave a “springy gush.” He poked it again a few times — exactly how many times he doesn’t remember. In the end, only one of the two bags was found to have been punctured, the other was untouched.
Despite the toxicity of sarin — a quantity the size of a pinhead is sufficient to kill — only 12 of the 4,000 affected died. These numbers aren’t much comfort to grieving families, but if not for a sharper umbrella tip, many more commuters may have been killed.
The word umbrella is a diminutive of umbra, which means “shadow.” Parasols (para meaning “shade,” and sol meaning “sun”) first originated in ancient Egypt to protect noble heads from the heat and sun during a day by the Nile. The belief that it’s bad luck to open an umbrella indoors started here too — such an act was thought to offend the sun god.
My son has a Spider-Man umbrella. It’s blue and red and possesses no superpower. He’s happy to open it inside, and not one family member has avoided being poked by its tip or whacked by its handle. It once hit my groin like a MLB player striking through a slow pitch. Aside from standing on Legos, the major league of needling pain, it’s the most hurt my son has ever caused me.
Although he is as dismissive of superstition as he is of basic health and safety concerns, my son’s one rule is a refusal to ever take the thing out of the house, even during the heaviest of storms. He’s the opposite of Mrs. Gamp, a character in Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit who carries her brolly, “in colour like a faded leaf, except where a circular patch of a lively blue had been dexterously let in at the top,” wherever she goes.
One evening, we swore a sacred family vow to visit the coast the next day, come wind, come rain. In England, you’re never farther than 70 miles from the sea. And you’re never more than 12 hours from a rainstorm, either. With the next morning came sheets of water falling from ominous clouds, and, in an attempt to show our kid the importance of a stiff upper lip, we continued with the beach trip, despite the conditions.
“Why don’t you bring your umbrella?” said my wife. “The Spider-Man one?”
D looked at her like she was an idiot. He refused to bring the brolly. Like he always refuses to bring the brolly.
My son doesn’t care for the sun god. And, anyway, should such a god exist, I doubt (s)he’s ever visited England.
With rain comes lightning, and, according to National Geographic, a magazine that, for me, possesses an unshakeable association with the painful anticipation of dentists’ waiting rooms, the likelihood of being struck by lightning in any one year is one in 700,000. The likelihood of being struck once in your life is one in 3,000. The odds of being murdered today in the United States is one in 19,000; the odds of dying from a bee sting: one in 6 million.
These statistics suggest, therefore, that the late-18th-century portable adaptation of Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rod isn’t as crazy as you might first think. Complete with umbrella-style covering, it was wired to guard against a lightning strike.
A most curious outgrowth of the craze were lightning rods which the ladies of the “haute monde” began to wear on their hats. The “rod” consisted of a woven metal ribbon which encircled the hat and terminated in a long silver cord trailing on the ground. Thus arrayed, the “grande dame” of Franklin’s time not only considered herself in the height of fashion, but she also deemed herself proof against thunderbolts. —From Ripley’s Believe It or Not, May 1933
Should Instagram have existed in the 18th century, it would have been alight with these things.
Park ranger Roy C. Sullivan is the current record holder for “most lightning strikes survived.” Between 1942 and 1977, he was hit seven times. The Guinness World Records website states:
His attraction for lightning began in 1942 (lost big toe nail) and was resumed in 1969 (lost eyebrows), in July 1970 (left shoulder seared), on 16 April 1972 (hair set on fire), on 7 August 1973 (new hair re-fired and legs seared), on 5 June 1976 (ankle injured) and on 25 June 1977 (chest and stomach burns).
Sullivan died in 1983. Suffering from unrequited love, he took his own life, proving, perhaps, that the tempests of the heart are more destructive than those of the sky.
Songxia, in Shangyu City Zhejiang Province, China, is the world capital of umbrellas. The weather there in August is hot and cloudless. There are more than 1,200 umbrella manufacturers in Songxia, producing half a billion brollies every year, including:
Rain umbrellas, golf umbrellas, beach umbrellas, folding umbrellas, promotional umbrellas, mini umbrellas, kids umbrellas, fashion umbrellas, parasol umbrellas, patio umbrellas, clear umbrellas, wedding umbrellas, market umbrellas, etc. (Source: http://jhumbrellamanufacturers.com)
Shangyu Zhongsheng Umbrella Co., Ltd., has uploaded a video detailing the local manufacturing process. After establishing shots of a sand-colored building, we are treated to a series of low-energy scenes, including one inexplicable shot of a smiling woman standing between two Ming-style ornamental vases. Women — there isn’t a single man in the video — pull gossamer through sewing machines. The voiceover, a strangely robotic American, explains that “we spare no effort to control every detail to make our product perfect.”
Judging even from a promotional video designed to dismiss any sweatshop horror stories we might remember, making an umbrella is hard work. The women bend over low desks, their fingers whistling past machine-gun needles, faces pulled tight in grimaces of concentration.
The video, at the time of writing, has 2,322 views.
The company website of a rival Songxia manufacturer, Umbrella Master, describes the life of a female worker (NB Mr. Wang is the company’s founder):
Mr. Wang’s mother-in-law has a neighbor who works nearly 12 hours a day and nearly 30 days a month. Whenever Mr. Wang visits his mother-in-law he always hears the sound of a working machine coming from the neighbor’s house. She was sewing the umbrella canopies. In this job she can earn about USD$500 monthly which is a good amount to pay for her family’s bread and butter.
You might feel difficult to understand why she maintains such a high labor intensity only to make small bucks. The maternal love is the greatest power of world. You see, it’s those hard working people that have been providing you high quality products with very competitive prices.
So, should you buy an umbrella from Umbrella Master, you’ve the desperation of a working mother to thank for its build quality.
Don’t think of making one yourself, like Robinson Crusoe, who fabricated an umbrella from animals skins with “the hair upwards, so that it cast off the rain like a penthouse, and kept off the sun.” He was so successful that for many years in France a large umbrella was called “un robinson.” But Crusoe was a fictional character. If you’ve ever tried to fashion a plastic bag into some sort of rain protection—caught short at a music festival, say—you’ll understand how difficult the simplicity of the umbrella is to master.
The umbrellas produced by the Songxia women would be recognizable to Egyptians and Victorians alike. Perhaps the only notable structural development in umbrella design in more than 2,000 years is Bradford E. Phillips’ invention of the modern folding mechanism, in 1969, a year of revolution on the streets and in evolution of umbrella design.
That’s not to say that people don’t think they can improve the umbrella. You know what people are like. According to Susan Orlean’s 2008 New Yorker article, the U.S. Patent Office employs four full-time examiners to assess new claims. There are currently more than 3,000 active patents related to umbrellas, and, according to Orlean, these include:
A weather-forecasting umbrella; one with a rain-measuring device; a luminous umbrella; a combined pet leash and umbrella; a strap-on umbrella for the pet…and Patent №20030155465, “a flying machine using umbrella-type devices.”
She also details a “multi-component electric stunning umbrella.”
What is it about umbrellas and violence? Do we naturally associate anything longer than it is wide with inflicting pain? In Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, he states:
All elongated objects, sticks, tree-trunks, umbrellas (on account of the opening, which might be likened to an erection), all sharp and elongated weapons, knives, daggers, and pikes, represent the male member….
In 2013, when President Obama instructed a pair of Marines to shield himself and the Turkish prime minister from the Washington, D.C., rain, conservative commentators frothed in fury. How dare he emasculate these fine upstanding Marines by forcing them to hold umbrellas? Didn’t the commander-in-chief know that Marines are forbidden from carrying umbrellas while in uniform? Apart from the women Marines, of course. They’re allowed little black ones. Because, obviously, protecting yourself from the rain is, well, feminine.
(The president’s critics obviously hadn’t read Freud, for there’s nothing more masculine than an erection.)
Obama is not the only president to have been struck by umbrella controversy. Abraham Lincoln received a letter in 1864 from one John Wilkes, coincidentally a “Booth” short of full assassin. This Wilkes was a “hard working man” who’d accidentally destroyed his umbrella during a political meeting. Having voted for Lincoln, Wilkes naturally wanted a favor in return and asked for money to pay for a replacement. It’s not recorded whether Lincoln met the request. He had other things on his mind in the mid-1860s.
When I was an undergraduate, in the mid-2000s, I owned a nifty umbrella (stolen from home), which opened at the push of a button. Somewhere along the (drunken) line, the release mechanism had broken, turning the umbrella into a low-impact missile launcher. When you pushed the button, the brolly would detach itself from the handle, traveling at a surprising, almost violent, speed. It had no use other than to fire at things and people. For the LOLs. One evening, I demonstrated this to a coursemate I fancied. The brolly hit her squarely on the nose. It was a pretty nose. The type with freckles, and it scrunched up when she smiled.
As literature students, you might have imagined we’d be better acquainted with phallic symbols and the inner workings of the subconscious. But no, obviously not. She wasn’t happy that I’d shot her in the face with my umbrella. She rubbed her nose and asked if I thought I was funny.
“No?” I replied, and any chance of romantic engagement was forever lost.
In a recent news story, a Chinese startup planned to rent out umbrellas in the same way that cities lend bikes on a jump-on, jump-off basis. Customers paid a deposit of £2 and were charged 6p for every hour of use. The umbrellas were GPS-enabled and cost the company £6.85 each. The venture raised £1 million in funding and appeared set to be the latest Chinese entrepreneurial success.
There was, however, one problem: Customers didn’t return the brollies. After three months of business, Sharing E Umbrella had lost most of its stock—around 300,000 umbrellas.
“We were all baffled by the model of dockless bike sharing; it made users think anything on the street can be shared now,” said founder Zhao Shuping in a state media interview. “But umbrellas and bicycles are not the same: A bike you can park anywhere, but an umbrella needs a stand.”
Come wind, come rain, umbrellas continue to wreak havoc. Last year, in the Indian state of Tamil Madu, four men were arrested for three murders, all of which had been committed with a poison-tipped umbrella. The Hindu newspaper describes how the prime suspect “Stephen” (it doesn’t state whether this was his first or last name) replaced the tip of an umbrella with a poison-filled syringe:
Using this umbrella with a poisoned tip, his aides would gently inject the poison into a target. Nobody would know what was going on, not even the victim, who would die in ten minutes, after suffering a heart attack, police sources said.
Don’t think that umbrella murders are the preserve of the past 50 years. In 1887, a Liverpudlian woman died after being hit over the head with an umbrella. By her niece.
On 26th September that year Catherine Chapman and her sister Elizabeth Guilford visited their aunt Ann Doyle in Hopwood Street only to get into a row with Ann’s husband Thomas outside the house. During this quarrel Chapman struck Thomas with the handle of her umbrella. Ann came out having heard the screams and was herself hit with such force that she bled heavily.
Ann was taken to the Stanley Hospital where she died two days later having never regained consciousness. On being arrested at her sister’s house in Birkenhead, Chapman admitted to hitting her forty nine year old aunt but only in self defence after being struck first.
—Steven Horton, in his blog, Liverpool Murders
As a thirtysomething desperate to appear cool, as well as scouring niche blogs about 19th-century murders, I enjoy playing vinyl records. Last night, I dropped David Bowie’s Scary Monsters (And Super Freaks) on the big toe of my left foot. I’ll spare you the details of the injury—you won’t believe the color of the bruise—but it’s amazing how much damage the edge of the plastic caused. And not for the first time in five years of parenting, I swore in front of my children.
Not only does Bowie still possess the power to shock, but his LP illustrates there’s probably no household object that hasn’t damaged some poor victim. The National Office of Statistics releases a yearly account of all deaths in England and Wales. You can download an Excel file directly from its website. As databases go, it’s pretty deflating. In 2015, more than 14,000 people died in avoidable accidents. These people, with loves and hates and passions just like ours, were unlucky one day, and now they’re no longer alive. It’s not the terrorists or airplanes you should worry about. It’s the attic ladder or the shower mat.
In 1983, a dog fell out of a 13th-floor window of a Buenos Aires apartment block, landing on a pensioner and killing her instantly. A witness, no doubt shocked by what she’d seen, stepped in front of a bus and died. Overcome by seeing these twin lightning strikes of tragedy, a passing man suffered a heart attack. And died.
I think, if offered the choice, we’d all prefer to pass away peacefully in our sleep than be hit by a falling dog, no matter how cute, or be spiked by a poisoned umbrella.
That’s not to say that umbrellas can’t be used as defensively, to guard against death, as the following video shows:
The best technique, it seems, is to whack your assailant over the head. Obviously, you’ll need a sturdy brolly, which is where Vermont company Real Self-Defense can help out. For £125, the company’s Unbreakable Umbrella is made from high-tech steel and is as strong as a steel pipe. It weighs 775 grams and can be wielded like a baseball bat.
Still, even an Unbreakable Umbrella wouldn’t have helped Bulgarian dissident writer Georgi Markov. On September 7, 1978, as he waited on Waterloo Bridge for a bus to take him to his desk at the BBC, Markov felt a sharp prick on the back of his right thigh. He turned to see a man stoop to pick up an umbrella from the pavement. This mysterious umbrella man then ran to the other side of the bridge to jump into a waiting taxi.
Markov died four days later. He’d been poisoned by a ricin-filled pellet, shot from the umbrella’s tip. Although nobody has been charged with his murder, the Times ran a story in 2005 that claimed to identify Francesco Gullino, an Italian who worked for the Bulgarian secret service, as the assassin.
I guess it’s the everyday nature of the murder weapon that has made this crime so notorious. Not only does it fit the Bond narrative of Cold War spies and gadgets, but it’s also attractively insidious. It speaks of the human inclination to make everything bad, a temptation consistently surrendered to since the Garden of Eden. It’s no surprise that the growth of VR has been driven by pornography.
The mantra of the losing Clinton campaign in 2016 was “we can’t have nice things.” We normal people not on Clinton’s staff do have nice things, but there’s always someone out there who’ll adapt them for less-pleasant purposes.
Yes, even umbrellas. Invented to keep the pharaohs in shade, now used to keep the rain from our Instagram-perfect hair, yes, umbrellas, even umbrellas, are used as murder weapons.
But with every cloud there’s a silver lining. Without umbrellas, there might not be Rihanna. And who’d want to live in a world like that?